Album Review: Steve Stoeckel — The Power of And

Reviewing music is very much a subjective endeavor. Even when a critic seeks to provide useful cues and references to help readers form their own opinions about the music, it’s ultimately the perspective of the reviewer – complete with its experience and/or baggage – that informs the review.

Customarily, the research (if one can call it that; homework might be an even better term) that the reviewer does is confined to two activities: listening to the music and reading up on its creation and creators. Taken together, those components of preparation provide enough raw data from which an informed (and hopefully informing) review can be created.

I mention all this as the backdrop against which I encountered The Power of And, the debut solo album from Spongetones bassist and songwriter Steve Stoeckel. Through a very fortuitous sequence of events, I was invited by Stoeckel (we’re friends) to join him onstage – with two other fine musicians – for a pair of live dates at The Cavern Club and Pub in Liverpool. Songs from The Power of And will form the core of the sets. I’m headed across the pond in just a few days. To say that I’m honored and excited is understatement; The Cavern is to me what Jerusalem or Mecca is to religious people, and I’m a major fan of the man and his music.

Of course I had been listening to and enjoying The Power of And for quite some while before this opportunity came up; I had plans to review it. Yet when the live gig opportunity came up, I paused, thinking that perhaps it might be (or be seen as) some kind of conflict of interest to review the album.

But I’ve thought it over more, and have reconsidered. The thing is, first off, I didn’t play on the record. Steve sang and played a great deal of what one hears on the album, and musicians all far more skilled and talented than myself contributed their parts to the sessions. So: no conflict there.

Secondly, and more importantly in this context, I have something more to offer than is customary. Because beyond merely listening to and reading about these songs, I’ve taken a deep dive and learned how to play them (by the way, I’m a keyboardist). The process of breaking down these arrangements, getting under the hood of the songs so to speak, has gifted me with a much deeper appreciation for the fine and often subtle skill that Stoeckel displays as songwriter and recording artist.

And I want to share some of that insight with you.

The album opens with “Laura Lynn,” an uptempo rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Spongetones album. Its arrangement is based around the traditional guitars/bass/drums setup, with a bit of keyboard work for extra texture. Stoeckel’s Pop Co-op band mate Joel Tinnel lays down the song’s lead guitar parts, and while they’re tasty and expressive, it’s what’s going on under them that’s most inventive. Stoeckel has a rare facility for pop songcraft, and that doesn’t mean simply lining up three or four chords into a song form. His subtle shifting between major and minor chords is the sort of technique that would pass right by the casual listener. But spend time trying to play along and you discover the color and nuance that doing so adds to the song. Stoeckel doesn’t do it to be clever or tricky (nor to make things difficult for someone trying to learn to play the things). No, instead he does it to make the song better, more interesting.

The first time I heard “Mod Girl,” I liked it fine enough, but didn’t consider it quite as immediate as some of the other tracks on The Power of And. It’s what reviewers sometimes call a grower; the song can take its time to warm up to some listeners. But it’s well worth the small effort. Here, Stoeckel’s longtime close friend and Spongetones bandmate Pat Walters provides the lead guitar work. And again it’s those subtleties within the song’s structure that make it something special. On the surface, it’s an exceedingly simple song. But that feel – a key to its accessibility – is deceptive. The nice thing is, one can ignore those under-the-hood intricacies and just enjoy the tune.

“The Emerald Sea” is a lovely, jaunty tune with flavors of Celtic folk. Primarily an electric bassist, Stoeckel has long been enamored of the ukulele and used it to good effect on many recordings (most notably on his releases with fellow Spongetone Jamie Hoover, billed as Jamie and Steve). There’s no uke on “The Emerald Sea,” but that acoustic folk sensibility finds voice in the song. There’s some wonderful instrumental dialogue between Michael Mitsch’s pennywhistle (there’s a back story there; ask Steve, if you get the chance) and Tinnel’s electric lead guitar. A casual listen might miss that and conflate the two as a single instrument; knowing what’s actually going on musically only increases one’s appreciation of the song.

After an opening figure, “Christine” begins as a model of simplicity, with a pounding, repeated chord. And unless one listens closely, the song maintains that straightforward, somewhat conventional (not in a bad way) character. But play along and you’ll discover that the chord changes are something of a whipsaw. This isn’t prog rock by any measure, but Stoeckel’s inventive use of unexpected chord changes isn’t the kind of thing one usually finds in pop. It’s a testament to his artistry that the technique works in this context, and that it strengthens the song’s pop character rather than introducing an auditory obstacle for pop-oriented listeners.

“Just One Kiss” opens with just one musician: Stoeckel sings and plays that uke I mentioned. But his skills as an arranger are on brilliant display here: at just the right moment, the band comes in, the song opens up, and the whole thing transforms into a spirited rocker. Next, the arrangement pulls back a bit, and then it charges forward a second time, now with even more gusto. The way the song ebbs and flows makes it come alive in a way that a mere pop song might not do.

“The Monsters Under My Bed” is a gentle, winsome and heartfelt ballad. Its inclusion shows the variety that has long been a hallmark of Stoeckel’s songwriting. The sonic contrast between the primarily acoustic arrangement and Keith Shamel’s soaring electric guitar solos is a thing of beauty.

I haven’t mentioned the other fine players on the album; they include Rick McClanahan from the Coconut Groove Band, vocalist (and Big Stir Records labelmate) Irene Peña on vocals, the dear departed Chris Garges (playing drums on “Whistling Past Graveyards”) and Stoeckel’s Spongetones bandmate Eric Wilhelm on drums. Wilhelm is also part of the Liverpool-bound lineup; we’ll be joined for both performances by guitarist Peter Watts of the simply amazing Canterbury-based Spygenius. Come say hi if you’re there.

There are eight other songs on The Power of And; each has its charms. Anyone won over by even one track discussed above is sure to find pleasure in those as well.