There is no succinct way for me to describe the kind of magic that Telethon brings to the table. This Wisconsin five-piece channels a kind of controlled chaos that is akin to the sounds of childhood in the early aughts, making it pointless to even ascribe a genre to their style of music. Their fourth studio album, Hard Pop, is constantly meandering through different soundscapes — arena-ready guitar solos give way to rambunctious horns and theatrical melodies in a way that only makes sense in the context of Telethon’s discography. Its a body of work that thrives on the kind of frantic energy of the decade this band spent the bulk of their formative years in, a celebration of their idiosyncrasies, and more importantly, the kind of record that stays with listeners for a lifetime.
At its core, Hard Pop sounds like running through the sprinkler on a hot Summer day feels; refreshing and familiar. There’s a sense of comfort in the fact that even a passive listen to the album brings you back to the sounds of the TV in the living room being cranked loud enough that you can hear the commercials filtering through the screen door. The warm kiss of the sun and the carelessness of youth made each day seem like an eternity all its own, not unlike the sprawling and ambitious mission statement of the album’s opening track “Loser/That Old Private Hell.”
This six-minute long epoch manages to encapsulate the whole of the record; allowing each of the bands fluid transitions to feel less jarring than they otherwise would. Each section of this track paints a different, distinct portrait of life in the midwest. Sweeping, youthful dreams of playing minor-league baseball. Tales of people that left home, only to come back to the place that they couldn’t get far enough away from. A narrative that tells you to feel at home in feeling lost, because we’re all in the same boat. The dividing line between these? A powerful riff that shreds so hard that it’s bound to kickstart your adrenaline.
You’d think it damn near impossible to follow that with something just as moving, but Telethon loves to challenge the listener’s idea of what they can accomplish. “(I Guess You’d Call It) An Undertone” houses a lyric that I couldn’t help immediately falling in love with. When Kevin sings, “I’ve got this spiral bound notebook/I’ve kept it since I was a kid/Where I write down anything that doesn’t add up/So I can show it to God in the end and say ‘I know what you did’,” a wave of emotion just pours over me. There’s something about it that resonates with every single fiber of my being in a way that I can’t put into words — it’s a warmth and a joy that brings an admittedly stupid smile to my face every single time that I hear it.
“Chimney Rock” is MCS-core pop that slaps you in the face. The crunchy data-rock riffs that spill over into a chorus so infectious that it’s bound to linger in the deepest recesses of your brain and the other-worldly harmonies with The Sonder Bombs’ Willow Hawks that beg you to scream along as they sing, “Lean in, buddy, what are you scared of!?” are a goddamn stroke of genius. If you weren’t already one-hundred percent sold on Telethon, this is the song that’ll do it. It’s almost criminal that this wasn’t a pre-release single.
I’d be remiss to not sing the praise of “Time to Lean (This Whole Building Runs on Windows ’98).” Everything that I said about “Chimney Rock” reigns true on this track; it’s a huge, crunchy pop song that runs with rampant with saccharine melody, but the real tour de force comes from this guitar solo ripped right from the gods of classic rock. It’s a driving force that makes for an impressive one-two punch when it’s paired with “Youdon’tinspiremelikeyouusedto.” The further that you dive into this record, the clearer it gets you’re listening to something special.
Honestly, I can’t think of a band other than Telethon that could get away with creating a record as unique and powerful as Hard Pop. From the moment I wrapped my first listen, I’ve been saying that this is a Springsteen record through the lens of Fountains of Wayne. Roaring quirk and playful craftsmanship only add more depth to the stories being told on each and every single track that make up this record. In the hands of anyone lesser, these songs would feel like the product of a band in crisis — struggling to find an identity and unsure of which path is worth taking. Telethon is anything but. After all, “the magic of being a loser is that nobody has to find out.”
Hard Pop is out now on Take This To Heart Records. Grab your copy here.