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Pop Reviews Both Old and New

by John M. Borack

Here's some quick ruminations on a handful or two of discs both new and not-so-new...

Maxi Dunn’s Edmund & Leofinds the UK songstress back with another pleasant collection of tunes. "Change the Record" is one of the poppier numbers she's ever released, while the Spector-ish production on the glorious, harmony-filled "Take It or Leave It" works well and "Cover Me" (not the Springsteen number) is gorgeous. Some of the songs (such as the title track) suffer from a bit of vocal overdramatizing and the lyrically-angry-but-musically-enchanting "Buffoon Man" is burdened with a set of lyrics that seem to be trying too hard. Overall, there is a consistent lyrical bitterness that gets a tad wearying after a while, but the melodies are all pretty strong and help save the day. Grade: B


2012 saw the re-release of one of the finest records of the past 20 years – Cotton Mather’s musically creative, ridiculously inventive, insistently catchy, neo-psychedelic 1997 masterpiece Kontiki. The original 14-track CD – think an updated version of Revolver with edgier guitars - is supplemented by a bonus disc featuring another dozen tunes that run the gamut from acoustic and 4-track versions of Kontiki tunes to gems not available on the original release, such as “Baby Freeze Queen no. 1” and “”Flying Annie’s Kite.” For anyone who isn’t familiar with the record, it’s a must-hear: from the cracked, fragile beauty of “Spin My Wheels” and “Lily Dreams On” to the ragingly psychotic-sounding tribute “Church of Wilson” (that’s Brian W.) and the holy triumvirate of power pop perfection (“Password,” “She’s Only Cool” and “My Before and After”), it’s simply amazing. Grade: A+


Speaking of classic power pop, another fab long-player saw a long overdue re-release in 2012: The Late Show’s Portable Pop. Appearing on CD for the first time, the album was originally released on a tiny indie label in 1980 and became a much talked about and highly coveted power pop rarity. Trashy Creatures Records has given the dozen tracks the digital treatment, and while the original masters weren’t used (they’ve apparently been lost or erased, sadly) and the sound can be a bit crispy at times, it’s still quite wonderful to have the record officially released on CD. The Indianapolis, IN quartet specialized in Beatlesque numbers powered by plenty of guitar crunch, Don Main’s sweetly snotty lead vocals and oodles of nice vocal harmonies. Every cut’s a winner and there are also four bonus tracks: alternate versions of two tracks from the original release and two previously unreleased tracks from the same era (“Say Hello” is a real gem). Grade: A

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L.A.-based singer/songwriter Norman Kelsey’s sophomore solo effort, On the Rebound, finds him mining the suave soul man territory, to great effect. Kelsey’s vocals are top drawer (love the oft-present falsetto), the songs are across-the-board memorable (we particularly dig the Bee Gees homage “Our Love is Known By Name,” the silky “Huckleberry Finn” and the sweet, Prince-influenced ballad “Airport Kisses”) and he offers up a contender for Song Title of the Year: “Supermodels With Gatling Guns.” Grade: B+


Kenny Howes has been on the power pop map since the mid-‘90s and has given us some true classics of the genre, including his signature tune, the early Who-ish “Girls With Glasses.” He recently released his first full-length record in eight years, the strong and varied Tornadoes Here and Past. There’s plenty of Howes’ patented guitar slinging all over the album (yes, it’s actually an album – available on red vinyl): for example, the opening cut, “Cannot Remember,” begins with a beautiful acoustic guitar passage, which leads into an “Eight Miles High”-like Rickenbacker fiesta complemented by Kelly Shane’s powerful, Keith Moon-influenced drums. There are also horns on some of the tunes, including the lighthearted goof “People Are Doing Stuff” and the slick ‘n’ soulful “Foxy Jackie” (one of a trio of songs here that Howes contributed to the aborted L.A.-area supergroup The Ultra Suede). There are a few cool guest stars as well: Smithereens lead vocalist Pat DiNizio duets with Howes on the brief, moody “Juvenile Sage,” and Marty Willson-Piper of The Church contributes to the gauzy “Pour Your Heart Out to Me.” A solid effort that might rock a bit less than previous Kenny Howes releases, but still keeps melody at the forefront. Grade: B


