Archive for the ‘powerpop’ Category

Six Years of Musoscribe: Power Pop

Friday, July 31st, 2015

One of my abiding musical loves – and not a guilty pleasure, not at all – is the style known as power pop. At present I even play in a band that covers the classics of the genre. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a number of artists associated with the genre (though some would prefer not to be tagged as power pop artists. Here are just a few.

The Smithereens
With a perfect balance of punch and melodicism, New Jersey’s Smithereens scored on the charts in the 80s and beyond. Their more recent work is every bit as good. Their drummer Dennis Diken made an excellent solo album, and over the course of an evening that included lots of Indian food, beer, and backstage chats with other acts at the Charlotte Pop Festival, I had a long and fascinating conversation with Dennis Diken about his work.

The Posies
I discovered The Posies around the time they released Frosting on the Beater (1993); from there I worked my way forward and backward through their catalog. In 2014, Omnivore Records began a reissue campaign of Posies albums, beginning with their debut, Failure. I interviewed both Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer and put together this expansive Posies feature.

Blue Ash
Now remembered as one of the early progenitors of the powerpop genre, Ohio-based Blue Ash released only two albums (one great, one not-so-great). Way back in the 1990s, I was in regular contact with the band’s guitarist Bill Bartolin. This was long before their debut was reissued on CD. This feature recalls our correspondence and its back story.

Big Star
Now rightly revered, Big Star were ignored when they were together. In the 90s, Alex Chilton revived the band with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow plus original drummer Jody Stephens. Release of a live concert CD of the group (Live in Memphis) was the perfect occasion for a Big Star chat.

Marshall Crenshaw
When I say that I’m a longtime fan of the singer/songwriter/guitarist, I’m not exaggerating. I first saw Crenshaw live onstage in the 70s, when he was playing John Lennon in the traveling cast of Beatlemania. I saw him again a few years later, opening for Hall and Oates. Decades later, I interviewed him for the first of three times (so far): 2007, 2009 and 2012.

Jason Falkner
Power pop enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s, and nobody did it better than Falkner. My three-part interview with Jason Falkner covers his solo work, his session work, and his time in The Grays and Jellyfish.

Jellyfish
Speaking of Jellyfish…the group only lasted for two records – both classics – but their mix of 70s bomnbast and studio finesses with 90s power and crunch made them an enduring presence. My interview with Jellyfish’s Roger Manning discusses the group’s work.

The dB’s
The dB’s are another of those groups who never quite made the really-big time, but whose influence is felt in the work of many bands that followed in their wake. When they got back together for the superb Falling Off the Sky, I interviewed the group’s co-guitarist/co-songwriter Peter Holsapple.

Tommy Keene
I can still remember it like it was yesterday: the first time I heard Keene’s “Places That are Gone.” That 1986 single got me hooked on the man’s work. I’ve interviewed him twice (so far): way back in 2006 and then again in 2011.

Trip Shakespeare
Another band that I discovered in my college years, Trip Shakespeare stood apart form the other bands associated with their hometown of Minneapolis. My conversation with bassist John Munson delves into the band’s early years (those albums have been reissued by Omnivore; hopefully more are on the way).

The Paul & John
Paul Myers is well-known for at least three things: his excellent work as an author, the music he makes with John Moremen, and one other thing I won’t mention. The Paul & John’s debut album Inner Sunset was one of 2014′s best releases. Here’s my conversation with The Paul & John.

Pugwash
The Irish group has struggled for years to gain a commercial foothold in the US market, but it looks like they’re finally succeeding. With a sound reminiscent of XTC-meets-Electric Light Orchestra, the group makes timeless, melodic pop. Here’s my conversation with Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh.

Richard X Heyman
I somehow missed the work of NYC-based indie-powerpop artist Richard X Heyman for many years; once I discovered his music, it was time to play catch-up. Part of that effort has included interviewing him no less than three times (so far): 2007, 2011, and most recently in 2013.

Next week I’ll take a look at more of my favorite interviews and features from the last six years of Musoscribe (and beyond). Thanks – as always – for reading.

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Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 1

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

Power pop is a term that can be taken to mean a lot of different things. For me it almost always means fun and appealing music. Here are five examples, each reviewed in brief.

The Shoe Birds – Southern Gothic

During my recent conversation with him, Drivin’ n’ Cryin‘s Kevn Kinney threw out a phrase I hadn’t heard before: kudzu rock. The phrase was new to me, but I knew exactly what he meant: a kind of jangly southern rock that draws from classic rock but is informed with a c&w sensibility. R.E.M. and Tom Petty are kudzu rock; Charlie Daniels and Danny Joe Brown are most assuredly not. But The Shoe Birds are: their music features heartfelt lyrics coupled with memorable, hooky song craft. At its best, Southern Gothic conjures the ghosts of Big Star without copying their style.

Kurt Baker Combo – Muy Mola Live!

As part of The New Trocaderos, guitarist/vocalist Baker showcases his skill at crafting fast, catchy and memorable rockers. But here, fronting his own four-piece, Baker ups the wattage considerably. The songs are even better, and – thanks to the live setting for this recording – the energy is much more palpable. The visceral feel of punk is combined with the cheery perspective of power pop and the swagger of full-on rock’n'roll. They start and stop on a dime, and play to the small audience like rockstars. Their reading of The Remains‘ “Don’t Look Back” is stellar and incendiary. Vigorously recommended.

