You can find any number of bands out there working in the indie pop vein who seek to revive the music of the past, be it full-fledged psychedelia, Beatles sound-alikes, or ‘70s power pop. The worst of these acts simply dip their pens into the well of retro sounds and reproduce it in artless acts of imitation. The best use sounds that have become classic but find their own inspiration and craft their own personality out of familiar territory. Washington D.C.‘s The Saturday People definitely fall into the latter category, even while they string together songs made from historical fragments.
For the Saturday People, pop’s long history provides a broad palette to choose from, and the range of their sound hearkens back to the mid-‘60s, certainly, but also evokes elements of ‘80s modern rock as well. Sure, you can pick out bits of the Beatles and the Stones, the Beach Boys and Bacharach, Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Raspberries, the Animals, etc., but it’s not too many bands that can also simultaneously evoke R.E.M., traces of Joy Division and early incarnations of the Cure.
Of course, the members of the Saturday People are no strangers to the indie scene or pop and rock music. This debut album was produced by bassist Archie Moore, formerly of Velocity Girl, and is co-fronted by guitarists Terry Banks and Greg Pavlovcak, of Tree Fort Angst and the Castaway Stones respectively, while the drums come courtesy of Dan Searing of the Ropers. This supergroup-of-sorts combination brings a high degree of versatility to the Saturday People, resulting in an album of sometimes precious, sometimes pretty and sometimes dense tunes.
On the surface there’s a breezy sort of ease that makes everything seem overtly simple, but when you delve into the musicality of this disc you really begin to understand and marvel at the level of detail that goes into the Saturday People. Banks and Pavlovcak’s guitars have a low-fi, twitchy sound that recalls the original surf rock era as well as British Invasion Rickenbackers, yet also mirrors mid-‘90s indie rock in the vein of the Chapel Hill crowd. Moore’s bass is a rumbling presence on this album, at times even more prominent than the garage-sound of the guitars, and really holds the album together. Searing’s drums are also remarkable in that they serve their basic task of keeping the rhythm, but range from a Ringo-like light touch on the peppy guitar-pop tracks to booming force on the brief moments of power like “California Girls” (not the Beach Boys tune).
And then there are the keyboards. The classic Farfisa organ sound is the first thing that grabs your attention while listening to the Saturday People. As well as producing the record, bassist Moore takes on triple duty as the band’s keyboard player, running up and down the Farfisa, with occasional assistance from a Moog. The keys lend the slightly psychedelic carnival sound that ties the band’s links between the past and the present together. With Moore acting as producer, it’s no great wonder that the bass and the keyboards stand out in these tracks, but it gives the Saturday People a timeless quality that works to great effect.
The songs on The Saturday People are all of the middle range pop variety, never getting much quieter than the acoustic “Ghost of a Chance” or louder than the booming drums of “California Girls”. But the album never fully drifts into similitude or laziness. In fact, the cross-generational stylings keep the music fresh and interesting, even if you spend a part of your time trying to pick out the references. Yes, it may be the mark of a weak critic to rely on comparison, but in the case of the Saturday People the comparisons reveal the band’s range.
The Saturday People has its own mode of semi-psychedelic, twee pop songs in “No Matter Where You Are”, “Find Out”, “Upside-Down Girl” and “Working for the Weekend” (also not a cover). But these tunes are the middle ground, a sweet standard from which the other songs can veer across musical history. Some songs maintain a certain tonal quality that tie them to other musicians, like “The Castle”, which begins with a shuffle that sounds like the Rolling Stones, but reveals itself more accurately as a ringer for a Neil Finn tune. “Slipping Through Your Fingertips” sounds like the perfect intersection of Paul Heaton’s work in the Housemartins and the Beautiful South, while “Grace” comes across as a great Lloyd Cole song in a slightly higher range. This is especially due to the inclusion of a lovely and sad Fender Rhodes arrangement courtesy of guest musician Ara Hacopian. Of all the tracks on the album, “Grace” most fully utilizes the various piano sounds of the Saturday People, with the Rhodes playing the foundation over which the other instruments swarm, and then kicked up a notch once the Farfisa organ breaks in, peppered with Moog-ish synths, bringing the melancholy tune back into a sixties paisley swirl.
Other songs on the album invite a “blended” comparison. “That Settles That” sounds like a strangely sweet marriage between the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and the Monkees. The bombastic piano, with its beautiful hooks, and driving drum tracks on “California Girls” could be Paul McCartney filtered through any goth-lite New Romantic band. “Twilight Story”‘s shimmering guitars and lush harmonies sound like a cross between the Smiths, the Three O’ Clock, and Ocean Colour Scene. Even more impressive is “Sounds of Yesterday”, which approximates surf rock through the bass-heavy drone of Joy Division, or vice versa. And then there’s the one actual cover, “Lullabye in the Rain”. Immediately following the very Hook-Sumner feel of “Sounds of Yesterday”, “Lullabye” opens with a plodding bass and spare guitar that, perhaps because of the prior track, rapidly calls to mind Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”. This is quickly replaced, however, by a chiming guitar and vocals that sound like a spot-on throw-back to Flesh for Lulu’s “I Go Crazy”. Not finished yet, the Saturday People then toss background vocals that lift the “whoa whoa” and “yeah yeah” from We Five’s “You Were on My Mind”. All this in a cover of an incredibly obscure Jan & Dean song.
This is, perhaps, the secret to the Saturday People’s “timeless” sound quality. After all, the sounds of guitar pop have, truth be told, changed very little in forty or so years. Could it be that, as Belle and Sebastian were influenced by the Smiths, and as the Smiths were influenced by the rock and pop of the 1960s, so the Saturday People are just an extension of the same sound into the present? Yes and no. There are too many nods to the ‘80s, even if only the brand of modern rock that also emulated the ‘60s sounds, for the connections to be accidental. And the sound has a certain indie/garage flair that is more or less contemporary. But the core of the Saturday People’s thrust is definitely retro, looking to guitar pop’s past as an origin. It’s obvious in the trick beginning of “Upside-Down Girl”, which begins with that one distinctive chord and then the line “It’s been a hard to say / Hard to know kind of year”, fooling the listener into a brief “A Hard Day’s Night” flashback. If anything, the Saturday People make a case for the reemergence of the paisley underground scene.
However, the inclination to pigeonhole a band’s “intent” is not really necessary. What is important is that the Saturday People make their sound work. If there’s a detriment to these songs, it’s that reveling in historical connections often overcomes the act of actually listening to the songs themselves. Like so many of the pop tunes of the ‘60s, the lyrics have a candyfloss quality that makes them ephemeral. The revelation on “No Matter Where You Are” of “And then all at once it occurred to me / No matter where you are / You’re never very far / From being somewhere else” is certainly not going to win any philosophical prizes or change anyone’s life, but that’s beside the point. Songs with obtuse lyrics hinting at mysterious allusions and poetic ways of singing about love are the cornerstone of pure pop. Neither revelation nor revolution, it’s simply beautiful, catchy, melodic music that’s fun to listen to.
In its totality, The Saturday People is an undeniably infectious album. The melodies, harmonies and hooks are both well crafted and easy to get into. It only takes a couple of listens before the songs are familiar, and once they are you still feel the urge to return to them. If these aren’t the hallmarks of a great pop album, what are? The indie pop world is a large place, with lots of bands of varying degrees of skill and talent, each of whom tries to put their own spin on things. If the Saturday People seem to be standing on the shoulders of giants, at the very least they do it with style. And with so much variety to choose from, you could do a whole lot worse than checking out this excellent debut.
// Notes from the Road
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