Incantations of the phonetic phrase “La-la-la” followed by another “La-la-la,” for an overwhelming majority of music listeners throughout music’s extensive history, have never implicitly meant anything other than an establishment of harmony in a given innocent pop song, hence all pop songs. Strange though that something so insignificant now means less than nothing. Such is the impact of irony in our culture. Or at least that is what I gathered having heard the phrase as I wrote it here in the opening minute of the opening track of All Smiles’ quirkily titled new album. Delivered harmoniously and in a childlike falsetto by Jim Fairchild and whomever, they lay quite plainly the facade of pop pleasantry that listeners will latch onto with great interest before they slowly notice the grimy reality that exists beneath the music.
Fairchild, the band’s primary member is neither stranger nor foe to the simple, precious hook; quite the contrary on both counts, Fairchild and the pop hook seem to be, in a matter of speaking, drinking buddies. They meet at some dive where both are warm and cozy blockading themselves from the real world. Fairchild has seen some shit it seems, having moved from the West Coast to Chicago has done a number on him and the best possible remedy in his mind is to bounce them off of the pop hooks so that they can render them less ugly allowing him to take perspective and solace from them. The end result being, as is to be expected, a series of songs sprung from misery, crystallized in hope, and tightened ever finer perhaps out of some desire to best the blander examples of “alt” pop in whatever is left of the airwaves.
Fairchild’s sound of choice is one that is getting increasingly difficult to write about in a way that is not palpable waste of anyone’s time. Simply put, it’s the prettiest of pop. The music eschews complexity of any kind, comfortably uncomplicated chord progressions are their foundations; while the production is pristine and layered. Strums play off chimes, hums interchange with claps, everything is clear, no detail shall be taken for granted. “Foxes in the Furnace” is the deviant track with its slower tempo and opening notes of feedback. Nevertheless it is treated just as much by Fairchild’s Elliott Smith-as-boy-next-door vocals and his polysyllabic lyrics as any other song on the album. Fairchild sees himself as a narrative lyricist, spinning personal stories about common counters with human sadness and other detours from the good life: “I want to say goodbye/To all my relatives/The ones I want to die/The ones I want to live.” Some verses veer off of the narrative path and take up a personal reflection writing with poetic images that assimilate beautifully in the music and could be obvious enough in their symbolism (animals pop up every now and then) but one is left partially unsure.
Oh For the Getting and Not Letting Go is an album that will make people feel pleasant and assured of pleasantries around them possibly gone unseen previously. Still, with all of these sad pop songs coming around more often, it makes one wonder what these are exactly. Like a philosophically dubious college professor, an audience is captivated by rhetoric and flare at first, but is puzzled as to whether or not they should be shocked by an artist who contrasts a light extreme with a dark one for some purpose of ironic mockery, or moved by the artist’s personal, highly gifted method of creating concise, imperfect stories and revealing secret insights from them. I do not doubt that Fairchild is a sincere pop artist and a man with sensitivities as deeply human as the rest of us, and he’s not as tormented or even as bitter as other artists I’ve come by, but even the smallest inclination of using pop to make art of squalor, and also making it central to the project, will open the band to the possibility of being mistreated by audiences as a stone cold paradoxical hipster, which is preferable, it seems, to peaking into the therapy methods of a quirky minstrel — unless Fairchild is, after all this, a veiled version of the former, which is certainly not uncool.