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IF THE SCOTTISH pop-punk band Bis is all the New York Times can come up with as an example of their brazenly redundant new subgenre heading "cutie pop," then Boston's Papas Fritas, currently operating as number one candidate for Cutest Band in America, have definitely not been given their due. Say their name slowly and you get the name of their music publishing company: "Pop Has Freed Us." On their totally overlooked self-titled debut kid-pop masterpiece, they sounded like a cross between Hüsker Dü and Hanna Barbera, blending Bob Mould's sonic backwash with playground harmonies and a worldview centered around a conviction that "girls and boys should be as one." Yes--we're talking high-pop romanticism of a highly problematic nature here.
At their best, PF sounded as if they were approaching that first burst of teen innocence through the eyes of twentysomethings who'd heard it all before and wanted to keep coming back for more--it was as if they were looking for the pop equivalent of virgin sex, and wanted to have it 12 times a record. Singer/guitarist Tony Goddess played the darling rude boy, summing up his cool with lines like "I'm God's gift to myself," while ear-candy guitars and paper drums flooded his vocal. Singer/bass player Keith Gendel played the gawky boy, courting his own youth with lines as dippy and catchy as "this parking lot's a lot like you and me today/you can't go your own way." But their big hook was ace harmonizer (if not so ace drummer) Shivika Asthana, whose shabbily elegiac chirp gave Papas Fritas its poppiest selling point of all. Boy or girl, she was the one that made you love them.
Their new record, Helioself (they do love phonetic puns), is so neat it's obscene. Here, the kids audaciously bridge the 20 years between Hüsker Dü and the Beatles, and play the sound of Phil Spector through the lens of the Go-Gos' Beauty and the Beat. In the end, Saturday morning cartooning wins out over Bob Mould, whose buzz-saw riffs are replaced, or at best blurred into, a milieu of primarily '70s guitar references, from Cheap Trick to Wings. Michael Hofitz's production pays homage to the '60s with Pet Sounds-like harmonic overlay and bubbly synth-piano accouterments, and the slick of the '70s with a groove and intimacy obviously inspired by Hi Records' house producer Willie Mitchell. The result is something fiercely, almost excruciatingly, fun, and easily one of the most exciting records of the year.
The Papas sense of pop-fantasy extremism, whether self-consciously cute or just plain self-conscious, has become a big inspiration for a number of equally nifty, if not quite as wonderful-sounding, grandchildren of American underground rock who are fascinated with retooling distinctly un-underground pure pop. The Pulsars play with '80s teen-flick soundtrack slop; the Ben Folds Five and Push Kings treat Nick Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind" and Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything as their indie kin do the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On."
And why shouldn't they? A decade ago all would have been plain and simple post-punks, but in 1997, separated from punk's moment and ethos by four or five rock generations (around 200 normal human years), none could pull off punk with a straight face, and none would want to. What comes to the surface is a frankly apolitical detachment that might suggest that very '90s rock attitude in which not caring about your apoliticism equates cool super smarts (see Pavement). However, in the case of Papas Fritas it might mean the exact opposite. On "Sing About Me," when Shivika sings in the voice of Belinda Carlisle aping the Supremes' "Come on boy sing about me," and the band's two boys chime in behind her, they do so completely unaware of implicit genderfucks, and there aren't any.
The record is full of this straight-faced bubblegum. "We kept playing, cuz we're just in the band," Goddess sings in the beach-brawl story-song "Rolling in the Sand" as chaos ensues around them, conflating the air-headed self-assurance in Shivika's line "Who needs a myth when you're young and free" in the enduringly sad "Say Goodbye." Yet, Gendel's sock-hopping Internet anthem "Small Rooms" and the pre-Depression urban go-git-'em in Goddess's gentle "Live By the Water" (a Ray Davies-style ode to gentrification) both get with myth, and lousy myths at that. Authorial intent does matter, and these guys play dumb way too often.
However, they also know that being dumb by design has foiled many a good pop band. When they decide to get honest, or scared, or decide to fall in love (especially when they fall in love), Helioself goes from smarmy fun to straight beauty in nanoseconds, finding its voice and realizing what it wants to be: a love record. The swirling opener "Hey Hey You Say" goes for love as community, offering the idiotic maxim "we're all the same"--which even they suspect is bullshit. So they go looking for love as friendship on the next number, the Cheap Trickish "We've Got All Night," this time toning it down to the reassurance "you're not alone." That one works, and these days, it's pretty life affirming.
The kicker is the almost Al Greenish centerpiece "Just To See You," a love song so good it shines its light over the whole record, framing each and every song as either a call for togetherness, a plea for fidelity, or both. "I can't reach my dreams if they're silent," Goddess sings, calling on his girl, his band partners, and the world he'd like to teach to sing in perfect harmony to all chime in behind him.
And we do; if you're not singing along by the second chorus you're bleeding. "We got love so I won't let it be," the Papas chirp in unison, saving their souls, and just when you realize it needed it, saving their record as well. If it saves you too, congratulations.
Papas Fritas will perform Monday, June 23 at the 7th Street Entry; call 338-8388.