Book Review: Power Pop Prime, Vol. 3
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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