Power Pop Plus: New Music Reviews

by John M. Borack

THE PENGWINS – Volume 4 (Boxed Set)

Those power poppin’ Pengwins boys from down Texas way have been doing that thing they do for damn near 40 years now, and on their latest boxed set they go digging through their archives and unearth both a gem from 1978 and a decade-old number, adding a demo of the former and an alternate mix of the latter. The results are essential listening for any fan of the genre.

Pengwins drummer Danny Wilkerson penned “Go Away,” which was recorded between 2007 and 2009 at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London and the not-yet-legendary-but-still-cool The Cove Studio in Arlington, TX. (Portions were also recorded at Lannie’s Garage in Texas; the Lannie in question, of course, is the venerable Lannie Flowers, who cut his power pop teeth in the Pengwins before releasing a successful string of solo records over the past decade.) It’s a super-catchy slab of prime pop, with one of those instantly memorable choruses, a propulsive melody, and a slightly angsty, Elvis Costello-circa-This Year’s Model vibe. Wilkerson’s lead vocals are tough but sweet – part and parcel of a great power pop tune – and Alan Petsche’s compact lead guitar sounds as if it leapt off one of the Flamin’ Groovies’ late ‘70s records. Delbert Raines’ bass pops quite righteously and helps drive the tune (particularly on the alternate, spiky/psych-y “nervous mix”) and the aforementioned Lannie Flowers – you remember, the guy with the garage – chips in with some guitar and backing vox. Great, great stuff.

The 1978 number (“Just a Dream”) is a wistful and reflective slower tune penned by Flowers and Raines and sung by Lannie. It has a distinct late period Beatles feel; as a matter of fact, with drummer David Bryan’s steady, Ringo-esque beat, Flowers’ plaintive, yearning vocal delivery and Raines’ sweet backing vocals, it’s something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Abbey Road or Paul McCartney’s solo debut. (Love the wordless backing vocals underneath Petsche’s nifty little guitar solo, too.) The demo is a piano-based, lower-fi worktape with some lyrical differences as well as a completely different title (“Ladybug”).

So here’s the lowdown on what’s contained in the boxed set: in addition to the four-song CD, there is a vinyl 45 with “Go Away” b/w “Just a Dream,” a large Pengwins sticker, a David Bryan drumstick pen, and a Bryan baseball card, where we learn that back in the day, the band’s former drummer “on more than one occasion…ended the final set of the night by setting himself and his drums on fire.” Now if that’s not rock and roll – and arson – I don’t know what is. Grade: A

 

 

 

THE NATURALS – We Are the Naturals

It’s obvious from the get go that this Australian duo – brothers Aaron and Keiren Jolly – is straight up power pop – they lead off this swell 12-track record with a freakin’ theme song (“We Are the Naturals”), move on to insist “I Don’t Need a Car” and punctuate the point with some bop shoo wops, get all Rickenbackery on the lovely, mid-tempo “Out of My Head,” offer up a singalong number of the classic variety on “Mary Go Round” (with a chorus that sounds a touch like Herman’s Hermits’ “A Must to Avoid”), and stomp through a Stems-like, garage number (“Tangled Up”). Elsewhere, “Pretty Young” brings to mind the early Beatles, while “Just Got Paid” is a snappy little three-chord rocker, and “F.R.I.D.A.Y.” veers into mod territory without losing control. Oh, you can also tell that the Jolly brothers are power pop because they have a song titled “Hey, Private School Girl.” A very nice, unassuming record that arrived from out in left field but has found a home in my CD changer. Grade: A-

 

 

DIAMOND HANDS – Diamond Hands

Speaking of power pop, here we have another gem that offers a load of wonderful songs and also the gift of brevity: 11 tunes in just a little over 25 minutes. Diamond Hands’ sterling debut was one of my favorite records of 2016, but I’m talking about it once again due to the fact that the good folks at Kool Kat Musik have recently released it on compact disc. (It was previously available only on LP and – gakkkk! – cassette.) Everything here is melodically stimulating to be sure, but two songs in particular – “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Just Another Day” – are A-1, pitch-perfect examples of how to write, arrange and perform a power pop tune. Simply marvelous. And when they go all updated Everly Brothers on us (“Nothing Left to Lose”) or get sort of rootsy in an “Oh Yoko” kinda way (“Alone With You”), the results are nearly as cool. Now that it’s on CD, there’s no excuse for missing this one. Grade: A

