Archive for the ‘powerpop’ Category

Book Review: Power Pop Prime, Vol. 3

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Powerpop fans are in some ways like metal fans. They – or shall I say we – are hardcore fanatics of a narrow slice of the pop music spectrum, and the rest of the world looks on wondering what the fuss is all about: “What’s the appeal?”

I come here today not to try to win you over as to the joys of powerpop. (Well, maybe I do, but, whatever.) Instead I’d like to talk about a new book – third in a series, in fact – titled Power Pop Prime Vol. 3, 2000-2001 – A Pop Geeks’ Guide to Awesome: The Not Lame Years. (For our purposes, let’s call it PPP3.)

Written (or, more accurately: written, compiled and edited) by Bruce Brodeen, the new book is an idiosyncratic compendium of writings on the subject of, well, you guessed it. As with the first two entries in this ongoing series, PPP3 collects essays, interviews and reviews and adds in scanned images of all the NotLame catalogs Brodeen created and mailed back in the day. For the uninitiated, NotLame was a one-man label run by Brodeen, with the express mission of bringing worthy powerpop to the masses.

Okay, not the masses: more like the committed few. And I was one of those. Starting in the mid 1990s, those photocopied catalogs would show up in my mailbox every now and then, and while I only occasionally placed an order (online ordering was still in its infancy, and many of us had 14.4 kbps dial-up modems), I always enjoyed reading through the richly verbose catalogs.

In those catalogs, Brodeen would go on endlessly (or so it seemed) about the sublime joys of some or other unknown powerpop group. I recall thinking, “Wow. They can’t all be as good as he claims.” And in fact they weren’t. Some were hopelessly ordinary, despite Brodeen’s charming application of more superlatives than one might think possible. If I was hardcore (and I was/am) then Brodeen was whatever the hardcore-to-an-exponential-power would be.

Fully half of PPP3 is (again, like previous and future volumes) pages filled with generally high-resolution copies of those catalogs. And since they were really more than catalogs – think if them instead as huge treasure troves of mini-reviews – they do make worthwhile reading. Brodeen did indeed champion some really fine stuff that might otherwise have gone even more unnoticed than it did. For those who enjoyed the mail order catalogs but didn’t archive them for future reading, PPP3 and its companions are a delightful trip down powerpop memory lane.

But it’s the first half of the book that holds the wider appeal. Yes, the subject is and remains powerpop (if you’ve read this far and need a genre definition, think of it as hard-rocking, highly hooky-filled and melodic music, generally delivered in bursts of three to four minutes). But the first half contains some excellent sections on overlooked albums, artists and compilations. Certainly the lists betray the bias of their author, which is of course fine. And Brodeen is quite opinionated; as a critic (which he is, along with being a collector, writer, etc.), he should be. What this means is that he argues in favor of Owsley‘s second album The Hard Way as his best; I, on the other hand, find it lacking in hooks, and inferior in most every way to the man’s debut album. But that’s just inside-baseball quibbling. Brodeen does spotlight what is for me one of the criminally overlooked albums of the aughts (2000-2009), Starling Electric‘s Clouded Staircase. It’s essential listening for anyone who likes Pet Sounds, Guided by Voices and Teenage Fanclub: in fact it sounds like the nexus of all three.

Earlier editions in the PPP series were heavy on interviews, but those were less than they could be because they were straight transcriptions of email interviews. The same set of questions is posited to each artist, followed by the answers. A bit of editing – a skill at which Brodeen excels – could have made these more readable. Here in PPP3, however, there’s but one extended interview, and it’s with David Bash, founder/curator of the International Pop Overthrow festival series. It’s a fascinating conversation, and PPP3 is much stronger for including it rather than a pile of the canned interviews.

The market for books such as PPP3 is admittedly narrow, but for those who have been hipped to the joys of powerpop, it’s absolutely essential reading. But be warned: spend time leafing through it, and you’ll end up with a want-list that will almost certainly include some out-of-print music you won’t be able to find. Such is the fate of far too much great music in the powerpop genre.

Note: Vols. 1, 2, 7 and 9(!) in the Power Pop Prime series have already been published. The first two are sold out / out of print. Wait and you might miss out. Order here and nowhere else.

