Well Wishes and Good Intentions
Sometimes beauty is inconsequential. Guitar-driven power pop music can sparkle, shimmer, and crunch with gorgeous harmonic textures, but often lacks a substantial center. Using the classic architecture of Big Star and Badfinger as a blueprint, the ‘90s saw a resurrection of the genre led by notable bands such as Teenage Fanclub and the Posies. This inevitably led to a watered-down ripple effect, and so was born the Disposable Heroes of Pop Majesty: the Apples in Stereo, Velvet Crush, the Wondermints, and Gigolo Aunts, to name a few. The near-perfect performances and strong hooks gracing many power pop records are pleasant enough while they’re playing, often securing a prominent position in a mix tape, but they have this expectant manner to fade from memory like Marty McFly’s family vaporizing from a photograph. These days of garage-rock revival are a bit unstable for bands cut from power pop’s fabric-softened cloth, and it doesn’t help when they’re left in the dust by songwriters like Carl Newman of the New Pornographers, whose regal command of the genre has elevated its art to orgiastic, unreachable heights.
Take the Well Wishers, for example: I really like their new record, Twenty-Four Seven, when it’s on the stereo. It’s filled with so many irresistible distractions: Help!-era vocal harmonies, head-bopping upbeat tempos, acoustic guitars that ring with jangling aplomb, distinctly uplifting chord progressions. Yet despite its attempts to convince you, Twenty-Four Seven isn’t the blissed-out, memorable record it pretends to be. (I listened to this album three times in a row today and still walked away humming A.C. Newman’s “Miracle Drug”, which I haven’t listened to since last night.)
The Well Wishers aren’t technically a band, but a handle for the solo side-project by Jeff Shelton of San Francisco’s the Spinning Jennies. Shelton, whose voice uncannily resembles the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, is the craftsman behind the Well Wishers’ debut and, for the most part, its sole musician (Jennies members Nick Laquintano and Justin Weis help out on a few tracks). Shelton wears his influences on his sleeve—Tobin Sprout, R.E.M., Matthew Sweet—but thankfully doesn’t succumb to cheap imitation.
“See for the First Time” opens the album with one of its meatiest hooks, an electric guitar riff shining bright as a lighthouse lamp and laying the groundwork for an acoustic-laden chorus. “One Sweet Nothing” and “Lines You’ve Crossed” have the indomitable drive of early R.E.M. with acoustic tones that gleam like sunlight dancing on a lake. “Bustin’ Up” and “Sex & the Suburbs” crank up the amps and rock like Cheap Trick, the latter song offering the album’s one moment where Shelton breaks his casual vocal stride, loosening things up with repeated exclamations of “Yeah!” Shelton even adds a tinge of pedal steel twang in “On Your Mind”, but he’s about as country as Paul McCartney is a classical composer.
Shelton occasionally comes through with a truly inspired line or two (“I hang on the note of each song that you wrote / Like a sermon every sinner wants to hear”), but mostly resigns himself to the general lyrical fare of your average, anonymous pop craftsman. Melody and arrangement are undoubtedly the most delightful aspects of Shelton’s songs, and he handles both with ease. But what ultimately kills Twenty-Four Seven isn’t its average lyrics (which could be excused under special circumstances), but its failure to be something truly unique beyond its affable pleasantries. Sure, it’s informed instead of derivative and well-played without being mechanical, but it’s also fetching instead of infectious. Ask me about the Well Wishers again in a few days, and it’s more than likely that my response won’t be, “That’s a great band”, but rather: “What does it sound like again?”