Posts Tagged ‘Power Pop’

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

Velvet Crush: Pre-Teen Symphonies

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

VelvetCrush_PreTeenSymphoniesThe genesis of a rock classic

Although Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck recorded a number of singles as Choo Choo Train, Bag-O-Shells and The Springfields, they first came to wider notice as Velvet Crush with 1991’s In the Presence of Greatness. Critics and fans latched on, but it wasn’t until they released 1994’s Teenage Symphonies to God, with U.S. distribution by Sony, that they made their biggest splash. Three years and a change of producers (Mitch Easter replacing Matthew Sweet) between the two albums left a gap bridged by a few singles and an EP. The post-album afterward yawned even wider as the band mostly parked themselves, recording with Stephen Duffy, and didn’t re-emerge as Velvet Crush until the release of 1998’s Heavy Changes.

Omnivore’s sixteen-track collection helps fill the gaps, offering up Teenage-era demos and live performances. The first eight tracks cherry-pick demos previously released on the out-of-print Melody Freaks. Included are early versions of six album tracks, plus the otherwise lost “Not Standing Down,” and a cover of Three Hour Tour’s “Turn Down.” For listeners whose neurons have been organized by repeated spins of Teenage Symphonies to God, the demos provide an opportunity for renewal. You know these songs, but then again, you don’t. The pieces are there – lyrics, melodies and guitars – but not the final polish; but what the demos give up in nuanced construction they redeem in initial discovery. It’s the difference between a candid snapshot and a posed portrait – they each say something about the subject, but they also say something about each other.

Mitch Easter helped the band wring more out of their songs, and while the demos provided templates for the master takes, the album cuts provided the same for the live performances. The eight live tracks, recorded in a November 1994 opening slot at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro (and previously released on Rock Concert), show the band to be a ferocious live act. With Tommy Keene added as lead guitarist, the band goes all out to win over the crowd with their thirty minute set, and as Ric Menck said, “we got ’em by the end.” No small feat, considering they were opening for the Jesus and Mary Chain and Mazzy Star. The live set includes numbers from both Teenage Symphonies and Presence (“Window to the World” and “Ash and Earth”) and a closing cover of 20/20’s “Remember the Lightning.” This is a terrific companion to Teenage Symphonies, and an essential for the album’s fans. [©2016 Hyperbolium]