[5 May 2003]
Releasing EPs seems a highly suspect practice. Perhaps they might once have offered a cost-effective alternative between buying the 45 and buying the long-player, but digital technology has made them superfluous relics, something for precious, pop nostalgics like Belle and Sebastian (following the like-minded Smiths) to release. For established bands, EPs constitute an irritating body of work that one is often led to purchase twice, once in its bogus original format, and again in its inevitable re-release as a full-length CD with the usual variety of overseas rarities and vinyl-only b-sides. Perhaps Internet piracy helps take the sting out of such record label double-dipping.
The Capitol Years’ Jewelry Store fits into a different EP category, that of an up-and-coming band announcing their intention to market themselves to major labels. As such, this six-song collection sounds great. The vacuum-tight production and the clear, crisp mix gives the record the same gently abrasive, mildly exfoliating texture that the Strokes record has, to the extent that chief Capitol Year Shai Halperin’s voice is even tricked out and gently distorted to sound like that of whichever leather jacket is the Strokes’ singer. “Lucky Strike” is obviously a close cousin of Is This It’s “Last Night”, delivering a similar density of hooks in its carefully constructed three minutes, but all of Jewelry Store partakes of the Strokes’ appropriative songwriting strategy, streamlining the American garage rock heritage by cross-pollinating it with the straight-forward simplicity of Kasenetz and Katz’s Buddah bubblegum hits. The results are impossibly catchy and difficult to resist—you would have to try, out of some dour and misguided snobbery, to not find these songs at least momentarily appealing.
But there is a crucial difference between the Capitol Years and the sublime bubblegum songs of the late ‘60s. Nothing in those songs—“Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”, “Little Bit of Soul”, “Simon Says”, and so on—intruded between the listener and the addictive, compulsory hooks. The bands were anonymous and interchangeable, and the lyrics deliberately moronic and platitudinous, making it unmistakable that the songs were simply about their hooks, with no pretense to be anything greater. They reveled in their status as pure entertainment product, making a commentary on the shallowness of our culture’s entertainment industry even while attesting to that industry’s seductive power. But the records’ self-awareness and openness towards their commercial crassness offered listeners the opportunity to be equally self-aware, to enjoy the saccharine pop with an ironic detachment and sophistication, to be paradoxically empowered with the sense that even if they were hooked they weren’t duped.
But it’s obvious from the packaging and the earnestness of the lyrics that the Capitol Years don’t want to efface themselves before the majesty of their irresistible hooks, they want to exploit them to become a marketable commodity themselves and establish themselves as hip rock personalities. The songs are no longer about the hooks, but are about the band’s yearning desire for fame and credibility. The lyrics are ostensibly about something specific, but no matter what’s being sung, all one seems to hear is “We are cool, please like us, we are cool please like us” over and over again. So the listener is confronted with the question of whether one thinks the band members seem like cool people on the basis of their music, which is totally irrelevant and rather distracting. Bubblegum records are shameless in their calculation, but earn forgiveness for it by never trying to pass themselves off as someone’s original and unique vision. But the Capitol Years tries to be coy about its calculation, cloaking it in a cult of personality, which leaves us trying to figure out what they were trying to approximate at any given moment rather than accepting the music at face value. Of course, unfortunately, this is the music critic’s habitual approach to all music; but it is albums like this one that encourage it.
All of this is not to say the Capitol Years doesn’t deserve major label attention, and even major label stardom. The industry has always been in the business of reinvigorating the same old thing by attaching it to new faces and manufacturing new legends, and keeping the machinery of entertainment and public relations rolling smoothly. This EP signals the Capitol Years’ willingness to cooperate with the process. And if the industry would decide to push accessible ‘60s-saturated music like this rather than such juvenile putrescence as Good Charlotte and Evanescence, the pop music market would a much more intelligent, much less forbidding place.