by JOHN M. BORACK
LINUS OF HOLLYWOOD – SOMETHING GOOD
Breezy, summery and instantly likeable pop sounds abound on this one, the fourth release (not counting compilations) from the highly talented Mr. Of Hollywood. Something Good (quite the apt, yet modest, title) is easily his best release to date – there’s not a throwaway amongst the 11 tracks, and everything has the timeless feel of a really solid ‘70s pop album. It doesn’t rock so much as it bops and sways, which in this case is a very good thing. Choosing favorites is sort of a fruitless exercise when everything has the blissful vibe of a smile-inducing, feel-good playlist, but here are a few of the many highlights: “Whoever’s Around” is a mid-tempo winner worthy of Paul McCartney and Wings comparisons; the innocent “A Girl That I Like” glides along on pillows of acoustic guitar; “Don’t F**k It Up” sounds like something Hall & Oates might have attempted had they been a bit more twisted; and the deceptively pretty melody of “Biography” doesn’t quite mask a pointed set of lyrics about the unsettling aftermath of a broken relationship. A faithful reading of Kiss’s “Beth” slots in perfectly and is another high water mark of what is certain to go down as one of 2014’s finest releases. Grade: A
VARIOUS ARTISTS – INTERNATIONAL POP OVERTHROW VOLUME 17
During a particularly contentious Beach Boys recording session in 1965, Brian Wilson was being harangued by his father Murry about a host of issues. One of Murry’s asides to Brian and the rest of the Boys was “You can live forever if you grow.” While David Bash’s International Pop Overthrow Festival may not live forever, Bash has certainly attempted to grow both the festival (by expanding its reach to venues across the US, as well as Canada and the UK) and the accompanying compact disc. The disc has not only grown to its current triple-disc, 60+ track configuration, but Bash has also loosened the reins over the years and broadened IPO’s scope to include more “sub-genres of pop music,” as he says in the disc’s notes. So what that means is that while IPO 17 features contributions from many of the usual power pop suspects (Spinning Jennies, Lisa Mychols, The Tearaways and John McMullan, for example), there is more than simply Beatle boots and jangly guitars on display.
In recent years, the IPO collections have also migrated towards showcasing more of pop’s lesser-known acts, which can certainly be a good thing: this time around, I particularly dig Monogroove’s melodic mod blast “What More Can I Do,” Greg Ieronimo’s raucously melodic “Roller Coaster Ride,” the Sharp Things’ sweetly orchestrated “Flesh and Bone” and Secret Friend’s sunshiney “Starting Today,” which includes the immortal lyric, “Today I crashed my car and I killed some guy.” Other cool cuts come from less-than-household names such as Tommy Lorente, The Trash*Pop Icons, the easy-to-spell Phil Ajjarapu, the Teenage Fanclub-channeling American Suitcase, phonograph, and Beyond Veronica. Oh, and the Bobbleheads’ “Turn the Radio On” is quite simply one of the best pure pop songs of 2014.
On the flipside, there are a few annoying acts I never need to hear again (The Fast Camels’ self-indulgent, neo-psychedelic wanking and the Starfire Band’s horribly plodding rawk spring to mind), a few somewhat forced Beach Boys pastiches, and some bland indie pop-rock, but luckily, those digressions are the exceptions rather than the rule – and heck, with 66 tracks, not everything is gonna be wonderful. As with most of the IPO comps down through the years, the good far outweighs the not-so-good. International Pop Overthrow – long may it run. Grade: B+
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS – UNVARNISHED
It’s supremely comforting that much like the inevitability of death and taxes, Joan Jett’s in-your-face brand of rock never changes. She’s been bringing the hard-edged stuff since her days with the Runaways in the ‘70s and more than 35 years later, she shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Her latest, Unvarnished, is one of her best efforts in recent memory, a short ‘n’ sweet 35-minute rush of compact, catchy pop-punk.
