astroPuppees – Little Chick Tsunami

astroPuppees
Little Chick Tsunami

Although the music charts have never suffered from a shortage of pretty female faces to put on records and line the upper registers of the Top 40 charts, women still seem to have a much harder time earning a credible name as artists and songwriters in today’s musical climate. Should she make a punk-rock record, she’ll be classified as a riot grrl. Should she sing about her life, she’ll be slated for entry among the Lilith Fair demographic. And if she makes power-pop, she’ll probably be classified as adult contemporary or Americana. In short, it’s hard for a woman not to have her sex be a hyphenated prefix for whatever genre in which she works. Such is the plight of Kelley Ryan and the largely one-woman outfit known as the astroPuppees.

After two albums, smatterings of critical praise, but little commercial notice, Kelley left her home on HighTone Records, a label more notable for roots rock and Americana releases than for the brand of fun, sunny pop in which she specializes. The result, Little Chick Tsunami, is an album brimming with the unrestrained joy of making quick, catchy pop songs, powered by Kelley’s consummately engaging songwriting personality. Loaded with sing-songy throwbacks, from the new-wavish femme fatale story in the opening “Over Her Head” to the imminently radio ready “Long as U Love,” Kelley possesses the kind of unshakable hookiness that probably ensures her a second career writing commercial jingles should the rock career not pan out. Without a doubt, her undeniably cute vocals and the occasionally gratuitous use of “yeahs” and “heys” means some of her songs probably wouldn’t be too terribly out of place on a Shania Twain album, but the artfulness of Kelley’s overriding aesthetic certainly rises above the empty girl power sloganeering and pop pandering that mar the work of the worst of those who could conceivably be compared to her. At her best, the uninhibited fun of her complex vocal arrangements recalls the interplay found on classic B-52’s albums, similarly carefree if not as unflinchingly unpredictable.

To be sure, much of the album has a warm, alternative-rock-circa-1993 feel. Echoing that fact is the appearance of Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela, joining a cast of supporting players who add their voices for near perfect backup vocals and instrumental skills to create a perfectly inoffensive set of mid-tempo rockers. Case in point, the cooing trumpet and cascading harmony vocals of the clever “Girlfriend in a Box” and the fuzzy guitars and plodding rhythms of “Girl on a Wire” don’t make bold gestures away from anything you might have heard on rock radio 10 years ago, yet are entirely appropriate for their exemplary craftsmanship and mix of textures. Of course, not everyone wants such calculated and careful arrangements, and if the album suffers, it’s from a lack of dramatic tension or creative mysteriousness. The songs never fail to entertain, but those who expect the heavens to part and rain down profound or obscure truth may be disappointed. This is a pop album, first and foremost.

In the end, what we have here is pure pop product in the best sense of the word. At times, with the countrified slide guitar “Any More Words,” Kelley touches upon a sense of melancholy and doubt that transcend the more pedestrian qualities of her craft, leaving the listener to more clearly feel the sentiments of the song’s protagonist. Still, most of the album is comprised of simple, nice three-minute pop songs. As such, her songwriting would probably benefit from a bit more of her personality, as the lyrics tend to sink under the weight of generalities and commonplace topics. But even if much of her craft is fairly predictable, it’s no less competent or listenable, as her rich melodic sensibilities, marketable voice, and skills as an arranger and performer rank her above many of her more commercially successful counterparts, male or female.