We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The creation of singer/songwriter Hue Williams and producer/songwriter Steve Gregory, the Pooh Sticks have always been a concept band. The concept, however, keeps shifting. 1990’s Formula One Generation, the Sticks’ first proper long-player and their U.S. debut, presaged the rise of sharp, tuneful neo-punk. The Great White Wonder, which followed, was a one-disc ’70s schlock-rock revival so arch it got picked up by a semi-major label, BMG-distributed Zoo. That company dropped the Sticks after the much more appealing (though no more commercially potent) Million Seller, but that hasn’t discouraged Williams, Gregory, and the Sticks’ floating membership from producing Optimistic Fool.
Marginally less bubblegummy than Seller—check out the feedback that ends “Cool in a Crisis” and the careening guitar on “Working on a Beautiful Thing”—the keyboards-free Fool essentially continues the mission of its predecessor. Both discs address, with a wry self-consciousness cloaked in delicious melody, the traditional concerns of pop: youth, love, hanging out. Theirs is an attitude and a sound steeped in the ecstatically soaring harmonies of mid-’60s bands like the Beach Boys (who Williams saluted with a side project, Dumb Angels) and the Hollies. At a time when both mainstream and underground rock seem bent on annihilation, the Sticks pursue exhilaration instead: “Show me a girlfriend, show me a good time/Show me a bank holiday and show me a Friday night,” Williams commands in “Starfishing.”
Though he hails from Swansea, a bit off the music-biz main roads, Williams is an industry-savvy second-generation rocker; his father was in Man, a hippie jam band that served as the Welsh auxiliary of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Such early songs as “I Know Someone Who Knows Someone Who Knows Alan McGee Quite Well,” a reference to the Creation Records boss, ironically courted rock stardom as an end in itself. Recently, though, chart success has served as a metaphor for romantic fulfillment: Million Seller‘s title song is about writing the hit that will impress that special someone, while in Fool‘s “Prayer for My Demo” the singer sends a tape to someone more important than any A&R man: an estranged girlfriend. “This time the prayer for my demo/Is that the girl’s gonna give me a break,” Williams sings. “If the bridge don’t get her/She’ll fall for the chorus I made up.”
The vocal arrangements of songs like “Starfishing,” “Bad Morning Girl,” and “Optimistic Fool” are incredibly lush, but it’s not clear that the Sticks are among the great romantics. Like Peter Greenaway (who hails from Newport, just down Bristol Channel from Swansea), Williams is a formalist who does his production work in Holland, far from the traditional outposts of adolescent rapture. Creating knowing contemporary equivalents of Philles Records’ “little symphonies for the kids,” Williams and Gregory probably have more in common with Phil Spector than Eddie Vedder. It might seem curious that they now record for Seed, the Atlantic-owned proving ground for “alternative” rockers, but in the age of Nine Inch Nails, what could be more alternative than the delirious tunefulness of “Who Was It?” or “Working on a Beautiful Thing”?
The latter in particular demonstrates the Sticks’ emphasis on craftsmanship over revelation. Since signing with a major label, Williams and Co. have remade some previously recorded songs, including “Susan Sleepwalking,” “Rainbow Rider,” and “The World Is Turning On” for Million Seller. “Beautiful Thing” is a Wonder-era B-side here given a less jangly, more forceful treatment that transforms a throwaway into the album’s centerpiece. The effect is not alchemical, but then the Pooh Sticks don’t exactly believe in magic. Just romance, fun, and pop, all concepts they’re working to maintain as beautiful things.
Based on their previous albums—particularly last year’s Behind the Door, I Keep the Universe—the Dentists would seem to be the Sticks’ fellow travelers in reconstituted mid-’60s rock. Somebody must have told them to update their style, though, because the new Deep Six has a harder edge provided by producer Wharton Tiers, an expert in harsh lower-Manhattan noise-rock. The sound doesn’t overwhelm this south-of-England quartet’s charms, but it doesn’t exactly emphasize them, either.
The Dentists are inclined toward celestial metaphors, so it’s not surprising that the album opens with “Shining Like a Star,” which is suitably stratospheric. Also fitting is “My Heart Is Like a Town You Moved Away From,” an exercise in the sort of romantic rue that’s one of the principal specialities of this sort of unmacho boy-band. The quartet is less convincing, however, playing crunch-rockers like the coiling/recoiling “Slither,” the galloping “An Agony in Twelve Fits,” and the insistent “Kick Start My Body.” These songs aren’t disastrous, but the Dentists’ expertise has never been physicality.
Indeed, Six‘s aggressiveness suits neither Mick Murphy’s folk-rock lead vocals nor the band’s playful, sometimes self-mocking lyrics. The album’s most violent scenario, after all, is that of “Good Riddance,” in which the singer reflects as his family and friends (including a gleeful mother-in-law) watch him drown. (His last thoughts include the strawberries-and-cream cake for his wake.) Murphy and Bob Collins’ guitars (inventoried in self-effacing detail by the liner notes) may sound like they want to pick a fight, but the lyrics tell another story.
The tougher sound works well enough when assimilated into the Dentists’ customary style, as on “Gradual,” which grounds its ascending melody with strident occasional drum accents. In fact, there’s nothing here that completely loses Dentistry’s appeal. Six‘s rougher ride simply throws off the quartet’s pitch a little. With a style as delicate as the Dentists’, though, that’s significant. When Murphy laments, on the closing “Electric Train of Thought,” that “there’s no magic anymore,” he could be singing about his own band.