Turning Heads on the Avenues
Every once in a while, when I’ve fallen in love with an album, I’m tempted to talk about it as if I loved it from the moment the first chord was struck, and that it wowed me from start to finish and it just may be the greatest thing that’s happened to my ears since Q-tips. The truth is usually much more subtle, more ineffable, and tends to occur over a longer period of time. Sometimes it takes three or four listens for even a great disc to stick; other times you’ve given it a little piece of your heart somewhere before the last note fades away.
When it comes to Nothing Sadder Than Lonely Queen, the second disc by Mario Hernandez’s “one-man” act From Bubblegum to Sky, I can pinpoint exactly the moment when I decided it had gone from good to great to brilliant: track 12—“Bombing at the Midnight Showing”. Because, if I’m honest with myself and you, the reader, the first couple of songs seemed wispy and ephemeral, a little too twee to really sink in and be momentous. Then came some more energetic tracks, and a couple that changed up the mood and tone, and then some dirty garage pop sass for flavor, and then, with the disc almost finished, the penultimate song seals its greatness and I wind up thinking I’ve found gold in the hills of my CD stacks.
The really interesting thing is, I’ve played Nothing Sadder on and off for weeks now, and while I love it every time and it’s yet to grow stale, the same thing happens to me every time—it starts off small, and by the end the disc swells like my heart. Maybe it seems to violate all logic of track-ordering for a disc, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it’s a large part of what makes this a thoroughly satisfying album. Some racehorses are endurance runners, some shoot out of the gate and dwindle away, and some build up speed until they finish the race at the top of their performance.
Of course, there are more interesting things to From Bubblegum to Sky than a bad metaphor and a slowly-escalating disc. The project is the brainchild of Hernandez, and is by all accounts a solo endeavor, much in the same vein as Damon Gough’s Badly Drawn Boy. While Hernandez is the songwriter here, and FBTS is his baby, the recording is bolstered by bandmate Jamie McCormick’s multi-instrumental efforts and the bass of Ben Brunn. Using these musicians in the studio gives FBTS a more raw, “band” sound, saving it from the bland cut-and-paste track layering of musical dilettantes. But on-stage, it’s all Mario (plus pre-recorded playback and some video monitors).
Actually, while the Badly Drawn Boy comparison isn’t a bad one (albeit more for the work on the About a Boy soundtrack and less for The Hour of the Bewilderbeast), Hernandez’s background gives his pop tones a slightly different bent than standard indie pop fare. It’s no surprise that FBTS makes its home on the laudable indie pop boutique label Eenie Meenie Records (Seksu Roba, High Water Marks), as that house strives for an international pop vibe with specific connections to Tokyo. Hernandez himself spent his youth in Japan, where he grew up the son of an American military officer married to a Japanese native. His earliest musical memories are of Japanese pop, it was only later in life that he discovered the Western canon. This plays out in the overall tone of his songs, which can be breezy, short pop nuggets, but never have the feel of imitating the Smiths/Belle and Sebastian sound that so much other indie pop strives for. And while there are overtly “Beatlesque” moments in Hernandez’s songs, From Bubblegum to Sky is hardly mining the retro-pop soundscape for re-hashed nuggets.
It’s difficult to put your finger on, or put into words, but From Bubblegum to Sky is just plain, unabashed pure pop. The music has been compared to early Bowie, the Lilys, the Aislers Set, and the J-pop tones of Pink Lady, but it’s basically familiar pop underground stuff without being wildly original. I loaned the disc to a friend who said it reminded him of Sean Lennon. However, whatever points FBTS may lose in innovation, it makes up for in charm and skill. Most of these songs are short, less-than-three-minute excursions into a basic theme, but Hernandez has a real talent for crafting bubblegum pop music around complex lyrical tales. That alone is no small feat.
Nothing Sadder Than Lonely Queen kicks off with the understated, Beatles/Jellyfish-like “Operation Big Beat”, a song that drifts along a lilting falsetto harmony. An insistent piano rhythm underscores the swinging, upbeat melody, Hernandez’s low-key drumming, and some saxophone fills. The song peaks after the bridge, then drifts softly and lazily to a close. When I first heard it, the song seemed like the intro to an album of standard, almost generic, retro pop, and I expected more of the same to follow. But the next track, “Sign the Air”, is an all keyboard-composite song that sounds like a summertime Top 40 gem waiting to happen. Hernandez’s vocals are still breathy and soft, but the song has a distinct dance beat and a radio-pop bassline that could fit into any adult contemporary format. It’s a distinctly audible shift, and proof that Fro Bubblegum to Sky isn’t a one-trick pony.