“Any Weather,” a track co-written with Foo Fighters honcho Dave Grohl (who plays “100 different instruments,” according to the notes), kick starts the record in fine fashion and is the gateway to such winners as the Gary Glitter-ish stomper “TMI,” the infectious “Make it Back,” the “celebrity”-skewering “Reality Mentality” and the Ramones-influenced “Bad as We Can Be.” On these tracks – heck, on ALL of ‘em – Jett’s vocals are impassioned, the guitars driving and loud-yet-clean, and the melodies impeccable.
Jett gets uncharacteristically reflective with her lyrics on a few occasions: “Keep losing people/just lost my mom/so difficult to fathom that they’re gone,” she sings in “Hard to Grow Up,” while in “Fragile” she confesses, “I’m at the point in life now/I think about my own mortality/and how it all works out.” Of course, she’s still rocking like mad while delivering these lines, so it comes off as anything but maudlin or self-pitying; rather, it’s a sign of maturing without sacrificing any of her unbridled rock ‘n’ roll energy or spirit. Even as the slightly clumsy, string-laden ballad “Everybody Needs a Hero” (the only tune here that Jett didn’t have a hand in penning) closes out the disc, it doesn’t detract from the joyous noise that came before it. Here’s hoping that Joan Jett keeps plugging along and releasing records like Unvarnished for many years to come, musical trends be damned. Grade: A-
VARIOUS ARTISTS – HERE COMES THE REIGN AGAIN: THE SECOND BRITISH INVASION
Hot on the heels of last year’s excellent Drink a Toast to Innocence tribute record (which feted “lite rock” classics of the ‘70s), executive producer Andrew Curry is back with another genre-themed collection. This time around, British new wave tunes of the ‘80s get the cover treatment, with nearly 30 (mainly indie) artists contributing.
There are certainly many good tracks here, but there are also a few problems: to begin with, some of the original versions of the songs covered on Reign simply weren’t all that great in the first place (e.g. Level 42’s “Something About You,” Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It,” and yes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”). Perhaps broadening the comp’s scope to include songs by US new wave acts of the same era (such as The Cars, Blondie, Devo, the Go-Go’s and the B-52’s) might have helped stack the deck with great songs from front to back.
The second issue is that some of the artists here seem to be simply going through the motions: for example, Bleu’s take on Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” sounds like nothing more than a rote karaoke version, Freedy Johnston’s “Promises, Promises” is slightly jazzy and rather boring, and David Mead’s mechanical reading of Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer” does nothing but make me miss the original’s swirling, atmospheric coolness. Even some of the song/artist pairings that seem like smart matches don’t quite work: Fountain of Wayne lead singer Chris Collingwood’s slightly pinched voice is an ill fit for the beautiful “Life in a Northern Town,” for example. On the other side of the coin, a pairing that really has no business working actually does – the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow turns the Blow Monkeys’ “Digging Your Scene” into a slow ‘n’ spacy three-and-half-minute bundle of wonderful weirdness.
Now let’s get to some more of the good stuff: the Corner Laughers add a percolating freshness to their sweetly sung version of Madness’s “Our House”; Eric Barao manages to imbue “Tainted Love” with a contemporary freshness while not messing with the song’s arrangement; the always-reliable Mike Viola mesmerizes with a gentle acoustic reading of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”; People on Vacation’s “Cruel Summer” features some cool dynamics and a lead singer who vocally resembles Nick Gilder; Taylor Locke’s “Dancing With Myself” features some inventive instrumentation, a goofy lead vocal and Beach Boys-styled backing vox; and Eytan Mirsky and Alyson Greenfield transform Howard Jones’ “No One is to Blame” into a delightfully soulful lite-reggae duet. Cliff Hillis, the Wellingtons, and Linus of Hollywood also turn in top-flight performances.
