These days in indie pop, you’ve got your subgenre-laden electronic bums, your Slumberland automatons, your scuzzy weed-rockers, your Beach House dreamers, your white laptop D’Angelos. You know that; you’re on top of these things. Now, remember 2004? Remember bands with six million members, boundless grandiosity, and consistently chipper harmonies? Well, Chicagoans The 1900s partake in precisely the sort of jangle-ry that’s no doubt become pretty passé within the inner circle of musical internet cool kids since the start of the Great Recession.
The 1900s’ second record, Return of the Century, seems refreshing in its straight-faced sunniness. It leaves behind the 60s fetishism and faux-country that make their 2007 debut Cold & Kind sound nowadays like a superior proto-Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes, opting instead for a spotless pop sound that your kid sister wouldn’t object to. This six-piece has claimed inspiration from cult activity in the Arizona desert and apocrypha regarding the Incredible String Band, and maybe these unlikely thematic considerations have something to do with the surprising depth and cohesiveness of this breezy half-hour batch.
Opener “Amulet” puts all the pieces into place: vacuum-sealed vocal arrangements, feathery percussion, Lycra-smooth strings, guitar, and keys. Casual, cliché-free lyrics ride the sort of consummately likable tunes that seem to have been systematically distilled from the universal pop subconscious. Songs like “Bmore” and “Lions Fur” hit a melodic middle ground that feels both satingly sugary and almost plagiaristic. They feel like guilty pleasure — like some sort of Elysian tween-pop. Here the band’s intentions that Return of the Century be heard as a concept album about attempted Utopia begin to make a strange sort of sense. Leagues beneath the rinky-dink Wurlitzers and hand-claps of the record’s sanitized exterior and the inhumanly silky vox provided throughout by members Edward Anderson, Caroline Donovan, and Jeanine O’Toole lurks something slightly sinister, as this nugget of prismatic pop goes down with the ease of Jonestown Flavor Aid.
Other songs have a less qualified appeal; “Kidnap Runaway” sounds like it could score a Rian Johnson-led remake of Easy Rider. Granted, that would be a terrible movie, but nonetheless, the track’s highway pulse and hoofing snap help to mitigate the saccharinity and its many instrumental components meld adroitly. “Babies” follows in the same vein, all 70s, cinematic, and distinctly American without being Americana. These tracks seem to convey the traditional view that East Coast youths have of the West: the embodiment of the Horace Greeley dream of transcontinental escape that refuses to die even in the cynical, superconnected age of the internet. This loose-limbed evocation of juvenescence helps to excuse some of Return of the Century’s less unique aspects.
This all sounds a little contradictory; what are the 1900s giving us here, a benevolent sock hop or a smiley cult indoctrination? The answer is both, and this ambiguity ends up being what separates this effort from the sort of average indie pop twinkies that were so abundant at the midpoint of the aughts.