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Power Pop gets high grades to close out 2019

Power pop from The MnMs to The Well Wishers grades high as the year 2019 draws to a close. Power Pop Plus writer John M. Borack tells you exactly why these artists deserve a prosperous New Year.

The MnMs – Melts in Your Ears 1980-1981 (Burger)

Led by cutesy-poo-voiced singer Marci Marks, the MnMs were a short-lived power pop act that saw their first single (“I’m Tired”/”Knock Knock Knock”) produced by Paul Collins, Marks’ boyfriend at the time. Melts… is a 13-track collection of pretty much everything the band recorded, and includes both sides of the debut single, as well as covers of “Sweet Nothings,” “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “He’s a Rebel.” For fans of like-minded acts of the era, such as Nikki and the Corvettes. Fave lyric: ”Hello, mom, it’s your daughter/I haven’t eaten/All I’ve had is water.” Grade: B+

Carpenter, Smith & Jones – Petty by Carpenter, Smith & Jones (Big Radio)

Australian pop mensch Michael Carpenter (all instruments plus vocals) is ably assisted by vocalists Abby Smith and Sophie Jones on this heartfelt collection of Tom Petty covers. Sometimes they play it straight (“Listen to Her Heart”), sometimes they change it up (a loping take of “Running Down a Dream” is played at half-time), but the results are always enjoyable. Worthy of special mention are the straightforward, Carpenter-sung “Walls,” an acoustic “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and a melancholy, guitar-and-voice-only “You Got Lucky,” where the inherent pain in the lyrics is laid bare by the spare instrumentation. Grade: B

Charlie Faye & the Fayettes -The Whole Shebang (Bigger Better More)

The follow up to the Austin trio’s 2016 debut is another primo collection of updated girl group pop-soul, with Faye’s chipper voice and sweetly satisfying songs (some co-written with Bill Demain) never failing to please. The title track is insistently catchy, “1-2-3-4” is a nice little bopper, “Stone Cold Fox” is something close to power pop, and “Night People” is a smooth slice of neo-‘70s soul. The pick of the litter, however, is the charming “Baby We’ll Be OK,” which would have been all over the radio in 1963. Grade: A-

Karen Haglof – Tobiano(No label)

Former Band of Susans member Karen Haglof’s Tobiano is an eclectic little collection of uniquely interesting tunes that traverse the pop landscape from glam (“Tobiano Twirl”) and country-pop (“Humbled and Chastened”) to a “Lou Reed covering the Ramones” soundalike (“Favor Favor”) and goofy lounge-isms (“Chew Toy”). Produced by Haglof’s former bandmate in the power pop combo The Crackers, Steve Almaas (who also handles bass), there are also cameos by Mitch Easter (who mixed the record) and Peter Holsapple. Grade: B

Bobbo Byrnes – Two Sides to This Town (No label)

10 songs worth of earthy Americana with vocals that neatly straddle the line between sweet and salty, and songs that stick to your ribs—that’s Bobbo Byrnes, whose Two Sides to This Town follows the standard Americana formula, but sounds anything but formulaic. If that sounds like a contradiction, just allow yourself to be carried away by the sweeping “Summer Wine,” the upbeat “Heart Like Mine” or Byrnes’ duet with wife/bassist Tracy, the wonderful “Massachusetts,” which begins with the immortal line, “Massachusetts is a funny word when you’re drunk.” Grade: B-

Tommy Lorente – Stupefaction(Rock Indiana)

Solid French-language power pop, well-produced and nicely performed. Lorente’s website references Paul Collins and Dom Mariani, and while nothing on Stupefaction scales the heights of those power pop masters, it’s easy to spot their influence. “Supernova” gets all jangly, “Le Reve Americain” is powered by a punky energy, and “J’Ai Connu Mieux” channels Rockpile and a little Chuck Berry, ending up as the catchiest thing here. You might even find yourself shouting along without even knowing what the title means. (It translates to “I’ve had better days.”) Grade: B+

Roy Wood – Mustard(Esoteric/Cherry Red)

My god, is this ever an odd record. I mean, even for Roy Wood it’s an odd one, which is saying something. Giving new meaning to the terms “esoteric,” “eclectic” and “eccentric,” it’s an eight-song collection from 1975 that is bolstered on this remastered CD edition by seven bonus tracks drawn from singles released in 1975 and 1976. Mustard is dense, poppy, impenetrable and accessible, depending on which song you happen to land on. The winning “Any Old Time Will Do” sounds like a slightly less glammy Wizzard tune, “You Sure Got it Now” comes off like the Andrews Sisters singing the blues, and “The Rain Came Down on Everything” is a winding, epic ballad worthy of Jeff Lynne. “Why Does a Pretty Girl Sing Those Sad Songs” is a pure Beach Boys pastiche—and a good one—as is “Look Thru the Eyes of a Fool,” which recalls Wood’s “See My Baby Jive.” The album is weighted down by the dirge-like “The Song” and the seven-and-half-minute “Get on Down Home,” which attempts to rock but doesn’t quite. The bonus tracks are the same as those on an Edsel Records reissue of the album a few decades ago and are highlighted by the snappy single sides “Oh What a Shame” and “Rattlesnake Roll.” Mustard is the sound of a mad genius doing mad genius things. Grade: B

