Writing the perfect pop song, unlike writing, say, the Great American novel, isn’t that much of an accomplishment. Just listen to a Nick Lowe album, or the first fifty or so NOW compilations: spot-on songcraft happens all the time. And, like any respectable thing produced in excess, (e.g. episodes of Law and Order: SVU or nice Catholic children) it can get pretty boring pretty fast. Most good musicians understand this. If the radio won the war against entropy, compressing vocals into weaponized siren-calls and cropping rock epics into low-calorie 3:39 chart-climbers, then the pop underground has consistently filtered chaos back into the mega-hit equation, slowing things down, chopping things up, cutting things out, replacing x with y and xy/xx with xxx and y oh y oh y. Darwinism, it turns out, applies equally in the natural and aesthetic worlds: perfect copies shrivel into evolutionary stumps and fuck-ups shape the future. Dig it, the Rolling Stones became superstars for being the worst R&B band in the world, Led Zeppelin for being the worst blues band of all time, and Hip-Hop for being basically the worst music ever produced. In all cases, it was spectacular. Rock history, it’s clear, is less the elegant progression of a master design than an accumulation of beautiful mistakes, holes poked in Marshall cones, decommissioned military hardware co-opted by the bohemian rabble, mishandled reggae vibes, and hissy tapes made on a four-track and handed out for free from the back of a station wagon. James William Roy, a genius songwriter, who in his promo pictures looks like a cross between a cool dad and the Duane Johnson of a less-literal Rock, might as well be the authority on pop mishaps spun into metaphorical, if not monetary, gold. This guy writes perfect songs. Then he ruins them. Case in point: The best way to find a great artist is by following the trail of debris he leaves behind.
Of course, this process of create and destroy can take some time. “Sometimes I’ll bang out a progression, but I won’t know what’s happening with those until I go back to them in a year or so and see what’s worth resurrecting,” says Roy. Resurrection might in fact be the key term to this guy’s appeal, the bottled resurrection of 80s DIY touring van odor, the resurrection of decades-old musical memes that never lost their integrity, the resurrection of mammoth hooks spun out by everyman bands rather than some studio supercomputer capable of turning the sound of guitars into distorted square waves and bass into a physical sensation rather than a series of notes. You can really feel the dew of rehearsal space sweat in these recordings. The choruses stick with you like a shirt you’ve worn to about a hundred shows too many. Do-It-Yourself might be a useful mantra, but Roy embodies an even more important epithet: DIR, Do-It-Right. If someone had played me this record in a car, I would have guessed peak-form Bob Mould. Call it Misguided by Voices.
If you, like me, read This Band Could Be Your Life about a million times, you can imagine the kind of nostalgic kudos this kind of stuff deserves. The US indie rock of the Reagan years boasts one of the strongest discographies in existence, a stack of vinyl so consistently brilliant I’d endorse burying it in a mountain for eventual excavation by aliens once the human race has been reduced to dust. Fuck the pyramids. 100,000 years from now, Zen Arcade will show up in digital telepathy chronologs as the fifth wonder of the world, alongside Double Nickels On the Dime, You’re Living All Over Me , Goo and ok, maybe Pet Sounds. But the really great thing about the sonics of two tracks here is that there really isn’t a contemporary analog to it, no blog-band parallel, no micro-movement generating knee-jerk buzz. It’s not so much that Roy’s old-school as much as his songs school the broadband generation’s light-speed taste fluctuations, mp3 hoarding, the desperate fetishization of the even-newer-than-brand-new. It’s timeless stuff, recorded for nothing, signifying everything. In a time when the term indie is virtually (as in virtually) meaningless, this band has maneuvered to the outside by avoiding the outre, stabbing at the center through tuneful grit instead of wonkish gimmickry.
One listen to “Paper Valentine” is about all it takes to make it your favorite song of the month, an a-side in the most quintessential sense. Not to harp on this allusion, but the hook hits you in the same place as a vintage Sugar track, a pop gloss tossed over punk-honed workmanship, the tastefulness of the vocal track that never sounds stretched but nevertheless manages to nail every nuance. Do I have any gripes? Only that if Roy begins moving away from mp3s in favor of vinyl, as he claims he wants to do, I’ll have a much harder time putting this song on infinite repeat.
B-side “Rush Delivery” marries some wobbly guitar texture to the kind of blissfully shambolic instrumental meltdowns you might find in Crooked Rain-era pavement, the chord changes lurching like an inebriated college student towards whatever mystic revelation happens to hang out on the other side of the quad. It’s a tremendous mess, executed with the electric energy of live band on the verge of shorting out the back of some shithole bar. There’s a humble majesty to this sort of thing, a refreshing execution of every pretentious instinct you could isolate in 99% of acts indebted to the same lineage.
Roy mentioned that “Paper Valentine” can be imported into Rock Band_,_ which sounds perfect if you happen to throw a lot of parties with an exclusively rock-nerd guest list. I’ve never played the game, but I understand that it works by tapping out on-screen patterns of notes on a small plastic guitar. The more accurate your shreddage, the bigger your score. But, Roy’s contribution has a unique catch. The more notes you miss, the drunker you get, the more off-kilter your vocals and the sloppier your drummer, the higher you climb on the leader-board. Getting it right in real life and simply getting it right were never the same thing after all.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem103/01 Paper Valentines.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem103/02 Rush Delivery.mp3