The Hangabouts – Illustrated Bird

Swimming in the less powerful – but supremely melodic – end of the power pop pool, The Hangabouts (John Lowry and Gregory Addington) craft melodic, acoustic flavored pop of the highest order. Their songs are reminscent of some of Pilot‘s best work, and fans of Matthew Sweet, Michael Penn and Jeff Lynne will quite possibly fall head-over-heels in love with the thirteen songs on Illustrated Bird. This music is proof (if it were needed) that one needn’t rock out all of the time. The production and arrangement (by the duo) are both up to the standard of the songs, too.

Aerial – Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak at School?


The album graphics and packaging suggest a sort of teenage, angst-filled punk pop, and in some ways, that’s what the music delivers. But this American band has a more nuanced and textured musical approach than, say, Green Day. With guitars that pummel along like Bob Mould‘s old band Sugar, Aerial definitely have one foot in the punk/hardcore camp. But the poppy songs lean very much in a melodic direction; listening to their wonderfully hooky songs, one might guess that the group’s favorite Ramones album is End of the Century. Bonus points awarded for the ace backing vocals throughout the album.

The Super Fuzz – Super Famous

Taking a page from the way-out-front, exuberant playbook of Cheap Trick (“Speedball” even musically quotes Rockford’s finest), The Super Fuzz play a sort of glam-inflected, power-chording rock that puts strong emphasis on melody, groove, vocal harmony and roaring-guitar-centered performance and arrangement. One might detect hints of Fastball and Redd Kross in the grooves of Super Famous. Song titles like “Surprised Your Boyfriend’s Still Around” make it clear that this isn’t deep philosophy. What it is, is fun, fist-pumping rock that will have most listeners singing along. But please keep a hand on the steering wheel. Find this and buy it.

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Some Long-lost Artist Biographies

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Way back in the depths of the Great Recession (2007-2009), one of my former writers (from my time as Editor in Chief of a now-defunct magazine I won’t dignify by naming) put me in touch with the good people at Amoeba Music. The California-based record chain had an ambitious plan: creating artist bios to serve as a resource on their website. Right alongside online ordering, visitors could click on an “Artist Biography” link, and read a concise bio about that act.

I was commissioned to do several dozen of these, but owing to that little worldwide financial debacle I mentioned earlier, the project was shelved indefinitely. And because the pieces I turned in before deadline were “works for hire,” they were the property of Amoeba. So I couldn’t publish them myself. Fair is fair.

Fast forward more than six years, to a couple of weeks ago. I stumbled upon one of those essays online! Turns out that – and I don’t know when this happened; could’ve been years ago – Amoeba has published five of the six essays I penned; most (but not all) of them include my byline.

If you enjoy any of the acts listed below, you might also find these short biographies an interesting read. For my part, I’m just happy that they’re available. All excerpts below ©Amoeba Music.

Badfinger
The story of Badfinger is one filled with tantalizing promise, modest success, and crushing tragedy. Initially viewed as something of an heir apparent to the Beatles’ legacy, a combination of naivete, emotional fragility and misplaced trust served to rob this quartet of greater fame; their brief time in the limelight (1970-1974) ended with the suicide of their primary songwriter, effectively spelling the end for this talented group. Despite the band’s tumultuous history, Badfinger has earned its place among the top tier of power pop groups. [read more...]

Blind Faith
The aptly-named Blind Faith is a textbook example of unrealized potential. Formed in 1968 from the remnants of other high-profile groups, this “supergroup” brought together some of rock’s greatest talents. The quartet issued one hastily-recorded album, did a quick tour and disbanded. In some ways, Blind Faith is no more than a footnote to the careers of three of its members. Yet in its lineup, approach and songs, the group possessed immense potential to push popular music in new and exciting directions. They made tentative steps in those directions, but left fans wondering what could have been. [read more...]

The Rutles
The mockumentary/rockumentary genre didn’t start with the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap. As far back as 1978, NBC-TV aired All You Need is Cash, a prime-time special that purported to tell the story of The Rutles, England’s “Pre-Fab Four.” Former Monty Python troupe member Eric Idle had conceived of the project years earlier, and the project’s musical director (Neil Innes from the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band) had already written and produced a few songs in a mock-Beatles vein both with The Bonzos and The Grimms. [read more...]

Spinal Tap
Rock music is often funny; rarely is it intentionally so. The 1984 film This is Spinal Tap was a faux documentary (“rockumentary” or “mockumentary”) that followed the exploits of fictional British heavy metal band Spinal Tap (“one of Britain’s loudest bands”). Like The Monkees before them, Spinal Tap went from being a fictional group to a real one; unlike The Monkees, Spinal Tap never had ambitions to be taken seriously. Turning every rock cliché on its head for laughs, Spinal Tap (the band and the movie) may be the most fully-realized parody in all of popular culture. [read more...]

