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Vells :: POP GROWS UP - Vells Take History and Run with It

The Stranger (Seattle)

Lester Bangs once dismissed bubblegum pop by describing it as "the basic sound of rock 'n' roll--minus the rage, fear, violence, and anomie that runs from Johnny Burnette to Sid Vicious." Did he have a blackout during glam's heyday--which obviously pulled from his so-called toothless genre as much as anything else? And if he'd had the chance to hear the self-titled 2002 debut from Vells--with its glimmering melodies and singer/lyricist Tristan Marcum's gilded vocals, entirely based in bubblegum pop--his definition could go down as one of the most misguided comments on a genre ever made by a respected historian, as the band's music is as visceral and energetic as any of Bang's lauded rock 'n' roll acts.

That being said, Vells, currently at work on a new record (to be titled Flight from Echo Falls and rumored to be in excess of 15 tracks), are still creating glorious, historical pop. But the bubblegum influence is less of a factor. What Marcum, guitarist Ryan Kraft, bassist Adam Howrey, keyboardist and backing vocalist Mary Thinnes, and drummer Jeremiah Green (also of Modest Mouse) are doing stands apart from a lot of the power pop Seattle is noticeably creating, and Marcum's lyrics are among some of the most clever to be heard in this city.

In the '60s and early '70s, music similar to what Vells are doing today (at times a Vells song sounds as if it could have been written by Boyce and Hart or Neil Diamond) would have been written by a songwriter and played by musicians hired separately by a pop Svengali. Vells, on the other hand, have the pop savvy to pull it off on their own. As a result, Marcum's lyrics have grown and so has the songwriting. Grand now, marked by string flourishes and more input by the group as a whole, Flight from Echo Falls should cross over into an audience that isn't just enamored with classic pop.

The first album came out of one session of songwriting, which is why it's so consistent. "The new one promises to sound less cohesive," says Marcum, "but more compelling--the tempos will change, there'll be a pop song followed by something more moody." Just a cursory listen of the rough tracks is example enough to prove Marcum's point. "Hey La/Hey La" sounds bluesy while the vocals slip and slide, and harmonies pile over quick blasts of harmonica. The following track is far less buoyant and almost crestfallen in mood. A Hammond B3 sighs as Marcum croons, "Death lies a gateway between worlds/time the deceiver/ still so much obscures/words can mislead us/the mouth keeps moving on."

Marcum adds that the band's progression has come largely from adding a new member in Thinnes. "Mary brings a classical-keyboard sense to the band," he explains, "and I learned to play the trumpet. Jeremiah and Adam create the actual groove into it and then we have Ryan and his poppy sensibilities, which gets the impetus going for a lot of songs." As with many pop-oriented groups, they build upon each other's input and from there, the band tinkers until things begin to take form. "When I first came out of college," says Marcum, "I was all about the poetry--I'd try to write lyrics about poems, which made for the clunkiest songs. Now he [Kraft] creates his melodies and then the lyrics come from one line--the rest of the band, in turn or at once, elaborate musically."

Take "Larger Than Life," which Marcum gives as an apt example of the result of an idea each member could relate to, with lyrics that state, "Larger than life/I'm already dead/and I refuse to come and go again." Marcum says the song is one of the most beautiful the band has ever written. "It's about a past relationship I was giving too much power and meaning to," he explains, "and how you can build things up and make them bigger than they were." To that end Kraft interjects, "Sound-wise, too, you have to accept that at some point in your life, regardless of what you would like to be able to produce with your influences, you're not necessarily capable of it." The lyrics of "Flight from Echo Falls" also demonstrate this giving up and accepting your limitations--but as with everything with Vells, not entirely, as Marcum sings, "If you fall from the face of the world/your echoes are around to stay/echoes or grace."

by Kathleen Wilson