At the end of 2001, I took a pass on the opportunity to write a “best albums of 2001” list for any of the various publications that I wrote for, mostly because of my (admittedly false) assumption that no worthwhile records were released in 2001. So of course when I finally saw the “best of” lists from my colleagues-with albums from the Strokes, Gorillaz, Ryan Adams, Weezer, Ben Folds, and to a lesser extent Sugarbomb and Jon Brion-I realized that 2001 wasn’t that bad of a year after all, though it took some dilligence to find some of the best records. But, as is always the case, I really did miss some of the best records of the year, and one I saw appearing repeatedly on said lists is Inspiration Overload, the debut album from L.A.-based power-pop band Receiver.
Now Receiver, who are signed to the purely fab indie Not Lame, are a pop band. And those who heaped accolades upon their disc are, for the most part, pop fans. So if gooey melodies, crunchy guitars, and three minute singles that lodge themselves in your brain are not your thing; go elsewhere, because you’ll find a lot of it here.
Receiver’s core is one Ken West, the vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter of the batch. The Los Angeles power-pop scene is a bit of an incestuous (for lack of a better term) scene, with a good deal of the best and most notable bands having some connection to one another. West is no exception; he’s the webmaster/founder of powerpop.org, a site that hosts the official sites for bands like the Andersons, Cloud Eleven, Chewy Marble, Sparkle*Jets UK, Robbie Rist (who twiddles the knobs on one track here), and even the International Pop Overthrow festival. That right away establishes that West is a pop fan of the first order. He’s someone who has spent some time holed up with Big Star records and a huge pair of headphones.
So with Inspiration Overload, West has a chance to step up and try to add his own chapter to power-pop history, and judging by the result on this first outing and on the reaction surrounding it, he may do just that.
The album opens with “Faster”, the disc’s first “single” and a song that was previewed in summer of 2001 on the International Pop Overthrow compilation CD. And while it is the single and the disc’s opener and all, and it is a catchy little tune, it just doesn’t quite grab. The second track “Everykind” is much the same-this time displaying a huge debt to the Byrds, it is an effective imitation but is hardly revelatory.
But on the disc’s third track, the seering “Oleander”, everything changes. While the first two numbers are merely standard pop fare, “Oleander” has drama. Guts. Flair. Opening with a dark, chugging guitar riff, the song segues into West’s vocal-more emotional than before. West may be a bit angry, or distraught, or upset, but there’s a definite sense of tension. And then, right when the song busts into the chorus, the whole thing splits open. Gooey background vocals burst from every seam and rise to the foreground. The chorus is quick, memorable, and suddenly gone. And we’re back to the verses. And the instrumentation-particularly the guitar work from West, Don Mogill, and Will O’Brien-never sits still. Riffs and chords don’t form perfect patterns, though they don’t sound unplanned either. It’s over in three minutes, and the immediate reaction is that “Oleander” is one hell of a pop song.
From there, Receiver barely relent. While it’s hard to top the highs of “Oleander” (and they don’t, though they come close), the band maintains the same energy throughout the rest of the disc. The most obvious comparison is Grand Prix-era Teenage Fanclub, though Inspiration Overload, song for song, is actually a more solid–nay better–album than any single disc released by them. So while basically everything falls under the broad umbrella of “power pop”, West and Receiver do toss off some ballads (“Erica Kane”), straight-forward pop (“Saccharine”, “Wind Up Girl”), and rock (“Reaction”).
And after a few listens to Inspiration Overload my lingering doubts from the first two tracks disappear completely. In the context of the album, both “Faster” and “Everykind” are essential cornerstones of the overall picture. Their simplistic, elemental nature stands at a contrast and compliment to the more intricate pop to come later, and that juxtaposition grants the album its depth.
And therein lies why so many have said that Inspiration Overload is one of the best albums of 2001. While so many genres require boundary-pushing to be truly memorable, power-pop is the complete opposite. The emphasis is not placed on what can be done that’s new, but rather on the quality of craftsmanship and assembly of the product. What makes this album so good is that West and company are clearly huge music lovers. And with much of Inspiration Overload, they manage to capture every nuance, hook, riff, and production trick from their favorite records, and in the end create their own sort of Frankenstein that’s capable of living and breathing all on its own.
So who needs grand ambition with an album as good as this one?