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Album Review: The Grip Weeds – Inner Grooves

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Longtime fans of The Who may agree that despite its piecemeal nature, Odds and Sods ranks among their best efforts. Freed from the constraints of a unifying thematic approach, that album instead collected a bunch of excellent songs that hadn’t gotten the attention they deserved upon original release.

And that’s the approach employed by The Grip Weeds on this new collection of eleven tracks. All the trademark Grip Weeds elements are in place throughout this record (subtitled “Rare and Under-released Tracks”). You’ll find soaring close vocal harmonies, shimmering, power-corded guitar riffage, and kinetic drum work. Right out of the gate, the band delivers “Rainy Day #1 and #2, as much a pop classic as they’ve ever done. And the full version of the exploratory “Sun Ra Ga” mentioned in this 2011 interview with the band’s Kurt Reil finally makes a CD appearance. The unplugged-style “Every Minute” proves yet again that The Grip Weeds are served equally well when dialing down the intensity as when rocking out. That’s also true on the alternate version of “Love’s Lost On You,” but Grip Weeds fans will need both versions (the other’s on 2001′s Summer of a Thousand Years).

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule last week and this week – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you – my posts will be a bit shorter than typical. Once the dust settles, my normal wordy posting will recommence.

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Album Review: American Professionals — We Make It Our Business

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Opinions vary – they’re in fact quote polarized on the issue – but people seem to either love or hate powerpop. While at its worst, it’s weak and derivative, at its best, powerpop expresses a sort of exuberance that few other types of music can communicate.

When it’s insipid, it suffers from being what the British call twee: excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental. But when it goes the other way: muscular and oftentimes lyrically clever and even sarcastic – it’s a thrill. Cheap Trick is an exemplar of the latter, as are many of the tracks on Jordan OakesYellow Pills compilations (find ‘em if you can), most notably The Critics‘ “You Can’t Lie” on YP Volume 1.

Now, honestly, when We Make It Our Business arrived in my mail several weeks ago, I was fooled: I honestly thought it was a data CD from one of my clients (in my “spare time” I’m a marketing consultant and web designer). The oh-so-business logo and monochrome globe image, coupled with the track list disguised as sales-chart-graphic threw me. The band name: American Professionals (shortened to AMPROS on the digipak)…well, that offered few clues itself.

But when I popped the CD into the player, I realized the We Make It Our Business is that rarest of creatures: a fully-executed album, from start to finish. It’s a powerpop album – often a smart-alecky one – disguised as corporate marketing materials. If that makes some of my readers of a certain age think of Completion Backward Principle by The Tubes, well, we’re on the same page in our annual report.

The music is first-rate. Crunchy guitar riffage, thundering bass, and Adam White‘s assured, smash-n-crash drums all support the driving tunes. If there’s a formula at work here, it’s a solid one: strong lead vocals, tight, soaring harmonies on the choruses, and memorable hooks throughout. Guitarist Chuck Lindo‘s lead vocals remind me just a bit of Van Temple of The Producers, but the fact that AMPROS have a female bassist (Cheryl Hendrickson) with a great voice expands their vocal range manifold. The vocal harmony parts twist around each other like snakes on a caduceus. While there’s judiciously applied fret buzz and distortion, the songs are sleek and streamlined.

And when AMPROS briefly go melancholy and midtempo — as on the lovely “The Mist” — they’re every bit as wonderful.

Simply put, there are no weak tunes on We Make It Our Business. Contenders for best and/or representative might be “Dr Holly” or “Champion” or “The Way It Goes,” but if you like one, you’ll like ‘em all (which is most definitely not to imply that the songs are similar or run together).

We Make It Our Business is one of those albums that makes this listener hope that there’s a follow-up, and soon. Essential.

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Album Review: Various — The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter Vol. 1

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The history of rock’n’roll is littered with artists who — for one reason or another – never quite got their due. Del Shannon is on that list. Best known as the man who gave the world the 1961 hit “Runaway,” he also achieved permanent trivia question-fodder status as the first American to cover a Beatles song on record, “From Me to You.” Shannon’s version actually hit the charts before the original did so.

Shannon enjoyed several hits (albeit mostly in the lower reaches of the charts) in the period 1961-67, and then faded from view for many years, due in large part to his alcoholism. Newly sober by the 80s, he enjoyed a brief return to prominence when the now-cult-status TV show Crime Story used “Runaway” as its theme song. Though he was mooted to replace Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, that never came to pass. A lifelong sufferer of depression, Shannon took his own life in 1990.

