What exactly is pop? A quick look back to the '60s will show that the genre was defined by the initial wave of British Invasion bands including the Beatles, Kinks and early Who. Once the '70s arrived, pop split off into separate entities, the first epitomized by the finely crafted work of acts such as Cheap Trick, the second by non-efforts from manufactured lightweights like the Partridge Family, Bay City Rollers and Leif Garrett. As the new wave age ushered in the '80s, the bastard half of the genre took over, aligning itself with choreographed MTV icons such as Michael Jackson and Madonna, when underappreciated artists like the Long Ryders and Big Country were the real keepers of the pop flame. The balance of power shifted back towards an unsteady equilibrium in the '90s with the rise of REM, and later Oasis; proof that legitimate mainstream pop success need not be contingent upon a lack of creative integrity. By today's standards though, pop is readily associated with anything from flavor-of-the-minute boy bands to scantily clad faux divas. "Pop" has subsequently become something of a dirty word, synonymous with style over substance mass production. As a result, the vast majority of new groups travel routes far removed from traditional pop, identifying themselves instead within various sub-genres from punk pop to alt-pop to emo. As with past decades however, a courageous few choose to dispense with the herd mentality and fly the true pop flag proudly. By incorporating sharp songwriting and musicianship into its repertoire, Neon Thrills is one such band.
With the release Sweet Cactus, guitarist Joe Stamer, bassist Mark Rinzel, drummer Bernie Davis and keyboardist Jon Sabol revisit music's glorious past with a collection of songs best described as Maximum Pop: Aggression without anger, passion without pretense, intelligence without arrogance, all layered with enough edge to keep the album rocking, while making it readily accessible to the discerning ear.
Adhering to a simple formula of melding muscular guitar hooks with catchy melodies, Stamer and Rinzel share lead vocal duties, as the nine tracks resonate with energy and honesty. From the power chord driven openers "Nothing Wrong" and "I Think You Should Know," (both of which hearken back to Guided by Voices' finest recordings), the album boasts a diversified yet sophisticated sound throughout; the wide swath which cuts across creative influences is evidence of Neon Thrills' attention to detail and commitment to pop authenticity. As such, it isn't shocking that echoes of the Beatles' "No Reply" can be heard on "Everyone Just Takes and Takes," or "Your Unfunny Joke" bears an audible hint of Creation's "I Am the Walker." Listening more closely to the latter, one can even hear Sabol tracing John Paul Jones' haunting organ work on Zeppelin's "No Quarter."
And what would a true pop record be without a pair of tunes about heartbreak? "Two Cigarettes" and "For All I Know" fit the bill perfectly, blending crisp guitar licks, keyboards and aching vocals together without sounding contrived.
As strong an outing as Sweet Cactus is, its ultimate value comes by way of two tracks that exemplify pop perfection: "Disgraceful" and "I'll Tell You Tomorrow" float along as if carried on a warm summer breeze, anchored by Davis' and Rinzel's loping rhythms. Capitalizing on what Rooney recently started, the songs are nothing short of contagious fun, both guaranteed to cast a ray of sunshine on the darkest day by eliciting unbridled humming and hand clapping at every turn.
So then, based upon this wonderful new recording, is it a stretch to classify Neon Thrills in the lofty company of its predecessors? Perhaps, but upon repeated listening, Sweet Cactus will distinguish itself as a superb offering, one that has been crafted in the image of great pop artists from the past. The quality of the disc sets it apart from all of today's musical conveyor belt output, and easily makes it an early contender in the Top Albums of 2004 category.
Simple, straight forward pop music, just like it used to be. Prepare yourself for a very pleasant surprise.