The Tubes
The Tubes successfully combined rock, theatre and satire. Their biting combination of offbeat subject matter, complex yet muscular arrangements, and provocative presentation pushed the boundaries of rock like few before or since. Most modern visually-oriented acts owe a debt—knowingly or not—to the Tubes. [read more...]

The list of acts I was planning to cover for Amoeba (but didn’t) was long, and included Syd Barrett, Boston, Brinsley Schwarz, Junior Brown, Cheap Trick, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Finn, Fleetwood Mac, Flo & Eddie, Fountains of Wayne, Robert Fripp, Gentle Giant, David Gilmour, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Jellyfish, John Lennon, Nick Lowe, Nazz, Porcupine Tree, Procol Harum, Raspberries, Redd Kross, The Replacements, Rockpile, Todd Rundgren, Soft Boys, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend, Traffic, The Turtles, Utopia, Steve Ray Vaughan, Roger Waters, The Who, Brian Wilson, Johnny Winter, and Roy Wood. As you might note from the links embedded in that last sentence, I’ve since written about many of them – and even interviewed several – on this site.

As of this writing, my completed-and-submitted biography of Moby Grape remains unavailable. Far be it from me to suggest that the (allegedly, I say) dastardly Matthew Katz has anything to do with its omission. I’m sure he’s a lovely man. Really. Honestly. Everyone says so.

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Album Review: The Fad — The Now Sound

Monday, June 29th, 2015

If you lived through the early 1980s in the United States – and were old enough to be at least somewhat plugged in to popular culture – you were aware of the proliferation of “new wave” groups. Many of these acts traded in a style of music that drew inspiration from the pre-“rock star” era, that is to say the time before the rise of the dinosaurs of rock. The wave might have been called new, but the streamlined sounds often recalled sixties garage, 50s rockabilly, and other styles that predated Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and all those kinda guys.

Something else you would have known about was the cassette. Designed as a smaller, more portable alternative to the LP record, the cassette had a few obvious advantages: not only was it small, but it was recordable. But it had one serious disadvantage: inferior sound quality. Say what you will; it was undeniably fun to stroll around with a Walkman (or, as in my case, a much cheaper JCPenney-branded alternative) with headphones blasting a life soundtrack of your choice directly into your skull, but the wow, flutter, and gauss could ruin the greatest music. That whooshing sound – sort of like a speaker being slowly dipped into a bucket of water, lifted out, and dunked again – is one that most any cassette owner has experienced.

Now, thanks to the intrepid archival efforts of the guys at Kool Kat Musik, you can experience not one but both of these early 80s treasures once again!

Philadelphia-based trio The Fad were not unlike hundreds – thousands? – of groups that sprang up in that era that gave birth to MTV. And like the better among that crop, The Fad rose to some prominence: regular small-venue gigs and the occasional opening spot on a bill supporting The Stray Cats, The Ramones, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).

During their time, The Fad relocated to Huntington Beach, California; they’d eventually return home to Philly and break up. But while together, they recorded and released a six-song EP and a half-dozen other tunes. All twelve of these are collected on the CD The Now Sound.

The good news is that these tracks are a lot of fun. They’re tight, snappy tunes that straddle the line between new wave and, let’s say, nerd-rock. Unlike some of their self-consciously counterparts with clip-on safety pins and accoutrements of the punk identikit, The Fad were a smiling, go-go kinda trio. Their outfits made them look like relatives of the Robinson family, heroes of the kitschy 1960s TV classic Lost in Space. Their gear featured Rickenbacker basses and twelve-strings through Vox amps, all of which would have been viewed as resolutely retro choices in the 1980s.

And their music matched it. While they could play with the tight force of, say, The Jam, their slightly nasally vocal delivery made them sound closer to Gary Lewis and the Playboys. They had the good nature to write and record their own theme song (“Fad Theme”) and the equally good sense to have it clock in just under minute, as if for the intro of their own (nonexistent) TV show. Their ginchy vocal harmonies were the cherry on top of their compact pop tunes.

The songs have a good deal of subtlety for what’s essentially vocal-focused power pop. There’s a wide-eyed innocence that recalls the 60s garage bands who drew their inspiration not from those dirty Rolling Stones boys, but from relatively cheerful, clean cut young men like The Turtles. At times (“Where the Colors Are,” for example), The Fad sound a bit like Jan and Dean with ’65 version of The Who backing them up. Put another way, Keith Moon would have loved these guys. Another quickie, the 1:04 “Lark City” is a twister-riffic tune that Los Straitjackets would be proud to count among their repertoire. “Watch the Sky” is The Fad’s contemplative folk-rock moment; here they recall The Beau Brummels or The Association with fewer vocalists.

The six songs that make up the second half of The Now Sound widen the group’s stylistic lens a bit, but the elements that made the original EP so appealing are all relatively intact. The Phil Spector-ish intro to “Tomorrow She is Leaving” gives way to a wistful tune. “Genie” is a speedy number with some nicely chiming guitar and impressive, near-whispered vocals. “Broken Hearts” features ba-ba-ba harmony vocals, and the three-part harmonies coupled with guitar jangle suggest a cross between early Beach Boys and The Records.

