It's said that the surest measure of a great pop song is in "the hook" — that irresistible, easy-to-sing and impossible-to-forget refrain.
Singer-songwriter Tristen Gaspadarek has spent the past few years studying the DNA of the pop hook. The fruit of that labor is audible on Charlatans at the Garden Gate, her debut release.
Though only 28, Tristen describes herself as a "pop traditionalist": She believes current pop songwriters spend too much time creating cool atmospheres and not enough time crafting straightforward, singable lines. When she moved to Nashville to start her professional career, Tristen undertook a sort of systematic study of hit songs from the '60s and early '70s. She focused on the melodies and shapes, the ways certain phrases become instantly memorable.
Charlatans at the Garden Gate flaunts Tristen's pop education. The hooks on these 11 songs often whip things into a giddy, exuberant frenzy. But she's got a pensive side, too — she's comfortable riding the bittersweet roads that '70s singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson knew so well.
The performances on this album are as sharp as the writing. Tristen approaches each tune with the mindset of a character actor, changing her voice and inflection to bring out nuances of mood. In "Baby Drugs," she uses a smoky, almost weary voice to underscore the struggles of living with an addict.
Nowadays, it's hard to come up with a fresh take on the pop hook. Sure, there's some scholarship involved, but listening to Tristen, you realize that not everything about a killer hook can be taught. Part of it comes under the heading of "pure inspiration." This album has plenty of that.