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Power Pop Plus: A Look Back at 2020...and More

John M. Borack explores some of the best of 2020 and a brand new release from Matthew Sweet
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Matthew Sweet - Catspaw (Omnivore)

Sweet's fifteenth solo effort is one of his finest in recent memory. Like Paul McCartney's III, Catspaw is a grower rather than an instant knockout: songs such as "Give a Little," "Challenge the Gods," "Come Home," and "At a Loss" will sneak up on you and provide a guitar-fueled gut punch given half a chance. Speaking of which, Catspaw is most definitely a full-on guitar record: Sweet handles all the six-string action here and does a helluva job, with the beefy sound harkening back to Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine's work on Sweet's 1990s releases. (Sweet handles all instrumentation himself here, save for longtime cohort Ric Menck's typically rock-steady drums.) Only one of the dozen tunes clocks in at longer than four minutes, and the relative brevity of the songs allows Sweet to say what he has to say, tear through a kickin' guitar solo (the one that fires up "At a Loss" is particularly inspired), and move on. Pop purists might bemoan the lack of an "I've Been Waiting" or a "We're the Same," but then again, there are folks who wish the Beatles had never progressed further than "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Fun fact: the guitar figure than opens "Hold On Tight" bears a strong resemblance to the main riff from the Youngbloods' "Get Together." Grade: B+

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Frankie Siragusa - Goodbye My Love: Lost Songs of the Beatles Covered and Rediscovered (Reimagine Music)

Taking a break from his gig as drummer for the Posies, multi-talented musician/producer/studio owner Frankie Siragusa "covers and rediscovers" 14 tunes that the Beatles wrote for other artists but never officially released themselves. A similar tack has been taken by numerous combos over the years—Apple Jam, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Band and The Beatnix are a few of 'em—but there is still room for talented, Beatle-loving musicians to put their stamp on these songs. Siragusa sings lead on six of the songs, including the gorgeous, McCartney-penned rarity "Penina" and a version of "A World Without Love" that glides along with a distinct "I'm Only Sleeping" vibe. Keith Slettedahl (The 88) sings the bulk of the rest and particularly shines on "Goodbye" and "Woman." (He's credited with "McCartney vocals.") Taking one lead vocal each are the Posies' Ken Stringfellow (on George Harrison's funky "Sour Milk Sea") and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (on the boppy, poppy "I'll Keep You Satisfied"). The whole deal was recorded on four tracks and the thing that distinguishes it from other releases of the same ilk is that some modern-sounding instrumental touches are seamlessly incorporated into several of the songs. Wonderful. Grade: A

MIDNIGHT CALLERS

The Midnight Callers - Red Letter Glow (JEM)

The pre-release buzz was strong on this one and it seems as if every bit of said buzz was more than warranted: Red Letter Glow has secured a slot on many a year-end best-of list. Combining an insistent, big beat sound with nicely textured production, up front vocals and heavenly harmonies, the Midnight Callers' sound is the aural equivalent of simultaneously being kissed and slapped in the face. Red Letter Glow is a primo rock record and highlights are plentiful: the Bo Diddley slam of "Return the Favor," the hypnotically powerful "River Rise," the overt Cheap Trick-isms of "Hipster Girl," the snarling "Not Tonight," and a slinky, jacked up run through of Bill Withers' "Use Me." The absolute pinnacle, though, is "41 Miles to Roscoe," a rock 'n' roll rave up of the highest order that deservedly placed third in Little Steven's Underground Garage's ranking of the "Coolest Songs in the World" for 2020. Shoulda been numero uno, if you ask me. Grade: A-

MOLLAND

Joey Molland - Be True to Yourself (Omnivore)

Joey Molland's first solo record in close to a decade is a collaboration with the talented/wacky producer Mark Hudson, and a very pleasant listen from front to back. It finds Molland (who co-wrote the ten tunes with Hudson) playing up the pop-oriented strengths he first exhibited with Badfinger, and Hudson (who also plays and sings throughout) once again embracing the "Beatlesque mad wizard" guise he displayed during his tenure as Ringo Starr's producer and musical director. Truth be told, it's not much of a stretch to imagine Starr singing many of the tunes on Be True to Yourself, particularly the inspirational title track (with its oh-so-Beatles '67 end bit), "This Time," or the sunny-sounding "Rainy Day Man." Hudson does a good job of masking some of Molland's slightly gruff vocalizing by utilizing guests such as Julian Lennon, Jason Scheff and Micky Dolenz to lend some vocal support, while former Wings drummer Steve Holley mans the kit. The Pete Ham-like vocal affectations on "I Don't Wanna Be Done With You" and the cute little wink to "No Matter What" at the close of "All I Want to Do" should make the listener smile, as will most of the rest of Be True to Yourself. Grade: B

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Paul Collins/The Beat - Another World: The Best of the Archives (Alive/Natural Sound)

