Hidden Treasure: The Bigger Lovers’ How I Learned to Stop Worrying

Ira Robbins

By Ira Robbins

on 03.11.11 in Spotlights

If words actually had meaning any more, the “pop” half of power pop would be short for populist, not popular. Any bedroom doodler able to write and deliver a breathtaking melody can be a listening-class hero, but the full blast of stardom is generally reserved for the crass, the lucky and the fulsomely obvious. No devotee of tuneful auteurs really wants to know how minuscule a ratio will result from dividing the number of earthly pop hits by the vast fields of records that have been created in the Beatles ‘wake, if not their precise image. Yet, all praise the spirit of Shoes, Big Star and Heavenly, the music keeps getting made. Given the near certitude that most power pop will be heard by next-to-nobody, it’s a bloody miracle how many faithful followers still apply themselves, occasionally with magnificent results, to the effort.

Pop has never exactly thrived on obscurity, but neither have determined bands been completely hobbled by the lack of commercial support. It is largely tunes for tunes ‘sake. Perhaps it’s the possibility of being placed shoulder-to-shoulder with an idol (in even just one personal pantheon) that drives so many. The occasional spectacular achievement – a little-known song that means as much to some listeners as a genuine genre standard – makes the lack of widespread endorsement merely a bagatelle.

The Bigger Lovers came out of Philadelphia, gave it a good shot for three albums and then called it quits in 2005, all of which would probably matter to no one beyond the quartet’s families and friends were it not for the brilliance and originality of their songs. In guitarist Bret Tobias and bassist Scott Jefferson, the group had two sterling singer-songwriters whose work meshed together rather than jockeyed for prominence. Credit as well production that pours on vocals like maple syrup and dresses up smart ensemble playing with oddball studio effects, making for a chewy confection that, on record, is both addictive and nourishing.

To mark a 2011 reunion, the group has reissued its wonderful, long-lost 2001 debut with a couple of more-recently recorded bonus tracks. The ironically titled How I Learned to Stop Worrying is a confident collection of anxieties, catastrophes and regrets, all set to richly-realized guitar pop with occasional pedal steel that reasonably summons comparisons to Velvet Crush (in their rock and country periods). The songs benefit enormously from a lack of obvious chord patterns and melodic clichés, using textural dynamics and rhythmic diversity to further bolster their impact. The lyrics, which ruminate comfortably amid the joyous music, are just as thoughtful and uncommon. Jefferson’s “Out of Sight” offers “Five years back/ I had all different clothes/ Maybe that’s the reason he would never sleep with me.” The second verse of “Forever Is Not So Long” is a brief concert review: “What did you think of those guys last night?/ Were they OK? Do you think they’re all right?/ They sounded like something that I heard before/ But the singer was a drag.” The Bigger Lovers take small chances like that throughout yet always convey a positive spirit. They’re a friend who wryly shares bad news without needing you to suffer along.

“Catch and Release” runs into “I’m Here” and concludes with a smattering of studio applause. With a stuttering guitar track upsetting the song’s easy feel, “Change Your Mind” is not a complex creation, but still has a lot going on, all of which is a benefit. The band pushes and pulls back on the power before rising to a complete release on the gorgeous refrain; near the end, a lull in the action sets up a stirring instrumental coda that evaporates into a static loop. Other highlights include the rousingly resentful “Threadbare” and the sunny “Summer (of Our First Hello).” The odd track out is the gauzy, languorous “Casual Friday,” which ends with a spoken interlude (credited to Tobias as “the Phil Everly part”) about an airplane disaster.

The Bigger Lovers developed nicely on their two subsequent albums (2002′s Honey in the Hive and 2004′s This Affair Never Happened… ), upholding songwriting quality while growing more accomplished in presentation. It’s safe to say that none of the group’s music has reached even a fraction of the audience that would likely love it, but How I Learned to Stop Worrying was the starting point of something wonderful. And you never forget your first.