Innocence is so inimical to the basic principles of rock’n’roll — the very term is a sexy refutation of unspoiled youth — that bands who hie to it as their creative calling must face an over-under shotgun of culture and nature in their willful resistance to musical and emotional progress. Clinging to a coy, joyful time of sexless crushes and whimsical obsessions — of peppy AM radio melodies and soaring folk harmonies — as an adult artistic lifestyle raises more questions about emotional development than retro bands merely stuck in, say, an homage to the surf-guitar ’60s.
Youth culture’s obsession with infantilism has lately become a source of mild concern for sociologists (if not marketers). In truth, though, the legions of barrette-sporting love-rock fans toting Hello Kitty and Keroppi accessories are not attempting a return to the womb but merely affecting a style — albeit one that seems cloyingly cutesypoo and pathetically wet to those of more serious mien. That same dissonance attaches to the uncomplicated music favored by the hipper segments of this populace: many find the adorable stick-figure music of Shonen Knife, Tiger Trap, Softies, Beat Happening, the Pastels, Cub, Cannanes, Heavenly and their giddy ilk insufferably precious.
Which, from a mainstream perspective, it probably is. And of course the pretension of innocence is, by definition, an impossibility. But the music that has come from these possessors of power pop’s softest hearts can be delightful, uplifting, charming and altogether refreshing, an echo of times gone by in both life and art. Wistful at its core and winsome to its sweet marrow, tweepop (which reached cultural mass in England as “shambling” around 1986 and has lately acquired the more derisive “cuddlecore” handle) offers a cotton-candy alternative, a knowing effort to build a community in which adulthood is made abstract and real life is returned to the playground-which brings it back to the raw essence of what rock’n’roll was about in the first place.
Talulah Gosh was at the forefront of English tweepop in the late ’80s; the Oxford quintet (which ended, ironically enough, so its education-minded members could pursue their university studies) crafted light blasts of pure spun pop on such handy subjects as “My Best Friend,” “Beatnik Boy,” “Testcard Girl,” “Pastels Badge,” “In Love for the Very First Time” and “Steaming Train.” The mild-mannered songs collected on the posthumous Rock Legends singles retrospective skitter along with brisk precision, buoyed by accomplished singing in high, girlish voices.
Unlike many revelers in the genre, Talulah Gosh introduced structural complexity to the party: “Talulah Gosh” (“a film star for a day”) shifts easily from a major-key verse to a minor-key bridge and a giddy sped-up chorus. Likewise, “Bringing Up Baby” fits a syncopated beat and evanescent harmonies into the program; the group may have been dedicated to creating light-headed moods, but Talulah Gosh understood how trying a chore that can be. They Scoffed the Lot consists of the band’s two British radio sessions, from 1986 and 1988 — the first and last things the group ever recorded. The 25-track Backwash contains both albums, a 1986 flexi tune and live versions of two otherwise unrecorded numbers.
After the group ended — creating a family tree of Oxford popsters that has continued to spread its genealogical limbs through such groups as Saturn 5, Carousel, Razorcuts and Bugbear — singer Amelia Fletcher (who has also sung on records by the Pooh Sticks and Wedding Present) released an uncharacteristic techno-pop dance single (“Can You Keep a Secret?,” sort of mid-period Bananarama with fewer trimmings) and then formed Heavenly with two former bandmates, guitarist Peter Momtchiloff and her drummer brother Mathew Fletcher; bassist Rob Pursey, who had been in Talulah Gosh briefly at its start, came along as well. Proceeding down a more rocking version of the old group’s course, Heavenly debuted with the eight-song Heavenly vs. Satan. Titles resemble the old band’s (“Cool Guitar Boy,” “Lemonhead Boy”), and the catchy guitar music is likewise sprightly and good-natured, even when it shifts into a minor key to follow lyrics into demure romantic confrontation: “Shallow,” “Stop Before You Say It,” “Wish Me Gone.”
Le Jardin de Heavenly brings the group (a quintet with the addition of keyboard-playing second vocalist Cathy Rogers) to a new level of achievement in the arrangements, pointillist marvels of detailed delicacy. Wandering easily into a sound strongly reminiscent of the most artful ’60s folk-rock, harmony-packed songs like “Starshy,” “And the Birds Aren’t Singing” and “So Little Deserve” coexist easily with the brasher punk italics of “Tool” and “Sort of Mine.” The album ultimately suffers from the wanness of its writing, but the centerpiece is absolutely brilliant: “C Is the Heavenly Option,” an ingenious duet between Amelia and Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening), offers interactive sets of romantic choices, the results of which are “get chucked and end up unhappy” or “love will bowl you over.”
Heavenly continues to play word games on the ebullient title track of P.U.N.K. Girl, but the five-song EP sobers up quickly, souring the fantasy affair of “Hearts & Crosses” with date rape, underpinning “Atta Girl” with dance-rhythm drive and wrapping it in prickly lyrics (“I don’t have to be cute…Can’t you concentrate on something other than me?”), leveling accusations in “Dig Your Own Grave” and bluntly deflating someone’s romantic illusions in the nervy a cappella “So?” Like an unexpected slap in the middle of an evening that seemed to be going well, this stinging record makes it seem as if Heavenly had grown up overnight — and was none too pleased about it.
While the EP’s primary changes were lyrical, the brief but substantial The Decline and Fall of Heavenly rethinks the music a bit as well, expanding the stylistic repertoire to include deracinated R&B, noise and other elements. Among the disillusioned distortions of “Me and My Madness” are feedback and raw guitar power; “Modestic” opens with a spot of brass; between the cowbell hits, “Skipjack” employs vibes and a minimum of guitar to spread a new kind of ambience; “Sacramento” is a boldly noirish instrumental. Emblematic of Heavenly’s new state of the union, “Sperm Meets Egg, So What?” skips through grown-up concerns with a shrug and a wrinkled nose. If only it were so simple. As Heavenly was completing a new album in June 1996, Mathew Fletcher took his own life. The group ended, replaced several years later by Marine Research, which began the pop story anew.