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Power Pop Plus: New Reviews

Tons of excellent records have surfaced over the past several months, both new releases and on the reissue front. Let's dig right in, shall we?

by John M. Borack

Tons of excellent records have surfaced over the past several months, both new releases and on the reissue front. (So many, in fact, that I'll be posting another series of reviews about a week from now.) Let's dig right in, shall we?

Kurt Baker Combo - Muy Mola Live!(Kool Kat) One of the new breed of power pop guys to whom the power is just as important as the pop, Kurt Baker dishes out both in more than ample qualities on this absolutely white-hot live disc. A handful of obscure covers, some of Baker's first-rate originals, and a band that kicks all kinds of ass - it adds up to one hell of a rockin' good time. And trust me - anyone who has the good sense and the cajones to cover the Beatles' ultra-obscure "Cry For a Shadow" (here retitled "Cry For a Carajillo") at Salty Peet's Rock Shack in Kenosha, WI is more than deserving of your time. Grade: A-


The Knack - Live From the Rock 'n' Roll Fun House (Omnivore) The last of Omnivore's excellent reissues of latter day Knack material, Live From the Rock 'n' Roll Fun House is a stunning aural document of a mock TV show the Knack recorded in 2001 in front of friends, fans and family. Playing with "passion, precision and manic intensity" (bassist Prescott Niles said it in the liner notes, and he’s right on the money), the quartet tears through Knack classics from their 1979 debut, such as “My Sharona,” “Good Girls Don’t,” “That’s What the Little Girls Do,” and others, as well as super-solid tracks from the sorely underrated Zoom and Normal as the Next Guyrecords (including two from the latter album that weren’t included on the original 2002 Fun Houserelease) and more. The late Doug Fieger is in fine voice, Berton Averre shreds on lead guitar, Niles holds it all together on bass, and drummer Holmes Jones provides a solid, creative backbeat the Knack hadn’t seen since the departure of Bruce Gary. This isn’t simply power pop, friends – this is a superb rock and roll record, and the Knack were a superb rock and roll band. Grade: A


Gary Frenay – File Under Pop Vocal (Northside) Frenay has been a fixture on the Syracuse, NY music scene for ages, first as a member of local power pop heroes The Flashcubes, and later as a solo artist. His latest long-player corrals his passion for ‘60s and ‘70s melodies, and features 10 smooth, easy-to-like numbers that owe a debt to that bygone era. Expertly produced by fellow Flashcube/ace drummer Tommy Allen, highlights include the slide guitar-juiced charmer “It’s Like Heaven,” the mid-tempo “Everything But Love” (with Marshall Crenshaw on guitar) and the poppy “Blue Topaz.” Grade: B


The Corner Laughers – Matilda Effect (Mlm) Let’s cut to the chase: Matilda Effectis sure to rank high on many a year-end top 10 list, including mine. Why? Because it’s nothing less than an amazing record. It’s fanciful (with ukulele!), it rocks when it needs to, it gets cute without ever being obnoxious about it, the melodies are crazy catchy, and Karla Kane’s fetching lead vocals are impossible to resist. And even though the Corner Laughers’ lyrics are somewhat inscrutable – with references to walking to Jerusalem, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Cincinnati in 1914 and other lyrical arcana – you’ll find yourself singing along to them in short order anyway. Simply put, Matilda Effectis wonderful, thinking man’s (and woman’s) pop music, even if I’m never quite sure exactly what they’re thinking. There’s no sense in singling out individual tracks, because everything here is equally fabulous. Pretty much a perfect record to these ears. Grade: A


Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms – Heart String Soul (Two Brains) Seems like more and more pop awesomeness keeps flowing out of Michigan: Andy Reed/An American Underdog, The Legal Matters, Nick Piunti, The Hangabouts, and Chris Richards and the Subtractions all carry the torch with guitars and harmonies blazing. Now we can add Ryan Allen to the list, as his Heart String Soulis a winner from top to bottom, synthesizing many of the influences of the artists listed above and adding his own unique vocal spin, which is sometimes a bit reminiscent of ‘70s popsters Milk ‘n’ Cookies. Andy Reed expertly produced the bright-sounding record (he also sings and plays a bit of guitar), and Nick Piunti adds some guitar to one of the tracks. The perfectly catchy “why aren’t I on the radio?” ditty “Should Be Me,” the near-punky “Angela ‘97” and the cool rockin’ “Back to Square One” are the places to jump in, but all 11 tracks are worthy of repeated spins. Grade: A-


