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Power Pop Plus: July Reviews

John M. Borack reviews several melody-packed new releases

It's Karma It's Cool - Woke Up in Hollywood (Kool Kat)

Jim Styring has plied his pop trade in several acts over the past half dozen or so years: he's helmed UK groups such as the Popdogs, the B-Leaguers, and Ego Ritual, and now in 2020, he's the man behind the quirkily named It's Karma It's Cool. The 12-track Woke Up in Hollywood contains plenty of easy to digest pop sounds, including the plaintively catchy "American Sushi" ("We eat American sushi/so sue me"), the jangling "Healer's Leap," the speedy pseudo-reggae of "New Age Eve," and the loping treat, "Ghosts of Rome." The title track is a nice slab of slightly glammy pop, and is one of several tunes where Styring's lead vocals are somewhat reminiscent of the Undertones' Feargal Sharkey. Grade: B

Bill Lloyd - Don't Kill the Messenger (Whole in One)

"If you can't face the future/better grow you a pair." So sings truth-teller Bill Lloyd on the insanely catchy title track of this typically wonderful collection of what people used to call power pop, albeit with a slight country-ish bent. "Baby's in the Mood" is at once catchier than hell and hilarious as all get out, as is "I'll Take it From Here" (which rhymes "egg foo young" with "bite your tongue"); the latter rocks out with a bit of reckless abandon. "I've Had Enough of Your Love" is an insistent kiss-off that borrows a bit of the Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" in its chorus, while the raucous "KAKE'N'8IT" sounds like it could (should) be a current country chart hit. The kicker is the Chuck Berry-influenced "You Got Me," which has a great lyrical punchline and a killer guitar solo from Lloyd. The sweet, lyrically hopeful "The Kiss of the Summer Wind" (with Lloyd strumming a ukulele throughout) is the perfect send-off to close out another top-tier record from Mr. Lloyd. Grade: A

Open Sound - Open Sound (Self-released)

Fernando Perdomo seemingly releases a new project every five minutes or so; the L.A.-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer dips his toes in several musical pools: pop, prog, singer/songwriter, and probably seven or eight more I'm forgetting. On Open Sound, he partners with Justin Paul Sanders to fashion a shiny, gleaming jewel of a record that often comes off like Crosby, Still & Nash trying their collective hand at some pure guitar pop goodness. Some of the tunes are instant mini-classics: see "I Wanna Look in Your Eyes" and "Spotlight Smile," where sharp harmonizing and melodicism intersect. (The later tune features a nice aural tip of the cap to Todd Rundgren—one of Perdomo's heroes—by utilizing a bit of the guitar solo from "I Saw the Light.") Other numbers are gentler in nature but still very affecting: "California Moon" and "Broadway" both are fed by lovely melodies. The power popping "You're So Fine" is here in two versions, although they're both pretty similar. Well done, chaps. Grade: A-


Reno Bo - You Can See it All From Here (Electric Western)

From Reno Bo's website: "Reno has taken this time in quarantine to complete a solo album that was started last summer and abandoned just as his new band Neon Castles was getting underway." Fans of well-crafted, thoughtful pop music should be raising their glasses in celebration that You Can See it All From Here has seen the light of day, as it's a marvelous collection of stylish, highly memorable songs. There's a little Beach Boys (the brief opener, "Phantom Anthem," is filled with wordless, heavenly harmonies), some straightforward power pop ("Baby Blues" and "Second to Last"), a danceable, beat-heavy ditty that's almost criminally catchy ("Take Cover"), some instrumental guitar jazziness ("Houdini in Reverse"), one tune that recalls late '70s Neil Young ("Even a Stone"), a beautiful, folky ditty ("Old Glories"), a slightly ghostly mid-tempo ditty with some nifty lead guitar action ("Time Again Tomorrow"), and a moody-yet-beautiful closer that brings to mind John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band record ("You Can See it All From Here"). And that's it—it's a bit too short at only nine songs, but You Can See it All From Here should end up on some year-end top whatever lists—it's that good. Grade: A

Coke Belda - 4 (Kool Kat)

