It’s been awhile since I’ve offered any of my bullheaded musical opinions around these parts; it’s been a hectic/jam-packed/stressful three months or so for me, mainly due to a deadline I had to meet for my next book, as well as some surgery that didn’t go quite as expected. But hey, it’s 2017 and I’m all right now (to quote Free) – well, as good as I ever get – so I’m back to blab at ya regarding a whole big bunch of 2016 releases.
The Posies – Solid States (My Music Empire)
Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow have been attempting to throw off the cumbersome yoke of power pop for many years now, and have lost some fans in the process. Of course, said fans were probably the ones who wanted J and K to keep jangling their guitars and rewriting “Suddenly Mary” or “Golden Blunders,” and Auer and Stringfellow – quite understandably – resisted. So now the Posies have been together nearly 30 years (really?!), their power poppin’ days are a distant memory, and Solid States is their first full-length effort in six years. And it’s a relatively solid collection, with the guitars relegated to the background and keyboards and even some – gasp! – processed beats providing the sonic textures. It contains the band’s strongest batch of songs in some time, and the atmospheric (yet still melodic) bent that looms over the record is pleasant and never overbearing. The first half seems stronger to these ears, highlighted by the dizzying “Squirrel vs. Snake” and the icy “Unlikely Places.” Oh, and Auer and Stringfellow continue to sing quite wonderfully after all these years. Grade: B-
Mimi Betinis – Music Sounds (Mimi-Tone)
The former frontman for seminal ‘70s power popsters Pezband is back with some swell new music, and the good news is that his vocals sound pretty much the same as they did all those years ago – which is to say he still sounds great. Backed by some former Pezband mates as well as ex-Off Broadway drummer Ken Harck on some of the tunes, there are highlights sprinkled throughout: “Corinna” and “Sound the Alarm” come off like long-lost Pezband cuts, “She Wants You” is a melodic nugget that evokes the sound and spirit of the early Beatles, and “Palm of Her Hand” is a sweetly-sung ballad that would have slotted in perfectly on the American Graffiti soundtrack. Proof that old(er) popsters can age gracefully. (A companion piece to Music Sounds is Basement Tapes Vol. 1, a mainly acoustic offering that finds Betinis plundering the vaults and coming up with treats such as faithful covers of the Hudson Brothers’ “So You Are a Star” and Paul McCartney’s “Goodbye,” along with a simply gorgeous reading of Pezband’s “Didn’t We” titled “Didn’t We 1979,” which features Off Broadway vocalist Cliff Johnson and manages to outshine the stellar original version.) Grade: B+
The Weeklings – Studio 2 (Jem)
Yeah, yeah, yeah! If you’ve got a hankering for the fabber-than-fab sounds of the Beatles, check out the Weeklings and their marvelous sophomore release, Studio 2. Named after the location where they recorded the album – at Abbey Road, no less, and using vintage ‘60s gear – Studio 2 features a dozen tunes that summon up the freshness and spirit of the early Beatles without sounding like carbon copies. Of course, as with the Weeklings’ debut, there are some little aural Easter eggs to be unearthed here by Beatles buffs: the distinct “You Won’t See Me” vibe of the sweet “Love Can”; the George Harrison-by-way-of Carl Perkins guitar twang on “You’re the One”; the “Ballad of John and Yoko” ending at the close of “You Must Write”; and the brief “She’s a Woman” guitar riff smack dab in the middle of “Because I Know You Love Me So.” (“You Must Write” and “Because I Know You Love Me So” are two of four Lennon/McCartney-penned rarities that make an appearance here.) The foursome’s originals are extremely strong as well: the harmonica-fueled “Morning, Noon & Night” is immediately catchy, while the Merseybeat-cum-glam stomp of “Little Elvis” and the slightly frenetic, moptop-shaking “Don’t Know, Don’t Care” are both superb. Kudos to Lefty, Zeek, Rocky and Smokestack for another flawless evocation of a simpler – and grander – musical time. (And no, those aren’t the Weeklings’ real names; who the hell would name their kid Smokestack?) Grade: A
Jack Lee – Bigger Than Life (Alive)