His influence has persisted, though, and a new tribute album (with the hopeful subtitle “Volume 1”) is titled The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter. As the title suggests, this sixteen-track CD focuses on Shannon’s original works. A who’s who of powerpop and established-indie acts participated in this nonprofit, with proceeds going to the Del Shannon Memorial Scholarship Fund in Coopersville MI, the town in which Shannon grew up.

Kelley Ryan’s reading of “Drop Down and Get Me” has a pop-country (in the best way) feel that’s reminiscent of Jackie DeShannon or Marti Jones (the latter of whom also has a cut on this set). Her arrangement completely removes anything that would peg the obscure song as having been written decades ago.

Randy Bachman’s version of “Runaway” wisely steers clear of the original arrangement; instead, it’s a breezy, acoustic flavored tune that sounds like a modern number as well. Son Tal Bachman (who did “She’s So High” in 1999 and then all but disappeared) assists. The tune has a toes-in-the sand, cocktail-in-hand vibe.

Pixies singer/guitarist Frank Black turns in a dark, moody interpretation of “Sister Isabelle.” Like most of the artists on this collection, he makes the song his own. It’s a testament to Shannon’s songwriting skills that these songs nearly all up sounding like originals; his song construction allows each artist to sculpt the songs to their own aesthetic.

While Marshall Crenshaw is an esteemed songwriter himself, he often records thoughtfully-chosen covers. “The House Where Nobody Lives” is catchy, with subtle flavorings of Vox organ. The result sounds not wholly unlike a laid-back version of “Runaway” (it shares a similar structure and chord pattern).

Dave Smalley will be familiar to powerpop fans thanks to his work with The Choir (“It’s Cold Outside”) and The Raspberries. But the country flavor with which he imbues “Restless” might come as a surprise. It sounds more like something The Eagles (or Against the Wind era Bob Seger) might do.

The aforementioned Marti Jones turn in a two-step countrified “You Still Live Here.” Her clear-as-a-bell voice shines through on this old-fashioned weeper.

Back in the 90s, Nash Kato was one-third of Chicago scenesters Urge Overkill (that band is back together, sources say). A feedback-drenched high lonesome reading of “Silver Birch” continues in the countrified style that pervades this record.

Carla Olson and Peter Case pick things up with the ebullient “Keep Searchin’,” with all of the energy – albeit in acoustic fashion – one finds on Plimsouls records. Yes, it’ll probably remind you of “Runaway,” but it’s great anyway.

The Brittanicas are an American/Australian act (yup, technology allow such things) that have been covered in this blog before. Guitarist Joe Algeri (working as The JAC)’s latest EP Love Dumb is well worth seeking out. Here they tackle I Got You,” a melancholy number that’s well suited to their jangling approach.

I first met my pal Patrick Potts at 2012’s Americana Music Fest, while together we enjoyed the tribute to a band we both love, Big Star. So it’s no surprise that Patrick’s band The Drysdales takes on a chiming, catchy number like “I Go To Pieces,” one of the strongest tracks on this entire disc. Listen for a brief yet tasty guitar solo, and lots of George Harrison-esque rhythm guitar work.

I’m totally unfamiliar with husband-and-wife duo StayStillPills, but this Irish band’s take on the riffy rocker “Move it on Over” (a cowrite with Dennis Coffey) is another contender for the album’s best cut. Note to self: find out more about this act.

Joe Glickman & the Zippity Doo Wop Band are equally unknown to me. Their yakety-sax version of “So Long Baby” is gimmicky and retro; they sound like a cross between They Might Be Giants and Sha Na Na. Tracks like this are why the “skip” button was invented. The track is redeemed – if only slightly – by the participation of Max Crook, Musitron player on the original “Runaway.”

Lovely electric 12-string adorns Richard Snow’s cover of “Over You.” Snow played and engineered every sound heard on the track.

The Rubinoos take a retro approach to “Hats Off To Larry,” but in their capable hands, the backward-looking approach works. The tune is a joyous, fun-filled couple of minutes, featuring the par excellence vocals of Jon Rubin, and a tasty horn section. And though it might seem a bit odd, the drum throne is ably filled on this track by Nick D’Virgilio, former drummer/lead singer for America’s best prog band, Spock’s Beard.

