The advance of Onward Quirky Soldiers, Chomsky's sophomore effort that rocks like a senior on the last day of high school, is slowly erupting out of the Metroplex. At Good Records, Dallas's No. 1 indie record shop, it sits atop the best-selling album list, outstripping the likes of Björk, White Stripes and Polyphonic Spree and Chomsky's debut, A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life, keeps ringing registers some two years on. Turns out that a band hatched as a lark seven years ago by Sean Halleck and John Norris (who left for the Tomorrowpeople, already yesterday's sad, stale news) has become a mighty franchise in the new millennium. Its fans -- the Chomsky Army -- are fanatics, and its songs serve as the perfect recruitment tool for the discerning listener craving the new-new-wave. This is what they meant by hooks back in the old days: Onward Quirky Soldiers is the lure, and the audience, desperate for smart and infectious pop in a modern musical landscape bereft of such promise, can't help but take the bait.
Onward Quirky Soldiers is where Chomsky fine-tunes its fetishes and makes a lasting mark; if the debut was catchy, the new disc is contagious, perhaps because unlike A Few Possible Selections, it was recorded in a studio and not the revolving door through which co-front man Glen Reynolds was still joining the band. Still present are the XTC echoes ("Herod's Daughter" and "Laughing" resound with guitar lines so angular they could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the Police flourishes (everything pops, yet never without purpose), but two years have added depth to the band's infatuation with the deceptively shallow rock of the early 1980s. The ten songs on Onward are less claustrophobic than the earlier offerings; they let you all the way in, which is often what happens when a band stops mimicking others and creates its own unique language (even if, or especially when, the lyrics seem like an afterthought).
The opener, "Straight Razor," is everything to anybody without losing its identity: It opens with Beach Boys coos, reveals its Attraction to Elvis Costello's attraction to Farfisa keyboards (with Don Cento playing the role of Steve Nieve) and packs a poptopian punch that sounds like the finest, bravest new-wave slap and tickle. A couple of songs are dolled up in Two-Tone drag, and the roiling keys that intro "Light" sound like something left off Quadrophenia; can you see the real Chomsky, can ya? Ah, but the trick is you don't feel compelled to play Spot the Influence; Chomsky's isn't a sound built upon derivation; its only motivation is to keep you engaged from first herky-jerky chord change to last sing-along chorus (bassist James Driscoll and drummer Matt Kellum can move the groove faster than Bekins Van Lines).
It can get a little silly at times ("It always feels like it's rock thirty in my mind," goes the opening line in "00:15:00," a naive joke that elicits a chuckle and a wince), but that's what happens when you wear your heart on the sleeve you use to mop your brow while pretending like it's nothing more than effortless, empty fun. Onward Quirky Soldiers is one of the best records you bought in 1981, and one of the best you'll buy in 2001. That's what they mean by "timeless."