A Dozen New Reviews

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Here are a dozen reviews of new and recent releases. Lots of cool stuff for your potential listening pleasure, so check ’em out!

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Brett Harris – Up in the Air

I began looking forward to this release after checking out Brett Harris as part of the all-star troupe that performed Big Star Third/Sister Lovers live in Los Angeles last year, and Up in the Air certainly does not disappoint. It’s a stylish, beautifully produced and arranged collection of tunes that includes echoes of John Lennon (the sweetly orchestrated “Out of the Blue,” which also vaguely recalls Argent’s “God Gave Rock and Roll to You”), Paul McCartney (the musical twists and turns in “Lies” are pure Macca) and Chris Stamey, who is thanked in the liner notes. The folky title track is lovely, and “End of the Rope” is one of the coolest slices of pure pop I’ve heard so far this year. Grade: A-

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Charlie Faye & the Fayettes – S/T

Sexy, sassy, brassy and a whole lotta fun, the self-titled debut from Charlie Faye and her two Fayettes is a near-perfect update of a genre that’s too often overlooked by pop revivalists: ‘60s girl group goodness. That’s not to say that this 11-song effort is all Ronettes and Crystals (although that vibe is certainly well-represented): there are also echoes of the Supremes and other soul sisters scattered throughout. It all adds up to 33-minutes-and-change of feel-good ear candy courtesy of Charlie, BettySoo, and Akina Adderley. You can’t go wrong by diving in anywhere, but “Green Light,” “Heart,” “Coming Round the Bend” (which borrows a bit of the main riff from “Then He Kissed Me”), ‘See You Again” and the torchy “One More Chance” are all great places to start. Crack backing is provided by Pete Thomas on drums, Lyle Workman on guitars and Roger Manning on keys. This one’s sure to be a highlight of 2016. Grade: A

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B-Leaguers – Death of a Western Heart

Lead singer James Styring used to helm a band called The Popdogs, who released the cute Cool Cats For Pop Dogs disc back in 2013. He’s since ditched the other ‘Dogs and picked up three new bandmates, and collectively they’ve turned the amps up to 12 and eschewed the power pop in favor of a furious punk-pop sound. Overall, the 7-song Death of a Western Heart is decent enough, but just a bit lacking in memorable tunes. Still, kudos to Styring and company for attempting something different, which at times sounds like a far less annoying Geddy Lee fronting the ‘90s-era Ramones. Grade: B-

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P.Hux – “Live” Deluxe

Back in the mid-‘90s, when some of us dreamers thought power pop just might take over the world, one of the leading proponents of the sound was P. Hux, a rockin’ little trio fronted by the estimable Parthenon Huxley. Audities Magazine named their Deluxe album the best album of 1995, the band hit the road with Paul Collins as part of the Non-Stop Pop Roadshow, and this 10-song document was recorded during a Durham, NC gig in May 1996. The sound quality is superb, the band is clearly on top of their game, and the disc includes eight songs from the Deluxe record (not nine, as stated in the booklet), along with an earlier Huxley goodie tiled “Buddha Buddha” and a tune titled “Things Could Be Worse,” which was unreleased at the time. Tear-inducing moment: when Huxley dedicates “Live Like a King” to “my courageous wife Janet,” who would later die tragically of cancer. Fave lyric, from “Things Could Be Worse”: “Things could be worse/we could be married/we could be calling lawyers now/and all that shit.” Grade: B+

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Ice Cream Skyscraper – Mercury in Lemonade

Anything featuring Michael Mazzarella on lead vocals is going to be worthy of a listen or twelve, and the debut release from Ice Cream Skyscraper – the brainchild of former Records guitarist Huw Gower – is no exception to that self-imposed rule. It moves away from the straightforward pop sounds and passionate balladeering for which Mazzarella is best known, in favor of a vaguely psychedelic, but ultimately genre-busting rock sound that’s pretty hard to pin down. Instruments pop in and out of the mix, Gower tosses in some typically emotive guitar solos (“Groove Back” is one such gem) and Mazzarella sings the hell out of tunes such as the swirling “Nineteen in 71” and “Double Dog Dare, both of which he co-wrote with Gower. A cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” is another highlight. Grade: B

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Three Hour Tour – Action and Heroes

After a much-too-long five year wait, Illinois power pop kings Three Hour Tour are back with another honey of a record. Darren Cooper is the man in charge at THT headquarters, handling all the vocals and instruments except for drums. His way with a melody has always been unerring and that streak continues here at every turn, especially on the title track (great lead vocal on this one), the ever-so-slightly country-inflected “Nowhere Bound,” and the Dwight-Twilley-ish “No Guarantee.” It’s easy to take guys like Cooper for granted since he makes things look so easy, but by the time you hit the final track, “Shifting Sands” (which features some uber-cool drumming, courtesy of John Richardson, who’s also manned the kit for Shoes, Tommy Keene and Gin Blossoms), you’ll be hoping it’s not another five years before Cooper decides to gift us with a new record. Co-produced by Adam Schmitt, another dude who knows his way around a killer popsong. Grade: A-

