Separating music from fashion is inherently a fool's errand. From disco to grunge to rap-metal, some time-bound cultural aspect always floats one form or another to the top. But sometimes trends preclude appreciation for the simple or timeless, overshadowing superior craftsmanship with the gleaming allure of this year's model.
"Every day, Pitchfork has someone slamming the [verse-chorus-verse] type of songwriting, and that's cool, but there are a lot of great songs," says The Public Good singer/ guitarist Steve Ruppenthal, from his Washington, D.C., home. "Just because you follow that formula doesn't mean that it can't be a great song. In the long run, what's the difference? If it's a great song, it's a great song."
He's exaggerating, of course; the bulk of mainstream independent music these days—from Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear to Phoenix and My Morning Jacket—doesn't bend too far away from traditional song structures. Still, his point—that the self-consciously arty sometimes gets more attention than the tried and true—holds. Or perhaps it's just a matter of timing. After all, Ruppenthal and his songwriting partner, John Elderkin, have never quite mastered being in the right place at the right time or being there for long enough. Despite the pair's two decades of clever writing and polished chops, their prior efforts have always stopped short of the successful finish the works seemingly deserved. They'd like to remedy that at last.
Like Fountains of Wayne, another songwriting pair who they predate by a decade or so, the duo specializes in whip-smart power pop that's as long on wit as it is on hooks. They got their start in the late '80s in Chapel Hill with The Popes, releasing Hi, We're the Popes in 1988.
"We rocked, but we were seriously geeky guys. I think that was part of the appeal," says Elderkin. "I sometimes think we had the whole Weezer thing down 10 years before they came along."
It wasn't built to last. They recorded a follow-up and were on the verge of a deal with First Warning Records, a major-label subsidiary, but the bass player left. The deal fell apart, and by 1991 the band had imploded, swallowing enormous promise. Some copies of that unreleased disc still exist, and it's reportedly amazing. Glenn Boothe, who now owns Local 506 but was WXYC's music director when The Popes were emerging, says it's "quite possibly the best album recorded by an N.C. act other than Let's Active and Superchunk."
"We worked so hard to get to do what we were doing that we burned out," Elderkin recalls. "A year or two later, me and Steve talked and were like, 'We needed to take a break and not break up.' I think that's partly why we kept getting back together in different formations."
Indeed, they followed The Popes with another Chapel Hill band, Stumble, who released a 7" and a couple of cassettes. Elderkin and Ruppenthal moved to Atlanta and changed their name to The Lovely Lads, releasing two albums on Gainesville's Put It On a Cracker Records, run by former Cat's Cradle employee Bill Bryson. This time, the drummer left—another dead end baited with potential.
Elderkin didn't pick up the guitar for the next eight years, but fate or coincidence intervened, bringing each songwriter's new home within a few blocks of the other's in Washington, D.C. In 2007, they reunited for another go, this time as The Public Good. The tunes coalesced almost instantly, as though the pair had never stopped writing together at all. They set off to record their debut, No. 1, last year with Brian Paulson.
Though older and wiser, Elderkin and Ruppenthal are no less tuneful or canny. The lilting "(Imagine the Girlfriends I'd Have) If I Still Had Hair" drifts gently over shimmering guitar and sha-la-la-ing backing vocals as Elderkin wonders why no one has figured out how to clone Bob Dylan's curly 'fro circa 1966. "Baby Baby Baby" jangles like Big Star while the narrator relates how his newborn stole his wife's affection. The Kinks-ish "Cigarette" ponders the loneliness and succor of a smoky addiction. On "Timothy Trent, Graduate Student," Elderkin name-drops Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Joseph Le Conte, capturing the pretension of a kid who confronts his student loans, only to realize, "He'll repay until the day he dies, unless as he contends—as a Marxist reading makes so clear—the only thing he owes the world are his ideas." Even in these cutting portraits, there's an interior sense of ambivalence, much like an Elvis Costello song.
"We always add a wrinkle so that it's a little more complex than, 'Let's make fun of Timothy Trent,'" explains Elderkin. "At the end, the singer turns it back on himself, like 'I'm a guy who also does this.' On 'Baby Baby Baby,' the guy runs off to a titty bar, rather than be with his kid. At the end, he still says, 'I want to be good.'"
It's catchy music with a scathing perspective, leavened by a dose of self-awareness. Instead of luxuriating in the narcotic of love or pretending to be 21, these songwriters are addressing the quandaries of approaching middle age and negotiating day-to-day life. "I'm curious if we moved back to Chapel Hill if that stuff would ring true enough that people would be interested in us," he wonders, "or if people would be, 'Old men. Whatever.'"
Though at something of a loss for how to cut through the flood of product these days, they forge on, self-releasing and hoping for that break that, two decades into it, is yet to come. Whether notoriety happens now or never, it seems that, by now, this is just what they're meant to do. In fact, a follow-up with new member Chris Garges (Shalini, Big Octave) is already in the works.
A tree alone in the forest? Perhaps. But at this point they're comfortable with it, enthused to pursue a plan they've yet to try.
"We're going to take the long view," Elderkin says. "We have a shitload of songs. One thing Steve and I can do is we can write real songs that matter to us. We have an album coming out in a couple months and have ideas for the one after that. We're just going to stick with it this time."
The Public Good plays with Bustello (featuring former members of Metal Flake Mother and Pressure Boys) and Greg Humphreys (of Hobex and Dillon Fence) Friday, Jan. 15, at Local 506. The 9:30 p.m. show costs $7.