PEI pop music hatchling, Two Hours Traffic, has seen surprisingly immediate local success for such a novice band. Natalie Pendergast gets the story on their appeal.
Since the controversial sixties, popular music has provided artists with the power to get their message out to the masses. Bob Dylan, John Lennon and many others used music as a vehicle to transport wisdom, philosophy and opinion about society to their audiences. Now, meaning-saturated lyrics are considered a necessity for a band's critical success. Album reviews are often consumed with analysis of verbal content of music. Critics are most comfortable with absorbing and paraphrasing this line or that line of a popular song.
That's why Two Hours Traffic has them stumped.
It's not that the four 21-year-olds do not have great lyrics. In fact, much of their fan base praises them specifically for their clever word-play, humorous wit, and feeling articulation. What is unusual about this pop band is that they are not obsessing over making a profound impact on anyone. They just want to make songs.
"Some songs are more lyrical-based, but I think if there's a strong pop song with great hooks then I don't think you have to be that insightful with the lyrics," Says lead singer Liam Corcoran, "Maybe that sounds like a weird thing."
Strong pop songs with great hooks are exactly what Two Hours Traffic delivered with their debut, self-titled spring 2005 release. The humble Islanders are grateful and surprised by the praise they've been getting from Joel Plaskett, who produced the album.
"I was struck by the tuneful simplicity of the songs, specifically 'I Think More Often than I Should' and 'End of the Line', as well as Liam's voice," Muses Plaskett, "It is really unusual to hear such a mature voice at a young age."
The group was only 19 years-old when they first approached Plaskett at one of his acoustic gigs in Charlottetown. Alec O'Hanley (guitar/vocals) gave him a copy of their early recording, "The April Storm." It was not until later, however, that Plaskett recognized the talent of the band.
According to O'Hanley, they had all forgotten about giving Plaskett the CD. "Then I emailed him and was like, 'did you listen to this?' and he thought he better listen to it. He wasn't expecting much but then he shot me an email back saying he'd like to produce the album so we were pretty psyched about that."
Many Maritime performances and a video on Muchmusic later, the band is still earning much kudos from fans and critics alike. Music programs The Wedge and Going Coastal, as well as muchmusic.com feature the group's single, "Better Sorry than Safe" in regular video rotation. American teen drama series One Tree Hill has also used two of the band's songs on its soundtrack. In addition, Two Hours Traffic play up to three shows a week in Atlantic cities. And their popularity still grows.
The strength of Two Hours Traffic's melodies comes from an endless list of diverse influences. Among all the rock and roll classics are obscure folk, bluegrass, punk and even emo artists. They listen to Gordon Lightfoot, Jillian Welch, Wolf Parade and Neutral Milk Hotel. "Our influences come and go; they really vary," Says Corcoran. "Nowadays I'm listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen and I wasn't a year ago. We just listen to as many bands as we like, hoping that some of that rubs off on us."
Although pop standards seem to be their forte, the Two Hours Traffic boys have also experimented with arrangements and structure. "We finished 'Mr. Saturday' after a short tour with Wintersleepóone of our favorite bandsóand they definitely had an influence on the song which is a little heavier that the others. And it was kind of darker than usual," Says Corcoran, "We don't have a set song structure. If we think something sounds cool and is a little different then that's a bonus."
When Plaskett came along, there was just some polishing up left for him to do. "Their songs were already very well written, I just wanted to help them make a cool sounding record."
Plaskett says that he also added more of a rock edge to their pop foundation. "I tightened up the rhythmic arrangements of the songs, suggested cutting out or abbreviating a few parts and added the odd melodic or instrumental idea here and there. I love arranging guitars so Alec and I had a good time doing that."
The group has also inherited some of Plaskett's stage energy. They have yet to perform a show where they don't bring the crowd to their feet and have been said to have "infectious melodies" (Spendid Magazine); but one question still remains. What of the lyrics?
Corcoran says there is nothing complicated about the words he sings. "[The lyrics] are what sounded right with the melody of the song. We're trying to have fun and to not make it too profound. I think that's the point." Unlike most quality, independent pop groups, the Two Hours Traffic members know one thing for sure: that they are too young to know a lot about anything. "We haven't gone through enough yet. We're just writing pop songs." They admit to not having much wisdom about the complexities of life; yet in doing so, they are unknowingly demonstrating wisdom of character. "I find those bands that want to write something profound have to be really good to pull it off," He says.
O'Hanley agrees. For him, the music as a medium is not the message. "There's no one definitive message for the whole album."
Their claim that they don't concentrate on depth of lyrics, however, has had no bearing on the actual quality of song-writing. According to Plaskett, the poetics of the April Storm EP are what gave him the inclination to contact them. "Ultimately, I think what really sold me on the band was I could sense there was attention paid to the lyrics," He says, "They know how to pen a musical phrase."
What Two Hours Traffic possesses that is so refreshing is modesty. In a sea of pretentious squabblers, here lies a fresh group that has genuine substanceóeven if they don't realize it. Instead of trying to be poets and writing contrived abstractions, the band concentrates on making good musicósans "message." O'Hanley says, "I'm not trying to be a poetÖ I'm just trying to make the song flow."
And the songs never cease to flow. Two Hours Traffic is currently working on their second album, which they say will have some new twists on it. "We've got almost an album's-worth of new material already so we're hoping to get recording in the spring," Says bassist Andrew MacDonald, "Hopefully Joel will be on board for producing again."
Joel Plaskett says he is happy to pitch in. "Yep. We're already talking about it. Having said that, if a heavyweight producer or major record company suddenly wanted to get involved I would encourage them to consider it as I think they could be really successful."
Writer: Natalie Pendergast