I've come to the realization again lately that I really enjoy good pop music. For a long period of my life (most notibly cynical college days and during a post-graduate blue zone), I had pretty much dismissed everything that had any trace of pop elements in it, instead seeking out anything weird, heavy, or experimental. It wasn't that I didn't like any of it (I'll even admit to going out and buying the single for Beck's "Loser" the first day I knew it would be available), but it seemed like most everything even related to that genre that I heard during those years had lost any edge at all.
Unbeknownst to me, it's always been thriving along in different variations, and just because I'd started plunging into the realms of the lesser-knowns in other genres, it was passing me by blindly. It was also around this time coincidentally, that I remember seeing a CD by Ho Hum in the cutout bin of local record stores, but always seemed to pass it over. Looking back, I now know that that release was actually the remnants of a major-label deal gone slightly awry. Clear back in the mid 90's, Ho Hum had signed with Universal and delivered their first disc entitled Local. After creative differences over the follow-up to that release, the group somehow managed to get out of their deal, and has since released albums on their own.
Near And Dear is the continuation of their self-released material, and it's the first that the group recorded entirely by themselves in their own studios. It's even on their own label, and if you believe their press release, they plan on (perhaps jokingly) releasing an album every year for the next two decades. In a roundabout way, I'm finally getting to my point, and it's that Ho Hum creates pop music that I'm not afraid to admit that I like. With influences as widely-ranging as the Flaming Lips and XTC, the group mixes bouncy keyboard pop with downright rollicking rock tracks, and for the most part comes out of it all unscathed.
The album starts with two of the best tracks on the entire release. "I'm-A-Waking Up" opens things up by gradually piling layers onto the back of a fairly simple structure, peaking several times with a highly catchy chorus. Following right on the heels of that track is the piano-laced "Ordinary People," and once again the group pulls off a medium-density orchestral pop track with flying colors, breaking through the peaceful keyboard-heavy track with ocassional riffs of guitar. With the swelling lite-FM synths, "Ladyboy" walks a tight line without quite dropping over into dentist-office rock, while "Corny" mixes in some seriously off-kilter timing signatures and plenty of goofy little sound trinkets (hence the title) for something downright baroque.
The absolute standout on the disc still has to be the album-titled "Near And Dear," though. Even though it clocks in at almost 6 minutes, not a single second is wasted as the group again layers jangly keyboards and guitars into one of the best pop tracks that I've heard in a damn long time. 'Catchy' is a word that's thrown around a lot, but the track fits the definition perfectly, and I find myself bopping along with it every time the CD spins. Like lots of other groups, Ho Hum is plowing their own road again after dealing with the inner-workings of a big label, but their music is honestly the better for it. An excellent heady pop album from a group who's fortunately kept chugging along.