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Most major record labels seem all too eager to place new releases in easy-to-understand (read: market) categories, but underground rock is supposed to be different. Bands produce hard-to-pigeonhole work, and audiences and critics are expected to notice their efforts and reward them with glowing reviews and sales that allow the band members to eat.
Of course, it never happens that way. Even in the arcane world of outside-the-mainstream art, people always think they’ve got the new act figured out and quickly assign such genre titles as “Alt-Country-Swing,” “Neo-Tibetan Dub,” or even “Jazz.” And although this practice simplifies music shopping, it often causes murderous rage to slip into the eye of many a musician once the genre titles are coined.
It’s hard to tell how murderous the members of Arlington’s Aden feel from an e-mail interview, but they sound tired of the nonstop suggestions that their straight-forward pop songs, clean guitar lines, and singer Jeff Gramm’s vocal style somehow seem, um, morose. Preparing for a short summer tour in support of Hey 19, Aden’s third full-lengther, Gramm seems frustrated by blanket descriptions of his band’s mood as somber.
“Well, it’s definitely true that we sort [of] get grouped into the fey, weepy boy-band camp, and I sort of resent it because I have a different conception of what we’re like,” Gramm says. “Maybe I’m completely deluded, but I don’t think this is a mopey record at all. None of the songs are sad or emotional, I think—[it’s] more informed by prog-rock and Television or Big Star than weepy indie-pop.”
But from the opening notes of the first track, “Matinee Idol,” Hey 19’s songs, with their semi-conventional pop structure, certainly won’t get the band invited on the Punk-O-Rama tour. And the soft singing, nearly acoustic guitar, and shimmering vibes on “Gulf Coast League” cause a bit of wonder as to whether some critics, in their search for the deeper emotional causality behind everything, are confusing sad with pretty.
“None of the lyrics on this record are really personal or sad,” Gramm continues. “I hate to say this is a reaction to our press or anything, but [the press] definitely played a part [in that.] It got to the point with [1999’s] Black Cow that even the really positive reviews were infuriating.”
Maybe because his singing does evoke the image of Lou Barlow, on the poppy “Home Repair,” or even Elliott Smith’s breathy whisper-croon, on “(Everything’s Fine in the) House of Klein,” people quickly assume that Gramm has similar reference points. Or maybe his band has something to do with it.
Aden’s other guitar player, Kevin Barker, offers a slightly different theory as to the source of Aden’s sound: perhaps an intraband conspiracy for success between Barker and bassist Fred Kovey.
“Fred and I like to pick on Jeff a lot, so he is sad and can write sad songs, because the indie-pop press eats that shit up like powdered sugar,” Barker says. “We almost had to break his nose to get him to write ‘Gulf Coast League.’”
What sets Aden apart from the million other indie-pop outfits, besides Gramm’s songwriting, are the sleek guitar lines—mostly free of effects and distortion—which leave lots of room for Gramm’s restrained vocals to thrive. However, the band members note that compared with Black Cow, Hey 19 shows a much broader willingness to stomp on the ol’ fuzz box to make a point. “[On Black Cow], there are like two guitar sounds: clean, and bass guitar,” jokes Barker. “I dunno, maybe it’s just that I don’t own any good-sounding [effects] pedals.”
The irony is that Gramm’s guitar outlines the song structure on the track titled after the budding hipster catch phrase, “Rockunow Rockulater,” but on that same track, Barker switches to a distorted line with grand effect. Halfway through the quasi-gentle pop song, Barker’s guitar turns hot with tight, searing distortion without distracting from the rest of the action.
Another track to make great use of warm fuzz is “Dear John,” which treads farther into the not-so-fey rock arena than anything else on Hey 19. Not exactly a hard-rock stompfest, it skitters around the distorted strum of the earliest Pavement songwriting, and the lead guitar lines howl.
But this is a rare moment on Hey 19—not, according to Barker, because he sees little use for blissed waves of wash-noise, but because every band should stick to what it’s best at.
“I tend to favor clean sounds in pop, but then I’ve been listening to a lot of Blue Cheer and think that psychedelic fuzz can rule the world,” he says. “Unfortunately, none of our fuzz is really psychedelic. Oh well.” And this coming from the guy who was finishing finals at the University of Chicago during the lead-up to recording Hey 19, writing his parts for nine of the 12 songs during exam week.
Aden needn’t bother with trying to be something it ain’t, because it’s plenty good at what it is. Hey 19 boasts a consistent texture that can be described as guitar pop but shouldn’t be cloistered in the emo-rock ghetto. Distinct individual parts and guitar lines should never be confused with sad; they’re merely marks of a band confident enough to let the listener hear the whole track. —P. Mitchell Prothero