Posts Tagged ‘Power Pop’

Various Artists: Thank You Friends – Big Star’s Third Live… And More

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

A celebration of Alex Chilton and Big Star

Although Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens revived Big Star in 1993 with the help of the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, they never sought to recreate the full majesty of their seminal studio recordings. The 2.0 lineup lasted nearly 18 years of intermittent live performances and the studio album In Space, but with Chilton’s passing in 2010, Big Star morphed from a going concern into a well spring of reissues, archival releases, biographies, documentaries and tribute performances. The first of the tributes took place within days of Chilton’s passing, as Big Star’s remaining three members were joined by the band’s friends and colleagues to deliver a musical wake at SXSW.

By the end of that year, a more formal tribute was organized with a live performance of Big Star’s Third, complete with the album’s full, original orchestration. And from that show, a core musical collective formed to tour the tribute internationally, engaging guest musicians and orchestras at each stop. A full rendering of Third remains the centerpiece of the show, but with the addition of material from Big Star’s first two albums and Chris Bell’s post-Big Star work to fill out the story. This 2017 performance features Big Star’s Jody Stephens and musical director Chris Stamey alongside Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (The Posies, Big Star), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone (Wilco), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tango), Robyn Hitchcock, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), Dan Wilson (Semisonic), and a full chamber orchestra.

Paying tribute to a band as beloved as Big Star is a tricky proposition. Covering too closely offers nothing new or of yourself, while straying too far risks losing touch with the object of your tribute. Add to that a small catalog that allows for talmudic-like study by fans and the stretch from single song cover to a full concert and album reading, and the balance point seems to grow more elusive. As musical director, Stamey has plotted out musical waypoints that anchor these covers to the familiar originals, while at the same time employing vocalists and harmony singers whose tone and style are reverent, yet fresh. The combination of familiar and new renews the chestnuts that had fossilized into icons, and animates the songs that were never performed live by the original band.

The performers’ deep affection for the material is evident throughout, and the split between earlier material on disc one and Third on disc two mirrors the changes in the band’s personnel, circumstances and resulting direction. The song sequence for Third has long been debated, and the order selected here doesn’t seem to match any of the well-known sequences; i.e., the 1975 test pressing on Stax, the 1978 vinyl issue on PVC, the 1992 CD issue on Ryko, the 2016 Complete Third on Omnivore, or any of the many reissues in between; notably missing are the test pressing’s covers of “Femme Fatale” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and reissue inclusions “Till the End of the Day” and “Nature Boy.” Still, no matter the track selection or order, the musical schizophrenia of the original sessions comes across in both the individual songs, and the idiosyncratic range of material.

Third was such a personal, one-of-a-kind document of an artist in a particular period of his life, that a staged tribute is necessarily removed from the circumstances under which the album was created. The performers rely on the personal resonances the music strikes in themselves and the audience, and connect with the material on musical, lyrical and emotional levels. Jessica Pratt and Jon Auer capture the somnambulistic late night of “Big Black Car,” Skylar Guasz and Mike Mills rock “You Can’t Have Me,” and Jody Stephens’ shines with fragile hope on string-backed performances of “For You” and “Blue Moon.” The personal and professional disintegration that Chilton captured on Third couldn’t possibly be reproduced with full emotional fidelity in a tribute, but as an homage and an echo of Chilton’s miasma, this is a fulfilling production. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Big Star Third’s Home Page

Van Duren: Waiting – The Van Duren Story

Friday, February 15th, 2019

A 1970s Memphis pop act even more obscure than Big Star

Obscured by the success of soul music emanating from Stax, Hi and American, the 1970s Memphis rock scene was as potent as it was little heard. Decades after their commercial failure, Big Star actually became big stars, and others Memphians making pop and rock music at the time – Icewater, Rock City, the Hot Dogs, Cargoe, Zuider Zee – eventually caught varying amounts of reflected spotlight. But even among all the retrospective appreciation, singer, guitarist and songwriter (and Memphis native) Van Duren remained obscure; his 1977 debut Are You Serious? was reissued in limited quantities by the Airmail and Water labels, his 1979 follow-up Idiot Optimism got stuck in the vault for twenty years, and his later albums went undiscovered by many of those who would appreciate them.

