The band makes what they call “gloom pop”—upbeat, catchy tunes that make you want to dance paired with lyrics about heartache and loss.
Making power pop usually means consigning one’s career to a specific corner of the pop landscape, and a comparatively small piece of the commercial pie. Sloan ignores the labels and simply goes about the business of writing catchy songs with sharp hooks.
There’s a reason why lo-fi bedroom pop is the go-to mode for music like this. It’s a solitary genre, free of producers, engineers and bandmates. And when the vocals recede in the mix, as they do on Ruins’ debut EP, it seems not even to need a listener.
All four Monkees had some background in music. All but Tork had, in fact, released solo singles. Nesmith was, and remains, a songwriter of merit, and if Dolenz couldn’t at first play drums like his fictional TV counterpart (he was a guitarist), he took lessons and learned how.
What the album does, and does profoundly, is resurrect both the psychic and sonic aura of rock’s early seventies—another bitterly awful period in American history, which paradoxically provoked an outpouring of gorgeous, euphoric music. Listening to “Love in Wartime,” I was struck by its resonances to artists who haven’t crossed my mind in decades: Leon Russell, Merry Clayton, Delaney & Bonnie, Melanie Safka, Lee Michaels. There’s the same focus on rapturous melodies, infectious hooks, athletic solos; the same use of harmony and rhythm as tools of joyous defiance.
It’s a heartfelt, if somewhat breathless, recounting of the gay rights movement’s signal moments, interspersed with era-appropriate songs made famous by the kind of divas to whom gay fans refer by first name alone (Dolly, Bette, Diana, and so on).
The band doesn’t cover songs—it covers albums. When the group performs, in its entirety, an LP like Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” or Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” it’s no different from classical ensembles that come together to perform song cycles like Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin” and Berlioz’s “Nuits d’Été.”
I’ve just finished listening to the first thirteen episodes of season one of “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats,” each edition of which is devoted to one song of the 2002 album, “All Hail West Texas.”
Playing a set that touches on most all of the group’s albums—including those dauntingly difficult and complex early works—Utopia has proven that there’s plenty of life left in the band’s concept.
The story is, the band recorded its debut album twice: first as a scrappier indie-rock record, then two years later as a maximal pop statement attuned to the sound they’d honed on tour. They’ve edited their material into engulfing sing-alongs that’ll thrill audiences at small clubs (like the Empty Bottle this month), but that wouldn’t be out of place on Top Forty radio.