Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy July 14, 2003
It’s easy to hate pop music.
As genres go, it can be all too safe, clean, and neatly wrapped, a product that seems to almost always serve up just what you’d expect.
Even its more interesting specimens reveal colors and angles that are far too familiar, like the super-polished gems you’d find in a dime-store ring, all of the seemingly priceless beauty reduced to something resembling cheap plastic.
If this is the case, consider looking at Planet Janet – an unsigned act from central New Jersey who, no doubt, won’t be unsigned for very long – as a small but heavenly body in the pop universe that has yet to be over-polished by the speed of its own trajectory.
Unlike some independent pop-rock bands, the guitar- and vocal-driven quartet doesn’t work to reinvent the wheel or toy and tamper with the genre’s formulas. Instead, it fully embraces them, while still managing to create music that is engaging, exciting, and gets trapped in your head for weeks.
Throughout the course of Nice Socks, vocalist/guitarist Sarah Fire seems conscious of the band’s obvious links to all things pop and is quick to tackle the pratfalls of the genre, from its reductive composition to its over-zealous need for commercial radio promotion.
“I’ve got my melodies / Not too complex but that’s alright with me / At least I write my own songs,” she sings over a quiet background chime of waiting guitars on “Radio.”
The listener gets the feeling she’s reciting the line out of self-defense as much as out of apology, as if to suggest that commercially viable music is somehow inherently weaker or less credible than its distant, more experimental cousins.
On their all-too-brief six-song EP, however, Planet Janet proves that, just because a genre might feel formulaic doesn’t mean it can’t speak to you or make you want to dance around and sing along.
The band kicks off the proceedings with “Heart,” a rousing opener complete with guitars that take their cue from 60s pop rock, and refrains driven forward by Fire’s wails and the buoyant rolls and fills of drummer Miranda Taylor.
The most surprising detail of the song, however, is not the Theremin periodically played by guitarist Jared Sousa, but an interlude when the guitars fall completely by the wayside to allow Fire to sing over a few spare measures on the piano. Before being rocketed back into the song’s catchy chorus, Fire sounds like she could be making passing reference to the tender balladry of someone like Tori Amos or Sarah McLaughlin, but the moment feels somehow closer to Queen, with an almost theatrical color being lent to the bridge.
“Hello,” “Shining Star,” and “More or Less” are more straight-forward fare, with Planet Janet proving that it knows how to get the most out the verse-chorus-verse mold.
Though the songs are defined by their hook-conscious guitars and Fire’s presence in the forefront – she’s a rock singer, yeah, but her voice is clearly trained – they are not without details that keep them from feeling like B-sides on some Top 40 single.
“Hello” uses the blips and swells of keyboards to punctuate its rhythms, while “Shining Star” begins with an acoustic shuffle that could do Ani proud before launching into a full-blown rock number. It’s here that bassist Jason Nixon begins to flex some of the muscles he’s acquired in more aggressive – and slightly more atypical – New Jersey acts, lending a few bars and lines here and there that do more than just hold down the bottom end.
For all of the swagger of its middle sections, “More or Less” begins with a beautifully hushed sway on electric guitars and a jagged interlude before running into the obligatory distortion, harmonics, and background vocals.
(For those of you not as taken with the departures, note that the song also delivers an emotive but refreshingly simple electric guitar solo that could have caught Kurt Cobain’s attention circa 1990.)
The album-closing “Radio,” which is book-ended by – you guessed it – someone tampering with the static of the dial, is the shortest track on the record, clocking in at just a hair over three minutes. But in those three short minutes, Fire and company manage to inject a sense of theatricality again into their sound while paying occasional homage to the muted guitar signatures of bands like The Cars. (Appropriately, the song’s lyrics deal, in part, with listening to the radio while driving.)
One of the best tracks on the EP, however, may be “Seventeen.” While it initially hints at the pace and voice of 60s pop rock, its finest moments come when the band stomps through a stop-and-start bridge, allowing Fire to coo “I’m okay / Don’t you wait around me / I always cry / When confronted / With reality” before a pitch-perfect descending rock chorus.
As Fire repeats the line, Sousa, Nixon, and Taylor all fall comfortably right into place and you may wonder why you haven’t heard the track on the radio yet.
(The operative word here is probably “yet.”)
Sure, it’s easy to hate pop music, and it’s a hell of a lot harder to give it a chance. If you’re willing to choose the latter, though, you probably should listen to this New Jersey band.
Just don’t expect a dime-store gem. If they can stay on their current path, this act may be able to continue sounding polished without being confused for a useless piece of colored plastic.