And things just keep getting more interesting from there. “Catherine Was My June” is a jangly guitar pop song that injects more rock into FBTS, while maintaining the swirling harmonies that give the act its classic pop sound. “Scorpio” takes things back down again, this time to a low-end bass and down-key vocal supporting rough guitar chords that manage to somehow evoke the murky sounds of Joy Division, only to suddenly brighten up and find a simple classic rock guitar riff, and then sink back down to the low end for the song’s close. By the fifth track, “The Gurls & Shoo Be Doo Wop”, you’re either with From Bubblegum to Sky, or you’re out. A doo-wop vocal and insistent handclaps (yes, handclaps, do make a song better!) greets the listener with an energetic pop explosion, and the rest of the song is a big, loud blend of smiling vocals, synthesized brass, and playful guitar riffs, all of which find a groove, runs with, and then closes up shop before the song has even neared the three-minute mark.
The next few tracks continue in a similar vein. “Holland” continues the low-key tones, a deep fuzzy bass and a piano providing the backbone, while “Some Kind of Fantastic” returns to the upbeat, guitar pop sound, a moment of Cheap Trick power pop that features some of the best sing-along lyrics on the disc. It’s one of the real highlights on the disc, but, like the rest of the album, it works best in the company of it surroundings, its fully-charged guitars most exciting in contrast to what’s come before it. “Vampire” injects a roadhouse blues rhythm to produce a dirty guitar pop song that’s only slightly ruined by the sweet, girlish vocals of Hernandez on the chorus. The low-key returns with “My On-Call Nurse”, a sad-faced ballad to spending time with a lover (and which even manages to drop a quick guitar riff reference to the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”).
As the disc comes to a close, Hernandez lets his hair down a little, and the soft falsetto of his voice starts to take on a brattier edge, the guitars dipping into the garage sound without straying far enough that a Hives or Strokes comparison would ever be warranted. “Clean Tiger” has an infectious swagger, but it’s a little on the lightweight side. However, it’s instant transition into “24 Hours in Your Deep Blue Jeans” makes it seem like a prelude. The most blatantly garage rock song on an album that’s overall noticeable in it’s lo-fi aesthetic, “24 Hours” hard to get the music out of your head. And if it weren’t for the next track, it might take the cake as the most memorable single song on Nothing Sadder.
But everything, more or less the whole album, comes together on “Bombing at the Midnight Showing”. With a classic ‘70s pop rhythm and a contemplative tone, the song seems to pull together all the threads on Nothing Sadder into one cohesive moment. The acoustic and electric guitars compete with a rich piano sound and bouncing rhythm to create the kind of atmosphere that emerges whenever Billy Joel and Elton John take the stage together (in fact, to get a sense of the feel, imagine John performing Joel’s “Keeping the Faith”). And yet it’s a rough-shod recording, full of hisses and studio noise, standing in lo-fi counterpoint to the doo-wop and harmonies that fill in beneath Hernandez’s confident now-tenor as he rolls through a lyrical barrage of city cool. This is the single song that shines above all of Nothing Sadder, in part because it unifies all of the album’s elements, and in part because it does so at the end of the disc.
The closing “You Wanted Me There, Right?” seems almost like dénouement in comparison. However, the peppy piano line and driving bass, and gradual slow-down of tempo makes it an appropriate way to end after the high-note of “Bombing at the Midnight Showing”.
Because I loved Nothing Sadder Than Lonely Queen so much, I tracked down some mp3s of FBTS’s first disc (Me and Amy and the Two French Boys) on the label’s website, and while songs like “My Thousand Years With Robots” are great in their own right, I think it’s safe to say that Hernandez has found a more developed groove on this second album. The recording is still lo-fi but it’s cleaner, the mixing is better and more subtle, and there’s a sense of expanded vision here. I usually avoid trying to say things like this, but I have little to no doubt that Nothing Sadder Than Lonely Queen will wind up on my Top 10 list for 2004. It’s charmed the pants off me. Maybe it will do the same for you.