(Revolutionary Road, CD, digital download)
Just so we’re all on the same page, “pop” is not a four-letter word. Sure, rock-and-roll history is littered with all manner of forgettable, three-chord tripe, so one could be excused for dismissing the genre as lightweight music of little to no consequence. But doing so would mean missing out on a music fan’s giddiest, guiltiest pleasure: experiencing a perfectly crafted morsel of aural sweetness that’s filled with gooey sentiments about falling in and out of love, is wrapped in swooning harmonies, and has an irresistible hook. A good pop song can be something close to musical nirvana.
Phil Yates doesn’t write good pop songs. He writes really good pop songs. And that’s no mean feat. On the surface, it would seem as though slapping together three chords, a tight hook and a few verses would be child’s play. But the simplicity of the perfect pop song is also its greatest hurdle. Striking a balance between catchy and cloying, between honesty and earnestness, and thriving within the limitations of pop is a phenomenal task. On his latest EP, Tumble Stairs, the well-traveled Burlington-based songwriter does exactly that, delivering 25 minutes of pure, unbridled, pop-rock bliss.
“Good Morning to You” sets the EP’s joyously jangly tone with jaunty guitars, loping drums and verse after verse of classic, harmony-laden melodies. Yates’ thin, boyish voice is not particularly impressive on its own. But he’s a more than capable singer and savvy enough to stay out of his own way. Yates allows his crisp, efficient wordplay to carry the tune, with an assist from a swelling phalanx of backing vocals that frame his tightly wound hooks to near perfection.
The remainder of the EP follows in kind, with Yates ruminating on topics from love to, um, ninjas, on the disc’s quirky centerpiece, “Ninjas vs. Zombies (Let’s Keep Our Heads).” Even when dealing with weightier subjects, including death on “The Bottom of an Urn,” Yates remains playful and insightful. And moments that might in other hands be gratingly saccharine — for example, the borderline schmaltzy “The Gift of Love” — are elevated by the songwriter’s feather-light touch and deft execution.
Tumble Stairs by Phil Yates is as close to a perfect pop record as Burlington has seen in years. In fact, its only real flaw is that, with a scant seven songs, the disc ends far too soon.
Phil Yates and the Affiliates play Radio Bean in Burlington this Saturday, July 23.