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Album Reviews: The latest in Power Pop

John M. Borack spotlights 10 recent releases, including an early contender for Album of the Year.

The Overtures – OnceinAWorld (Kool Kat)

The first great album of 2020 is here and it’s a relatively unassuming little collection that houses a dozen killer pop tunes that at different times recall the Byrds, Beatles, Searchers, solo McCartney and others of their ilk. The head man behind the cool sounds is lead vocalist/songwriter Den Pugsley, who has also served time in the most excellent bands the Jetz (late ‘70s) and the Pencils (early ‘80s). Both the Jetz and the Pencils made records chock full of melody, harmony and ‘60s-influenced energy, so it’s no surprise that the Overtures do the same, in spades. Pick a song, any song, and it’s sure to please: there’s the overtly Byrdsy “The Hollow Bells” (which sounds like it came straight outta Rhymney); the power pop perfection of “Till Your Luck Runs Out,” “She Shines a Light” and “She Belongs to Yesterday”; the riffy, rockin’ “Red Dolls House”; the groovy, keyboard-fueled “Watching the Grass Grow”; the ridiculously catchy “You’ve Been Gone,” with its perfect blend of electric and acoustic guitars and dollops of harmonica as the sonic cherry on top; and the disc-closing white soul blast of the stomping “Still on My Mind.” In a word, wow. Don’t delay, grab this one post haste. Grade: A

Jim Basnight – Not Changing (Self-released)

The former Moberlys front man has been slogging it out in the rock and roll trenches for many a year and his latest solo effort finds him revisiting his former power poppin’ sonic stomping ground on tracks such as “Best Lover in the World,” “Living the Way I Want” and “You Never Cease to Amaze.” Unfortunately, too many of the songs don’t stick the way they should and sound a bit forced, including the hard rock dirge “Big Bang” and the slightly odd “Kurt Cobain.” Best thing here is the leadoff track, the hooky, breezy “Code to Live By.” Grade: C+

Apple Jam - Off the White Album (Roseta)

Eleven songs penned by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison during the White Album era but never recorded by the Fabs are done up quite nicely by Apple Jam, a Seattle, Washington-area combo. Fully fleshed out versions of tunes such as the sweet McCartney ballad “Goodbye,” Lennon’s “Child of Nature” (later to morph into “Jealous Guy”), and Harrison’s “Sour Milk Sea” (given to fellow Apple Records recording artist Jackie Lomax at the time) and “Not Guilty” are a few of the highlights. The quality of most of the tunes makes a belated case for the White Album as a triple-disc set, but it also drives home the point that “What’s the New Mary Jane” is an awful song no matter who is singing it. Grade: A-

Richard Walton – Twelve (Notlaw Music)

Singer/songwriter Richard Walton is a member of the Maryland Entertainment Hall of Fame and as such, is something of a local semi-legend in the Mid-Atlantic area. A quick perusal of his website informed me that he plays in several bands (as well as solo acoustic), dabbles in several genres, and that Twelve is his twelfth album (natch). It’s a nice, slightly earnest collection that plays up his pleasant, everyman sort of voice and showcases his versatility—there are splashes of folk, lite reggae, good time country (the giggle-inducing “Memory Card”), and some contemporary Christian musings. The high points are the compact, memorable guitar-pop numbers “Here Right Now” and “Everybody Can’t Be Wrong.” Available on LP and CD. Grade: C+

The Bells – The Bells (Go Now!)

Slightly rustic, easygoing pop is the order of the day from this Spanish trio who all go by the last name Bell, although one suspects this might be a Ramones-type deal. While their Bandcamp page claims The Bells “…unleash a new adventurous sound, mixed [sic] rock, folk, pop, and psychedelia in ways previously unimagined,” the truth is that the band’s sound is not all that different from the slightly muted West Coast psychedelia heard in clubs up and down the California coast. It’s well-produced mid-tempo pop, with melodies swaying gently in the sonic breeze and appropriately understated vocals. It probably will not knock anyone’s socks off, but for those times when you want to lay back with socks intact and groove to some cool sounds, it provides an apt soundtrack. My picks: the slightly distorted guitar-led waltz “Colder Than Ice” and the shimmering shuffle “All the Lies.” Available as a limited edition 12" white vinyl + CD. Grade: B-

