ower pop is the rebellious suburban youth. Born from the dull loins of verse-chorus-verse and constant meter, he doesn’t try to be unique or gauche. He can’t rap, doesn’t care too much for decks, and was never good with sports or the ladies. Instead he merely makes bolder what he does best, amping up and drop tuning the guitars and beating the shit out of the skins. In a nutshell: our boy is constantly pressing against the ceiling, but isn’t trying to break through. Hell, even if he wanted to try his hand at something different—if he wanted to be profound or philosophical—he’d invariably fail. Besides, pop isn’t about what you say, it’s about how you say it.
Jonathan Bates got the power part from the sunny L.A. skies, bypassing his technical proficiency as a guitarist for immediate three-chord bombast. This decision is relatively new: A Demonstration of Intellectual Property and Go Get ‘Em Tiger were lethargic EPs; power pop that imploded because it was disinterested in, well, itself. Bates had a baritone stuck in the doldrums, which proved problematic when paired with equally sloppy instrumentals. Yeah, it was pop, but it was also skeletal. The gimmick was revealed and we stopped listening.
Box comes wrapped in scandal: a semi-nude model equipped with a single satin glove offers a mysterious glance, her prurient pose covered by little more than shadow. Oh, and what’s this? Yes, kids, a Parental Advisory sticker adorns the lower right side of the cover telling you that “Strong Language” awaits your ears. Looks like the pop that Mr. Bates wants to give us has found a more mature outlet and been given a Californian veneer of sex and aggro. Sadly, the reality confirms mostly the opposite. Box is no doubt dressed to impress, but even its many layers of Pro Tools and studio gimmickry can’t hide the fact that the body is lacking a solid base.
“C’mon Try a Little Bit” opens the album well enough with a crawling, sinister bass line that eventually feeds into Bates’s vocals and a barrage of guitars. Only a little over two minutes in length, it certainly builds expectation for the rest of the album, and on a few tracks that expectation is impressively met. “Madison” wins the Blue Ribbon for most affecting use of a conjunction, as Bates drops an octave for each “and” during the chorus. “Limb to Limb” finds Bates holding a note for the chorus, juxtaposed with a recitation of the track name. On both of these songs one sees him hitting the emotional nodes of a David Sylvian or even Will Oldham.
The problem lies not when Mellowdrone stick to power pop on tracks like “Oh My,” “Fashionably Uninvited,” or “Whatever The Deal”—those are all nice and even dulcet—but when they strip back and strip down in an attempt to be more, I don’t know, profound I guess? “Fuck It Man” is acoustic posturing set to a plodding beat with no melodic ingenuity or suspense. “And Repeat” mines the same structure, this time without nearly the same amount of studio bells and whistles. The amount of mid-tempo duds on Box is rather startling—“Orange Marmalade,” “Amazing,” and “Four Leaf Clover” are just a few more—considering how successful the more aggressive pieces are. If anything it’s a testament to the fact that histrionics need a sonic match, not a spotlight. Comparable bands like Muse know this and have gladly foresworn nuance. Box is only successful when it does the same.