So, what of those bands who dare to follow in the stylistic footsteps of those British deities of pop rock? Are they as the Bellerophons of modern music: doomed for their hubris and summarily bucked from their sunburstéd Casinos, thrown headlong into (and dashed to pieces on) the jagged rocks of some metaphorical Mt. Olympus?
Well, maybe. Y’know, if you want to get all melodramatic with some sort of stilted allusion to Greek mythology. Frickin’ elitist prig.
Truth be told, the results are typically less gruesome—less outright ignominy, more casual anonymity. Take, for instance, the Payola Reserve. A low-key Mobtown quartet comprised of vocalist/guitarist Ben Pranger, bassist Bryson Dudley, lead guitarist and pianist Alberto Pacheco, and percussionist Ken Fisher, the Payola Reserve craft retrospective, retro-minded pop tunes derived from the same stylistic ore as the Beatles’ own work. As such, they also borrow from the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Billy Halley and the Comets, the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, the Kinks, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys.
Despite the tone of my introduction, it’s not my intention to pit the Payola Reserve against the Beatles in some sort of musical duel; my point is that the Payola Reserve is Beatles-ish, not Beatles-like. Along the lines of late-70’s San Fran rockers the Flamin’ Groovies, Ben Pranger & co. are interpreters of 1960’s pop rock, not imitators; they borrow from the same source material as the Fab Four, but they use it in different ways, retooling the core components of post-1950's pop rock to achieve a sound that is retro-minded without necessarily being derivative.
Explanations aside, the Payola Reserve’s sophomore album, 200 Years, is full of bluesy, skiffle-ish twang courtesy of harmonica and both slide and acoustic guitar. There are 1950’s crooner vocals, group harmonies, Melodica and Rhodes accents, and head-bobbing beats of the snare-centric variety with a bubbly four-string boost for good measure. Lyrically, 200 Years runs the gamut from waxing poetic on religion and daily life to dying-town escapism and critiques of habit-indulging behavioural patterns.
While hardly the best foot forward, intro track “Grade A Television” ambles along cheerily enough with a blaring harmonica lead and some arguably corny ruminations on the relationship between lonely persons and the ol’ devil box. There’s skiffle and bright electric riffs galore in “Jugband Joan,” which is a pleasant ride of religious metaphors leading to a surprisingly punchy (and intriguing) outro: “Jesus—he is not a man so much as a little boy / If you’re asking for an answer, then you won’t get too far / If you want to be a prophet, then you might as well are.”
“Portrait Society” hangs six-string slide, riffage, and keys on Springsteen-esque sure-it’s-shitty-but-it’s-my-home shout-outs to persons, places, and facets of ol’ Charm City—Charles Street, in particular. “All Things are Better in Heaven” throws out some more incidentally Christian disillusionment, while “Lost Wind Craze” combines Southern guitar twang and subdued pop rhythms for what is easily the catchiest number in the entirety of 200 Years.
“Henrietta” and “Around That Long” both play with escapism—the former with rock riffs, party-life indulgence, and self-medication, the latter with shuffle-stomp balladeering and can’t-wait-to-grow-old wistfulness. “Money for Old Rope” melds upbeat keys with clean-cut guitar and a sing-along chorus for yet another variable-speed crowd-pleaser. The trio of “Horse Opera,” “Never Been High,” and title track “200 Years” all tend towards that slow-but-captivating end of the pop rock spectrum, relying on acoustic guitar and Rhodes for their central melodies while brief surf-rock riffs break like waves against a quiet beach of muted percussion, background harmonica, and subtly fluid bass lines.
“Going Army” cues up a genuinely danceable backbeat that’s very quickly buried under fuzzy electric riffs, acoustic strums, keys, rhyming couplets, hand claps, and whatall. “Ode on Bobbie” ends the album like a slow-dance number, and its backdrop of piano and bass plays with the same languid pacing of 1950’s doo-wop—an impression that is further strengthened by the occasional hit of sha-la-la backing vocals, or a harmonica approximation thereof.
At album’s end, it’s made abundantly clear that your receptiveness to the Payola Reserve and the band’s pop rock resurrection of 1950’s and early 1960’s aesthetics depends on two things. Firstly, do you get what they’re referencing/paying homage to? Secondly—and more importantly—do you like what they’re referencing/paying homage to?
In all likelihood, you can appreciate 200 Years without liking it, just as you can like it without necessarily understanding the richness and variety of its source material.
Still, it’s better if you can do both.
Audio Reviews (August 20th, 2007)
Tags: audio, review, the payola reserve, 200 years