Two camps inhabit guitar-pop criticism. One side says it’s formulaic, it’s overdone and it just isn’t capable of inducing powerful emotion. The other says, “Lighten up, you jerks. This is a hell of a lot of fun.” What shuttles people into one camp or the other is the hook. When the hooks don’t grab you, you’re left with little more than the verse-chorus-verse and a handful of vapid lyrics. But when the hooks resonate, guitar pop is fun as hell, no matter how bad the lyrics are.
Welcome to The Fuses Refuse to Burn, an album that perfectly internalizes that dilemma. Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Olympic Hopefuls employ some elements that give their debut album some distinctive flavor, but it’s highly unlikely it will change your opinion of guitar pop. About half the tracks are absolute burners that get stuck in your head and would fit well on any mixtape, but the other half are unexciting, blasting away with a benign, unentertaining cheer.
In the hands of lesser talents, many of these songs would be whiny and irritating, but Olympic Hopefuls knows when to get loud and when to scale things back. The clear winner is the understated “Shy,” which layers guitars over a lamentation of missed romantic opportunity with some great melodies. The five-piece — anchored by Erik Applewick and Darren Jackson of Viscious Viscious and Kid Dakota, respectively, and rounded out by Heath Henjum, Matt O’Laughlin and John Hermanson — uses empty space to great effect on the opener, “Imaginary.” Its crystal-clear production highlights the flittering drums, which break down into muffled drum machine noises at a few key moments, keeping the I’m-dancing-with-the-invisible-girlfriend-I-never-really-had lyrics from sounding worn out.
But when they run out of ideas, the needle swings back toward predictable. “Whisper,” their “Up yours, ex-girlfriend!” song, runs through a litany of complaints (“To you I was an experiment/ Let’s try and make the bad boy better/ Let’s see if he can eat organically/ or maybe wear a J. Crew sweater”). “Stoned Again” is their “I’m high and I miss you” tune, “Let’s Go” is their “let’s rock while we’re young” anthem. All are catchy, but you know what to expect long before they finish.
When they know what they want to accomplish, Olympic Hopefuls delivers some amazingly infectious tunes. But when they rely on driving but repetitive melodies to carry their typically complaint-heavy lyrics, it just doesn’t work. “Shy” and “Imaginary” are indisputably great songs (“Holiday” is a candidate for this list, too), but when Fuses isn’t dazzling, it’s underwhelming. In this case, I’ll head for the “fun” camp first, but I’m not unpacking until Olympic Hopefuls shows some consistency.