More often than not, tribute albums center around artists or songs that are comparatively well-known. But Best of Friends, the latest album from misleadingly-named L.A. power pop trio Sparkle*jets U.K. is no ordinary tribute album. The artists honored on this collection of 21 songs don’t rank among the highest-profile acts. Among powerpop devotees (and, if such a category can be said to exist, less fanatical admirers of the subgenre) their names are held in high regard. Those who own one or more of Jordan Oakes’ classic Yellow Pills comps – or perhaps some of Bruce Brodeen’s compilations – will spot some names they recognize. There’s no mistaking the high quality of music from artists like The Negro Problem, The Shazam, and (two personal faves) Wondermints and Kenny Howes.
By most evidence, after an auspicious start in the late ‘90s – including a pair of well-received albums – Sparkle*jets U.K. seemed to vanish from the scene for a couple of decades. But they’ve returned now, and while covering the music of their peers/contemporaries might seem an odd and somewhat unconventional means of reacquainting themselves with listeners, here we are.
Michael Simmons (guitars and sundries), Jamie Knight (bass and more sundries) and vocalist Susan West are Sparkle*jets U.K., and they have the goods to serve these songs up in style. Wonderful harmonies, chiming guitars and uncluttered yet heartfelt arrangements are the order of the day. And subtle in-jokes remind the careful listener that this trio is populated with some keen students of the pop(ular) music form. The guitar solo on a cover of Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings’ “Hold on Tight” is a virtual lift from The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” but it’s so cleverly recontextualized that all charges have been summarily dropped.
The band’s approach is as varied as the material. Sometimes it’s rocking, and other times it’s breezy in the ‘70s AM Gold sort of way (a cover of Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine’s “One Summer Sunday”). The popsike la-la-la-isms of Cosmo Topper’s “Are We There Yet” are a treat. The album plays like an ace powerpop sampler, and at its core, that’s really what it is. The main difference, of course, is that all the performances are by one very versatile group. They deftly thread the needle, remaining true to the values that made the original versions of tunes like “In and Around Greg Lake” so great while putting their own stamp on the material.
And I suspect that if listening to Best of Friends sends listeners off to discover more music by the original artists, Sparkle*jets U.K. will be pleased.