by John M. Borack
New York has always been the home to many outstanding pop singer/songwriters: Richard X. Heyman, Shane Faubert, Dave Rave and Mark Johnson are a few who spring immediately to mind. In this installment of Power Pop Plus, we’ll take a look at two New Yorkers who have each shed their power pop skin on their latest releases in favor of something a bit different.
Mark Bacino – Queens English
NYC-area power popster Mark Bacino takes a slight detour through baroqueville on his latest release, the semi-autobiographical Queens English, with satisfying results. After the bubblegummy pop of his first two discs, QE finds Bacino fashioning a personalized, fanciful, Harry Nilsson-influenced song cycle about life in the Big Apple (and in case the Nilsson influence is not obvious from listening, “Harry” is thanked in the notes for “motivation/inspiration.”). It’s Bacino’s most consistent disc yet in terms of both songwriting and cohesiveness, and is quite entertaining.
After a brief prelude, the forceful, impossibly catchy title track gets things going in the right direction straight away; it’s the only true power pop number on the record and perhaps the best thing Bacino’s ever recorded. From that point on, things take a mellower turn, with winning melodies, subtle string and horn touches and Bacino’s gently persuasive vocals working together to create some magic.
From an unplanned pregnancy (“Muffin in the Oven”), raising an infant (“Camp Elmo”) and a sweet ‘n’ snappy nostalgic number about his parents (“Angeline & the Bensonhurst Boy”) to tunes about his ‘hood (the vaguely Elvis Costello-ish “Middle Town”) and spending time with his young son (“Ballad of M & LJ”), Queens English takes the listener on a nice little sonic journey through Bacino’s world. By the time things wrap up with the “hey you kids, get offa my lawn” vibe of “Who are Yous,” it’s clear that this is not only a solid record, but one that no doubt means a lot to Mark Bacino.
Michael Mazzarella – Soda Pop Gramophone
Since ’90s power pop icons The Rooks stopped releasing new music some years ago, their leader Michael Mazzarella has recorded a series of low-key, often intensely personal solo albums while also working with a new band, Sonic Blue Sound Revue. Mazzarella’s latest solo effort, Soda Pop Gramophone, continues in the low-key, low-fi vein: it’s an ambitious 16-song collection that includes a 50-page book of song lyrics and color illustrations by 11-year-old Peter Thomas Blake, who also provides pre-song narration for each of the tunes. Mazzarella performs most everything solo (save for the strings and horns which brightly color many of the tunes), while the golden-voiced Gael George’s background vocals provide a sweet counterpoint to Mazzarella’s Lennonesque leads.
Taken as a whole, the songs on Soda Pop Gramophone tell the story of a boy’s journey into manhood (or is it a man’s journey into boyhood?) in Mazzarella’s usual thoughtful, artfully expressed manner. While all of the tunes aren’t immediately accessible, everything here is still a joy to listen to, whether it’s a slow mood piece or a jaunty, whimsical ditty – it’s intense, playful, thought provoking and gentle all at once, and a real “grower” of a record. Among those tunes that continue to grow are the childlike “You I (You, Why?),” the ’60s pop throwback “Didn’t Every Day,” the sprightly “Away the Danger Down,” the darker-hued “As We Go,” the sadly sweet “My Mind Your Mind,” and the flower-powery “With Love?”
Whether some – or all – of Soda Pop Gramophone is autobiographical is open to interpretation, but the bottom line is this: it’s not your standard pop record. Michael Mazzarella has always pushed the envelope in terms of his art, challenging both the listener and himself while staying within the confines of a three-minute pop song. The starkly poetic lyrics and the impeccably arranged music on SPG combine to make it a release that demands your attention and one that will definitely land in my top 10 of 2010.
For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
• Buy the brand new edition of “Goldmine Standard Catalog of American Records 1948-1991, 7th Edition”