Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Pop solutions from Gregory Pepper and His Problems

August 20, 2009

No need for a hook to open this review—Gregory Pepper and His Problems’ latest album, With Trumpets Flaring, has plenty to spare. The addicting hooks (and riffs, and melodies, and refrains…) are delivered in a well-crafted and wide-ranging collection of songs, put forth by this 26-year-old musician from Guelph, Ontario. The lyrics are at times honest, sardonic, absurd, self-loathing, nonsensical, ironic, and are very often some combination of those. Pepper’s pallet for his verbal meanderings explores every niche of pop, from full-fledged electro-pop to the sounds of a 1950s doo-wop band, complete with alto saxophone.

The album begins with a vaudeville accordion that suddenly gives way into an electronic backbeat that sounds akin to Chromeo, which then gives way into a more traditional, guitar-driven, indie-pop sound, which comes back fairly quickly to electro-pop. And that’s just the first song, “7ths and 3rds.” Although many of the songs are short—ten of the thirteen are under three minutes; the album itself is a mere half-hour—Pepper still manages to explore classic pop sounds such as the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, and Weezer, and some lesser-loved genres (he makes a mocking foray into rock opera), while still giving all his songs a personal touch, a touch that oscillates between, and sometimes combines, hopeless optimism and sardonic dismissal.

Much of this touch comes from his lyrical content and vocal style. On “Built A Boat” Pepper’s voice sounds unsure and mournful in a simple, sparsely instrumented song that richly describes building a fantastic boat, only to find out that it doesn’t float. He sounds charmingly off-key in the short romp that is “There Were Dinosaurs.” In the singable chorus of “Drop the Plot”—which repeats “Do, do what you want to / you already do”—he exudes a tone that also hints towards self-loathing, the latter of which becomes an explicit lyrical theme in the pop-rock opus “It Must Be True.” This song spans a range of dynamics and emotions, building to a nerdy-angsty climax like the kind Weezer excelled at on their debut album. “One Man Show” best displays his vocal timbre and lyrical tone, which when averaged out over the album become something that is at the same time melancholic, optimistic, trenchant, relatable, and absurd.

The vocal themes tend towards either the macabre or the absurd, with witticisms in both. “If You Try” is a full-fledged 50s doo-wop song over which Pepper croons about various methods of suicide: “Jumping from a building / what a scary way to die. / Starving in the desert / what a boring way to die. // But it’s all called suicide if you try.” Part of the chorus in “I Was A John” has the protagonist expecting pasta to come out of his addressee’s fax machine. This same protagonist earlier declares, “I was psychotic and working in a woodshop / I built the stairway to heaven.”

To focus only on his lyrical wit and vocal delivery would be to ignore his deft ability to create catchy pop hooks over a wide range of styles. In fact, nearly every song on the album sounds different from the others. Some, like “Built a Boat” and “Outro” are intimate in their instrumental nakedness. Other pieces showcase Pepper’s ability to build pop-rock songs that span genres, have musical depth and still avoid feeling forced and overloaded. Pepper takes advantage of a diverse array of sounds, utilizing, among others, glockenspiel, electric drum sequencing, synthesizers, acoustic guitars, organ, handclaps, shakers, and multiple layers of vocal harmonies. His style spans pop-rock, electro-pop, nerd-rock, and indie-pop, and he fits it all together in the tremendous and delightful mess that is With Trumpets Flaring. As I find myself humming his songs more and more often, I realize that Gregory Pepper and His Problems might be the best pop surprise I have had in a long time. –Max Thorn

Hopes and Dreams dashed on the rocks

April 14, 2009

In a world full of Fall Out Boys, emo bands and imitators, the first several measures of Faster Faster’s Hopes and Dreams show that this band has done next to nothing to change that world.

Faster Faster brings nothing new or interesting to the table of bubble gum pop rock. This is everything you would expect – high-toned vocals that try to sound happy when the lyrics are about immature teenage love with song titles that try too hard to be clever. If you’ve ever listened to Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, Armor For Sleep or any of the other number of bands with similar sounds, you know what to expect.

The musicianship at work is good. The group is obviously more than capable of playing their instruments well. Randall Dowling and Christian Mosely are both obviously adept guitarists, able to fill the gaps between vocals with compelling hooks. The bass and drums tend to take a backseat, the bass more so than the drums. Vocalist Kyle Davis is a mixed bag. He obviously has a strong set of pipes, but his style ends up sounding like an odd fusion of Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie and Thursday’s Geoff Rickly and it doesn’t come off well. It just sounds derivative.

The main problem with Hopes and Dreams is that it just doesn’t seem to show any originality. It’s not that these guys are necessarily a bad group of musicians, it’s just that they’re sticking too much to their influences. Faster Faster simply comes off sounding like a good cover band than a band in its own right, which is simply unfortunate.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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