Overlord is the third totally-unknown-to-me act on this set. They turn in a gentle, Merseybeat flavored cover of Del Shannon’s “Kelly.” While everything about the tune is well done, it’s the vocal harmonies that truly excel.

Pop auteur Don Dixon wraps up the disc with “Distant Ghost.” The subtle, midtempo number ends the album on a suitably melancholy note.

The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter (Volume 1) is a belated sampler of the underappreciated songwriting talents of this American artist, as interpreted by an excellent collection of sympathetic acts influenced by him. Recommended.

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Hundred-word Reviews: New Rock/pop

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

More albums that deserve your time, but that I haven’t the time nor space to cover in a more in-depth fashion.

Levin Minnemann Rudess – s/t
This project brings together three of the busiest, most in-demand players on the scene today. Tony Levin (King Crimson) has played on literally thousands of sessions. Marco Minnemann is a sought-after percussionist who has lent his expertise to numerous projects. Jordan Rudess is the keyboard player in Dream Theater. So, yes, this is a prog album, of the most kinetic and imposing kind. The dizzying lead lines often suggest the presence of guitar where there is one. Uber-heavy, but also rooted in a high level of tunefulness. If you dig previous work by any of these men, you’ll dig this.

The Well Wishers – Dunwoody (EP)
The provenance of this EP’s title is a bit strange to me, seeing as I lived in the place called Dunwoody (Georgia) from 1972 to 1988. The disc’s connection to Dunwoody isn’t made clear, but I do know that these five tunes by Jeff Shelton – who is The Well Wishers – are fresh, breezy, Southern-flavored jangle pop, a bit like Pure Prairie League crossed with R.E.M. The tunes lean more upon acoustic guitar than the lion’s share of Shelton’s previous recorded output; the disc gets more rock-flavored as it goes along, pulling back to the all-acoustic closer “Butterflies.”

Matt Boroff – Sweet Hand of Fate
The music here is nearly as dark as the album cover. Boroff plays nearly everything, enlisting occasional guests on some tracks. This record is moody, atmospheric and has the feel of a concept album, regardless of whether it is one or not. Plenty of artists have crafted one-man bands; few have come up with something that sounds as unified and coherent as this. Bits of The Church and Soundgarden seem to inform his work, and it’s full of hypnotic beats that bubble under soaring, feedback-drenched guitar lines. Did I mention that Sweet Hand of Fate is moody? Well, it is.

Kate Tucker + The Sons of Sweden – The Shape The Color The Feel
Part of – the basis of, in fact – an ambitious multimedia project, The Shape The Color The Feel is a collection of catchy midtempo pieces. The songs really do scream out for video interpretations; I haven’t seen any of the clips, but I suspect that tracking shot over an expanse of sea with a grey sky would figure largely in the presentation. Press for the album focuses on the videos (not included as part of the album package) but the ten tracks stand on their own, with an approach redolent of A Camp and underrated 80s band Wire Train.

Sam Phillips – Push Any Button
This Californian creates music that steadfastly refuses to be categorized; on this, her ninth album, she self-produces the nine tracks, her first collection of new material since 2008 (an eternity in the music business). Nominally a singer/songwriter, but that’s only because she sings and writes songs. There’s a sonic connection between her work and other edgy/fascinating female artists (see also: Suzanne Vega, Marti Jones, Aimee Mann), but she never sounds like anyone besides herself. The tunes are intentionally timeless; they neither evoke the past nor suggest the present; they simply are. Heavy friends help, but it’s resolutely Phillips’ show. Recommended.

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Clearing the Backlog: Ten Micro-reviews

Friday, December 6th, 2013

As the end of 2013 closes in, I look at my inbox and see a massive stack of CDs. Best as I try, I don’t always follow a first-in/first-out policy with regard to covering releases I find worthy. And while my occasional capsule reviews do help reduce the pile of CD on my desk, today I realize that more drastic measure are necessary. Each of the following albums deserves more space than I’m about to give, but waiting until I have time and space would likely mean that some never get covered at all. So instead, I give you some exceedingly brief (50-word) reviews, with the additional comment applicable to all: these are worth hearing. All feature new music for 2013.

