California Dreamin'

Live from the Sunshine State, where Botox prevents no one from smiling: The Thrills
Courtesy of Virgin Records

Everyone wants to be someplace else. There's always the nagging thought that if you could only get to that other world, happiness would be waiting for you at the airport holding a sign with your name written on it in gold glitter. I'm still a West Coast virgin, but for the four months every year when the snot crystallizes in my nose and my front steps become an icy death trap left by everyone who is out to get me, I'm convinced that people out in California wake up wearing crowns of hibiscus, suck on fresh oranges for breakfast, and take a totally stress-free stroll to the beach for a power-yoga start to their day.

It's tempting to draw a dividing line between a world that always blooms and a frozen, cubicle-lined hell, especially when you're bingeing on the flashy, quick snippets of prefab fabulousness perpetuated in love stories and too much MTV. Which might be why the Thrills were so easily whisked through the turnstiles of a quixotic beach-bum existence and back into the gas-pumping drudgery of their Dublin lives. During the Irish band's four-month stay in California, they did more than get sun-smooched. They had a big ol' make-out session with the fireball in the sky, tongue and all. They boogie-boarded and played acoustic guitar on the beach. They gorged on a diet of free BBQ and grooved to the coastal sounds of the Beach Boys and the Byrds. And when they returned to Dublin to write songs for their latest long-player, So Much for the City (Virgin), they penned a love letter to California loaded with wistful '60s pop harmonies, bouncy piano, jangly banjo, and a moaning pedal-steel guitar that lingers through their songs like a last kiss. On the band's minor radio hit, "One Horse Town," singer-guitarist Conor Deasy croons with so much sweet longing and ache for the Golden State, he sounds like J. Mascis drunk on moonshine and desire: "Well I never should have settled down/Hanging around in a one horse town/When everyone started sleeping around/So this evening, baby I'm leaving/On a one-way ticket tonight."

For an outsider, California has it all: the glitz, the glamour, the sun's rays that turn crow's feet into fractured beauty, and, of course, that one bar on that one street where that one drunken starlet was found choking on her own vomit. In Brian Wilson's home state, even misfortune becomes something to celebrate, especially for curious tourists fueled by their own schadenfreude. Los Angeles's sweeping searchlight is filtered through a giant magnifying glass, causing its images to spark and become seared on the collective consciousness of the world. It's easy to blame all of this on Hollywood. But it's easier to blame that shameless celeb-pimpin' Pat O'Brien of Access Hollywood, or any one of his equally shameless doppelgängers in every time zone, whose job it is to shill Tinseltown and its celebs with an endless stream of awful puns: "Tom and Penelope are no longer cruising down lovers' lane!" Our greatest exports and philosophers are Botox-injected red-carpet walkers whose quotes about censorship or Iraq appear in 10 different languages the day after the Oscars. Paris Hilton is our nation's diplomat and Mel Gibson is its mouthpiece.

But for five Irish teenagers, the magnifying glass doesn't reveal the insidiousness of California--it only inflates its lure and significance. "Oh how the sun sets on my boulevard, but leaves quite a shadow to fill," Deasy sings on the bittersweet ballad "Hollywood Kids." The band's summery sonnets to Big Sur and Santa Cruz are like that fifth-date post-coital elation that comes before realizing that the person beside you will someday leave his fingernail clippings on the bathroom counter--or in California's case, make you wish you had bigger boobs.

Sure, the Thrills' ode to California is based on the kind of unrealistic love felt when novelty leaves room for projection. But the best pop songs about California have always been based on a mythology as artificial as Hollywood itself. Brian Wilson was terrified of the ocean. He relied on his brother Dennis's surf stories to write his songs about surfer boys and the girls who loved them. (He was too busy obsessing over the Beatles and Phil Spector to experience the bikini-bliss movement he helped define.) And the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'" was shrouded in the idealism and sunny escapism California offered to a New Yorker and a Southerner. Love songs aren't about the excess baggage, or neuroses, or nefarious porn collections that come with the everyday reality of relationships. The best ones are about the life we want, the boy or girl we want back, or the place we'd rather be. And the Thrills' best pop songs transport us to that other place, where dead branches are replaced by palm trees and Pat O'Brien's nasal shrill is drowned out by dreamy pop harmonies.

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