As one-third of The Nerves alongside Paul Collins and Peter Case, Jack Lee ended up getting the short end of the stick, fame-wise, after the band split: Collins went on to form the Beat, Case founded the Plimsouls (both scored major label deals), and Lee…well, he had a few of his compositions recorded by well-known artists in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Blondie dressed up “Hanging on the Telephone” and Paul Young had a hit with “Come Back and Stay”), but he sadly faded into obscurity after that. There were rumors of all sorts of unsavory stuff, and his former bandmate Case portrayed Lee in a less-than-flattering manner in a 1998 Plimsouls tune called “Playing with Jack.” (“Jack looks slick but he’s come unglued/since the Nerves broke up, all he does is brood.”) Still, despite his rumored shortcomings, Lee wrote some killer tunes back in the day, and Alive Records has collected 23 of ‘em on Bigger Than Life. The songs were originally released on two long-deleted LPs and have been unavailable for around 30 years, and even though they were originally conceived as demos, Lee’s winning way with a melody is on display throughout. The first 11 numbers are from the Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1 LP (wishful thinking at its finest), and include Lee’s rough and tumble takes of the aforementioned “Come Back and Stay” and “Hanging On the Telephone,” as well as snappy power pop ditties such as “Women,” “Give Me Some Time” and “Good Times,” all sung in Lee’s edgy, soulful rasp. The rest of the tunes (save one b-side) are from Lee’s hyper-rare, self-titled 1985 album, originally released only in France. These range from the raging “Sex” (cut with the semi-legendary Rubber City Rebels) to a whole batch of slightly mellower songs that rely more on synthesizers than guitars. The best of these sound like could-have-been-hits: “Bird in a Cage,” the melancholy “From Time to Time,” “The Girl in the Picture” and “Time Machine,” a sadly sweet tale of longing that’s been begging to be heard by a wider audience for 30-plus years. Cool stuff, but man, some liner notes would have been nice. Grade: A
The Monos! – Live ’78 (Kool Kat)
There are probably dozens upon dozens of bands like The Monos! that have been lost to the mists of time: young, energetic foursomes from the late ‘70s whose stock-in-trade was brawny, mod-influenced power pop. This British quartet stands out, though, as they were signed to a major label in the UK for a time (RCA) and released four singles before splitting up. The aural evidence presented on this live disc (recorded at North East London Polytechnic) showcases plenty of catchy choruses – “Pop Heart,” “New York Girls,” “Melt Away” (with its “pick up my guitar and play” Who quote) and “Better Man” are all good ‘uns – and some nicely placed vocal harmonies. What Live ’78 may lack in fidelity it more than makes up for in punky, plucky spirit and attitude. Grade: B
Alan Fox Band – Coal Black Sky (Mesquite St.)
Led by vocalist Donny Hart and the twin lead guitar attack of Donnie Pendleton and Alan Fox, this talented quintet come blazing straight outta the Lone Star State with a 10-track CD that’s sure to please fans of passionate rock and roll served with a side of blues and country. Hart’s soaring vocals cut through the rock-solid instrumental attack (say yeah for loud drums!) with taste and precision, and the band’s songs all hit the mark. Faves include the party anthem “If You’re Scared,” the riffy, vaguely Aerosmith-like “Ride,” the heartfelt, disc-closing ballad “The Path,” and “Chase Away the Shadows,” which sounds like a long-lost .38 Special radio smash. Coal Black Sky = Real. Texas. Rock and roll. Grade: A-
Erik Voeks – So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away (Hanky Panky)
After his 1993 disc Sandbox wowed the power pop community, Erik Voeks slipped into relative obscurity for a time, before reemerging with a series of singles released on Bandcamp over the last few years. He’s compiled these (along with a few others) on this fantastic 13-track album, which is sure to end up on my best of 2016 list. The first two tracks are stunningly glorious examples of pure, jangly power pop and are possibly the best songs I’ve heard this year: “GML2C” and “She Loved Her Jangle Pop,” which gets extra points for name-checking Chris Bell and Bobby Sutliff. Other tracks rock a bit harder (“Tired of Feelin’ Alone,” “She Was Doomed”), and when Voeks slows things down towards the end of the disc, the tunes still shine just as brightly. It’s great to finally hear a new album from Erik Voeks, and So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away is definitely worth the wait. Grade: A
The Legal Matters – Conrad (Omnivore)
There might be plenty going wrong in this crazy old world we’re currently existing in, but the fact that a label like Omnivore is releasing a record like Conrad in 2016 should be a cause for some sort of celebration. Some are calling this a power pop record, but it seems to be a tad too sophisticated for that (somewhat) limiting tag – and besides, we’re not exactly dealing with an Iggy and the Stooges type of instrumental attack here. No, this is more pretty pop than power pop – Andy Reed, Keith Klingensmith, and Chris Richards write songs that are gently pleasing and they harmonize like choirboys throughout. (Of course, you can tell they’re not exactly choirboys because one of ‘em sings about “fucking up the scene” on the uncharacteristically loud – and great – “Short Term Memory.”) The best songs of the batch seem to be tucked in the middle of the disc: the deceptively cheery-sounding “She Called Me to Say,” the self-deprecating “The Cool Kid” and – especially – Klingensmith’s lone songwriting credit, the sublime, Teenage Fanclub-influenced “Pull My String.” Good show, chaps. Grade: A-
