Fewer things test the patience of a rock or metal fan more than hearing the word 'pop' used to describe the music they love. Is it a stereotype? Yes, but not without merit. Rock and metal fans love their music for the power and aggression, the aspects that keep their favorite bands from breaking into the mainstream in almost every case. When they hear the word 'pop' come from a reviewer, or a press release, there's fear dripping from their pores. Pop music is for teenagers and people who never had the good taste to discover Led Zeppelin, not for tenured fans of 'real music'.
Of course, we should know that pop is not incompatible with rock music, nor is having a catchy song a sign that a band shouldn't be taken seriously. So it is with that in mind we approach Oedipus' “Vicious Little Smile”, an album that marries bits of punk to the power-pop sound of the 70's in a way that Bad Religion has been making famous for decades. Equal parts big guitars and big harmonies, “Vicious Little Smile” is an unabashed love letter to a day when rock music could still live on the Top 40 charts. Songs like “Tres Las”, with it's straight down-picked rhythms borrowed from a punk song, and massive wordless sing-along chorus, are the sounds that used to fill arenas.
Somewhere along the line, it became antithetical to the spirit of rock to have fun with music, a strain of thought Oedipus wisely throws out. These are songs meant for having a good time, raising a fist in the air while singing along with friends. Maybe this day and age is too cynical for such activities, but there was a time when it was normal. And saying that, I can feel how quickly time has passed by.
Merely harkening back to a time isn't enough. The music needs to be able to stand on its own, which is where “Vicious Little Smile” fails to live up to its billing. The opening quartet of songs are breezy bits of ear candy, connecting the big hooks and bigger gang vocals with enough rock energy to be instantly appealing. But when “Liar” hits, complete with six minute running time, the band gets swamped in their effort to be bigger than who they are. Likewise, “Final Machine” feels like a blatant attempt to be the Foo Fighters, so much so that any merits the song has are lost in a feeling of cognitive dissonance.
There's an adage about there being nothing better than a three minute pop single, which is something Oedipus proves true. The songs that get in and get out without overstaying their welcome call out for repeated listens, while the songs that dare to stretch themselves make it hard to avoid pressing the button to move on to something more gratifying. Thankfully, the band limits the number of times they try to go beyond the scope of pop gems. As craftsmen, they show an ability to write hooks that few bands even try anymore. Melody is the centerpiece of the songs, not something tacked on as an afterthought. It's a welcome change of pace to much of the music that calls itself rock, and even when the songs don't work, they avoid falling into the trap of being so somber and serious they become depressing to listen to.
Unfortunately, “Vicious Little Smile” suffers from its own success. Those first tracks set a standard that the rest of the record can't live up to, and rather than feeling like an uneven album, it comes across as a disappointment. By front-loading the best material, the album's back half pales in comparison, and stands out as the lasting memory taken away from the experience. The initial fifteen minutes of excitement fade away over the course of another thirty minutes of standard fare songs that lack that spark. Maybe saving one of those nuggets for the end of the record would make it leave a better aftertaste, but as it is, “Vicious Little Smile” is a musical sugar crash; fun while it lasts, but tiring by the time it's over.