Pop Goes the World: Icecream Hands, “Sweeter Than the Radio”

Written by Music, Pop Goes the World

It’s time for another week of Pop Goes the World — and a look at what David Medsker calls “the best album Crowded House never made.”

Let’s get the hyperbole out of the way early, shall we? This, for my money, is the best album Crowded House never made. And it pisses me off to think that I very easily could never have heard it.

The early aughts were dark, dark times for fans of what is now called classic pop. Radio was a wasteland, and online social networking was in the zygote stages – chat rooms, eeeek! – so it was quite difficult for most bands to find their audience, and vice versa. I subscribed to CMJ Monthly for the CD of the month and the dozens of reviews, and when I needed a power pop fix, I went over to NotLame, Bruce Brodeen’s utopia for all things Beatle-y. It was there that I found a three-year-old album by an Australian trio that did a wicked impression of a certain New Zealand trio. I could only hear the songs in 30-second samples, but they did the trick. I plunked down the coin for Sweeter Than the Radio (1999), and suddenly felt like I had been let in on the best-kept secret in the world. That’s what every band wants, right? To be the best-kept secret in the world? What? They all want to sell millions of records? Ugh. Fucking musicians. It’s all about them, isn’t it?

All kidding aside, Charles Jenkins, the singer and primary songwriter for Icecream Hands, wrote one hell of a batch of songs for this album, with bassist Douglas Robertson contributing a few key tracks as well. Of all the tributes to Crowded House that grace Sweeter Than the Radio, though, there is none more Finn than “Dodgy,” a bouncy slice of guitar pop with a fittingly neurotic lyric to counter the joy (“Feels like it wouldn’t be right if it were wonderful” is the opening line to the verses). Even the guitar solo sounds like it was ripped straight from Crowded House’s first album. “Rise, Fall and Roll” plays like a reworking of the “new” Beatles song “Free as a Bird,” while Robertson’s “Yellow and Blue” borrows a riff from the Squeeze catalog. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the riff in question, for the curious.

Icecream Hands – Yellow and Blue
Squeeze – Another Nail in My Heart

The similarities between the songs, thankfully, end there.

The one song that always fascinated me, even though it sounds like it’s from the perspective of an fifth or sixth grade boy, is “Nipple.” The opening lines tell it all – “You missed a button, I saw a nipple, and it’s true / I didn’t look away, I could have stared at it all day.” – and while those words surely look ridiculous on a laptop screen, the melody Jenkins pairs them with is flat-out gorgeous. Plus, and I’m clearly showing my age here, but I like the song’s innocent nature. With a song title of “Nipple” or not, I’d rather have my son listening to this than, say, “If You Seek Amy.”

The album isn’t one long mash note to Finn, however. Pete Yorn fans will find lots to love in the “Life on a Chain”-esque “Spiritlevel Windowsill” (the song pre-dates Yorn’s track by two years, in fact), while the Byrds are represented on “Picture Disc of the Benelux” (“Your Sweetheart of the Rodeo is riding into town”). It’s pop rock of the highest order…and completely out of style with everything that’s been hip and cool for the last ten years. Pity. Still, fans of Finn, Paul Simon, the Beatles and Byrds need to check this album out post haste.

I was planning on posting Sweeter Than the Radio in its entirety, and then I saw that it’s for sale at Amazon’s download store (see link above), which is interesting, because I do not believe the album was ever for sale on CD in the US. Since I’m betting the band has never seen a penny from US sales, I don’t have the heart to rub salt in the wound by giving the whole thing away for nothing. Especially when I haven’t told you about “Gasworks Park,” “The Obvious Boy,” “Giving It All Away,” “Can Anyone Be Hypnotized” or “You Could Be Reported.” There are many, many more good songs to be explored here. Dig in, pop boys and pop girls.