What exactly is “power pop”? I really don’t know, but if it is anything like Chicago’s Autoliner, it amounts to a weird amalgamation of punk, indie, and pop, melodies swirling around steady snare beats, harmonies and screeching electric guitars vying for your attention.
Be is Autoliner’s follow-up to their lush pop debut, Life on Mars. While that record was drenched in mid-’60s Beatles-nostalgia (Peppered with intricate horn, string, and vocal arrangements), Be is a more streamlined rock-pop effort. The Beatles influence, however, is still strong — instead of Magical Mystery Tour, this record may be their take on Rubber Soul. The sweet harmonies, rough guitar work, and well-placed horn arrangements instantly bring to mind such songs “Drive My Car”, “Think for Yourself”, “The Word”, “Day Tripper”, and “I’m Looking through You”.
Take for example the wonderfully jaunty track “Misunderstood”. A fairly cut-up, faux-reggae verse is ushered by a straight punk-pop drum roll into the most Beatles of all choruses — falsetto harmonies chime in a call and response with the lead vocal as horns and guitar clamor to the ceiling. Even the cute pop lyrics (“Misunderstood . . . sun shining everywhere”) recall Lennon and McCartney at their cheeky melodic best (think “Good Day Sunshine” maybe).
Other tracks, such as “Supersonic Baby (In Disguise)” play a different kind of “Guess our ’60s Influence” game. An Air-like future kitsch love song (“Supersonic baby in disguise, electronic baby in disguise”) pushes into more Who-like territory with its pulsing guitars and ominous undertones despite the pure melodic gleam shimmering off the track. Autoliner’s take on ’60s nostalgia, however, is imbuing it with the venom and energy of indie rock. After a deliciously catchy chorus, “Supersonic Baby” quickly segues into a completely vicious guitar jam, drums and guitars dancing around each other in a white-noise fury.
Such pop nostalgia is not uncommon these days. From this release to Wellwater Conspiracy’s The Scroll and Its Combinations to the Asteroid No. 4’s King Richard’s Collectibles, 2001 seems to be the year of the mid-’60s throwback. The problem with many of these releases is the question of sincerity: it is very hard to pierce the melodic veneer and gauge the bands’ real sympathies and attitudes. Are such deliberate ’60s references and resonances ironic camp or real, heart-felt tribute? Are these bands closer to Beatlemania (complete with costume changes, going from mop top to Sgt. Pepper to low-key late-’60s austerity) or Beck (taking the styles and sounds of the past and filtering the present through them in interesting and funny ways)?
As far as sounds go, however, Be is a spectacular record. The pop craftsmanship is astonishing, especially on the baroque string ballad “Lighthouse”. But again, while it sounds good, it is little more than a rewrite of the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow”. Do we fault them for that, or praise them for their amazing talent at mimicry?
These questions make Be, despite its aural brilliance, a puzzling record. Nowhere is the strange mix of ’60s karaoke and indie punk more pronounced on the track “Green Mary”. The verse is pure punk — staccato beats and screaming vocals. The song soon morphs, however, into a Brian Wilson-worthy avalanche of harmonies and lilting melodies. As the band croons in cute falsetto, “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday . . . oh this masquerade”, it is hard not only to put the chorus together with the verse, but also to put the recording together with its time period. There is nothing wrong with mining the past for sounds and ideas — I would even go so far as to agree with T.S. Eliot and says it’s impossible not to do so. And while Autoliner does attempt the strange feat of melding indie rock and ’60s pop, the two do not mesh; they come off sounding like confused Beatles enthusiasts who want to rock out but can’t help but sounding like . . . well, the Beatles.