Album Review: Dolph Chaney – Mug

While its original heyday was in the early ‘70s, power pop went through something of a renaissance in the 1990s. Artists as diverse as Michael Penn, Greenberry Woods, Matthew Sweet, Gin Blossoms and Gladhands all made music that – at its best – was thrilling, transcendent, and an effective distillation of the chiming, catchy qualities that made the form something special.

Of course the ‘90s came and went, as decades do. Supplanted in the public consciousness by something else – I forget what it was now, ha – power pop returned to its previous status as a kind of specialist subgenre. But it never went away; songwriters and musicians who drew inspiration from the Beatles, the Who, Badfinger and Raspberries (among others, of course) continued to craft finely-tuned, compact songs that – in their own often modest way – carried on the tradition.

Dolph Chaney is one of those, but he’s much more than just one of those. As good as 2021’s This is Dolph Chaney showed itself to be, here a couple of years later the Chicago(land) rocker has taken (as they say) a great leap forward. While “Nice” is a sturdy rocker worthy of its title, “Cool in the Sunshine” shows a more sophisticated, more nuanced side of Chaney. And “Mr. Eli” balance bounciness and rock values.

But wait: there’s more in this pleasingly varied lot. “Love Around You” heads in a countrified direction, with acoustic guitars and keening pedal steel, with Chaney effortlessly shifting his vocal tone into a Neil Young-meets-Poco style. “Bad Bet” recalls ‘70s piano-based rock-pop at its finest, with shades of Elton John leavened by a modern sensibility that recalls Ben Folds. “Good Luck With All That” splits the difference between country rock and, well, shoegaze, adding a soaring quality and an impassioned (but never overwrought) vocal.

For “Ice Cream Embers” it’s back to sharp hooks, a driving bassline and some whip-smart drumming. “Undone” is equal parts jangle and crunch; a winning recipe, that. “How it Really Was” calls to mind The Records, Rockpile and other late ‘70s pub rock heroes. “Only Hope” takes things in a heavy direction redolent of Pearl Jam; I didn’t see that coming, and wouldn’t have expected it to work as well as it does (very well indeed).

On “Californiagain,” Chaney spits out lyrics at warp speed. It’s the only track on the set in which I feel that his choice of vocal style doesn’t fit perfectly. But the dual lead guitar and subtle ska underpinning make it worthwhile, and certainly not a misstep overall. “Critic (the Mirror)” suggests the influence of ‘80s hardcore bands like Hüsker Dü, with those influences channeled through the radio-ready approach of, say, Material Issue. It also features the album’s snappiest lead guitar solo. “First Time Back” has some heartfelt and meaningful lyrics, but listeners need not tune into them to appreciate the strong melodic values of the song; they merely make it even better.

The set blows by quickly, feeling much shorter than its 48 minute run time; that’s a testament to Chaney’s songwriting and arranging smarts. Anyone who enjoyed Chaney’s previous outing will be more than captivated by Mug. And for those checking him out for the first time, this is the place to start. Superb!