Back in the early days of power pop’s near-renaissance (ie, the mid-to-late ‘90s), labels that specialized in those groovy pop sounds sprung up like so many weeds. (I won’t even try to list them for fear I’ll leave some out.) Now here it is nearly two decades later, and most of those labels have sadly fallen by the wayside, but one is still plugging away, faithfully bringing power pop to the people – Kool Kat Musik.
Founded in 1998 by Ray Gianchetti, Kool Kat also serves as a distribution arm for melodic pop music. The New Jersey-based label continues to churn out excellent releases by a diverse group of artists on a regular basis; here’s a look at some Kool Kat releases of recent vintage.
Brian Jay Cline – Idle Chatter
Cline has been releasing solid roots-rock records for some time now, but Idle Chatter just may be his best yet. Reminiscent of Walter Clevenger, Dave Edmunds and others of their ilk, the eleven tracks here push all the right buttons melodically and instrumentally, particularly on the opener, “Would You Stay?” (which kicks off with the ever popular “Be My Baby” drumbeat), “Latch Key Kid,” “Rock Steady,” and (especially) the awesomely titled “Last of the Great Atomic Heartbreakers.” LA-based producer/multi-instrumentalist Fernando Perdomo plays everything while Cline sings ‘em, but the results sound like one kickass pop-rock combo, not a one-man band project. Well done. Grade: A
Magpie – Picasso on a Log
Featuring two members of UK psych-pop masters Bronco Bullfrog, this four-song gem from Magpie was previously download-only, but as Gianchetti says, “This one was just too darn great not to be on CD.” Agree, concur, and damn straight. Magpie’s Bandcamp page describes them as “grown-up guitar pop with ’60s, indie and country-rock vibes,” but to me, the first three songs fairly scream “Teenage Fanclub!” (albeit with a bit of a tougher instrumental attack.) The vocal harmonies are pristine, the guitars ring out, and the melodies are summery as all get out. The final track, “Daisy Paints Her Fingers,” is less jangly, but still just as memorable. A full-length Magpie release would be more than welcomed. Grade: A
Amoeba Teen – Selection Box Vol. 1/The Appleyard Sessions
More UK pop goodness, with everything from fanciful McCartney-esque ballads, Jellyfish-like grandeur, and slightly more angular, indie guitar pop on display on this two-disc collection. It’s all catchy, and leaders Mark Britton (rhythm guitar, keyboards) and Mike Turner (lead guitar) play off each other like partners who have been making music together for years – because they have. Selection Box is the poppier/rockier of the two discs – “Let’s Get Famous” begins in a similar fashion to “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Rock (Like it’s Friday)” does just that, and “This Spark” is a full-bodied, Fountains of Wayne-like opener – while The Appleyard Sessionsfinds the band exploring more rustic, folk-like themes. Very nice, particularly the sweetly longing “3 a.m., Here I Am.” It’s certainly much mellower, but just as melodically stimulating as Selection Box. Includes an essay by journalist Dawn Eden. Grade: B+
The Stan Laurels – Maybe
Third album from this new-to-me Austin, TX act, which is the singular creation of one John Lathrop. Maybe is said to be “the official soundtrack of the Greenless Studios motion picture Maybe Shower,” but it also works as a standalone pop-rock record. The gauzy guitars are perfectly distorted pretty much throughout, while Lathrop’s lead vox often recall Shoes. My fave is “Door #1,” but the entire thing is a grower, albeit a tad offbeat. Grade: B
Diamond Hands – Diamond Hands ll
Another absolute gem of a record from Jon Flynn and Joel Wall, who offer up a seemingly endless supply of pop baubles that range from garage stompers (“Caught Up in a Memory”) to shiny, harmony-filled ditties such as “Now or Never,” the McCartneyesque music hall pastiche “San Francisco,” and the jingle-jangly “7 Days a Week,” to name just a few. The ’67 psych moves of “Eastern Shore” are pretty cool as well. Diamond Hands’ debut record was an instant favorite and Diamond Hands II ain’t far behind in the pure pop pleasure department. Grade: A
Son of Skooshny – Matchless Gifts 2006 – 2016
