Not Such Guilty Pleasures 

New rockers get shallow, unmasking the shallowness of the concept of guilty pleasure

New rockers get shallow, unmasking the shallowness of the concept of guilty pleasure

In addition to All Music Guide's value as a research tool, the online resource may be inadvertently leading a widespread inversion of entrenched critical thinking. Because the AMG's editors look for knowledgeable writers to supply biographies and record reviews for as many musicians as possible, they tend to call on fans, which means that even disreputable pop acts like Air Supply and Kenny Loggins get an enthusiast's welcome.

It's about time, too. The world of movie buffs has long been broad enough to encompass people who love both art films and drive-in trash, but historically, rock fans can be snobby and capricious, praising the sublime pop sense of, say, Diana Ross, while scoffing at the likes of Journey or Hall & Oates for appealing to the same Top 40 crowd. It's damned undemocratic.

Musicians, thank goodness, are more forgiving, lately bringing some unfashionable sounds back into favor by proxy. Critics who choked on Loverboy have swallowed Andrew W.K., and a string of hot young acts like The Killers, The Hives, Jesse Malin and Scissor Sisters have been casting their nets wider than their contemporaries, listening beyond Gang of Four, Velvet Underground and ESG to draw on the likes of The Bee Gees, The Knack, Elton John and Duran Duran.

Undeniably, the results have been mixed. If Scissor Sisters hadn't made themselves buzz-worthy with elaborate, gender-bending cabaret shows, the cognoscenti might not have given a second listen to a pop ballad as glorious as their watery "Mary." Yet much of the Sisters' self-titled debut is filled with trashy dance-floor throwaways, far from the intended triumphant tribute to Top 40 kitsch. (See Jason Shawhan's sidebar on Scissor Sisters, below.) Jesse Malin's second solo album The Heat has a boozy romanticism and production slickness that suggests what might've happened had Paul Westerberg moved to L.A. in the early '80s and become the new Rick Springfield. But Malin's strained whine makes his earnest lyrics sound more pretentious than they probably are, and when he aims for a Springsteen-like populist reach, it comes off shrill and wan.

On the other hand, The Hives and The Killers may not have much more than surface appeal, but they reflect some pretty dazzling surfaces. On The Hives' early records, the Swedish garagers couldn't manage much more than an undisciplined, only intermittently thrilling bash, but they've tightened up for the new Tyrannosaurus Hives, which adds Devo jerk and superficial power-pop to the mix. The result is an album that's listenable from start to finish, even if only the tempo-shifting "A Little More for Little You" is as ecstatic as "Hate to Say I Told You So." Meanwhile, Las Vegas' The Killers could've been as forgettable as 2003 hype-job The Stills—who were equally indebted to buff mid-'80s Britpop—except for The Killers' ability to buoy good hooks with dramatic arrangements. The gospel choir on "All These Things I've Done" and the trancey synths of "On Top" are admittedly frivolous. The Killers are less likely to deliver a potent sophomore LP than, say, Franz Ferdinand, but their glamour-boy poses and sonic muscle feel truer.

What the above bands are doing isn't entirely disposable. The longstanding critical objection to radio-ready white rockers—the Van Halens and REO Speedwagons of the world—has a lot to do with the way those musicians represent a kind of corporate swagger. It's the sound of money, not the sound of "What can a poor boy do / 'cept to sing for a rock 'n' roll band?" But to the poor and even middle-class kids who grew up listening to Top 40, the association with confidence and popularity doesn't have inherent drawbacks. A lot of what drives art is personal fantasy, and if modern bands can appropriate the music of the crowd that rejected them in high school, that can be empowering.

It also can be smart, as evidenced by the Francopop outfit Phoenix. For the past couple of years, French electronica acts like Daft Punk, Air and Rinôçerôse have increasingly embraced disco and '70s Lite AM, but on their two albums to date, Phoenix have cultivated pseudo-sophistication to an uncanny degree. While maintaining full Pro Tools cool, complete with cut-and-paste synthesizers and choppy rhythms, the Paris quartet also streak their sound with breathy warmth, provided mainly by Thomas Mars' foregrounded lead vocals and a lattice of analog instrumentation. Alphabetical, the group's latest LP, draws on second-generation soul jazz—Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan by way of Michael McDonald. The romantic come-ons of songs like "(You Can't Blame It On) Anybody" and "If It's Not With You" are intentionally anonymous, as Mars expresses his feelings the way he's heard them modeled in pop records.

Granted, it's a dangerously thin line between "shallowness as concept" and mere shallowness. The glory of pop, though, is how it can be transient and deeply personal, such that at any given moment, some moldy hit by the Little River Band can appall one person and devastate another. It's an effect that transcends qualitative evaluation, and the reason why critics have to learn to get beyond their immediate sonic biases. These days, it's hard to peg good and bad on first impressions. Some listening is required.

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