When “infectious” is used to describe music, the word’s dark side is rarely evoked. Ordinarily, it’s a commendation that denotes hooky euphoria, the kind found only in pop music. But the late academic curmudgeon Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) accused that same spiritual orgasm of spoiling Western youth for anything but instant gratification. And though Bloom was a supreme stick-in-the-mud, he might have been on to something. After all, if you’re old enough — yet young enough — to have been receptive to the Strokeslike critical salivating that greeted Teenage Fanclub’s straight-outta-Glasgow 1991 breakthrough, Bandwagonesque, you might yourself be a case study in the sinister effect of pop infectiousness. If you’re an extreme case, you might have spun the candy-purple colored disc until its ringing hooks and lilts were clogging your arteries and coming out of your ears. You might have succumbed to the disease and bought the following three albums. Bloom wouldn’t forgive you, but anyone else would — the album was a gorgeous revival of the best work of guitar pop’s four mighty B’s: Big Star, Byrds, Beatles and Badfinger.
Over a decade, however, something changed. Calm down; you’ll still get your fix of melody. It’s just that singers/guitarists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley and singer/bassist Gerard Love are no longer the dumbstruck lads who just discovered that crude chords on a Rickenbacker can unleash great beams of sunlight. With Howdy, the three core Fannies have fallen for the serene sister of the giddy hook: subtlety. It’s a quality you’ll first note in the influence of the Beach Boys, a milder ‘B’ than the aforementioned. Mind you, not the Beach Boys of hanging ten and picking up good vibrations, but of the complex, breezy orchestrations of Pet Sounds. The backing harmonies on “I Need Direction” are so tight and lush that it’s hard to believe they’re separate voices and not some miraculous digital effect, and the swaying piano that drives “Near You” is gilded by quiet Wurlitzer and a strangely agreeable noise that sounds like an altered Australian digeridu. And even when the boys get a little Bandwagonesque-esque, as they do with the staccato riff of “Dumb Dumb Dumb,” the guitars are layered into swells that, if you listen carefully, offer hooks-within-hooks-within-hooks. But get caught in them and you might miss the literate lyricism. The band that a decade ago “wrote” a song that repeated the phrase what you do to me eight times in a row now delicately observes, I need the ways and means to get through/I need an open heart to look to.
With lyrics as astute as they are perfectly metered and music as punchy as it is refined, Howdy is still infectious. It’s just a more benign kind of infection: one that progresses more slowly and won’t rot your brain or your teeth but will still send buzz-killing codgers scrambling for their earplugs.