Coke Belda's fourth long-player (duh; check the title) is a veritable feast for lovers of melodically-charged, harmony-packed pop. Handling most vocals and instrumentation himself, Belda has penned a dozen tunes that should appeal to fans of combos such as the Merrymakers and their ilk. High points are plentiful, but two standouts are a musical love letter to Mr. McCartney called "Thank You, Paul" and a delicate ballad, "1968." The liner notes are a bit laughable in their effusiveness, but Coke Belda is one talented cat, for sure. Grade: A-

Brad Marino - False Alarm (Rum Bar)

Whether it's with the Connection (the band he co-founded) or solo, Brad Marino has been involved with a string of releases of unwavering quality: nods to punk rock, Merseybeat and classic pop abound throughout Marino's catalog, and the eight-song False Alarm is more of the same. The title track is a surefire winner, "On the Brink" successfully channels the Ramones, "At Night" and "Should've Known" are hotter-than-hell popsongs, and covers of the Hoodoo Gurus and Buddy Holly are most welcome. Besides, how can anyone resist a song that begins with the line, "I've been thinkin'/and I've been drinkin'/sometimes I mix the two?" Grade: A

Honeywagen - Halfdog (Rock O Plane)

Sturdy, highly enjoyable power pop sounds from Kansas City, MO. Halfdog is Honeywagen's fifth record, but it's the first one that found its way onto my radar and it's got me wondering where they've been all my life (to paraphrase Fotomaker). Vocalist/guitarist Mike Penner writes and sings tunes that seem instantly familiar, even though they don't really sound exactly like anyone else; the closest comparison I can come up with is fellow Midwesterners Einstein's Sister. Everything here is highly stylized without sounding sterile, catchy without pandering to any musical fad, and lyrically straightforward without coming off as cliched. Instant classics in waiting: "Anywhere the Wind Blows," "On the Beach," "All That Matters," and "All the Little Things." Bonus: Honeywagen's bassist is Midwestern power pop icon Gary Charlson, of late '70s Titan Records fame. Grade: A


Duncan Reid and the Big Heads - Don't Blame Yourself (LBH)

Their website touts this British quartet as "The World's Best Looking Heavy Melody Power Pop Punk Band"—tongue firmly in cheek, of course, but setting looks aside, "Heavy Melody Power Pop Punk" is a pretty apt description of Duncan Reid and the Big Heads and the most fab Don't Blame Yourself. The first three songs here—"Your Future Ex-Wife," the delicately titled "Motherf*cker," and "Welcome to My World"—kick off the proceedings with equal parts energy, melody and pointed lyrical wit. Things don't let up much from there: there's the ironically jaunty "The Grim Reaper," the head-bobbing hilarity of "For All We Know" (definitely not the Carpenters tune), a slinky dip into T. Rextasy called "Don't Blame Yourself," and the mellow (!) "Came the Day." The background vocals from drummer Karen Jones and guitarist/keyboardist Sophie Powers sweeten the deal, literally and figuratively, helping to make Don't Blame Yourself a fresh blast of summertime fun. Grade: A-

Tom Curless & the 46% - Almost Ready for the Future (Futureman)

Crunchy, well-produced rockin' pop from Michigan, Almost Ready for the Future finds Tom Curless and the gang doling out a dozen tunes that don't necessarily provide that immediate "wow," but work their way into the cranium after multiple listenings. It's earnest, the band is top-notch, and the record is definitely worth your time. Among the winners: "House on Fire," "Fall Like Dominos" and "I Just Wanna Talk," with its insidious synth hook on the outro. Grade: B+

The Vapour Trails - Golden Sunshine (Futureman)

Just like the Barracudas wished it could be 1965 again, the Scottish quartet the Vapour Trails no doubt wish it could be 1966 and 1967 again. The proof is in the pudding—or more accurately in the groovy sounds that abound on their new album, Golden Sunshine: guitars ring, harmonies ascend, and melodies swirl around in a vaguely psychedelic manner without ever getting too trippy. The title track has a bit of a Stone Roses touch to it, while "Dr. Barnes," "Lonely Man," and "Why Wonder Why?" are all wonderfully addictive pop tunes. The VT's get a bit melancholy at times as well, to good effect. Sweet, sweet music. Grade: A