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Power pop is a genre that never seems super popular nor on the brink of extinction. Instead, it just chugs along — sadly, sweetly, melodically, and with nice bangs.
For the past 50 years, there have always been bands committed to the art of making super hooky guitar-pop songs about heartache and horniness. This kind of music might not attract a huge audience, but the listeners who are into it are committed. And, sometimes, that fidelity is rewarded with a fresh wave of greatness. Believe it or not, but it appears that 2022 might be one of those times. There has been a cadre of very good and well-received power-pop albums this year, including efforts by Mo Troper, Young Guv, and Tony Molina. This week brings my favorite record of the bunch: Easy Listening by Philadelphia band 2nd Grade.
If you know the tropes of the genre, you won’t find any surprises on Easy Listening. Are there jangly guitars? Yes. Do the vocals sound boyish in a melancholy sort of way? Of course. Are the lyrics replete with references to Beatles and Beach Boys songs? No question. Is there a generous supply of handclaps and gooey backing vocals? As if you need to ask!
The point of power pop is never originality; it’s about musical craft and hitting the listener’s pleasure centers over and over via ruthlessly efficient and svelte songwriting. And on those counts, Easy Listening is a smashing success and one of my favorite albums of the year.
2nd Grade is led by Peter Gill, a 31-year-old musician who also plays another very good band, Friendship. On past efforts like 2020’s Hit To Hit, the country-rock stylings of Friendship infiltrated 2nd Grade. (Guitarist Jon Samuels also plays in both bands.) But Easy Listening is a purely power-pop affair, in which the most recent reference — musical or lyrical — is to the Seinfeld subplot about Kramer moving to Los Angeles to become an actor. It’s like taking a vacation in a world in which Big Star and The Raspberries still have a chance at being the biggest bands in the world.
I spoke with Gill about Easy Listening, his love of oldies radio in the ’90s, and why Tom Petty should be considered power pop.
The world of 2nd Grade songs is very much a 20th-century world. And not just in terms of the musical references, but also the lyrics. You have a song about being on the cover of Rolling Stone, and there are nods to MTV and VH1. Because of the age you are, it’s not like that’s necessarily your world. So why do you find it so attractive?
I feel like my generation, we grew up at the tail end of that sort of rock media. We knew about it when we were kids. It’s almost like we absorbed these Baby Boomer kind of rock ‘n’ roll dreams. And then, by the time I was a teenager or 18 or whatever, that stuff didn’t mean what it used to mean anymore. But I’ve still come to believe that it’s the pinnacle of something culturally. Also, more broadly speaking, I think a lot of records from the ’60s and ’70s, all that stuff is very thoroughly canonized now. There’s a million really well-written and thoughtful think pieces on hundreds of really cool records. So if you’re the kind of music nerd that digs into that stuff and wants to read about everything, you’re naturally drawn to that canon. And so that canon is really important to me. I have a really strong connection to it.
Do you consider what you’re doing to be nostalgist or escapist music?
Let me think about that. No, I don’t actively consider it to be nostalgic or escapist, but I also wouldn’t say that it isn’t those things. I feel like a lot of the time co-opting older styles and aesthetics and trying to infuse them with new ideas or ideas that feel new to me. I am of the mind that there’s nothing new under the sun, at least within music. There’s very little you can do that is actually new or completely original. And so mostly I just borrow from styles of music that I love that are older. But I try not to just have it be a rehash. If I’m writing a song, I want it to be a hook that I haven’t heard before or I just want it to be new somehow. The whole tradition of power pop is connoisseurs who are trying to fine-tune whatever came before, even though it’s not remarkably different.
What in particular do you feel like is new or modern about 2nd Grade?
One, trying to completely trim the fat off of a pop song and get down to just the most exciting parts. That feels modern to me because people’s attention spans in general are so oversaturated, and it seems fitting for the times to try to make the most streamlined pop music that I can. And these songs aren’t going to get played on the radio. So they don’t need to be three and a half minutes. Another modern thing, I think, is we purposely tried to have a big mix of fidelity on the record. There are some songs that are super hi-fi and were done in a really nice studio. And then there are some that were done at home on a four-track or even on an iPhone.
