Irv Karwelis, Idol Records' honcho, sent over the Onward Quirky Soldiers advance along with sale figures for the first single off said disc, Chomsky's sophomore effort that rocks like a senior on the last day of high school. Turns out the three-song disc, fleshed out by skeletal demos, is moving massive quantities out of local retailers: some 700 copies in a few weeks, the kind of sales figures most homegrown full-lengthers never achieve in a dozen lifetimes. And over at Good Records, "00:15:00"--otherwise known as "15 Minutes to Rock," a promise that doesn't take as long to deliver--sits atop the top-selling album list, outstripping the likes of Built to Spill and Polyphonic Spree...and Chomsky, whose debut, A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life, keeps ringing registers some two years on. Turns out a band hatched as a lark seven years ago by Sean Halleck and John Norris (who left for the Tomorrowpeople, already yesterday's sad, stale news) has become a mighty franchise in the new millennium. Its fans are fanatics (the Chomsky Army, so named for their devout militancy to the head bob), and its songs serve as the perfect recruitment tool for the discerning listener craving the new-new-wave-not-the-same-as-the-same-as-the-old-new-wave. This is what they meant by hooks back in the old days: Onward Quirky Soldiers is the lure, and the audience, desperate for smart and infectious pop in a modern musical landscape bereft of such promise, can't help but take the bait.
Onward Quirky Soldiers is where Chomsky fine-tunes its fetishes and makes its lasting mark; if the debut was catchy, the new disc's contagious, perhaps because unlike A Few Possible Selections, it was recorded in a studio and not the revolving door through which co-front man Glen Reynolds was still joining the band. Still present are the XTC echoes ("Herod's Daughter" and "Laughing," especially, resound with guitar lines so angular they could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the Police flourishes (everything pops, yet never without purpose), but two years have added depth to the band's infatuation with the deceptively shallow rock of the early 1980s. The 10 songs on Onward are less claustrophobic than the earlier offerings; they let you all the way in, which is often what happens when a band stops mimicking others and creates its own unique language (even if, or especially when, the lyrics seem like an afterthought).
The opener, "Straight Razor," is everything to anybody without losing its identity at the buffet table: It opens with Beach Boys coos, reveals its Attraction to Elvis Costello's attraction to farfisa keybs (with Don Cento playing the role of Steve Nieve) and packs a poptopian punch that sounds like the finest, bravest new-wave slap and tickle. A couple of songs are dolled up in Two-Tone drag, and the roiling keybs that intro "Light" sound like something left off Quadrophenia; can you see the real Chomsky, can ya? Ah, but the trick is you don't feel compelled to play Spot the Influence; Chomsky's isn't a sound built upon derivation, but the motivation to simply keep you engaged from first herky-jerky chord change to last singalong chorus (bassist James Driscoll and drummer Matt Kellum can move the groove faster than Bekins Van Lines). It can get a little silly at times ("It always feels like it's rock thirty in my mind," goes the opening line in "00:15:00," a naïve little joke that elicits a chuckle and a wince), but that's what happens when you wear your heart on the sleeve you use to mop your brow while pretending like it's nothing more than effortless, empty fun. Onward Quirky Soldiers is one of the best records you bought in 1981, and one of the best you'll buy in 2001. That's what they mean by "timeless."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.