 

 

COLMAN GOTA – Fear the Summer

Hailing from Madrid, Colman Gota’s music is stylish rock-pop that often sounds like some unholy cross between David Myhr and Tom Petty. Recorded at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium studio and featuring Easter on some guitar, Fear the Summer is a nice sounding record that starts with a bang – the title track and “What Goes On in My Head” are probably the two strongest things here – but slacks off some as it goes along with a few relatively bland tunes dragging it down. Still, there’s gold to be found if you dig a bit. Grade: B

 

 

 

ALAN BERNHOFT – Beatlesque Station

It’s simple, really; if you enjoy the music of the Beatles, you’ll probably enjoy Alan Bernhoft. With a voice that recalls John Lennon (Bernhoft has worked in Beatles cover bands in the LA area), Beatlesque Station mainly mines the poppy side of Beatles ’67 in a rather pleasant fashion. Some of the tunes sound a bit like well-known numbers without aping them – for example, “If I Could” starts with some guitar that brings to mind “My Sweet Lord,” adds a drum pattern similar to Arthur Alexander’s “Anna” (which the Beatles, of course, covered) and then goes off in more of a Beatles For Sale direction. The ethereal “Shine on Brightly,” a lovely little harmony-filled love letter to Bernhoft’s late father, closes things out. Song Title of the Day: “Apple Pie Tonight.” Weird Spoken Word Thing: “Rigid Pipe – Tears for Ratulat,” which name checks Fred and Ethel Mertz, Aladdin, and a “half-crazed half-Indian named Bwana.” Grade: B-

 

 

THE SINGLES – Sweet Tooth

Don’t let the scary cover art fool you – the latest release from the Singles is another in a series of solid pop/rock records from the L.A. (by way of Michigan) trio that draws upon influences from the ‘50s and ‘60s to craft hook-filled little pop nuggets with guitars that are strictly in the here and now. No one song really stands out, but that speaks more to the overall consistency of the album than to any sort of weakness. But if one were to put a gun to my head and force me to choose, “Masterpiece,” “Dawn” and the Merseybilly “Nobody Knows” (think “Hello Mary Lou” on steroids) would be my picks. Lead singer/songwriter Vince Frederick’s firm grasp of mixing classic song structures with those slashing guitars is one of the Singles’ many strengths. Grade: B+

 

 

SITCOM NEIGHBOR – Shag

The fresh-faced, sprightly sound of this wonderful little record recalls the late ‘90s heyday of the “second coming” of power pop, when labels such as Not Lame, Big Deal and Permanent Press were doling out fab releases seemingly at will. Sitcom Neighbor is a two-man operation: singer/songwriter John Murphy (not the Shoes dude) and LA-based producer (and multi-instrumentalist) Steve Refling, who has worked with The Masticators, Derrick Anderson and Martin Luther Lennon, to name but a few. Together they’ve created what just may turn out to be the album of the year: song after song of ridiculously catchy, immaculately constructed power pop, all composed by Murphy, comes at the listener in a flurry of tunefulness. The vocals are somewhat reminiscent of a melding of the late, great Cherry Twister and XTC, and songs such as “Tourist Attraction,” “Pimpmobile,” and “No One Really Knows” are pretty much impossible to shake after just a listen or two. Speaking of “No One Really Knows,” it features the prescient lyric, “Some people are like puppies/need a smack across the nose.” Yup. Grade: A

 

 

CHRIS CHURCH – Limitations of Source Tape

Veteran North Carolina pop dude Chris Church is back with his first release for SpyderPop Records, the impressive, 14-track Limitations of Source Tape. Not many limitations to be found here, honestly, as the album brims with nicely sung, sharply written tunes that reveal new layers with each successive listen. Church’s vocal doppelganger is Matthew Sweet, although the liveliness of tracks such as “Worse Things Happen at Sea” muster up an energy that Sweet hasn’t displayed in years. Most all of the tunes here are immediately engaging, literate and passionate pop-rock numbers that deftly glide along on cushions of acoustic and electric guitars sitting pretty underneath Church’s urgent vocals. Faves include the sureshot rocker “Fall Into Me,” the sweetly mysterious “Pollyanna’s Going Dark,” the crunchier “Something Completely” (nice interplay between the lead and backing vocals on the chorus here) and “Understudy Blues” (love the distorted freakout guitar solo) and the hypnotically catchy and speedy “Bell the Cat,” which features another nice little guitar solo courtesy of Charlie Shoemake. Limitations of Source Tape is yet another grand example of highly involved (and evolved) guitar-pop that sadly flies under the radar all too often. It’ll be available beginning September 22. Grade: A