The inconsistency of Here Comes the Reign Again is quite maddening; for every two good performances, there are missteps such as the Davenports sucking the joyfulness right out of Wham’s “Freedom” by cranking up their amps and turning it into a generic popsong. Graham Alexander also commits musical heresy by taking Kirsty MacColl’s charming, bubbly “They Don’t Know” and transforming it into a loungey snoozefest – while inexplicably reciting a completely different set of lyrics than the original ones. And Rachael Yamagata’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” is – unfortunately – an interminable dirge of a piano ballad. Still, as mentioned, there are plenty of gems here, even if you have to hit the “skip” button a couple of times to find them. Grade: B-
WILLOW WILLOW – LISTENING TO MUSIC
A nice left-field surprise from a California-based outfit fronted by childhood pals Jessica Vohs and Miranda Zeiger, Listening to Music is a hyper-melodic, sweetly sung (love the harmonies) collection of wonderfully charming numbers presented in a low-key, acoustic-based fashion. Named after a Love song and greatly influenced by ‘60s and ‘80s pop, Willow Willow should attract some new followers with this, their second long-player. (It’s due in November, by the way, so start saving your pennies.) Grade: A-
THE JELLYBRICKS – YOUNGSTOWN TUNE-UP
“Probably Me,” “Hate Speaker,” and “About the Weekend” are the highlights of this PA quartet’s sixth release, but the whole darn thing is first-rate. YTU is the Jellybricks’ finest, most consistent release to date, jam-packed with 14 stellar tunes brimming with the hooks ‘n’ harmonies one expects from longtime power pop practitioners. Grade: A-
THE MOP TOPS – GOT TO MAKE SUNDAY FUNKY!
A 10-song tribute to ‘60s British rockers the Equals (best known for spawning Eddy “Electric Avenue” Grant and for the minor hit “Baby Come Back”) by a Swedish indie pop band? Sounds like a nutty idea, but damned if it doesn’t work – in spades. The Mop Tops add an authentic garage-sounding air to the proceedings and the songs – which include “Police On My Back” (later covered by the Clash), “Can’t Find a Girl to Love Me” and the endearingly odd “Michael and the Slipper Tree” – are all quite fine. This’ll definitely rank high on my Best of 2014 list. Grade: A
THE LEGAL MATTERS – THE LEGAL MATTERS
Michigan-based popsters Andy Reed, Chris Richards and Keith Klingensmith have produced – together and separately – some of the coolest indie-pop music of the past decade or so. Now they’ve joined forces as The Legal Matters and have fashioned a lovely record that showcases their pristine harmonies and a kinder, gentler power pop sound. The 10 breezy, easy to like ditties here go down smoothly and leave a lasting impression, particularly Richards’ “Rite of Spring” and “Have You Changed Your Mind?” and Reed’s “The Legend of Walter Wright.” The Klingensmith/Reed co-write “Mary Anne” is also a winner, building from an almost ghostly beginning to a harmony-filled climax. The Legal Matters is a perfect summer record for anytime of the year. Grade: A-
THE MUFFS – WHOOP DEE DOO
The Muffs’ first release since 2004 is a smashing one indeed, with Kim Shattuck, Ronnie Barnett and Roy McDonald elegantly bashing their way through a dozen punk-pop pearls, with a bit more of the pop thrown into the mix than ever before. “Weird Boy Next Door” gets things off to a typically raucous start, with the band firing on all cylinders and Shattuck’s snotty, emotive lead vocals out in front. “Paint By Numbers” is a cool little ditty with a catchier-than-hell chorus and a bunch of girl groupy “whoo-hoo-hoo’s,” “Take a Take a Me” is a playful number that musically harkens back to early L.A.-area punk groups such as the Zeros, and the super-poppy “Cheezy” begins with a blast of harmonica that sounds like it leapt straight off of “I Should Have Known Better” and continues with lyrical slaps such as “I would like to strangle you or punch you in the face” that are ironically married to a sunny melody. “I Get It” finds Shattuck engaging in a spirited duet with Barnett (the punk rock Sonny & Cher?), while the disc-closing “Forever” is probably as semi-sweet as the Muffs have ever gotten. A fine album, Muffs – welcome back and whoop-de-doo. Grade: A
VARIOUS ARTISTS – SOUVENIRS: LITTLE GEMS OF POP, VOLUME 2