Pete Anderson – Birds Above Guitarland
Loping electrified blues with feeling. Tasty electric guitar licks (hints of c&w among the blooze) with soulful, greasy backing by a crack team, compete with horn section and Wurlitzer electric piano (almost always a good thing). Anderson can sing, too. Delaney and Bonnie‘s daughter Bekka Bramlett guests on one track.

Nathan Angelo – Out of the Blue
Neo-soul, Motown revival…whatever you care to label it, the funky sounds of Angelo’s debut are fetching indeed. Album opener “Get Back” (not the Beatles classic) is perhaps little more than a rewrite of The Jackson 5ive‘s “I Want You Back,” but it’s still fun. For fans of Mayer Hawthorne.

Chris Biesterfeldt – Urban Mandolin
I’m all in favor of outside-the-box musical approaches. And I believe this one certainly qualifies: a jazz trio led by a mandolin player. He charges his way through reinventions from among the best – Charlie Parker bebop, the soul-jazz of Jimmy Smith, the fusion of Chick Corea, even Frank Zappa.

The Bottle Kids – Such a Thrill
This isn’t a “they,” it’s “him.” Eric Blakely is the latest in a long line of powerpop do-it-all auteurs, and he knows his way around a Beatlesque hook. Harmonies meet guitar crunch and the result is as good as the genre gets. He sounds like a “them.”

Hickoids – Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit
The title has nothing to do with Harry Chapin (the king of maudlin), thank goodness. Instead, this is a comedy-leaning meat’n'potatoes rock album. Jeff Smith roars while the band spits out licks behind him. The production is on the homespun side, but that fits the loose vibe of the music.

The Nomads – Solna (Loaded Deluxe Edition)
Who would have ever predicted that in the 21st century, uncompromising punk rock would be made by middle aged guys? Guys from Sweden, no less, the land of ABBA. Anyone who digs no-bullshit rock (see: Smithereens, Sex Pistols) will get a charge out of this. It’s also available on vinyl.

Third of Never – Downrising
Arena-sized riff rockage with soaring harmonies and fret buzz, but without all the trappings of strutting rock-star poseurs. Kurt Reil (The Grip Weeds) does this outfit as a side project. Kindred spirits Dennis Diken (Smithereens) and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (The ‘Oo) guest, but it’s great at its core anyway.

Pat Todd & the Rankoutsiders – 14th & Nowhere
Familiar chord progressions delivered in a spirited, barroom-brawl country-rock style. Fifteen songs, zero bullshit. Sample/representative song title: “Small Town Rock Ain’t Dead.” Guitars, guitars and more guitars (and hardly any keyboards). Earle Mankey pops up on banjo(!) Infectious and fun, this will delight fans of Jason & the Scorchers.

Vegas With Randolph – Rings Around the Sun
In reviewing their last album (Above the Blue) I made comparisons to Fountains of Wayne; this time out VWR have asserted a bit more of their own identity. It’s still catchy, intelligent and slightly adventurous powerpop, with a slightly harder edge. Maybe the Seattle recording studio helped conjure that vibe.

Steve Weinstein – Last Free Man
Reading the press kit I learned that Weinstein is both a philosopher and physicist, and that the album includes protests against our modern surveillance society. None of which I found especially appetizing propositions, so I was surprised to find a tuneful, friendly album in an earnest, heartland Tom Petty mode.

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Album Review: Jellyfish — Radio Jellyfish

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

It’s pointless (not to mention plain wrong) to argue against the assertion that the “unplugged” concept had played itself out by the middle of the 1990s. But the format – originally devised (with others) by Jules Shear – was itself a good one: stripped-down, intimate live performances of rock songs. That concept was oft-abused and just plain overused, and the resulting product often added little to listeners’ understanding and appreciation of the music.

But there were exceptions. And though baroque/powerpop act Jellyfish never in fact appeared on the television program MTV Unplugged, they would make use of the presentation style in a few radio performances during their time together.

In many ways, Jellyfish were perfectly suited for the unplugged format. Most who had heard the finely-wrought arrangements on their pair of studio albums (Bellybutton in 1990 and Spilt Milk in 1993) could be forgiven for thinking that the band were a bunch of studio rats a la Steely Dan or Alan Parsons Project, and that those intricate (but not-quite-fussy) arrangements could never be successfully translated to a live setting (see: Queen Live Killers). But that was not the case: the band’s co-leaders Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning were dynamic and spot-on during the band’s relatively few live shows.