A bounty of unreleased material, most of it very good or better, from the self-proclaimed "King of Power Pop." Another World should wow those who covet old school power pop rarities, as it kicks off with two vintage cuts from The Beat: "Hey DJ" (which would remain unreleased until Collins unearthed it for a solo record in 2008) and a speedier (and more enjoyable) take of "On the Highway" than the one found on The Beat's second LP. Other choice rarities excavated by Collins include 1987's joyous, Buddy Holly-influenced "This Heart," a sweet collaboration with Chris von Sneidern from 1989, and alternate versions of Beat tunes such as "There She Goes" and "Let Me Into Your Life." 1981's "Let's Go!" is a blistering rock and roll number and "Another World"—which Collins calls "the crown jewel of this collection" in his detailed liners—is a beautifully haunting gem. Another World serves as an excellent companion piece to Collins' recent page turner of an autobiography, I Don't Fit In (written with Chuck Nolan). Note: the CD version of the album contains four bonus tracks not available on the vinyl. Grade: B+

DEAR STELLA

Dear Stella - Time Zones (Time Capsule)

Dear Stella is a pseudonym for Austrian singer/songwriter Stefanie Drexler, and her debut six-song EP will appeal to fans of pop music that is fanciful, frothy, thoughtful, and features plenty of melodic twists and turns. Pop mensches Bleu and Eric Barao each collaborate with Drexler on a tune—the Jellyfish-like delight "Time Machine" and the earnestly gorgeous "The Last Kiss," respectively—and Drexler's sweetly expressive vocals soar on the absolutely wonderful ballad "Take Care Out There." The disc-closing confessional "Brighton Beach" tugs on the heartstrings and puts the cap on a consistently pleasing effort. More, please! Grade: A-

NAT SWEET

Natalie Sweet - Oh By the Way...it's Natalie Sweet (Rum Bar)

Sometimes an album is just so freaking irresistible that attempting any sort of pushback is a complete exercise in futility. Such is the case with Natalie Sweet's Oh By the Way13 short, bubblegummy bursts of total rock action that combines punk, pop and girl group moves to create simple sonic splendor. A good point of reference is to imagine pop-punksters the Yum Yums with a female lead vocalist; as a matter of fact, the YY's Morten Henriksen contributes lead guitar and vocals to Oh By the Way and co-wrote three songs with Ms. Sweet. At times she emotes like a punked up, brattier Lesley Gore, the tunes all have hooks on top of hooks, and the entire thing just screams, "TURN IT UP!" Grade: A

SCRUFFS

The Scruffs - Teenage Tragedies 1974-1979 (Pop Superette/Mono-Tone)

One of the late 70s' finest practitioners of pure, Anglo-flecked power pop, Memphis's Scruffs were fronted by Stephen Burns, whose lead vocals can best be described as a slightly earthier, more desperate version of Eric Carmen. The lone LP released during the original band's lifespan, 1977's Wanna Meet the Scuffs?, is an indisputable classic. The 14 tunes on this new compilation (released on vinyl and compact disc) date from before (1974-1976) and after (1978-1979) that album; they were initially part of two 1998 archival CDs that quickly fell out of print. Not only is it great to have them available once again, but they've been remastered and 12 of the 14 are also now available on vinyl for the first time. The '78-'79 material is more readily accessible and includes mini-classics such as "Teenage Gurls," "Nick of Tyme" and the slightly goofy, inexplicably wonderful "Alice, Please Don't Go." The older material is less polished and not quite as focused, but the best moments recall the solo output of fellow Memphis-ite Chris Bell. Grade: A

JOE GIDDINGS

Joe Giddings - Better From Here (Kool Kat)

"It's about time/we've been waiting for you," sings Joe Giddings on the title track and man, ain't that the truth? Giddings has been cooking up this release for a while now and those on the hunt for well-crafted pop music with brains and balls should be on high alert now that he's finally unleashed it. Whether it's the Fountains of Wayne-meets-Jellyfish-in-the-high-school-hallway crunch of "Amity Horror," the insanely catchy (verse, chorus AND bridge) "Gone So Far," the slightly folky "Always Raining Somewhere" or the sprightly, in-your-face guitar rock of "Tinfoil Crush," Giddings has all the right moves. And we haven't even mentioned the hit-single-in-waiting "If I Don't Have Love" or the self-deprecating slam of "Irrelevant." ("50 likes on Facebook can't be wrong.") So let's sum up: power pop with real power. Well-crafted tunes delivered with panache and drenched in melody. Meaty guitar licks flying all over the place. If any of these things sound appealing—and they definitely should—grab a copy of Better From Here. A 2020 top 10 contender, for sure. Grade: A

FOREIGN FILMS

The Foreign Films - Ocean Moon (Kool Kat)

Damn, is this ever one gorgeous record and one that's sadly flown under a lot of folks' radar. Subtitled New Songs and Hidden Gems, it's nine tracks (six new, three older) of glorious, lovely paeans to a sweeter, simpler time. Bill Majoros' vocals are hushed and perfect, and the tunes bring to mind McCartney, late '60s Brian Wilson, the softer side of early Elton John, and the ornate side of the Zombies. "Dream With Me" and "Stars in Her Eyes" are but two of the treasures you'll find on a record that is laced with melancholy and brimming with gentle tunes veritably bursting with beauty. The band's statement of purpose is summed up nicely on their Bandcamp page: "The Foreign Films take us on a nostalgic trip to the past while we dream of a brighter tomorrow." Amen. Grade: A-