Sonny & Cher – Good Times: Original Movie Soundtrack (Varese Sarabande)
Here’s a weird one: a reissue of the soundtrack to Sonny & Cher’s 1967 bomb of a flick, directed by William Friedkin. (Yes, the same guy who directed The Exorcist. There must be a joke in there somewhere.) There are eight songs from the film (along with some dialogue), plus three bonus tracks: the duo’s horribly dated 1967 single “Plastic Man,” a single edit of the splendidly Spectorian “It’s the Little Things,” and the “original mono hit single version” of “I Got You Babe.” The only other thing worth hearing is Cher’s pleading “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” which features a nice melody and a tasty string arrangement. A curio and nothing more. Grade: C+
Game Theory – The Big Shot Chronicles (Omnivore)
Omnivore continues their Game Theory reissue campaign with the re-release of 1986’s seminal The Big Shot Chronicles, fortified by the addition of 13 bonus tracks. The left-field genius of the late Scott Miller is in full flower here, with tunes such as the accessibly poppy “Erica’s Word” and “Crash Into June,” the breathtakingly beautiful “Regenisraen,” and the distorted guitar fiesta “Never Mind” ranking among his best ever. The bonus cuts are a veritable treasure trove: they run the gamut from the power pop bliss of a speedy cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” and the stark purity of Miller’s solo demo of Alex Chilton’s “Jesus Christ” to a downcast interpretation of Bobby Sherman’s “Seattle” and a shambolic, live reading of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” Absolutely essential. Grade: A
Gary Ritchie – Poptimistic (Fancy Two/Tone)
Here we have 15 tracks of good-time, straight-up power pop, all sprightly guitars, catchy tunes and sunny lyrics. Ritchie definitely has a flair for constructing classic-styled power pop ditties with some nods to the Beatles and Buddy Holly, but.at 15 tracks, Poptimistic seems to be about five tracks too long. All the happy gets to be a bit much after a while and some of the lyrics seem to try a bit too hard, but at its best – “Carol Says” being the toppermost of the poppermost – the album is reminiscent of some of the major label records that flooded the market in the wake of the Knack in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Grade: B
Various Artists – Big Stir: Power Pop & More at CIA – The First Year (Minco)
Musicians/kind souls Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko had a dream: an LA-based scene where like-minded pop musicians could gather, play out for fans (and each other) and just have some fun, dammit. So last year the voices of The Armoires created Big Stir, a monthly live music showcase that’s hosted some pretty damned cool acts – and many of said pretty damned cool acts are present and accounted for on this 22-track compilation celebrating Big Stir’s inaugural year. Many of the tracks are rare and previously unreleased, and contributors whose names may ring a bell include The Cherry Bluestorms, Rob Bonfiglio, Brandon Schott, and Ballzy Tomorrow (led by pop’s very own mad genius, Robbie Rist). The Armoires’ mysterious, jangly “Alesandra 619” and Plasticsoul’s “The King of Hash” are two of the best things here, along with tunes from two acts I was previously unfamiliar with: 13 Frightened Girls (with the sweetly moody, hypnotic “The Passing”) and Walker Brigade, whose “DIsEASE” has one of those “hear-it-once-and-remember-it-forever” choruses. The disc is limited to 200 copies, so hit The Armoires up on Facebook if you’re interested. Grade: B+
The Beach Boys – Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions (Omnivore)
Fascinating for its historical relevance, this is a double-disc collection of the Beach Boys laying down their first tracks in 1961 and 1962. There are multiple takes, demos and masters of nine songs, which add up to 63 tracks of the band finding their voice. It’s clear even at this nascent stage that the band’s vocal blend was pure magic, and the recordings are remarkably well-preserved considering their age. Still, unless you’re a hardcore fan/completist, by the seventh version of “What a Young Girl is Made Of,” you may be crying uncle. Grade: B