 

 

THE FLAMES – The Flames

It really is a rather incredible story: a Canadian music biz veteran forms a band, writes and records a dozen tracks in 1980 with titles such as “Living in Bondage,” “Stabbed to Death” and “Menage a Trois,” presses up a small number of promo LPs, shops the record to prospective labels, finds no takers mainly due to the racy lyrical content, and promptly quits the music business. 35 years later, an indie label owner happens across one of the old promos in a Delaware record store, tries and fails to ferret out any info about the band online, and in a last ditch attempt, dials a phone number written on the back of the LP jacket. This, amazingly, puts him in touch with singer/songwriter Michael Richards, and leads to the first-ever release of The Flames’ self-titled album.

Unfortunately, the backstory is far more entertaining than the album, which is relatively tame-sounding new wave, with gurgling keyboards, a hint of reggae, and Richards’ highly affected vocals. In addition to the 12 songs that comprised that original promo LP, the CD includes two poor quality songs sourced from a 1980 rehearsal cassette, as well as ten Richards solo recordings of relatively recent vintage. These acoustic recordings show Richards to be a competent tunesmith, with autobiographical ditties such as “I’m Not Drinking” and “Better Man” sounding earnest, if nothing else. The Flames is an interesting curio, but nothing more. Grade: C

 

 

THE WELLINGTONS – End of the Summer

Another excellent long player from the Wellingtons, with more of the juicy melodies, boy/girl vocals (courtesy of Zac Anthony and Kate Goldby) and powerful cascades of guitars that make certain that the Aussie quintet’s brand of power pop fulfills the power quotient. The 11 new tunes on End of the Summer are all winners, with special kudos going to the enthralling, Goldby-sung girl group update “Please Be Nice” (whose bridge recalls “My Boyfriend’s Back”); the lovely, bittersweet Anthony/Goldby duet “End of the Summer”; the lyrically pessimistic but wonderfully catchy rocker “Not Getting What I Want” (drummer Dave Kleynjans is the MVP here); and the quintessentially power poppin’ “1963,” which includes two candidates for Lyric of the Year: “It’s not easy hating almost every song on the radio” and “I don’t wanna live in a world that thinks that the Kings of Leon are better than The Kinks.” Testify! Grade: A

 

 

THE SAFES – Tasty Waves

With 10 songs clocking in at barely over 22 minutes and a somewhat minimalist guitar-pop style with sweet vocals out front, the sound of the Safes’ Tasty Waves is reminiscent of the Sex Clark Five. (Remember them? You should.) The Safes is fronted by brothers Frankie and Patrick O’Malley with Frankie writing most of the tunes, which are consistently melodious. Nothing earth shaking here, just a solid pop-rock record and probably their best yet. Grade: B

 

 

THE BYE BYE BLACKBIRDS – Take Out the Poison

The fourth full-length offering from this Oakland-based combo, masterminded by talented singer/songwriter Bradley Skaught, is a highly varied 11-song collection showcasing various pop styles with grace and acuity: there’s between-the-eyes power pop (“Poison Love”), jangly sweetness (“Duet,” which features vocalist Lindsay Paige Garfield deftly harmonizing with Skaught), a moody acoustic number (“I Meant to Write”), more snappy power pop (“Alfred Starr Hamilton,” perhaps the best thing here), the percussive, engaging “Earl Grey Kisses,” and the horn-laced “Let Your Hair Fall Down.” Also impressive is how, on “Your Spell is Too Late,” Skaught manages to conjure up musical images of Big Star’s Radio City and Sister Lovers simultaneously. Grade: A

 

 

