Posts Tagged ‘Power Pop’

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]

The Posies: Solid States

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Posies_SolidStatesMelody-rich duo turns down the guitars, turns up the keyboards

To their credit, the Posies have never abandoned the DIY pop melodicism of their debut, Failure, but neither have they stood still. Their tours of duty with Big Star helped resurrect the iconic band as both a touring entity and recording outfit, and while it may have further informed the Posies, it didn’t turn them into a clone. The enduring chemistry between Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow has seen the Posies through more than three decades of changes, including divorces, relocations and the passing of bandmates. The duo’s melodic and harmonic connections draw a line through their catalog, even as their latest – their first album of original material since 2010’s Blood/Candy – lowers the guitar quotient for productions often driven by keyboards.

Thirty years in, the pair is more musically sophisticated and their studio technology is greatly advanced from the late-80s, but the enthusiasm and freedom of their debut repeats itself here. As the band has pointed out, in many ways this represents a return to the self-produced home studio recordings of their debut. And with the passing of their rhythm section, they are effectively a duo again. There’s a modern tone to the anthemic “Titanic,” as there is to much of the album, but with the warmth of a musician’s humanity that’s missing from most of today’s producer-helmed pop hits. The keyboards are ingratiating, and the percussion deftly mixes electronic and acoustic elements.

It’s a departure, but one that fans will easily take to, and one that’s papered over with the familiarity of the duo’s voices and hooks. The album opens with the call-to-arms “We Are Power,” exhorting collective action over individual passivity. Anti-authoritarianism pops up again in “Squirrel vs. Snake” and “The Plague,” and “M Doll” eviscerates the culture of celebrity marketing mannequins. But it’s not all social critique, as there are several songs of romantic rapprochement, cautiously seeking to engage, resurrect or simply support, and the easy synthpop soul of “Rollercoaster Zen” has a hook that’s hypnotic in its repetition.

Auer and Stringfellow play everything here but drums, which fall variously to Frankie Siragusa and Kliph Scurlock, and add a few guest voices to the backing choruses. Their melodies span from immediately hummable to complex, with several suggesting the minor-key sophistication of the Zombies. Those who have been enamored of the Posies melody-rich music will find it intact; it’s not a rehash of what they’ve done before, it’s a musical extension that breaks new ground while hanging on to the band’s essence. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Posies’ Home Page

Swedish Polarbears: The Great Northern

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

SwedishPolarbears_TheGreatNorthernHarmony and guitar-rich power-pop from Sweden

It’s been ten years since this Swedish quartet broke on the power-pop scene with their Teenage Fanclub tribute, “Norman Blake.” They’ve released the odd single and EP over the intervening years, but it’s taken a full decade for them to write and record a proper debut album. And yes, it was worth the wait. The group’s harmonies are gorgeous, the guitar sounds superb, and the first single, “Winter,” is awash in Byrdsian jangle and folk-styled harmonies. The group’s fascination with Teenage Fanclub hasn’t abated, but you can also hear the influences of the Searchers, Motors and Beach Boys. The album is awash in catchy melodies, tight harmonies and walls of electric guitars, all finely balanced against a solid rhythm section of hummable bass lines and full-kit drum fills. The group’s amalgam of pop influences may not break new ground, but the precision and joie de vivre with which they weave it all together is quite endearing. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Swedish Polarbears’ Home Page

The Knack: Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun House

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Knack_RockNRollFunHouseThe Knack capitalize on their catalog and live chops

After the Knack’s blazing success with 1979’s Get the Knack and its omnipresent single “My Sharona,” the band’s commercial fortunes quickly faded amid critical blowback. Two more albums and the band went its separate ways after 1981’s Round Trip. But there was too much chemistry – particularly on-stage – for them to remain apart, and the next decade saw reunions for tours and studio albums, two of which (Zoom and Normal as the Next Guy) are now joined in reissue by the group’s last recording project, 2001’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun House. They’d continue to tour until lead vocalist Doug Feiger’s passing in 2010, but this live-in-the-studio project was their last full project together, resulting in both a CD and DVD.