That lack of renown is now set to be corrected by this soundtrack and a like-named documentary. Pulling together material from his two late-70s studio albums, a 1978 live show, previously unreleased sessions at Ardent, and the 1986 album Thin Disguise, the collection easily makes the case for Duren having been the artistic peer of his better-known Memphis colleagues. Duren’s public renaissance was stirred by two Australian fans, Wade Jackson and Greg Carey, whose latter-day discovery of Are You Serious? turned into a two-year documentary project that sought to understand why the albums didn’t hit, and why Duren didn’t achieve the fame that his music deserved.

No one is guaranteed fame, not even the talented, and as noted, Memphis wasn’t exactly a springboard for rock band success, yet Duren’s connections with Ardent, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andrew Loog Oldham and Jon Tiven might have tilted the odds in his favor. From his debut, recorded with Tiven on electric guitar and Hilly Michaels on drums, the set’s opening “Grow Yourself Up” has the chugging beat of Badfinger and a vocal melody that favorably suggests the early-70s work of Todd Rundgren. “Chemical Fire” offers a touch of southern funk in its bassline, and the ballad “Waiting” is filled with the yearning its title implies. A pair of live-on-the-radio tracks show how well Duren’s material translated to performance, and how easily he could summon the same level of vocal emotion on stage as in the studio.

The earliest track on this collection, the 1975 demo “Andy, Please,” was cut at Ardent with Jody Stephens on drums and vocal harmonies. It’s as assured as the album cut two years later and features a hint of Eric Carmen in the vocal and a terrific guitar outro from Jack Holder. The second album’s cover of Chris Bell’s “Make a Scene” offers a slice of power pop, and two tracks from Duren’s latter-day band Good Question (including the local hit “Jane”) remain consistent with the quality of his earlier work. Listening to Duren’s music, your head will know that his lack of recognition wasn’t unusual in the breaks-based world of commercial success; but your ears and heart will continue to wonder how he could have fallen so thoroughly through the cracks. Here’s hoping the new interest in his career leads to full reissues of his original albums, and more widespread recognition of his more recent material! [©2019 Hyperbolium]

The Quick: Mondo Deco

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

Long-lost ‘70s power-pop gem liberated from the vault

Music impresario Kim Fowley’s outsize personality and professional longevity both exaggerated and overshadowed the commercial and artistic success of his artists. As half of the fictional Hollywood Argyles he topped the charts with “Alley Oop,” had his hand in a string of 1960s novelties that included the instrumental “Nut Rocker,” the doo-wop “Papa Oom Mow Mow” and the treacly “Popsicles and Icicles,” threaded his way into the British rock scene, and became an icon on the Sunset Strip. The mid-70s were a particularly fertile period for Fowley on the L.A. pop-rock-glam scene as he produced three albums for the Runaways, and releases for Venus and the Razorblades, Dyan Diamond, and The Quick.

The Quick formed, played their first gig, were discovered by Fowley, signed to Mercury (the home of Fowley’s other proteges, the Runaways), and recorded and released this debut album all within 1976. Though the Ramones released their debut the same year, and the band played on bills with many of Los Angeles’ punk rock luminaries, the Quick’s early influences leaned heavily to glam, glitter and the lyrically cutting works of the British Invasion. As engineer and co-producer, Sparks founding guitarist Earl Mankey brought a generous helping of quirky pop sound to the table, and the high, sweet voice of Danny Wilde (made even higher by a change in tape speed) added a campy, devilish edge. Guitarist Steven Hufsteter was a prolific writer whose songs overflowed this debut into demos, fan club singles and covers by Los Angeles notables such as the Dickies.

Hufsteter’s songs were literate and cynical in the manner of Ray Davies, with scathing Elvis Costello-like sarcasm effectively delivered with a smile instead of a sneer. The album’s sugary melodies and power chords undersell the sardonic humor in songs of feral teenagers, dominatrixes, and the brilliantly essayed San Fernando Valley malaise of “My Purgatory Years.” The band showed off their instrumental sophistication with the ringing drums and hard guitars of “Anybody,” and drew the Beatles and Four Seasons into their musical orbit with covers of “It Won’t Be Long” and “Rag Doll.” All of the group members went on to other glories (Wilde with the Rembrandts, Hufsteter with the Cruzados, Danny Benair with the Three O’Clock, bassist Ian Ainsworth with Great Building, and keyboardist Billy Bizeau as a songwriter for the Runaways), but never again realized a sound this unique.