Richie Parsons – Black-Throated Blue(Lawless)

Boston-area denizen Richie Parsons doles out plenty of energetic, nicely-produced (by the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, who also sings and plays on everything) power pop on this 12-song effort that features several pop touchstones aside from the Stringfellow connection: Robin Lane sings a duet with Parsons on one tune; he deftly covers Tommy Keene (“Behind the Parade”) and Richard Lloyd (“Blue and Grey”); and five of the songs are co-written with Gary Feldman, formerly of the late, great power pop band Radio City. The first three tunes and Lloyd cover are the highlights for me (love the vocal stacks on the close of “Six Hours Ahead”), but it’s all pretty solid. Grade: B+

Lolas – A Dozen or Seven Tapestries (Kool Kat)

Any new music from Tim Boykin under the Lolas moniker is a cause for celebration, and this new one—the first new music from the band since 2008’s Like the Sun—definitely does not disappoint. There’s plenty of the pitch-perfect power pop that’s long been the band’s stock and trade, alongside some tunes infused with a punky thrust (“We Think the Crime,” “Indigo”), some vaguely pop-psych moves (“Wish You Were Loud Enough”), and the simultaneously sweet (musically) and nasty (lyrically) “Lightning Mountain,” which is helpfully marked “NSFW” on the cover. Welcome back, boys! Grade: A-

Dime Box Band – Happy(Avebury)

Fans of country-tinged folk rock (or folk-tinged country rock) should find the sweetly tart (and tartly sweet) musical musings of Dime Box Band to be required listening. Led by the guitar, voice and sturdy songs of former Wednesday Week songstress Kristi Callan, Dime Box Band is a definite family affair: the talented lineup on Happy features her son James Nolte on guitar, the husband and wife team of Nick Vincent on drums and Lyn Bertles on fiddle/mandolin, and their son Alex handling bass. Callan and Bertles’ warm harmonies have led some to (rightly) dub the band “The Flying Burrito Sisters,” and the fact that Callan’s honeyed, pure lead vox are prominently out in front of the mix is a beautiful thing. The tunes are all very good or better—“Felix Felicis,” the Bo Diddley-meets-Dolly Parton “Going My Way” and the sad-eyed lullaby “Close Your Eyes” are especially great—and a bluesy, rockin’ protest number called “Keystone” seems especially timely. Grade: A

Various Artists – A Kool Kat Kristmas Vol. 3 (Kool Kat)

Not much is better than a fine record that helps support a worthy cause, and this one succeeds mightily on both counts: 13 original holiday tunes (with several that should become mainstays in years to come), with $5.00 from the sale of each copy donated to the American Cancer Society. Right out of the chute, things get kool: Everet Almond’s “Have a Very Very Very Merry Christmas” is a peppy little ditty that comes off like the Rooks’ Michael Mazzarella fronting a less frothy ELO; the Decibels’ “Christmas Wish” is a mod-pop joy; and the Junior League’s ghostly, sadder than sad “Holiday Bouquet” is enough to make a poor soul drown their sorrows in gallon after gallon of egg nog. Other must-hears: the Season’s Greeters mine the Rolling Stones circa “Rip This Joint” on the Kurt Baker-sung “Santa’s Leaving Town”; the slide guitar-fueled pop beauty “Christmas is Cancelled” is another notch in the belt of singer/songwriter Nick Frater; Richard Turgeon’s ode to “bah-humbug,” “Skippin’ Christmas” (“I doubt that Jesus wanted things this way”) is hilarious and fun; and Emperor Penguin’s “Lonesome Cowboy Christmas” is oddly endearing. Grade: A

The Toms – The 1979 Sessions (Futureman)

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Most power pop fans have by now made the acquaintance of the greatness that is The Toms’ self-titled 1979 record: pure power pop innocence and melodic perfection, written performed and produced by one Tom Marolda in his New Jersey home studio. In mid-2019, when the news broke that 14 tracks compiled from recently discovered tape reels from the same sessions that produced that classic debut were to be released, many (this writer included) salivated at the prospect. Of course, the danger was getting one’s hopes up too high; after all, how many more (previously unreleased) pop tricks could Marolda have held up his sleeve for forty years? The answer, as presented on The 1979 Sessions, is several. “She Said Goodbye,” “That Could Change Tomorrow” and “Angela Christmas” are nearly as wonderful as anything on The Toms, and “Was it Good for You Too,” “Uptown” and “Guilty as a Killer Wave” (sort of a “Son of Better Than Anything Else” from the debut) come close. The rest is also worthy of repeated listenings, making The 1979 Sessions a welcome release indeed. Grade: A-

