Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Album Review: Hard Pop by Telethon (by Emma Prew)

Where do I start with Telethon… If, like me, you are fairly new to this band (or, indeed, if you’ve not heard of them at all) then I better give you a little background information about them. Telethon are a five-piece from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose sound is very difficult to describe with just one ‘genre’. There’s obviously ‘punk’ in there somewhere or I wouldn’t be writing about them on this blog but they are far from your average punk band. In 2017, they released a ‘five part rock opera’! I know, what?! Of course, it’s 2019 and I only discovered Telethon a few months ago when they released their fourth album, Hard Pop, on Take This To Heart Records and Halloween Records, their own label. I decided to check out the album because Cold Wrecks – who released one of my absolute favourite albums of 2019 (so far) themselves with This Could Be Okay – tweeted about it. Let’s just say, it was a very, very good recommendation.

Hard Pop was released back in June so I must apologise for my lateness in actually reviewing it. This is partly due to life being busy but mostly due to the fact that I’m a little bit scared that I won’t be able to do the album justice with my words. Every time I put the album on, however, I think to myself ‘Damn, this is such a good album. Everybody should to listen to this – punk fans or otherwise.’

Hard Pop kicks off with a 6 minute epic two-parter in the form of Loser / That Old Private Hell. Opening with the lines ‘The magic of being a loser, is that nobody has to find out.’ and hitting home immediately, the song has a slow and stripped back start with subtle instrumentation. This allows the focus to be on lead vocalist Kevin Tully’s rather distinct voice that you will no doubt come to adore throughout the duration of this record, as I have. Subtle backing vocals hint at what’s to come and after a gentle 40 seconds we are thrown headfirst into the full Telethon sound. There are melodic guitar riffs, keys and thumping drums and this combination of sounds serves as a lengthy interlude into the second part of the track. The song speaks about growing up in the Midwest of the US – something I obviously know nothing about but Telethon paint quite the picture here. Despite being the album’s opening track, Losers / That Old Private Hell perfectly encompasses the Telethon sound, with ups and downs, changes in pace and melody when you least expect them and so, so much lyrical content – brilliantly clever and poetic lyrical content. At times I’m reminded of Jeff Rosenstock, while other aspects of the song bring to mind alt-indie rock bands such as The Shins or Modest Mouse but ultimately it’s all Telethon – they have rather a unique sound. I wasn’t kidding when I called this song ‘epic’ as I feel I could write enough words for a whole album review just about this one song…

…but I should probably try and talk about the other nine songs on Hard Pop. Phew, after the 6 minute whirlwind of the album’s opening track, we get to (I Guess You’d Call It) An Undertone. Telethon instantly switch their sound up for an infectiously catchy guitar riff which is backed up by a horn section. It’s kind of over-the-top but in the best way possible. The track is ridiculously upbeat and bouncy – it’s just so much fun – although the lyrics deal with the subject of anxiety. (I Guess You’d Call It) And Undertone is probably the song that’s mostly likely to find its way into my brain at any given moment – I could start humming it or dancing around the kitchen to the melody in my head without even realising (this may or may not have actually happened). The song features a killer guitar solo from lead guitarist Jack Sibilski akin to something from a 70s stadium rock band, yet it somehow still manages to sound so fresh. This is then followed by a short saxophone solo, because, why not? The song feels short compared to the album’s opening track but is in fact well over 3 minutes long and it has the listener suitably pumped up for the next track. Catchy tunes are definitely something that Telethon do well as the theme continues with the third track, Wanderparty. The simple chorus of ‘Where do you wander and where do you party? Nobody knows where you wander or party, Everyone wanders, everyone parties, But not like you wander and not like you party.’ is a bit of a tongue twister but that won’t stop you from singing along immediately – the chorus opens the song after all. The verses are heavy on synth which brings an almost electro-pop vibe to the song but, of course, there’s plenty of hopping between other genres and sounds throughout the song. I think Wanderparty is about growing older and not wandering, in the travelling adventurous sense, or partying as much as you used to. Perhaps spending more time wondering than wandering.

How Long Do I Let It Go For? slows things down a little, at least for the first couple of verses. Accompanied by a piano melody that brings to mind Springsteen’s Thunder Road, the pace picks up as a fuller band sound comes in by the third verse. The vocals feel more urgent which makes sense given the song’s subject matter. How Long Do I Let It Go For? is about feeling anxious and maybe a little obsessively compulsive. The chorus is one of my favourites on the album – ‘Good god, have I become so tightly wound, I can’t stop it anymore, And in the quiet when there's no one else around, How long do I let it go for?’. The bridge that follows has a slight change in vocal style, including guest vocals from Willow Hawks of The Sonder Bombs, which weirdly reminds me of Americana or folk musicians – think The Decemberists, maybe. At just slightly less than a minute in length, Sirens could be considered an interlude, particularly as it appears around the halfway point of the album. That said, Telethon pack a lot into those 59 seconds. Ranging from muted guitar and vocals only to a rush of full band, I particularly enjoyed how the song starts and ends with the same lyrics – ‘Focus on the sirens, Focus on the pain you used to feel.’

