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Making pop music – and we’re talking about the old fashioned kind of pop music, now, the kind that bespeaks Beatles, XTC and Badfinger records in the collection – is hard. Drawing on those musical values without sounding like you’re ripping off a specific artist or song is extremely challenging, and plenty of musicians have made enjoyable but ultimately ephemeral records playing in this sandbox.
On his thirteenth LP The Tender Age, Ward White has it down. With loyalty to guitar hooks and counterpoint harmonies, clever lyrics that made seedy personalities sound like the folks next door, and an expansive musical mind attuned to creating just the right arrangement or fill for the song at hand, the Los Angeleno makes music that has an easy familiarity without ever sounding specifically like anyone else. Example: “Let’s Don’t Die at the Stoplight.” On the one hand it’s a harrowing (and, shockingly, true) story of being stuck at a stoplight while a shoot-out develops around its protagonist. But on the other, it explores the mundane paths down which the mind wanders when it’s frozen in indecision. “Let’s don’t die at the stoplight/Someone’s got to tip the valet/And they’ll charge you for another day on this rental,” sung by a plainspoken tenor atop a pleasantly melodic pop rock tune. The menace in the brash “On Foot” and the arty “Easy Meat” (“I swear to god, it was just a thought I had,” the narrator sings unconvincingly, “I would never act on it,” without ever explaining what “it” might be) is palpable, even if the trappings in which it rests is all flowers and smiles.
But it’s not all sweetly delivered suckerpunches and side-eye observations. “Dentures” may tell the story of Chet Baker hoping to reunite with his lost teeth in heaven, but lines like “the day you’re born, you’re defeated” and the gorgeous piano melody bely any notions of ironic detachment. The equally beauteous “Heavy Lifting,” with its straightforward rhythm and shimmering guitar chords, helps White explore the winding path of creativity with cheeky lines that don’t obscure a sense of uneasy maturity. “Gimme one that writes itself,” he croons. “I’m tired of all this heavy lifting/Tired of all this flour-sifting.” White may seem like he wants to be the smartest guy in the room at first blush, but it doesn’t take too many spins to realize that he’s just as filled with loss, longing and disorientation as the rest of us – he just knows how to make the harsh dose of reality feel like a warm blanket instead of a bed of nails.
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