Alphabeat And The Rest Of The Wonky Pop Brigade Are Here To Save The Day
The Guardian‘s profile of the Wonky Pop tour begins with an appeal to beleaguered music fans: “Tired of chart pop that’s all manufactured groups and reality TV shows? Just as fed up of bland indie? Then Wonky Pop might just be the thing for you.” It’s almost crass in its resemblance to infomercial rhetoric (“Are you tired of your old, hard-to-operate pasta strainer?”), but it contains such a fundamental element of truth that it’s hard not to read on. In many ways pop music is broken, and it’s about time for a new regime. But is Wonky Pop the answer?
The Wonky Pop artists are unmanufactured but unashamedly melodic and capable of playing live without recourse to lashings of dry ice, troupes of dancers and an interlude during which they fly around the stage on wires. As well as Alphabeat, it features the vaguely psychedelic pop-soul of Leon Jean-Marie, a dreadlock-sporting refugee from a Damage-style boyband who once toured with Steps, and Vincent Frank, a wiry 23-year-old who plies an intense brand of self-produced electro-pop under the name Frankmusic.
All three hark back to an 80s they’re too young to remember, not just because of specific references in their music – Alphabeat’s sound is not unlike a Dayglo take on Let’s Dance-era Bowie, Leon Jean-Marie is audibly in love with Prince, Frankmusic vaguely resembles Soft Cell had they been produced by Daft Punk – but because they seem to embody the kind of pop star that held sway in the era before Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s legion of interchangeable poppets took over the charts.
On the page–what with the harkening back to the ’80s and use of the term electro-pop–it sounds as if Wonky Pop is just another watered-down nostalgia movement, but upon review of the music it’s apparent that there’s at least some undefinable quality to these bands that, in a perfect world, could potentially breathe some life into the bloated corpse of modern pop, or at least reanimate the dormant genre of smart chart pop that appeals to people over the age of 16. Of the three bands featured in the article, Alphabeat–already a huge success in their native Denmark and widely known in the UK–seems to be the most promising on first listen. Their latest single “Fascination” is like a long-lost number from Footloose, and it’s delivered with an appropriately bubbly Broadway gusto.
At the same time, it’s not completely enslaved to its heritage–there’s definitely something fresh in the sound; it hits you like a load of laundry just out of the dryer. And while the band’s look is indie-precious, the sound of the music is decidedly more populist. You get the feeling that “Fascination” should be playing on a radio in a suburban garage as someone washes a car on a Saturday afternoon. Their song “10,000 Nights” is perhaps even more indebted to the giants of ’80s pop:
The first thing I thought when I heard this song was “Hall & Oates.” The second was how happy I’d be if I were driving and it came on the radio.
Another thing Wonky Pop has going for it is variety. Leon Jean-Marie is, as The Guardian so tidily put it, “vaguely psychedelic pop-soul.” His song “Scratch” sounds like it walked straight off a Beck album, and it’s more or less indicative of his bass-heavy, loopy sound.
His other single, “Bed of Nails,” is a shade banal, but it’s got a nice melodic texture and practically dares you not to tap your foot along with the booming bassline.
Frankmusik seems to be the weakest link. If there’s one genre from the ’80s that almost always falls flat upon re-visitation it’s “electropop.” The minute a-ha unleashed “Take On Me” in 1985, this genre simply could not get any better–so acts like Frankmusik are just running around in circles, and often being kind of obnoxious in the process. Exhibit A:
The fact that he looks like a Blue States Lose regular doesn’t exactly endear him to me.
What’s the use of this song? I’ve tried to envision dancing to it and all I see is bored-looking people swiveling their shoulders around. It’s got no life, and the vocals are a drag.
So Wonky Pop’s got approximately one and a half out of three. Not terrible, but is it enough to save pop music? Obviously its overlords seem to think so:
Meanwhile, Watt, who also manages Mika, has cannily copyrighted the name Wonky Pop and is planning to extend the brand in a manner that would win the approval of Simon Fuller: he’s preparing two further tours, a club night and a series of one-off dates in London. Whether this makes the whole enterprise seem a little less organic, unmanufactured and indeed wonky than it’s perhaps making itself out to be is a moot point, but there are no shortage of artists who want to get involved. “There are at least 20 bands that fit loosely into this genre,” says Watt. “I’m hoping it will be a self-fulfilling thing, that people who go to the gigs will want to go out and create their own version of it.”
Please, let’s not ruin the momentum of Wonky Pop by dragging Mika into this. He and Keane have proven that the world didn’t care about a Freddie Mercury revival. But, come to think of it, that raises the very pertinent question of whether or not the general listening public would be any more receptive to a new Hall & Oates era of sharp, accessible chart pop produced more or less for adults. My guess is probably not, if only because top 40 radio (in the U.S., at least) is a barren wasteland that’s about as likely to give a spunky Danish band that plays almost exclusively in London dive bars any rotation as it is to ever stop playing “Hotel California” on its “Mix” stations. Nice try, though.