You remember these guys, right? Okay, maybe you don’t. But I sure do.
Not that they’re not a great band, but the reason that it’d be easy enough to forget the Pursuit of Happiness (henceforth to be referred to as TPOH) is because Chrysalis Records seemed to want to focus almost exclusively on making the smart-ass “I’m an Adult Now” into their signature song rather than trumpeting the way more important fact — at least to music geeks, anyway — that their debut album, Love Junk, had been produced by Todd Rundgren. It’s not that “I’m an Adult Now” isn’t a funny song; it’s just that the older you get, the less often you find yourself interested in spinning it, as opposed to the follow-up single, “She’s So Young,” which has all the harmonic hallmarks of a Rundgren production to provide a lifetime of listening enjoyment. Of course, that really just means that it sounds like something from one of Rundgren’s own albums, but it’s not like that’s a bad thing. After all, if you give me the choice between listening to “I’m an Adult Now” and “She’s So Young,” I’ll go with the latter every single time.
Unfortunately, when Todd turned up to produce the band’s sophomore effort, One-Sided Story, Chrysalis pulled the same stunt again, opting for the awkwardly catchy “Two Girls in One” as the first single rather than the way more obvious (and way more Rundgren-esque) “New Language.” The result: the novelty angle didn’t work the second time around, the album died a quick death, and TPOH found themselves without a label.
Enter Mercury Records, who presented the band’s next record, The Downward Road, in 1993. Rundgren wasn’t producing this time around — that honor went to Ed Stasium — but he did schedule time to provide a guitar solo for “Love Theme for TPOH.” Also in tow for a song was Jules Shear, who wrote the lyrics and cowrote the music for “A Villa in Portugal.” Alas, despite the first single, “Cigarette Dangles,” getting a bit of love, The Downward Road continued the downward commercial spiral for the band and served as the swan song for their major-label career. And that’s where I lost pursuit of the band, as did most of America.
I’ve since gotten the impression that their 1995 indie album, Where’s the Bone, only picked up a tiny bit of steam because of the novelty hit “Gretzky Rocks.” As for me, I didn’t even know it existed until well after 2000, when I eventually stumbled upon it in a used bin; I discovered the 1996 follow-up, The Wonderful World Of…, first, and that’s only because the group’s label at the time, Iron Music, spontaneously sent it to the magazine I was writing for.
Was this an exclusively American situation, or was TPOH’s profile any higher in their native Canada? I checked in with Jaimie Vernon, the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia (as well as president of Bullseye Records), to make sure my perceptions of the band’s apparent vanishing act weren’t inaccurate. For the record, let it be said that his response should be taken not as cold, hard fact but simply as a Canadian POV:
The band was pretty ubiquitous while they were on Chrysalis. The video for “I’m an Adult Now” — the original one that got them their record deal, not the Chrysalis “remake” — was the most-played video on MuchMusic for years. But like the Odds in the ’90s, the label didn’t know how to market teen-angst pop music. The audience was there, but they never seemed to rise above the club level and soft-seaters. So they moved to Mercury Records through the Polygram network and managed the one radio hit with “Cigarette Dangles,” and the cycle repeated: a label unable to market them and sell their sound to radio. It took them a while to recover from this; a roster change and a new label in Jeff Rogers’ Iron Music is where the last two records ended up, a home that understood the band but were too new to the game as to have little impact beyond satisfying the die-hard fan base. I think you can compare them to the Smithereens in both their musical approach and inability to find an audience because their respective labels didn’t have a clue.
It really is a shame that Iron Music didn’t have the resources to push the band appropriately, because The Wonderful World Of… was a bold experiment by the band, an attempt to produce a … well, let’s not damn it by labeling it a concept album. Call it a song cycle, if you will. Each track flows into the next, starting with the instrumental flourish of “The Wonderful World” and continuing through the following 13 songs. The transitions aren’t always seamless, and the differences in musical styles can occasionally be jarring, but sometimes that actually works in the songs’ favor. For example, “She’s the Devil” will always be declared a major rocker no matter where it sits, but its appearance after the melancholy “Metaphor” kicks the badass factor of the song up to 11. Meanwhile, the Tao of Todd was clearly in effect at a few points during the recording process, based on the sound of “I’m Just Happy to Be Here” and “What You Did to My Girl.” I would, however, take slight issue with Mr. Vernon’s theory that Iron Music actually understood TPOH (though if you’d asked me before I started putting together this piece, that wouldn’t be the case).
For years I always thought the label had made the brilliant decision to take the cheery, rockin’ romanticism of “I Like You,” which clocks in at a minute and 32 seconds, and expand it just enough to make it viable for radio, since a single version pops up at the very end of the proceedings as a bonus track. I recently discovered, however, that the album’s first single was actually the aforementioned “She’s the Devil,” which, for all its fun, is in no way what you’d call a typical TPOH song. If anything, it verges on being the absolute antithesis of the typical TPOH song; I mean, even the novelty-esque singles featured the band’s trademark harmonies. Maybe the musical climate of the time caused Iron Music to think it would take a left-field choice like that one to secure a hit for the band. Beats me. In addition to that unsolved mystery, now I’m also left wondering why they bothered to produce a single version of “I Like You” if they weren’t going to use it.
In the end, The Wonderful World Of… isn’t about singles, anyway; it’s best listened to from start to finish, in one sitting. If you’re a power-pop fanatic who can appreciate a band with the sense of humor to put their hooks into different musical styles, you need to investigate this lost classic. It was in my top ten for 1997 (that’s when it actually came out in the States), and every time I pull it out I find it still holds up.
In closing, on a whim, I decided to drop frontman Moe Berg an e-mail via his MySpace page to get his own thoughts on the album by asking him just three quick ‘n’ easy questions about it. To my pleasant surprise, he wrote me back with great rapidity:
Did you enjoy the experience of recording The Wonderful World Of…?
Yes, I enjoyed recording it. We did it a bit differently than our others in that we deliberately didn’t rehearse the songs before recording them. We thought learning them in the studio would give them a sense of immediacy, the feeling you get when you play a song right for the first time. I don’t know how successful we were in offering that experience to the listener, but it was fun doing it.
Were you happy with the final product?
I’m sort of happy with the final project. The idea all along was to have it seem like one long song, so the songs were written with the idea that they would be attached to the songs around it. For that reason, some of the songs are a bit unfinished. When I listen to the songs individually, I’m not always happy. A song like “Metaphor” doesn’t feel “done” to me. But if I listen to it as a whole, which is how I hoped everyone would, I like it a lot more. “Hate Engine” is my favorite TPOH song to perform.
Did you anticipate that it would be a bigger success than it was?
I think every artist feels like everything they do should be wildly successful. As far as whether I anticipated greater success, at that point in my career I’d figured out that these things were out of my hands. We made records and hoped for the best.
Hey, Moe, as far as I’m concerned, you succeeded.