The New Normal: The Sprightly Sounds of the New Normal

[26 April 2004]

By Patrick Schabe

It’s no secret that the ridiculously prolific power-pop collective the Young Fresh Fellows is fond of side-projects and one-offs. Frontman Scott McCaughey alone seems to have his fingers in more indie pop pies than you’ll find on a Marie Calendar’s menu. But this time out it’s the rhythm section of bassist Jim Sangster and Tad Hutchison who are tossing out some gems of their own, under the banner of one-time Fellows collaborator Mike Ritt. If that’s not enough Seattle-area indie cred for you, the New Normal also includes the guitar and production work of Johnny Sangster, Jim’s brother and member of Dear John Letters. Of course, McCaughey also manages to work his way onto the disc with a few moments of guest instrumentation, as do Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America and Conrad Uno, indie-famous proprietor of Egg Studios, where this disc was recorded in a two-week flurry.

The kind and clever folks in the New Normal thought to hand-write “The New Normal obviously think pop matters” on the spine of the press copy they sent to PopMatters. If you’re familiar with the Young Fresh Fellows, or the Minus 5, or Dear John Letters, then this probably seems obvious. But this isn’t a Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck, or Robb Benson project, and under the guidance of Ritt, the New Normal has just enough life of its own to not be blandly interchangeable. Those very same sprightly sounds referenced in the title pull in a classic guitar pop sound that references Bill Haley to Superdrag and everything in between.

Things kick off with the full-throttle story-song “Your Damn Uncle”, a small-town rocker that rolls along a driving rhythm and rockabilly guitar. It tells the humorous story of a teenage run-in with the law and how it embarrasses the kid’s family, and it grabs the listener by being a morality tale with a knowing grin. The one-minute punk of “Chez Me” continues this vein, while “It’s Our Time” flips over to jangle mode for a cute little Mamas and Papas-style ballad. For the one non-original song on the disc, the New Normal toss off a peppy cover of Del Shannon’s “Keep Searchin’”, complete with insouciant organ work from Chris Bellew.

The band also displays the sense of playful cleverness that the YFF are famous for on the tracks “Never Never Man” and “(I.W.G.H.) One More Chance”. The former is a plaintive jangle-pop tune that speaks to housewives fantasizing over the media star as the impossibly perfect man, pleading “Give your husband one more chance / Give your boyfriend one more chance / Give your love one more chance”. This charming request not to throw away real love for something imaginary is turned on its head in the next track, when it’s the revealed that the “(I.W.G.H.)” of the title actually stands for “I Wouldn’t Give Him”, with Ritt crooning “I wouldn’t give him one more chance / Despite what I told you” and that he’s really a cheating louse who’s not worth the effort. The song itself is very reminiscent of latter-day Jonathan Richman, but the interplay between the two songs is what makes it such a laughable moment. That same humor closes out the disc with “We Are Carloadbuyers” and “The King of Goretex” coming close to “Weird Al” territory, if maybe he was a little more adult and sarcastic in his wit.

There’s a lot to recommend the New Normal, even if the likelihood is that most people will notice this record because of its name associations, if at all. With a minimal release on a tiny label, it’s doubtful that this disc will rocket another YFF sideshow to stardom. But Mike Ritt proves that his songs are easily in the same realm as the other Six Degrees of Seattle projects, Johnny Sangster gets to be a little goofier than Dear John Letters tends to run, and Jim Sangster and Tad Hutchison seem like they’re having as good a time as ever. In many ways, this is what power pop, and having an impressive circle of friends and collaborators, is all about.

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