For the majority of pop acts, success means taking a fairly standard set of materials and tools and putting just enough spin on them to make a product with its lineage, construction and craftsmanship all readily apparent – no risks, no unexpected corners, nothing out of line.

Then there’s White Town.

Using a staggering number of combinations of synthesizers, guitars, drum machines and other sonic odds and ends, White Town, made up only of Jyoti Mishra, takes much of the ready-made pop vocabulary and puts it through a musical meat grinder, coming up with another album delivering the decisive catchiness of pop without the much-abused conventions frequently floundering in the pop arena with Peek and Poke.

Taking on a wide swath of directions on this record, White Town still manages to stay true to a distinct style, be it working through harsh pop-punk on “Bunny Boiler,” or the sinister yet irrefutable indie pop of “Another Lover.” Indulging in idiosyncrasies without the pretentious sense of accomplishment commonly tagging along with unrepentant individuality, Mishra taps the essence of pop music – immediately memorable tunes – without consulting the cookbook for quick’n’easy pop singles.

While never quite touching on the unbridled hooks and personality of the band’s 1997 smash “Your Woman,” Peek and Poke still comes through with a solid offering of pop goodies. Whether earnestly prodding in “Why I Hate Drugs,” featuring squishy keyboard melodies, or indulging in XTC-eqsue flights of distorted guitar in “Anyway,” White Town’s work forces the complex interaction of several layers of melody – usually featuring multiple synthesizer melodies and guitar figures – into a superficially simple façade. Both immediate and introspective in its layered underpinnings, Mishra’s knack for deceptively complex tunes gives every track on this album a brand identity despite their superficially different directions. It’s a trick helping to keep Peek and Poke from falling into the rut of sameness often plaguing collections of single-oriented pop compositions.

Though White Town succeeds in moving in numerous directions as well as abandoning many of the more worn-out pop phenomena, at times Mishra finds himself a little too self-indulgent or slightly too conformist. Be it the straightforward “In My Head,” a pedestrian track by White Town Standards, or the rambling Kraftwerk-meets-Trotsky diatribe in the cold and harsh “Excerpts From an Essay,” discussing the implications of conflict theory as applied to early hip hop thrown over thick beats, White Town shows it can go both too far and not far enough down the road of individuality.

For a genre both as broad and as whitewashed as pop is, Peek and Poke proves there’s still life left in modern pop structures, provided a little remodeling is in order. A catchy and intuitive jump off pop’s far edges, this record proves almost as memorable as it is unique.

June 27, 2004. Reviews.