Six years. That's how long it's taken Chris Dorn, frontman of the Beatifics, to follow up his magnificent debut How I Learned to Stop Worrying. Six Years.
I mean, the industry standard is what, three, now, and inching towards four? That's ridiculous enough, but . . . six years!
A lot changed in the world of indie pop between 1996 and 2002. 1996 was a strange time for "alternative" rock, which was undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. With Nirvana gone, Pearl Jam already languishing, and several other of the genres early '90s heroes underperforming, there was a brief flurry of more pop-oriented acts who managed to get a reasonable amount of attention. This wasn't on any massive scale, nor were these pop bands touted as the next big thing, and as the pop spotlight wound up swinging towards the Britpop in the UK, most of the US pop bands were forgotten. The Beatifics fit with this scene, however, as their debut was the type of masterfully written, timelessly produced guitar pop that sounds crisp and fresh and new, even today.
So it's no wonder that the post-1996 pop fans, who fractured into an increasingly isolated faction quite separate from anything in the mainstream "alternative" scene, held How I Learned to Stop Worrying as one of their own treasures.
And I'll admit, I didn't think Chris Dorn was going to be able to follow it up. The In the Meantime EP, released earlier this year, failed to impress me at all. And the huge lag time between releases practically led me to forget about the Beatifics.
What a mistake that would've been.
Now I don't want to resort to hyperbole here, calling this the "best pop album of the year" or anything, because it isn't, but wow -- he did it. Chris Dorn managed to follow up How I Learned to Stop Worrying with something different and winning and good. Maybe not quite as revolutionary, but very, very good.
For fans of that first album, nothing here will come as a huge surprise. The differences are subtle, like the album's cleaner, more full mix (How I Learned was mixed really low, and sounds kind of dated now) and balanced sequence (the debut dispensed with its best songs up front, this one has a more sustained sweep). Most of these songs sound a bit like Fountains of Wayne B-sides, but as any FOW fan knows, they put some really, really quality material on the flip side of their singles. It's rootsier, janglier, more introspective, even more sensitive, but still punchy, hooky, and catchy. This is the type of record that worms into your head and stays put.
The album's opener, "Sorry Yesterdays", kicks things off in a rowdy, Smithereens-style fashion. In fact, several of the cuts here reveal a bit of a Smithereens influence not seen on the last album, and that style of sloppy bar band rock 'n' roll suits Dorn well. He tosses off two of the quality pop songs that we've come to love him for in "After All" and "February" before hitting "The Only One", my favorite track here and possibly the album's highlight.
What strikes me the most about "The Only One" is that it's a tightly written, professionally produced, and meticulously detailed song. It's this type of craftsmanship that sets the Beatifics apart from many of the myriad underground pop bands who are merely okay. So what does it sound like? A chiming guitar line starts things off normally enough, but as soon as the verse kicks in we're treated to couplets that sound like they've been lifted directly from an Aimee Mann/Jon Brion collaboration ("You'll always be the bitter thing that I could never play for keeps / Exactly like the kind of dream that never lets you back asleep / You could be any other girl / A solution waiting to be sold / That you're the only one") and thick, frothy production that even sounds like a Jon Brion record. Dorn accents the song with some tasty keys, too, and it makes for one of the prettiest and catchiest pop songs of the year. Midtempo trap? I think not.
Things continue more or less in the same vein for the rest of the disc. "In the Meantime" is rescued from its EP status, and its one of the more rowdy tracks. Built around a tough Raspberries/Badfinger guitar riff, it's the most stereotypically "power pop" song on the album. I don't like it nearly as much as the song that follows, however: the organ and bass-spiked "Between the Lines". It's the kind of uptempo rootsy pop number that sounds ripped from a mid-period Wilco album, with a funky bassline and shuffling choruses that segue into string-swept choruses.
Six years? Yeah, it sounds like it took six years.