Formed by singer-guitarist Greg Giles in 1997, 20 Minute Loop is surely one of the longest running bands in San Francisco indie rock, having outlasted late-nineties peers who have either moved out of the area, broken up, or both. Perhaps the group's secret is pacing itself; their latest album, Famous People Marry Famous People, released last month, is their first CD in three years, but it reintroduces them as pop songsmiths of the highest caliber, adept at crafting idea-packed tracks that are clever, catchy and wholly engaging.
They've been called "freak pop" and "art rock," but I think of 20 Minute Loop as a Bay Area answer to the New Pornographers, fueled by crunchy guitars and soaring melodies that betray a love of classic power pop and early nineties indie sounds. Famous People Marry Famous People continues this tradition on driving rockers like "Dr. Vitus Werdegast" and "The Bone Is The Orbital Planet Of The Nerve," and a number of tunes keep the energy high throughout the album.
While past works have showcased 20 ML's adeptness at eschewing verse-chorus-verse songwriting through musical left-turns, six of the songs here hover around the three minute mark, which limits the canvas for quirky transitions but ensures that each track is crammed full of ideas. In the end, it's a matter of trade-offs: in exchange for less prog, one gets to absorb more of the details, and soak in the warm layers of vocals, keyboards and guitars stacked on songs like "Latin Names and Straight Pins." The band's clean straightforward production efforts enable a full chamber pop sound without sacrificing dynamic power.
Over the years, the 20 Minute Loop sound has been in part defined by the vocal interplay between Giles and singer-keyboardist Kelly Atkins. Whether they're harmonizing or trading lines, there's just something about the way the pair's voices mix that's engaging even as the songs twist and turn around them, and even as they confront big issues filtered through individual experiences. Given how ridiculously catchy the songs are, it's easy to be caught off-guard by how powerful the lyrics can be, tackling the meaning of empire, war and outsider status through detalied examinations of personal unhappiness and individualized conflicts.
"Automatic Pilot," for example, begins with the observation, "Rifle shot, gun report / Sounds a lot like bubble wrap when it's snapped" before plunging headlong into a study of the threat of violence through a summer camp prism. It's weighty, challenging stuff, to be sure, and it can be overwhelming to try and process all of the lyrical and musical ideas as they're being presented. That's when you let the poppy melodies take over and just nod your head and tap your feet, even if you can't yet sing along.