Armchair Oracles – Caught by Light (Kool Kat)

From the “better late than never” file comes this fine 2019 release from Armchair Oracles, a Norway-based quartet who lay on piles of thick jangle underneath yearning lead vocals to fashion an updated Big Star kind of vibe. “She Gets Me High,” “All My Time” and “Silver Nights” are all very, very good and the rest sort of sneaks up on you. Cool stuff. Grade: B+

The Shivvers – The Shivvers (Rerun/Bachelor)

One of the great lost power pop albums is back in print thanks to St. Louis’s Rerun Records and Austria’s Bachelor Records: the self-titled release from the Shivvers, the pride of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Back in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, the band, fronted by lead vocalist Jill Kossoris, recorded and released one incredible indie single: “Teenline” b/w “When I Was Younger.” The band split without ever scoring that coveted record deal, leaving a ton of unreleased material to gather dust for several years. After a few extremely rare CD-R only compilations saw limited release in 2002 and 2006, the material that would have comprised the Shivvers’ debut album was officially released by Sing Sing Records on LP in 2014, only to quickly go out of print. The new 2020 edition of The Shivvers is available on both CD and LP and includes expanded liner notes and an updated sleeve design. The music is still prime power pop and a must for any fans of the genre: Kossoris’ sharp, pleading lead vocals mesh nicely with a powerfully poppy, often early Who-like instrumental prowess and the band shines brightly on tunes such as “Please Stand By,” “My Association, “ Don’t Tell Me” and the aforementioned single. Essential listening. Grade: A

Mo Troper – Natural Beauty (Tender Loving Empire)

The latest from the enigmatic Mr. Troper (whose last full length, Exposure & Response, was a favorite from 2017), Natural Beauty is a cool little record with the bulk of its high points occurring during the first half of the disc. After the slightly strange self-confessional “I Eat” leads things off, the next seven tunes are pure gold, eminently memorable, melodically rich and delightfully off kilter. Troper’s vocals range from a plaintive sweetness to a Beach Boys-influenced falsetto to an anguished wail as he runs through tunes such as “Your Boy” (an early contender for popsong of the year and a musical cousin to the La’s “There She Goes”), the nostalgic “In Love With Everyone” (with a crazy catchy chorus, horns and some nifty dynamics), the wonderful “Your New Friend” (lyrically sad, musically upbeat) and a big time earworm called “Jas from Australia,” which lovingly details a long distance relationship. The only ever-so-slight misstep involves sequencing, with both of Natural Beauty’s overlong slow ones appearing back to back at the end of the disc. Nevertheless, it’s one hell of an entertaining collection and a left-field surprise. Grade: A-

Jeff Lescher – All is Grace (Gang Green)

The main dude behind the highly underrated Midwestern band Green, Jeff Lescher fronted the band on several outstanding records in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Tunes such as “Hurt You,” “Gotta Get a Record Out” and “I Don’t Even Need Her (Now)”—to name but a few—combined urgent musicianship with Lescher’s wholly unique, slightly out of control, soulful lead vocals and still sound great today. Green has been dormant recording wise for more than a decade, but fans of the band will be pleased to learn that Lescher is back with a DI (mainly) Y solo record. There are sparks of the old Green magic throughout, but by and large All is Grace is a less manic and more measured affair. Lescher’s voice has mellowed some, but he still summons some of the old fire on numbers such as “#1 Record” (a sequel of sorts to “Gotta Get a Record Out”) and a few others. There’s some rock, some country-esque musings, a few instrumentals and, on a few tracks, some weirdly out of sync drums. Grade: B-

The Toms – Selections from the 1979 Sessions (You Are the Cosmos)

From Spain’s excellent You Are the Cosmos Records comes a vinyl-only, four-song 7” EP containing four tracks from last year’s revelatory The 1979 Sessions CD by The Toms. The Toms were/are one Tom Marolda, who put together a classic indie power pop platter (The Toms) all by his lonesome back in ’79; the four tracks on the new vinyl comprise the best of some of the “leftovers” from The Toms sessions. “Angela Christmas,” “She Said Goodbye” and “That Could Change Tomorrow” all rival almost anything on The Toms, while “Call the Surgeon (part 2)” features a bit of ‘60s garage influence. Wonderful. Grade: A