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Trolley – Caught in the Darkness

Some might think that writing and recording catchy, guitar-based ditties is a simple task, but of course, it really isn’t. The trick is making them sound fresh, different from what’s come before and not too slavishly derivative. Trolley succeeds on all three counts on Caught in the Darkness; the dozen tunes here are all tasty, melodically supercharged tidbits that draw from influences such as power pop, Merseybeat, garage, ‘60s pop, and lite psychedelia without sounding exactly like anything you’ve heard before.  Paul Wall, Mike Perotto and Terry Hackbarth co-wrote everything, and the combination of their songwriting smarts, some nice keyboard flourishes, and a bit of Who-like drum frenzy help make Caught in the Darkness a triumph. Grade: A

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Coke Belda – Nummer Zwei

Coke Belda does not pronounce his first name like the soft drink; it’s “Co-kay.” And “Nummer Zwei,” the title of his outstanding second album, is German for “number two.”  I’m hip to both these facts thanks to pop DJ Alan Haber’s spoken word introduction to the album, which leads into a fantastic, fizzy pop tune titled “Rainbow.” Suffice it to say that if you enjoy the music of David Myhr and/or the Merrymakers, you’ll certainly find plenty of things to love here; Myhr co-wrote two songs with Belda, and his sonic imprint is apparent throughout. Like Myhr’s, Belda’s music is upbeat, joyous-sounding stuff, filled with oodles of juicy harmonies and singalong choruses. My faves are “Miss You,” “You’re Not in Love” and “Hold Me Tight,” but listen for yourself and choose your own favorites. Coke is it! Grade: A

JUNIR LEAGUE

The Junior League “Also Rans”

The Junior League’s first album was titled Catchy and it certainly was. Their latest is called “Also Rans,” which they’re certainly not. Actually, “Also Rans” may be even catchier than Catchy was. Confused? Don’t be. Just know that these guys sound a bit like Elvyn (with equal does of acoustic and electric guitar), with songs that rock and pop with equal abandon. Well-crafted stuff, indeed; I especially dig the thick, jagged guitars on “If It’s You,” the moody “The Long Goodbye” and the “Tired of Waiting For You”-tinged “Also Rans,” which could serve as an anthem for a million up and coming bands. Grade: B+

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The Cherry Drops – Life is a Bowl of Cherry Drops

The Cherry Drops can’t decide whether they want to be a bubblegum act, a garage band, a power pop combo or a surf group, so they go all in and try their hand at being all things to all popsters on their new one – and surprisingly, instead of sounding like a jumbled, genre-hopping mess, Life is a Bowl of Cherry Drops is actually pretty damned solid. Some of the originals are cool – particularly the sunny “Sweet Lovin’” (with Steve Boone of the Lovin’ Spoonful guesting on bass), and the “Beach Boys in the garage” coolness of “I Believe, I Believe” – and the covers of Badfinger, the Archies and “Psychotic Reaction” ring true. On a few occasions they try too hard (“It’s a Surfin’ Thing” and “Bullet Time” come off as silly novelties), but Life… is still a fun listen. Grade: B

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The Modulators – Try Try Try

Here we have no-frills, old school power pop from a band that’s been flying the flag on the east coast for more than 30 years now. The songs are spiffy, the ties are skinny and songs such as “When I Think of You” and “Upper Hand” get me all tingly for power pop’s golden age. Or, to paraphrase the Barracudas, I wish it could be 1979 again. Grade: B

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The Miamis – We Deliver: The Lost Band of the CBGB Era (1974-1979)

Lost band is right; I had no idea these guys even existed until Omnivore exhumed the 23 tracks on this compilation. Lauded by ‘70s CBGB’s-era scenesters such as Debbie Harry, Tommy Ramone and Lenny Kaye, the Miamis seemingly had everything: a bunch of songs, a great live show, youthful good looks…everything except a recording contract. The songs on We Deliver show that they could have been a force to be reckoned with, however; there’s some Rubinoos-like power pop, lots of good time rock and roll, some campy silliness – or as Glenn Coe aptly puts it in the extensive liner notes, “part Bowery and part Brill Building.”  “We Deliver,” “Another Place, Another Time” and “I Want a Girlfriend” are the poppiest of the pop, and lest one think that songs such as “Dada Mama,” “Elvis, Groucho & Bing” and “Wang It” are nothing but jokes…well, okay, they ARE pretty much jokes. Fun, fun, fun. Grade: B

Next time out, we’ll devote an entire column to some cool vinyl releases. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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