Beautifully Smart is a quintessential debut album in that it showcases a band still learning how to play together and struggling for their own sonic identity. If I’m reading the slightly confusing bio on their website correctly, Norwegian quintet Aqpop is actually a hybrid of two separate groups: the Aquarium Poppers and the Chime Poppers, both of which involved many of the same members. Singer/guitarist Thor Holm recorded album opener “Have It” by himself, singing and playing all of the instruments, almost two years before Aqpop officially formed; a full-band version appears as an unlisted bonus track at the end of the CD. Although Holm is competent at all of his instruments, a comparison of the two versions reveals that Aqpop’s songs truly benefit from the input of the whole band. Throughout Beautifully Smart, guitarist Karl Dahl’s nimble leads, Jade Hasselgard’s sprightly keyboards and vocal harmonies, and Andreas Knudsen’s loose, splashy drumming give Holm’s and Dahl’s songs a good amount of kick.
This album is sequenced so that the band’s shorter pop songs are concentrated in its first half, while the second half is devoted to their darker, noisier material. “Radio 60” is an instrumental Nuggets-style garage-rock rave-up with brash organ chords and skuzzy pentatonic guitar solos. The urgently strummed guitars and sinister keyboard arpeggios of “Screen” sound like Franz Ferdinand playing in the middle of a circus. The title track is built off a restless chord progression and chiming lead guitar part that sounds like a countrified version of Guided by Voices. It’s also the best example of the band’s charmingly vague ESL lyrics: “She wasn’t treating me so well/but now I’m slick/I know the sell.” “Confused” is a more rough-and-tumble version of the psychedelic pop of the Olivia Tremor Control, complete with a bridge smothered in backwards keyboards. Only one of the first six songs on Beautifully Smart pass the three-minute mark.
Once seventh song “The Day” begins, things get a little bit out of hand. The first five minutes of the song are what Zykos would sound like if their female pianist sang lead instead of singer/guitarist Mike Booher. It starts off as insistent acoustic pop, atop which Jade Hasselgard scatters lush vocal harmonies and slightly lackadaisical piano playing. It gains more and more intensity as it goes along, until the song explodes in a loud, feedback-drenched climax. Instead of stopping there, though, the band tacks on a slow coda with poorly sung vocals by Thor that makes the song much longer than it really needs to be. The next song, “Caught By This Feeling,” begins with two minutes of arrhythmic drumming, screeching guitars and disembodied vocals from Hasselgard. It sounds like their attempt at one of Bardo Pond’s more outré jam sessions, until Thor and the rest of the band abruptly change the song into a sea shanty redolent of the quieter moments of Comets on Fire’s Blue Cathedral. “Command Smile:able” takes a cue or two from the staccato post-punk of the Hives, and “Syramid” is a long minor-key Doors-style jam. None of the last five songs on this album are under three minutes.
If it sounds like I’ve namedropped too many bands in the last couple of paragraphs, please don’t chalk it up to lazy journalism. Those paragraphs were set up to illustrate my main gripe with Beautifully Smart. Aqpop has quite a nice set of influences to work with from the last four decades of rock: ‘60s psychedelic pop, ‘70s garage punk, ‘80s New Wave, and ‘90s noise. Unfortunately, they haven’t integrated these influences smoothly enough to keep Beautifully Smart from sounding more like a mix CD than a cohesive album. Many of the songs on the first half sound like they came from entirely different bands; the second half of the album is even more disjointed, with too many awkward stylistic shifts occurring mid-song. Don’t get me wrong --- Aqpop has certainly got the talent, the chops and the tunes to make a great album. They may need another album or two to find their own distinct identity, but I’m sure that they will…and I’m looking forward to hearing the results when they do.
Artist Website: http://www.aqpop.com
Label website: http://www.hhbtm.com