By Jon Dolan
Throughout the history of pop music, youth (or a reasonable simulacrum thereof) has been one of the few constants: it never seems to get old. Even in the 90s, decades after the death of innocence, the idea of youth can be played with and pulled apart or, if necessary, bludgeoned into newness. Girl punk bands toy with images of childish vulnerability to bust up the absurdity of prescribed feminine identity. Marilyn Manson makes a Saturday-morning cartoon of sex and death. The most nefarious gangsta rappers offer fantasies of sex and violence in the voice of arrested adolescence because coming from adults they’d sound like rank idiocy.
Boston’s Papas Fritas, who play Saturday at the Empty Bottle, have reacted to all this deconstruction with a carefully constructed nostalgia for pop’s purer days. They approach teen innocence as wistful twenty-somethings–they’re looking for the musical equivalent of virgin sex, and they wanna have it 12 times a record.
But, of course, you can never go home again. On their 1996 debut, Papas Fritas, guitarist Tony Goddess, bassist Keith Gendel, and drummer Shivika Asthana really did sound like 16-year-olds who’d discovered the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Husker Du’s Flip Your Wig on the same afternoon and decided to start a band on the spot; their efforts seemed as informed by cartoon themes and playground songs as by either of those masterworks. On their new album, Helioself, the Bob Mould buzz saw fades conspicuously into references to 70s sugar-rockers like Cheap Trick and Wings, while Michael Hofitz’s production goes for pop with a capital P, nodding to Pet Sounds and Hi Records alike.
Helioself is a very smart record–maybe too smart. It’s a concept album of sorts, about love and friendship in the age of isolation–there’s even an Internet escapist anthem, “Small Rooms.” But the clever cutesiness is forgivable: the too-too Supremes send-up “Sing About Me,” for example, is redeemed by the truly gorgeous, Al Green-ish love ballad that follows, “Just to See You.” The problem is that for the most part, the Papas approach each of their psychological perspectives–happy, sad, broken, bored–from the same distinctly post-Pavement distance, as if making up lyrics were a necessary evil, like paying for studio time, rather than an opportunity to share your feelings with a million people who can sympathize. “Pop,” after all, means popular, as in common, as in universal.
“Who needs a myth when you’re young and free?” Asthana asks on “Say Goodbye,” blowing off the power of time-tested themes in favor of a vague, forced sense of naivete, and the boys chime in behind her. Indeed, the Papas shy away from the outsize hopes, dreams, and fears that make a pop song a pop song. Asthana sings “Come on boy, sing about me” in perfect Diana Ross character, but with none of Ross’s expressiveness. The Papas treat broken hearts (“Say Goodbye”), love plays (“We’ve Got All Night”), and loneliness (“Weight”) all as equal opportunities to layer sweet musical nothings upon sweet musical nothings, thereby missing pop’s point.
Eventually, their dispassion becomes a spooky metaphor for all things cynical and slack. Which is too bad, because they’ve obviously worked their asses off giving their record its obsessive, Brian Wilson-like polish. Sadly, they’ve polished it to plasticity. Helioself is the weirdest kind of 90s record, a dissertation on form that, no matter how great it sounds, just doesn’t feel good. Give me “Be My Baby” any day. I wanna fall in love.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.