I've said it before, and I'll say it again; 2003 is the year that pop really returned. Not just in the mainstream sense, but every genre from indie to electronic has seemed to firmly embrace the undeniable pop hook and twist it to their benefit. When year-end lists come rolling around in a couple months, expect to see names like The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, The Postal Service, and tons of others cropping up once again. Discerning music listeners like to be challenged, but they also like to sing along with things just like everyone else. Sure, it's fun to freak out people by blasting your obscure weirdness, but there's something primal about belting out words along with the music you're listening to. It may simply come down to the fact that for those moments, you feel part of the band yourself.
Pretty Girls Make Graves is a group that spawned out of the ashes of several handfulls of already fairly popular groups, including everyone from Area 51 to the Murder City Devils. After a debut EP on Dim Mak, they dropped their full-length debut Good Health on Lookout! and things have pretty much just gotten bigger from there (including signing to Matador Records for their follow-up). The New Romance is 12 tracks in just under 40 minutes, and although it may turn off some of their old fans in doing so, it even more firmly embraces the pop sensibility. Granted, you still probably won't hear any of it on mainstream radio anytime soon, but it's glossier and despite not falling into traditional song structures, it's definitely sing-along worthy.
The disc opens with "Something Bigger, Something Brighter," and the track moves with a completely unconventional sense, bursting forth with anthematic choruses at odd times and settling into quiet refrains just enough to give you short breathers. "All Medicated Geniuses" is easily the gem of the album, starting out with a blistering riff and screamed male vocals before Andrea Zollo adds her usual emotional range for the rest of it. In all of three and a half minutes (the traditional radio-track), it goes through more ideas and changes than entire albums by the kids that get all the radio play.
Although they take on slightly more traditional structures, the one-two punch of "Blue Lights" and "Chemical, Chemical" will be making year-end mix CDs like crazy. The former builds with the dark urges of an old school Cure track before exploding into a slightly-haunted closing. The latter is a cruising vessel for the again-amazing vocals of Zollo, as she goes from punctuatory to crooning. "This Is Our Emergency" arrives at the close of the album and may be the anthem of the year, a building fist-pumper that treads close to cheese lyrically but keeps things on the rails by building to a rousing ending. As I mentioned above, the release does veer even more into pop territory, but the group is so untraditional in most of their song structures and musical combinations that it underpins the whole album with enough of an experimental bent that will warm it to most listeners. Great stuff, and another feather in the cap for Matador.