Rave On: Power-pop is alive and well

By  John M. Borack

Guitar wizard Lindsay Buckinham, shown here in a March 2007 performance, is back in the saddle with his new solo effort, Gift of Screws. Photo courtesy of Rod Snyder.

Guitar wizard Lindsay Buckinham, shown here in a March 2007 performance, is back in the saddle with his new solo effort, Gift of Screws. Photo courtesy of Rod Snyder.
Welcome to the inaugural edition of Rave On, a column where we’ll be chatting about the latest and greatest in power-pop and pure pop music. We’ll talk about major label releases, indie standouts, self-released goodies, books, DVDs and more. 

Basically, if it’s music that features hooks, harmonies and heart, we’ll be all over it.
But, first, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger, please allow me to introduce myself. I’ve been writing reviews and features for Goldmine since 1985, when former editor Jeff Tamarkin took pity on a fledgling pop journalist and allowed me to invade his pages. Since then I’ve also written for power-pop fanzines such as Audities, Amplifier and Popsided, penned some entries for Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press Record Guide and handled liner notes for artists such as Tommy Keene, The Scruffs, The Rooks, The Rembrandts and even — wait for it — not-so-legendary ’70s soft-popsters Starbuck. (You do remember “Moonlight Feels Right,” don’t you?) 

Last year saw the publication of my first book, “Shake Some Action — The Ultimate Power Pop Guide,” where I ran down the top 200 power-pop records of all-time (“IMHO,” as they say online). Five years in the making, it was loads of fun to write, so much so that Vol. 2 is now in the works and will focus on individual songs.

Anyway, that’s the background — now, on to some hot pop picks to click…
Lindsey Buckingham has long been considered the musical genius behind the hitmaking machine known as Fleetwood Mac. Dude’s an outrageously talented singer, songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, and his ample talents are proudly put on display on his latest solo effort, Gift of Screws (Reprise Records).

Buckingham’s always balanced his pure-pop leanings with more than a modicum of eccentricity (“Tusk” being a prime example) and continues that tradition on Gift of Screws. The pounding title cut (featuring Mac mates John McVie and Mick Fleetwood) is hooked by bunches of semi-maniacal laughter/screams at the end of each chorus, with some near-square dance calls (“to the left… to the right… up and down… in and out… that’s right, baby”) duking it out with some typically ace L.B. guitar soloing toward the end of the tune — and it all works perfectly.

Other standouts are the perfect pop jewel “Did You Miss Me,” which is one of Buckingham’s best-ever numbers; the bluesy rocker “Wait For You”; another top-drawer pop tune in the forceful “Love Runs Deeper”; and the sweeping, disc-closing ballad “Treason.”

There’s also plenty of Buckingham’s patented finger-picked guitar mastery as well. It all adds up to an album that should end up on many a pop fan’s year-end “best-of” list.

On the indie label side of the fence, The Goldbergs’ sophomore release, the aptly-titled Under the Radar (Kool Kat Records), is a definite feel-good winner. Andy Goldberg writes simply satisfying pop numbers that’ll reel you in on first listen (try “Please Won’t You Please” or “Feel the Sun” on for size), with The Beatles ’65-like instrumentation and vocals coming off as charming and not at all contrived.

“Better Times” is another good one and “I’m a Hero (Waiting to Happen)” could be the wishful thinking anthem of blokes like Andy who produce solid records such as this one for too-small audiences.

As the leader of left-coast power pop acts Love Nut and the unfortunately named Myracle Brah, Andy Bopp has been responsible for some of the genre’s finest sounds over the past decade or so. On his new solo effort, the cheekily titled This Guitar Kills Singer/Songwriters (Rainbow Quartz), Bopp goes it alone, literally — just himself and a solitary guitar. The stark presentation brings out the power in Bopp’s compositions, including old Myracle Brah chestnuts such as “Whisper Softly” and “Good Day to the Night,” as well as the lovely “Hello” and the wistful “Just Because.” Good stuff.

