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Get the scoop on the latest pop releases

Wonder which pop albums make the grade? Get John Borack's take on releases by The Bangles, Lannie Flowers, Vinnie Zummo, Yep, Vegas With Randolph, The Ditchflowers, The Handcuffs, Maxi Dunn and more.
Mimi Betinis

Mimi Betinis

Former Pezband lead vocalist Mimi Betinis has unveiled a solo effort titled All That Glitters. Hopscotching stylistically from the catchy pop-rock that put him on the map 30+ years ago to some lite blues, a bit of Beatlesque sweetness, some stark balladeering and even a little bit o’soul, the album is a low-key success. It’s a musical melting pot to be sure, but Betinis is still in fine voice and even though this isn’t Pezband Mark 2, it’s still more than decent. Pick to click: “Love is Just a Thin Veneer.” Grade: B

I first made the acquaintance of The Stanleys via a song placed on an International Pop Overthrow comp, which is always a good place to discover some new power pop blood. Their “What Are We Gonna Do?” caught my attention immediately, with its classic power pop guitar riffage, sweet-yet-biting vocals and a deliriously memorable chorus. It’s included on the band’s debut release, the four-song Always EP. The other three songs here don’t quite scale the heights of “What Are We Gonna Do?” but they’re pretty damned close and therefore highly addictive and enjoyable. Stanleys Fun Fact #1: Always features production assistance from pop titans Ken Stringfellow (Posies) and Michael Carpenter. Stanleys Fun Fact # 2: The band members are from Norway and Australia, and met via MySpace. (Remember MySpace?) Grade: A

Dennis Schocket is known around indie pop circles as the guitarist for Starbelly, but some may not realize that he released a damned fine solo record a few years back that is on par with anything his band has done. The Cinderblock Mansion is 11 songs worth of sparkling guitars, insidious melodies and Schocket’s winning, everyman lead vocals. More than ably assisted by Starbelly mate Greg Schroeder on drums and Myracle Brah’s Andy Bopp on a variety of instruments, Schocket spins an enjoyable musical web that pop fans should dig. “Girl of the Year,” “Another Perfect Break Up Song” and the slightly country-rockin’ “Lovesick Blue” are my personal faves, but there’s not a duff cut in the batch. Not flashy, just really, really good. Grade: A-



Covers are always a dicey proposition: do you play ‘em straight or try to doll them up a smidge, throw in some sonic curve balls and make ‘em your own (thereby running the risk of possibly screwing with a good thing)? Southern California duo Nushu pretty much decided to do the former on their new Joystick EP, and the results are quite favorable. All five tracks are from the late ‘70s/’80s and the versions are all faithful interpretations, fortified by Hillary Burton and Lisa Mychols’ ample instrumental and vocal talents. They can play it sweet (a spot-on take of the late Phil Seymour’s fabulous “Precious to Me”) or sultry (a powerful run through of the Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t,” which seems even dirtier than the original with a female singing those nasty bits) and come out on top either way. The Housemartins and The Cars also get the Nushu treatment, while Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know” is fortified by some biting guitars, with Mychols and Burton’s lovely vocals helping to keep the song’s inherent sunniness intact. Extremely highly recommended. Grade: A

Laurie Biagini has released her third full-length, A Go-Go Girl in a Modern World, and it finds her covering much the same musical and lyrical ground as her first two releases: aural homages to sun-soaked days at the beach, jaunty, keyboard-based tunes, and a cornucopia of ‘60s-influenced numbers about go-go girls, secret agents and SUV’s. The clear highlight is the pretty, romantic ballad “An Innocent Love,” which sounds like it could have come straight off the soundtrack to a Sandra Dee movie. Biagini’s vocal delivery offers just the right amount of yearning on this tune, and her smooth background vocals are also quite fetching. Other goodies to be unearthed are the snappy “A Ride on the Train” (which pinches the main riff to “The Boy from New York City”) and the disc-closing “One Track Mind,” which has a slight Middle Eastern bent to it and features Biagini on lead guitar. On the other side of the coin, Biagini’s attempt at a secret agent-type number, “The Invisible Guy,” falls flat, with a decent melody buried by a morass of instruments in a murky mix. Oh, and many of these tunes cry out for a real drummer (rather than a drum machine), and a few miss the mark entirely. Still, Biagini is pretty good at what she does, and fans of ‘60s sunshine pop could do worse than to pick this disc up. Grade: B-

