As far as most of the world knew, The Flashcubes existed in the late ‘70s, and are best remembered on the strength of two minor classics. “Chirsti Girl” has been comped many times, most notably on Rhino’s DIY entry Come Out and Play: American Power Pop 1975-78. And Jordan Oakes’ simply essential and landmark Yellow Pills Vol. 1 featured the group’s “It’s You Tonight,” a song that is somehow even better than “Christi Girl.” With quality like that, one would have thought there’d be a body of work to explore, one filled with other gems.
As it happens, the group never released an album in those days. Unless there’s something out there the existence of which has escaped my notice, the first Flashcubes album was a live set released in 2002. Still, it turns out The Flashcubes remained at it all along. And now in 2023 – some 40-plus years after those early tracks – the band – with its original lineup intact – has returned. But rather than serve up new original songs, they’ve chosen to make an album of covers.
But not just any covers, and not just any approach to those covers. From a critical standpoint, points should always be given for novel or outside-the-box approaches to making an album. And The Flashcubes have certainly done that with Pop Masters. The foursome pays homage to its influences –Pezband, Shoes, Pilot, The Motors, Chris Stamey, Andy and Jonathan Paley…you get the idea here. But the group does more than that: they enlist key members from that power pop pantheon to join them on the recordings.
That means that we get to hear Mimi Betinis sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” backed by the tightly coiled power of The Flashcubes. Rnady Klawon of Raspberries predecessors Cyrus Erie helps out on “Get the Message” (he’s on guitar for the of the album’s twelve tracks as well). The Paley Brothers are out front on “Come Out and Play.” And David Paton plays piano and sings on a Pilot deep cut, “Get Up and Go.”
Jamie Hoover, Pat Walters and Steve Stoeckel handle the vocals on the Spongetones’ “Have You Ever Been Torn Apart.” The Flashcubes’ reading of the song adds a subtly but clever and effective flourish: it opens with a ringing chord redolent of “A Hard Day’s Night.” That’s a wink and a nod to the Spongetones’ early signature style: original songs that sound like they were somehow ace tracks that got left off Beatles ‘65. And a reading of The Posies’ “Flavor of Month” adds a delightful jangling character that didn’t figure in the ‘90s original.
Other than that, though, the arrangements are on the whole pretty faithful, channeling the vibe – be it upbeat, melancholy, nervy or something else – of the original versions. But there’s a consistency that ties the whole package together nicely.
Some of the songs themselves are derivative: The Motors’ “Forget About You” is essentially a rewrite of The Grassroots’ “Sooner or Later.” But hey, that’s okay: powerpop’s most enduring quality has rarely been groundbreaking originality. (And when it was – see Big Star – the artists ended up toiling in obscurity, which was never anybody’s goal.)
Powerpop fanatics will surely have most (possibly all) of the original recordings in their collection, and in that regard Pop Masters is inevitably redundant. But it’s clear that everyone involved had a grand time with the project, and that spirit carries forth to the listener. So enjoy this collection, and cross your fingers that The Flashcubes will return soon with a set of original songs.