Power Pop Plus: New CD Reviews

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Chris Richards and the Subtractions – Peaks and Valleys (Futureman)

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Peaks and Valleys is a slightly disappointing outing from Chris Richards and the Subtractions. Why? Well, despite the crisp production (courtesy of Richards and Andy Reed), the on-point drumming (Larry Grodsky on the kit) and Richards’ urgent lead vocals, there seems to be a paucity of truly memorable melodies here; it all sounds good, but there’s not much to call the listener back for repeated spins. “The End of Me” and perhaps one or two others are exceptions but based on Richards’ impressive track record (with his Subtractions and the Legal Matters), one expects more peaks than valleys. A cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen” is a nice idea but is ultimately disposable. Grade: B-

Paul Collins – Out of My Head (Alive/Natural Sound)


Produced by the Mockers’ Tony Leventhal, Paul Collins’ latest finds the self-proclaimed “King of Power Pop” doling out some more ruling examples of the genre he’s helped prop up since the late ‘70s. A few of the tracks—“Go,” “Kind of Girl,” and “Just Too Bad You’re Leaving”—wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the first Beat album, which is to say they’re pretty damned fab. Another winner is “Emily,” which is reminiscent of a Buddy Holly ballad, while “You Belong to Me” trucks along with a bit of a country-ish vibe. Collins’ voice sounds a bit rough in spots (especially during the key change of “Just Too Bad You’re Leaving” and on the nostalgic “Midnight Special”), but the high points—which is to say the first seven songs—far outweigh the few red flags. Out of My Head is an oddly paced record, though: the final four tunes are all slow ones, which makes one wonder why Collins didn’t intersperse them throughout. They’re all good tunes (“Tick Tock” is especially dreamy), which is cool, as is the fact that Collins plays drums on the entire record. Not sure if he’s done that since his days in The Nerves. Grade: A-

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Nick Piunti – Temporary High (JEM)

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When you've got a good thing going you stick with it, and that's exactly what Nick Piunti does on his latest, Temporary High. The songs are uniformly excellent—perhaps his best batch yet—and Piunti's vocals capture just the proper amounts of grit and sweetness. The title track is one of those “play it over and over” type of tunes; “If This is Right” has an underlying sadness that ultimately renders it irresistible; and the lyrically snide “Keep Me Guessing” is buoyed by some fine guitar work by Piunti. Temporary High is a permanent power poppin' highlight of 2018, to be sure. Grade: A

Gretchen’s Wheel – Black Box Theory (Futureman)


Lindsay Murray—aka Gretchen’s Wheel—has become quite prolific, with Black Box Theory being her fourth full-length release since 2015. It contains the usual arcane lyrical musings from Murray (“Saw the rainbow fall/unwoven from the sky/in a demon haunted world/content to let it lie”), but this time around the songs are musically edgier than they have been in the past. This is a welcome state of affairs, and is due not only to Murray’s often spiky guitar, but to Nick Bertling’s kickass, powerful drumming on all ten tunes. A few of the songs never emerge from the morass of their impenetrability and fall flat, but when Murray is on her game—as she is on tunes such as “Lucid” (primo guitar on this one) and the hooky “Tatyana”—the results are quite swell. Grade: B

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Simon Love – “Sincerely, S. Love x” (Tapete)


This baby flew in from way out of left field, but I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the most wonderfully enticing—and wonderfully odd—records I’ve heard thus far in 2018. The enigmatic Mr. Love hails from the UK and on his second album he cooks up a kooky yet always-melodic musical mélange that makes choice stops at sincere-yet-slightly-obscene balladeering (the damn-near perfect opener, “God Bless the Dick Who Let You Go” which begins with the testimony, “My life got better since I started drinking Dr. Pepper”); Spector-dipped bubblegum (the love letter “Joey Ramone,” which borrows a bit of melody from Redd Kross’s “Bubblegum Factory”); and undeniably catchy—and undeniably vulgar—ditties such as the horn-juiced, heartfelt, “I F ❤️ U” (where the sentiment is spelled out for the listener, literally and figuratively). There’s also a string-laced ballad about a tennis fan, a sweetly skewed singalong about a golden boy who’s not quite as golden as he seems, and a little McCartney-influenced ditty (“Stephen Timothy West”). The capper of the proceedings might just be the near-rap autobiographical something-something called “The Ballad of Simon Love,” which also recalls the Stones circa-Some Girls(vocally), kicks off with the immortal line, “My name is Simon Love and I’ll never own a house,” and includes a hand-clapping bubblegum-like breakdown, followed by an Elvis Presley-styled introduction of the artist - “Ladies and Gentlemen, Simon F*cking Love!” If the idea of a slightly off-color Robyn Hitchcock is as appealing to you as it is to me, check Simon Love out post haste. Grade: A

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Peter Holsapple and Alex Chilton – The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs. Alex Chilton (Omnivore)


