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Thursday, July 22, 2004 05:34 am

Sound patrol 7-22-04

Redefining ‘pop’ as brain invasion

A.C. Newman The Slow Wonder (Matador)

A.C. Newman
The Slow Wonder

The problem with the "pop" tag is that it's essentially meaningless: J.Lo is pop. Elvis Costello is pop. OutKast is pop. Bing Crosby is pop. And A.C. Newman is pop. Of course, a literalist might argue that pop music is popular music, by which standard Newman's, alas, is disqualified. Never mind that the alternative press and college-radio types fell hard for the New Pornographers, the indie-rock juggernaut Newman formed after the dissolution of his first band, Zumpano; Clear Channel couldn't care less what the geeks love, so lesser popsmiths go platinum and Newman goes mostly unheard.

Newman's first solo venture, The Slow Wonder, requires another definition of pop, one unfettered by market forces. Here goes: A pop song demands to be hummed. It simmers in your subconscious until you're singing it in the shower, singing it to the squirrels in the trees, singing it because it seems like the inevitable expression of your secret self. Once upon a time, the radio used to play songs like that all the time, songs by ABBA, Cheap Trick, Badfinger, the Hollies, and the Kinks, among others. Now you have to hunt them down, gorge yourself on their stinging sweetness, and be grateful that someone out there is thinking about melodic lines rather than bottom lines and bikini lines.

Be grateful, then, for The Slow Wonder, a monument to melody in 33 minutes. A honeycomb tangle of bright, sticky hooks and tart counterpoint, the disc teems with ideas: Handclaps bounce off cascading piano triads; guitar licks ping from channel to channel; a cello darkens a keyboard's manic tinkle. In someone else's hands, the crazy arrangements might disorient, but in Newman's they disarm. The absurdist love song "Drink to Me, Babe, Then" pits a chorus of whistlers against queasy guitar and sullen Casio and, against all odds, makes a beautiful sum of the deeply goofy parts. "The Cloud Prayer," with its Sgt. Pepper trumpet and tentative tambourine, is chamber-pop perfection, and "On the Table" delivers all the swooping grandeur and radiant harmony of your favorite New Pornographers song. Really, though, any one of these 11 tracks, heard even once, could take up permanent residence in your brain or at least crack the top 10 of your own personal Billboard. What's rank popularity compared to that sweet invasion?

Blue Cotton Skin
(Red Buttons Records)

Blue Cotton Skin, the debut CD from Petracovich,came out nearly a year ago, and, chances are, you missed it. That's OK. So did almost everyone. Self-released and overlooked by most of the major press outlets, it was better off ignored than mishandled by marketing dorks and branding strategists. For something so luminous and rare, it makes more sense to trust in the power of word-of-mouth testimonials. If you find yourself stationed on a street corner, furtively pressing homemade cassettes into strangers' hands, don't say you weren't warned.

Petracovich is basically Jessica Peters, who sings, programs, plays various keyboard instruments, and writes all of the music. It's clearly her band, but her collaborators do an admirable job of executing her arrangements, which flutter delicately from art rock to psych-pop to trip-hop to underground folk. With her love of laptops rivaling her love of sticky hooks, Peters makes electronic music for singing in cars, not for selling cars, and the difference is never more apparent than on the CD's highlight, "Bird's in Flight." A candy cathedral of handclaps, piano, fake strings, and layers of girl-group harmonies, the song takes the old Beatles' minor-to-major template and turns it into something Paul McCartney only wishes he could still write. "I've got what you neeeeeeeeeed," Peters lilts, as pure and affectless as an icicle. It's not bragging if it's true.

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