On Some Planets This Is Pop

Sometimes when you take enough existing pieces and mash them together, you get something totally new.

In an age where far too many retro acts are simply recycling old musical ideas, Alphanaut’s wonderfully-titled On Some Planets This Is Pop is a true breath of fresh air. At once familiar and alien, it’s a melange of influences ranging across the last 70 years of music, but somehow becomes totally unique.  

Alphanaut is the brainchild of Mark Alan, an LA native who formed the band in 2008 as a musical collective made up of various artists Alan knew. It began as a largely experimental project, then evolved into a live-performance act, and finally landed on whatever planet that This Is Pop hails from.

Classifying the writing of Alan and songwriting partner Jeff Kingfisher is nearly impossible, as the songs effortlessly slide between 50s-ish rock lyrics, sultry jazz sax, 70s blues, 80s New Wave, modern electro, and more. Their influences are sometimes obvious – the spacious production easily recalls Brian Eno’s collaborations with Bowie. However, from there a sharp-eared listening can spot nods to acts as varied as Pink Floyd, Oingo Boingo, and Chris Isaak.

The album establishes its unique sonic realm right upfront with ‘Shake The Rhythm.’ Quirky electronics and plucked strings quickly give way to deliberately antiquated lyrics.  When’s the last time you heard the term “fuddy duddy” in any context? Soon Tony Bolivar’s masterful saxophone makes its entrance, a constant presence on the album that gives it a grounded earthy quality, despite its often cosmic outlook. Add in a small Motown-style backing women’s choir, and the song glides along on their ooohs and aaahs.  

Topics covered by the album run the gamut as well. Some are quiet and personal, such as ‘Monkey Work,’ a portrait of a failing middle-aged marriage. Then ‘Young, Wild, and Beautiful’ sounds almost like something Tom Petty would come up with, sketching a series of teenage characters like it’s going down the roll of a high school classroom.  The overall vibe sounds like a preppy clothing commercial.

But it can just as quickly switch to large and sweeping themes. Ideas of cosmic power and energies come into play in his cover of T.Rex’s glam classic ‘Cosmic Dancer,’ a meditation on life and death. This theme goes further in the final track, ‘Like A Time Machine,’ which speaks of the energy which creates us, then declares “A boy like you is like a time machine.” No idea what that means, but it sounds cool.

A wistful nostalgia also winds its way through the album, with frequent references to happier times in the past. ‘Go to the Ghost’ in particular focuses on a woman who has lost a love and yearns for it. Or ‘Forever’ speaks to the impermanence of things, with a melody that seems to have been inspired by Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World.’  But then it transitions into a tinny AM-radio sound, because of course it does.

If the album has a standout track, though, it’s ‘Virtual Love,’ an ode to modern online dating, and one of the album’s singles. A Who-esque synth groove introduces the song, which then morphs into the most truly poppy song on the album – but one with cheeky postmodern lyrics. “Come on man, be my woman / Come on woman, be my man!” croons Alan and the choir, reveling in the ambiguity and deceptions in digital matchmaking.  

On Some Planets This Is Pop has the makings of a modern classic. Looking both forward and backwards at once, mixing old and new with reckless abandon, it’s got something for almost anyone.  If you’re burned out on how samey music sounds right now, give planet Alphanaut a visit. 

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