Boy, does it suck to be an indie-pop band in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Of late, the Hampton Roads area of Virginia has become notable for producing such artists as Missy Elliot, Timbaland, the Clipse, N.E.R.D., and the Neptunes... and before that, it was notable for being the site of Teddy Riley's Future recording studio.
It has not, however, been what you'd call a hot spot for the independent pop scene; no commercial radio station is willing to play local music with any regularity (if at all), and small venues are few and far between.
As noted in their bio, Astropop 3 have been "persistently trudging through the dingy dive bars of the underground music scene in Hampton Roads, performing their own mixed bag of original music, and relentlessly promoting themselves." Over the course of a career that began in 1995, the band has continued to be fiercely independent, however, clawing their way up the ladder of success on their own terms.
After several cassette releases (some under the moniker Our Starblazers), Astropop 3 formed their own label, Planting Seeds Records, and released their self-titled debut CD in 1998. Since then, they're scored inclusion on a CMJ Certain Damage compilation, appeared alongside acts such as Alkaline Trio and the Smoking Popes on various other discs, and, in 2001, released their sophomore effort, Eclipsing Binary Star. In fact, two songs from the album, "Revenge" and "Same Old Story", could be heard on MTV's The Real World and Road Rules.
Now, in 2004, Planting Seeds has distribution through Parasol Records and their releases can be purchased through Amazon.com, which means that Allies and Stepping Stones, Astropop 3's latest release, may well be positioned to be the group's breakthrough album.
Astropop 3's general musical style hasn't changed dramatically over the course of their career. Frontman / songwriter Dan Villanueva has always worn his influences on his sleeve: a bit of '60s British pop, rather a lot of late '80s / early '90s British pop, and, as of late, a fair amount of today's rock / emo sound. What has changed, however, is the sound of the band's albums.
Villanueva co-produced Allies and Stepping Stones with Brad Rosenberg, and it's remarkable how much more crisp and clear the album sounds when compared to its predecessor. Admittedly, some of the light, breezy charm of the last album is lost with this slightly harder-edged release (there is no "Lost in a Dream" here), but the songwriting is as strong as ever.
Villanueva has clearly learned much from reading the lyrics from his Smiths albums. "Fade on Your Own" contains the very Morrissey-like couplet, "And if it hurts just like before / Our condolences once more / After settling the score / We're still bored". Still, he isn't permanently lost in melancholy; the album opener, "Forget Tomorrow", gently reminds, "No regrets / Don't forget / Tomorrow hasn't happened yet".
While occasional vocalist (though full-fledged band member) Angelique Everett doesn't seem to get as much opportunity to shine on this album, the jangly "Bubble Gum Breakup" is certainly the perfect spotlight. "Fade on Your Own", her other moment in the sun, is also fine, but it's "Breakup" where she best shows the goods.
There was a time when it would've been hard to imagine Astropop 3 breaking through to mainstream success, but times have changed considerably since the band first emerged. In a world where the White Stripes are nominated for Grammy awards, they've got just as much chance as any other indie band if they catch the ear of the right label executive.
Fortunately for Astropop 3, with Allies and Stepping Stones, there's lot of ear-catching material to be had.