On my journey of poprock discovery I’m constantly running across amazing talents that have been working away for decades that somehow I’ve never heard of. Lately I’ve become sElf conscious. The band is largely the project of its creative force, Matt Mahaffey, a talent so large it keeps spilling out over a wide range of solo work, one-off projects and insta-bands. sElf emerged in the 1990s, one of slew of poppy rock bands that defied categorization. Sometimes sounding like Rooney or Weezer, only to segue without warning into Queen or Fountains of Wayne territory. Record labels were not investing in artists in that decade and I can imagine sElf had more than one label rep throwing up their hands in frustration trying to pitch the band to radio and promoters. But that’s what makes them so great.
sElf’s 1995 debut album Subliminal Plastic Motives aces that dire sounding pop vibe we associate with the likes of Weezer and Rooney, though as you can hear on “Stewardess” Mahaffey adds some distinct melodic motifs of his own to the formula. 1997’s The Half-Baked Serenade carries on in a similar vein, though here I’m drawn to the languidly-paced acoustic outlier “Microchip Girl.” Here is the fun playful side of Mahaffey – think ELO or Bleu – that will only intensify as time goes on. 1999’s Breakfast With Girls was the band’s major label debut and here the Queen influence can really be heard on tracks like “Better Than Aliens.” Though here I find myself drawn to deep cuts like “Uno Song.” In 2000 sElf released Gizmodgery, an album of tunes performed entirely on children’s toy instruments. “Dead Man” is as good as anything coming out from grungy poprock acts in the late 1990s. “Ordinaire” has a manic SciFi feel, again, very Rooney. The cover of The Doobies ‘“What a Fool Believes” is an absolutely brilliant deconstruction of the synth work on the song, stripping back the original’s overwrought production and leaving just the bones of its seductive hooks.
From here navigating sElf and Matt Mahaffey’s career gets a bit hazy. Self-released sElf internet-only albums come and go while Mahaffey’s solo work nowhere appears in one tidy review-able location. Thus I was not prepared for the knock-out, should-be hit single goodness of the one-off 2010 single “Could You Love Me Now?” The craftmanship behind this tune is striking, the way it cradles its delicate melody, adorning it with all manner of subtle instrumentation. The band did return in 2014 with the EP Super Fake Nice sounding like no time had passed. Still doing a slightly discordant poppy rock thing, you can really hear a bit of Brendon Benson on tracks like “Splitting Atoms.”
Apart from sElf Matt Mahaffey has shifted focus to producing music for movies and television like Shrek and Henry Hugglemonster. However, Mahaffey did find time to launch a new duo, The Gherms, who appear to exist only to laud to Brooklyn’s fave funsters They Might Be Giants. Songs About They Might Be Giants is a double-sided single that showcases everything Mahaffey does well: a great concept, larger than life production and big hooks. Meanwhile, his cartoon theme song work for Nicklelodeon is some of the best 30 second poprock you’re gonna hear while spending quality time with toddlers.
You know what I wish? That somebody with access to Mahaffey’s complete body of work would curate a release that bring us all up to speed on this great talent. Between the unreleased and unofficially released sElf work to his many and varied contributions to TV and movies it’s just too hard to bring his genius into focus. And that’s a shame because, in my view, everyone could stand a bit of sElf improvement.