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Pop survivors
There’s still something about the Push Stars — and Lloyd Cole

There are several ways in which a band measure whether they’ve arrived — or at least have become part of pop culture. A smash single — one that’s tapped, say, for a Cameron Diaz/Ben Stiller comedy — is one way. Signing with a major label and selling out shows packed with fans who sing along to every word is another. A chat session with the ubiquitous host of a ubiquitous late-night talk show is also a good gauge. Although they haven’t always had an easy time of it during the five years since they dropped their major-label debut, After the Party (Capitol, 1999), Boston’s Push Stars have fulfilled each of these criteria. Singer-songwriter Chris Trapper has even been able to buy his parents a house.

Trapper was hit with more evidence last month while he was in transit somewhere between New York City and Boston. It was about five o’clock in the morning. "I was driving home and I stopped at a rest stop because I had to pee," he explains over drinks with band mates Dan McLoughlin (bass/piano) and Ryan MacMillan (drums). "I heard ‘Any Little Town’ in the restroom, on the speakers. It was a very weird experience. For a moment, I thought, ‘Who’s this, it sounds kind of neat?’ Then I realized it was us. And it sounded good."

The Push Stars’ musical outlook hasn’t changed much since the days when the trio’s quixotic brand of pop broke, however briefly, into the mainstream in the form of a breezy single ("Everything Shines") that garnered widescreen exposure in the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary. The Stars’ just-released fourth album, Paint the Town (out last week on the San Francisco–based 33rd Street Records), offers a familiar mix of nostalgia-dosed requiems for old lovers, older towns, and pledge-pin romance, all wrapped in a package of cascading choruses and soaring melodies. It’s the sentimental stuff of prom dates and wedding receptions, with the occasional Sunday hangover thrown in to keep it all from getting too WB Network–cute. The piano-accented ballad "Every Angel" and the uplifting "Outside of a Dream," with its slow-dance sway, are par-for-the-course Push Stars pop. But the restless dissatisfaction and the shaken perspective that drive "Hanging by a Thread" reflect a darker experience.

Despite Trapper’s claim in "Hanging" that "I’m still the same," the band members do allow that after negotiating out of their multi-album deal with Capitol — which they did after the label failed to find a single on the subsequently self-released Opening Time (Co-Op Pop, 2001) — they’re more circumspect about the music business. But the good songs are still there, they say, as is their audience, and they claim to be as enthusiastic about recording and performing as ever. "I think we reacted to the split with Capitol with more output," Trapper says. "We said, ‘Let’s do a record right now.’ That’s basically why we’ve kept going — because it’s never been about business. If we played tonight and two people showed up, we’d still make records." McLoughlin says recording provides a respite, "an escape from business. Once we’re in the studio, we’re creating again, and it’s a great feeling — especially now, since there’s no A&R people saying a song should be three minutes because we need a hit. It’s just us making the record the way we want to make it."

During the post-Capitol years, Trapper has released a solo album and written songs with Newfoundland arena-rockers Great Big Sea for which he earned a Canadian gold record. Since they moved to Los Angeles two years ago, McLoughlin and MacMillan have also stayed busy, with McLoughlin writing film scores and MacMillan working as a session drummer, including a stint manning the skins for a Dixie Chicks single. And last year, the Push Stars were invited to open a leg of Matchbox Twenty’s fall tour after singer Rob Thomas heard Paint the Town. It was an experience the three won’t soon forget. "Playing the Matchbox tour was unbelievable," Trapper recalls. "We were playing hockey rinks in front of 12,000 people, and we saw that we could pull it off. So that feeds the fire a little bit."

Right now, they’re concentrating on their 25-city tour supporting Great Big Sea. But MacMillan says they won’t be as easily seduced again. "I think this time around, we’ll be a lot more choosy with a label and not get so excited, like ‘Wow, a major label’s interested!’ It would have to be a team of people who get us, get what we want to do, and who would be easy to work with." He breaks into a grin. "And it would have to be a lot of money."

IT’S BEEN 20 YEARS since Rattlesnakes (Geffen) introduced the precocious Scottish pop combo Lloyd Cole and the Commotions to college-radio cognoscenti. Silken-voiced singer-songwriter Cole disbanded the group after five years and three albums, moved to New York City, and staked out a spotty but occasionally brilliant solo career that included 1989’s Lloyd Cole (Capitol), a dazzling opening salvo with contributions from drummer/producer Fred Maher, ex-Voidoids guitar acrobat Robert Quine, and a pre-Girlfriend Matthew Sweet on bass. As fondly as he remembers that album, Cole knows his true legacy — and the work against which all other ventures, including his new Music in a Foreign Language (One Little Indian), will always be judged — is Rattlesnakes.

"I think we were just lucky," says the 43-year-old Cole over the phone from Northampton, which he’s called home for the past four years. "We recorded 11 songs, and 10 of them were good. What I think is attractive about the record is that it has its own simple personality. I think in terms of rock music, it was the best record that year — that’s probably the only year that I can say that. Prince probably made something around then that might be a better record. But I think 1984 was our year. We didn’t really know what we were doing, so we didn’t have a chance to overthink it. The minute we started thinking about it, we started getting it wrong."

A brief reunion tour with the rest of the Commotions is planned for later this year. "We’re all on crash diets right now," Cole jokes, adding that it will mark the first time in 16 years all five original members will have "picked up instruments together." He sounds slightly apprehensive and slightly amused at the prospect, which represents precisely the kind of nostalgic impulse he’s avoided his whole career. In 1997, he formed the Negatives, whose line-up included ex-Dambuilder Dave Derby, with whom Cole became friendly during his stint playing keyboards with Derby’s Brilliantine; they released a homonymous album two years later. And he’s got no fewer than three albums slated for stateside release by One Little Indian this year: Music in a Foreign Language (due March 30); Etc., a self-described "lost" album (April 20); and an ambient, Eno-influenced all-instrumental project, Plastic Wood (May 11).

The spare, melancholic Foreign Language is easily his most sustained work in years, and "Today I’m Not So Sure" and "My Other Life" capture, with painstaking delicacy and bitter focus, the unsettling sense of self-doubt and identity crisis triggered by the onset of middle age. Northampton roots-rock luminary Ray Mason lends a hand, as do Derby and old Commotions mate Neil Clark. The album’s intimate, contemplative mood also reflects Cole’s three-year incarnation as a singer-songwriter troubadour with an acoustic guitar. "It was quite nice to take a break from playing live with a band. I did really enjoy trying to be a rock singer, but I think I definitely failed. I don’t think what I do is really rock music. I’ve dressed it up in a leather jacket every now and again, but I’m definitely closer to George Jones than Mick Jagger."

Unlike Jones, Cole hasn’t exactly moved out to the country. But he does lead a slightly more rural existence with his wife and two kids. "I can do music anywhere, and we were in New York for 11 years, and I just wanted to go somewhere where I could have a back yard and not have to earn 150 grand a month to have one. That’s the way New York was getting. There was a time when I thought I was a rich person. Obviously, I was very naive."

Cole also has come to the conclusion that rock music is a young person’s game full of a young person’s preoccupations. "When I see people my age posturing as if they were 10 or 15 years younger, I find it very sad. And without shame I’ll say that I hear the White Stripes record and I think it’s quite good, but it doesn’t excite me and I don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t speak to me at all. I know that Wichita is a good-sounding word to get into a song, but I’d rather listen to Chopin."

The Push Stars open for Great Big Sea this Saturday, March 20, at Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston; call (617) 262-2424.

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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