Hooks, lines and singers

Jul 28, 1999 at 12:00 am

Sure, sure, sure, you all know the story of Detroit Rock City. I know you’re all aware of our city’s storied place in hard rock history. And, yes, indeed, many printer cartridges have been emptied printing tales of the D’s techno glory.

But there’s another noise coming in between the buttons, a ringing, bittersweet washing of classic, radio-ready pop music. Music you can sha-la-la along with — that breed of modern pop that has distilled the best hooks and bits from the vast record collections of Detroit-area 20-somethings. Sounds that make connections between your romantic subconscious, its attendant heartbreak and writerly rock ’n’ roll in a post-rock world.

And there are far too many of these kids for it to be just an anomaly of the sort that found Detroit’s Majesty Crush transcending prevailing early-’90s guitar jangle with their majestic transmogrifications of British guitar pop. But it’s the same savvy sense of music’s lineage and postmodernist songcraft that finds the city’s musical landscape populated by such hooky luminaries as Brendan Benson, Dean Fertita, Cloud Car, Fletcher Pratt, the Neptunes, They Come in Threes, the Numbers, Galicja, 57 Waltz and more that I’m certainly forgetting.

As Cloud Car guitarist-singer John Nelson notes, “It seems like there’s a lot more bands that are getting recognition. We’ve been a band for like four years, but a lot of people don’t know that.”

This Friday, two of these groups — Cloud Car and Fletcher Pratt — celebrate the release of their next marketplace steps.

Danceable dichotomy

The Royal Oak-based trio Cloud Car is letting loose a single, “Forchan” (on upstart Marysville, Michigan label Plumline), in anticipation of the impending unveiling of the band’s debut full-length, Pretty Sneaky Sis.

The two boys and girl who comprise Cloud Car are themselves a sneaky pleasure. Wielding the sort of wordplay that’s made teens revel in singing along, but working that angular musical-lyrical hoodoo that keeps the straight narrative ephemeral, just out of reach, guitarist-singer John Nelson and bassist-singer Courtney Sheedy seem to delight in the little details of their musical narratives and the near-ambivalent heartbreak of the daily life of bored suburban kids.

Nelson’s songcrafting never stands still for longer than is necessary to convey a wistful snapshot. And the playful interaction of Nelson and Sheedy’s vocals conjures the he said-she said impressionism of Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield on the Lemonheads’ It’s A Shame About Ray. There’s also the same dichotomy of catchy and apparently happy music belying a darker lyrical subject matter.

“Here’s the deal,” says Nelson. “A lot of those songs are about my ex-girlfriend from a while back who got into a lot of trouble with the law. They sound poppy and happy, but they’re really dark. There’s a lot of drama.”

As for his writing style, Nelson explains, simply, “I like to tell stories, but I like them a little bit ambiguous. Bent, that’s a good word.

“When you read what people have written about us, it always makes us seem like this happy pop band, but if you pay attention, our music’s darker that that.”

Nevertheless, Cloud Car (aka “The Band That Has Adventures”) assures at least a sugar-induced exuberance: “We’ll have the candy dish,” says Nelson, referring to a bowl sporting a vast selection of Pixie Stix and other confections.

Building Fletch

It’s been a long two years for Fletcher Pratt. The Detroit quartet has gone from opening for Sloan at a sold-out 7th House to breathing a sigh of relief after holding the rapt attention of 70 kids in a 94-degree hotbox. They’ve worked through a protracted recording process and survived a crash-and-burn 30-second performance at the Magic Bag which abruptly ended when manic guitarist Steve Palmer took a nosedive off the stage.

They’ve survived being buffeted on all sides by dealmakers and industry weirdos and have come out a stronger, patient unit which wields its growing songcraft expertise like a band on the verge of a nervous breakout. The power chords chime and their vocal harmonies soar, and the kids are starting to come around and dance a lot more often. But, until recently, they still weren’t really sure whether or not their Detroit music community and pop peers knew they even existed.

I was talking to Dean (Fertita),” says bassist Brandon White, about how sometimes we wonder if anyone’s paying attention, you know. And he agreed. It’s good to find out that other people have the same concerns.”

All along, Fletcher Pratt has concerned itself with virtually bridging the gap between the janglier aspects of new wave, the Kinks’ vision of British pop and the pure power and virtuosity of the Who. And, on the EP being released this Friday, the band succeeds wildly, but it’s live that Fletcher Pratt puts together the whole package — livewire stage presence, airtight chemistry and the oxymoronic sense of no-bullshit fun and frivolity.

“We want to do this like records used to be marketed. Now, there’s no cool singles, no posters. We want to do it right: play great shows and put out great records,” concludes White.

As for the celebration this Friday, White says the band has a handful of sonic goodies up its sleeve, in addition to Fletcher Pratt’s infectious pop wallop. As with anything in Fletcher Pratt’s world, though, the band can’t take anything for granted. After all, all the flash in the world doesn’t mean squat, “if you can’t keep the audience with your music.” Fletcher Pratt should have no trouble getting the kids to shake the floorboards.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]