[6 December 2005]
What’s in a name? The MySpace page for Popstar Assassins lists the band as “post-punk power pop”. On their official website (a personalized Comcast page, mind), bandleader Tim Thomas refers to the duo as “a couple of aging indie rockers.” And while there is evident truth in both statements, neither these descriptions nor the music seem to live up to the edge and danger implied in the band’s moniker.
In truth, Popstar Assassins is the project of Tim Thomas and his partner Cale Hoopes, along with a small cadre of music-minded friends, releasing some workable, indie-styled music on their independent lonesome. The band’s sophomore release, Moderne finds Thomas and Hoopes delivering a disc of middle of the road, familiar and unobtrusive music, self-produced and self-marketed and fingers crossed. The only thing they’re assassinating is the idea of pop stardom. Just a couple of guys, their own money, their own labor, and some networking.
How can you say no to that?
There are bands like this everywhere, and that’s what makes their story both endearing and ubiquitous. If these Assassins have anything working in their favor, it’s that their home base is Seattle, a town no longer flooded with music mogul money and inflated contracts, but still swimming in small DIY pop bands, and supported by a town that still bothers to pay attention to locals. Still, although it may be studio production and label promotion that separates the Death Cabs from the pedicabs, or the Postal Service from the mail men, even the basement pop star has to have the songs to compete. And while Popstar Assassins may have moments of clarity, for the most part the songs here are seldom distinguishable.
It’s not for lack of some basic talent, though, but rather the fact that they constantly seem to be imitating other bands with more personal style. “Headache(s)” seems like a grab for Interpol tension, “Close My Eyes” has a loose Wrens feel, and “I Request Roses” is the requisite Smiths-influenced track. And the real killer is that they don’t seem like they’re deliberately imitating—not in the way that we suddenly have a bumper crop of “angular post-punk” bands—but there’s just a lot of previously tread ground in these songs. On the other hand, that means that Popstar Assassins have familiarity working in their favor. The aforementioned “I Request Roses” has all the proper amount of jangle in all the right places, and when the song builds to a sort of shoegaze crescendo, the vocals climb in just the right spots. There’s as little to complain about as there is to shout about.
Occasionally a hook does surface to catch you off guard, and those are the moments that Popstar Assassins needs to focus on in the future. They’ve got the melodic structures down just fine—for instance, “Easy for You”, but the song takes a weak break for a plinky solo that leaves an opening. But even the aimless piano and collapsing vocals of “Adrenachrome” work to give the song a slight edge of difference from the other tracks. Similarly, the foregrounded, drooping vocals of “For Robert Wyatt” work great against the lazy backdrop and theremin-styled space sound effects. Likewise, “Symbols/Shelter” mines the Joy Division-esque territory currently in vogue by drawing it out and stripping it down to ‘80s goth territory, rather than repeat the dance punk disco thing ad nauseum.
But when the album seems to find its own place in the last handful of tracks, there’s no chance it’s going to stick with you in the long run. For a band going it on their own, Popstar Assassins are worth supporting, but they’re not going to impact your life yet. They’ve got the indie rock vibe down, but they need more of the power pop in their post-punk. Until they start mining for their own hooks, they’ll be in perpetual opening act territory; not a bad place to be, but capable of so much more.