The Fad clearly aimed for, well, fads: the instrumental “Fad Twist” encourages the listener to do just that while guitarist Frank Max plays one long (and very tasty) guitar solo. And the set ends with “The Swing’s the Thing,” a tune that would have worked perfectly in the movie That Thing You Do! if the story had included some serious rivals to The Wonders. It’s a delight, as is every track on The Now Sound. It’s no exaggeration to characterize this CD as a collection of rescued musical treasures.

And that’s the good news. But as I mentioned earlier, you also get a flashback to the dreadful sonic qualities inherent in the cassette. All of the tracks on The Now Sound were sourced from the best media available. But that media seems to have been some unknown-generation cassettes. The sound is very much like what you’d expect if a friend made you a cassette dub of his cassette dub of somebody else’s dub, with all tapes in that lineage being Type 1 cassettes. Probably at least one of ‘em was a three-for-a-buck Realistic cassette from Radio Shack. Put more succinctly, the sound is a notch or two above “suck.” (The story goes that some of the audio issues are the fault of the EP sessions’ producer, who is pointedly not credited anywhere on the CD release.)

The thing is, the music on The Fad’s The Now Sound is so damn good that I can still recommend it in the most glowing terms. Don’t worry about the whooshy sound on some tracks. Just turn it up and enjoy.

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Album Review: The Weeklings

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Beginning in the early 1980s out of their home base in Charlotte NC, The Spongetones offered up what was then a new and unique concept: new and original songs, written in the style of The Beatles. Though they’d later expand upon their sound and develop a style they could call their own, on early records (most notably the album Beat Music and the Torn Apart EP) The Spongetones cleverly wrote and performed songs that sounded like hidden gems from the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team.

These days The Spongetones gather for the occasional live gig, while their songwriting efforts are manifested in the steady output of two members, Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel; they do business as Jamie & Steve.

So who remains to carry the banner taken up by The Spongetones (and, before them – and to varying degrees — The Bee Gees, Badfinger, Electric Light Orchestra, Klaatu, The Rutles, and for a moment, Utopia)? The answer seems to be The Weeklings.

Featuring (unsurprisingly enough) four guys who unashamedly describe their music as “Beatles-inspired power pop,” The Weeklings have released their twelve-track, self-titled debut. And while as a just-plain-listen it’s quite enjoyable, its contents deserve a bit of unpacking.

The disc kicks off with an original tune, “Little Tease,” that is packed to the breaking point with Beatleisms. Keen listeners will spot chord progressions from “I Saw Her Standing There,” as well as guitar licks and tambourine flourishes that call to mind specific moments in other Beatles tunes. But beyond that, “Little Tease” is a song worthy of the term Beatlesque. From the bop-shoo-wop baking vocals to the way that John “Rocky” Merjave slows down the tail-end of his guitar solo (a la George Harrison), it’s a true gem. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve spun this tune in the last few days. And while it’s not the equal of the infectious opener, “Leave Me With My Pride” is a solid number in the 1964-65 Beatles mold.

From here, things get really interesting. What, you might ask yourself, would it sound like if some songs that have previously existed only as Beatles demos (or versions tackled by other artists) were rendered in true Beatles style? The Weeklings are here to help answer that question. George Harrison’s early solo composition “You Know What to Do” is unique as one of the very few demos showcased on the Anthology series that had not leaked to rabid fans before release of the retrospective sets. Harrison’s solo performance of the tune is pleasant enough, but nothing special beyond its historical value. The Weeklings, however, give the song a full Beatles-style arrangement, and the results do indeed sound a lot like what the Beatles probably would have done with it.

“One and One is Two” was a lesser Lennon-McCartney original quickly written and given away to The Strangers with Mike Shannon. Most people will have never heard the song (nor anything by The Strangers, for that matter). The Weekings’ cover version re-imagines the tune with all the power and nuance of a Beatles version. What previously sounded like a throwaway now sounds like – if not a hit single – a very good album track circa The Beatles’ Second Album.

“I’m in Love” was a Lennon composition, though like everything from the Beatles days, it was credited to both him and Paul. The Fourmost did a decent enough version of it, and for their trouble were rewarded with a respectable #17 showing on the UK charts. (The Fourmosts’s first single, another Lennon/McCartney number called “Hello Little Girl,” reached #9 on the charts, but The Weeklings skipped that one, presumably because the fab four cut their own version at their ill-fated Decca audition.) Hardcore Beatles fans know “I’m in Love” from the poorly recorded informal Lennon demo version. (Aside: my own theory is that Lennon’s demo does not represent a 1963-4 recording; I am convinced that it’s a mid 1970s “self-cover” done as part of the work on the planned – but never completed – musical retrospective he was writing, a project called The Ballad of John & Yoko. But it’s just a theory.) The Weeklings’ version of “I’m in Love” does a good job of taking the tune to its logical proper end as a Beatles tune.

“It’s For You” was first cut by Cilla Black (UK #7, US #79), but it was also covered by Three Dog Night on their 1968 debut (and again on their 1969 Captured Live at the Forum LP). There’s only so much one could be expected to do with this slight number, and while The Weeklings’ version is more interesting than Black’s or Three Dog Night’s readings, it’s still no great shakes.

