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(Big Record Company; US: 3 Oct 2000)

People make music for all sorts of reasons: to make a personal statement, to make a name for themselves, to express themselves artistically, to make money. On their latest album Bittergreen, the Southern California duo Wobbleshop project the plain-and-simple purpose of having fun, of making catchy pop songs that will make people smile.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a worthy enough goal, as long as you have the songwriting talent to pull it off; Wobbleshop does. Their sound is built around melody, reminiscent in that way of all sorts of people, from the Beach Boys to Elvis Costello to lots of current “indie” bands. Yet there’s also a certain rustic Americana feel, plus a heavy dose of laid-back California-ness. All together, this makes for entertaining music to hang around with, the sort of lazy summer tunes that make you feel good.

Wobbleshop’s two members, Brian Holmes and Levi Nunez, play a wide variety of instruments, and do so without drawing much attention to that fact. For example, one of the main instruments is accordion, but you hardly know it unless you pay close attention. They’re not They Might Be Giants or a polka band, by any means. It’s there, but not in the center, and not a gimmick of any sort. Accordion is part of the mix, as is guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion, etc.

In a lot of ways, Wobbleshop sound like their songs should be all over the radio airwaves. They have a listener-friendly, easygoing sound, almost like “alternative” hitmakers from the early ‘90s (when mainstream “alternative rock” was at least relatively about melody, and not all about haircuts) like Toad the Wet Sprocket or Gin Blossoms ... except that Wobbleshop’s good, and those bands aren’t especially good. Their lyrics are universal enough that your parents could relate, but they’re also mysterious enough to satisfy your poet friends.

Take the first track “Belong”, for example. They express universal enough feelings, like “hold me now” and “we’re out where we belong”, but also more elusive ones, like “this is better than rooftops, brother” or “wrap your arms around this projecting fool”. That song’s one of my favorites. Another is “Summermoonfission”, which evokes the simplest of pleasures with a rolling rhythm, sweetly sincere vocals and lyrics about “walking the dog in the middle of June”.

They can rock (as on the second track, “Past Perfect”), but they don’t wield that power like a sledgehammer. Their secret weapons are feeling and melody, and they use both in a truly endearing way. Writing a good pop song, one that doesn’t overstay its welcome, is a tough task; on Bittergreen, Wobbleshop deliver 13 such tracks, and all are thoroughly pleasurable, memorable and repeatable.

Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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