When I first listened to Hard Pop, it was the sixth song that immediately grabbed me. Chimney Rock is an infectiously catchy and upbeat synth-heavy power-pop punk song. There’s something for everyone here, with so many layers of melodies and complex fast-paced lyricism weaved throughout the track. If you just read the lyrics on Telethon’s Bandcamp page it seems like vocalist Kevin is just saying exactly what he’s thinking at any given moment. This seems almost chaotic on paper but set to music it is pure genius. A real highlight of the song has to be the section towards the end – a snappy bridge gives way to a several lines from Willow Hawks, who appeared earlier on the album. Rather than simply adding backing vocals, Willow takes over lead vocal duties which gives the song a completely different feel, albeit only for a brief period. Cue more snappy vocals, a huge guitar solo and, finally, a gentle piano-led outro – you certainly can’t accuse Telethon of being dull or repetitive here.

After the intensity of Chimney Rock, Telethon allow us a little breather with House Of The Future (Parts 1 & 2). The slower pace and almost folky style of instrumentation – including but by no means limited to acoustic guitar and organ – showcases yet another side of the Telethon sound. There were hints at this style in earlier tracks but not such lengthy sections as is the case here. The song has a sombre feel and the melodies are melancholic and wistful. Of course, we know from the song’s title that this is a track of two parts and after three minutes the energy levels are ramped up for a more upbeat and loud Telethon. Being able to shift seamlessly between these different styles, within the same song as well as across Hard Pop as whole, is one of the best things about this band. Beefy guitars kick off Time To Lean (This Whole Building Runs On Windows 98) and will get your head nodding along in no time at all. When the synths become dominant for the chorus, there’s an almost 8-bit video game vibe to them – I don’t know, it just works. This is a fast paced tune with the theme of having a job that isn’t very rewarding. Aside from Sirens, Time To Lean is the shortest track on the album – of course, Telethon are able to pack a lot into its duration, including another awesome guitar solo, huge horn parts and tinkly piano playing. Is there anything this band can’t do?

I don’t know why the title of the penultimate song of Hard Pop is written all as one word but it is – Youdon’tinspiremelikeyouusedto. It’s a mid-tempo number with plenty of groove in both the guitar riffs that run throughout its duration and the way in which Kevin sings his lines – particularly in the chorus (which is basically the song’s title repeated along with ‘And I didn’t sign up for any of this’). I read an interview recently (I forget where, sorry) and Kevin stated that the ‘you’ in this song is actually himself – so, basically, the song is about how he doesn’t feel as inspired or motivated to do things as he perhaps did when he was younger. By the halfway point of this 4 minute track, things have reached new heights musically. There’s a lengthy sax solo which again brings to mind Springsteen (well, Clarence Clemons to be precise) followed by a building bridge section complete with strings and vocal harmonies before a guitar solo closes out the track. Some might say it’s a bit much but I say that’s just Telethon. How do you follow that I hear you ask? With a dash of ska seems to be the answer. Manila has a slow piano-led introduction but if we’ve learnt anything about Telethon from this album it is that a song that starts slowly doesn’t necessarily stay slow. The volume and tempo are cranked up before too long for a somewhat nostalgic and contemplative song about not being completely happy with where you are, both geographically and in life in general. The ska I mentioned earlier comes in the form of guitar upstrokes for a couple of verses in the middle of the song and it doesn’t sound even slightly out of place, such is the magic of Telethon. The closing lines of the song, and album as whole, are just perfect – ‘Maybe by the time you leave your town, And get a thousand miles down you’ll turn around, Because you miss the stale emotion and the sounds of train stops passing, And all that you can’t stand to even think about right now.’

Wow, what an album Hard Pop is! I’m not convinced I have quite done it justice in my review – there’s far too many layers and intricacies in each and every second of this album for me to properly describe everything. It’s a relatively short album in only 10 tracks (the perfect amount if you ask me) but is complex; refined yet detailed. The lyrical content in particular I feel I have barely touched on but there’s just so much of it… You’ll just have to take my word for it and go listen to the album yourself! You won’t regret it, I promise.

If you’re going to Fest this year then you can catch Telethon opening up at Hardback Cafe on the Sunday (12:30–1:00pm). I’m not going so will be sat at home feeling sad but maybe next year…

You can stream and download Hard Pop on Bandcamp and like Telethon on Facebook.

This review was written by Emma Prew.

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