The Safes – Winning Combination (Bickerton)

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What do you get when you combine five O’Malleys, three Mangans, two Barkers, two Dorffs and three Oleksys? The aptly titled Winning Combination, which finds the main players—brothers Frankie, Michael, Patrick and Sean O’Malley—joined by an array of supporting musicians. The result is the most ambitious effort yet for the Chicago-area combo: it’s nuanced, subtle and requires something of a deep dive by the listener, but it’s ultimately rewarding, in an updated Pet Sounds-y sort of fashion. Grade: B

The Jellybricks – Some Kind of Lucky (Wicked Cool)

The ‘Bricks are back after a five-year gap in between albums, with their first long player on Little Steven’s Wicked Cool imprint. Some Kind of Lucky continues the Jellybricks’ string of outstanding rockin’ guitar-pop records, with a handful of songs here solid qualifiers for Song of the Year (if I was compiling such a list). “Can’t Get Over You” is one of those impossibly perfect, radio-friendly tunes that’s impossible to shake, and “Faith,” “Brooklyn,” “Run Away” and “D O A” are all cut from the same cloth: spiky, loud guitars, exquisite vocal harmonies, and melodies for miles. Elsewhere, “Keep Me Guessing” is an in your face garage rocker, and the disc-closing title track is as close to a ballad as the Jellybricks get—and it’s quite pretty and moving. Some Kind of Lucky is a career high point for the Jellybricks and is certain to be a 2019 top 10 contender for me. Grade: A

The Rubinoos – From Home (Yep Roc)

Speaking of top 10 contenders, here’s another: the fabulous Rubinoos return with a dozen sugar-dipped tracks that capture the essence of power pop and AM radio hits of the ‘70s, all dressed up in golden harmonies and a fresh coat of sonic paint. Jon Rubin’s lead vocals are sweeter than ever, the quartet’s signature harmonies are firmly in place, and Tommy Dunbar should be universally hailed as a guitar god. (Dunbar also penned everything on From Home in tandem with former Green on Red guy Chuck Prophet, who also co-produced.) The tunes range from the glammy “Rocking in Spain” and the gorgeous slow ones “Heart for Sale” and “Watching the Sun Go Down” to the pure, adrenalin-fueled power pop of “How Fast” and the slightly more sedate (but no less memorable) “Phaedra,” an ode to a Greek goddess. Also feted in song is the late drummer Honey Lantree from the Honeycombs, who hit the charts with “Have I the Right” back in 1964. From Home’s “Honey from the Honeycombs” is a snappy little tribute, with drummer Donn Spindt showing off his substantial chops and locking in with bassist Al Chan, who is as rock-solid as ever throughout the collection. Favorite lyric: a tie between “Do you remember the words to the song/The DeFranco Family B-side and the one by the Troggs?” (from the pounding, nostalgic disc opener, “Do You Remember”) and “She’s got that Judy Jetson sex appeal/She’ll pull you right up into her magnetic field” (from the Beach Boys-inspired “Miss Alternate Universe”). Grade: A

Nick Frater – Full Fathom Freight-Train (Kool Kat)

The amazingly accomplished and often stunningly wonderful Full Fathom Freight-Train is not Nick Frater’s first rodeo; he’s been releasing music since 2012, with several LPs, EPs and singles to his credit. But this rodeo is most certainly the one that will rope you in, because FFFT is…well, it’s just about perfect. Imagine Todd Rundgren circa Something/Anything crossed with the Lemon Twigs. Now imagine that the Lemon Twigs could write songs. There. That’s Nick Frater. He pops, he rocks, he’s proficient at several instruments, his vocals are sweet and passionate, and he’s a gifted songwriter. Jump in anywhere—“Sunshine After Rain,” “Oh Now, Girl!” and “Mermaid Street” are the most immediate numbers—and you’ll hear what I mean. Available on vinyl and CD, this is a must-own for sure. Grade: A

The Well Wishers – The Lost Soundtrack (Self-released)

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The latest from the Well Wishers has an interesting backstory: the eleven songs were written and recorded by head Well Wisher Jeff Shelton over a period of eighteen months in 2014-15 after he was approached by a film production company to contribute tunes to a movie soundtrack. Although the film was never made, Shelton was loath to let his songs languish in the vaults any longer, so here they are—and they’re pretty damned good. Most are fed by the chunky guitar sound that is the Well Wishers’ stock and trade, and tunes such as “Great Day Out,” “Back Door” and “She Already Knows” rank among Shelton’s finest ever. Also worth a listen: the frenetic “Grace & Glory” and a fine, understated take of “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” a country top 10 for Waylon Jennings in 1975. (Useless but interesting trivia: Allen Reynolds, who authored this tune, also penned the Vogues’ 1965 hit “Five O’Clock World.”) The disc-closing, drumless “This Lie” has a set of emotionally powerful lyrics and serves as a nice capper to a fine collection of tunes, film or no film. Grade: A-