February 18, 2003

Aberdeen's California sun

Tom Zimpleman

Voices Representing Iowa

Aberdeen really likes the Jesus & Mary Chain. I know this because the promotional material mentions that the band's founding couple, John and Beth (no last names provided), moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of someday seeing the band in concert. I also know this because I've heard the ending of "Sink or Float," the second song on their debut album, Homesick and Happy to be Here. It closes with a white noise explosion and spiky guitar riff that's very close in spirit to the work of the Reid brothers.

That's not to say that Aberdeen sounds just like the Jesus & Mary Chain, or that they are of similar minds. The Jesus & Mary Chain hailed from Glasgow, after all, a hoodlum-ridden city where you can't wear blue or green in the city streets and where the citizens think it's funny to put traffic cones on the heads of statues; in other words, a fairly inimitable place. Aberdeen is from southern California, a guileless locale noted both for the manipulation of popular culture and the presence of some fantastic golf resorts. I would consequently describe Aberdeen's musical vision as being much, much sunnier than that of their most prominent influence.

Each song on this album sounds upbeat upon the first listen--from the opening, country-tinged "Handsome Drink," to the appropriately titled "Sunny in California." Indeed, the most noticeable aspect of the album is Beth's voice, which bounces around your head like an empty bottle bobbing around in the surf. The backing, which provides a fairly muscular foundation for the vocals, layers trumpet, piano, and strings on top of a series of pop chord progressions. The result sounds like an homage to the best of late-60's pop, although it never sounds derivative, and never seems to be dependent on the conventions of Pet Sounds-style studio trickery or baroque full-band arrangements. Aberdeen also side-steps most of the flaws of modern pop revivalists: the sugarcoated choruses and far-too-adenoidal vocals on the one hand, and the winking acknowledgements that they really aren't taking anything they say seriously on the other.

But while it's a good example of intelligent pop music, the album's upbeat impression may be a little misleading: in true pop music form, most of these songs are about couples that break up or never get together. Don't fall for the cheerful opening gambit of "Cities and Buses"--the chorus is about two recently split people, and both he and she are pretty miserable. Likewise, "Sunny in California" might be the anthem of someone delighted to be in the West Coast sunshine, but the refrain: "Don't look now, but you were looking back down again," is a bit more ambiguous. Finally, there are the closing minutes of the previously mentioned "Sink or Float," and the album's final song, "That Cave...That Moon," which takes a turn into much darker musical territory. The album's variety is probably due to the fact that some of the songs on it were recorded several years after they were originally written; it thus doesn't quite hang together as a complete vision, but that's hardly a fatal flaw. The band's overall direction, however, is an open question. The next album could continue rattling off good AM pop hooks, or it could build on the distortion-heavy rock moments that briefly appear on this album.

So while sun-drenched California pop may be the style of Homesick and Happy to be Here, the content is a bit more complicated and a bit more interesting than that. It might just be the perfect thing for someone whose cheerful mood may not hold up forever--a grad student who just found a $20 bill in his pocket, but knows that his money woes will shortly return, or an art-school dropout who gets a care package from her parents, but knows that bad news from a gallery will be waiting in the mailbox tomorrow. Or perhaps, to tie in a previous example, a Glaswegian who's just vandalized a statue, but knows that the police will remove the traffic cone in the morning. Undeniably, every silver lining has a dark cloud, but when the soundtrack is this good such pensive moods are worth it.