You say you’re a fan of ‘80s and ‘90s power pop? Dig the jangle and the vocal harmonies, do ya? Looking for some stuff that’s maybe a little off the beaten path and that’ll be new to you? Well friends, step right up and shake hands with your new best friend, Souvenirs, Volume 2. It’s an archival Swedish collection of 21 ultra-cool and rare vintage power pop cuts from US acts, some familiar (Richard X. Heyman, Bill Lloyd, Phil Seymour, the Cavedogs) and others hopelessly obscure (The Britins, The Decadents, AZ IZ). The thread that ties it all together is that it’s pretty much all outstanding and damn near impossible to find outside of this comp. If you’re a card-carrying power pop nut, you definitely need to own this collection. Grade: A
THE CRY! – DANGEROUS GAME
Slashing guitars, sassy punk vocals, shout-along choruses, lyrics that reference T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, active libidos, smokes and Schlitz – The Cry! brings all this and more on their sophomore effort. It’s a major step forward from their debut, and brings the band’s songwriting and performing strengths into sharper focus by toughening up their sound. “Discotheque” is quite a slammin’ opener, while other tunes such as “Shakin’,” “Nowhere to Go” and “Same Old Story” also rock like mad with equal doses of Stonesy swagger and teenage abandon. Dangerous Game is brimming with glammy power pop that deserves your attention. (I own the Japanese pressing, but apparently there is also a US version available that contains extra tracks.) Grade: B+
THE PAUL & JOHN – INNER SUNSET
If you’re looking for the pure pop album of the year, it’s going to be difficult to top The Paul & John’s Inner Sunset. Paul Myers and John Moremen are both veterans of the genre, Myers with his early ‘90s outfit The Gravelberrys and Moremen with the Neighbors, the Orange Peels and solo. The duo co-wrote all the tunes here (with Myers handling all the lyrics) and they’re all absolutely wonderful from start to finish. High water marks include “When I Lost My Way,” which is fed by some Beatley guitar; “Can’t Be Too Careful,” a propulsive power pop gem given a boost (as most of these songs are) by Myers and Moreman’s close harmonies; the gorgeous, lush “Everything Comes Together,” which finds the boys wrapping some sweet vocals around an enticing melody; the foot-stompin’ title track, and its groovy guitar solos; and the disc-closing “Inner Sundown,” which is appropriately reflective and pretty. Inner Sunset is a masterful little record that you won’t want to miss. Grade: A
RICHIE PARSONS – HONEY AND TEARS
Here’s another release that seemingly came out of nowhere. Richie Parsons, with the help of producer Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, has fashioned a thoughtful, unique, and often quite lovely guitar-pop record with echoes of Big Star, early Posies (natch) and a smidgen of late-period Replacements. Parsons has penned some nice tunes – the gentle, power pop classic-in-waiting “Love Letter,” and the sweet “Right On Time” and “When Fall Begins” among them – and delivers them in a voice that sounds a bit like Bob Dylan circa “Lay Lady Lay,” minus the whine. Stringfellow’s sonic fingerprints are all over the record, as he provides instrumental and/or vocal assistance on each of the 11 tunes. Outside-the-box covers of Lou Reed and Dorsey Burnette and the music geek anthem “Mix Tape” (“Maybe some Modern Lovers…or some ‘80s stuff from New Zealand”) add to the fun. Quite good. Grade: A-
CLIFF HILLIS – SONG MACHINE
Things that can be always counted on: Death, taxes, and Cliff Hillis releasing a superfine record. Song Machine is his latest, and the 7-song EP finds him collaborating with Scot Sax, Dan Bern and Phil Solem on three excellent numbers and packing all seven with the classic, classy, pop moves his fans have come to know and love. The glorious, uplifting ballad “Hang on to the Moment” may be the best thing here – as well as one of the best things Hillis has ever recorded, but the Solem/Hillis co-write “Tonight,” the “Lust For Life”-influenced bopper “Could You Be the Enemy,” and the pretty, lullaby-like “Goodnight Sunlight” are all close runners-up. “Turn On a Dime,” with some nifty slide guitar courtesy of Smash Palace’s Stephen Butler and background vocals by fellow popmeister Corin Ashley, is another pop sureshot. Grade: A-
SMASH PALACE – EXTENDED PLAY
Five new tracks from the venerable east coast power pop act that find Stephen Butler and the gang doing what they do best – no frills, meat-and-potatoes jangly pop stuff. Can’t say as I’ve ever been head over heels in love with the band or their music, but the first two tracks here – “Isn’t It Just Like Me” and “Walk Alone” – are quite simply two of the finest songs I’ve heard this year: they’re immediately memorable, warm, inviting, and sound like old friends. The other three tunes are a bit more “rock” and aren’t bad, but oh, those first two. Must-hears, to be sure. Grade: B
THE CLICK BEETLES – WAKE UP TO MUSIC!
