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Sunday, May 01, 2005
Sunday Morning Genre Playlist: Twee Pop
Sometimes referred to by its detractors as alternative bubblegum, twee pop is a melodic and innocent sounding music that bears all the simplicity of basic pop music, but with the DIY ethic of indie music. In some respects, it resembles a throwback to the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era of pop music (thematically, if not sonically); wall of sound productions in some cases, simple boy-meets-girl lyrical concerns (although often with surprising ugly twists), light on bass, heavy on melody line. All frequently with a rough, basic, four chord approach.
Its most overt influences are jangle pop, Ramones-style stripped down punk, and early 60's girl group naivete. Its very invention as a genre can be traced to a specific release; when the New Music Express, a long-lived English music press institution, issued a sampler cassette dubbed C-86 in 1986. It featured 22 recordings by these new previously unclassifiable, idiosyncratic groups. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Primal Scream, Bodines, McCarthy, Soup Dragons, and Mackenzies were among those included on the cassette, and all displayed the same essential raw-but-pretty approach.
C-86 was an extraordinary release; most of the bands had been unknown prior to its issuance, but taken together they resembled a scene. Almost every one of the groups that appeared on C-86 were short-lived, but in their wake, newer indie bands on both sides of the Atlantic began experimenting with this airy, tuneful style. In England, many of these bands recorded for the Sarah label; in America many twee-pop bands recorded for K records, owned by Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening, in Olympia WA.
While the designation "twee pop" is somewhat vague, with room to include many otherwise disparate acts, it does represent an actual movement of sorts, one that consciously avoided the heavy styles that dominated the early 90's, and instead provided hummable pretty music with minimal posturing and affectation. It isn't really bubblegum; it's pop from the underground.
Some important/influential twee pop artists and songs include:
1. Belle And Sebastian: If You're Feeling Sinister
Named after a French children's TV program, Belle and Sebastian, from Glasgow straddle the twee pop/chamber pop cusp. Led by singer/guitarist Stuart Murdoch, their sound is a mixture of folk and majestic sounding pop, cut with whimsical and surreal lyrics. In their early days, the band refused to pose for publicity photos, and played in strange venues like libraries, chruch halls, and private homes. If You're Feeling Sinister, their sophomore album, is their most realized effort, sounding like the Smiths crossed with Simon and Garfunkel. The title track is a fairly rude condemnation of organized religion, set to a lulling, acoustic background music; a typically offbeat juxtaposition.
2. The Cardigans: Lovefool
The Cardigans were formed in Sweden in 1992, and released their debut two years later. Always a difficult band to pigeonhole, they originally sounded like a space-age pop revival band, an ambient band, or a chamber pop band; "twee pop" is perhaps the most accurate catchall. Despite their light, cheerful sound, founding members Peter Svensson (guitar) and Magnus Sveningsson (bess) met in a hardcore metal band; Svensson had a background in music theory and jazz prior to that. Nin Persson was added as vocalist, as was a keyboardist and drummer. First Band on the Moon was their best album, featuring among the fluff a cover of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man". "Lovefool" was the big international hit, a playful take on unrequited love. It may cause cavities, but it's a pleasing confection.
3. The Field Mice: Five Moments
One of the original C-86 bands, and briefly the best-selling of the bands on the famed Sarah label, The Field Mice debuted in 1988 with "Emma's House", an engaging piece of fluff that failed to win the critics over. For Keeps, from 1991, turned out to be the only full-length album of the band's career, and it is a minor masterpiece, one that did gain grudging respect from the music press. "Five Moments" leads off the album with a light funk sound, complete with wah-wah guitars. Singer/guitarist Robert Wratten and bassist Michael Hiscock duet through much of the album and get creative with the arrangements throughout. Unfortunately, the band didn't get along together well, and after some onstage fisticuffs during a Glasgow show in '91, they broke up.
4. Beat Happening: Tiger Trap
Beat Happening is probably the most significant of all American twee-pop bands. Based in Olympia, WA, home of the International Pop Underground movement, they featured no bass player and the members (who went only by first names) rotated on guitar, drums, and vocals. Calvin (Johnson) set up K Records, which became the nexus for like minded pop-oriented indie bands. Much rawer sounding than the later twee pop bands, Beat Happening specialized in simplistic three-chord power riffs and off-key vocals in songs about simple truths about love and life. Formed in 1982, their best album is their final one, You Turn Me On, released in 1992. Noteworthy for its spare arrangements but ambitious approach, the album rocks harder than most twee pop. "Tiger Trap", the album opener, is perhaps the best thing here.
