Review: Andrew McMahon — The Pop Underground

Reviews / May 20, 2013

McMahon’s solo debut is a bit hollow, even if the tracks are well constructed

Left Here Music/Self Released

I’ll always feel as if the full length environment will be the most appropriate of writing and recording styles for an Andrew McMahon project. The long-form narratives he’s been able to craft with his LPs — most notably with Everything In Transit and The Glass Passenger — have allowed for a highly personal experience, which in turn seems to drive much of the adoration directed toward the most treasured of his albums. And with that necessary space, McMahon has always been able to carefully plan, sequence and write with a larger, highly personal message involved. Maybe that’s why his newest work, and solo debut, The Pop Underground, struck me as hollow at times. The four tracks making up the 10″ EP aren’t necessarily bad; Actually, they’re well constructed and should help to launch a successful solo career from the longtime scene standout. At times, though, they’ll pass over you without making much of an impact, a feeling I’ve never quite had with a McMahon-centered project. This may be his most radio ready output to date, but it’s nowhere near his best.

Take “Learn To Dance” as an example. Despite an interesting mix of percussion decorating the intro and some ground-shaking instrumentals within the hook, lyrically, the song doesn’t stick. Repetition plagues the chorus, while the verse work is mostly filled with abstraction, losing much of the meaning in the process. The bridge is notably improved, as McMahon sings amongst some deepened synth work, “I see the eyes of my unborn children/And I’m filled with the love I will give them/Cause it’s the love I was given.” Unfortunately, it jumps right back into the less than inventive chorus following. “Catching Cold” is another which seems to be stuck in abstraction, as the perfectly layered instrumentals are again wasted on less than stellar lyrical work.

The EP begins with a highlight, though, as “Synesthesia” is a slow burn of a track, containing more than a few standout moments. As McMahon sings, “And my friends are in the news/Collecting trophies for the songs they wrote/When we lived in the shadow of the moon,” you’ll yearn for a late night of creativity, McMahon’s inspiration bleeding through the song’s electronically enhanced beat. The track goes on to play out like a series of memories, leading us right into the present day. McMahon sings, “There’s more to life than singing songs we write/When we are in the shadow of the moon,” presenting personal growth to attentive listeners. “After The Fire” is the best of the bunch, as the impressive work on the keys drive the uptempo track. Each layer provides additional, appropriate sonic depth, with the hook coming through like a well-refined hurricane. The difficulties of escaping tradition are touched upon lyrically, but the real highlight here is the musicianship and production, aspects which could land the song on top 40 radio. Simply put: It’s irresistible.

Sound Quality: With a surprising emphasis on the bass portion of the recording, it became especially critical for the mastering and production jobs to achieve correct sonic levels. Luckily, the end product is impressive, as obvious attention was placed on producing a solid product. Cut at 45 RPM, you’re able to take in every layer of the song construction, with things like the background additions during the second verse of “Synesthesia” making all the difference. The layered hook of “Catching Cold” is also well represented, the different bursts of synth properly separated. And even though I wasn’t a huge fan of “Learn To Dance,” it sounds great, as the hook — percussion mixed with synth and additional work on the keys — properly balanced, allowing McMahon’s voice to shine through the flurry of instrumental action. You’ll also encounter little surface noise on the pressing.

Packaging: The 10″ record is packaged in a standard, 2-panel jacket, the bright, colorful artwork serving as a proper companion for the pop-driven tunes housed on the album. The package includes a full-color insert, featuring lyrics from all four tracks. Track credits and additional information is pictured on the back cover art. The record itself is of your standard black variety, but the center labels keep up with the color scheme, helping to present a visually appealing package. The material comprising the jacket is a little flimsy, though, marking the package’s biggest downfall.

Extras: A digital download was sent out to all customers, but the most impressive extras came as an apology. As the result of a shipping delay, McMahon included a lyric sheet for first single, “Synesthesia,” autographed by the artist. A sticker was also included in the package as a way of saying “Sorry.”

Furthermore, during the pre-order stage, the artist offered a bundle package, in which you could get the 10″ record, an autographed silk screen and a 7″ picture disc for “Synesthesia.” The picture disc featured an exclusive cover of America’s “Sister Golden Hair Surprise.”

Summary: I suppose this is what comes with heightened expectations. After three solid albums (with two actually being excellent) as Jack’s Mannequin, Andrew McMahon’s debut solo work, The Pop Underground, isn’t quite the emotional experience longtime fans have come to expect. The songs are well constructed, with two having great potential in rock radio, but the EP won’t exactly leave a huge impression. Meanwhile, the 10″ pressing of the 4-track effort features some impressive sound quality, along with average packaging. A couple goodies sent along with the record was also a nice gesture. 

Make Sure To Spin: “Synesthesia” & “After The Fire”

You can still pick up the 10″ and 7″ picture disc for “Synesthesia over at McMahon’s official webstore.

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Christopher Lantinen
Chris Lantinen is the owner and editor-in-chief of Modern Vinyl. Along with his modest collection of sad sounding records, he collects his share of soundtracks and previously adored indie up-and-comers. Chris is currently a professor of journalism and public relations at Edinboro University in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.

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