And so it was in 1993 that Jellyfish found themselves doing a number of unplugged-style radio dates. Tracks from two of these, in Holland and Australia, make up the new ten-track Radio Jellyfish. And in addition to proving that they could play the songs live in the unplugged format, Jellyfish illustrated just how strong the tunes themselves were (and remain).

Running through an essentially best-of list of tracks from the two albums, the band also served up a pair of ace covers. The Move‘s “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” is no easy tune to cover; not only does Jellyfish nail it, they reinvent the tail-end of the song, effectively making it their own. And even without thunderous bass lines and electric guitars, the song remains powerful, if a bit less psychedelic than the original version.

Newcomer and former Producers bassist Tim Smith plays acoustic guitar on the set, as does Roger’s brother Chris, who had been brought into the band specifically for the ’93 tour Eric Dover, who had replaced the departed Chris Manning*.  Sturmer – normally the band’s drummer – sticks to vocals here, while Manning plays mostly acoustic percussion (instead of his customary bank of keyboards). But again: even without the electronics, the band shines. Badfinger‘s “No Matter What” was a highlight of the band’s live shows, and it too is delivered in spirited fashion on Radio Jellyfish.

Only the Move cover tune has been released before; as a teaser of what the band could do acoustically, it was a highlight of the 4CD (out of print and hard to obtain) Fan Club set from years ago. The remainder of these tracks are appearing on CD (and vinyl!) for the first time when this set hits the street on December 10.

It would have been nicer if the set had gone on a bit longer: at ten tracks, Radio Jellyfish is a bit on the short side. But with a catalog that initially counted a mere two albums, the latter-day Jellyfish post-breakup releases are to be treasured…no matter what.

* My apologies for initially getting this wrong. — bk

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Album Review: The Paley Brothers — The Complete Recordings

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

File these guys under Music You Probably Missed. Chalk it up to record execs not knowing exactly what to do with The Paley Brothers, or perhaps assign some of the blame to the artists themselves for not fitting neatly into a “box” as the record business demanded (and demands) of recording artists.

Whatever the reason, The Paley Brothers (Andy and Jonathan) would release but one long-playing album for Sire (1978′s cleverly-titled Paley Brothers) and then fade into obscurity. But that album was a real cracker, as was the cache of material they recorded before and after.

But even the hardest of hardcore powerpop fanatics weren’t all fully aware of The Paley Brothers. My first exposure to them was within the pages of The New Music, an excellent (if now charmingly dated) 1980 survey of new wave and cutting-edge musical acts penned by renowned music journalist/critics Glenn A. Baker and Stuart Coupe. Granted a full column in the book, The Paley Brothers’ history is laid out in potted fashion, and the authors make it clear that their album (“produced by Earle Mankey, an original member of Sparks”) is worthwhile.

But in those days I never heard their music, never stumbled across Paley Brothers in new or used record bins.

My second exposure to the duo was many years later, when I discovered their delightful 1976 single “Come Out and Play,” the title track on Rhino’s Come Out and Play: American Power Pop I (1975-1978) compilation. With an infectious vibe that was equal parts distilled Beatles influence and bubblegum, it hit the sweet spot (if not the top of the charts).

But that was it, until now. But the intrepid archivists at Real Gone Music have compiled all available Paley Brothers recordings onto a jam-packed 26-track CD called The Complete Recordings. And it’s exactly that: the entire contents of the Sire LP, plus a Sire EP titled Ecstasy, plus well more than a dozen other compilation-only or previously-unreleased tunes. There’s even a live cut from 1978, “Felicia,” recorded at Madison Square Garden when the Paleys opened for Shaun Cassidy.

Yes, you read that right: Shaun Cassidy. And that little fact may help to explain the situation within which The Paley Brothers found themselves. They were signed to a label hip enough to include The Ramones and Talking Heads, but bubblegum-sounding enough to earn (or “earn”) a slot as openers for the twee teen idol of the month.