THE HANGABOUTS – KITS & CATS AND SAXON WIVES

You like the Zombies, right? Of course you do. Everyone likes the Zombies. I mean, what’s not to like? Breathy vocals, superbly written songs with melodies that don’t go away, tasteful instrumentation…you know the drill. Yeah, so, there’s this band called the Hangabouts from Michigan. They’re certainly not as amazing as the Zombies – that’s a hard row to hoe – but their new record certainly has a distinct Zombies vibe without sounding like a tribute band. Listen to the title track, or “Cricket Time” or “Selling Out” or maybe “Taking You to Leave Me” – all fine songs, all very pretty, all beautifully sung, all very organic sounding. Or – especially – the amazing, blissful-sounding-yet-sad “Twelve Songs,” whose “twelve songs/all about Emily” refrain will stick in your head long after the disc stop spinning. Grade: A-

 

 

THE ON AND ONS – Welcome Aboard

It’s been a pretty great year for Australian power pop: in addition to the new DM3 single (recently reviewed in these pages) and the splendid Wellingtons’ album, there is a new album by the Stanleys on the horizon as well as the just-released sophomore effort by the On and Ons, Welcome Aboard. Self-described as being influenced by the Hoodoo Gurus and Paul Collins’ Beat, the On and Ons specialize in snappy three-minute tunes that take dips in both the garage and power pop pools – in that regard they’re similar to their Aussie pop forefathers DM3 and the Stems. Check out “No Good for Yourself,” “She’s Leaving” or “Sugar Anne” for three shots of the melodic goodness to be found on Welcome Aboard. Grade: A-

 

 

THE FAVOURITES – New Feeling

I’ve had a cool vintage UK power pop 45 by the Favourites (titled “Angelica”) in my collection for some time, but never heard – or heard about – anything else from the band from Nottingham. Apparently they only released only one other record – another single, with the A-side being a beefed up cover of ABBA’s “SOS” – before splintering in late 1979. There was a comp with some unreleased material that surfaced in 2002, but the brand new LP/CD, New Feeling, is most definitely the Favourites collection to own. In addition to both singles and their B-sides, there are 10 rare, unreleased-at-the-time songs that have gone virtually unheard since the band’s heyday, making this the album that never was. It’s all pretty solid stuff without any of the spotty sound issues or dodgy live tracks that plague so many reissues of ‘70s/’80s UK power pop. With a bushel of hooky songs written (separately) by lead vocalist Darryl Hunt and guitarist Duncan Kerr, New Feeling is a gem of an album that proves that even nearly 40 years after the fact, there is still some cool power pop to be exhumed from the vaults. Dig in and dig it. Grade: A

 

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS – This is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio – Volume 4

Journalistic integrity and conflicts of interest being what they are, I suppose I should alert you straightaway to the fact that your humble scribe appears on three tracks on TiRRR4 as your humble drummer. But hey, you know what? There are 26 other tracks on this fantabulous compilation that I don’t appear on, so screw it. It’s so good that I’d actually be doing more of a disservice if I didn’t talk about than I would if I did, so I will. I mean, I am. Or something.

Anyway…the veritable bounty of delightful tracks on TiRRR4 were curated by radio hosts Carl Cafarelli and Dana Bonn, who spin records and gab about ‘em every Sunday evening in Syracuse, NY (and online, too). Most all of it is either rare/hard to find or previously unreleased, and the disc is positively crawling with great tunes from accomplished titans of the power pop genre (Rubinoos, Smithereens, Paul Collins’ Beat), indie faves (the Gripweeds, Chris von Sneidern, Lisa Mychols, P. Hux), lesser-known-but-still-cool acts (Stepford Knives, The Rulers, Michael Oliver) and Cafarelli/Bonn fave raves (the Flashcubes, Ronnie Dark, 1.4.5.).

Personal picks would be Ray Paul’s insistently rockin’ “I Need Your Love Tonight” (the best thing he’s ever done, to these ears), Pop Co-Op’s “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” (sounding like a long lost Walker Brothers track), the bubbly “I’m On Your Side” by Circe Link & Christian Nesmith, The Rulers’ “I Want My Ramones Records Back” (who wouldn’t?), Lisa Mychols’ “Almost Didn’t Happen” and The Legal Matters’ faithful take of Teenage Fanclub’s “Don’t Look Back.” But really, nothing here is less than very good, making this one of the finest pure pop compilations I’ve heard in years. Kudos to Kool Kat Musik for releasing this gem. Grade: A

 

 

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