A Night at the Ritz is—hands-down—the single greatest pop achievement of 2007.
So why does it feel like a disappointment? Maestro, cue back story please…
Office (the group responsible for this album) was also responsible for an album called Q&A, a self-released, self-produced collection of songs that brought the group a lot of attention not just in their native Chicago, but all over the States. We here at PopMatters just happened to like it. A lot. Scott Masson, the former cubicle-jockey turned indie-pop troubadour, had not only rounded up an extremely tight four-piece, but also had developed a song writing style that truly brought out the best parts of the New Pornographers, Belle & Sebastian, and even a bit of the Postal Service. Q&A was an end-to-end burner, filled with office-gossip lyrics and sly Prince allusions. Needless to say, it was a burst of joyous energy at a time when so many rock groups were focused on making “serious” music.
Shortly thereafter, the band became serious about their musical endeavors. Signed to Scratchie Records (the label owned by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger and ex-Smashing Pumpkin James Iha), the group set out on making the best pop album of all time. So, unsurprisingly, they culled a lot of tracks from Q&A. Yet where that album was flawlessly sequenced, A Night at the Ritz feels a bit jumbled, and some of their re-worked numbers, though still incredible, lose a bit of the edge that made them so intriguing in the first place. Ritz opens with “Oh My”, a yearning plea for a companionship that ends with Masson’s scratchy yells, driving the point home. Though it still remains a great number, the song still sounded better when following Q&A‘s original opener, “Wound Up”. This may seem like nit-picky commentary, but track sequencing remains one of the single-most important aspects in crafting a great pop album, and, like any good chef knows, it’s not necessarily the product that counts, but how you present it.
Truth be told, there are some little presentational elements that Office by-passed on their way to the Ritz. The new “Wound Up” adds a great new keyboard countermelody that fleshes out the original melody just as well. Yet, in so many cases, these minor differences aren’t going to matter in the long run: “Possibilities” remains a kick-ass guitar number, “Had a Visit” (with its great line “Under the mistletoe / That’s where the tension grows”) is punk-rock for Linux programmers, and the summertime piano-pop of “Dominoes” is so sweetly deceptive that you’ll barely notice how Masson’s lyrics are about triumphantly one-upping his co-workers. Each word is sung with total conviction, and the group’s multi-part vocal harmonies simply tip the scale into the feel-good stratosphere.
Obviously, a good helping of Q&A‘s songs are left off of Ritz (see: ballads and the aforementioned Prince homages [“Busy With Other Things”]), but some of the new numbers more than make up for it. “The Ritz” is the song that people will now refer to when they use the adjective “stop-start rock”, and “Suburban Perfume” is a sweet if somewhat unspectacular closer. Yet all bets are off when “Plus Minus Fairytale” shows up halfway through the set, eviscerating everything in its path. “Fairytale” is nothing short of jaw-dropping: a full on arena-ready rocker that sounds epic and cool at the same time, riding on Masson’s most indelible melody to date. Aside from the song being his single greatest lyrical turn (“I’m carving a pumpkin / In your resemblance / With a dull knife / Leaving jagged edges”), the chorus just grabs your ear and takes you to that state of pop-music nirvana that you so often hear about but rarely get to experience for yourself. Few guilty pleasures in life provide so much pleasure with so little guilt, and “Plus Minus Fairytale” is definitely one of them.
So, what do we have here? We have an album that’s merely extraordinary, and only mind-numbingly awesome. It’s frustrating that it could’ve been so much more. It’s also frustrating that given how flawless their debut was, their major-label effort is only a continuation of that sound. Not a retread or a major leap forward, just a continuation. Still, few groups could ever ride a holding pattern like this and still reach the brilliance that A Night at the Ritz achieves. It may be just a little short of a masterpiece, but, really, that’s nothing to complain about.
// Notes from the Road
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