“What is the secret to making a pop record in the twenty-first century?” Such was the root of a conversation I had with my daughter last week, but it all began with talking about how much music has changed in what could be perceived as a very short period of time. Since it has bearing on the dialogue, it’s worth pointing out that it was my daughter who was wondering about this (she recently turned sixteen); in her estimation, pop music had changed dramatically – and she was confused on how it could have changed so much that she no longer recognized or related to what she was hearing.
“Well sweetie, you already know that ‘pop’ is just an abbreviation for ‘popular’. At its core, pop is always going to change, because it’s always going to follow the tides of cultural trends. Now, it’s possible that the current tide diverged from the direction that you expected – but no trend is absolute. If you don’t like where pop appears to be right now, don’t worry – it’ll change. You just have to be patient,” were my words of reassurance to her.
Did I really mean that? I like to believe that I did prior to hearing The Drew Thomson Foundation’s self-titled debut (Thomson’s first album with his side-project apart from Single Mothers), but it was actually experiencing that album which truly renewed my faith in my own statement. Simply said, The Drew Thomson Foundation made a believer that great, guitar-driven pop (JUST pop – not punk or folk or any of the other myriad genres which color the spectrum) was still a possibility out of me.
As the stylus touches down and “Karma” growls petulantly to lifewith a palm-muted, overdriven guitar and Thomson’s nasal vocal delivery, Generation X-ers may hear their teen years rattle back to life with the words, “No money? That’s no stop me/ Dropped out of school – big fool” but, rather than coming off as mawkish or pandering to its audience on one hand or dismissive “Boomer” (as my daughter would call it) posturing on the other, the song locks into a perfectly ironic vibe which is simultaneously great rock as well as a great examination of WHAT MAKES great rock (which becomes perfectly self-evident when Thomson coyly asserts, “This should be easy” in a vocal tone which echoes They Might Be Giants, early Radiohead and Tripping Daisy, coupled with licks which seethe but do not actually explode. In fact, the song locks more into a great pop dynamic than it does a rock one, but plays “rock” with “pop” gusto and proves to be a gaffe-sized hook in its own right. That sense endures even after “Karma” fades out because “Stay” just picks it up and keeps its legs under it – the energy between the first and second tracks doesn’t change and listeners will find they have no difficulty following along at all. “Stay” actually comes close to the kind of heart and rocky soul that Canadians who grew up in the late Eighties and early Nineties recall warmly (think Lowest Of The Low, the gentler side of The Killjoys and the better side of The Odds) and upholds that even as they get a little foul-mouthed in “Pace Yourself” (choice lyric: “You’ve got to pace yourself/ Shut that fuckin’ mouth”) and revelling in classic Canadian composition cliches between “Cantrefold” and “A Little More Time” before finally resting confidently in the power pop of “Low,” which closes the side. There, Thomson really manages to throw a perfect breaking ball which will hold listeners dew-eyed; with dense and chunky guitars which straddle the dimensions of Weezer and The Pixies and a pop sensibility which will have listeners nodding along confidently, Thomson will capture each of the last listeners which may have been holding out from handing their hearts to him and really seal the deal. This cut is the perfect end to a side which was already a pretty impressive offering.
Not yet ready to let listeners wander, the confident, confrontational swagger which drives “Barbed Wire” and opens the B-side will hypnotize them all over again as soon as they’ve flipped the record over. There, Thomson really shines as he compares a girl’s personality to barbed wire (“You’re sharp and deep when you have to be”) on top of a stomping verse, but lets the real poetry of the progression shine when the chorus changes up the rhythm. In that sonic give-and-take, Thomson steals hearts and no listener tries to retrieve them as the rocky but down-home heart akready heard steps up. “Break” sees love develop at a Greyhound Station (“Puttin’ all your smokes out on the wall/ Got your bags all packed/ But your face says ‘I’ll be back’/ I just need to get out of town”) and “LA Lately” romanticizes hard luck and a relationship which just doesn’t have a chance but does have a great punk spine in it before Thomson tries his hand at piano and patters out (the far more throwaway) “People Are Pets” adn then closes out with the solid-of-beat but softer-of-structure “All I Remember.” Because of the way the side ends, it’s easy to feel as though both the singer and his music are wearing down dramatically but, when the needle does lift, listeners will find they’re hungry to recapture the power housed on the A-side; the last two cuts on the B- aren’t as strong as the rest of the album is, but they’re not so weak that they’ll make listeners want to shutter the album completely after only one listen. If anything, all the decline of the B-side really illustrates is that Drew Thomson Foundation is the work of a band still early in their career. True, there may be a few bugs in it that need working out, but the quality of the other cuts far overshadows the weaker moments. Simply said, while the album isn’t flawless, Drew Thomson Foundation’s debut is absolutely phenomenal and should be regarded as essential listening for anyone who has been worried about the state of rock recently, or the promise and power that it is still capable of exerting. It’s the kind of record that has left room for improvement, but is still a great and exciting start.
(Dine Alone Music Inc.)
The Drew Thomson Foundation is out now on Dine Alone Records. Buy it here on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Drew-Thomson-Foundation/dp/B07TJKBH5V/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1NDLFYZK6ET60&keywords=drew+thomson+foundation&qid=1577858026&sprefix=Drew+Thomson%2Caps%2C168&sr=8-1