Now here’s a band that would be huge if the world made any sense. A trio of non-threateningly scruffy alterna-pop minstrels, singing songs about love and loss, hope and heartbreak, joy and despair â€” the lyrics humorously literate, the vocals pleasantly ragged, the production lightly polished. On the musical spectrum, they fall somewhere between, say, The Replacements and mid-period Goo Goo Dolls â€” not as sloppy or cynical as the former, not as uneven as the latter.
Though the comparison is loosely fitting, it doesn’t really do justice to The Push Stars’ music. Though their cast of characters is similar â€” hard-drinking, well-meaning losers who live in small, forgotten towns, clinging to childhood dreams and days gone by â€” Push Stars frontman Chris Trapper gives them a wry sense of humor and fills them with fragile hope. The result is a sort of uneven beauty that is rarely less than enjoyable, and is often quite moving. Trapper is a gifted songwriter, blessed with equal helpings of empathy and wit, and he seems to be just warming up. The Push Stars are due for another album in the fall, but in the meantime, here’s a primer to get you up to date.
Meet Me at the Fair (1996)
The early ’90s saw the birth of a slew of boutique “major indie” labels â€” outfits started by guys with years of industry experience and major distribution and funding. Two of these labels, Interscope and Giant, were hugely successful right off the bat; of those two, Interscope remains a big player. The rest of the major indies faded pretty quickly. Most, like JRS and BFE, are footnotes, remembered by few who weren’t in their direct employment. But Imago Records â€” which released Meet Me at the Fair â€” flamed out spectacularly, devouring millions of dollars and years of careers. Some Imago artists, like Aimee Mann, wound up in court and couldn’t record new material for years; comparatively, The Push Stars got off lucky. Though Fair was an undeserved flop, the band emerged relatively unscathed.
The album is a song cycle about what happens when the fair comes to town, but the narrative structure is so loose that you could listen to the whole thing without realizing this. Aside from song titles like “Circus Town” and “Tilt-A-Whirl Girl,” the concept is a pretty subtle one. Musically, it’s a remarkably confident statement for a first album. “Well Anyway” (download) is an easy, mid-tempo number, and sets the tone for the type of hands-in-pockets average Joes that Trapper writes about so well:
Feels like I’m living in a T.V. show
Stuck in the winter up in Buffalo
It’s just like an anvil landed right on your toe
Saying today if you’re in pain
Tomorrow you’d better change
Somehow, some way
“Wild Irish Rose” (download), in particular, is a stunner. A warts-and-all live studio recording, “Rose” takes a hoary old rock subgenre â€” songs about a guy in love with a stripper â€” and gives it fresh life. It’s difficult to write from this kind of helpless desperation without giving way to rage, or presenting the song’s subjects as objects of pity or scorn, but Trapper does it.
Good as Fair is, it’s easily the band’s worst album. They were only getting started.
After extricating itself from Imago, the band released the Tonight EP on its own. It sounds like what it was â€” an extension of Fair, up to the inclusion of a song called “Meet Me at the Fair” (download):
I’ve got cotton candy lips
Salt water taffy smile
I’m blowing all my money
But I’m going out in style
I start skipping down the street
‘Cause I smell it in the air
Yeah I was, and I am, and I will always be a square
Meet me at the fair
Meet me at the fair
After the Party (1999)
By the time they’d released Fair and Tonight, the band had won a fair number of fans, among them the Farrelly brothers, who included the shoulda-been-a-hit “Everything Shines” (download) on the soundtrack to There’s Something About Mary. The band’s increased exposure, and newly signed contract with Capitol Records, seemed to point the way to big things for The Push Stars, but 1999’s After the Party was an inexplicable sales disappointment. There was no reason Capitol shouldn’t have been able to do more with this gem of an album; although those who found their way to the band through “Everything Shines” may have been surprised to discover just how comparatively somber much of the rest of the album was, songs like “Any Little Town” (download) and “Too Much Pride” (download) should have graced the upper reaches of AAA playlists. Trapper really came into his own on this set; he communicates tentative optimism and scarred wonder with unerring grace.