L.A.-area psych-pop stalwarts The Jigsaw Seen's latest release is a holiday-themed record called Winterland. It's well-played (special kudos to guitarist Jonathan Lea) and nicely produced, but the bulk of the tunes are...well, unfortunately they're rather boring. Much of the disc is down-tempo and draggy, but two of the disc's winners ("What About Christmas?" and "Snow Angels of Pigtown") are catchy, more upbeat slices of melodic goodness that fit nicely alongside JS classics such as "Celebrity Interview" and "Jim is the Devil." The two best things on Winterland, though, are the lovely, fragile "Winterland's Gone" and a nice reading of Gordon Lightfoot's (!) "Circle of Steel." Grade: B-

The Bangles’ first release in eight years, Sweetheart of the Sun, is a solid effort packed with a dozen typically melodic and beautifully sung tunes, most of which originally date from more than a decade ago. It’s a little less immediate than their previous effort (2003’s Doll Revolution), but it’s proven to be a “grower” around these parts. “Ball n Chain” and a cover of the Nazz’s “Open My Eyes” are both fiery rockers, while more sedate offerings such as “Lay Yourself Down” and “Anna Lee (Sweetheart of the Sun)” sport the pristine, jangly Bangles sound. Produced by Matthew Sweet. Grade: B

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You know how sometimes the idea of a record sometimes turns out to be better than the music itself? That’s how I feel about The Explorers Club’s latest, Grand Hotel. Taking a giant step back from the overt Beach Boys-isms of their debut disc, the new one is an aural exploration/celebration of late ‘60s mellow sunshine pop: y’know, all things Bacharach, Fifth Dimension, B.J. Thomas, etc. There are plenty of horns, gently strummed guitars, strings, sweet lead vocals and pretty harmonies, but the problem is that too many of the songs sound too closely related to the Explorers Club’s musical forefathers, making the bulk of Grand Hotel come off like The Rutles of soft pop. So, chalk this up to an extremely talented young combo relying a tad too heavily on their influences. Grade: B-

With a drum roll that flies in straight outta the Dave Clark Five's "Bits and Pieces," drummer Brad Elvis kicks off The Handcuffs' latest CD, Waiting For the Robot, with a bang. The tune from whence said drumbeat originates, "Dirty Glitter," is one of the best on the record, with a kickin’ glam-rock groove pushed along by Elvis' big beat, and Chloe F. Orwell's seductive lead vocals. (A close second is the similarly glam-flavored "Vinyl Isabella.") The final cut, "The Scary Side of Me," is another top-notch track, a beautifully-styled, confessional ballad that Orwell sings the heck out of. Overall, though, the songwriting is not quite up to the peerless level of the Handcuffs' previous effort, Electroluv; some tracks on Waiting For the Robot seem like throwaways ("This is a Test," "Kiss This Goodbye," "Take a Picture"). It's a good 13-song release that would have fared even better with a bit of judicious pruning. Grade: B

The second solo album from UK songstress Maxi Dunn is titled The Neglected Gambit, and it’s a good ‘un. Working with talented producer/multi-instrumentalist Peter Hackett, Dunn composed the dozen tracks and sings them with just the right balance of warmth, edginess and world weariness. The disc runs the gamut from straightforward popsongs (“Why Do I Want You?” sounds like a hit to these ears, with its glorious chorus and lyrics reflecting the confusion of a love gone wrong) to more introspective pieces (the slightly jazzy “Messed Up”) and the overall vibe is of an artist who seems quite comfortable expressing herself via a variety of musical motifs. Other favorites: the soulful “You Took the Sunshine From My Heart,” which includes some fab lead guitar from Hackett and a hypnotic extended ending; the girl group-ish ditty “Will You Forgive Me?” and the adorable (a term I don’t believe I’ve ever used in a music review) “Baby, It’s So Wonderful!” A very solid effort. Grade: B+

The Ditchflowers rose out of the ashes of former Big Deal Records act Barely Pink, with former Pinksters Brian Merrill, Stan Arthur and Michael Hoag joining Ed Woltil to form the Florida-based combo. The highlight of their Bird’s Eye record is the early Elvis Costello-meets-Merseybeat ditty “I Feel Sorry,” while the rest is serviceable pop-rock. Decent, well-produced, yet somewhat vanilla-sounding. Bet they’re good live. Grade: C+

