|Cultural origins||Mid 1990s|
Chamber pop (or ork-pop) is a subgenre of indie pop or indie rock which grew in the mid 1990s as a reaction against the fuzz distortion and lo-fi aesthetic prominent in alternative music. Inspired partly by the era's lounge music revivalism, artists once again focused their efforts on melody and production, making sophisticated use of orchestras and voices that went beyond the conventions of a traditional rock song. Chamber pop is typified by strings, horns, piano, and a dissociation from concurrent music movements like grunge or electronica. The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson heavily influenced much of the genre, as did composer Burt Bacharach. Specific works which helped define chamber pop include the Beach Boys' albums Pet Sounds (1966) and Smile (1966–67), as well as the majority of Louis Phillipe's productions for él Records (1984–89).
Definition and roots
Music fans and writers have variously labelled the hybrid sound of string sections and rock music as "symphonic pop", "chamber pop", and "ork-pop" (short for orchestral pop). Ork-pop refers to a branch of underground rock musicians who shared an affinity with the Beach Boys' 1966 studio album Pet Sounds, such as the High Llamas and bands from the Elephant 6 collective. The name was the creation of rock critics, encompassing everyone who was a fan of the Beach Boys to fans of Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini. Chamber pop is characterized by a sophisticated use of orchestras and voices embodied by the majority of Louis Phillipe's productions for él Records. Strongly influenced by the rich orchestrations of Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, and Lee Hazlewood, artists once again focused their efforts on melody and production. AllMusic states that the genre carries on the "spirit" of the baroque pop of the 1960s, while cultural writers Joseph Fisher and Brian Flota call it the "heir" to baroque pop. Another major source of influence was the singer Scott Walker. New York Daily News' Jim Farber summarizes; "think Donovan meets Burt Bacharach".
The Beach Boys — "Wonderful" (1967 Smile recording)
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Writer Louise Mooney Collins believes that the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds helped define chamber pop as "intimate, precisely arranged songs with rock's sweep but without its bluesy clamor." Following the album was the group's unfinished 1966–67 work Smile, a collaboration between Brian Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks that also heavily influenced the genre. Author Carl Wilson (no relation) says that Brian's "pained vulnerability", "uses of offbeat instruments", "intricate harmonies", and "the Smile saga itself" became a touchstone for any band that was labelled chamber pop. Just as they shared a love for Wilson, numerous ork-pop acts held an admiration for one another's work.
Despite its stylistic diversity, chamber pop almost always involves arrangements more elaborate than a standard rock song. The instrumentation usually contains strings and horns, while styles from simultaneous musical movements like grunge and electronica are neglected. To a partial degree, chamber pop was inspired by the 1990s lounge music revival, but was removed from any irony or kitsch. The genre also avoids fuzz distortion and the lo-fi aesthetic that was dominant throughout the alternative music community. At that time, mainstream rock bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, and R.E.M. occasionally used strings in their sound, but they generally stayed within a typical rock idiom. The High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan commented; "There is this whole misconception that American college rock with twisted baseball hats and checked shirts is adventurous, but it's the most conformist, corporate thing out there. ... All these bands sound like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It's a shame that it couldn't be discovered from the get-go for what it is. A lot of it is just very simple dumb-guy rock." Ork-pop was part of a larger trend which involved musicians who rejected traditional rock conventions, such as Tortoise and Stereolab, although those specific bands are not considered ork-pop.
Emergence and popularity
Fisher and Flota trace chamber pop to "at least" the mid 1990s, emerging in parallel to Shibuya-kei in Japan, which also revisited the trend of foregrounding instruments like strings and horns in its arrangements. According to Natalie Waliek of music retailer Newbury Comics, some of the interest in ork-pop could have been attributed to the then-renewed interest in psychedelia and the overlap with "the cocktail/lounge music thing, because that music [also] has orchestrations".
Ork-pop acts were restricted to only a moderate degree of commercial success. The majority of musicians were aged beyond their early 20s, and many struggled to achieve significant retail or radio success amid its modern rock competition. In the past, record companies had helped facilitate large multi-instrumental bands by financing instruments like strings, horns, and keyboards on artists' albums, but this became rarer as time went on. Touring with full string and brass ensembles also proved difficult for some, which became another factor that prevented the genre's mainstream success.
Plush — "Found a Little Baby" (1994)
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In a profile of ork-pop, Rosen lists examples that include Yum-Yum, the High Llamas, Richard Davies, Eric Matthews, Spookey Ruben, Witch Hazel, and Liam Hayes (Plush). Matthews, who partnered with Davies for duo Cardinal, was viewed as one leader of the ork-pop movement. Popmatters' Maria Schurr wrote in a retrospective review of Cardinal's eponymous 1994 debut album; "in some circles, [it has] been called the grunge era's answer to Pet Sounds, and, although it has not been as widely cited as the Beach Boys' classic, it has undoubtedly influenced more off balance indie popsters than one may expect." Music journalist Jim DeRogatis associates the ork-pop and chamber pop movement to bands like Yum-Yum, Cardinal and Lambchop.
By 2009, the term "chamber pop" had fallen to indiscriminate use, as songwriter/author Scott Miller suggests it "made more sense applied to the Fleet Foxes than to other bands I've since seen it applied to". He also noted that Pet Sounds had become a ubiquitous object of comparison; "[If people] are happy about that, I have to pinch myself and reflect that I'd never thought I'd see the day." Treblezine's Brian Roster wrote that Grizzly Bear's album Veckatimest was a "landmark exploration of the changing landscapes of pop in 2009" that represented an attempt to create "a sort of abridged conclusion to chamber pop's earliest days".
- Spin magazine refers to Bacharach and Wilson as "gods" of orchestral pop. In journalist Chris Nickson's opinion, the "apex" of orchestral pop lied in Walker, explaining that "in his most fertile period, 1967–70, he created a body of work that was, in its own way, as revolutionary as the Beatles'. He took the ideas of Mancini and Bacharach to their logical conclusion, essentially redefining the concept of orchestral pop."
- Smile, whose recordings remained unreleased for decades, was embraced by the alternative rock generation once bootlegs from the album became more widespread in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Musician Robert Schneider explained; "When we started hearing Smile bootlegs, it was mind-blowing. It was what we had hoped it would be, but a lot of those songs weren't finished, so there was still this mystery ... The potential of what Smile would have been was the primary thing that inspired us (Elephant 6)."
- According to Chris Holmes of the band Yum-Yum.
- In 2004, when asking the Decemberists' bandleader Colin Meloy whether he felt a connection with the movement and the band's work, Meloy answered; "I don't know if we've ever been labeled that before. So much attention gets put on the lyrical content—the songs themselves—that people don't pay as close attention to the arrangements, which is something we're trying to change. ... I think the orchestral side—the cinematic side of the music—is going to come through more and more."
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- Tonelli 2004, p. 3.
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