Pop music has long been the most commercially viable and accessible genre around the world (sort of by definition), but it has also suffered as one of the most derided and dismissed. Mainstream pop as we know it today is homogeneous, formulaic, and predictable—a commodity rather than a truly creative work. But in recent years, a lot of would-be guilty pleasures have transformed into bona fide critical darlings, embraced and endorsed by even our more highbrow dignitaries. When Ryan Adams not only covers Taylor Swift's entire tour de force of an album but also tellingly chooses to compare the pop princess to Bob Mould, I feel I can safely say that pop is having a special kind of moment.
Ryan Adams is hardly the first musician to mine pop music for fertile ground, but his latest foray is indicative of a much wider scale fascination with the genre. Chart-toppers of yesteryear are informing today's pop like never before, not only in the realm of the mainstream but across the indie board, too. Let's just say it: pop isn't just popular these days, it's actually cool. Toronto-based foursome Grounders use this fact to their utter advantage in their eponymous debut.
Though Grounders are far from a purely pop act, Grounders the album makes it abundantly clear that pop music became a driving influence on their psych-tinged indie rock somewhere along the way to this full-length release. The band, made up of Andrew Davis (vocals/guitar), Mike Searle (bass), Evan Lewis (guitar), and Daniel Busheikin (keyboards), made their first appearance in 2013 with an EP, Wreck of a Smile, that seemed to incorporate anything and everything that could be considered “indie” to somewhat tepid results. This time, inspired by ’60s and ‘70s pop hits, they've produced a sound that’s much more their own, aided by Toronto’s own indie-pop architect David Newfeld.
The nine tracks included on the record are all intricately lush, irresistibly catchy, and at times a little outlandish. The opener and first single “Secret Friend” feels a little like The Turtles outfitted in Ziggy Stardust getup. “Pull It Over Me” is a woozy, languid number, but its buoyant nature is counteracted in the chorus by a deep, resonating piano that gives it an unexpected weightiness. The third track, “Bloor Street & Pressure,” kicks things up several notches in all its scintillating, exuberant glory, but the guitar and percussion are fuzzed out at the edges, immediately betraying Newfeld’s presence. “Face Blind” follows with one of the album’s catchiest guitar riffs backed by more spacey effects and an upbeat, danceable rhythm.
Admittedly, this first half of the album contains all of its strongest tracks. The complex, almost orchestral arrangements remain throughout, providing a solidly fleshed-out sound to the band’s pop melodies, but the far-out space effects wane towards the gimmicky by the album’s final track. Grounders’ biggest strength lies in their songcraft—sampling pop flavors from The Kinks to Devo to create warm and inviting tunes, but infusing them with the occasional off-kilter element. This cerebral take on conventional songwriting makes for an intriguing exploration, one that the band will hopefully continue to refine as they go.