We have access to streaming data now. And it’s clear when you look at the numbers that people listen to the singles and they listen to maybe the first song or two on the album. Those ones get the majority of the plays. So why would a band in 2022 spend so much money to make a whole album in a really nice studio when people maybe aren’t even going to listen to half of it? Doing it this way is exciting to me because it really mixes things up, the way it sounds. But also it feels financially prudent and I feel like more and more records are going to be that way in the future.
I read an interview you did last year where you were asked about 10 albums that influenced you. And I think eight or nine of them were Beach Boys albums. What is it about The Beach Boys that you love so much?
I think number one is just Brian Wilson’s melodies are the best around, no contest. His melodies are so innovative and always so hooky. He fits so many syllables into his melodies. It’ll be a really long breath and then jumping all over the scale. He’s almost like the Allen Ginsburg of pop music in that way, where Allen Ginsburg does these super long lines where you’ve got to hold your breath and say as many words as you can. Also with The Beach Boys, I just love how they took this metaphor of surfing as far as it could go. They wrote so many different songs where the imagery or the symbolism is surfing images. But think of where they started, those early surf songs, and then think of where they ended up, with “Surf’s Up.” They just picked the thing and did it.
Power pop generally is an interesting subculture — it’s pretty small and niche-y, but some of the groups that fit under that umbrella happen to be the most popular bands of all time.
To me, power pop is mostly a helpful framework for me to sit down and write songs. It helps me when I’m sitting there with a blank page and no idea in my head. It helps direct me.
Mostly just with a huge focus on melody, I think. And the instrumentation is instrumentation that I’m really comfortable with. I grew up in the suburbs in Maine listening to Tom Petty and listening to classic rock radio. And a lot of that Tom Petty stuff is really power pop.
Make the case that Tom Petty is power pop.
I don’t know if I have a super persuasive argument. It’s more of a feeling. It’s a gut feeling. His hits, the singles, they just do what I believe a good power-pop song can do. I can’t get into the semantics of it though because that’s where I get into trouble. If I get too specific about what power pop is, it stops being as helpful for me.
How about a specific Petty song?
“Even The Losers.” To me, power-pop music is loser music where losers become winners in their dreams. That’s almost like a thesis statement right there, that song.
There’s also the fact that Petty played bass on Dwight Twilley’s “Looking For The Magic.”
Yeah. That’s the best power-pop song of all time in my opinion.
Oh, cool. That’s interesting. I did not know that. I recently learned that it’s Phil Seymour who’s doing the harmonies on “American Girl.”
There’s a set of influences that it seems all power-pop bands draw from. And there are certain subject matter parameters — romantic heartache, sexual lust, going out on Saturday night, maybe a certain smart-alecky attitude. Is that what you mean by a framework?
Yeah, that sounds right. To me, I think of it as the genre that started as basically The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Beach Boys. And just wanting to write really good guitar-pop songs. If I’m going to sit down and write a power-pop song, it can’t just be a pedestrian melody or a song that three minutes from now, it isn’t memorable at all. It’s going to be bombastic in a way. It’s going to stick in the mind a little more. You’re going to write it in a way that in an alternate universe, it wouldn’t be that crazy for that song to land on the radio and be a huge hit even though that’s never going to happen.
Something I’ve noticed is that punk and hardcore musicians often end up evolving into power-pop musicians. Like, at some point they suddenly sound like Teenage Fanclub. Tony Molina and Young Guv are two obvious — and well done — examples of this. Why do you think that is?
Part of it is hardcore is a really intense kind of music to perform over a long period of time. You reach an age where it’s exhausting, probably. Compared to other places that a punk musician could go, it seems like a pretty natural pivot — early Teenage Fanclub is pretty heavy. But yeah, I’ve been noticing that and I feel like maybe 10 years ago the thing was punk musicians would go into country music. Does that still happen? I feel like I haven’t seen that as much.
I just find it interesting that Teenage Fanclub seems like such a touchstone. Not Big Star, not The Raspberries — it’s always Teenage Fanclub, and especially Bandwagonesque.
You still have noisy guitar solos in there. It’s a good, happy medium between melody and noise on that album.