Well, darling I see you
From across the room
And men cling to you
Like soup to a spoon
But you don’t look hungry
And they wont feel full
They roll in your thunder
But I never will
‘Cause I’ve got too much pride
To stand here in this line for you
Capitol’s choice of a single, the jokey “Drunk is Better than Dead,” didn’t reflect what the album was really about, and when it failed, the label didn’t pursue further promotion.
Opening Time (2001)
Having tried the major labels â€” and found them lacking â€” twice, the band opted to go the indie route for the follow-up to After the Party, and sacrificed nothing in the process. Opening Time is everything The Push Stars are, distilled into a single album’s worth of great songs: there’s the tongue-in-cheek pop bombast of “Millionaire” (download); the anthemic beauty of “Meltaway” (download); the hushed fragility of “Last Night’s Dream” (download). Lack of major-label funding notwithstanding, the band’s continued low profile after this album’s release is a little baffling â€” fans of smartly written melodic pop could hardly do better than this.
You have left the most beautiful handprint
And I am melting away
You have left the most beautiful handprint
And I melt away
Chris Trapper – Songs from the Drive-In (2002)
Legal woes, and the realities of independent budgets, forced an extended layoff for The Push Stars after Opening Time, and Trapper used the downtime to release this beautifully low-key solo album. Given that he writes and sings the band’s material, it’s tempting to question the need for a Chris Trapper solo album; and honestly, there isn’t a world of difference between Songs from the Drive-In and The Push Stars’ quieter moments. Thematically, it’s of a piece with the band’s albums, just minus the production accoutrements. Standouts include the gently loping “Summertime is Here” (download) and the gorgeous road ballad “Starlight” (download):
The biker gang’s asleep now
at the midnight motel six
And I’m walking to the doughnut shop
to get my late-night fix
I’m halfway across the country
feeling like I need to cry
Jealous of your pillow,
and the starlight by your side
A Collection of Rare Recordings (2003)
To whet fans’ appetites for their next album, the band released this limited-run odds & sods collection, sixteen songs that had missed previous cuts for one reason or another. There’s nothing earth-shattering here, but it’s nice to have for completists (which is unfortunate, because I can’t find a purchase link anywhere â€” it isn’t even mentioned on the band’s website). As always, there’s a gorgeous ballad to be found, this time in “Aching Like No Other” (download), but most fans were probably happiest to finally have a studio version of the perennial live favorite “Boston Girl” (download). Other standouts include “Me and My Friends” (download) and “When Your Dreams Come True” (download).
Paint the Town (2004)
I love Opening Time so much that no matter what the band put out next, it was bound to suffer by comparison, and Paint the Town does just that. It feels like the band is really reaching for a hit here; though Trapper has always had a thing for big, soaring choruses, Town is really stuffed to the gills with ’em. The album leads off with another hit-single-in-waiting, “Claire” (download):
There, this is your answer Claire
I can’t guarantee that I’ll be true
But on the sleepless city nights
I’m just a shadow ‘neath the street lights
Who would die for you
I would die for you
“Claire” is a great song, and so are “Lucky Sevens” and “Outside of a Dream”; lumped together, though, they lose some of their effect. It’s all just a little too big and bright. Trapper can write shiny pop songs as good as anybody, but he’s at his best when he plays both sides of the spectrum; without an equal dose of pensive loneliness, all the sparkle gives you a squinting headache.
Which is not to say that Paint the Town isn’t a fine album â€” just not The Push Stars’ finest. “At Sea” (download) is wonderful, and with “In the Galaxy” (download), Trapper has written the best sea shanty of the 21st century:
All I need is to just believe
In you endlessly
Like the sun on the sea
‘Cause life gets hard
All your dreams so far
have been shooting stars
In the galaxy
I discovered as I was writing this that there’s a brand new Push Stars live album out â€” somebody needs to do a better job of communicating with their mailing list â€” so I must apologize for not having any songs to represent it here. This acoustic version of “Minnesota” (download) will have to do. And there you have it: another one of my favorite bands, in convenient bite-sized form. Download! Purchase! Enjoy!
Let me know what you think. Another Guide next Tuesday!