Vegas With Randolph

Vegas With Randolph

One of the coolest pure pop/power pop records of 2011 (and one that just narrowly missed making my year-end top 20) was Above the Blue by Vegas With Randolph. Led by talented songwriters John Ratts and Eric Kern, VWR play the type of music that made me fall in love with power pop in the first place: sticky-sweet melodies that sound as if you’ve been pals with ‘em for years, guitars that crunch, palpable energy and a big helping of fun. There are songs about trees, sippy cups and Marisa Tomei, as well as some keys and horns to spice things up a bit. It’s all pretty wonderful, but the standouts to these ears are the absolutely irresistible “Wondering” and the ridiculously hooky “Marisa” (about the aforementioned Ms. Tomei). Grade: A-

Not sure if it’s an ongoing affair or simply a one-off, but the pairing of Al Chan (of the Rubinoos) and Mark Caputo (of Belleville) pays big-time dividends on the duo’s first full-length effort, recorded under the moniker Yep. The 11-song disc, titled Once, is mainly a collection of nicely chosen covers both well-known (“Rocket Man,” “Waterloo Sunset”) and obscure (unless artists such as Teitur or The Alan Wauters Alliance ring any bells for ya). Chan and Caputo sing real purty together and the vibe is low-key, yet not too mellow. The lesser-known tracks fare the best: Yep’s take of Teitur’s “Sleeping With the Lights On” is simultaneously sweet and heartbreaking, while Alan Wauters’ “Noise and Confusion” is another winner in a similar mid-tempo vein, with some gently psychedelic lead guitar adding flavor. Some subtle country influences permeate the proceedings as well: the Pernice Brothers and Wilco receive the Yep treatment and a gorgeous steel guitar-flecked reading of the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad” slots in perfectly. Grade: A-

The newest release from Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel (half of the most excellent Spongetones, for those of you not in the know) is the six-song EP, The Next Big Thing. It’s not unlike a Spongetones record, which is to say it’s supremely melodic, with Stoeckel and Hoover collaborating on all of the composing and recording, and harmonizing quite nicely, to boot. There’s a bit of an XTC-like vibe at work here, particularly on the leadoff cut, “Seaside Sparrow,” and “Half a Mind,” both of which sound as if they would have been at home on Skylarking. “Can We Start Again, Girl?” and the title track are more straightforward numbers and probably the most Spongetone-sounding. If you’d like a nice example of how pop guys can grow old(er) gracefully without getting all treacly or boring, check Jamie and Steve out. A worthy mini-follow up to their ace 2009 full-length, English Afterthoughts (which happened to featured one of my fave songs of theirs, “In the Other Life and On Another Day”). Incidentally, Jamie and Steve have recently been performing live webstream concerts from their studio (”internet busking,” as Jamie has dubbed it). Check ‘em out via Grade: B+

“…This album is meant to play tribute to my fave artists by writing songs in the styles they pioneered,” says NYC-area singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Vinnie Zummo in regards to his Swinging Guitar Sounds of Young America, Volume Two disc. So the listener is treated to a bit of Beach Boys harmony (“Brian’s Room”), as well as some John Lennon karma (“Homicidal”), Stonesy riffing (“Nuts Alaska”) and Todd Rundgren-esque white soul (“Special Thing”), among other delights. There’s also a sporty little number called “I Love Conjunto,” a “When a Man Loves a Woman” tribute called “It’s Amazing” (nice lead guitar work by Zummo on this one) and an old-timey one called “Slice and a Coke” that successfully channels the great Louis Prima. Zummo’s wife Janice sings lead of some of the tracks; her silky smooth voice powers the “My Boy Lollipop” twin “Human Touch” and “The Moment,” which features John Sebastian providing some instrumental assistance. This sort of stuff could be highly dangerous and smack of cheap parody if attempted by the wrong musicians, but Zummo is so talented and so good at what he does (he’s a former Joe Jackson sideman, BTW) that pretty much everything here hits the mark as a loving tribute. Grade: B+

Lannie Flowers

Lannie Flowers

Finally, a shout out to Texas pop dude Lannie Flowers and his excellent 2010 release, Circles. About half of the 15-song CD is meat and potatoes, guitar-fueled power pop with choruses to die for and the other half ain’t half bad, either. A few songs feature Flowers sounding more than a little like Mick Jagger (“All Dressed Up” is kinda uncanny) and Flowers manages the rare feat of penning a song about the radio (“Turn Up the Radio”) that isn’t completely lame. The cheeky “Around the World” and the jingle-jangly-yet-powerful “Not in Love” vie for Best of Show honors. Nifty. B+

Back soon with a look at a few of the finest releases of 2012 (so far), as well as a few cool reissues. Pop on!