An offshoot/spinoff of Skooshny, a relatively unknown psych-pop combo that has been around (off and on) since the ‘70s, Son of Skooshny features frontman Mark Breyer joining forces with LA-area producer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Refling (who’s worked with pop chanteuse Lisa Mychols, among others). Their modus operandi is smooth, layered guitar jangle – somewhere between the Byrds and early R.E.M. - with Breyer’s often inscrutable lyrics the tasty cherry on top. “I’m learning to see past the floaters and the flashes/while spirals and snowflakes brush my eyelashes” (from “Half of the World”) and “There were rocks in my rice in China” (“Just a Test”) are but two of the lyrical curveballs Breyer tosses out, but pretty much every song here marries his thoughtfully oddball lyrics to melodies that will get their hooks in you with relative ease. Matchless Gifts is a “best of” collection, and a quite stunning one at that. I’m not sure where Son of Skooshny has been all my life, but I’m sure glad they’re here now. Grade: A
The Junior League – Eventually is Now
They’ve been flying under most pop fans’ radar for more than a decade now, but the Junior League has released a handful of solid records during that time. (Catchyremains a personal favorite.) Eventually is Nowis a touch more ornate than much of their previous output, but that’s certainly a good thing in this case. Leader Joe Adragna’s songs are across-the-board strong, and many of them are knee-weakening in their simple beauty: “The Wrong Kind of Blue” is just flat-out gorgeous (kudos to Deni Bonet’s strings), while “You Didn’t Miss a Thing” sounds like a cross between prime Badfinger and early ‘70s John Lennon. Super utilityman Scott McCaughey plays and sings on a half dozen of the tracks, while Cherry Twister/Split Squad honcho Michael Giblin adds keys and 12-string guitar on “Someday.” A low-key treat. Grade: A-
Trip Wire – Cold Gas Giants
Decent enough pop-rockin’ sounds on this, Trip Wire’s third record. They’re joined this time out by the Well Wishers’ Jeff Shelton, who adds bass and guitar as well as contributing two songs of his own. “Winter Song” has a nifty little guitar hook and pretty strings and a few of the other tunes are catchy, but on the whole the album is somewhat undermined by flat, lifeless production. Grade: B-
Ed Ryan – Roadmap
Ed Ryan – Furious Mind
A veteran of the pop music wars (he’s been doin’ that thing he does in various bands and solo since the 1970s), Ed Ryan is another in a long line of prolific pop savants who can write sturdy tunes, sing, and play every instrument. (He does it all on Roadmapand handles everything but drums on Furious Mind.) Things are the most interesting on Roadmap when the guitars get spiky, as they do on “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “Clementine”; faves on Furious Mind include the perfectly poppy – and yes, somewhat furious – “You’re My Kind of Fun” and the punky “Rocket Ship.” Grade: B
Rob Clarke and the Wooltones – Big Night Out
Hailing from Liverpool and armed with a whole lotta spirited tunes, Rob Clarke and his Wooltones mine some of the coolest Britpop sounds of the ‘60s: “Brown Paper Bag” is pure Merseybeat, “You’re Looking Good” recalls the Zombies, and the witty, delightful “Last Train to Rob Clarkesville” sort of mashes up the Beatles and the Monkees. Dig the “And I Love Her” quote on the plaintive “Better Times,” chill out to the mellow psych vibe on “Walking on the Water,” and enjoy an album that sometimes comes from out of left field (“Lost and Forgotten People of Baab”) but is pleasurable nevertheless. Big Night Out comes with a very cool 15-track bonus disc: a live recording of the Wooltones playing at The Day John Met Paul 60th Anniversary event in Liverpool, with original Quarrymen drummer Colin Hanton sitting in with the band. “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and a version of “Come Go With Me” that sounds for all the world like Marshall Crenshaw are a few of the highlights. (And yes, they sing “down, down, down to the penitentiary” on “Come Go with Me,” just as Lennon did on that fateful day all those years ago.) Grade: B+
If you’re interested in purchasing or finding out more information about these and other Kool Kat releases, visit www.koolkatmusik.com.