TREE FORT ANGST
Last Page in the Book of Love
US release date: 9 December 2002
UK release date: 30 September 2002 (through Rough Trade Records)
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
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At the end of 2001, a self-titled disc by an indie pop band called the Saturday People quietly slipped onto the scene and, one convert at a time, began to charm listeners and critics with its ‘60s-cum-‘80s jangle pop tunes. I had the lucky chance to review the disc for PopMatters, and it rapidly became one of my favorite albums of the year. Dripping in guitar pop melodies, the deceptively simple songs on that disc were barbed in hooks and delivered by veterans of the craft. Long after the review went up, the songs were still in my head, popping in at random intervals to remind me that this great disc deserved repeat visits.
Just recently released, the Saturday People are back with a new album titled . . . The Saturday People. I had the opportunity to ask one of the band’s guitarist/vocalists, Terry Banks, about the repetitively eponymous title, and he claims that it’s not a nod to Peter Gabriel or anything, just a lack of a title when it came time for the disc to go to press. Additionally, this new disc has a song simply titled “The Saturday People”, a short, 11-second theme song for the band that is basically the singers layering harmonies of the band’s name in repetition, so reusing the title isn’t too far afield. And, finally, this release is little more than an EP, or maybe a mini-album, with only five new songs, the aforementioned theme song, two reworked songs from their first release, and some studio noodling tacked on to the end.
While the release of an EP is never as fulfilling as a new long player, this disc does introduce audiences to the band’s expanded line-up and slightly modified sound. In addition to the twin songwriting/singing/guitar-playing attack of Banks and Greg Pavlovcak, the bass and production talents of Archie Moore, and the deft drumming of Dan Searing, the Saturday People are now five with the return of founding member Ara Hacopian on keys. Harcopian’s departure from the band in 1999 paved the way for Moore to join the group, and his return fills the much needed keyboardist spot. As anyone who heard the first Saturday People album, one of the disc’s stand-out features was the incorporation of classic organ sounds, helping link the pop tones of the past with the jangly guitar pop of the ‘80s and ‘90s. On that outing, Moore took care of the keyboard duties as well, but playing bass and Farfisa simultaneously on stage probably wasn’t going to work too well.
The only problem is that, if this EP is an indication of the direction the band is heading for the long term, it’s not to a fuller sound, but to a thinner one. The Saturday People EP is twice or thrice as twee as The Saturday People LP, and it’s hard not to immediately just say it’s lightweight. The guitars are spare, the keys are less commanding, and, most noticeably to me, the bass has been overly subdued. For some this will surely come across as maturation within the band, and one of the few complaints that critics made against the first Saturday People album was that the songs were too self-similar. To the group’s credit, the five new songs on this EP display much more variety and aim for greater range. But to my ear there’s something a little more watery in this release.
This is especially the case when paired with the other new Foxyboy release related to the Saturday People, the compilation of the Tree Fort Angst catalog. Before helping found the Saturday People, Terry Banks fronted the Richmond, Virginia band Tree Fort Angst in the early 1990s. As the release of Last Page in the Book of Love makes clear, Banks’s style hasn’t changed much in a decade. Last Page is an appended re-release of TFA’s only LP, Knee Deep in the Rococo Excess of Tree Fort Angst (which itself was merely a compilation of the band’s singles and EPs), with the addition of ten rare and/or live bonus tracks.
In his Tree Fort Angst days, Banks was most directly influenced by Aztec Camera and old Orange Juice, the Smiths, the Jam, and various ‘80s guitar pop bands—the same influences that have carried over into his work with the Saturday People. One listen to Last Page and it’s clear that this is the same artist, with older songs like “Found Out” sounding like the younger brother of the later Saturday People tune “No Matter Where You Are”. That Banks wrote and sung both of these tracks is obvious. In fact, if it weren’t for the various indie pop bands from which each member of the Saturday People hail, you could call it a direct lineage.
In some ways, the two releases sort of appease both camps of those whose interest was piqued by the first Saturday People. The new Saturday People EP definitely shows a progression of the band into new territory. “Conditional Tense (Now It’s Gone)” and “When You Come Around”, both Banks tracks, stick to the guitar pop formula and sound like companions to the first album. But there is variety here as well, with Pavlovcak’s “Preamble” gliding through on a fragile charm, and Archie Moore taking his first turn as writer and vocalist on “No Photos Exist”, which even incorporates guest female vocals from Pam Berry, and which is as airy and keys driven as a Parker and Lily composition. With this release, the Saturday People come even closer to being an American version of Belle and Sebastian, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.
Meanwhile, if you weren’t bothered by the sameness of the first Saturday People album, and enjoyed their familiar indie pop sound, you could pick up the Tree Fort Angst retrospective and find a treasure trove of such songs. “Tuesday”, “Found Out”, “Hope”, and “The One That Got Away” will satisfy your bittersweet pop tooth nicely. At 30 tracks, you’re bound to find one or two that make the whole purchase worth it, and it’s probable that you’d find more than that. The similarity of all the songs on the disc will probably help make the point that the Saturday People needed to expand their field of vision a bit, but it will give you a finer appreciation of Banks’s songwriting talents. Additionally, the disc gives some great background context to the Saturday People, and will accompany your Velocity Girl, Castaway Stones, and Ropers albums nicely.
Despite not making as dense or lasting an impact as they did on their first release, the Saturday People remain one of the indie pop acts to watch. They still have the quasi-contemporary sound blended with enough retro nods to give their music a generally timeless guitar pop feel. If their guitars stand out more on their next release, then they won’t drift too far into the ethereally precious realm in the future.