Recent Pop Reviews

by John M. Borack

Apple Jam

Off the Beatle Track

Roseta Productions (884501189064)

Grade: ****1/2

Off the Beatle Track showcases authentic and affectionate Merseybeat re-creations of 14 tracks that John Lennon and Paul McCartney penned during the Beatles’ early years that were handed off to other British artists or never officially released by the Fab Four during the ’60s.  (There’s also one George Harrison-written tune here that was demoed in 1964 but which remained unreleased until 1995′s Anthology 1.)

Apple Jam is a Seattle, Washington-based quintet who have the early Beatles sound down to a tee and who used ’60s-era equipment to fashion this reverent collection.  From the Buddy Holly-ish reading of “I’ll Be On My Way” (released in 1963 by Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas) and the “And I Love Her”-styled take of “A World Without Love” (made famous by Peter and Gordon) to lesser-known numbers such as “Tip of My Tongue” and “One and One is Two,” the disc is further proof of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting magic.  As a bonus, the Harrison cut, “You Know What to Do,” sounds fantastic, all tricked out in the twangy, Carl Perkins guitar stylings that George used so successfully from ’63-’65.

Apple Jam’s stellar performances of these songs and other long-lost gems (such as “From a Window,” “I’ll Keep You Satisfied” and “Nobody I Know”) that the Beatles gave away make Off the Beatle Track sound like a long-lost Fab Four album, circa 1965.  And while other acts from such far-flung locales as Spain (Sgt. Pepper’s Band), the UK (Revolver) and Australia (The Beatnix) have attempted a similar sort of album with many of the same songs, Apple Jam’s renditions are fresher and more stylistically varied, making Off the Beatle Track a cool little record indeed.  Beatle freaks will definitely need to check this one out.  (Available at www.offthebeatletrack.com)    

Locksley

Be in Love

Feature (FEA-001-004)

Grade: ****

Many current young bands shun the term “power pop” and feign innocence when the British Invasion is mentioned as a possible musical touchstone, often preferring to instead describe their music as “indie,” “underground” or “garage rock.”  The 20-something chaps in Locksley, however, embrace both power pop and the sounds of the ’60s – they’ve been known to cover the Beatles on occasion – while infusing their infectious, guitar-driven rock with a slightly reckless, “let’s have some fun” feel.  (Some aural comparisons include acts such as Rooney and OK Go, both of whom Locksley has toured with.)

Locksley benefits from having three swell songwriters: brothers Jesse and Jordan Laz and Kai Kennedy split the composing duties on their sophomore effort, the 36-minute Be in Love.  Each of the dozen ditties is worthy of repeated spins and sure to set heads a-bobbing and toes a-tapping in short order – witness the single “Darling, It’s True,” which is powered by Sam Bair’s pounding drums and shouted background vocals on the irresistibly catchy chorus.  Or try the rhythm guitar-led “Days of Youth,” which sounds slightly reminiscent of ’80s hitmakers Big Country.  Or perhaps the propulsive “21st Century” might be more your cuppa tea, with its rapid-fire verses gliding into another winner of a chorus.  Best of all might be the almost ridiculously wide-eyed rocker “The Whip,” which features another melody that’ll stick around like an unwanted houseguest, a maddeningly perfect chorus that consists of the word “whoa” stretched out to ten syllables, a false ending and over the top lead vocal from Jordan Laz.  Awesome.

 If you’ve been jonesing for a dose of feel-good rock and roll by a band that respects rock’s history (there’s even a bit of a doo-wop influence on display here) while adding panache, power and fun to the formula, check out Locksley and Be in Love.  (www.Locksley.com)

The Plimsouls

Live!  Beg, Borrow & Steal

Alive (ALIVE0105-2)

Grade: ****

Back in the halcyon days of the late ’70s/early ’80s, it seemed for a brief moment as if power pop might actually take over the world.  Okay, that might be overstating the case just a tad, but with acts such as The Knack and The Romantics offering up catchy, melodically stimulating tunes that infused British Invasion charm with a palpable sense of energy and urgency – and achieving some measure of chart success to boot – it did seem like the genre might have some staying power on the charts.