At this point in the proceedings (the beginning of the so-called “side two” of The Weeklings), the band shifts back to original compositions. “Mona Lisa” sounds like Beatles twice removed, or A Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles filtered through a Raspberries sensibility. In fact, if I told you that “Mona Lisa” was a Raspberries tune (it’s not), you might even believe me. “Come on come on” indeed. Bonus points for a guitar solo that reminds one of The Bobby Fuller Four‘s classic “I Fought the Law.”

“Breathing Underwater,” “If I Was in Love” and the slyly-titled “Oh! Darla” (get it?) showcase the softer, acoustic-leaning and more contemplative takes on The Weeklings’ Beatlesque songwriting. Taken together as a mini-suite, the tunes have the feel of a Spongetones tribute more than a Beatles pastiche.

The Weeklings wraps up with a pair of songs that The Beatles finished in the studio, but held back until Anthology. It’s fairly easy to understand why The Beatles didn’t see fit to release “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means a Lot.” Neither is awful, but both suffer from some weaknesses, structurally and/or lyric-wise.

To their credit, The Weeklings do what they can with “If You’ve Got Trouble.” Taking note of Ringo Starr‘s frustrated plea in the Beatles’ version (“oh, rock on…anybody!”) The Weeklings try to up the ante musically. They achieve this by adding Revolver-era sonics: a bass line straight out of “Rain,” vocal treatments that recall “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and a fistful of cues from “Paperback Writer.” Moreover, they gamely rewrite the lyrics to dial back some of the original’s inanity. And while the overall result is an improvement, it all serves to highlight that, hey, “If You’ve Got Trouble” is basically some pretty weak stuff, Beatlewise.

Lifting the arrangement of “Till There Was You” straight off of Meet the Beatles, The Weeklings interpret “That Means a Lot” through that filter. And while stripping the semi-rock arrangement of The Beatles’ failed attempt is a good idea, we’re still left with one of the least-interesting tunes in the Beatles catalog.

It would be delightful to report that the clever endeavor that is The Weeklings ends on a strong note – something on the par with the exquisite “Little Tease,” or their reading of “One and One is Two” – but that’s not the case. As a project of originals in the style plus very well-thought-out re-imaginings of obscure Beatles material, The Weeklings is a modest success. One or two more cuts in the mold of “One and One is Two” and they might have had a near-classic. Instead it’s merely very good. Which – until the Spongetones decide to create new music, and that is unlikely – is well and good enough.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 9

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Today’s roundup of capsule reviews focuses on reissues or previously-unreleased material by acts who came to prominence (or something approaching it) in the 1980s or later.

Old 97′s – Hitchhike to Rhome
In the 1950s, country and rock’n'roll were sometimes hard to discern form one another. Then they split into to two very different styles, only occasionally re-intersecting. By my count, country rock has had three periods of resurgence. The first centered around The Byrds. The second happened during the 1980s (Lone Justice etc.). And the third – which could be said to have influenced Americana – took place in the 1990s and featured Austin’s Old 97′s as its exemplar. Omnivore Recordings continues its intelligent digging into the past with this expanded (2cd) set built around the band’s excellent 1994 debut LP.

Willie Nile – The Bottom Line Archive
One of the observations made about 1960s rock is that owing to a glut of great acts, many very good ones fell through the cracks and languished in obscurity. Good point, but it happened in other decades, too. When I saw The Who on their mini-tour of the USA in 1980, Willie Nile was the opener. He never did quite make the big time, but he gigged pretty hard. Disc One features a great show from that same year. A second disc documents a 2000 show. Nile’s “Vagabond Moon” is a highlight of both. Nile sounds not unlike Roger McGuinn.

Game Theory – Real Nighttime
Among fans of the band, 1985′s Real Nighttime is generally considered their best album. With improved songwriting and excellent signature production from Mitch Easter, Real Nighttime is a great improvement over already-very-good earlier albums. As I’ve noted before, to my ears Game Theory often sound a bit like Let’s Active crossed with The Three O’clock and Sneakers; based on this album I’d add R.E.M.,the Bangles and maybe even a bit of Hoodoo Gurus to that list. Great company to be in, I’d say. The reissue features the original 12-track album plus thirteen bonus tracks, most of which are previously unreleased.

Camper Van Beethoven – New Roman Times
This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Camper Van Beethoven enjoyed their heyday in the second half of the 1980s, a time during which they were that decade’s answer to Kaleidoscope (not that many asked the question). After folding in 1989, they reunited with an idiosyncratic “cover album” of Fleetwood Mac‘s Tusk. Only then did they release 2004′s New Roman Times. It’s a strong return to form, and was released on the tiny indie Pitch-A-Tent label. It’s still available, and Amazon has used copies for 1¢. But Omnivore has seen fit to reissue the album, now with four bonus tracks.

Mike + the Mechanics – Living Years
Phil Collins took breaks from his gig with Genesis, venturing out to make popular solo albums. It was only reasonable that his bandmates would make similar moves. Guitarist Mike Rutherford had success of his own with Mike + The Mechanics. Their second album Living Years (1988) was a big seller thanks to the haunting title track, and led to successful touring that continued on and off into 2004. The group’s lineup featured mainstay vocalists Paul Young and Paul Carrack (Young died in 2000). This reissue adds a disc full of live tracks and a studio remake of the title tune.