Recorded in a television studio, in front of a small audience of friends, family and fans, the group showed off the live show that had built the fan base that had launched their career. The song list is a well-crafted mix of hits, album tracks and a closing medley of “Tequila” and “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” that shows off the group’s sense of whimsy, musical reach and Berton Averre’s stellar lead guitar. The original fifteen tracks are augmented on this reissue by a pair of performances (“It’s Not Me” and “Seven Days of Heaven,” drawn from Normal as the Next Guy) that were left off the original CD. This may be an even better introduction to the Knack than a greatest hits album, since it highlights both their hits and stage show. Great for fans and newbies alike. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Knack’s Home Page

The Knack: Normal as the Next Guy

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

Knack_NormalAsTheNextGuyThe Knack’s third reunion album finds the flame still burning

After the blowback that greeted the meteoric success of “My Sharona” and Get the Knack, this Los Angeles pop quartet never fully recovered their commercial footing. Two more albums in two years, and they were gone; though not for good. They reunited for 1991’s Serious Fun, 1998’s Zoom and this final 2001 studio release. By this point the group was on its fifth drummer, David Henderson (as well as reteaming with their second drummer, Pat Torpey), but the core of lead vocalist Doug Feiger, guitarist Berton Averre and bassist Prescott Niles was still intact, as was Feiger and Averre’s songwriting, and Feiger’s youthful voice.

The material on their reunion albums had largely graduated from the leering of their early albums, and though they retained their pop sensibility to the end, they also expanded upon their power pop roots. In addition to the Byrdsian “It’s Not Me” and superb vocal harmony on a remake of “One Day at a Time,” there’s Oingo Boingo-styled post-punk in “Normal as the Next Guy,” country twang for “Spiritual Pursuit,” Steely Dan-styled jazz-pop on “Dance of Romance,” and a moody, full-on Beach Boys tribute, “The Man on the Beach.” The songs aren’t as uniformly ingratiating as the band’s previous reunion, but when they hit the pop-rock groove, they still take off.

Omnivore’s 2015 reissue adds three bonus tracks that feature Doug Feiger laying down songwriter demos with his acoustic guitar. All three make nice additions, but “Reason to Live,” is particularly revealing of Feiger’s emotional investment in his songwriting. The disc’s 12-page booklet includes liner notes by Lee Lodyga and Prescott Niles, and song notes by Niles and Averre. Though not the band’s best album, it’s a bit of a patchwork of songs written for the Knack and for non-Knack projects, there are enough Knack-tastic moments to make this an essential part of a fan’s collection. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Knack’s Home Page

The Knack: Zoom

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

Knack_ZoomThird time’s a charm for the Knack’s excellent 1998 reunion album

Few bands have suffered so much from their success. The Knack’s debut album, Get the Knack, and the lead single “My Sharona” each reached #1, but the resulting radio saturation, and their seemingly out-of-nowhere rise to fame created blowback that sabotaged their future commercial prospects. A number of publicity choices – cover art that mimicked the television stage set of A Hard Day’s Night, a 1960’s Capitol rainbow label design and a tight lid on interviews, didn’t help. The critical backlash was swift and strong, fueled in part by artist Hugh Brown’s “Knuke the Knack” campaign.

The band’s years of sweat equity, a fan base grown organically from gigs, and most of all, the craft of their songs were unilaterally overshadowed by the notion that they’d been manufactured and sprung on the world. But it wasn’t a gigantic publicity machine that accelerated their nationwide fame, it was the catchiness of their music, a world-class hook in “My Sharona,” and – not at all unusually for the record industry – some lucky timing. Sadly, the Knack weren’t able to take advantage of the pop renaissance they helped spark, and to this day they’re often remembered more for the backlash than their success.

The band split at the end of 1981 amid disappointing sales of their third album Round Trip, but reunited over the years for club shows and albums; this 1998 title was their second and best reunion. With Terry Bozio filling in on drums, and new material from vocalist Doug Feiger and guitarist Berton Averre, the band was re-energized. Feiger’s voice still had the tone of youth, and the band’s Beatleisms, such as the guitar figures and vocal harmonies on “Terry & Julie Step Out,” didn’t have to withstand the critical barbs of 1979. And that last point is probably the most important. Removed from their rocket-fueled fame and ensuing backlash, listeners can stop worrying and start hearing the Knack as a pop band, rather than a phenomenon.

Feiger himself seemed to be thinking about the band’s place, rather than worrying about it. The opener, “Pop is Dead,” decries the fate of pop music in the TV-saturated late ‘90s, but makes its point with actual pop music. Feiger’s Rickenbacker chimes in homage to the Searchers as the band looks to its inception with “Can I Borrow a Kiss,” and their problems with the media is echoed in Wonders-like “Mister Magazine.” The album hits for the power-pop cycle of heartbreak (“Everything I Do”), breakup (“Harder On You”), recrimination (“Smilin’” “Harder On You” “Tomorrow”) and renewal (“Love is All There Is” “You Gotta Be There”). Feiger is emotionally invested as he strains into his upper register for “In Blue Tonight” and closes the album with the psych-tinged “(All In The) All in All.”

