Not since the Bee Gees infected the world with Saturday Night Fever has there been a more unlikely dance pop juggernaut than Maroon 5. Unlikely because, like the Bee Gees, the California sextet started out as a traditional, guitar-based pop band, prone to earnest sentiments, acoustic guitars and heartbreak lyrics.
Not now. On their ironically titled fourth album, Overexposed, the beat rules all, with the remnants of the band’s old sound wholly subsumed by a battery of drum machines, synths and studio effects. About the only things remaining intact are Adam Levine’s slightly adenoidal tenor and the tendency to obsess on love go wrong.
It’s tempting to ascribe this transformation and its corresponding commercial success to the Max Martin factor. Martin, who executive-produced Overexposed, is the Swedish pop guru behind the success of Britney Spears, Pink, Ke$ha and countless other dance pop stars, and his influence can be heard in string of smash hits dating back to the mid-nineties and Ace of Base. Slap his production credit on an album, and the reflexive reaction of most in the industry is to think, “Svengali.”
But that’s not fair, because the Maroons’ groove obsession is actually an outgrowth from their guitar pop roots. Specifically, it was the 2008 hit Misery – yet another love-is-torturing-me tune, but one that tooled along over a Bee Gee-ish Miami disco guitar line – that set the stage for the band’s current success. It wasn’t a dance song so much as a pop song with a danceable beat, and while the beats have grown stronger over time, the pop content remains essentially the same.
Take, for example, Tickets, an addicttarively catchy track about being in love with a narcissist. Although it’s powered by a classically Martinesque blend of sawing synths and chattering post-disco guitar, what ultimately drives the track is the vocal line, which spins artful variations on the sing-song cadence of nyah-nyah taunt. Add some funk inflection on the verse and a la-la vocal hook, and the listener is left like the song’s protagonist, “singing along like there’s no tomorrow.”
Even though it boasts both a rap break and a club-style kick drum, there’s even more of the traditional pop sound to Payphone, the group’s current single. Levine’s pleading vocal, which arches into falsetto with the words “pay phone,” is precisely the sort of thing the band did its strummy youth, and indeed, part of the fun of the record is the way that Levine’s protagonist, hung up and fed up, inverts the whole brokenhearted singer/songwriter convention, complaining in the chorus that one more love song will make him sick.
Dance pop is, at bottom, all about methodology – the beats, the studio gloss, the lyrical conventions – and in that sense, the most impressive thing about Overexposed is that Maroon 5 are able to both embrace and mock the machinery they use. It suggests that they are not only pop-savvy but whip-smart, a combination not even the Bee Gees managed.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Jaill (Sub Pop)
We’re talking leg-hold traps, sharp-toothed and mean but not too bad if you haven’t stepped in one. But you have, so you write a song, nothing too grand, because it’s only one leg, and it happens to everybody. Love lies bleeding, and Wisconsin trio Jaill responds with sharp-edged jangly tunes, addictively mobile changes and steely guitar riffs that twist and claw together. “I waste a lot of things,” they sing in the opening track, while cycling through three different time signatures that make the catchy tune impossible to dance to. Perfect Ten is some kind of perfect, loose in feeling but tightly made, with a tune that’s a labyrinthine ear-worm. “I’ll shoot high while you reload,” they promise in While You Reload, as generous in combat as in all things musical. Robert Everett-Green
Jaill plays the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver on July 21.
A Place To Bury Strangers (Dead Oceans)
Taking big chunks of inspiration from classic bands doesn’t necessarily mean that A Place To Bury Strangers’ music is uninspired. It’s a shame that detractors can’t see past their debts to 1980s goth-rock (which are less prominent here than in the past), since there’s a lot of innovative, exciting stuff going on at the margins of the New Yorkers trio’s third album. Revenge makes the case most forcefully, with singer/guitarist/effects whiz Oliver Ackerman sweating toxins out through his vocal cords as scabrous guitars coil around each other yet never touch. If aging noise-rock fans don’t feel the white-knuckle, overstimulated-endorphin-gland tension of a song like Mind Control, they might want to have their hearing checked. Dave Morris
The Tarnished Gold
Beachwood Sparks (Sub Pop)
“What’s that feeling when you’re being free; past and present become the same thing?” On its first recording in 10 years, the mellow-gold country-rock outfit Beachwood Sparks makes hazy, harmonic music, rhymes “lonesome” with “then some,” and answers its own questions. This is stream-fed psychedelia and California buckwheat on the back acres of Ranch CSN&Y, with a little Oakley Hall vibe thrown in for melodic measure. This band and guests like Ariel Pink have reappeared and disappeared simultaneously – a decade to them doesn’t mean a thing. Brad Wheeler
Editor's note: The title of the Beachwood Sparks album was incorrect in an earlier version of this article. It has been corrected.