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With THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES PEOPLE, THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA have delivered an inventive, uplifting and often brilliant rock & roll album. From the opening, celebratory blast of “Mixed Up SOB”--which embraces the spirit of the band’s 4 million-selling eponymous debut--to the warm, Shins-like lilt of “Loose Balloon,” the group commandeers your attention with fourteen contagious winners.
Simply put, THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES PEOPLE delivers the goods with PUSA sounding as vital as ever. With the collective strengths of founding vocalist, basitar player and principal songwriter CHRIS BALLEW, original drummer JASON FINN and guitbass player ANDREW MCKEAG--who officially joins the band with this album--PUSA lend their joy and enthusiasm to any and all within an earshot.
Recorded by Northwest legends The Fastbacks’ own Kurt Bloch (Robyn Hitchcock, Mudhoney, Les Thugs) and mixed by Martin Feveyear (Epoxies, Amber Pacific, Screaming Trees), the disc marks an alignment between the band and EMI via the new imprint Fugitive Recordings. Sharing the landscape with recent, acclaimed efforts by Ween and They Might Be Giants, PUSA--as masters (and progenitors) of “Joy Pop”--dig deep and pull off their most diverse and accomplished record yet.
Case in point is the twangy, swing-informed exuberance of “Flame Is Love,” which effortlessly shares the company of more recent numbers like the riff-tastic “Poor Turtle” or the light, countrified “Truckstop Butterfly.” As for the aforementioned “Mixed Up SOB,” it was originally penned in 1989 and first existed as “a slow, 12-string kind of thing,” says Chris. “It wasn’t until I decided to Cars-ify it that it came to life.”
“Chris is very prolific and there’s never a lack of new material,” Finn explains. “He’s also got stuff from the last ten years on his computers. And he’s always sort of rifling through fragments of material from hard drives, cassettes, Dictaphones, wherever. And every time we do a new record, he goes through that stuff. And every time I think I’ve heard every song that he’s ever written, he pulls out like eight great songs I’ve never heard, and I’m like, ‘Why the %$#@ didn’t we do this one or that one?’”
And then there’s the glistening, piano-touched pop winner “More Bad Times,” which is brand new, sort of.
Replete with an a cappella break and a captivating acoustic shuffle, the song--which can’t help but be one of the main focal points of THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES PEOPLE--is essentially a hybrid of Presidents music and the lyrics to a song by an old, obscure group known as Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. “I used to go see them when I moved toBostonin 1988. They had a ukulele, a violin and an old man shaking a can of rice,” Chris chuckles. “And they had a song, “More Bad Times,” that was very different musically. But I always loved it.”
“So, we’re goofing around with acoustic guitars,” Ballew continues, “and Andrew started playing a new riff, and all of the sudden that other song came into my head, and I starting singing those lyrics over it and changed the rhyme scheme and it just fit. I wound up writing a final verse and discovered how much fun it is to take an existing song and turn it into something else. When we finished it I was like, man, this is the feel good hit of the summer.”
“I was just playing this part on this Silvertone guitar that Chris had in his house and it was tuned an octave higher. And he was like, ‘Keep playing that! Keep playing that!’” Andrew laughs. “He started jumping up and down and got all excited.”
“It’s certainly one of the high points and it’s in a spot where we rarely go,” Finn acknowledges. “We’ve gone a little bit further out toward the edges on this one, but in a totally focused way. Of course, people have always expected a ‘mixed grill’ from us stylistically. Our earliest crowds inSeattledidn’t know whether they were going to get loud, soft or all ska on a given night. That was part of the fun…as long as it wasn’t ska very often.”
Since the Seattle-based trio first burst into the public eye with its aforementioned debut – on the strength of radio smashes like “Lump” and “Peaches” – it has been plugging away in fits and spurts with remarkable success. Look no further than their twice Grammy- nominated debut The Presidents of the United States of America, which continues to thrive as an enduring modern rock disc since peaking at #6 on the Billboard Top 200. Enjoying the kind of longevity shared by eponymous classics of the genre like Violent Femmes and Weezer, it’s found a new life on digital services like iTunes since its rights reverted back to the band in 2003.
1996’s II rocked just as hard, giving birth to the full throttle, Top 10 single, “Mach Five,” which fostered PUSA’s most imaginative and infamous music video. Meanwhile, accelerated fan favorites like “Lunatic to Love” and “Tiki God” left their imprint on then-up and-comers The Hives.
In advance of a much-deserved hiatus, two well-chosen covers helped leave a substantial cultural mark. First, a boisterous take on The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” musically defined the smash Adam Sandler flick “The Wedding Singer.” Next, “The Drew Carey Show” adopted the Presidents’ rendering of Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks” as its theme, bringing the trio into millions and millions of living rooms across the fruited plain. “Ohio!” indeed.
