Andrew McMahon “The Pop Underground” CD Review

Andrew McMahon The Pop Underground Album Cover

My fiancé’s sister and I recently had a 20-minute conversation centered around a simple yet surprisingly difficult-to-answer question; what is your favorite song?

It’s a question akin to the standard “what three items would you take if stranded on a desert island?”, except that the answer to this particular question felt much more substantial. I imagine that you can tell a lot about a person by what their favorite song is and why they chose it. Maybe a lyric in it has some deep personal significance to this person, or maybe they first heard it during a pivotal point in their lives? And if their one favorite song is by Ke$ha, how much would that tell you about them?

So with the stakes seemingly high, my answer to that question was and is “The Resolution” by Jack’s Mannequin, a song that I can reliably turn to in any mood or situation to improve my day and one that I probably listen to at least two or three times a week (I try to rotate my music frequently, but this some always sneaks in there). But if I were picking from a pool of songs, the majority of them would be from Jack’s Mannequin or Something Corporate, two bands connected by a common thread – front man Andrew McMahon.

McMahon is a singer/ songwriter who has been putting out impossibly catchy  tracks since Something Corporate’s 2000 EP Ready… Break. Now, after six studio albums across two bands, McMahon has released a new solo EP called The Pop Underground, a four-track offering available on iTunes leading into his summer solo tour.

It’s been a week since its release, and I can’t stop listening to it.

The Pop Underground refers to McMahon’s own admission that he makes pop songs that, despite a devoted fan base and critical acclaim, have never fully broken through into the mainstream. Don’t let that lack of radio play fool you though, McMahon is one of the most talented artists making music today, and on this EP, those talents are on full display.

Each track on The Pop Underground ebbs and flows in a delightfully playful way, with the understated instrumentals building under the verses into full-bodied chorus medleys of piano, guitar and synthesizer that are impossible to get out of your head once they take root. More than just a passive experience, these songs take you on a journey, sling-shotting you from foot tapping and head nodding to full-on rocking out and back again.

The music feels like a natural progression from McMahon’s later work in Jack’s Mannequin and includes the same sort of addictive piano hooks that have become a staple of his music. But what strikes me about The Pop Underground is how McMahon will let each instrument stand on its own – the synthesizer in opening track “Synesthesia”  being one such example – before bringing in the rest of the band. There’s a great level of detail to each track, and you’ll find yourself noticing little bass notes and guitar riffs throughout that enhance without overpowering.

The aforementioned “Synesthesia” opens the EP in a haunting tone, with the line, “There’s more to life than singing songs we write,” a probable nod to McMahon’s battle with leukemia. “Catching Cold” feels lighter, and has an Owl City/ Postal Service vibe with a bit of autotune for good measure. “Learn to Dance” is a song with a hopeful spirit and the best instrumentals on the EP, telling listeners, “In this world we can learn to dance where there’s no tomorrow”. “After the Fire”, which might be my favorite track, closes things outs with a chorus that begs to be sung at top volume.

When McMahon announced that he was ending Jack’s Mannequin, it was one of the sadder days in my musical history, but based on what I’ve heard on The Pop Underground, I couldn’t be more excited to hear what he does next. I stopped writing this review several times just to sing along with each song as the EP played on repeat, and that is the strongest endorsement that I could possibly give it.

Rating: 10/10

Andrew McMahon – “The Pop Underground” CD Review/ April 30, 2013, Left Here Music/ AndrewMcMahon.com

(This album was reviewed with a digital retail copy purchased on iTunes.)

(Cameron Gidari is a freelance writer and the author of Seattle Before8. Follow him on Twitter at @CGidari)

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