Liner notes by Dawn Eden, from Amoeba Teen’s 2018 double album release for the US, on Kool Kat records.
I love power pop, be it from the mod Sixties, the skinny-tie Seventies, or any of the genre’s various revivals, up to the present day. But if I am honest with myself, I will admit that whereas power-pop classics retain a timeless immediacy, many of them have something missing. That something is emotional maturity.
The problem, I believe, lies with the limitation of the musical form, one which Oxford Living Dictionaries defines with astonishing accuracy: “A style of pop music characterized by a strong melody line, heavy use of guitars, and simple rhythm” (en.oxforddictionaries.com).
Make no mistake, power pop classics have real feelings and real emotions between the grooves. But when artists are working within a genre in which the musical arrangements necessarily center upon tension and release, they do not have much room to go deeper than the outlines of love, lust, and/or loss.
One could certainly counter that teenage angst feels ineffably deep from the point of view of the teenager. Moreover, Phil Spector proved once and for all that, given the right musical backing, even a song with seemingly superficial boy-girl lyrics can touch on hidden places in the heart. There is a reason why, for listeners across the decades—and I count myself among them—a song like the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” or Big Star’s “September Gurls” evokes a response that is at once universal and numinous.
Yet it must be said that those same artists often opted to mine their high-school memories for emotional word-pictures — think of the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Teenage Confidential” or Big Star’s “Back of a Car” — rather than depict the realities of life beyond parental curfews. Is it too much to hear in such songs a fantasy that, just as the music corrects unresolved G7 chords into satisfying Cs, so too the words might correct unresolved pain from the past?
Hence, for the listener who loves catchy melodies, ear-candy harmonies, guitars that alternately jangle and fuzz, and “simple rhythm” (thank you, OED) there is a crisis built into power pop: how can an artist take a medium designed to express teenage angst and adapt it to say meaningful things about adult life? Is such a task even possible?
I submit that it is, and that the proof is in the Amoeba Teen recordings that comprise this collection.
If listening to Amoeba Teen feels like entering into a story already in progress, there is a reason for that. Core members Mark Britton (rhythm guitar and keyboard) and Mike Turner (lead guitar) met as teenagers and have been writing together for nearly two decades. Although they first bonded on a shared appreciation of Cream and other classic British blues acts, their interests soon moved on to artists that were more melodic but still with prominent and layered guitars, including Neil Young, Jellyfish, Wilco, and Teenage Fanclub.
To hear Mark tell the story, it’s “extraordinary” that he and Mike, who were raised outside Birmingham in England’s Black Country (an area once known for its industry and now known for its bland exurban shopping centres) ever began writing and performing music at all, let alone that they joined forces. “We don’t come from musical families,” he explains, “and for many of our peers the arts were commonly considered to be for ‘queers’ or weirdos.”
Both men trace their interest in music to critical moments in their late childhood. For Mike, it was seeing Eric Clapton on Top of the Pops; for Mark, it was discovering a scratchy copy of Magical Mystery Tourat his father’s house and having his mind blown by “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Once Mark and Mike met, the duo got into the habit of meeting every Sunday night at Mike’s parents’ home to assemble demos on a four-track reel-to-reel recorder.
“When we first wrestled with the art of DIY music production, we’d finish a song in a night,” Mark recalls. “But as technology got more advanced and Mike’s engineering skills blossomed, each song could take three or more sessions to wrap up. In those early days we’d start with acoustic guitars and maybe finish with the clack of beer bottle tops on a glass for percussion; later on we began to introduce electric guitars, MIDI drum synthesisers and samplers.”
In time, the pair assembled a group to take the songs that they had workshopped into live performance, and Amoeba Teen was born. Opportunity knocked early on when Nokia contacted them wishing to use their song “Friend to the Stars” in a television commercial. But it was not to be, as Amoeba Teen’s online bio pithily explains: “They declined and chose to remain underground and drunk.”