Still more to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 8

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Today, it’s five more capsule reviews. It’s great stuff all, dating from the 1970s.

Stories – Stories Untold: The Very Best of Stories
The, um, story of Stories in inextricably tied up with that of the Left Banke (“Walk Away Renee”). The music on this set from Real Gone Music draws not only for the band’s (rather slim) catalog, but from relevant solo work by Steve Martin (no, not that one) and Ian Lloyd. The only thing more remarkable than the quality of the music is that little of it charted. Sure, you remember “Brother Louie,” but do you recall “Mammy Blue”? I was nine when it briefly hit charts (#50) and hadn’t heard it more than twice in the next forty-plus years.

Todd Rundgren and Utopia – Live at the Electric Ballroom
This radio broadcast recording of an October 23, 1978 show in Milwaukee documents the entire show. Even if one doesn’t count the nearly countless live bootleg recordings in circulation, there are quite a few Rundgren/Utopia live sets available. But if this one circulated among hardcore collectors before now, it’s news to me. At this point in Utopia’s history, they had settled into their core quartet lineup. That said, the set list draws more from Rundgren’s superb solo catalog, with only a few Utopia tunes (mostly from Oops! Wrong Planet). Performancewise, it’s tight, though bassist Kasim Sulton drops an occasional clam.

Sweet – Level Headed Tour Rehearsals 1977
By this point in their career, Sweet had fought to extricate themselves from the strong grip of the ChinniChap musical empire; they had also sought to shed the bubblegum image that accompanied it. Their Level Headed album introduced a progressive-leaning sound that was equal parts Alan Parsons Project and hard rock; the result – exemplified in the hit “Love is Like Oxygen” – might be termed bubbleprog. This home tape of a rehearsal finds them with an ace keyboardist, and a sound that clearly presages the L.A.-based hair metal sound of the 80s and onward. Don’t hold that against them.

Gentle Giant – Live at the Bicentennial 1776-1976
Few progressive-era bands engender the sort of divided opinion that Gentle Giant can claim. One is either impressed by their technical and vocal skills, or completely put off by the decidedly European musical sensibilities of the UK group. This double CD set documents a July 3 show in Hempstead, NY. Sound quality is excellent, and the band is in fine form as they run through material from throughout their career. The set boasts no post-production fixing or fiddling. Sadly, the encore mentioned in the liner notes (a rare cover of Wilson Pickett‘s “In the Midnight Hour”) didn’t make it to tape.

Various – Local Customs: Cavern Sound
When the small Numero Group releases something, you can count on excellence. This set focuses on recordings made for the label in the period 1970-73. More varied stylistically than many Numero comps, this one features little-known bands who coughed up the relatively modest session fees. There’s soulful hard rock a la Rare Earth, but the real oddity is American Sound Limited‘s “Aunt Marie.” It shamelessly rips off the signature melody of Status Quo‘s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” plus some of the lyrics and phrasing. And when they do it, they sound like a cross between Billy Joe Royal and BS&T.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 5

Friday, May 8th, 2015

This week of capsule reviews spotlighting new music wraps up today with five releases that all came to me on vinyl. I love vinyl. Did I mention that I really enjoy listening to music on vinyl? Well, I do.

Anthony W. Rogers – Wrong…
When this record arrived in my mailbox, I thought to myself, “I know that name…”. Then it came to me. Through the 1990s and beyond, a network of hardcore fans collected and traded live recordings of Todd Rundgren and related artists. And Anthony Rogers was one of the scene’s leading lights. But on this new solo album, Rogers stakes out musical territory that supposedly draws on SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. The tunes on Wrong… have a distinct DIY/lo-fi ambience, occasionally recalling Wilson, sometimes Rundgren. But Rogers’ music nearly always reminds me of that most idiosyncratic of pop artists, R. Stevie Moore.

Harpoon Forever – American Flag EP
This four-song EP sounds as if it were recorded in somebody’s garage, on cheap equipment. But that lo-fi approached worked for Guided by Voices; it works here, too. Shifting time signatures applied to sturdy, vaguely folk-rocking songs might confuse some listeners, but the catchiness of the melodies and the fetching everyman vocals of guitarist/songwriter Alex Goldstein shine right through. A gauzy approach vaguely recalls Third/Sister Lovers era Big Star, filtered through the sensibility of someone whom (I’m guessing) digs prog as much as he likes Pavement. On this disc, Harpoon Forever is a duo; these days they’re a full band.

Lannie Flowers – “Best I Can” b/w “Back of a Car”
Lannie Flowers really has it going. He writes, play and sing fantastic, infectious pop tunes. And he’s quite consistent at it. Better still, he’s quite prolific these days. Just last year he released an excellent live set, Live in NYC. That collection presented Flowers and band in front of an audience that was as enthusiastic as it was small. This single’s b-side, a lovely Big Star cover, is taken from that set. But the a-side is another in Flower’s growing catalog of winning rocking pop tunes. To his tried-and-true mix he adds some simple but dramatic keyboard work. Another winner.

