Rave On: Spongetones and Doll Test work power-pop mojo

By  John M. Borack

Since we ended the last installment of Rave On by discussing the Beatlesque mojo of The Spongetones, let’s kick off the proceedings this time around by discussing…The Spongetones.

Too Clever By Half (Loaded Goat) is the latest studio release from the longtime pop quartet and returns to the band’s sprightly, Merseybeat roots. The finest tracks are the whimsical McCartney-inspired ditties (“Bye Bye” and the title track) and the insidiously catchy “I’d Love You,” co-written by guitarist Jamie Hoover with Bill Lloyd.

Overall it’s a solid effort, although the 18-track disc could have done with a bit of pruning and the inclusion of a few more upbeat numbers. (FYI: Japanese label Air Mail Recordings has reissued the band’s excellent first three releases — Beat Music, Torn Apart and Where-Ever-Land — on CD, with each one containing bonus tracks, many of which are previously unreleased.)

The Heyday

MySpace find of the month: The Heyday. These five kids from Colorado (most of ’em still in their teens) have come up with a polished, superbly crafted debut album that is teeming with wonderful songs featuring anthemic choruses, bright harmonies, top-notch production and Randy Ramirez’s winning lead vocals.

Think early Gin Blossoms with a bit more juice and revel in the pop perfection of “Turn Me Around,” “Empty Handed” and the devastatingly beautiful ballad “Lost With You.” Remember, you heard about ‘em here first.

The Doll Test

More great indie pop comes courtesy of Seattle, Wash.’s The Doll Test, whose album Mosque Alarm Clock (Unsmashable Records) has been heralded by those in the know as one of the finest releases of ’08.

Running the gamut from straightforward jingle jangle (the sweetly endearing “Fall Away”) to John Lennon-like confessionals (the awesome “Ballad of Your Blue-Eyed Boy” successfully melds Plastic Ono Band and Imagine) with detours at snotty garage-rock (“The Last Rung,” “The Decider”) and delicious indie-pop (“Shoot the Tambourine Man”), this is a pop smorgasbord that avoids cliché and entertains at every turn.

The Explorers Club

If you’re searching for Beach Boys splendor in a rap-saturated world, look no further than The Explorers Club, six guys from Charleston, S.C. (which is generally better known for a different type of beach music) who have the sound of 1965-1970-era Beach Boys down to a friggin’ T.

On its long-playing debut Freedom Wind (Dead Oceans Records) things lead off with the heart-melting “Forever,” which is kick-started by that ever-popular “Be My Baby” drumbeat and powered by a winsome lead vocal from Jason Brewer (a visual ringer for Carl Wilson, circa 1967) and those trademark sun-kissed California harmonies. There are homages to Pet Sounds, Smile, Sunflower and Dennis Wilson’s gruff vocal stylings, but the Explorers Club not only imbue each song with a Beach Boys flair, they also write memorable tunes that stand on their own merits. And no surfing songs.

Future Clouds & Radar

As the leader of ’90s indie-pop combo Cotton Mather, Robert Harrison’s place in the genre’s history is secure, mainly due to 1997’s most amazing Kontiki, which found him shoving Revolver head-first into the ’90s and turning up the volume on the guitars in the process.

Harrison’s latest project is called Future Clouds & Radar, and its second release, Peoria (Star Apple Kingdom Records), features some challenging — and ultimately rewarding — art-damaged psych-pop, held together by Harrison’s undeniably Lennonesque vocals. Less immediately accessible than his Cotton Mather material, it’s still a unique and heady listening experience with aural surprises at every turn.

It’s My Party!

R.S.V.P. by It’s My Party! (Mister Cat Records) has been out for a bit, but since it will probably be up many a Goldmine reader’s alley, it’s worth mentioning here.

R.S.V.P.
is pure, unadulterated ’60s girl-group fun and games, with three teen girls (Lindsay, Katie and Daniela, don’tcha know) doing a fantastic job of approximating the sweetness and innocence of the sound (and the times). Most of the dozen tracks are originals written for the girls, sporting titles such as “When Johnny Went Away,” “I Felt Your Eyes on Me” and “Can You Rock It.” 