As half of the most wonderful Spongetones, Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel have been half of the brains and heart behind one of the most respected pop bands around. In another of their continuing series of duo EPs (while the ‘Tones remain on an indefinite recording hiatus), the pair have cooked up the highly likeable Imaginary Café, which finds the longtime mates harmonizing and musically “clicking” like only the best of collaborators can. The pounding, percussive “Goldmine” (ahem..) is a standout cut, while the dreamy “Tokyo Sleeping” is fortified by some lovely, Beach Boys-styled harmonies and “Your Name Here” sounds like something that would have slotted in nicely on the Spongetones’ Oh Yeah record. Nice stuff. Grade: B


Every once in a while, it’s nice to listen to a record that has absolutely no artistic pretensions whatsoever. The Popdogs’ debut long-player, Cool Cats for Popdogs, is certainly one of those records: it’s meat-and-potatoes power pop that leans towards the jangly side of the spectrum, with the 10 tracks clocking in at less than half an hour. Hailing from the UK, the quintet sounds kinda similar to ‘80s/’90s-era Midwest power pop acts such as 92 Degrees and the Insomniacs, with James Styring’s lead vocals bringing to mind a slightly twee Buddy Holly. The non-stop aural sugar rush might be a bit tough to take for the uninitiated, but the Popdogs manage to hit the mark more often than not, particularly on the opening cut, “Kelly’s On,” the lyrically loony “Kissin’ Alicia” and especially on “High Time,” which sounds like something the La’s could have recorded. A promising debut. Grade: B+


Here’s an interesting curio: a Beatles tribute act from Washington state called Apple Jam has released a five-song EP titled On the Wings of a Nightingale, which takes the mid-‘80s tune that Paul McCartney wrote for the Everly Brothers and presents it in three different versions: a “64” reading that sounds like an ace Hard Day’s Night outtake, a “69” take that successfully channels “Get Back,” and a “71” version that culls some sonic influences from the RamLP. Rounding out the EP are two versions of John Lennon’s “Help Me to Help Myself,” an unfinished Double Fantasy-era demo: the “69” take comes off as “Don’t Let Me Down”-lite, while the “71” attempt is sort of a melding of the Imagine and Mind Gamesvibe. It’s all done very tastefully, and two of the tracks feature drumming from Yes man (and Beatles/Lennon associate) Alan White. Grade: A-

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As one-half of alt-pop stalwarts the Windbreakers and during his artistically and critically successful solo career, singer/guitarist Bobby Sutliff has been responsible for some outstanding tunes over the course of his 25+ year career. The recently-released tribute disc, Skrang: Sounds Like Bobby Sutliff, was actually borne out of a potentially tragic situation: Bobby was involved in a very serious auto wreck near his Ohio home in June 2012, and the prognosis for his recovery was uncertain. His partner in the Windbreakers, Tim Lee, decided to organize the trib to “…raise a few bucks to help Bobby get back on his feet, lift his spirits during a long recovery, and just be a cool thing to hear.” Fortunately, Bobby’s condition has markedly improved, so the collection can now happily be seen as a fitting tribute to a man whose lovely jangle-pop tunes are some of the finest the genre has seen. The 18-track Skrang has plenty of high points, including the Anderson Council’s rocked up version of “Griffin Bay,” Tim Lee 3’s forceful, garage rockin’ “I Thought You Knew,” Tom Stevens’ (ex-Long Ryders dude) faithful take of “Bitter Fruit,” Bill Lloyd’s “Same Way Tomorrow” and Michael Carpenter’s kinetic, supercharged “Long Red Bottle of Wine,” which just may be the best thing here. Other friends and musical comrades of Sutliff’s such as Velvet Crush (with Matthew Sweet), Matt Piucci, Russ Tolman, Don Dixon (who reimagines the Windbreakers’ “New Red Shoes” as a laid back, soulful sort of shuffle) and Peter Holsapple are also on board, each taking great care to provide Bobby Sutliff’s fine songs with the sympathetic treatment they deserve. Grade: A


