Pop music thrives on economy. You can always add more and more layers, extended outros, indulgent intros, interludes, bridge upon bridge upon bridge, but the best pop music has rarely subscribed to the idea of “more is more.” Like a spectacular live show, the general idea behind a great song—prog-rock excepted—is always to leave a craving for more even after it’s over. Get in and get out, in as little time as possible, and make every moment count.
That’s a lot harder to do than it sounds, and from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t even really sound all that easy. Bay Area singer/songwriter Tony Molina has never shown a particular interest in getting his Beatles- and Undertones-like punk-power-pop songs to the top of the charts, though he has a particular knack for writing perfectly concise pop songs that manage to pack every essential element into 90 seconds or less—big power-pop riffs, heartsick verses, soaring choruses and even a solo or two. Much has been made of the brevity of his compositions, to his own bemusement, but in spite of it, rare is the Tony Molina song that feels like an unfinished sketch.
Four years after his previous full-length LP, Kill the Lights, Molina reaffirms his commitment to the kind of punky power-pop that began with his old band Ovens on In the Fade, but with an ear toward maximalism and more richly psychedelic arrangements. Many of the songs recorded for the album have roots in that band, in concept if not always in terms of the structure or elements of the songs themselves, and from the opening surge of “The Last Time,” Molina sounds energized and charged up. Fuzzy, scuzzy, driven by harmonized guitar leads and vibrating with youthful energy, “The Last Time” offers Molina’s signature songwriting at its best—the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll served up without bloat or filler.
In the 14 songs and 18 minutes of In the Fade, Molina showcases a wider spread of sounds than on his previous studio albums, incorporating a more diverse array of instruments in addition to the guitar fuzz and jangle that have come to be his trademark. Piano and Hammond organ add rich layers of more soulful psychedelic sound to “Not Worth Knowing,” while sparse acoustic strums pair with faint keyboard drone in the gently affecting “Don’t Be Far.” Meanwhile, the addition of mellotron in “Song for Friends (Slight Return)” takes the album on a detour through Strawberry fields, and a gloriously thick layer of fuzz makes all 59 seconds of “Fuck Off Now” among the album’s most satisfying.
Thematically, In the Fade runs the gauntlet of most of popular music’s familiar topics: Love, loss, malaise and agitation, and Molina’s sunny, if occasionally melancholy guitar pop anthems always feel fit for soundtracking the kinds of emotions that come with being a young person, still finding your place in the world. Which is fitting, given Molina’s efforts to shrug off the idea that his music was, somehow, growing more “mature”; as he says in a press release, “Man, that’s kinda lame, no I’m not…” Still, it’s hard to deny his growth as an artist. For more than a decade, he’s consistently been delivering the best of what power pop has to offer. It almost feels like something of a calling for him, and he manages to find new avenues of exploration within the relatively simple idea of a pop song. As both his most ambitious album to date as well as his strongest set of songs, In the Fade serves as a reminder of just how deep that well potentially runs.
Label: Summer Shade/Run for Cover
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.