There are also spiffy covers of Andrea Carroll’s 1963 gem “It Hurts to Be Sixteen” and Diane Renay’s “Kiss Me Sailor” that slot in nicely. R.S.V.P. is authentic-sounding, breezy fun that’ll conjure up memories of the malt shop, convertibles and old record players. Somewhere, Lesley Gore and Darlene Love are smiling.

Michael Mazzarella

As the leader of The Rooks, Michael Mazzarella has had a hand in some of the pop genre’s defining moments.
 
Eschewing the upbeat pop idiom for the time being, Mazzarella’s self-deprecatingly titled Folk Songs for the Curious Few (self-released) is his second solo record and a bit of a departure from his debut, Grey Over an Autumn Winter.

While Grey was a bleak, stark lyrical exploration of Mazzarella’s psyche, Folk Songs is much more musically accessible, while still intensely personal. The bulk of the 10 tracks are prayerful, keyboard-based confessionals with thoughtful lyrics wrapped around beautiful, affecting melodies sung in a voice that is alternately raw and understated.

Whether proffering an “Open Letter of Sorry,” reminiscing about “October on Bleecker” (the only non-ballad here), using a fragile falsetto lead vocal to power the verses of “Shine a Little” or doling out unforgettable choruses as he does on “In an Ocean” and “Hallelujah for the Hallelujah of Us,” it’s clear that this an unforgettable album from one of the finest singer/songwriters around.

The Speedies

Radio Heartbeat Records has released Speedy Delivery, a compilation of singles, previously unreleased cuts and live tracks from The Speedies, a late-’70s vintage NYC teenage power-pop outfit.

With influences ranging from glam to punk and new wave, the collection is stuffed with powerful, fast-paced, chipper singalongs such as “You Need Pop,” “Let Me Take Your Photo” and “No Substitute” (which is driven by some badass drumming from Allen Zane). The live tracks prove that the boys were a high-energy act back in the day, as they wowed ’em at Max’s Kansas City, the Bottom Line, the Ritz and other New York hotspots. It’s a nice souvenir for Speedies fans and collectors of late-’70s power pop.

The Handcuffs

Two of the most engaging releases of ’08 came courtesy of female-fronted acts: The Handcuffs and Vibeke.

The Handcuffs were born out of the ashes of Chicago-area pop band Big Hello, and feature former Elvis Brothers drummer/songwriter Brad Elvis and vocalist Chloe F. Orwell. Their Electroluv (OOFL Records) is a non-stop joyride through a dozen variations of catchy pop tuneage, with Orwell’s brassy, sassy vocals and Elvis’ marvelous stick work leading the charge.

Not a bad tune in the litter, with the piano poundin’ “Half A Mind,” the dreamy “Wonderful Life” and the kicky, bass-and-drum-heavy “Baby Boombox” shining particularly brightly. A special shout-out for the fab “I Just Wanna Be Free, Man,” which comes off as some sort of mad cross between “Watching the Detectives” and “Rock and Roll (Part Two).”  Extremely highly recommended.

Vibeke

Vibeke is Vibeke Saugestad, a Norwegian power-pop songstress who also doubles as the organ player with like-minded Norwegian compatriots the Yum Yums.

Her third solo release is titled The World Famous Hat Trick (Pop Detective Records), and it’s as close to pop perfection as anything by a female singer in recent memory. Imagine one of those perfect world meetings of The Muffs and Paul Collins’ Beat (with easier to digest vocals) with song after song that grabs, holds and shakes.

From the opening blast of “He’s Peculiar” to the lullaby-like “All For Now,” there are no false steps to be had. Bonus tracks include covers of the Someloves’ “Know You Now” and Frank Secich and Jimmy Zero’s (Blue Ash and the Dead Boys, respectively) “You Don’t Go Away.”

The Wigs

The File Under Pop Vocal LP by The Wigs has been among the holy grail of power-pop collectibles for a few decades now, regularly fetching up to $400 on internet auction sites.

Thankfully, for those of us who are not independently wealthy, the band has finally issued the album on CD and added two previously unreleased bonus tracks. The album holds up well after all these years and tracks such as “I Can See it Now,” “What I Got” and “Tell It All” go a long way towards establishing a case for the Wigs as Milwaukee’s version of The Knack, although they rocked a bit harder than the “My Sharona” boys (and the Wigs’ lead vocals have more of a Plimsouls shade to ‘em).  

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