The Kontroversy – Reprise (Ragged But Right) You may remember these guys from their 1984 EP on the legendary Titan Records label, which melded garage-rock with British Invasion sounds. The head dude was one Kevin Sanders, who had previously been a member of Kansas-based Kinkophiles the Leopards, whose 1977 LP Kansas City Slickersremains an indie treasure. Although the Kontroversy split not long after their EP hit the shelves, Sanders and his drummer brother Tim have remixed some previously unheard recordings the band made in the ‘80s, added some new tracks, and the result is the 15-track Reprise. There are some good melodies floating around, but overall, the record is somewhat sabotaged by the lead vocals, which are often distressingly thin. Still, if garage is your bag, dig in. Grade: C


Fireking – Double Trouble (Blueberry Pie) Riffs, riffs and more riffs: Fireking throw down the chunky guitar with reckless abandon all over this double album, which is heavily influenced by the likes of Cheap Trick and Mott the Hoople. The clean production (by Fireking majordomo Anthony Kaczynski and Boston-area musical mensch Ducky Carlisle) helps make these songs sparkle ‘n’ shine, and Kaczynski’s lyrics are a hoot. I can’t decide if my favorite line here is “Sal Mineo died for your sins,” “Rodeo Sex Clowns never die,” “Let’s watch all the movies that feature Divine,” or “Saw Balaam and the Angel once/the singer was a British fop.” Grade: B


The Fad - The Now Sound (Kool Kat) Like a mod version of the Monkees playing the power pop, this young Pennsylvania trio released one self-titled EP in 1984 that contained six sweet slices of Fadpop, and then was promptly forgotten by all except the power pop nerds who live for this kind of stuff. Rescued from obscurity by the good folks at Kool Kat, this collection compiles the six tracks from the EP and adds six more like-minded cuts that rock, pop and swing most righteously. I'm a sucker for "The Fad Theme" and "Genie," but it's all pretty darned cool. Even though it's all mastered from vinyl and cassette, no matter: turn it up loud and bask in the grooviness. Grade: A-


Cloud Eleven – Record Collection (West Coast Records) It’s been far too long since we’ve heard new music from Rick Gallego (aka Cloud Eleven), and his latest certainly does not disappoint. It’s replete with the soft, pillowy California light psych sounds that have informed his previous releases, and each of the 11 tunes is something of a feast for the ears. The beautifully sad “Too Soon Was Yesterday” (featuring horns by Probyn Gregory) plays like a long-lost ‘60s-era Burt Bacharach cut, while the Sgt. Pepper-ish title cut and “A Sadness in Sorry” are both top-shelf upbeat ditties. The disc-closing “Let Us All Find Peace” is a dramatic piano ballad awash in strings and a positive message. Hey, whaddya say we end with a hideous cliché: you’ll want to add Record Collectionto yours. Grade: A


Anna Sophia – Unkind (Kiva Music) This debut 6-song EP from Anna Sophia is a delightfully mellow and understated example of modern folk-pop in the vein of artists such as Ingrid Michaelson. Sophia’s tunes are melodically stimulating while remaining lyrically thoughtful and engaging. They’re also quite beautifully sung, even when she’s dissing a former relationship (as she does in the hypnotic “Unkind” and the catchy “Never Wanna See You Again”). “A You With a Me,” which features a ukulele, handclaps and a sweet lyrical sentiment, sounds like a hit to these ears. Grade: B+


The Stereo Twins – Good News (No label listed) It may not be the most out-of-left-field career move ever, but brothers Brandt and Matt Huseman (late of the Greenberry Woods and the mighty Splitsville) have – surprisingly - gone spiritual in their latest incarnation as The Stereo Twins. Combining lyrical spirituality and great pop music is not always an easy thing to achieve, but the Husemans do the trick with style, aplomb and grace (double entendre intended). High points abound: the leadoff track, “J2J,” is a good old fashioned hand clappin’ hootenanny, featuring the trademark Huseman harmonies and a melody that recalls The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”; “Stars Shine” includes a bit that sounds like Splitsville’s wonderful “Forever,” as a (probably unintentional) nod to their past; “Mariamne” is filled with forceful guitars in the verses and explodes into a glorious, Beach Boys-styled chorus; and “Signs and Wonders” sounds like a lost Greenberry Woods track, which is to say it’s jangly and marvelous. Great vocal arrangements throughout, too. If you let the lyrical bent scare you away, you’ll be missing out on one of the finest releases of 2015. Grade: A


