Sunny Day, Sweepin' the Clouds Away
For those who lived through them, the '70s were not as bad as they might seem from watching That '70s Show. Yes, there were some silly fashions -- bell bottoms, men with perms and mood rings, to name but a few -- but every decade has to claim a few of those. And yes, disco did suck. But the '70s were about more than just boogie-oogie-oogie and lapels with a condor's wingspan. American pop was riding high. Never before or since has pop been so sincere, soulful and downright catchy.
There were some grotesqueries on the folky fringe: "Horse With No Name," the Best of Bread, Don McLean's comparing himself to Van Gogh on "Vincent." ("I could have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for anyone so beautiful as you," McLean bleats, all but adding "because I'm just as sensitive as you.") Between the Jackson 5 and the Osmond Brothers, there were also ominous forebodings of the boy-band plague to come. But at least the Osmonds' teetotaling gee-whizzery was not dreamed up in some mega-label's smoke- and coke-filled office; they were born Mormons. And the Jacksons came about through good old-fashioned family dysfunction and the machinations of an archetypal greedy stage father. Plus, they were funky.
But the mainstream of American pop was in full flower, especially in Los Angeles. Songcraft still mattered in pop-rock, as did lush keyboard- and horn-driven arrangements. Carole King, Neil Sedaka and -- um, guilty pleasure alert -- The Captain & Tennille all had their moments. Fleetwood Mac's Rumors fits in here, too (even though half the band was British). These artists made sunny music, full of bouncy keyboards and breezy horn riffs, the best of it having just enough sass and street grit to lift it out of the Carpenters' white-bread Valium valley. America had just come through a long, dark night of the national soul with Vietnam and would soon descend into punk's nihilism and '80s superficiality, but in between there was this happy, windows-down-on-a-spring-day interlude. It's easy to trace the subsequent decline of American pop/rock: Bands like Jefferson Airplane, Chicago and Heart, all of whom started out with something to say and interesting ways to say it, were churning up pukesome power ballads by 1986.
Sarah Shannon's self-titled debut is a revival of the best pop styles that 1975 had to offer. Gone are the noise-pop leanings of her Velocity Girl days; she's thrown them aside to embrace the Have A Nice Day Decade. At times, her homage comes pretty close to thievery; listen to "I'll Run Away" and you'll expect the chorus of Carole King's "It's Too Late." There's none of the detached irony one would anticipate from a post-punker dealing with music not informed, however distantly, by the CBGB's scene or the Sex Pistols. Shannon's album instead sounds like a lost classic of Watergate-era light rock hits, or maybe the previously unreleased magnum opus of several of Sesame Street's top tunesmiths moonlighting as adult songwriters. (Call it Bob and Maria Sing Songs of Loneliness.)
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Shannon acknowledges as much. She's even down with the Sesame Street comparison. She cops to the obvious Carole King influence and claims Burt Bacharach and Simon and Garfunkel as spiritual forebears. "Just pretty pop tunesmiths," she calls them, who wrote "upbeat, feel-good pop melodies."
While the music may be as good-natured and nostalgic as one of those "Mikey'll eat anything" Life cereal commercials, the lyrics are not. "The lyrics aren't terribly innocent, in that they are about loneliness and sort of finding your way in the world alone," Shannon says.
Perhaps the words are a function of moving from her native Washington, D.C., to clammy Seattle. Shannon laughs. "Yeah, the mountains on either side create this big mushy stewpot. The clouds get stuck and it's just rainy all the time. But I wasn't doing that on purpose. Those are just the melodies that come naturally to me, but the subject matter also came naturally the love gone wrong, the despair, the loneliness, but also [dramatic pause] hope. I don't want it to sound like a complete downer."
Nor should she, because the CD is anything but. Besides, could a downer inspire the anonymous poet who wrote the following ode excerpted from the Sub Pop Web site: "Sarah Shannon is a goddess / She's the best thing since sliced bread / If She would let me, with a ring I would wed / My heart beats for her, my love for her gushes / If I knew where she lived, I'd stalk her with night vision goggles from her bushes." And so on, as the poet reveals that his love for Shannon is stronger than the feelings he has for B.A. Barakus/Michael Dukakis, Yoda/A&W Cream Soda and Nerf/Papa Smurf.
"I can't believe that's still around," Shannon laughs. "Pretty funny, huh? A little scary maybe. Stalker references make me wary, but I think he was just a nice kid. I think."
She's also a little wary about her upcoming tour. Her San Francisco show on February 28 was her first in over two years. "I'm diving in headfirst, for better or worse," she says. She's touring with Casa Recording labelmates Seldom, who will perform as both her opening act and backing band.
But Shannon should be back in the groove by the time she gets to Houston. And there's little music better to greet the blooming azaleas and oleanders than her sunshine pop.
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