Whenever you see a band listed as being reminiscent of Paul McCartney, or called "McCartneyesque", you know what you're going to get: great melodies, decent lyricism, and a pure pop feel. You also hope that you're going to get music of a certain quality, music that at least holds up in some small degree to Sir Paul's greatness, but then again, who doesn't get a Beatles reference in indie pop these days?
Along comes the latest release from Bodega, Without a Plan, and the obligatory Beatles comparisons follow in predictable fashion. And like a select few of the acts working in the classic pop vein, it fits. However, as elastic as the reference is, it's perhaps more impressive to say that Bodega's latest offering sounds like a timeless fit in between the likes of Jellyfish, the more auspicious efforts of Ben Folds, late-era XTC (the title track sounds like it was stolen from Colin Moulding) and the Dukes of Stratosphear, as well as touches of the Hollies, the Zombies, and a fair dose of Neil Young. The Jason Falkners and Elliot Smiths have a new crony to pal around with in the land of pure pop obscurity. Actually, "new" isn't quite the right word. The current incarnation of Bodega is primarily the work of Andrew Rodriguez, and Bodega might rightfully be thought of as the public front of a singer-songwriter, similar to Damon Gough's Badly Drawn Boy (with whom Rodriguez shares some musical sensibilities). However, Bodega's first release, Bring Yourself Up, came out in 1998, and was the work of an actual band, a trio of which Rodriguez was a third. The disc was well received, even earning a nomination for a Juno award in the band's native Canada, but after interpersonal strife and a falling out with their label, the band split up.
Rodriguez, however, decided to simply go it on his own, keeping the Bodega name. For Without a Plan, he recruited hot-producer-of-the-moment David Fridmann, well known for his work with Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips and others, to add some music and co-produce his latest batch of songs. It's a move that paid off in spades. Fridmann's name alone will draw plenty of notice from the indie crowd, but it's the production quality of Without a Plan that really benefits. Rodriguez's quirky, semi-psychedelic tunes are treated to a wonderful mix that enriches each song and makes the album a playful headphone experience for the listener.
For all his contemporary scene point, however, Rodriguez really can't escape the pull of McCartney's gravity, nor is he trying. In its way, Without a Plan plays in the space between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's. And then there's his voice. Sweet, often gentle, and with a versatile range, Rodriguez just sounds like Paul for the better part of this disc. At times you can picture Rodriguez spinning Beatles albums and recording his at-home karaoke sessions, practicing over and over again until he gets it just right. Sure, there are moments when he shifts into John mode, and the twang on "Up in Smoke, Up in Flames" and "Sometimes" slips into more countrified territory, but for the most part it's all Paul.
Unlike so many other imitators, however, this is used to great effect. In tone and quality, Without a Plan draws on the spirit of the Beatles without trying so hard to sound like a direct throwback. Thanks for this can likely be attributed in part to the production and mixing of Fridmann. There's a modern edge to this album that places it just outside of retro territory. Fender Rhodes and Hammond organs may evoke the past, but guitars are allowed to crunch and feedback is artfully used to inject some rock into the pop. Little nods to prog rock even expand the sound into impressions of King Crimson.
In fact, Without a Plan is an album that continually offers up new listening rewards. Even evoking such classic sounds, there's a variety of instrumentation, from the foregrounded vibraphone on "Finer than Fine Print" to the theremin on "Shifts in Time", that add a real complexity to the music. And hooks? Enough to fill five tackle boxes. There are vocal hooks, compositional hooks, and instrumental hooks a plenty here, and Fridmann's mix is so dense that little sounds pop in and out of songs with each new listen. The melded tracks "Shifts in Time" and "Don't Have a Clue" are a great example. As the first drifts into a humming guitar note, it is replaced by ping-ponging feedback, hypnotizing the listener with its grating back and forth motion, until suddenly the full force of the garage rock of "Don't Have a Clue" punches in, unexpected and immediate.
If Without a Plan has any real faults, it's that the lyrics are a bit watery. Much of the album is concerned with sugary, bubblegum love themes and a preponderance of lyrics about music, but is that really so bad? No. It just doesn't lend itself to standout, deeply involving songs. It's a difficult album to cull a real single from. On the other hand, it's album rock at its finest. Without a Plan works as a whole so well that not having one song grab and hold your attention isn't really a problem.
Simply put, Without a Plan is a great album. It may not be incredibly innovative or divergent from well-trodden paths, but in a world where Beatles albums are held up as the pinnacles of musical accomplishment -- namely, the world of pure pop enthusiasts -- Bodega gets it so right it's scary. Listen up, all you pop kids out there: run, don't walk.