The thing is, The Paley Brothers actually were – if not all things to all people – successful in both hip-quotient and candy-coated goodness. When they rocked hard, they rocked hard. When they took it a little softer, it worked, too. The brothers (who penned nearly all of their own material, with the odd cover such as Tommy Roe‘s “Sheila” thrown in now and again) were adept at writing hooky, catchy tunes, and they paid attention in the studio as well. Andy would go on to become an in-demand producer and writer, working extensively with Brian Wilson (there’s a huge cache of unreleased material from those sessions) and most recently, co-writing the latest single from Charleston’s wonderful Explorers Club.

The Complete Recordings even includes a track from their (surprise!) abortive sessions with Phil Spector, and an odd little ditty, a cover of “Theme From Fireball X-L5.” The previously unreleased material holds its own alongside the Sire material. While powerpop never made the inroads its adherents had hoped, the highly-regarded (among those in the know, anyway) body of work from The Paley Brothers is highly recommended, and RGM has made discovering it easy.

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Album Review: The Bye Bye Blackbirds — We Need the Rain

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Since getting into this whole Musoscribe racket, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon when it comes to that rock genre known as powerpop. Specifically, when some of its most celebrated practitioners – I’m not naming names, but suffice to say these are people I’ve interviewed – are confronted with the idea that they play powerpop, they react in a manner less than enthusiastic. Perhaps they recoil; maybe they change the subject; maybe they protest that what they do is actually better called something else. But to a man, these artists – and I can think of three without trying – seem wholly uncomfortable with the term powerpop, and if they wear the crown at all, they do so reluctantly.

In a sense, it’s easy to understand why. To its detractors, powerpop is a shamelessly derivative substyle. Within rock history, it’s a kind of music that was and is often championed by rock writers (go figure) but one that enjoys relatively little as far as commercial success. Its most successful exponents are all held in high regard by fanatic types (your humble writer among them), but all were flawed in some way that prevented larger acceptance. So while Big Star, The Raspberries, Badfinger and Blue Ash made (arguably) some of the best music of their era, they did so either without honor at the time (Raspberries and Blue Ash) or at great personal cost (Big Star and Badfinger). And it’s worth noting that all of those acts released their prime material in the first half of the 1970s, a period that – need we be reminded – occurred some forty years ago.

With all that baggage, it’s little surprise that modern bands are often loath to accept the powerpop label. But the fact remains that when it’s done well, the style yields some music that combines emotional punch with the visceral punch of a memorable riff. But thank goodness some artists embrace the label.

What brings all of this to mind once again is the new album We Need the Rain by The Bye Bye Blackbirds. This Oakland aggregation hits all the right notes on their fourth collection of songs.

Yes, the requisite components are present: chiming guitars, ear candy hooks, punchy guitar riffage, tight vocal harmonies. But as ever, none of those qualities matter a bit if they’re not built into solid songs. Ten songs might not seem like a lot, and it isn’t unless you’re a prog outfit (which The Bye Bye Blackbirds most certainly are not). But if one values quality over quantity, then one can’t go wrong with We Need the Rain. From the loose snare intro of the glammy, anthemic “All in Light,” the band makes it clear they have not only the ingredients but a winning recipe. And while they do earn the “derivative” epithet thanks to the Rolling Stones nick of the opening strains on “Don’t Come Back Now,” in the end they deliver an original tune, one that has more in common overall with The Records (Crashes era) than “Honky Tonk Women.” And with its great riff, “Waiting for the Drums” – like all the tracks on this album written or co-written by Bradley Skaught – transcends heights so lofty that it’s the equal of the best work The Spongetones ever turned out, and that’s saying quite a lot. What’s more, the tune combines that tuneful appeal with the good-natured aggression of The Smithereens.

Interestingly, when The Bye Bye Blackbirds venture outside their powerpop milieu, as they do on the straight-ahead rock of “Broad Daylight,” the results are mixed. Not a bad tune in any way, it merely pales in comparison to the other tunes on this overall high quality release. “Shook Down Softly” heads back in a timeless direction, with soaring, creamy harmonies atop a chunky riff. And in contrast to “Broad Daylight,” when the band tries its hand at a Neil Young and Crazy Horse flavored rocker (“Spin Your Stars”) it works quite well; save for Skaught’s distinctive and lovely vocals, it could be an outtake from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. In the end, it shows that The Bye Bye Blackbirds are a fine powerpop band who – if and when they choose to – can be more. We Need the Rain is likely to please both camps: those who want The Bye Bye Blackbirds to explore outside the lines, and those who simply love another example of the best powerpop has to offer.

