For the benefit of those who haven’t been paying attention, Tender Trap is the current incarnation of the 20-year pop splendor fest that began with Amelia Fletcher’s ovarial punk-pop phenomenon Talulah Gosh.
Yes, that’s right, “ovarial”. It’s the riot grrl equivalent of “seminal”, OK?
I could write ten thousand words about Amelia — and I probably have — without ever capturing the simple charm at the heart of her work. So let’s just say that she can sing about almost anything and still make you smile like a loon. And then, add that to those rare occasions when her subject matter confounds even her infectious sense of joy, and she reveals instead an uncanny ability to touch places that even the greatest singers rarely find.
Influenced across the decades by the girl groups of the ’60s, the art-punk of the ’70s, the indie-pop of the ’80s, and the electronic pop of the ’90s, 6 Billion People is Tender Trap’s long awaited second album. It’s also the one that sees them largely lose the electronic experimentation of 2002’s Film Molecules and veer back towards the more classical pop thrills that defined the earlier Heavenly. It’s a reversal that’s underlined by the return of real drums, courtesy of a special guest star, the Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson, who also supplies some backing vocals.
The first unwritten rule of pop dictates that all the best pop albums open with their title track. See, for example: The Queen Is Dead, Never Mind the Bollocks, and Physical Graffiti. Tender Trap’s new album complies with rule one, of course, and “6 Billion People” is a nifty construction that offers both a testament to the impossibility of finding your perfect match in a world that is, frankly, very big, and a collection of Amelia’s best dating tips for indie geek grrls:
Go shopping at midnight.
Spend your weekends in art galleries.
Hang out at punk shows.
Or start your own band — a technique that’s certainly rocked gangbusters for Amelia.
Subverting the norm with hands-free irony, the second song on 6 Billion People is “Talking Backwards”, which was the original title for the album. It was a narrow escape from a sequencing crime against the pop rules for which we should all be extremely grateful. Anyhoo, “Talking Backwards” is excellent. It boasts all the classic multi-tracked Fletcher vocals, adds backing vocals that go “ba ba ba” in all the right places, explores the awkwardness of an inexpressible crush, and appropriates a line or two from Morrissey to boot. All in all, it’s a rousing girly guitar-pop joy that takes at least ten years off the soul. And yet it’s bittersweet to the core. The bottom line here is that while our anorexic protagonist can carve her crushboy’s name into her arm with a fountain pen, she can’t summon up the nerve to talk to him. And hey! he might not be real anyway.
This bittersweet quality runs through much of Amelia’s writing, and all of 6 Billion People. Built on a combination of piping electronics, a pulsing rhythm and an occasional emphatically strummed chord, “Inuit Beauty Queen” tells an exotic story of mundane spousal abuse with a tragic twist. “I Would Die For You” is a happy little pop confection that hints at a relationship built on lies, and violence, and an obsession with death and murder; yet to lazy ears, it’s simply a sweet and catchily exaggerated proclamation of love.
Elsewhere, the politics of relationships are danced around the houses.
Lovers with commitment issues are taken to task in “Applecore”, a typical latterday Heavenly song made fresh by popcorn bass and mention of Led Zeppelin. “Fahrenheit 451” follows an elusively familiar musical pattern as it describes a cosy domestic situation in which Amelia would have to set fire to her lover’s book to get him to look at her and deal with their relationship. “(I Only Love You When I’m) Leaving You” speaks for itself, presented in the dramatic pop style that Marc Almond all but patented. And “Ampersand” is both a statement of individuality and a refusal to become defined as part of an Official Couple, which ships complete with an awesome kickass chorus.
No matter what the subject, images of death and decay permeate 6 Billion People — in quite the nicest way, of course. Taken as a whole, it seems to express a sweetly personal and existential coming of age, where the transition is not from adolescence to adulthood, but rather from adulthood to parenthood.
The album’s penultimate track is “Dreaming of Dreaming”. Emotionally, it reeks of confusion and disorientation at the passing of time. Musically, while it’s very much a Tender Trap song, its chord sequences and metre changes recall no-one so much as Black Sabbath (no, seriously!), and much of the rest speaks directly to my love of the Only Ones.
The eighth unwritten rule of pop requires all aspirant pop gods and goddesses to end their great pop album on an upbeat, hook-laden high. Tender Trap, however, have day jobs. Consequently, “Dead and Gone” is morbid to the bone, despite its uplifting chorus. It moves from gentle dirge to VU-lite rhythms to chorus and back again while Amelia investigates the brutally sudden awareness of her own mortality that comes as, yes, the bittersweet flipside to parenthood.
It’s been four long years since Film Molecules. With two young daughters and two demanding careers to support, it’s hard to see Rob and Amelia rushing out a third Tender Trap album any time soon. So let’s just be grateful they found the time and inspiration to record 6 Billion People. By my reckoning, their next record will be a punk pop thrash about problematical relationships, domestic abuse, and the conflict between principle and the need to put your children in the very best school your money can buy. Peter Pan and Billie Joe Armstrong can stay young forever. For everyone else, there’s Tender Trap.
Streaming: “Talking Backwards”