I first heard Super XX Man in a little shop in Shinjuku, Japan about three years back. It was a cut on a little 7-inch single, Volume III as it turns out. Here was a great casio-fuelled pop song done up with an endearingly fey vocal. Homemade with more than a dash of charm, it was an affecting tune.
But that was a different time and the world’s now a different place. Between the remasculinization of rock (Korn, Limp Bizkit) and the feminization/queering (?) of pop (‘N Sync/Backstreet Boys), how much more room do we have for sensitive, wan, anemic-sounding boys with wistful guitars and sugary keyboard melodies? Do we have a place in our 21st century hearts for a less out-there folky East River Pipe perhaps? And, more pressingly, where’s Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy these days?
The question’s not misplaced. Jangle pop like Super XX Man’s, with its gentle country twang and lilt, recalls the pristine music of Mr. Duffy’s outfit the Lilac Time (while also conjuring up a more solitary and stripped down Trash Can Sinatras or skeletal Lightning Seeds). It would be easy with this sort of light-tempered acoustic strumming to get hung up on the disaffected outsider, images of him toiling away in relative obscurity with an 8-track reel-to-reel, spinning out rough-hewn cassette after rough-hewn cassette. Yes, you can applaud the personal sense of intimacy that lo-fi sound engenders, cheer the unaffected pop posturing or even swoon at his version of orch-pop lite.
None of these admirable qualities are without their appeal, and, indeed, a few songs on Vol. IV get under the skin and stay there. “Minor Plea” (made to rhyme, of course, with “minor key”) and “Postcard Home” are solid songs. The former suggests his contentedness with mediocrity and suggests the resignation that runs through most of the tracks (“to be not half-bad…to be content”). The latter’s loping bass line and keyboard hook work their pop magic, with added value for hummability.
But, even though he’s left the bedroom studio behind and hit a studio proper (track options now in double digits!), picking up friends along the way, there’s still something anachronistic about this record. This seems an artifact from another, distant era, a retread of musical attitude and practice that seems out of place nowadays. Don’t misconstrue that as Vol. IV is still toe-tappingly pleasant. Yet it’s oddly antisocial, not unlike alot of lo-fi pop which always came across like so many soundtracks for withdrawal into bedroom retreats.
I wanted to like this so I’m not sure if it’s my taste doing a little self-policing, coming on the heels of a twee backlash, or just the result of my cursory first few listens. Perhaps even more damning is that words like “nice” and “pleasant” trip too easily off the tongue. Not that the world couldn’t do with a few more nice and pleasant pop songs, but there’s no force or passion here. Nothing really rises above a medium tempo, only occasionally edging up to a modest trot, the results being enervating rather than energizing. Resignation never moves an album forward, ensuring that Vol. IV remains more mild-mannered rather than anything approaching super.