Note: My brother just got married, and all I’ve been doing over the last few days is eating delicious food and wearing suits. So, prepare for a lot of food analogies. I’ll save the tie-tying analogy for next week.
Writing pop songs is a lot like baking desserts (bear with me). A novice would assume that the thing to do is to go heavy on the sugar and just make the damn thing as sweet as humanly possible. I mean, that’s what people go to desserts for, right? Sweetness and excess. However, an expert knows that the touch of salt or mint or basil is what makes for a truly superlative pastry experience. To really appreciate the sweetness of a dish, one needs a hint of something savory and unexpected. The same goes for pop music. Yes, of course, you can’t have a pop song without hooks, just the way you can’t make dessert without something sweet. But great pop songs are always garnished with just enough spice to keep you coming back over and over again. (Two examples off the top of my head: 1. The way the melody in Phosphorescent’s “Pictures of Our Torn Up Praise” pulls back so hard against the tempo that it almost doesn’t keep up with the chord changes. 2. The way Van Morrison sings the entirety of “Who Was That Masked Man?” in falsetto.) Large doses of refined and unmodulated white sugar are what get you factory pop music, and if that’s your bag, you are probably not here on this website reading this essay.
Now, I don’t know if Boston indie pop quartet Hands and Knees can bake a cake (for some reason I want to say no, but there’s no relevant information in their bio. I’ll have to tell them to update it), but I do know that they can write a bouncy power pop song that doesn’t cloy even after you’ve listened to it about 20 times in a row. Their Ampeater A-side “Dancing On Your Tears” is a perfect example, building catchy pop music out of unusual six and nine bar phrases, which phrases consist of brief guitar stabs, counterweight bass syncopation, playful drum fills, and the slurred twin vocals of Carina Kelly & Joe O’Brien (when they’ve been in a band long enough, two people can adopt the exact same vocal ticks to the point where they can double vocal lines that seem undoubleable). Some pop songs are weighed down by their artistic ambitions, but here the two are perfectly in sync. “Dancing” bounds and cascades along with so much enthusiasm precisely because it’s so formally off-kilter. The six bar verse phrase always ends just before you expect it to, crashing headlong into the beginning of the next phrase before you even know what’s happening. Then, in the chorus, the elongation of the lyrics bread and butter (buh-huh-ter) during the break stalls the bands re-entry just enough to make you feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under you, only to fly back into another rambunctious verse. Even the simplest part of the song, the lyric-less bridge, runs out two bars earlier than you’d expect, only multiplying the momentum. All this form-play might sound complicated, but the song leaps along with the boundless energy of a new puppy, and you’d never notice a thing unusual about it until you’d already heard it countless times.
B-side “The Moonlight Is Wicked” is simpler formal fare for the most part, but devastatingly catchy and dotted with major two and three chords that spice up the tonality nicely. It also features some lovely jangle-twang lead guitar over the tagged ends of the choruses and the couplet you like simple fun / I like depression, the brilliance of which speaks for itself. The rolling rim-click percussion in the verses lets the song breathe and hang back until the repeated, saucy _you’_s bring it to a boil and shove us on into the blissful chorus. It’s a song that’s full of indie pop touchstones: the duel boy-girl vocals, the guitar hook answering the chorus melody, the silly humor of the verse lyrics. Even the verse progression is tried and true. If I wanted to bust out a second totally unnecessary culinary analogy, I’d liken a song like “Moonlight” to a perfect pasta sauce. It’s nothing you’ve never seen before, yet when it’s put together with enough time and care, it can be the most satisfying meal you ever ate. Seriously, be careful with this one, folks. Once you pipe it into your head, it will not want to leave.
Both of these jams come courtesy of Hands and Knees’ new, as-yet-untitled full length, generously made available by the band for free perusal on their Bandcamp page. The whole record is full of gangly energy, popping snare drums and tasty guitar hooks. But not only that. Something about the album makes you feel like you are listening to your friend’s band, if they suddenly got their shit together and started writing really great songs. Hands and Knees call themselves unfussy, and it’s true. There’s something selfless and eager about these songs. They want to tag along and make your walk to work a little easier. They want to give you something to whistle while you’re making coffee. There’s no frills and no needless obscurity, just fantastic pop music with a dash of the unexpected. Heat and serve.
Dancing On Your Tears
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem117/01 Dancing On Your Tears.mp3
The Moonlight Is Wicked
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem117/02 The Moonlight Is Wicked.mp3