Ringing from hi-fi headphones and blown-out boombox speakers alike comes the overloaded guitar genius of Easy Listening, a record of rock ‘n’ roll daydreams and terminal boredom, and 2nd Grade’s long awaited second LP on Double Double Whammy. Like a blue slushy on a hot day, Easy Listening is a sweet respite. Like the Blue Angels touching down on the Las Vegas Strip, Easy Listening is impossible to ignore. And like a janitor mopping up beer on the floor of the Hollywood Palladium in 1972, hours after the Rolling Stones have finished “Ventilator Blues” and climbed onto the bus, Easy Listening knows the glory and cost of escapism, abandon, and the soul of rock ‘n’ roll. Philadelphia’s 2nd Grade (Peter Gill, Catherine Dwyer, Jon Samuels, David Settle, and Fran Lyons) is a band both obsessed with and worthy of rock stardom, and Easy Listening proves their status as virtuosos of the power pop renaissance.
Sonically and lyrically, Easy Listening pays tribute to a guitar lineage linking the Stones to the Flamin’ Groovies, to Redd Kross and Guided By Voices. With its spiraling hooks and handclapped quarter note beat, lead single “Strung Out On You” sounds like an alternate reality post-Radio City Big Star cut. In 2nd Grade’s world, music history is a prism, not a linear progression. Famous teens transcend time on the outro to “Teenage Overpopulation,” a shouted cacophony of names including Tommy Stinson, Lizzie McGuire, and Joan of Arc. The line between the love of an audience and that of a romantic partner is blurred on songs like “Hands Down” and “Me & My Blue Angels.” Across the album, hi-fi and lo-fi styles splice together; playful references and surreal hints of impossibility build a complex, believable world atop a foundation of simple and sticky melodies that resonate on very first listen.
As usual, 2nd Grade are generous with their album offerings, packing 16 songs on Easy Listening. Most tracks clock in around two minutes, almost indulgent compared to the average runtime on 2nd Grade’s debut 24-track LP Hit to Hit. On Easy Listening however, the band develops their theory of quantum teenage energy, composed of equal parts sincerity and swagger. Basement drums and bass run full speed ahead. Gill’s vocal deliveries range from sweet to snotty. Guitar performances from Samuels and Dwyer similarly alternate between clean power-pop jangle and lo-fi scuzz, dedicated above all to the band’s lodestar: riffs that rule.
Easy Listening doesn’t just reference its larger-than-life forebearers - it builds a multi-layered dreamworld of punk and rock mythology from beginning to end, allowing both band and listener to revel, at least for a moment, in radio star euphoria. “We’re MVPs of MTV/Don’t have to live like a refugee/We’re VIPs of VH1/Learning to fly and free fallin,” Gill sings on Track 1, “Cover of Rolling Stone.” Later, on “Planetarium,” Gill colors his starry daydream with everyday pathos: “My lawyer says not to talk to the press/but I just like the way that they listen.” Across the album, yesteryear’s guitar heroes show up as totemic symbols, transmuting their own worlds of meaning into new expressions in Gill’s overactive imagination.
For all its abundance, Gill’s imagination is also desperate. The brilliance of Easy Listening lies in its longing, and in the blindingly clear difference between the myth of rockstar ecstasy and the reality of ennui, stagnation, and addiction. Like anybody, the voice of 2nd Grade just wants somebody to listen and there's nothing more human than fantasizing about the things we don't have. Like 2nd Grade, we’re all children, “dreaming of dreaming of dreaming a dream.”