Power pop lovers have always had it rough. The music is tough to write and record properly, for a number of reasons — not only does it rely heavily on clever hooks and lyrics, which are always in naturally short supply, but it also requires the ability to rock convincingly and pile on the sweet ‘n shiny harmonies. Many have tried, and most have failed; for every Cheap Trick or Dwight Twilley, there’s a slew of bands who never got it right (or — worse — kept threatening to get it right for 15-20 years, costing hopeful fans a bunch of money on frequently import-only releases in the process).
Into this void steps James, currently promoting his fourth release, the pleasantly surprising :In the 21st Century. Despite the album’s title, there’s nothing particularly 21st-century about these songs or their production; they boast the smooth, meticulously timeless arrangements you’d expect from a one-man band with a music degree, and the hooks are plentiful throughout. Jellyfish fans who have never gotten over that band’s demise — or Fountains of Wayne fans finding themselves a bit underwhelmed by Traffic and Weather — would do well to acquaint themselves with Ed James.
This collection never reaches the heights of Jellyfish’s finest — James’ voice is absolutely perfect for pure, multitracked harmonies (and there are plenty of them here — check out “She’s the One” [download]), but when he tries to rock a little harder, it’s less effective. More importantly, the whole album is so immaculate, and there’s often so much going on, that after awhile, your ears may start to beg for something more scuffed up and stripped down. The cumulative effect can be a little numbing.
If power pop is meant to walk the line between sweet and sour, in other words, :In the 21st Century tends to err on the “sweet” end of the spectrum. Take “Will You Marry Me?” (download), for instance — you’d expect a song with that kind of title to come with a hard candy shell, and James doesn’t disappoint. But then he tacks “:on Christmas day?” onto the end of the question, and throws in some bells to boot. Repeated listenings may give you a toothache.
They’ll be tough to resist, though. It isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough; if you’ve got any kind of weakness for any of the bands mentioned in this review, :In the 21st Century is almost certain to weld itself into your CD player, iPod, Zune, or whatever the hell you’re using to listen to music these days. Visit James at his website or MySpace page, then buy yourself some music.