Game Theory – Real Nighttime (Omnivore) This deluxe reissue of Game Theory’s 1985 gem (with 13 bonus tracks, 10 of which are previously unreleased) is most welcomed, as it’s where the late Scott Miller’s fractured new wave-cum-power pop genius first fully flowered. It’s not my favorite GT record – that honor goes to The Big Shot Chronicles, an assessment which producer Mitch Easter agrees with in the expanded liner notes – but its guitar/synth powered tunes never fail to elicit a smile. Miller’s sharp, esoteric wordplay is out in full force, and the bonus tracks are cool, especially the live, voice-and-guitar-only versions of “Beach State Rocking” and the sweetly intoxicating “Girl with a Guitar.” There’s also a completely non-ironic live take of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” from a 1985 Wichita, KS gig, and the disc ends with a pretty version of Queen’s “Lily of the Valley” from an undated home demo. Grade: B+


The Tearaways – The Earle Mankey Sessions: Volume IV and Volume 7 (Robo Records) Actually two separate releases, these are tunes – 27 of ‘em total – that veteran California popsters The Tearaways recorded with producer Earle Mankey at his studio between 2012 and 2014. Volume IV is highlighted by the most awesome “We Don’t Talk We Text” (“Edison and Orwell would be apoplectic/to see us multi-task in a world that’s so hectic”), which should be considered for the new National Anthem or something. There’s also the cheeky blues of “Naughty Dog,” the slinky, double entendre-filled rock of “Girls Who Love Cars,” and the hilarious “We’re All Gonna Drink Tonight,” which may be the world’s first-ever power pop sea shanty.


Many of the songs on Volume 7merge British Invasion-type harmonies --- and the Tearaways sure can sing ‘em, too --- with sprightly, acoustic guitar-based melodies. (Use the Beatles’ “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” as a point of reference.) Favorites here would have to be “Friends & Enemies” (love the “whoa-oh-oh” vocal bits), the breezy “In Dublin,” the overly Beatley “I Don’t Know and I Don’t Care,” and the slam-bang “Keep Your Knickers On,” which AC/DC could certainly cover. The chiming (with tom toms!) “I’ll See You Again” is quite nice as well, and features Jeffrey Foskett helping out on vocals, while the nostalgic “I Pray Guitar” name checks tons of bands and guitarists. Excellent stuff. Grades: B+ (Volume IV) and A- (Volume 7)

The Jeanies – The Jeanies (No label listed) The Jeanies play the punchy power pop as if they’ve been sealed in a time capsule since around 1981, as their retro-as-all-get-out sounds touch on the Plimsouls, early Tom Petty, the Beatles (natch), and a host of power pop purveyors. The grammatically awkward “I Seen Her Dance” leads off the disc, which also takes trips through Shoes-like, mid-tempo pop on “That’s the One,” Paul Collins-inflected musings via “The Kids Are No Good,” and some sort of bubblegum/garage hybrid on “Gotta Get Back to Judy.” The fact that the disc sounds like it was primitively recorded in someone’s garage either torpedoes it or adds to its charm, depending on one’s point of view. Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. Fun fact: I got into a rather spirited (and pretty darn funny) ongoing Facebook discussion with Jeanies’ leader Joey Farber a few months back after he insisted that all power pop descends directly from “boogie.” Ain’t the internet grand? Grade: B


Gretchen’s Wheel – Fragile State (No label listed) Lindsay Murray – the woman behind Gretchen’s Wheel – says she was inspired to pick up a guitar after hearing Matthew Sweet’s 100% Funrecord. Her voice also bears more than a passing resemblance to Aimee Mann’s, albeit a tad deeper and with a bit more soul. Both of these facts should encourage you to check out Fragile State, which is packed with 11 songs worth of thoughtful lyrics and music that simultaneously seems both uplifting and haunting. She displays her Matthew Sweet love on the fine opening track, the must-be-autobiographical “Second to Last,” with the lyric, “Combat boots and flannel shirts, ‘Sick of Myself’/Those years were bound to the sound and lost to anything else.” The sultry, torchy “Let Me Believe” is another standout, as is the poppy “Why Try,” which has a sweet little guitar solo tucked in the middle. Produced by the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, who provides a bunch of instrumental assistance as well. Grade: B+