There is a place, a mindset, a way of viewing the world, where Lennon and McCartney are king. Jagger and Townshend rumble through the hallways, court jesters in an empire of everlasting youth and exuberance. 1960s England is a utopia of rock and roll. Young kids in the wake of Elvis and Buddy Holly, the leaders of the British pop scene sang melodically and innocently of sex and love, idealism and energy, wild nights and overpowering emotions. Combining the sex appeal of Elvis with a characteristically English wit and decorum, '60s British pop was splendid. Despite hailing from Philadelphia and living in 2001, the Asteroid No. 4 call this place home.
For all of the hubbub a few years ago surrounding Oasis supposedly ripping off the Beatles, here is a band that really does sound like the Beatles (and no one will care). While their 1998 debut Introducing...The Asteroid Number Four was drenched in droning psychedelic guitars, 2001's King Richard's Collectibles trades in their distortion pedals for French horns, harmonicas, organs, and tambourines. Their sound is bright and poppy, melodic and coy, sophisticated and fun. There are echoes of Rubber Soul-era Beatles, the Kinks, the early Who, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground, and, from more current artists, Buffalo Tom, Blur, and Counting Crows.
The album's opener, "Apple Street", is a sexy Revolver-esque rocker celebrating the mysteriousness of the narrator's girlfriend. In the world of Asteroid No. 4, nothing can beat having a girl who makes all the guys' jaws drop. "And the way that she moves", sings frontman Scott Vitt along with a sexy descending bass line, "like nobody ever really thought she could". An ode to teenage sexuality and exploration, "Apple Street" brims with the energy of fuzz guitars, surf bass lines, and joyous handclaps. Other tracks like "Little Flower" and "Local Fashion Junky" overflow with sexual energy, propelled by Beatles style Vox organs, mellotrons, and pounding drumming right out of the outro of "Strawberry Fields Forever".
King Richard's Collectibles, however, does not celebrate merely sex and lust. The flip side of "Apple Street" can be found on tracks like "Poor Man's Falls", "Queen of My Dreams", and "Urban Disaster". Lovey-dovey homages to puppy-dog teenage love, these tracks are soaked in romanticism and idealism. "Poor Man's Falls" stands out in this regard. The fuzz guitars of "Apple Street" have been replaced by a warm electric piano, acoustic guitars, and soothing, gentle flutes. A tour of yearning suburban life a la "Penny Lane", "Poor Man's Falls" tells the tale of a bitter old man regretting his one true love that he let get away. While it is overwhelmingly maudlin and sappy, these love songs work because they are so sappy. In their naïveté, the Asteroid No. 4 give off an air of real innocence and desperation.
So why the escapism? The pop utopia of Asteroid No. 4 comes in response to, you guessed it, teenage suburban lethargy. Tracks like "Monday Morning Blues", "Gotta Find a Better Way", and "Little Flower" exude a Bruce Springsteen desire for escape that they all no doubt learned from Chuck Berry. The pressures of school and work, boredom and repetition, have to be shirked for love, whether that comes through sentiment or sex. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the wonderfully sarcastic "Thank You R.E.A.", a mock-homage to the Rural Electrification Association. The narrator sings the praises of electricity for bringing us all the wonders of suburbia, such as parking lots, liquor stores, and strip malls. "The R.E.A.", sings Vitt in a wonderful overstatement, "brings love to you and me".
The earnest desire and longing for something more substantial than what the R.E.A. can offer comes to its fruition in the album's sublime closer, "Urban Disaster". Accompanied by a gentle acoustic guitar, tambourine, tuba, and beautiful harmonies, Vitt glories in finding a love that might lift him out of his humdrum day-to-day life. He seems to have found the unattainable escape that no one will let him cherish. "What is wrong", asks Vitt, "with wanting you madly?" All throughout King Richard's Collectibles, the Asteroid No. 4 ask that question: what is wrong with irrational, immature desire and feeling? As much as a world of malls and commerce says that such stuff should stay in the realm of bubblegum pop, the singer of "Urban Disaster" envisions this impossibility somehow becoming a reality: "Something in the way she makes me feel, makes me believe that this just can't be real".
The beauty and wonder of this delightful album is that struggle between pragmatism and idealism, real world grit and dumb emotion. The urban disaster of the song's title is the possibility that the love might not be real. The brightness and optimism of this album, however, lead me to believe that in the end, the singer takes the girl's hand and he walks her home from school. While it is cheesy, it is also wonderfully reassuring and heart-warming, and -- recalling the pop utopia of the Beatles and the Monkees -- something we've sorely missed for too long a time.