It’s very easy to dismiss pure pop music, the kind of music that doesn’t convert sinners into saints, reshape one’s definition of life and love, or make one more aware of the terrors and joys of modern life. Pop music, at its simplest, merely makes you want to bop your head, perhaps sing along or hum on your way to work. In rare cases, say ABBA or the New Pornographers, an artist can create pure pop music that contains hidden complexity or reveals unexpected emotional nuances on repeated listens. Usually, the simple pop song is created by an artist skilled at finding the most pleasurable combination of hooks, verses, and various musical flourishes. It is by no means effortless work, a good pop song can take as much energy (or even more) as “serious music”, but pop musicians, for the most part, are taken for granted.
The problem, of course, is that it is difficult to stand out playing pop music, and it takes months and months for the quality pop songs to differentiate themselves from simply average pop songs. (It took a good three decades, for instance, for people to realize how good the Free Design was.) I find myself regretting reviewing a bubblegum pop band called the Porcupines, saying that the band’s leader was wasting his time. Now, months and months later, my brain has become a Porcupines jukebox, while I have entirely forgotten a dozen other similar bands’ material. Every half-successful pop band has plenty of catchy choruses and pretty melodies, but only time will show which of these bands has got what can only be called “the magic”. (And, yes, I tried to come up with a less corny way of calling that mysterious factor that makes the difference between good pop music and great pop music, but I failed.)
The Icicles might have it, “the magic” that is. The world of indie-pop, although seemingly filled with endless vistas, can be even more restrictive than the overall pop world. A Hundred Pattern‘s cover and inside booklet provides ample evidence of the band’s sound. A girl-led rock band, with token guy drummer, the Icicles are present themselves as model drawings in matching outfits. Clearly, they are not going to be covering Bikini Kill any time soon. The Icicles play organ-driven, sunshine pop, usually in mid-tempo, with plenty of time for shimmery guitars and “la la la’s”. The songs are about romance and gentle melancholy, and they usually wrap up before they hit the four-minute mark. The band, in fact, risks being labeled as the epitome of a generic indie-pop band.
The songs, however, have the potential to launch them out of the indie-pop ghetto, a landscape littered with the husks of countless acts who knew the art of the pop hook but nothing of true songwriting. On “I Wanna Know”, they find that right balance of sweetness and darkness that the Cucumbers discovered decades ago with a memorable chorus caught in a complete state of emotionally uncertainty: “Cause I want to know what goes on in your head / Are we headed for forever or is this already dead”. The Icicles find the same balance on the blissful “Happy Place”, positively the sunshiniest song about drinking to forget a bad day ever recorded. Nearly every song on the album has the potential to be a mix-tape hit.
I could not tell you what exactly makes the Icicles stand out amiss an endless number of indie pop acts. The combination of Gretchen DeVault’s sweet-and-sour lyrics and Joleen Rumsey’s refreshingly non-flashy organ playing might have something to do with why the Icicles might be onto a magic formula. Also, they know the secret to great pop music is in the little details, such as the way DeVault stretches the word “yeah” to 10 syllables on the chorus of the rousing closer “Sugar Sweet”.
I think that A Hundred Patterns should hold up as a grand example of the indie pop sound, but I cannot be sure. As good as I think A Hundred Patterns is, I have no clue whether it is distinctive enough to remain fondly in my memories for long. The Icicles like the natural phenomenon they name themselves after, may be shimmering and sharp, but they may also melt away to nothing before the winter’s over. DeVault’s own lyrics haunt me as I think about this album: “are we headed for forever or is this already dead”?