Thanks to the Hang Ups, the line between power pop and wuss rock has been forever blurred. Granted, wuss rock isn’t an actual genre (though on The Simpsons, Lisa used the term to describe Air Supply and “Loggins and Oates”, so there’s precedence); to define it is to cop the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography — you know it when you hear it. It’s too muscular for coffeehouse rock, and too, well, wussy, for pop/rock.
The Hang Ups formed in the post-Replacements Minneapolis of the early ’90s, and I want to like their Beatles-inspired take on pop, but I get, um, hung up on frontman Brian Tighe’s overpreciousness. Their self-titled fourth album fairly brims with lush, shimmering power pop, but it is weighed down by too many twee wuss rockers. What’s a rock critic to do? I haven’t been this conflicted by a slice of pop culture since the Pepsi Challenge.
But maybe the answer lies in the heart of the Hang Ups’ rock forebears, the Replacements. Beer-fueled mayhem aside, Paul Westerberg and company were pop craftsmen of the highest order, mixing the raucous with the heartfelt. Look how many ‘Mats overviews note that there could never have been a “Bastards of Young” without “Here Comes a Regular”, and vice versa. (True enough, though I’m not totally convinced — I tend to bail on Tim at the end of “Little Mascara”, leaving “Regular” unplayed.) My listening habits notwithstanding, the Hang Ups follow this so-called Replacements Rule — for every bright tune like the slacker ode “One of These Days” or the meaty, twin guitar attack of “Wildflowers”, there’s a wuss rock stab such as “Avalon” or “You’ve Come Home”.
Yes, man cannot live on power chords alone, and sometimes a quiet acoustic tune provides an answer a more-rocking number can’t, but Tighe leaves me befuddled — especially when songs contain both elements of rock and wuss. “Little Blue” can’t decide if it wants to be a Jayhawks-style roots rocker or a bland pop track; the matter is never resolved. Ditto for “Annie Walks”, which vacillates back and forth between delicate and heavy and fuzzed-out. (Does Annie have elephantiasis of only one leg?) You can’t please all of the people all of the time.
Too, Tighe in his wuss mode (The more I read the word, the harsher it becomes. Sorry.) aims for a Ray Davies-like sense of idyll. Surely it’s coincidence, but on the “color” songs — “Little Blue”, “Blue Residence”, and “Light Green Sails” — Tighe’s voice and lyrical content (“Blue residence / surrounded by a fence”) echo the Kinks frontman at his most pastoral. But — and here’s the key — even supra-twee Kinks albums like Something Else by the Kinks and Village Green Preservation Society boasted an undeniable verve that keeps those albums from becoming too precious. I’m not sure Tighe can keep a listener’s interest when singing a song about afternoon tea the way Davies can.
Finally, allow me to play a small game of Six Degrees of Brian Tighe in an effort to place the “wuss rock” half of The Hang Ups in a less vitriolic light and to dispel my image as a sensitive-rock-hating jerk. The Hang Ups features “added production” from Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, who a) is quoted in the press packet as saying The Hang Ups were “wimpy and really aggressive about [music] in a way that was… against the prevailing rock wisdom”. I’m not trying to bend words to my needs, but: Sounds familiar, no? And b) is the brother of Matt Wilson and bandmate of John Munson, whose recent project, the Flops, had no compunction being coffeehouse wuss rock, and whose cuddle-up-in-your-favorite-blanket songs compare favorably to the Hang Ups’ mellower (ah! A nicer word, but I’m still not sold on them) songs.
I know we normally don’t give out grades around here, but in the interest of separating the facts of the album from my biases:
For well-adjusted lovers of well-crafted, thoughtful pop music: B+
For a-holes like yours truly who normally fall in the above category, but for some reason carry an inexplicable grudge against wuss rock: B-