Graded on a Curve:
Saturday Looks Good
To Me, All Your
Summer Songs

Saturday Looks Good To Me, led by songwriter and production wunderkind Fred Thomas, released a slew of extremely appealing indie pop records from 2000-2007. All are worthy of investigation, but the essential LP in their discography is the luminous All Your Summer Songs.

When the term indie pop comes up, many often think of stripped-down, retro-minded music that’s deliberately not in consort with trends contemporary to the time of its making. And that’s by no means a faulty way to think. Much indie pop, be it the original UK-based wave or the subsequent global reaction, is about being proudly out of step with the times, and this is a big factor (though never the biggest in the case of indie pop’s finest exponents) in what makes it all so interesting.

The largest part of any pop record’s success, be it defiantly indie or unabashedly mainstream is, of course, songs. Rock’s essence can be generalized as concerning tactics and energy. Folk/country/blues: the same, but also an expression of elevated structural simplicity and/or unforced authenticity. Jazz: a combination of some or all of the previous, though it can also be shorthanded as improvisation and swing.

Pop music again is about the song, going all the way back to the Tin Pan Alley before any of us were even born. Crooners like Crosby and Sinatra (two old-school kings of pop) had great voices sure, but a crooner without a song is like a mariner sans compass; sooner rather than later they’re going to get lost. Standards (i.e. the “Great Pop Songbook”) get that way for a reason. If there is nobody around capable of writing a good enough tune, then a singer can always rely upon Gershwin, Berlin, Rogers, Hammerstein, or Hart.

The very title of Saturday Looks Good to Me’s 2003 release directly references this necessity of tunes across the spectrum of the pop form; All Your Summer Songs features thirteen tracks that weave together into a seamless and infectious indie pop tapestry with an impressive number of tricks up its sleeve. Maybe the record’s most praiseworthy trait is how it establishes such a crisp distinct sound while being inextricably tied to precedent.

Saturday Looks Good to Me was the brainchild of songwriter/musician/producer Fred Thomas, formerly a brief member of fellow Michiganites His Name Is Alive and his own groups Lovesick and Flashpapr, and the one constant factor in SLGTM’s seven album history. The appearance of those records spanned the better part of last decade, beginning with a self-titled LP in 2000 and culminating with Fill Up the Room via the K label seven years later.

And along the way Thomas and cohorts never set a foot wrong, though in my estimation All Your Summer Songs is their finest individual release, in part because it served as a personal introduction to SLGTM’s considerable charms (there’s no denying that particularly in terms of indie pop the first taste is often the sweetest) but also due to how the album, the group/project’s third, connected as an ambitious and loosely thematic mediation upon many of the subjects that have been inspiring pop songsmiths since before the invention of the wax cylinder.

The big three in terms of Fred Thomas’ influences in SLGTM are often listed as Motown, Brian Wilson, and Phil Spector. I’m largely in agreement, but it’s important to note that the music, while surely informed by the past, also registered as quite contemporary, more so than much of the music that gets characterized as indie pop.

But don’t misapprehend; the group is very consciously caught up in the sweet tide of pop history. Indeed, the LP’s cover photo, featuring two hip chicks with a batch of 45s perhaps in transit to or from an ultrachic sock-hop (one can only hope), makes this fact abundantly clear long before the needle hits the vinyl. It’s just that Thomas and company eschew the tendency toward unfettered imitation as mere adulation. Or to put it another way, there is something very new about how SLGTM adapt, translate and freshen the old. That’s not an especially rare attribute, ‘tis true. It’s the delivery that makes all the difference.

Take for instance the group’s admirable disinterest in minimalism, a concept that in the indie pop context often can’t avoid wielding the idea of less-is-more (or the old reliable standby of addition-by-subtraction) as a reaction against the more commercially dominant pop trend of more-is-more (or what many detractors consider to be subtraction by overzealous addition).

All Your Summer Songs begins with “[Untitled Track],” a short melancholy motif fleshed out with horns, resonant waves of pristine guitar, and an achy, wounded voice, the sum registering like a superbly finessed opening statement from an assured production wizard (ala Spector) desiring to create a smoothly conceived and inextricably linked suite of studio-rendered mini-masterworks (a bit like that Wilson guy).

And the sweet trick is how the vast majority of this fantastically flowing record’s tunes only work in direct relation to those that proceed and follow them. Individually, many songs abruptly cut off or feel unfinished; however, taken as a whole they all fit together into a grand if shrewdly concise puzzle of encyclopedic pop knowledge and emotional, at times poetic renderings of memory and fleeting desire (you know, love songs).

The music of “[Untitled Track]” resurfaces on the album’s second side, presented as a slyly understated theme at the end of “No Good at Secrets” and as an almost joyous fanfare concluding the following track “Alcohol,” easily one of All Your Summer Songs’ best tunes. It possesses the classy verve of casually sophisto femme vocals and really drives home the talents of Fred Thomas as studio mastermind, additionally flaunting his collaborators as highly invested participants with a clear understanding of his intentions.

So it’s only natural that All Your Summer Songs unfolds as an exquisite album on headphones. The spacious, layered instrumentation of “Meet Me by the Water” makes this quite plain, and is reflective of a high level of craftsmanship born from hard work across the album’s entire span. In the end, this is Thomas’ biggest debt to Spector, Wilson, and the House of Gordy, specifically a refusal to be too easily satisfied.

To wit: the difference between the first version of “Ambulance,” a strong but somewhat unfocused lo-fi incarnation which serves as the opening track on SLGTM’s debut, and the far superior recording of the song included here, the latter revealing an admirable tenacity toward perfection in the pop form. This ultimately gives Thomas few true counterparts in the indie pop field past or present, though Stephin Merritt in his prime certainly springs to mind.

The two songwriters are significantly different, though. Merritt’s love of pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop songwriting (show tunes, movie themes, the old Tin Pan Alley again) was never about sincerity. It was instead all about the glory of the process, the breakup song as playacting.

Thomas is definitely a post-rock ‘n’ roll pop scientist, taking big themes and bringing them down to relatable moments of bittersweet loss and hints of anxiety that are leavened with essential flashes of hope, the whole connecting like it could possibly be inspired by actual lived experience, i.e. the pain of inevitable heartbreak, the fear inspired by loneliness, the look and smile of that fellow customer in the record store as they carry a copy of your favorite album (on that day, anyway) up to the counter for purchase (and how fortunate that you’re the cashier).

This aura really hits home when Thomas steps up to sing the tunes, though the hypothetical realness of his work definitely translates to other vocalists; it’s just feels really real when he’s on the mike. And “All Our Summer Songs,” the almost title track, reaches a rare pinnacle of achy relationship angst greatly emphasized by cascades of gnawing cello.

All Your Summer Songs is an absolute clinic in astute brevity simply begging for repeated listens, and in almost ten years it’s lost nary a trace of its ample charms. That’s more than enough to reward it with the status of indie pop classic.

Graded on a Curve: A 

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