According to Perez Hilton, it was Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester who leaked "Birthday," her collaboration with Miami electro-pop duo Awesome New Republic, back in April. The timing was certainly auspicious for Awesome New Republic, the TV star having just graced the cover of Rolling Stone and the duo having just released a version on its new EP. But with Meester's major-label debut album still six months away, what would she have gotten out of it?
And if not her, then whom?
"Who knows?" says Awesome New Republic singer/guitarist Michael John Hancock with an innocent-sounding laugh. "We did have this demo sitting around with The Girl On The Cover Of Rolling Stone. But I don't know the legalities of the music industry quite so well, so I'll just say, uh, it's a mystery to me."
Hancock says ANR's label began shopping the song to pop singers a couple years ago, and that Meester was still relatively unknown when she recorded her vocals over the duo's backing tracks. As her career went into overdrive, her label ended up sitting on the record, prompting the duo to release a Meester-free version on its new Rational Geographic Vol. I EP (downloadable for free at anrmiami.com).
"The song is now pretty much relegated to our record," says Hancock, "but we've since written some other stuff — and she's taken an interest, I think, in one or two songs so far."
Although Awesome New Republic dates to 2004, when Hancock hooked up with keyboardist Brian Robertson at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music, relocations to and from New York contributed to a four-year gap between releases. Today, the group has a much bigger (and better) sound than it did on 2005's ANR So Far.
"It's the difference between us recording in our bedroom and us recording in an actual studio," says Hancock. "And with the time apart, we got more serious about the band, and I guess you could say more professional." (Hancock also notes that, bolstered by touring drummer Jorge Rubiera, ANR's live shows are — unlike many electronically inclined artists — actually live.)
On new songs like "Dances When" and the aforementioned "Birthday," Robertson and Hancock craft the kind of major pop hooks and huge choruses that could make even Prince smile. In addition to a mutual love for Prince and Depeche Mode, Hancock credits Honor Roll Music, a label run by their old college friends, for the new pop smarts: "They come from the pop world and we come from jazz and punk rock backgrounds, which are kind of more subversive forms of music. So yeah, they rubbed off on us with the choruses."
But even the most sophisticated pop confections can't conceal the barbed lyrics that frequently crop up in ANR's music. Rational Geographic Vol. I starts out with Hancock singing "The medication seems so real to me" and closes with the observation, "Every old republic that reigns upon the youth / Will soon become the target of gunfire on the roofs."
"It's important that everybody reminds the government — and society — that we live in a free society where you can say whatever you want," says Hancock, sounding very much unlike a Gossip Girl collaborator, "and it doesn't necessarily mean you're gonna act on it."
Awesome New Republic's "Birthday" (Leighton Meester-free version)