Say hello to my new favorite record label: You Are the Cosmos Records. YATC is based in Spain and they’ve released a slew of outstanding music over the past year on CD and vinyl, including a slick Blue Ash compilation aptly titled 15 Number Ones in a Perfect World; a simply amazing, under the radar pop record by an LA-based duo called Diamond Hands that evokes the best of the ‘60s with ultra-cool, two to three-minute songs; and the compilation of the year in Twelve String High. Subtitled “A New Jingle Jangle Adventure,” this one is a 23-track various artists collection featuring artists from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Sweden and Spain all putting their 12-string guitars to good use. Everything is good or better, with outstanding contributions from Erik Voeks (his sublime “She Loved Her Jangle Pop” is the leadoff cut), Elvyn, Sweden’s jangle kings Arvidson & Butterflies, the Jangle Band (naturally), Dropkick, Coke Belda and the Junipers. A lot of the tracks have been previously released, but there are also plenty I didn’t have in my collection from bands I wasn’t intimately familiar with. Another essential purchase.
Varese Sarabande also dropped some typically nicely-packaged and thoughtfully compiled reissues of ‘60s hitmakers in 2016, including The Very Best of the Happenings (the “See You in September” guys, who often sounded not unlike a cross between The Association and The Four Seasons); Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels’ All-Time Greatest Hits (white hot white soul); The Very Best of Paul Davis, a comprehensive look at the underrated late singer/songwriter’s career (check out “Constantly” and “I Just Wanna Keep it Together,” two of the niftiest popsongs you’ve probably never heard); and The BBC Radio Sessions by the Zombies, which encompasses 43 tracks over two CDs and includes a handful of previously unreleased cuts.
Omnivore Recordings cemented their all-star status in 2016 by unleashing – among other goodies – the Bangles’ highly entertaining odds ‘n’ sods collection, Ladies and Gentlemen…the Bangles; a deluxe reissue of Peter Case’s 1986 solo debut which found the former Plimsoul turning troubadour to good effect; and the lavish, three-disc Complete Third, which guides the listener through Big Star’s seminal Sister Lovers/3rd from concept to completion, offering demos, rough mixes, alternate versions, unissued tunes and the final masters. Sweet, ragged, disturbed, and ultimately one of the finest, most challenging albums of its time.
Australia’s Off the Hip Records has been releasing quality power pop for some time, including releases by the late, great Finkers, Dom Mariani and many others. New from the label in late 2016 were albums from Little Murders and The Jangle Band. Hi-Fab! is an enjoyable little slice of Aussie pop from the venerable Little Murders, who have been around since the late ‘70s. They offer up some punked-up energy here, a jaunty little acoustic number there, and plenty of classically-styled power pop. Solid. Even better is the Jangle Band, an Aussie supergroup of sorts with four quality songwriters who are all on the same mid‘60s-influenced musical wavelength on Edge of a Dream; as the press release accompanying the disc says, “…it’s a melodic and harmonic five lane freeway out of dullsville.” Tunes such as “This Soul is Not for Sale,” “Love You Too,” and the title track do indeed jangle quite splendidly, and evoke a warm, Byrdsian vibe that’s quite intoxicating. Grade A stuff, for certain.
Karma Frog Records is a recording studio and a label helmed by musician Adam Marsland, who’s perhaps best known for his work with his ‘90s alt-pop outfit Cockeyed Ghost. He’s got two new releases out on the label, both which feature his instrumental, vocal and production skills. Pacific Soul Ltd. is a trio comprised of Marsland, Teresa Cowles and Norm Kelsey, and their The Dance Divine record is a groovin’ look back at the soulful sounds of the ‘60s through the ‘80s, with songs and performances inspired by the likes of the Stylistics, Smokey Robinson, Al Green, etc. A slowed down, souled out, Marsland-sung cover of “God Only Knows” works well, and “We Go High” is an insanely catchy slice of pop-soul, simultaneously recalling “Sugar, Sugar” and “Back in My Arms Again.” On the pop tip, Rob Martinez’s New Love Environment is a damned fine record that should be garnering more attention from bloggers and DJ’s; it comes across like one of those K-TEL “20 golden hits” albums from the ‘70s, with echoes of Paul McCartney and Wings, the Hudson Brothers and others of that ilk. Marsland produced and serves as the main instrumentalist, and a good number of Martinez’s songs are golden: “Love Life” has all the hallmark of a long-lost ‘70s AM radio smash, with a bubblegummy chorus that recalls the best of the Partridge Family; “When She Comes to Town” is pure Beatles; and “Hard to Take” is a mid-tempo charmer fueled by what sounds like a whole lotta Rickenbacker.