Alas, ’twas not to be, but the power pop explosion of that era did leave a few truly outstanding bands in its wake, with one being Los Angeles’s own Plimsouls.  Led by the raw, soulful vocals and songwriting prowess of Peter Case and fortified by the ample rock and roll swagger of lead guitarist Eddie Munoz, drummer Lou Ramirez and bassist Dave Pahoa, the ‘Souls were one of the guiding lights of the L.A. music scene at the time.  Live!  Beg, Borrow & Steal is a white-hot document of a late 1981 gig at LA’s Whisky-A-Go-Go, featuring 18 examples of power pop played with an emphasis on the power. 

With a set list that draws from their self-titled debut album (“Hush Hush,” “Now” and a hopped up, Buddy-Holly-on-speed take of the pounding “I Want You Back”), their yet-to-be-released sophomore effort (from which they pull their most well-known tune “A Million Miles Away” and “I’ll Get Lucky,” among others) and some well-chosen covers (including the Kinks’ “Come on Now” and a storming version of the Easybeats’ “Sorry”), this is one incendiary set.

Case in particular sounds particularly engaged, and by the time things begin to wind down on a rip-roaring cover of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” the listener can practically hear the paint peeling off the walls.  Sure, there are a few bum notes and mumbled lyrics here and there, but that only adds to the charm of the disc (which features surprisingly good fidelity, by the way).

By the time things hurtle to a close with the Fleshtones joining Case and company onstage for covers of “New Orleans” and “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” it’s clear that the listener is being treated to a ragged but right, aural document of a band that clearly gave it everything they had and left it all on the stage that particular evening. (www.aliveenergy.com)

Tommy Keene

Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009

Second Motion (CD-SMR-019)

Grade: **** 1/2

In a staggeringly consistent and unfailingly entertaining musical career that has spanned nearly 30 years thus far, Tommy Keene has released some of the finest examples of sweet ‘n’ sour power pop that the genre has to offer.  His tunes are always catchy, his lyrics are always thought provoking and his underrated guitar playing adds an edge to his songs that many of his contemporaries have lacked. 

Keene fans can rejoice – and the uninitiated can do some catching up – as the 41-track, double CD compilation Tommy Keene You Hear Me collects a slew of Keene’s  most memorable moments from the past 27 years, along with a sprinkling of rarities.  Cherry picked from every Keene release (save for his debut, 1982′s Strange Alliance, which Keene has inexplicably disowned), the song selection is strong throughout: alongside 1980s-vintage power pop classics such as “Back to Zero Now” and “Places That Are Gone” are more obscure treasures such as 2006′s powerfully evocative “Warren in the ’60s,” the mandolin-laced suicide ballad “A Way Out” and the bittersweet “Your Heart Beats Alone.”

The selections from Keene’s long-out-of-print major label records, 1986′s Songs From the Film and 1989′s Based on Happy Times, retain their ample charms 20-plus years after the fact (big drum sound nonwithstanding), particularly the wistful chime on “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe,” the rockin’ kick of the cover of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons,” an 88-second blast of perfection titled “Astronomy” and the Jules Shear co-write “When Our Vows Break.”  It’s difficult to fathom why Keene didn’t break out with these tunes back in the day, but it’s to his credit that he continued to write, record and release outstanding material that was up to the same high standards throughout the ’90s and beyond.  (“No One in This City,” “Good Thing Going” and the beautiful, spare “Save This Harmony” all rival any of Keene’s ’80s recordings in terms of quality.)

The rarities here include the early ’80s b-side “Mr. Roland,” the T-Bone Burnett/Don Dixon-produced “Gold Town” (a different version was recorded for Songs From the Film), an acoustic version of “Black and White New York” and Keene’s previously unreleased take of 20/20′s 1979 power pop nugget “Leaving Your World Behind,” which he turns into a mournful, spacious number, to good effect. 

As a bonus, if the unfortunately-titled Tommy Keene You Hear Me is purchased through the Second Motion Records website, there is a limited-edition (download only) EP that includes demos, live tracks, alternate mixes and previously unreleased tracks.  Good stuff.  (www.secondmotionrecords.com)

One thought on “Recent Pop Reviews

  1. My only complaint on the Tommy keene is that they should have included “The Real Underground”…that’s one of his top 5 earworms!

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