Alvin Youngblood Hart – “Helluva Way (For a Man to Make a Livin’)” b/w “Watchin’ Brian Jones”
An object lesson in the “never judge a book by its cover” category, this single features the customarily acoustic guitar playing Hart (of the South Memphis String Band) rocking out in a big way. If his greying beard and Gibson Flying V don’t provide enough cognitive dissonance, a listen to this blistering 45rpm single should do the trick. Taking his “Helluva Way” at breakneck speed, it’s garage punk at its finest. The flip is a low-and-slow bluesy romp full of sly, clever lyrics. Less than seven minutes with Hart will convince you he could succeed in damn near any genre.

TimLee3 – 33 1/3
Tim Lee was a key member of 80s alternarock underground darlings The Windbreakers. These days he shares the spotlight with his missus (Susan Bauer Lee) and drummer Chris Bratta. Lee’s old group’s twangy take on powerpop is built upon in his trio: Susan takes many lead vocals, giving the band an original sound reminiscent of Jason & the Scorchers crossed with X, but decidedly upping the hooks-and-melody quotient to Plimsouls level. The chiming “Photo Booth” is guaranteed ear candy; the sweeping, dusty grandeur of “Our Lady of the Highway” is breathtaking. “Daddy’s Girl” is a delightful c&w romp. Highly recommended.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

My march through the CD backlog in my office continues today with quick (100-word) looks at five new albums. Though the artists themselves might not always welcome the classification, these are all what I consider powerpop (or guitar pop, if you prefer). Fans of the genre will recognize some of the names as exemplars of the genre; the artists you don’t know create music of a very high standard as well.

Lazy Lions – When Dreaming Lets You Down…
With a sound that suggests a more pop-flavored Smithereens (or an American Rockpile), this Brooklyn (NYC) quartet adds a few unexpected ingredients to the mix: female vocals (bassist Anne-Marie Stehn) and combo organ. Rather than playing full-on, the group favors a more finely textured approach that gives the songs room to breathe. The disc includes twelve memorable melodies, most of which feel familiar without overtly quoting anyone else. With a different vocalist (not that they need one, but one can imagine Jim Allen singing c&w), any of the songs would have fit nicely on the That Thing You Do! soundtrack.

The Rubinoos – 45
These guys are true believers in the power of pop. And the title of their latest album is a reminder that the Berkeley-based group has been at it for 45 years. In a just world, The Rubinoos would have made the big time; instead, they’re known primarily to powerpop fanatics. That’s a shame, because four and a half decades on, they’re crafting winning tunes as endearing as anything they’ve done before. Fantastic harmonies and a preternatural knack for creating wonderful earworms are hallmarks of the Rubinoos approach. There’s a warm, inviting vibe throughout this album; it’s polished without being slick.

The Grip Weeds – How I Won the War
Another group that has kept the powerpop fire burning, The Grip Weeds favor an approach that recalls The Who (Pete Townshend is often credited with coining the term powerpop) and The Kinks. Finally getting ’round to the most obvious of album titles, The Grip Weeds have another winner on their hands. With a perfect balance of creamy (and often intricate) vocal harmonies and heavy power chording, the New Jersey group’s latest shows that 27 years after their debut, they still have plenty to say musically. If anything, they’re getting better with age; when they want to, they rock quite hard.

Dwight Twilley – Always
Since the mid 1970s, this Tulsa, Oklahoma-born singer-guitarist has been plying his trade. Though his “I’m on Fire” is a stone classic of the genre, Twilley has rarely seen much in the way of commercial success. In 2015 he shows that his skill at crafting pop gems remains sharp. While he’s clearly the star of his own album, the list of musicians involved reads like a powerpop who’s who, with Cowsills and Posies, members of Let’s Active and 20/20 playing alongside Tommy Keene and Leland Sklar. In a clever bit of self-referencing, the title track quotes his famous 1976 single.

Various – Power Pop Planet Volume 4
Powerpop fans know the name Bruce Brodeen. Founder of legendary label NotLame, Brodeen was at the vanguard of the genre’s 1990s renaissance, right alongside Jordan Oakes and a select few others. While NotLame is long gone now, Brodeen remains active. This fourth in an ongoing series picks up the baton that Oakes launched with his own Yellow Pills compilation series. As always, your individual taste might mean you dislike a few of the 34 bands (and 34 songs) on this 2CD set, but most of it is excellent, upbeat pop that will remind you of everything you love about powerpop. [BUY]

More to come.

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Album Review: Todd Rundgren — At the BBC 1972-1982

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Several years back, Todd Rundgren took a proactive approach to the myriad live recordings that exist documenting his long and varied career. A true renaissance man who engenders fierce loyalty in his fan base, Rundgren may still be a “cult artist,” but he’s one of the most well-documented ones. For many years (during the tape- and CD-trading era) a surprisingly large network of Rundgren fans recorded, collected, cleaned-up and traded recordings of nearly every show the man ever did. So there’s a massive list of live shows dating back to the very early 1970s, and including Rundgren’s various guises: solo artist, member of the early progressive-phase Utopia, member of the more pop-leaning Utopia lineup, collaborator with Bourgeois Tagg, Hello People, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson and many others…on and on.