5. Shonen Knife: Twist Barbie
Formed in 1981 by three female office clerks in Osaka, Japan, Shonen Knife managed to win some very influential champions in America, Nirvana, Redd Kross, and Sonic Youth among them. Specializing in a punk/pop approach not unlike The Runaways, but with a quirky, punning sense of humor and a fondness for shlock, for a brief time they seemed on the verge of an unprecedented American breakthrough, recording for Capital and Virgin. The breakthrough never came, but they did win a devoted cult of fans. "Twist Barbie" is from their 1992 American debut, Let's Knife, and is a remarkably multi-dimensional lyric, set to a catchy Ramones-like riff. The band remains active to this day, although most of their recent releases have been Japan-only.
6. Shop Assistants: Somewhere In China
The Shop Assistants were a short-lived band from Scotland that merged a three chord noise-pop assault with the sweet melodicism of the Pastels, creating a sugary confection with a solid bite. Will Anything Happen, their only LP release, is a 1997 compilation of their mid-1980's singles, and gives a good overview. Much of the music on the disc falls into a kind of samey sound, but its brightest moments are real standouts; jagged gems of classic twee pop. "Somewhere In China" was one of their most noteworthy songs, the best on the album.
7. The Vaselines: Molly's Lips
Had it not been for Kurt Cobain, it is entirely likely that nobody in America would have ever heard of The Vaselines; Cobain was a big fan of this Scottish quartet, and Nirvana covered three of their songs, "Molly's Lips", "Son of A Gun", and "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam". The Nirvana versions of the first two are on Insecticide, the third on MTV Unplugged. Like many twee-pop bands, they were double-edged; sweet and gooey, but also rude and abrasive. Frances McKee gives "Molly's Lips" a sweet, schoolgirlish vocal; everything else on this Sub Pop compilation spanning 1986-1989, is worth a listen, too.
8. The Pastels: I'm Alright WIth You
Yet another Scottish band, the Pastels were one of the most important and longest lived of the genre. Formed in 1982, they were among the bands included on the C-86 cassette that touched off the movement, and have released albums and singles on a sporadic schedule for a variety of labels right through to the present day. Leader Stephen Pastel set up the 53rd and 3rd label, which gave a leg up to bands like Jesus & Mary Chain, Shop Assistants, The Vaselines and The Soup Dragons. "I'm Alright WIth You" is their most enduring single from the twee-pop heyday.
9. Heavenly: Starshy
Heavenly was put together in the wake of the breakup of Talulah Gosh, another original C-86 band; Amelia Fletcher (vocals), brother Mathew Fletcher (drums), guitarist Peter Momtchiloff and bassist Robert Pursey had all been founding members of the original band. Their new band was formed in Oxford in 1989, and signed with Sarah records, becoming their biggest sellers after The Field Mice broke up. In America, K records released their albums. Le Jardin de Heavenly, recorded as a quinted with the addition of Cathy Rogers is thier most enduring album. Unlike their shambling lo-fi early work, and that of Talulah Gosh, this album shimmers with compact and colorful tunes, of which the lead-off "Starshy" is one of the best. Drummer and principal songwriter Mathew Fletcher commited suicide in 1996, effectively ending the band.
10. Bettie Serveert: Tom Boy
Bettie Serveert, a quartet from the Netherlands, enjoyed some Stateside college radio success in America via Matador records with their brand of jangly, melodic, and sometimes gritty guitar-pop. Canadian-born, Dutch-raised vocalist Carol van Dijk supplies most of the lyrics and is the most arresting thing about the band at first impression; Chrissie Hynde might be an apt comparison. "Tom Boy" was their biggest airplay hit in America, with a descending chord pattern that recalls T-Rex minus the glam crossed with folk-rock. While they haven't come close to matching the success of the debut, they retain a loyal following; their most recent album was released in the U.S. in 2005.
Listen to Bettie Serveert: Tom Boy (1992)
Want more? Listen to a twee pop playlist at Rhapsody Radish