In 2000, Chris, Dave and Jason reconvened for the vibrant studio-only effort Freaked Out and Small, which boasted the airwave favorite “Tiny Explosions.” Giving PUSA a chance to record songs that Chris had crafted outside of the band’s unconventional 2-string, 3-string format, the project included the riotous track “Jupiter” and live in-studio performances on the accompanying DVD. “We weren’t officially working again at that point, Jason explains. This Musicblitz company appeared out of the ether and offered us a chance to make a record with no touring obligation. Sounds like a hoot, says us, and we had a blast recording it for 10 days, then didn’t give it another thought. Neither did Mudicblitz, who went out of business a couple of weeks after putting it out.”
A full reformation followed a series of reunion gigs for 2004’s Love Everybody, and while critics were handing out four star reviews and “Some Postman” was a radio favorite, the band ultimately realized that operating as a touring band and maintaining its own PUSA record label was a huge undertaking. As Finn puts it, “Being our own label was interesting, but ultimately the day-to-day realities of managing a retail operation were taking too much of our rocking time. Plus, during our frequent DIVA tantrums, it was less fun calling and screaming at ourselves!”
With Love Everybody, Dave stepped away from the band for touring purposes and ultimately passed the guitbass to McKeag, a Seattle music vet and longtime friend of the band who was initially introduced to the group by Dederer years ago and who first served as a roadie for The Fastbacks when they opened for PUSA on their June 1996 U.S. tour.
“After 200 shows in the band, I’ve finally earned my stripes. Woo-hoo!” Andrew laughs. To which, Finn adds, “Andrew is a huge, huge guitar player. He takes the rock & roll of the band and capitalizes the ‘R’s’.” It’s a notion upheld by the punchy, rollicking “French Girl,” the quirky and undeniably sharp “Fangs”--which boasts Jason’s finest harmony vocals to date--and the blistering, forceful anchor track “Ghosts Are Everywhere.”
Then there’s “Deleter,” a bona fide funk song with horns that the band built from a beat that Finn had been playing at soundchecks for years. “One day at practice we put it together but I couldn’t make any lyrics fit,” Chris explains. “Then I remembered an email I had from Robyn Hitchcock--who I’ve been friends with and whose records I’ve been playing on for a while--and he asked, ‘Do you still have that horn part you did?’ So I wrote back, ‘No man. If I know you’re not going to use it, I delete it. I’m a deleter.’ And he replied, ‘She’s a deleter.’ So we started riffing back and forth. That banter became the chorus. I wrote the verses and we finished it.” Soul singer Fysah Thomas rounds out the song with the first ever guest vocal appearance on a Presidents album.
With a cover image of a hand with a pin coming in to pop a balloon, Ballew says the track “Loose Balloon” fostered the album art. It was also the first song he wrote for THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES PEOPLE. Written on Christmas Day 2005, the first he spent alone after his marriage dissolved and his kids were off with their mom, Ballew says, “The split was a positive one but that day I was really bummed. My whole life was changing. And that song came out as therapy.”
When it’s suggested that although it came from a dark place, it still translates as a song of strength, Chris is quick to explain. “When you write a song and you play it live you have to live it,” he says. “If you tell a sad story, you have to live it over and over again each night. So my version of musical therapy isn’t to wallow in the sadness but find that little bright spot and turn up the volume on it.”
That sentiment lends itself to the title of the record: “Whenever we were on tour over the last couple years and things were sucking and we’re sitting backstage somewhere, cold and eating whipped turkey in some strange third world country, everyone would be quiet and I would say, ‘These are the good times, people.’ Like, this is it! This is what we signed up for! And it sort of mutated into the record title, when I thought that without the sarcasm, it could be used as a positive statement. “
Perhaps that outlook also explains why PUSA have persevered and remain able to make inspiring music on their own terms long after so many of their ‘90s alt-rock peers have gone by the wayside. With an average age of show-goers at around 20, the band’s high energy shows continue to pack venues all over the world, selling out shows inLondon,Amsterdam,New York,SydneyandSeattleon its last world trek.
With THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES PEOPLE, new and old fans alike should find little problem joining the party with PUSA circa 2008. “I know this stands up strong against our entire catalog. And I hope our fans agree. We’ve finally gotten to the point where we can let the vibe come to us and then we jump out at it and reel it in. I think we’ve really brought our ‘A’ game to this album. I feel like we’ve given as much as we ever have on this record.”
Forgoing the director role he has assumed in the past, Ballew says a democratic dynamic steered the project and greatly improved the energy of the band. Playing to their strengths on THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES PEOPLE, Chris concedes, “I’ve just kind of learned over time that it’s a lot of stress for me and I don’t necessarily end up with something better. I just decided to lay back and not care while caring deeply, letting the cream rise to the top.”