Dan Pavelich recorded and performed Wake Up to Music! all by his lonesome, and the disc’s 11 tracks are certainly informed by fellow Midwestern pop acts such as Shoes. Picks to click would have to be the disc-opening “Shut the TV Down,” and the toe-tappin’ “I Never Said Goodbye” (co-written with Lisa Mychols) which sounds as if it could have been a smash for Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart in 1966. Grade: C+
THE BRITANNICAS – HIGH TEA
What do you get when three talented singer/songwriters from three different countries pool their talents and produce a long-distance record? Well, you get…this. “This,” of course, is the latest long-player from Herb Eimerman (USA), Joe Algeri (Australia), and Magnus Karlsson (Sweden), collectively known as the Britannicas. High Tea is a consistently tuneful collection with major echoes of the Byrds littered throughout the proceedings. Nothing earth-shattering or game changing, but overall it’s a very pleasant listen from beginning to end. Eimerman’s “Got a Hold on Me” is tops, Karlsson’s tunes are generally the more indie-pop sounding, while Algeri’s compositions are often a bit quirky, both musically and lyrically. Oh, and Algeri earns bonus points for titling a song “A Shag and a Cup O’Tea” and writing a lyric about working at the post office that promises, “I’m gonna lick my way to the top.” Grade: B
KELLEY RYAN – COCKTAILS
This one’s been out for a little bit, but any record that features Ryan’s sweetly sultry vocals, low-key yet top-shelf tunes, and plenty of involvement from Don Dixon and Marti Jones is certainly one that is worthy of special mention. Eight songs, each one a winner, with the devastating breakup song “Sugar On the Floor” and the winking “I Lie” leading the pack. A sparse, beautiful, and emotional record that sounds great ’round midnight. Grade: A-
PAUL COLLINS – FEEL THE NOISE
One of the last of the class of ’79 who continues to proudly wave the power pop flag, Paul Collins is still down in the trenches, touring across the country and beyond and releasing excellent records such as this one. Collins sounds like a man half his age on Feel the Noise, and his energy and enthusiasm is contagious. (His voice also sounds quite a bit stronger since he’s given up smoking.) Two of the coolest tracks are ones that Collins has unearthed from the past: the outstanding, Nerves-era raver “Little Suzy” and the Collins-Steven Huff co-write “For All Eyes to See.” (Huff was a charter member of The Beat.) Other tracks worthy of repeated spins are the super-catchy “Only Girl”; “With a Girl Like You,” which sounds like it could have sprung from a Collins collaboration with the Searchers and Phil Spector; “Can’t Get You Off My Mind,” which recalls the Ramones’ “I Want You Around”; and the rollicking, Buddy Holly-ish “Baby I’m in Love With You.” Not everything Collins attempts works – a cover of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is rather ill-advised – but enough of it does to make Feel the Noise a treat for longtime Collins fans and most power pop purists. Grade: A-
ORGONE BOX – CENTAUR
