Chamber pop (sometimes called ork-pop, short for "orchestral pop") is a style of rock music characterized by an emphasis on melody and texture, the intricate use of strings, horns, piano, and vocal harmonies, and other components drawn from the orchestral and lounge pop of the 1960s. Artists such as Burt Bacharach and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson (especially the band's 1966 album Pet Sounds) informed the genre's initial foundation.
In the mid 1990s, chamber pop developed as a subgenre of indie rock or indie pop in which musicians opposed the distorted guitars, lo-fi aesthetic, and simple arrangements common to the alternative or "modern rock" groups of that era. In Japan, the movement was paralleled by Shibuya-kei, another indie genre that was formed on some of the same bedrock of influences. By the 2000s, the term "chamber pop" would be inconsistently applied to a variety of bands whose work attracted comparisons to Pet Sounds.
Definition and beginnings
The combination of string sections and rock music has been called "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. According to CMJ's David Jerman, the name was the creation of rock critics, "encompassing everyone from fans of the Beach Boys to fans of Bacharach and Mancini". Chamber pop is stylistically diverse. 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.[nb 1] Strongly influenced by the rich orchestrations of Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, and Lee Hazlewood, chamber pop artists once again focused on melody and texture. Another major source of influence was the singer Scott Walker. New York Daily News' Jim Farber summarizes the genre; "think Donovan meets Burt Bacharach".[nb 2]
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Newsmakers 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."[nb 3] 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. According to the High Llama's Sean O'Hagan, Pet Sounds had been "the beginning of the great pop experiment. But it wasn't allowed to continue, because rock and roll got hold of the whole thing and stopped it. Pop didn't take off again until this decade [the 1990s]." Author Carl Wilson (no relation) says that Brian's "pained vulnerability", "uses of offbeat instruments", "intricate harmonies", and "the Smile saga itself" became a common reference point for chamber pop bands.[nb 4] Just as ork-pop acts shared a love for Wilson, they also held an admiration for one another's work. In the late 1980s, the majority of Louis Phillipe's productions for él Records also made sophisticated use of orchestras and voices that embodied and defined the chamber pop style.[nb 5]
Chamber 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.[nb 6] The genre's orchestration is typically more complex than rock music, making extensive use of brass and strings. It drew from the 1990s lounge music revival but avoided any influence from other contemporary styles like grunge, electronica, or alternative music, particularly the lo-fi hiss and distortion of the last. Although modern rock groups like Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, and R.E.M. occasionally used strings, their approach was considerably less intricate. The High Llamas were one of the first to anticipate the easy-listening fad with their 1993 debut album Gideon Gaye. O'Hagan felt that "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." with Eric Matthews adding "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."
Emergence and popularity
Fisher and Flota trace chamber pop to "at least" the mid 1990s. According to Natalie Waliek of music retailer Newbury Comics, the then-"renewed interest in psychedelia" and the "overlap with the cocktail/lounge music thing, because that music [also] has orchestrations", likely contributed to the sales of ork-pop albums, but 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 compared to modern rock. 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.
In Japan, a remote parallel was the development of Shibuya-kei, which also revisited the trend of foregrounding instruments like strings and horns in its arrangements. The genre was informed by classic Western pop music, especially the orchestral domains occupied by Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and Serge Gainsbourg. Unlike other Japanese music scenes, its audiences did not necessarily cross over into anime fandoms, but rather indie pop enthusiasts. This was partly because many of its bands were distributed in the United States through major indie labels like Matador and Grand Royal.[nb 7] Shibuya-kei ultimately peaked in the late 1990s and declined after its principal players began moving into other music styles.
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In a 1996 profile of ork-pop, Craig 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 considered a leading figure in ork-pop. 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.[nb 8]
By 2009, the term "chamber pop" had fallen to general misuse, 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".
- Although baroque pop was prefigured by producers like Phil Spector, whose arrangements were orchestral and heavily layered, the genre was distinguished for its Romantic aesthetic, small string ensembles, and more classically-derived melodies.
- 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."
- Writing about the album's title track in his 2017 memoir, Wilson said: "I loved Thunderball, which had come out the year before, and I loved listening to composers like Henry Mancini, who did these cool themes for shows like Peter Gunn, and Les Baxter, who did all these big productions that sounded sort of like Phil Spector productions."
- 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; "The potential of what Smile would have been was the primary thing that inspired us (Elephant 6). 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 of not hearing the melodies and lyrics."
- Philippe described his own music as: "covering the range from pure bubblegum to symphonic sweep, with detours via jazz and soul along the way. A typical album might mix influences from vintage pop, French chanson, Ravel, bossa nova, Duke Ellington, the Shirelles, or the Beach Boys, while classical instruments and intricate backing vocals often feature in the arrangements."
- Writing about the new "post-rock" in 1994, Simon Reynolds noted the influence of Spector, Wilson, and Brian Eno; specifically their preoccupation for "soundscaping" that involves "using musicians as a sort of palette of textures, as opposed to the rock band's collective toil."
- Philippe was surprised to be heralded as the "godfather" of the Shibuya sound around the time he released the Japan-only albums Jean Renoir (1992) and Rainfall (1993). The movement's musicians romanticized Wilson as a mad genius experimenting in the recording studio, and Spector's Wall of Sound was emulated not for its denseness, but for its elaborate quality.
- 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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