[15 July 2003]
Bands just don’t want you to be happy anymore. Judging from the onslaught of angst-ridden guitar groups currently plaguing the radio, you have to trade in your smile when you pick up a guitar, and if someone in the audience is smiling by the time you’ve finished your song, you’ve not done your job. Critics have exacerbated this trend by celebrating the dark and morose, dismissing music that’s unabashedly optimistic and uplifting as trite. Oddly, bleakness and grittiness have become marks of authenticity, as if a song that relates a bright moment of happiness is less genuine, less real.
Those who spout this syllogism support it by contrasting the Clash with the Partridge Family, or by comparing the Velvet Underground with the Archies. With such straw representatives, the sunshine side is always bound to fall to the forces of anger and darkness (although I will defend “Sugar Sugar” as a great achievement). Granted, it doesn’t help that the few non-depressive performers who gain international prominence are vacuous novelty acts like Aqua or Right Said Fred, but there are bands out there capable of making upbeat music that won’t rot your teeth or make you feel somehow compromised for singing along. The Salteens is one of them.
The band’s upbeat outlook is evident right from the opening title track. Atop a warm, gentle arrangement, bandleader Scott Walker entreats a miserablist to “Let Go of Your Bad Days”. He sings, “You are on your own / Can you see it’s not by chance / Your thoughts are monotone”. Walker’s own palette is clearly much broader, as he dips into horn-drenched bubblegum pop on “You Stood out from the Crowd”. There’s a real sense of joyful transgression in the song: “If this isn’t allowed / Then how come we want to know / So much and more”. The tune’s cartoonish brightness and energy is almost too much to take, but at under the two-minute mark, the song doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Elsewhere, the band tries to adopt a more aggressive stance while maintaining its essential sunniness, with less success. Walker’s voice, thin and slightly nasal (imagine a combination of Sloan’s Jay Ferguson and They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh), is generally well-suited to the album’s bouncy pop material, but the singer can’t quite summon up his inner Roger Daltrey on tracks like “Summer’s Gone” and “Thoughts from Sound”. Bassist Megan Bradfield (who has recently left the band) fares better on “Damn You”, convincingly cursing out an admirer while still managing to sound sweet.
Her soft voice makes a welcome reappearance on “Home Again”, the wistful, wisp of a track that closes the album. A string quartet is all that accompanies her as she sings of hiding inside: “Until I’ve seen the sun / Has washed the snow away”. It’s an incongruously quiet way to end such a rambunctious record, but it’s also one of Let Go of Your Bad Days‘s strongest songs—even the most zealous optimists are entitled to indulge in a bit of melancholy from time to time, especially when it sounds like this.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/salteens-letgo/