In addition to being a reliable mail order house for the latest and greatest in pop/power pop/alt-country, Kool Kat Records has also been quietly putting out its own fine releases under the Kool Kat Musik umbrella. Two first-rate examples of archival power pop releases rescued from obscurity by Kool Kat are discs from The Modulators and The Pencils. The Modulators’ Tomorrow’s Comingpackages the east coast band’s 1984 nine-song album of the same name with three bonus tracks, including the mini-classic “She’s So Cynical.” It’s across-the-board solid stuff, with a nice little cover of “My Back Pages” and chipper originals such as “Spin Me Around” and “Tomorrow’s Coming.” There’s a bit of that big ‘80s drum sound going on, but hey – it was the ‘80s, so all is forgiven. Grade: B+


The Pencils Anthology is even better: two CD’s jammed with delicious power pop sounds that Kool Kat honcho Ray Gianchetti has been in love with for more than 30 years. The little-known UK foursome had a few singles released in their homeland during the early ‘80s --- the super-catchy, synthesizer-smeared “Watching the Tears” and the gorgeous “Pictures of Paris,” both included here, are particularly swell – as well as a damn-near-impossible-to-find LP released in Germany only in 1984. The anthology collects that 11-song album, a bonus cut and a live track from a 1981 BBC Radio appearance and marries it to a second 14-track disc filled with previously unreleased tunes. While the album proper is quite fine and filled with track after track of punchy, non-cliched power pop (with more synthesizer and “danceable” tracks than many of their contemporaries attempted), the second disc is probably even better: without the prominent synths and the big production, the band presents itself as something of a cross between a British Invasion act and This Year’s Model-vintage Elvis Costello and the Attractions. The songs are hooky, the performances inspired and overall, it’s rather amazing that this music has gone unheard until now. Kudos to Kool Kat for unkovering it. (sorry). Grade: A-


Alan Bernhoft’s Beatlesque Fouris pretty self-explanatory: it’s mid-to-late period Beatles pastiches---think a less-obvious Rutles, without the direct Fab Four song references---that focus on Bernhoft’s vocal similarity to John Lennon (although there’s a fun little Ringo-like ditty here too, “My Rolls Royce”). The fourth installment of Bernhoft’s Beatles obsession is cute to be sure, and when it hits the mark, some of it is sublime - especially if you can imagine John Lennon singing a snappy little ditty titled “Angry Birds.” Grade: B-

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Better Late Than Never Department: The Corner Laughers’ Poppy Seedsis a record that would have easily made my top 20 of 2012 had I spent enough time with it before December 31. It features a dozen hyper-catchy, quirky ‘lil tunes that whiz by in just over half-an-hour, always-interesting vocal and instrumental arrangements, slightly loopy lyrics and the bright ‘n’ lovely lead vocals of Karla Kane. Indie pop cred is provided by the presence of multi-instrumentalist/vocalist KC Bowman, Allen Clapp’s crisp production (and some singin’ and playin’) and guest vocals from Mike Viola, while Charlie Crabtree’s solid, inventive drumming helps power the tunes. Aural awesomeness abounds, including smile-inducing numbers such as “Grasshopper Clock,” “Transamerica Pyramid,” “Chicken Bingo,” the perfectly frantic “(Now That I Have You) I’m Bored” and the bobby, obscure “I’d Rather Count Cormorants With You” (where the Laughers provide a lyrical nod to their Bay Area baseball homeboy when they sing, “I could count on Buster Posey to go 2 for 3”). Oh, and on “Twice the Luck,” you’ll get a little “Mr. Sandman” vocal nod and this bit of lyrical whimsy: “I saw the Virgin Mary in my toast/she said that you’re the one I love the most/I asked if she was just a vision from my head/she said, ‘who cares, be glad you’ve got that bread’.” Grade: A


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