MySpace has been a vehicle that has helped to bring DIY pop musicians out of the woodwork, and one of the better ones we’ve heard lately is a chap called Devlin Murphy. His first disc — titled My First (self-released), naturally — brings to mind like-minded artists such as Adam Schmitt and early Matthew Sweet. The kid’s a heck of a songwriter and plays his two aces right off the bat — both “Today” and “Jesus” are catchy, mid-tempo tracks that are well-written and memorable. Murphy gets bonus points for “99 Cent,” an ode to finding love at the 99 Cent Store. Aww…

All the way from Sweden come Private Jets, whose Jet Sounds (wink, nudge) on Sparkplug Records is a spectacular distillation of bands such as Jellyfish, The Cars and The Beach Boys. A dozen glorious, sing-along tunes laced with perky synthesizers, shiny harmonies and punchy guitars all add up to another release that deserves to be heard by many. Random thoughts on this one: Ringo Starr should cover “Starshaped World;” “Speak Up, Speak Out” recalls “Ain’t That a Shame;” the dorky lyrics to “First Division of Love” add to the song’s charm; and “I Wanna Be a Private Jet” is the finest musical self-reference since Prince’s “My Name is Prince.”
On the reissue front, a lot of indie power-pop fans have been waiting for Clovis Roblaine’s 1979 mini-classic The Clovis Roblaine Story (No Sweat Records) to be released on CD, and Clovis himself (his real name is Dennis Meehan) has finally done the deed, although he replaced the original album cover with a decidedly inferior new one.

Originally a way-out-of-left-field curve ball — from Norman, Okla. no less — Roblaine has bolstered the 19-track disc with six rare bonus cuts, five of which were previously unreleased. The basic aural template is Buddy Holly-meets-Phil Spector, with Meehan’s boyish vocals setting the table quite nicely. “My Heart” is a true pop classic for the ages, and “Monster Love,” “Torch Song” and “Forever True” aren’t far behind.

Blue Ash’s 1973 power-pop cult classic No More, No Less has finally been issued for the first time on compact disc by Collectors’ Choice, albeit with no bonus tracks appended. Contemporaries of like-minded acts such as Badfinger, Big Star and Raspberries, Blue Ash hailed from Youngstown, Ohio, and are best known for the sprightly pop magic of the timeless “Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?),” which is the leadoff track here. They also cover Bob Dylan (on the rare Zimmerman track “Dusty Old Fairgrounds”) and The Beatles (a faithful rendition of “Anytime at All”), and while the rest of the album is a tad uneven, it’s still something that collectors will covet.

New York’s favorite homegrown, Little Steven-approved psych-popsters The Gripweeds (named after John Lennon’s character in How I Won the War, don’tcha know) are back with a 16-track best-of titled Infinite Soul (Wicked Cool/Rainbow Quartz). The tracks are cherry-picked from their four proper releases and are all quite good — good singin’, good playin’, as Grand Funk once said — but one of their finest-ever cuts, the forcefully jangly “Strange Bird,” is missing. Boo! (Nice Iron Butterfly-inspired cover art, though.)

Speaking of jangly, if you enjoy the lighter, early Byrdsy sort of ringing guitars, you’re sure to love The Rhinos and their In Rhi-Fi CD (Rainbow Quartz). After 14 tracks of jinglin’, janglin’ guitars and pretty, understated (and pretty understated) vocals, you’ll either be transported into that mythical musical land where Roger McGuinn is king or you’ll be dying to put on some Black Sabbath records.

We’ll end this issue’s ravings with a shout out to North Carolina’s fab Spongetones, whose Always Carry On: The Best of the Spongetones 1980-2005 (Loaded Goat Records) is a must-own for card-carrying Merseybeat fans, or fans of well-crafted pop music in general. Among the generous 26 tracks are plenty of numbers from the ’Tones wonderful Beat Music disc, including the absolutely stunning “She Goes Out With Everybody,” “A Part of Me Now” and “Every Night is a Holiday.” Perhaps even better is “Anna,” which features one of the most breathtaking vocal arrangements in recent memory, wrapped around a delicious melody. 

Later-period cuts stray a bit from the strict Merseybeat sound but are highly enjoyable nonetheless. The Spongetones have released a new studio album, Too Clever By Half, which we’ll talk about in our next installment of Rave On. Until then…

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One thought on “Rave On: Power-pop is alive and well

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