The word ‘rococo’ has made a couple of surprising appearances in hip rock music lately. First as half of the title of a song from Bill Callahan’s fantastic(ally named) 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, and now as the title of an album by The Paparazzi, the solo project of Erik Paparazzi, who you may know as Cat Power’s current bassist. It refers to an ornamentation-heavy style of 18th century art, originating in France, which is usually referred to in dictionary definitions as “fanciful” or “gay” (no, really). At first it seems like a strange word to apply to a rock album, but the more I listen to Rococo, the more it makes sense. The songs are so lighthearted on the surface that it’s easy to miss out on the endless series of carefully crafted hooks, guitar lines and arrangements that manage to sound as unlabored as if the band just made them up on the spot. The addition of lots of little bits of studio chatter (the reverby speech in the middle of “The Rococo Tape” is instantly recognizable the band talking about the take they just played) is a clever device that helps keep this looseness present and dominant throughout even the most complex songs, though Paparazzi’s yeah-I-can-sing-but-I’m-not-going-to-exert-myself delivery does a lot of the work as well.
In addition to the looseness, The Paparazzi’s songs are packed with a humor that comes out in all kinds of unexpected ways. Paparazzi combines a love for puns and wordplay that hearkens back to John Lennon’s early songs with a kind of free-associative nonsensical style that calls to mind Stephen Malkmus and gives us bizarre lyrics like “staring down a praying mantis” which are more about the sound of words than their meanings. For an example of the former style, think of the two possible readings of the titular phrase from Lennon’s “Please Please Me” and then check out the Paparazzi line from album-closer “Fall (Into It)” that hinges on the homophones of ‘eye’ and ‘I’: “Hey you with the lazy eye don’t care.” It’s wordplay for the sake of wordplay, but it’s appealingly easygoing. It sounds like Paparazzi is having a lot of fun here, which means that it’s easy to crack a smile at these little embellishments. For another example, check out Ampeater B-side “Epic Proportions,” which features lines like “you’ve got too much class for detention.” The puns go beyond lyrics as well, extending into the titles and arrangements, as on the song “Up, Up and Away (Major Scale),” which features, you guessed it, a keyboard part that consists solely of the major scale. But if this all sounds like too much, it’s balanced by the fact that the songs that carry these lyrical games are rock solid, built with an old-school craftsmanship and instrumental skill that it’s easy to overlook given how sweetly catchy and summery everything sounds. There are a lot of brilliant little nods to great pop music of yore: hard-panned guitars, natural alternating meters (“The Rococo Tape” slips effortlessly back and forth between 4/4 and 6/4 in a way that reminds me in its unobtrusiveness of the “sun sun sun here it comes” section of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” which actually dips into 5/4 though you’d never notice), four on the floor cowbell (more bands could stand to bring that back, it sounds great).
A-side “The Rococo Tape” (home of the aforementioned cowbell) is a perfect representative of the lazy, summery sound of the record. It struts forward for the first half, with Paparazzi’s sassy extra syllables extending all the words, and then, after a precisely deployed harmonica comes out of nowhere and slips right back into that nowhere, disintegrates into some reverb-soaked studio chatter that gives way to a descending guitar riff that brings the song right back, only a little faster. It’s a total pop jam with a surprisingly weird and constantly shifting structure. The talking in the middle almost serves as a kind of chorus, breaking up the similar first and second halves. This bizarreness of form, which doesn’t derail the song at all, actually turns out to be a blessing, as it lets the song maintain a feeling of surprise, which is almost impossible in recorded music. No matter how many times you listen to “The Rococo Tape” , it always sounds like maybe something different is going to happen this time.
“Epic Proportions” is a self-referentially titled slow burner that starts with the sound of a match and some sparse piano chords before busting out another perfect guitar riff, one that manages to hit that unexpected flat six on the last chord and keep you from getting complacent. It pairs perfectly with the ghostly female oohs that accompany it starting in the latter half of the song. Despite its title, “Epic Proportions” is a song that refuses to get dramatic or lose its cool. The song goes through a series of builds, but always pulls back into that acoustic guitar riff and loses the drums just at the moment you think it’s going to let loose. Take, for example, the moment, just before the 3 minute mark, where everything drops out under a crescendoing keyboard sound, and then, instead of the crash we’re expecting, we get a return to the steady 4/4 time, and an incredibly sparse, chiming guitar. I’ve said before that delayed gratification is the key to great pop music, and this is no exception. Even Paparazzi’s final leap into falsetto and the mob of overdubbed “oh no” s at the end of the song never really sound like they’ve lost control.
All of The Paparazzi’s music strikes a perfect balance between the kind of loose, flowing rock music people usually refer to as “shambling,” and really excellent pop craftsmanship, resulting in some perfect jams to tide you over until the warm weather kicks in. The two sides fit perfectly together to form songs that are simultaneously heavy and light, full on the one hand of lyrical puns and lighthearted touches like the little dissonant piano figure that pops up after the closing chords of “Epic Proportions,” and on the other of varied and extended harmonies, guitar riffs that sound classic without sounding old, and rhythmic and metric shifts that keep you on your toes. More bands would do well to remember that although sometimes songs with three chords are nice; most of the time things get a little more interesting with four.
The Rococo Tape
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem063/01 The Rococo Tape.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem063/02 Epic Proportions.mp3