Album Review: 20/20 — 20/20 / Look Out!

Unless you were deeply immersed in the powerpop/new wave scene of the late 1970s and (very) early 1980s, you probably didn’t know about 20/20 during their initial heyday. (I wasn’t, and I didn’t. But I know people who were and who did. That counts, right?) This was the era of skinny ties, good haircuts, and bands (usually four-piece ones) playing high-energy songs with hooks and melodies. You could generally understand the words, the songs usually clocked in under four minutes, and there wasn’t a whole lot of Robert Plant-style preening going on.

20/20, like many bands in those days, relocated from their home (Tulsa OK, home of fellow powerpoppers Dwight Twilley and the late, great Phil Seymour) to Los Angeles in hopes of getting a record deal. They did, initially working with Greg Shaw and his Bomp! Label. When they hit the majors – on the strength of their single “Giving it All” b/w “Under the Freeway” and during a period that anyone who looked or sounded even remotely like The Knack got a deal – they landed on Portrait, a CBS subsidiary label.

20/20 recorded a pair of albums for the label: their 1979 self-titled debut long-player, and 1981’s Look Out! Then, unhappy with their treatment there, they left for Enigma. The liner notes suggest that the band had some second thoughts, but in retrospect it was probably a good call: Portrait soon underwent a major personnel shuffle, and some quality acts covering similar stylistic ground got kicked off the label (Atlanta powerpop group The Producers was one of these unlucky ones.) Of course Enigma didn’t last long either, but that’s another story.

Those cratedigging record nerds over at Real Gone Music have gotten a hold of the master tapes and combined the two Portrait era 20/20 albums onto a single CD, and (by using a single edit of one song) they even squeezed in a couple bonus tracks (I told you the songs didn’t run long.)

Unlike many of their contemporaries, 20/20 managed to incorporate keyboards into their sound without coming off all plastic. The opener of their debut, “The Sky is Falling,” is a short burst of what’s almost musique concrète; it’s impressive, but gives not a hint of what’s to come. The group’s closest thing to a hit, “Yellow Pills” didn’t burn its way up the charts, but it did go on to be an exemplar of the best the genre and era had on offer, and Jordan Oakes‘ four volumes of peerless powerpop compilations took their name from the song.

Most of the songs on the pair of Portrait albums were penned by the group’s founders, guitarist Steve Allen and bassist Ron Flynt. Using a songwriting approach that applied equal parts melodrama and punch, the group crafted a dozen winning songs for the debut album. The note-perfect (and very Beatlesque) harmony vocals on “Tell Me Why (Can’t Understand You)” are a highlight. Missteps are few: even the derivative, overly familiar melody of “Tonight We Fly” is redeemed by a spirited arrangement. The strong vocal arrangements elevate the already-excellent “She’s an Obsession” to an even higher place.

The story of the second album – covered in Stephen Schnee‘s informative liner note essay – is one familiar to anyone who’s followed rock acts. The band took longer to write it, and faced the dreaded “sophomore slump.” The accepted wisdom about the slump is this: you have your entire life to write the songs for album number one; you get a few weeks for the second one.

That said, Look Out! remains a fine album. Though it doesn’t quite scale the heights of the debut – personnel changes and the like having taken their predictable toll – it’s an effective collection. In fact, other than the somewhat darker lyrical tone (the band admits to as much in the liner notes of this compilation) the transition between albums is sonically imperceptible. Though the records had different producers (Earle Mankey for the debut, Richard Polodor for Look Out!) they sound very much of a piece, with a minimum of gimmickry. The song styles vary a bit more than on the debut, but all the tracks stay well inside the powerpop format.

“A Girl Like You” sounds more like some of the more bloodless UK new wave bands, but it’s the exception here. Despite its well-worn title, “Life in the U.S.A.” is a catchy, start/stop number that would have fit nicely on the debut. And the Merseybeat aura of “The Night I Heard a Scream” ranks as three of the best minutes on the entire collection. “Beat City” feels like an attempt to rewrite “Yellow Pills,” but it’s still a worthy followup.

“Mobile Unit 245” feels a bit out of place among the straight-ahead rockers, but it’s a moody, atmospheric number that sounds (in places) like something The Plimsouls might have done. The production choices on “American Dream” suggest that this was the track where the band let the producer make all the decisions. For the most part, they’re poor ones; it’s easily the weakest track here. But the CD ends on a pair of upbeat notes; the pair of 45rpm b-sides appended to the disc are much more in the vein of prime 20/20.

Fans of the powerpop era will want this collection; even though little beyond “Yellow Pills” is likely to fall into the heard-it-before column for most listeners, 20/20 / Look Out! Is a fine artifact of the best that period had to offer.

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