A reissue of sorts – including some reworked and re-recorded songs – of one of the great lost psych-pop records of the past few decades. The Orgone Box was a little known ‘90s-era UK act that was basically comprised of Rick Corcoran and drummer Tam Johnstone (who would release some fine records on his own), and the bulk of this 10-song effort is shimmering, graceful psychedelia with a decidedly pop slant. “Judy Over the Rainbow,” “Find the One,” “Hello Central” and “Anaesthesia” are all A+ cuts, and this version of the album is a must-get if you don’t already own one of the other out-of-print versions. Heck, you might want to pick it up anyway for the previously unreleased track, “Wethouse.” My only quibble is that Corcoran managed to muck up what was my favorite song on the record, “World Revolves” (here titled “World Revolz”), by drastically slowing it down and throwing in some unnecessary effects. Grade: A-
THE JEREMY BAND – ALL OVER THE WORLD
Jeremy Morris and his band’s fun, often over-the-top in concert performances over the years have cemented their reputation as a live act to be reckoned with. Morris tosses elements of pop, prog, Christian rock and even arena rock into his musical stew, and this 20-track live album not only showcases his proficiency with all these genres, but also his songwriting acumen and fluid guitar style, as well as Dave Dietrich’s tasteful, rock-solid drumming. It’s a very well-recorded collection and includes a generous assortment of tunes from Morris’s back catalog as well as a few new ones. The highlight would have to be the nearly 10-minute version of “Pop Rules,” which finds Morris borrowing a John Mellencamp-by-way-of-Neil Diamond riff for a simple-sounding pop ditty and suddenly taking a sharp left turn into guitar hero land by piling on some signature riffs from tunes by the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Sabbath and others. It’s not very often that you see the terms “gentle,” spiritual” and “face-melting guitar” in the same review, but that’s Jeremy for ya. Grade: B
SUNRISE HIGHWAY – WINDOWS
Lots of other pop reviewers dig these guys, but I don’t quite see what all the hubbub is about. Their Bandcamp page name checks influences such as The Beach Boys, Beatles, Todd Rundgren, The Byrds, The Cyrkle, and Steely Dan, but for the most part, what I hear is generic pop with rather leaden drumming and not enough memorable tunes. Oh, and The Sweet should sue the Highway men for appropriating the “Little Willy” guitar riff on “Peter Pan.” Grade: C
THE JUNIPERS’ EUPHONIUS TROLLEY – EP ONE
This four-song EP (released late last year) is so wonderful that I had to hip you dear readers to it, even though it’s been out awhile. It’s a digital-only release by UK psych-popsters The Junipers of tunes they consider to be “poppier” than their usual material (although I’ve always found their regular material to be pretty pop-oriented). All four tracks are dreamy, lush, highly addictive and brimming with all the good stuff that pop geeks salivate over: beautiful harmonies, perfectly placed backing vocals (love the “aaaaahhhhs” and “ooh la la’s”) and melodies that’ll fill your head and leave you wanting more. Of special note is the ridiculously perfect, deliciously jaunty “Oh Gilbert” (I Need Help),” which is hooked by the immortal lyric, “I just want to write a song like ‘Jet’/or one of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s best.” This is great stuff – bring on Volume 2! Grade: A
LANNIE FLOWERS – LIVE IN NYC
Too much of what passes for power pop these days either skimps on the power or the pop side of the equation. Thankfully, Lannie Flowers and his band dish out equal doses of both on Live in NYC. Recorded at the Trash Bar in Brooklyn, Lannie and his ace band run through a varied 14-song set that includes such favorites as “I Don’t Know,” “Give Me a Chance” and the anthem-in-waiting “Turn Up Your Radio.” A faithful cover of Big Star’s “Back of a Car” adds to the fun. Grade: B+