There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Allen Clapp is a man obviously and sickeningly in love. As the leader of San Francisco hipster pop ensemble the Orange Peels, Clapp employs not only a couple of his high school buddies on guitar and drums but also his bass-playing wife, Jill Pries. And in this case, familiarity breeds anything but contempt. On the wispy “indie classic” (in other words, you’ve probably never heard it) “Mystery Lawn,” Clapp tracks his affection for Pries straight from their grade-school days, when he “got beat up in PE,” right through, oh, about 1992, when “there’s so much going on”: “It’s hard to believe/You ever glanced at me,” he sings with what sounds like genuine amazement. “Hard to believe/We’re sitting here/In the grass/In the sun.”
OK, say it once and get it over with: Awww.
Like many a lovesick puppy before him, Clapp is an amateur Romantic poet who chooses to profess his ardor by evoking the natural world. In Clapp’s peculiar case, though, that usually means an almost obsessive emphasis on meteorological phenomena. The man likes to talk about the weather. His 1994 debut LP—released under the moniker Allen Clapp and His Orchestra but featuring just Clapp on most instruments—was entitled One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain. And on his latest one-man-band outing, Available Light, nearly every song contains a reference to atmospheric conditions, usually as grist for some kind of dewy, lovey-dovey end-rhyme. “I look into the sky/See clouds passing by/And it’s beautiful,” he sings on the album’s synth-drenched opener, “Beautiful/Drop Me a Line.” The sky is beautiful, you know, like “your eye” which “makes me want to cry.”
And so it goes: On “Whenever We’re Together,” Clapp is “looking out for a change in the weather” because he gets “this feeling whenever we’re together.” Though he does occasionally get off a good one (“She is shining/Just like lightning,” from the comely “So Right,” gets my vote), that usually just means that a genuine eye-roller is right around the corner: “I see the sun/I see the sky/I feel so strange/I don’t know why.”
Moon/spoon/June anyone? With lovesickness, as everyone knows, the afflicted’s powers of articulation are often the first thing to go, and Clapp’s apparently got it bad.
Fortunately, Clapp’s schlockmeistery lyrical tendencies are offset by a penchant for sweet tunesmithery and a knack for getting to the good parts quickly. At its best, his music sounds like some stray AM-radio signal left over from 1976, all drippy words and easy hooks—if occasionally too easy. Yep, Clapp does channel such perennially in-vogue pop icons as Brian Wilson (check the tight vocal harmonies on “Tumble and Fall”) and Burt Bacharach (check the meticulously overarranged “Whenever We’re Together”). But mostly he seems enamored of the golden age of singer-songwriter pop, when proudly wimpy, ahem, talent such as David Gates, Stephen Bishop, and the mighty Andrew Gold strode the earth like, well, like the second-rate imitators they were.
Clapp, however, is a first-rate imitator, and in addition to all the aforementioned, he’s also got a thing or two for the Beatles, Elton John, and, especially, Todd Rundgren, whose voice Clapp’s closely resembles. Remaining members of the Todd-Is-God contingent will recall a terrific little minor masterpiece from the bicentennial year called Faithful, wherein Rundgren paid painstaking homage to some of his favorites by offering up near-letter-perfect re-creations of songs such as “Good Vibrations” and “If 6 Was 9” on the LP’s A side and carbon-copied semioriginals on the B. Clapp’s disc is similar in unreconstructed spirit, but it doesn’t go quite that far. After all, his main muses are his wife and the weather. Nonetheless, most of Available Light’s best songs do sound, shall we say, hauntingly familiar, like low-budget variations on tried-and-true MOR tricks, most of which are fairly impressive.
“Not Gonna Fake It,” for instance, could easily be just a top-notch Bread knockoff, complete with a verse section that recalls that band’s huge, saccharine-infused hit “Lost Without Your Love” (you know, as in “Life without you isn’t worth the trouble of”). But when the Bee Gees-style backing vocals chime in and Clapp uncorks a chorus worthy of Year of the Cat-period Al Stewart (yes, it’s that good), you know you’re in the presence of some genuine pop-music alchemy. Sure, there’s the obligatory noting of barometric pressure (“I never thought love could be so strange/But something in the air suggested change”), but Clapp’s hesitant Fender Rhodes riffing and his bell-clear voice provide pretty compelling distractions.
That’s also true of the delicate “Open Door,” which sounds like a premarriage mash note written in a heightened state of junior-high ecstasy, and “While There’s Still Time,” a jangling folk-rocker replete with machine-gun drums and a big ol’ synth riff nicked from the heart of the Rockford Files theme song. Even better is the pop-gospel number “Big Bright Shiny Yellow Sun,” on which Clapp sounds as if he’d like to teach the world to sing in big, bright, shiny harmony. Naturally, he does just that on the inanely hummable “Just Like Yesterday,” whose title either amounts to truth in advertising or a coy effort at pre-emptive self-criticism.
But despite its obvious borrowings, Available Light usually adds
up to more than the sum of its
parts, with Clapp checking his goofy have-a-nice-day aesthetic with plenty of romantic melancholy. Love still hurts, after all, and even weather nerds sometimes get the rainy-day blues. CP
Clapp performs with the Orange Peels at 8:30 p.m. Monday, June 24, at Iota, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 522-8340.