The band was a favorite of KROQ’s Rodney Bingenheimer, and got spins on college radio, but gained no commercial traction and broke up in 1978. The album was reissued as a needle-drop LP in 2009, but now comes to CD from the original master tapes with ten demos and a session outtake. Several of the demos are close to the album in attitude and arrangement, but others, including “Hi Lo,” add new twists. The band had a surprisingly firm handle on their musical ethos, given the speed with which they formed and headed into the studio. Mankey added clarity and sheen to the recordings, but didn’t fundamentally reshape the songs. The demos include a few tunes (“Teacher’s Pet” and “Heaven on Earth”) that didn’t make the album, along with a snippet of “Born Free” that showed how far the band could reach. This is a long overdue reissue that revives a memorable, transitional moment in the L.A. music scene. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Big Star: The Best of Big Star

Monday, July 24th, 2017

Cherry-picked collection of the band’s first three albums w/singles

There’s an element of triumph in the unjustly-ignored-in-their-time Big Star being celebrated in retrospect. At the same time, the books [1 2 3 4], documentary, reissues [1 2 3], box sets [1 2] archival artifacts [1 2 3 4 5 6], resurrections and reunions [1 2 3 4], tributary performances (and resulting concert film) and best-ofs [1 2], threaten to overwhelm the rare brilliance of their slim, original catalog. For the uninitiated, the two-fer of the band’s first two albums provides the original testaments, and the challenging third album the capstone. But if three albums is too much to absorb up front, this collection provides a a Cliff’s Notes to a musical novella whose briefness belies its importance and nuance.

The disc intertwines material from the group’s three 1970’s albums, #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers, and includes many of the band’s most beloved songs. For fans, the draw is a half-dozen single versions. Robert Gordon’s liner notes summarize the ill fates that befell the band, and their Phoenix-like rise from obscurity to seminal influence. The music essays the group’s sweetest acoustic moments, their hardest rocking, and the despair that gripped Alex Chilton as he spiraled into the third album. A “best of” is only a short hop away from an ouvre that can be had in two discs [1 2], but if you’re not ready for the plunge, this is a good place to start. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Big Star’s Home Page

Derrick Anderson: A World of My Own

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Veteran L.A. power-pop bassist steps back into the spotlight

Bassist Derrick Anderson may not be a household name, but those he’s played with – Dave Davies and the Bangles, among others – certainly are. His eponymous L.A.band featured power pop luminary Robbie Rist, and released a pair of albums to considerable fan enthusiasm. The band’s conceit – that the three core members were half-brothers by a shared father – put Anderson’s name on the cover, but shared musical credit. On this solo debut he’s backed by a who’s who of famous fans, including the Smithereens, Bangles, Cowsills, Andersons!, Matthew Sweet, Kim Shattuck, Tommy Keene and Steve Barton.

Anderson plays bass with a McCartney-like buoyancy and sings in a voice that remains, as it did with the Andersons!, decades younger than his chronological age. Interestingly, the essential questions of youth still resound in his songs, but with the adolescent angst of typical power-pop replaced by midlife perspective. Anderson’s empathy and solace are more superego than id, his quests more philosophy than impulse, and the life in “my whole life” is richer in his fifties than it could have ever been in his twenties. It’s an interesting twist on classic themes, one that others have explored as they aged, but few realized on their first solo outing.

The songs range from the Revolver-esque “Happiness” to the soul-infused rocker “Stop Messin’ About,” and there’s even a heavy, Lenny Kravitz-style cover of “Norwegian Wood.” The distinctive harmonies of the Bangles are heard on “Something New” and “Spring,” and the Cowsills on “A Mother’s Love,” but it’s Anderson’s layered vocals on the rave-up “Phyllis & Sharon” and the optimistic “My Prediction” that make his personal mark. The results are, as Vicki Peterson labeled them, “timeless,” with Anderson’s talent, craft and experience making for an unusually mature “debut.” [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Derrick Anderson’s Home Page

