The Power of Lies

Soundtrack from “fictional” band beats out the pop competition

Pop music frequently operates like fiction, relying on a blend of artful manipulation and real emotion to suspend the audience’s disbelief. Paul McCartney convincing us that Eleanor Rigby is someone we could have known is a perfect example.

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 group appears on the Epic/Sony soundtrack record to the movie Josie and the Pussycats. The movie has already pretty much dropped out of sight, but the soundtrack is so pitch-perfect that it oughta stay in people’s CD players all summer. Voiced by Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, with instrumentation 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 were.

Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, and Anna Waronker of That Dog also contributed to the songs, as did Hanley, who as vocalist does a great job providing youthful enthusiasm and just enough rock ’n’ roll grit. And the band is flawless. Bluntly put, this record is better than anything else 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, embarrassingly fun, and youthful, but in the way that young adults look back on being young.

Josie and the Pussycats get their blend of songwriting craft and heartfelt exuberance right, but two other recent releases from the indie-pop catalog confirm that it isn’t as easy as they make it look.

The Rosenbergs carry along the tired baggage of their record-deal story: These guys turned down a deal with, evidently appalled that boss Jimmy Iovine (formerly of Interscope) brought draconian major-label practices to his “indie” label. Well, no shit, Sherlock—even the cartoon Josie could have figured that out. But in the sanitized, Willy Wonka world where The Rosenbergs live, this was big news.

The Rosenbergs’ debut record, Mission: You (Discipline Global Mobile), is loaded with the same shiny production, the same big hooks, and the same tuneful vocals as the Josie soundtrack. But too often, the nudge-nudge, wink-wink irony of the lyrics jolts the listener’s suspension of disbelief. 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?” we’re left wondering if he couldn’t come up with better words.

Milwaukee’s The Benjamins are immediately more interesting, if only because they rock harder. Enthusiasm counts here, and the band’s stomp-box power chords will always sound more exciting than the pristine jangle of The Rosenbergs. Despite their youthful energy, though, there is still something about The Benjamins and their record, The Art of Disappointment (Drive Thru Records), 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. The Benjamins are obviously 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.”

Of these three bands, it’s interesting that the one created as a marketing device is the most successful at creating good pop music. Not all fictional bands have such luck, but the levels of unreality at work here are what help the record succeed: You know that Kay Hanley isn’t singing about a real person in “Shapeshifter,” but she’s “real” in the context of Josie and the Pussycats’ fictional world. So it’s easy to suspend your critical thinking and enjoy this fluff for exactly what it is. It’s not quite as easy to accept a grown man singing about kisses falling from the sky, as The Rosenbergs’ Fagin does in “Houseboat.”

Discerning pop music fans might ordinarily be tempted to purchase The Benjamins’ or The Rosenbergs’ record because each of these bands boasts indie rock credibility—which ends up being way more false than anything on the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack. But if listeners pass up on this clearly superior record, they’ll be missing out on a band that doesn’t really exist and therefore will never disappoint.

This piece appeared in the Nashville Scene.