Album Review: Various Artists – Buttons: From Champaign to Chicago

Powerpop has always seemed to have its evangelists – the ones who shouted across the rooftops about the transcendent power of their chosen genre. Jordan Oakes was responsible for the (now highly-sought-after) Yellow Pills compilations; Bruce Brodeen ran the venerable Not Lame label – devoted almost wholly to powerpop – for a decade and a half – and these days Ray Gianchetti keeps the flame burning with his own Kool Kat Musik.

And powerpop has needed these boosters, because – for reasons that we hardcore powerpop lovers will go to our graves not comprehending – the music has rarely caught on in a big, big way in the marketplace. Sure, there have been the breakout successes: Badfinger, The Raspberries, The Knack, but overall powerpop has never ruled the airwaves. It came close to breaking through in the late 70s and then again in the mid 90s, and we hoped that one or another artist working in the style would make the big-big time, but whether it was Michael Penn or Matthew Sweet or Shoes, market dominance simply wasn’t to be. And we stood by, slack-jawed at the fact, saying to ourselves (or more rarely, to each other), “But this stuff is so catchy and…commercial!”

Certain cities or regions across the USA have become identified with particular styles. Whether it’s blues (Chicago, New Orleans), country (Nashville, Bakersfield) or prog (well, okay: I got nuthin’ there), there has often been a slightly regional characteristic to certain musical styles. And when it comes to powerpop, among the most fertile ground of all has seemed to be the sate of Illinois. Rockford’s Cheap Trick are far and away the state’s most high-profile act to come out of the powerpop idiom, but there have been countless others.

Numero Group, one of the current era’s most thoughtful and effective archivist/compilation labels, has mined this region’s music to bring us Buttons: From Champaign to Chicago, nineteen tracks of powerpop greatness from the lats 70s and early 80s. Buttons takes the listener back to a time when bands built their hooky songs on the proven two-guitars-bass-drum foundation (occasionally with a spot of keyboards), tight harmonies, earworm-quality hooks and straightforward, no-frills production values. And while a few of the bands on Buttons would enjoy some measure of success on a national level (well, not even a few: really only Zion-based Shoes), most of these bands toiled in relative obscurity. They might have been big in one or another Illinois town, but they didn’t make the big time.

Many of them deserved better, but since I’m one of those powerpop fanatics, I can be expected to argue that point. The fact remains that Buttons is filled with some wonderfully catchy music that the average listener hasn’t heard. Even to a fanatic such as myself, most of the band names are unfamiliar. I knew of The Vertebrats as the popwerpop band who played dance marathons in the 80s (I have a bootleg tape of part of one such performance), and I bought Shoes’ Present Tense on Elektra when it came out. (And I told myself, “Okay, now a powerpop band’s is gonna make the big time.” Spoiler alert: It was not to be.)

The result is that Buttons feels a bit like a powerpop answer to Lenny Kaye‘s Nuggets. It’s very much – by specific design – intended to pick up where Oakes left off in his Yellow Pills series. And like those pair of projects, Buttons is both historical document and damn-good-listen. There’s a delightful lack of pretense on tracks like the disc opener “I Wanna Make You!” by Prettyboys; only in powerpop would a band have the moxie to open a song with “ba da da da da.” And – typical of the genre – many of the tracks on Buttons have that haven’t-I-heard-this-before vibe; which isn’t to say that these songs rip off other songs; mostly, they don’t: there’s just that friendly familiarity that’s part and parcel of powerpop. And sometimes they rock very hard: in its last minute, The Names‘ “It’s a Miracle” punches as forcefully as anything Cheap Trick ever did. (To be fair, listeners will hear a lot of Trick-y characteristics in these songs. Maybe it’s something about Illinois, or maybe these bands thought that bending their arrangements in that direction was their key to success. No matter: these are good songs either way.

You’ll need your reading glasses to make sense of the liner notes rendered in five-point type, but your effort will yield great returns. From the introductory essay by Cary Baker (proud powerpop evangelist, former Creem writer, IRS and Capitol label exec and now head honcho at peerless music publicity outfit Conqueroo) to the detailed biographical backgrounders on each of the disc’s nineteen songs (each artist gets roughly 500-600 words), Buttons upholds Numero’s well-deserved reputation for doing things right. And since even the hardest of hardcore powerpop fans won’t have all of this music, Buttons is an essential purchase.

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