But there aren’t just audience bootlegs out there. From his earliest post-Nazz days, Rundgren has appreciated and embraced television and radio performances as a means for reaching potential fans. As such, there are “board tapes” and/or professionally recorded documents of pretty much every tour he’s ever done. And as he sought to have the best among these released officially, the trading market has somewhat died down (by and large, Rundgren’s fans are an ethical lot; they want him to profit from his work).

The latest entry in the “Todd Rundgren Archive Series” is a near-comprehensive collection of his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the BBC 1972-1982 is a 3CD + 1 DVD set documenting four concerts (three in audio, one audiovisually) and various other related bits and bobs.

The first disc showcases an early solo gig Rundgren did for BBC’s Radio One. An excellent quality mono recording from 1972 finds Rundgren at the piano, using backing tapes to accompany himself. An experienced studio rat even then, he created “karaoke” versions of his hits, allowing him to present them in a live onstage manner that combined the precision and arrangement of a recording with the spontaneity of a live show. Of course such an approach is old-hat now, and has been since the dawn of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a digital means of syncing multiple sounds sequences. But in 1972 it was innovative stuff.

Even with the confining nature of the backing tapes, Rundgren delivers an off-the-cuff, intimate performance, most notably on the Something/Anything? tune “Piss Aaron.” Few would count the tune among Rundgren’s best, but his onstage delivery of it is undeniably entertaining. And the inclusion of “Be Nice to Me” from his early album The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a rare and welcome delight. Rundgren even rocks out at the end, turning in a performance of “Black Maria.”

The first disc also includes two songs from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program(me). These feature the seven-piece Utopia in 1975, performing “Real Man” from his solo album Initiation) and “The Seven Rays,” a highlight of the Utopia Another Live LP (The package’s DVD also features a/v versions of these same two performances).

Speaking of Another Live, the second disc of At the BBC 1972-1982 is similar but expands upon the content of that set. Utopia’s set of the time (1975) included material from Rundgren’s solo albums in addition to their own songs. The BBC disc features a full concert (or at least something approaching one) in excellent stereo, and as such includes songs that weren’t on the single LP Another Live set (recorded elsewhere). Rundgren introduces “Freedom Fighters” as “the first Utopia single” that was never released. The studio version of the tune was on the group’s debut LP; at nearly six minutes, the live reading here is nearly half again as long as its studio version. Live versions of “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” showed up on other Rundgren albums (Back to the Bars and Todd, respectively), but here they’re presented in the context of a full Utopia concert. And “Sunset Boulevard / Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard / A True Star hasn’t been released in a live version before (possibly excepting other archival releases), and it’s a highlight of this set.

By 1977 and time of the Utopia Radio One “In Concert” set documented on disc three, Utopia had pared down to a foursome: Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizer, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and Kasim Sulton replacing John Siegler on bass (“all four boys sing,” as they say). Touring to promote both the transitional album Ra and the more mainstream-rock oriented Oops! Wrong Planet, the group performed newer material from those albums, with a quick dip into Rundgren’s solo catalog (“Love of the Common Man” from Faithful) and the set closer “Utopia Theme.” The tighter, compact lineup meant an emphasis upon shorter, more concise songs, but the band still stretches out instrumentally on some longer pieces.

As previously mentioned, the fourth disc in the At the BBC 1972-1982 box set is a DVD. All three sets included are sourced from the TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. The first (mentioned above) features two songs from a 1975 broadcast. The second (from May 1978” documents “The Bearsville Picnic” (the Albert Grossman-headed Bearsville Records was Todd’s and Utopia’s label at the time) and features the extended “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” from the proggy Ra album.

And the final set of performances on this set brings things full circle in a way, featuring Todd solo in 1982, this time without the gimmicky backing as he winds his way through a solo material set. The performance – featuring Todd variously on acoustic piano and 12-strong acoustic guitar, and even electric “Fool” Gibson SG on “Tiny Demons” – highlights songs from his Hermit of Mink Hollow LP, and includes the innovative “Time Heals” promo video, one of the earliest clips ever broadcast on MTV (the cable channel had premiered the previous fall). Two songs are included that were recorded but cut from the original broadcast: “The Song of the Viking” (originally on Something/Anything?) and “Lysistrata” (a full group performance of which could be found on Utopia’s Swing to the Right album). His reading of “Compassion” (one of his best but least-known songs) is a highlight. Because of the vintage of the video material, it is presented in old format (4:3 ratio) as it was originally broadcast.

Each of the four discs is encased in a mini-LP style sleeve, and the whole affair is in a box slightly larger than a double-CD. A sixteen-page booklet includes photos and an informative essay by Mark Powell.

Taken as a whole, At the BBC 1972-1982 is essential for the Rundgren fan who must have it all, and recommended equally to the relative novitiate looking for an entry point into Rundgren and Utopia’s large catalog.

You may also enjoy: my career-spanning critical look at all of Todd Rundgren’s output (now quite outdated, but worthwhile nonetheless).

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