It seems success for Papas Fritas has come after the fact, as with most of the great masters of fine art.
Earlier this year, I was watching TV when a Papas Fritas song, "Way You Walk," cascaded through my television's ancient speaker as the background song for a Dentyne commercial. It was one of those moments when you scream at the television and turn to whomever's sitting next to you (my dog, in this case) and say, "Holy crap!"
It's becoming more apparent that the people in charge of music for commercials were raised on the indie rock of the '90s. (Has anyone seen that car commercial with a Modest Mouse song?) To add insult to injury, the instructor of my educational psychology class started talking about that very commercial the next day, in a lecture about short-term memory.
Papas Fritas had almost slipped out of its indie rock memory chunk; it's been more than three years since their last record, Buildings and Grounds, revamped the architecture of Minty Fresh records and the world of silly, happy, sexy, '60s-inspired pop. After touring for Buildings and Grounds, the band members, Tony Goddess, Shivika Asthana and Keith Gendel, quietly went their separate ways, leaving Papas Fritas to ferment in the frying pan of the late-'90s pop/punk explosion. They haven't really broken up, but they all live a few thousand miles apart.
Then one day in 2001, I'm wiping dried milk off the condiment station at a Starbucks in Manhattan, and "Way You Walk" comes on the new CD we'd just gotten in the store. My co-worker scrunched up his nose and said, "I hate this song!" and ran in the back to change it. I chased him down and lectured him for about 20 minutes on the merit of Papas Fritas and their brilliance as a pop trio: Hear that combination of '70s soul, Big Star and the Beach Boys? Plus the drummer is a girl and she sings. I began to wonder, what have those kids in Papas Fritas been up to?
Making money off royalties, that's what. That Starbucks compilation deal led to the Dentyne deal ("We've sold out!" proclaimed the Papas Fritas Web site), and to further augment the income, Minty Fresh just released Pop Has Freed Us, a best-of and B-side collection from the heyday of the Boston, Mass., trio.
The only previously unreleased track on Pop Has Freed Us is a rollicking version of Tom Verlaine's "Flash Lightning"; the B-sides include "Let's Go Down to the Town Oasis," which was originally released stateside on the Tape Op Compilation of Creative Music Recording, and "Do the Move," which was released in Australia. Both of these songs hail from the Helioself era, and "Let's Go Down to the Town Oasis" sounds like the first cousin of "Rolling in the Sand" on 1997's Helioself. "High School Maybe" was recorded in the early days of the band, in the Tufts University football team's showers. "People Tell Me Not to Worry" was released in Italy on a compilation of songs recorded using old keyboards; the drum machine beat on this song is so über-cool vintage it sends chills down your spine.
Even though most of the songs on Pop Has Freed Us are Papas Fritas standards, songs that fans and owners of all three Papas Fritas records can sing backward, hearing them in chronological order with their non-album siblings creates a nice contextual trajectory. Still, more new material would have been nice.
Not surprisingly, the record kicks off with "Way You Walk" from Buildings and Grounds. The next track, "Smash This World," is the song that got Papas Fritas their record contract with Minty Fresh, in all its raw, four-track glory. Anyone who plays in a fledgling band will recognize the not-quite-right drums, overly distorted guitars and strained vocals of a band who may not know how to play their instruments very well, but they sure have damn good songs. The contrast here between the song that's paying the bills and the song that set the bill printers in motion--the glossy production as opposed to the messy home recording--just goes to show that as long as you have good songs, everything else will fall into place. Eventually you'll learn to play those drums and that guitar, and maybe someday, a girl will be writing her phone number on the fogged-up window of a departing D train to the beat of your band.