Pop Crucible

Josie and the Pussycats Soundtrack (Play Tone/Epic/Sony)
The Benjamins – The Art of Disappointment (Drive Thru Records)
The Rosenbergs – Mission: You (Discipline Global Mobile USA)

The most successful pop music operates on the conceit that it is fiction. And like all fiction, it relies on a blend of artful manipulation and real emotion to suspend its audience’s disbelief. “Sweet but true” might be the best summation. Paul McCartney convincing us Eleanor Rigby is someone we could have known is a perfect example of the drama and heart of pop music.

Along these lines Josie and the Pussycats work to convince us they’re a real band. And they’re amazing at it. If they’re not real, they should be. The Josie and the Pussycats to whom I refer is the band which appears on the soundtrack record to the movie Josie and the Pussycats. Voiced by Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo and performed by Bif Naked and Matthew Sweet, Josie and the Pussycats play songs written by a diverse cast of rockers. Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s co-wrote some of the tunes. As well she should have — Josie and the P-cats sound like a Jolt cola version of Wiedlin’s famous girl group. They are twice as hyper and twice as sugary as the Go-Go’s ever got.

Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, Anna Waronker of That Dog as well as Hanley herself also contributed to the songs. If it sounds like a mixed bag, you can’t tell. Hanley does a great job providing youthful enthusiasm and just enough rock ‘n’ roll grit in her voice. And the band is flawless. Bluntly put, this record is better than anything in the mainstream. If I had kids, I’d buy ’em this record so they’d listen to something that rocked. It’s obscenely catchy. It’s embarassingly fun. It’s youthful but in the way that young adults look back on being young. And therein is the record’s perfect fictional twist.

The blend of songwriting craft and heartfelt exuberance defines pop music. Josie and the Pussycats get the mixture right, but two other recent release from the indie-pop catalog confirm that getting the right clash of sweets and truth isn’t as easy as Josie makes it look.

The Rosenbergs carry along the tired baggage of their record deal story. These guys turned down a deal with Farmclub.com. Evidently, Farmclub’s boss, Jimmy Iovine from Interscope, brought some Draconian major-label practices to his “indie” label, Farmclub. Well, no shit, Sherlock. Even the cartoon Josie could have figured that out. In the sanitized, Willy Wonka world where the Rosenbergs live, this was big news.

The Rosenbergs’s debut record, Mission: You, is loaded with the same shiny production, the same big hooks and the same tuneful vocals that Josie and the P-cats have. It’s just that too often the fa├žade is broken. Like when David Fagin’s syrupy-sweet voice sings “If you and me had sex, could we keep it all together? / I hear your dog’s named Rex, did you knit him a sweater?” right after a refrain of “naa-na-na-na,” we’re left wondering if he couldn’t come up with more appropriate words. The nudge-nudge, wink-wink presupposed irony of the lines jolts the listener out of his suspension of disbelief. Likewise, the charming beginning of “Paper and Plastic” suddenly hits its chorus of “It’s too late baby / You’re bending and you’re breaking me / I’m not made of elastic” and the effect is of eating too many LifeSavers — when the candy residue coats the mouth and spoils the sweetness. Let’s not even discuss the “Houseboat” lines, “Throw your kisses down / They might reach the sidewalk.” There’s enough saccharine in that chorus to make your knees buckle.

Milwaukee’s The Benjamins are immediately more interesting than the Rosenbergs if only because they rock harder. Enthusiasm counts. And the stomp box power chords of the Benjamins will always sound more exciting than the pristine jangle of the Rosenbergs. Despite their youthful energy, there is still something about the Benjamins and their record, The Art of Disappointment, that feels forced. Maybe it’s the pronounced affectations in Jay’s vocals. The Southern drawl may be a tad inauthentic for a kid from Wisconsin. Like their glasses-wearing brethren, Harvey Danger, these guys are too clever by half. It’s easy to see that the Benjamins are fans of nerd-pop like Weezer. But their attempt at suburban rock sounds a bit clumsy, a bit corporate . . . or maybe that should be “desperate to be corporate.”

While none of these bands is really a group of corporate puppets, it’s interesting that the one most likely to be, indeed the one created as a marketing device, is the most successful at creating good pop music. Not all fictional bands have such luck. It is Josie and the Pussycats effortless execution of simple pop songs that sustains them. The levels of unreality at work on the record also help it succeed. You know “Josie” isn’t singing about a real person but in her world, “Josie” is. So it’s easy to suspend your critical thinking. It’s not quite as easy to accept a grown man singing about kisses falling from the sky.

This isn’t to say that there is a concrete conclusion to draw about the bands’ individual merits. Except this: discerning pop music fans might ordinarily be tempted to purchase the Benjamins or the Rosenbergs record because of a false sense of indie rock credibilty. If, in doing this, the listener passed up the Josie and the Pussycats record, he would be missing out on a record far more fun from a band that doesn’t really exist and therefore will never disappoint.