Fans of pure pop often act like they’re a tiny breed of specialist music lovers, obscured by mainstream commercial acts and forced to justify their love for, and definition of, “pop” against the media-saturated impressions promoted by the Mickey Mouse Club. And this is basically true. But it’s also true that the pop underground is actually a fairly crowded place, and a fair number of labels and musicians cater to we much-beleaguered popsters. This double whammy of minimal exposure and proliferation of artists working in the cracks of the industry often means that exceptional music gets overlooked as often as pabulum gets derided.
And then there’s the pop fan’s rallying cry: “If there was any justice in the world, (insert band here) would be on the radio every day!” But commercialism and corporations rule the day, and many bands that have all the right combinations of talent, style, and a killer melody/harmony one-two punch are shuffled off to the sidelines to watch media magnets gain all the fame and glory. So it’s left to us, the rueful and world-weary pop audiences, to assemble our own small community networks to fight the power. The best that we can hope for is to draw each other’s attention to bands that we may have missed. So, fellow pop pundits, in case you haven’t caught the buzz yet, please turn your shimmering gaze to the Mockers.
Living in the Holland Tunnel is the Mockers’ second release, following up on their highly acclaimed debut, Somewhere Between Mocksville and Harmony. However, this new disc is not just a return to the well-received patterns established on Somewhere…. It trumps their prior effort, winding up that rare second album that is a jump ahead of its predecessor and raising the bar ever further. Living in the Holland Tunnel still features the Leventhal/Gordon combination of deceptively simple pop tunes with straightforward lyrical takes backed by masterfully composed and played instrumentation, but this album goes beyond sparkle and builds upon the dazzle with depth and range.
Seth Gordon and Tony Leventhal are sure to draw their fair share of Lennon and McCartney comparisons, but while the Beatles are certainly in the mix, Gordon and Leventhal’s retro revivalism also calls on the ghosts of Badfinger, the Zombies, and the Animals. The Mockers are equally adept at sounding like a contemporary band rather than just rehashing past sounds, something that others in the pop underground seem to struggle with. At their best they sound like the lovely intersection between Too Much Joy, Jellyfish, Material Issue and any of Ken Stringfellow’s bands. And if they draw any strong comparisons to a single recent pop band, then it’s obviously the heavy shades of the Rembrandts.
Say what you will about Friends ruining the Rembrandts, there are easily recognizable overtones of “I’ll Be There for You” in the Mockers. It isn’t that the band is looking to make itself into television jingle material, it’s just that the vocal tones of the Mockers, particularly Seth Gordon, sound eerily like Danny Wilde and Phil Solem’s outfit. And the comparison doesn’t end there, because after the Mockers’ original drummer, Shawn Pelton, left for Saturday Night Live, they recruited Jon Niefeld, late of . . . the Rembrandts!
Thankfully, the Mockers aren’t exact copies of the Rembrandts, and they put a lot more rock into their pop. They have help in the Stringfellow comparison as well, as Living in the Holland Tunnel was produced by pop god Mitch Easter. Easter leaves his fingerprints all over the sound of this album, letting the jangle-pop rise to the top, but also weaving in the strains of rock guitar played by the Mockers’ extremely talented Dean Howell. Easter’s proficiency lies in drawing out the purest combinations of a band’s sound rather than single-handedly directing the affair, and Easter simply guides the Mockers into capitalizing on all of their strengths. As Living in the Holland Tunnel shows, the strengths the Mockers possess are considerable.
While Living in the Holland Tunnel kicks off with a couple of great rock-pop songs that showcase the band’s affinity for jangle and rich bass lines in “More Important Things” and “It Wasn’t Just Me”, “Yes World” shows them putting some emphasis on their excellent combination of bluesy guitar licks and Brian Wilson harmonies. “Get in Line” contains enough harmonics and Hammond organ to make Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning bliss out, while “Funk #50” has all the hallmarks of the best harpsichord/organ work of the Fab Four, complete with soaring guitars, synthesized symphonics, and an airy chorus of “ahhh”s to complete the sugary sweetness. This isn’t a 100% saccharine album, however, and the Mockers are willing to kick up the tempo and the amplifiers to rock on tunes like “Pearly Gates” and “C’mon Over to My Side”. But even when the guitar-bass-drum trinity takes over the music, you can hear the smiles on Gordon and Leventhal’s faces.
Thematically, this album seems to have a consistent message of “we’re all the same”. Quite often pure pop either stumbles over itself for attempting to be too intelligent, or else it relies on reformulating tired love song motifs. The Mockers avoid both by keeping the dial set to “fun”. Yet on songs like “Yes World”, “Coronation”, “Get in Line”, and “Pearly Gates” the main message is a reinforcement of a democratic populism. In “Sheepwalking”, Leventhal even turns that message of everyone being like everyone else back on himself in the line “What makes me think that I not the same”. It’s smart, aware music that doesn’t try too hard to impress with the wisdom of its point of view, nor drown the listener in sap. In fact, the only songs on the album that really count as love songs are “Comes As No Surprise”, with Mitch Easter providing a great Western “Durango” bass line, and “C’mon Over to my Side”, which is really more of an Animals-inspired song of dirty seduction.
This isn’t a perfect album, but it’s a perfect enough album to make the Mockers rivals of any of their pop contemporaries. On first listen the album is deceptively simple and it takes a couple of listens to notice the great hooks and riffs, to recognize every melodic element, and to realize how accomplished Living in the Holland Tunnel really is. In a perfect world, the Mockers would certainly be stars based on this disc alone. But it’s not a perfect world, and they’ll probably only make the star list to pop’s dedicated few and not those who continue to feed the corporate music coffers. What does this mean to the Mockers? They show that they’re fairly comfortable with this situation in “Sheepwalking”: “I know you’re asking who I am to keep putting them down / Then take the time to come and find me in the underground”.
My best advice: take the time.