by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, June 1997
If you could use a breather from the tortured howls, thundering riffs and razor-against-wrist sentiments ruling the music charts today, a refreshing swig of the Wondermints might be just what you need. In the grand tradition of the Beach Boys, Jellyfish, XTC, Todd Rundgren and other acts who dare to combine layered harmonies, dense arrangements and baroque pop hooks, this cultish L.A. band offers a sparkling array of candy-colored treats on its self-titled debut.
Of course, any group striving for this nostalgic sort of sound opens itself to immediate criticism -- yup, the dreaded "retro" tag. Wondermints keyboardist/co-leader Darian Sahanaja shrugs off such comments, however.
"Tapping into a tradition of melodicism and a certain catchiness isn't limited to a certain era. I think it's actually sort of ingrained in our DNA. If you hear something and you repeat it a couple days later or it's running through your head, I don't think that's exclusive to the Beatlesque period, or post-Beatles pop or early '70s Raspberries/Badfinger power-pop. It transcends a lot of different music. Of course, the trick is to somehow incorporate that and make it interesting. And unfortunately, the Top 40 pop today -- we're talking Whitney Houston, that kind of pop -- is not that interesting. Kinda mediocre. There are other hybrids that I think work better, musically and lyrically."
This first Wondermints disc actually came out in Japan over a year ago on the Toy's Factory label, but several months passed before New York indie Big Deal licensed it for domestic issue. Japan's well-known love for treacly bubblegum may explain the disc's somewhat thin, overpolished mix, but infectious tunes like "Proto-Pretty," "Thought Back" and "Carnival of Souls" easily cut through the gloss. Meanwhile, the soaring ballad "Tracy Hide" makes it obvious why Brian Wilson gave the band his personal endorsement.
Oddly, the second Wondermints album is already out in Japan, almost simultaneous with the Big Deal release. Unfortunately, the influence of Toy's Factory was more sinister this time.
"They insisted that the next album be a covers record, which was not the artistic statement we wanted to make," Sahanaja sighs. "I guess we could've said 'Fuck you,' but then that would jeopardize our next originals album. We wanted to be in a pretty good position for that. The one thing about the Japanese is that they've been really good on the budget. At least where we're at, we just can't pass up the offers that they've made. I mean, their offer for the covers record was higher than like any three-album indie deal here in the States. But we had fun making it -- it was something to do."
The record, cornily titled The Wonderful World of Wondermints (again, a label decision), features a bizarre selection of songs, ranging from obscurities by the Monkees, Abba and the Hudson Brothers to the theme from Barbarella. Sahanaja doubts that Big Deal will license this one.
"I don't know how well it would sell, and I'm sure the bottom line for them would be money. It's an album of covers, which would mean they'd have to get copyright clearance, and I'm sure they don't want to do that. And frankly, I don't think they'd want to promote a covers album. I don't blame them -- it's kind of a novelty thing. But it's neat for us to have."
After devoting most of 1996 to outside material, the Wondermints are eager to record an all-originals album. They haven't decided whether they'll release it through Toy's Factory or Big Deal (or both), but one thing's for sure: Once the record's out, they'll have to deal with those same anti-pop prejudices.
"I never deny that we're a pop band," Sahanaja says, "but we like a lot of different things. Pop music just happens to be one of the ways that it manifests. There's a tendency for hipsters to frown upon the term 'pop.' I imagine they fear it implies a certain kind of mediocrity, which is true when it's handled by the corporate machines and it caters to the lowest common denominator. But we think of pop as just a long tradition of anything catchy and hooky. You can trace it back to Mozart, or whoever."
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