A collection of 1978-vintage demos that self-confessed Big Star devotee Holsapple and a less-than-thrilled Chilton recorded in Memphis, and they’re just as pop-leaning (Holsapple) and somewhat shambolic (Chilton) as one would expect, given the arc of each artist’s respective career at the time. That means there are versions of a few Holsapple songs that would eventually find their way onto dB’s records (“We Were Happy There,” “Bad Reputation”), as well as another goodie that the Troggs would eventually cover (“The Death of Rock,” which the Troggs turned into “I’m in Control”). It also means that we get Chilton “leading” the band—which included Memphis pop sidemen Ken Woodley (bass) and Richard Rosebrough (drums)—through slightly chaotic versions of chestnuts such as “Heart and Soul,” “Train Kept a Rollin’” and “Hey Mona” as he forcefully and gleefully throws off the yoke of power pop. Elsewhere there are a few decent Chilton originals and some rehearsal takes (mostly sans Chilton), including two brief instrumental run-throughs of Big Star tunes. The disc closes with a 4-track recording of a nice little pop tune called “Mind Your Manners,” featuring just Holsapple and Mitch Easter, recorded at Easter’s North Carolina home. It more than makes up for the tortured Holsapple rehearsal reading of “Baby I Love You,” which is borderline unlistenable (and sounds more akin to something Chilton would have attempted at the time). The Death of Rock is a cool curio, but most definitely for completists only. Grade: B-

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Cupid’s Carnival – Clapham Junction (Cherry)


A super cool six-song EP from a British six-piece that gets all Beatley without being fussy and slavish about it; at times they recall the obscure-but-wonderful early ‘80s UK popsters Scarlet Party. Lead vocalist Roland Skilton has a touch of Lennon-ish soul and puts it to good use on tunes such as the upbeat Merseybeat sureshot “She Don’t Care” and slower-paced numbers like “Clapham Junction – Platform 1” and the orchestrated “Yoko’s Smiling.” Clapham Junction could have done with another upbeat track, but that’s the only real gripe here. Cupid’s Carnival’s 2016 full-length, Everything is Love, mines similar ‘60s Britpop territory and is splendid as well; both releases feature the keyboard talents of Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher. Grade: A-

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The Sharona – Get the Sharona (Self-released)


Power pop from the get-go, this Japanese quartet has it down pat: they’ve got the mock Get the Knack album cover art, pristine production, and punchy songs that rock and jangle in all the proper places. Sung for the most part in Japanese, the eight-song effort is one that is certain to please the discerning power pop nut: if tunes such as the rifftastic “Oh My Girl,” the joyous faux-Merseybeat of “Myojo to Heibon” or the plaintive “Fami Ryman” don’t make you smile, there might be a problem, Houston. “Dareka No Melody” is another expertly constructed power pop number; the insistently pounding “SNS!!!” is very similar to Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up” (not a bad thing by any means); and the awkwardly titled “Please Preschool Me!” features a keening, ‘60s Freakbeat-flavored lead guitar riff. A very cool record from start to finish. Grade: A-

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Pat Buchanan“Sandbox”b/w “Hello from the Moon”CD single (SpyderPop)


Power pop fans may know Pat Buchanan from his work with the band Idle Jets, whose excellent Atomic Fireballrecord was released by Not Lame in 1999. More recently, Buchanan has busied himself as an in-demand Nashville sideman, lending his talents to recordings by the likes of Don Henley, Alice Cooper, Dolly Parton and dozens more. Now he makes his SpyderPop Records debut with a marvelous single that whets the appetite for more. “Sandbox” is a tasty, swirling, ’67 Beach Boys/Jellyfish-inspired bauble fed by prominent keyboards, a bit of theremin, and a wonderfully melodic bassline, all held together by Buchanan’s appropriately gauzy lead vocals. The blizzard of harmonies (all Buchanan) on the psych-flavored bridge is another nice touch. The flip side is notable for its understated-yet-hooky Lennon-like vibe and Buchanan’s sweet slide guitar. Grade: A

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Smash Palace – Right as Rain EP (Zip Records)


They’ve been around for decades (first as Quincy, until Mr. Jones got ticked off and made them cease and desist), and on their twelfth release, Smash Palace has crafted another beginning-to-end winner that jangles, pops, rocks, and generally does all the things that melodic pop/rock fans crave. Leader Stephen Butler has been around since the beginning, and he and his brother Brian co-wrote all five tunes here, one in tandem with guitarist Cliff Hillis (“Heart of a Loving Man”) and another with bassist Fran Smith, Jr. (“It Happened to Me”). The band’s website touts the release by claiming, “It’s like listening to songs you know but haven’t heard before,” and guess what? Their website is 100% correct. Essential listening for pop fans, with the only complaint being that it would be nice if they’d release another full-length one of these days. Grade: A

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