ARVIDSON & BUTTERFLIES – S/T (KOOL KAT)
I’m not one who’s generally given to hyperbole, but I’ll say this right now: if I hear a finer record than this one in 2016, I’ll be surprised, shocked, stunned and altogether flummoxed. Roger Arvidson and his band of merry Swedish popsters have fashioned 33 minutes worth of absolutely glorious pop music, with joyous-sounding guitar jangle that’s absolutely off the charts (but should be at the top of them). That’s not to say that Arvidson & Butterflies is some sort of Byrds knockoff; on the contrary, their sound (which is fortified by keyboards and Arvidson’s wonderfully pleasant vocals, which at times recall those of the relatively obscure ‘70s/’80s pop act Blue) is absolutely in the here and now. Most of the tracks are of the upbeat variety, one is nearly punky (“Alright” is the best minute-and-a-half I’ve spent in a long while), and a few are beautifully dreamy, especially the wistful disc-closer “The Spring Birds.” If you’re a fan of power pop, Swedish pop, guitars that go jangle in the night and superb songwriting, run don’t walk and grab Arvidson & Butterflies post haste. Sheer perfection, I say. Grade: A+
VELVET CRUSH – PRE-TEEN SYMPHONIES (OMNIVORE)
Pre-Teen Symphonies collects 16 tracks from the Crushsters: eight demos for the Teenage Symphonies to God record and eight live tracks from a 1994 Chicago gig with the most awesome Tommy Keene on lead guitar. It’s all been released before – as two separate discs on the band’s own Action Musik imprint in 2000 and 2002 – but it’s nice to see it more widely available. The demos are all high quality, with a fiery take of Three Hour Tour’s “Turn Down” being the clear highlight. The live tracks show VC to be a formidable live unit, rockin’ like mad as they run through fan favorites such as “My Blank Pages,” “Ash and Earth,” a storming “Hold Me Up,” and an amazing cover of 20/20’s “Remember the Lightning.” Paul Chastain is in fine voice throughout, and drummer Ric Menck holds down the beat with a master’s precision. Menck also penned some liner notes that get laughably self-congratulatory (“…Teenage Symphonies to God was the pinnacle of our illustrious career as a band”) and as such, I’m not certain they’re to be taken seriously. Grade: B+
THE ANDERSON COUNCIL – ASSORTED COLOURS (JEM)
The Anderson Council calls Assorted Colours “a primer.” Some would dub it psych-pop. Others may say it’s ‘60s-influenced. Me? I say yes to all. I also say it’s a sparkling collection of tunes, eight remastered AC favourites (including “Love Bomb,” previously a vinyl-only B-side) and four new ones: “Magical,” “Girl On The Northern Line,” “I Never Feel,” and “Fire Island.” It’s all a pitch-perfect melding of Pink Floyd circa 1967 and 1966 vintage Who, with a pinch of Idle Race and some Beatles tossed into the mix for good measure. (“Never Stop Being ‘67” reverently borrows a bit from “She Said, She Said,” which, ironically, was released in ’66.) There are juicy melodies to spare, passels of memorable riffs, some “la la la’s,” and not only do they name-check “See Emily Play,” but they have a song called “Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours” that pinches its ending from Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio.” Groovy, baby. Grade: A
RAY PAUL – WHIMSICALITY (Permanent Press)
Ray Paul has been a player in the power pop scene as a musician and label owner (Permanent Press Records) for more than 40 years, but he’s waited until 2016 to unveil his finest collection of tunes to date. The 10-track Whimsicality features six originals and four covers, and finds Paul working with pop luminaries such as drummer extraordinaire Clem Burke, Kurt Reil and Kristin Pinell (Gripweeds), Terry Draper (Klaatu), Emitt Rhodes, and Walter Clevenger and Mike Fernandez (from Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings – time for a new record from those guys!).
The basic sonic touchstone throughout is Beatles ’65 without sounding hung up on some kind of retro trip; listen to the “What You’re Doing”-inspired guitar riff that leads off “A Fool Without Your Love” (one of the picks of the litter) or the slightly darker-hued “You Don’t Have to Prove Your Love” (killer chorus here and oh, that 12-string Rickenbacker chime) for those good ‘ol Merseybeat-styled thrills. (The latter is also somewhat reminiscent in spots of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.”)
“All You Ever Wanted” is another standout, a mid-tempo kiss-off fed by more Rick 12-string, along with Paul on the Hofner bass (that’s Ray Paul, not Paul McCartney) and Epiphone Casino, and Fernandez on Ludwig drums (it’s all so Beatley), with Clevenger adding a tasty guitar solo. “I Love It (But You Don’t Believe It)” is a power pop sureshot, with fab vocalizing and typically strong instrumental and production assistance from Reil and Pinell. As far as the covers, Manfred Mann’s ”Pretty Flamingo” gets a reverential reading that doesn’t come off like a carbon copy, a previously-released version of Paul’s “Oh Woman, Oh Why” (that’s Paul McCartney, not Ray Paul) is strong all the way around, and the Grass Roots’ “Temptation Eyes” (with Draper) is drastically slowed down, which to these ears serves to suck the life out of the song.
Just about the only other minor complaints I can muster about Whimsicality are that it would have been better served with a few more Ray Paul originals and a better conceived cover; but hey, everyone’s a (music and cover art) critic, right? It’s still a fine, fine power pop record. Grade: A-
GRETCHEN’S WHEEL – BEHIND THE CURTAIN (FUTUREMAN)
The sophomore release from Nashville-based singer/songwriter Lindsay Murray finds her building upon her 2015, Ken Stringfellow-produced debut, Fragile State, and surpassing that record’s ample charms. Bearing a vocal similarity to Aimee Mann, Murray writes concise, catchy songs filled with emotion while never veering into melodramatics. “Invisible Thief” kicks things off with a typically strong vocal performance from Murray and a breezy power pop melody that shifts gears into a hypnotic end bit; “The Good Things” is a mid-tempo winner that is colored by some sweet mellotron shadings; “Live Through You” and “This Petrified Heart” offer up some heavier guitars that envelop more memorable melodies; “Vapors” recalls early R.E.M.; and a kinetic cover of Sloan’s “Try to Make It” is absolutely perfect. Behind the Curtain wraps up with the smoldering title track, which manages to simultaneously sound relaxed and intense. It’s a fitting cap to a first-rate record. Grade: A-