The Legal Matters: Conrad

Monday, December 19th, 2016

legalmatters_conradBeautifully harmonized power pop

The second album from this Detroit pop trio is awash in fetching melodies and beautifully crafted harmonies that will remind you of the Beach Boys, Badfinger, Rubinoos, Raspberries, Posies, XTC, Matthew Sweet and Fountains of Wayne. That’s heady company, but earned by an album whose sunny melodies, sweet lead vocals and complex backings are in perfect balance. The band’s themes of infatuation, pining, coupling, misunderstanding, discord and regret come to an emotional conclusion in “Pulled My String,” as Keith Klingensmith wallows in the emotion-blinding bleakness of heartbreak. His bandmates’ harmonies and strummed guitars strive to lighten the mood, but they can’t illuminate an exit. The prideful outsiderness of “The Cool Kid,” and nostalgic “Short Term Memory” broaden the topics beyond matters of the heart. There’s falsetto vocals that suggest Brian Wilson’s prime and a lovely vocal crescendo on “More Birds Less Bees,” and the album ends on ambivalent notes of optimism and introspection in “Better Days.” This is a terrifically poised sophomore effort from an incredibly talented band. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Legal Matters’ Home Page

The Persian Leaps: Your City, Underwater

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

persianleaps_yourcityunderwaterGuitar-rich power pop echoes Teenage Fanclub and post-punk

Hailing from St. Paul, Minnesota (home to the world record Lite Brite installation), the Persian Leaps’ power pop will remind you of the more muscular sounds of Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices and Matthew Sweet, but also the ironic vocal style of ’80s and ’90s post-punk bands. The songs deviate from the usual menu of power pop pining for lyrics of terminal illness, social anxiety and anthropogenic global warming. The latter is the subject of the confrontational “The Weather,” a song that should be piped into Scott Pruitt’s office every morning as a catchy reminder of prevailing scientific thought. Closing the EP is “Short and Sour,” a brutally frank kiss-off that opens with the dagger “if silence were golden, you’d always be broke.” Five songs, thirteen minutes and lots of guitars, bass, drums and melody. Great stuff! [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Persian Leaps’ Home Page

The Dazies: Hungover & Weird

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

dazies_hungoverandweirdBoston basement rock is alive and still sweating

Boston’s M. Holland (Tulsa, Mean Creek, Trabants) has been working as a solo act for the past few years, pressing friends into guest roles, and releasing a string of singles and EPs as The Dazies. In late 2014 he began working with multi-instrumentalist and engineer Kurt Schneider, and together they recorded this six song EP. The opening “Little Things” and “1-2-3 (What You Do To Me)” conjure the ‘70s punk-adjacent power pop of Tom Petty and Dwight Twilley, mating catchy hooks delivered and DIY verve. Holland name-checks an ‘80s juggernaut with the thrashing guitars and distressed vocal of “Nirvana Summer,” riffs through the should-be nationwide dance craze (and ode to the Creaturos) “Do the Snake,” returns to power pop with “Stuck,” and echoes the drive of the Vibrators and Undertones on “Piece of My Love.” If you were there for the Neighborhoods, Nervous Eaters and Real Kids, this will take you back; if you weren’t, this will clue you in to what you missed. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Dazies’ Facebook Page

The Well Wishers: Here Comes Love

Friday, September 30th, 2016

The Well Wishers recent album Comes and Goes is only the latest in Jeff Shelton’s catalog of superb power pop. Check out this one from 2012’s Dreaming of the West Coast.

The Well Wishers: Comes and Goes

Sunday, August 7th, 2016

WellWishers_ComesAndGoesThe glories of a one-man power-pop band

Although the Well Wishers present themselves in plural, they are, or it is, or he is Jeff Shelton. After a decade with Spinning Jennies, Shelton ventured out on his own, all alone in the studio with the magic of multi-track recording. The results have the singular vision of a singer-songwriter, but the dynamism of a band. Think Paul McCartney’s and Emitt Rhodes’ eponymous albums, Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything and Richard X. Heyman’s Hey Man. The hard-charging rhythm guitar and stacked vocals of “Impossible to Blame” bring to mind the Posies and the melody of “Come Around” suggests XTC. You can hear influences of Shoes, 20/20 and others, but Shelton’s romantic anguish is as original as his melodic hooks – rooted in something familiar, yet fresh. On “Ill-Equipped” he repeats the perfectly discouraged tagline “I don’t have what it takes to be alone,” which may be true in matters of the heart, but clearly not so in the studio, where he flourishes by himself. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Well Wishers’ Facebook Page