Wax emphatic

You gotta hand it to those Sponge cats, they’ve got a boatload of tenacity and a handful of hooks left in their bag to keep playing the pop-music game — even if their profile dropped a bit when their major-label train left town. For New Pop Sunday, though, Vinnie and the boys leave the John Hughesian romantic teen anthem notions at home, opting for a sort of dark-night-of-pop approach lyrically and, to a great extent, musically. That’s a shame, because Sponge’s pop music doesn’t really work without overt pining or romanticism. But they pull it off occasionally here: The lucid nihilism on "1,000 Days" neatly offsets the rock jubilance of Sponge’s signature waxing ecstatic, and the album’s opener, "My Lackluster Love," waxes expertly pathetic. "Live Here Without You," the current single, is easily the album’s strongest song. It succeeds because it loses the often-too-verbal, journal-poetry musings which pop through too often elsewhere on this collection. ("Life is hard, when it seems, that you’re a fish, on the hook, of the American Dream" is one lyric that — regardless of the temptation to read it as Sponge as a fish on the hook of the music industry — just jumps up and says "Hiya!" to tritespotters.) The lyrics of "Live Here" embrace good-old-fashioned, bittersweet longing and self-loathing and, besides, it’s got a damn catchy chorus. Unfortunately, only "Radio Prayer Line" and "Planet Girls" approach the single’s pure catchyosity.

There are weird things going on here, too. Creepy things. I mean, Sponge has never been the most innovative of rock entities, but at least in the past they’d stay either coolly behind the curve — on the ’80s, retro-bent pop tip — or blast past any pooh-poohing critics like myself with a manic energy and volume that made them damn fun. On New Pop Sunday, though, despite a handful of effects and guitar sounds that sort of attempt to string the record together, there’s all sorts of nods to, gadzooks, current, typical moderate rock — and the occasional Marilyn Manson-aping vocal intonation from frontman Dombrowski.

Don’t get me wrong. I never expect more than a single or two from any pop record these days, and there are two or three here. Perhaps I just had a flicker of hope for a new, popping Sunday instead of a new, already-popped Sunday.

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