I once tried to arrange for the Junior League’s Joe Adranga to interview Micky Dolenz of the Monkees, and to be honest, I felt a little sorry for Dolenz. Adranga has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Monkees and the panoply of power pop, and I feared I was releasing a guy in Spock ears on an unsuspecting Leonard Nimoy.
Fortunately, Adranga has found the perfect outlet for his pop obsessions in his one-man-band, the Junior League, whose songs echo all the usual suspects—the Beatles, Big Star, the Smiths—not through direct reference, but with nascent traits of these bands bubbling up from Adranga’s DNA. Smile Shoot Smile reflects a lot of maturation since the band’s appropriately named 2006 debut Catchy, trading some of the bubblegum for hardier fare.
The Junior League, on album anyway, is all Joe, playing and writing all the parts. In “Everybody Loves Me (but You)” and “It’s the End,” he drops hooks as effortlessly as a pro angler. It’s the deeper waters he explores on this record, however, that reveal Adranga to be more than a sharp-eared pop stylist. The bittersweet edge of “Princess Stephanie” and the scintillating “Man Called Disaster”—opening with “lost in the haze of middle-age / you bask in the glow of trails you blazed”—illuminates the honesty that comes with age.
“What if I Am” touches on the universal tenets of love and longing and self-reflection only reachable by pop music. With a few stylistic tugs in any particular direction, the song could become a country tearjerker, a power ballad, a retro tremor from the jangly alternative era, but because of his careful arrangements, the song stays centered in the here and now, the domain of all great pop music.
The interview with Dolenz fell through, and though Adranga may have been left with Monkees arcana unasked, he’s proven with Smile Shoot Smile that he is fully capable of answering his pop questions all by himself.