It’s hard to imagine that the Knack had serious thoughts about a big comeback in 1998, which makes this album more a product of love of music than dreams of fame. The added years shear away any remaining pretense – real or imagined – that might stand between your ears and this finely crafted pop music. At the time of its original issue, and again in a 2003 reissue (retitled Re-Zoom), this set failed to catch the ears it deserved. Reissued again, with the addition of three demos, the superbly dramatic “She Says,” a remake of “My Sharona,” liners by Lee Lodyga, Prescott Niles and Berton Averre, and original art direction by the very same Hugh Brown who needled the band in 1979, it’s time to get the Knack. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Knack’s Home Page

Andy Gabbard: Fluff

Monday, June 8th, 2015

AndyGabbard_FluffFuzzed-out solo power-pop from lone Buffalo Killer

Buffalo Killers guitarist Andy Gabbard is a one-man herd on this solo debut, writing, singing and playing the entire album in a single 12-hour recording session. The music has some hallmarks of grunge in the guitars, but even more so, the muscular psych-tinged ’90s power pop of Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and Velvet Crush, as well as 1960s-era Freakbeat. Gabbard mixes his vocals onto the same plane as the instruments, leaving his buzzing, overdubbed guitars to do a lot of the talking and his drums and cymbals to fill in the spaces. And it works: the rhythm guitars growl, the leads pierce the wall of fuzz, the drums add accents, and the vocals tie it all together with processed sounds and surreal lyrics. The acoustic intro to “Look Not Sound” suggests Big Star, and a duet with Summer Sherman on “More” echoes the boy-girl dynamic of the Pooh Sticks. It’s hard to imagine how someone can produced twelve original, creative and fully finished band tracks in twelve hours without a band to play them live, but here they are, and with four bonus live tracks on the CD edition. It’s both a feat and a treat. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Andy Gabbard’s Facebook Page

The Rubinoos: 45

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

Rubinoos_45Ageless pop music

It’s spooky how good the Rubinoos sound in their 45th year as a band. Jon Rubin’s lead vocals are still sweetly youthful, songwriter Tommy Dunbar continues to mine a seemingly inexhaustible supply of melodies, and the quartet’s harmonies are as tight as ever. The current line-up features long-time bassist Al Chan and original drummer Donn Spindt, and are nearly indistinguishable from the group that was featured in the pages of Tiger Beat magazine.

None of which should suggest that the Rubinoos are frozen in the amber of 1977. Dunbar’s songwriting has widened over the years, both in the musical influences he incorporates and the themes he explores. There’s jazz in the guitar of “Graveyard Shift,” a soulful melody (and a touch of electric sitar!) in “What More Can You Ask of a Friend,” and “Does Suzie Like Boys” updates the standard love song with a modern day consideration. Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity” provides the atmosphere for the dark instrumental “Kangaroo Court,” and the group rocks out for “Countdown to Love.”

Still, there’s plenty of pure pop, including Al Chan’s tender vocal on “You Are Here” and an a cappella cover of Lou Christie’s “Rhapsody in the Rain.” The latter is highlighted by Jon Rubin’s falsetto and a bass vocal from The Mighty Echoes’ Charlie Davis. The band’s doo-wop and garage roots cross paths in “I Love Louie Louie,” and Dunbar’s affinity for the Beatles, by way of Erie, PA’s Wonders, is heard in his 12-string laden original “That Thing You Do.” Originally pitched for the film, the demo (sung by Dunbar and Chan) has been spruced up with Donn Spindt’s drums.

The album closes with the optimistic “All It Takes” and a cover of Radio Days’ “She’s Driving Me Crazy.” Both tunes were previously released on a split 7”, but are a valuable addition for the stylus-impaired. The album proves that youthfulness is a state of mind, rather than a physical age, as the charms of the Rubinoos’ teenage years are undimmed. Since returning to the studio for 1998’s Paleophonic, the group’s waxed covers, children’s songs and more, but forty-five years on, they still reach back to their early years with ease. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Rubinoos’ Home Page

Rubinoos vs. Psycotic Pineapple

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

Given the incestuous relationship between the Rubinoos and Psycotic Pineapple (Jon Rubin and Tommy Dunbar were charter members of the Pineapple, and early Rubinoos keyboardist Alex Carlin joined the Pineapple for their hey-day), it probably shouldn’t be surprising that artist (and bassist) John Seabury drew inspiration from (and took friendly aim at) the Rubinoos single. Still, how did we not realize this until today?


Rubinoos_IWannaBeYourBoyfriend

PsycoticPineapple_IWannaGetRidOfYou

John Seabury’s Facebook Page
The Rubinoos’ Home Page
Psycotic Pineapple’s Facebook Page