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X Marks the Spot: The 2013 Richard X Heyman Interview, Part Two

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: You’ve long been one of those artists who can handle everything in the studio; other than Nancy engineering, most of your albums have featured you on nearly everything. But sometimes you’ve brought in other musicians. On X you’re back to playing and singing everything. What to you is the difference in the end product between doing it all yourself and bringing in some other players to work under your direction?

Richard X Heyman: A lot of it just comes down to pragmatic reasons, financial reasons. In my bedroom recording, I can play guitar and piano; I’ve already done the drums in the studio. With those drum tracks [already done], I’ll put down a scratch guitar part and a scratch keyboard, then do my vocals, pick up a guitar…next thing you know, the track is done. So, it’s like, “We don’t really need to bring anybody in.”

Lately, people who were brought in were string players or horn players.

BK: Another of the hallmarks of your work is the manner in which you layer soaring harmonies – things that in another context might seem baroque, like Pet Sounds era Beach Boys – on top of hard-rocking playing that has more in common with The Smithereens. “Compass” is a great example of this dynamic. Would you say that’s just happy coincidence, or has that been an explicit goal of yours all along?

RXH: It goes back to the saying, “Nothing’s created in a vacuum.” Go back to The Who‘s first album [The Who Sing My Generation] and you’re gonna hear that. Three-part baroque harmonies on top of rockin’ playing. It’s just a style tat I grew up with; I’m not creating anything new there. You have groups like The Byrds where the backing track wasn’t maybe quite as rocking, but you’ve still got that idea of this powerful rock band playing with these big harmonies on top. And of course it goes back to The Every Brothers and The Beatles‘ stuff, too.

BK: With “Firing Line,” you’re disproved the argument that all the great riffs have been done already. Did this song arise out of a riff, or did you write the song and then come up with a riff to layer on top of it?

RXH: I’ll tell you a story about that. I wrote that riff in about 1969. On piano. I had this song called “My Baby Sleeps With the Angels,” but I could never get the song to work. It was a good song, but I never was crazy about the whole thing. But it had that riff, a piano riff. So I tried for years to figure out what to do with this song, and I finally just gave up.

Eventually, I took the riff, transferred it to guitar, and, “Ah! This kind of fits with this song over here!” That’s how it happened. And it just happened to be in the right key.

BK: I bought the VHS tape of your music videos (X-Posures) several years ago. To my knowledge you’ve never reissued it on DVD. Is that something you’re considering?

RXH: Umm…if there was any sort of demand! I’m kinda waiting for something. (laughs) I’m glad when there’s a demand for anything I do; then I’ll take the proper action. Every now and then, people write to us and ask for a DVD, and we’ll physically make a copy of it ourselves, and send it to them.

BK: Several months ago – on one of the last episodes of NBC’s The Office, a warehouse worker had a copy of Hey Man! in his hand. I took a picture of the screen and posted it on Facebook. It was only there for a second, but I thought it fascinating that someone in the prop department (I assume) chose to give an actor a CD released in 1991. It was clearly no accident; it was done on purpose. This sort of encapsulates for me the idea that – like it or not – you’re something of a “cult artist.” How do you feel about that?

RXH: Well…that could be looked at as a euphemism…

BK: I don’t mean it as one…

RXH: I know you don’t but I’m just saying…in context, it could be like the old story of, “I am a cult artist” meaning not-very-popular.

Those kinds of things are just in the view of particular people who think that way; some people don’t think that way. See, it’s human nature to categorize. You listen to music, and your first reflective action is to ask yourself, who does it sound like? People just need some sort of reference point when they’re dealing with any sort of art at all: “What does this painting remind me of?” It’s just the way people think; I do it myself. But most of the time I don’t get the connection that some people say that I”m supposed to sound like. But I’ve heard all kinds of things.

BK: What are your plans if any for presenting the music of X in a live setting?

RXH: We haven’t really been pursuing the live thing. We’re doing a one-off show here in New York on October 4th [TONIGHT! – ed.]. It’s a Sirius XM radio broadcast called The Loft. I have my old band together, and we’re rehearsing for that show. We’ll debut a bunch of songs from the new album, and do a couple of the old ones. So if anybody’s in New York, that’s where we’ll be. Seven o’clock.

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