If you miss the sound of the early Posies, pick up a copy of Songs for the Farrelly Brothers by Cheap Star; it features heavy involvement from Jon Auer and former Posies drummer Brian Young, as well as Ken Stringfellow on two tracks (including the marvelous “Still I Believe”). Remi Vaissiere’s voice is hushed and pleasant, his songs are by and large very hooky, and the entire album is a definite grower. Butch Walker’s Stay Gold finds him returning to rock after the low-key acousticisms of his last release, with the vivid story-songs “Stay Gold” and “Wilder in the Heart” sounding quite anthemic in the vein of late ‘70s Springsteen. The title of Tommy and the Rockets’ Beer and Fun and Rock and Roll says it all – 10 blasts of melodic sunshine in 28 minutes, titles like “Here Comes Summer” and “Silly Teenage Love,” and a seamless melding of the Ramones, the Beach Boys and bubblegum. Play it loud! Mercury Man by LA-based singer/songwriter Butch Young is a thoughtful, well-produced collection of pop songs that has made an appearance on some best of 2016 lists. Harpsichord, strings, and trumpets help to provide depth to many of the cuts, and some of the melodies recall a less fussy Jellyfish.
Basement Punks by Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms is a fab, power poppin’ good time – hummable songs with bucket loads of energy, with the whole shebang played and sung by Allen. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to dub him a whiz kid – he’s in his mid-30s, after all – but he certainly has quite the knack for coming up with catchy tune after catchy tune, in a vein that recalls some sort of other-worldly cross between the Replacements and Teenage Fanclub. In a similar vein, though not quite as consistent, is the 10-song Fall Off the World by Northern California duo Propeller. The lead vocals are a bit sandpapery and somewhat buried in the mix, which becomes bothersome about halfway through the album. Still, “Wish I Had Her Picture” is a pristine pop number.
The estimable Kool Kat Music label continues to churn out fine pop/power pop releases with commendable regularity. One of the recent additions to the label’s catalog is Rob Clarke and the Wooltones’ Are You Wooltoned? Clarke’s tunes are lowish-fi and aptly described as “Mersey-delic” in the disc’s brief notes; the Mersey part of the equation makes perfect sense, seeing as Clarke hails from Woolton (best known as the place where two guys named Lennon and McCartney met in 1957). Much of the record is hypnotically enjoyable, including the sprightly “End of the End,” “Butter” (which sounds like a melding of the Beatles circa 1964 and 1967) and “Iron Eyes Cody.” Kool stuff. Also new on Kool Kat are two album’s from Steve Somerset’s Shadow Kabinet: a collection of odds ‘n’ ends from 2001 – 2013 titled Kabinet of Kuriosity and Nostalgia for the Future, recorded solo by Somerset in 2013. Somerset also hails from the UK and his music leans more towards the lite psych end of the spectrum – albeit with tastier-than-hell melodies – with his vocals often recalling John Lennon. My faves on Kabinet are “Cadillac Star” (one of the best T. Rex sound-alikes I’ve heard, with Somerset’s vocals sounding uncannily like Marc Bolan), the jaunty “Sound as a Pound,” and the danceable “Scatterbrain.” Nostalgia is a tad darker overall, but still eminently enjoyable; “Let it Go” resembles a Lennon solo track with its echoed lead vocal and prominent keyboards, while the slow, spacy “Dust Descends as Light” brings to mind David Gilmour/Pink Floyd. Fans of Martin Newell and XTC (there’s Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory involvement on Kabinet of Kuriosity) should be all over both Shadow Kabinet releases.
Coming (very) soon: my top 20 releases of 2016. Happy 2017, friends!