It’s not clear exactly when willful obscurity and booze fell down Amoeba Teen’s list of priorities, but they were taking their real-world responsibilities far more seriously by 2013, when they took an extended break. During that time, Mike formed the Kenelms, the first band to perform the future Selection Boxstandout “This Spark,” while Mark issued an ostensible solo album, Odds and Sodd, that included some Amoeba Teen tracks. The rave reviews for Odds and Soddhelped move Mark and Mike to reform Amoeba Teen in 2016 with bass player Simon Muttit and drummer Carl Bayliss filling out the lineup.
Amoeba Teen must have amassed a storehouse of creative ideas during their hiatus, for at the dawn of 2017 they rewarded fans with Selection Box followed in five months by The Appleyard Sessions. Although Selection Boxis ostensibly the “pop” album and Appleyardthe “folk” album — they even contain songs titled “Pop” and “Folk,” respectively — when paired together, they seem not so much two different genres as two different ways of conveying the writers’ inner lives.
There is no doubt that Selection Box wears its “Hearts and Minds” on its sleeve. From the supercharged starburst of “This Spark” to the defiantly above-the-weather “Good Morning Sunshine,” to the tenderly encouraging “Fade Out,” the message is clear. Adult life is messy and often disappointing (“I try to keep up but I can’t stop”). Although nostalgia has its place (“what became of you?”), ultimately the only way to go is forward (“I won’t break down when the silver lining tears”). The challenge is not merely to survive but to thrive (“get up and gather the day”). Not until the final track, when self-giving finally triumphs over the temptation to solipsism, is the victory won: “I’ll lose my focus, stare into the mirror/Until I realise/That you are there right by my side.”
The frankness of Selection Box’s lyrics finds its complement in the intensity of the album’s musical arrangements. Save for a couple of tunes where the band lightens the mood, such as the lush “Memory Lane” (which manages to capture the mood of “Penny Lane” nicely without falling into soundalike territory), there is a surfeit of nervous energy in the (virtual) grooves. It’s palpable in the crunchy staccatoed guitar lines of “This Spark,” the slightly neurotic high-hat on “Hearts and Minds,” and the plaintive Al Kooper organ line feeling its way through “Fade Out.” Often, it threatens to bubble over into a kind of ecstasy, and sometimes it does. But even when it doesn’t, it’s always satisfying, because it speaks to the experiences of people who are trying to find beauty in everyday life.
That same search for beauty is evident in The Appleyard Sessions, but there it is expressed far more delicately, with lyrics that read like poems and arrangements that feel like soundscapes. Different listeners will no doubt gravitate to different tracks, but, for my money, the standouts are “Folk” and “3 a.m., Here I Am,” which combine to give the impression of a swatch of a soundtrack to a lost film.
There’s an entire story just in the reverberations of the opening guitar chord of “Folk,” with its mysterious tuning recalling Jimmy Page in his most Bert Janschian mood. I’m also taken with the subtle ambient effects that pan left-right left and the other elements of musique concrete thatwaft through the mix. Add Mike’s tensile voice as it chimes in with haiku-like verses, and Amoeba Teen succeeds in creating a sound collage that evokes Bookends-era Simon and Garfunkel.
A sense of melancholy pervades those songs and others on The Appleyard Sessions. The sense of hope isn’t as obvious as on the more buoyant Selection Box, but it’s there if one scratches beneath the surface. Here too, the lyrics of the final track veer into existentialism only to pull back with a poignant reminder that in the end, per Lennon and McCartney, the love you take is equal to the love you make: “Give what you can before the day’s close.”
With the recordings on this collection, Amoeba Teen successfully stretch the boundaries of power pop to make it express grown-up ideas. At the same time, they display a unique and beautiful flair for the familiar-yet-new melodies that keep the genre forever young. Their sound has real substance, and I’m excited to discover where their muse will take them in the years to come.