Power Pop Plus: September Reviews

John M. Borack shines the spotlight on several pop-oriented releases
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Rob Martinez - Maybe Miss America (Karma Frog)

If Paul McCartney had formed Wings in the early 2000s instead of the early 1970s, it might have sounded more than a bit like Rob Martinez's Maybe Miss America. Bolstered by a rich, full instrumental palette, easy to like lead vox and 11 super-strong tunes penned by Martinez, this one's a winner from start to finish. There are some subtle winks toward '60s psych-pop and catchier-than-all-get-out power pop, and Adam Marsland's sympathetic production and ample instrumental and vocal assistance add an additional layer of goodness. This may go down as one of the Great Lost Albums of 2019 or at the very least One I Didn't Hear Enough About. Grade: B+

The Scientists - Not For Sale: Live 1978/79 (Grown Up Wrong!)

Sometimes nothing is quite as good for the soul as some pure, three-chord punk rock sounds and boyoboy, do the Scientists ever deliver the goods on this 27-track live disc, most of which is previously unissued. Culled from three vintage, smoking live gigs, the Aussie quartet serves up some perfectly raw takes of tunes such as "Frantic Romantic" (their signature number), "Shake (Together Tonight)," and covers of the Undertones, New York Dolls, Flamin' Groovies, and Randy Newman (!). Kim Salmon's bawling lead vocals are a thing of beauty, the fidelity is surprisingly decent for the most part, and the overall vibe is the New York Dolls playing punk rock footsie with the Flamin' Groovies. A hilarious moment takes place between the band's amped up reading of Chuck Berry's "Don't Lie to Me" and "Frantic Romantic"—there is the (very) audible sound of a dog barking. Now THAT'S punk rock. Grade: B+

Shplang - Los Grandes Excritos (Big Stir)

"The Beatles meet Zappa in a pop-psych Sumo match." So says Shplang's Facebook page, but that doesn't seem to be a very apt description. Shplangtunes are poppy, sure (try the Byrdsy "I Don't Know Love" on for size), and most all the melodies on this 14-track retrospective are pretty sticky, but the wholesale, unabashed freakiness of Zappa seems mainly absent (excepting the nutty "That Word is Love," which actually seems more like a weirdo cross between Leon Redbone and Matthew Sweet). And really, any Beatles comparisons seem too easy for any reviewer, unless we're talking the Rutles or their ilk. At any rate, the tunes on Los Grandes Excritos (dating from 1994-2019) sort of defy any simple description as they move easily between easygoing, definitely left-of-center (especially lyrically) guitar-pop ditties and, okay, some straight up bizarro world stuff like the previously unreleased, less-than-a-minute-long "Mommie's Pie." Favorite lyric: "No one knows/she keeps it in her pantyhose." Okay, perhaps Zappa has entered that Sumo ring after all. Grade: B

Various Artists - 1978: The Year the UK Turned Day-Glo (Cherry Red)

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A sweeping, 79-track, three-disc collection of hits, misses, rarities, and classic cuts from the UK's punk, new wave, and alternative class of 1978. Some well known acts and tunes are present and accounted for: the Records' power pop classic "Starry Eyes" (RIP John Wicks), the Boomtown Rats' frenetic "She's So Modern," Public Image Ltd.'s "Public Image," and tracks from The Jam, The Cure, Ultravox, and The Fall are all here. Elsewhere, there is gold to be mined in several of the lesser known, impossibly rare and/or forgotten tracks: "Weekend Girl" by The Bozos (a winsome slice of power pop); the subtly titled "When the Tanks Roll Over Poland Again" by the Automatics (catchy punk produced by a young Steve Lillywhite); Social Security's "Stella's Got a Fella" (a wonderful, appropriately edgy 1:47 update of a late '50s R&B track by The Fireflies); and Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias' hilarious "Heads Down No Nonsense Mindless Boogie," a speedy, dead on Status Quo send up. Also included: Stiff Little Fingers' snarling "Alternative Ulster"; Jilted John's nerd-rock jewel "Jilted John"; X Ray Spex's "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo," which, in retrospect, carries sort of a Yoko Ono vibe; and Sham 69's anthemic, fist-in-the-air "Borstal Breakout." Plus: Rich Kids, 999, The Rezillos, The Lurkers, Tubeway Army, and dozens more, some breaking new ground (Ed Banger's highly odd "Kinnel Tommy"), others covering the tried and true (The Pleasers' "The Kids are Alright"). In addition to the wide variety of tunes, there's a marvelous 48-page booklet packed with photos, notes, recording info and more. An essential look at a special year in music. Grade: A

Andy Stone - Every Single Day (Self-released)

Rhode Island's Andy Stone has released five albums' worth of pleasant pop-rock that marries slightly gruff vocals to sturdy melodies. (I hear a bit of Eddie Money vocally, but don't let that scare you away.) There's plenty to like on his latest, Every Single Day: the vague Buddy Holly-isms of "Gonna Be Different," the pretty, pop-rockin' "Like Some Girls Do" (which incorporates some sweet female backing vocals, keys and horns) and the '50s-influenced ballad, "The Man Who Could Love Only You" are three of the disc's highlights. The synthesizer-based dance track "You Are a Problem" is a nice stylistic detour, while the downcast, heartfelt "We Shouldn't Have" wraps up the 11-song album with more of a singer-songwriter vibe. Grade: B-

Lisa Mychols & Super 8 - Lisa Mychols & Super 8 (TBM)

An interesting collaboration between Scotland's Paul Ryan and Southern California pop chanteuse Lisa Mychols, this laid back, 12-track effort was recorded by swapping tracks back and forth over the course of nearly a year. Mychols' vocals are as buoyant as ever—she can make a line such as "There's just nothing to save this dead romance" sound quite lovely—and they're married to some gorgeous melodies. The sunshine pop "You & Me, Me & You" is a real winner, as is the slightly odd cuteness of "The Monkee Song," which isn't about Davy, Mickey, Mike or Peter and may be the first song ever that contains the words "googly eyes." Ryan ably handles all the instrumentation and production, and while the overall sound is often somewhat disturbingly muddy, Ms. Mychols' sweet voice still comes through loud and clear. Grade: B

The Explorers Club - The Explorers Club (Goldstar)

Jason Brewer, the man behind the Explorers Club, keeps upping the ante with each release, and this time around he's outdone himself with not one album, but two—a superb collection of covers (To Sing and Be Born Again) and this delicious 12-song effort, bursting with sunshine pop loveliness and informed by the sweet sounds of acts such as the Turtles, the Association, the Beach Boys, and others of their ilk. Lush harmonies, strings and horns dot the musical landscape, with Brewer's lead vocals—by turns impassioned and low key, but always beautiful—leading each melodically-charged tune to a special place. The upbeat "Ruby" (the Turtles echoes are strong here) and "Say You Will" are both sheer perfection, and the soulful "Dreamin'" is the rare Beach Boys-influenced tune that doesn't come off like a pastiche. (This one sounds as if it would have slotted in perfectly on Friends.) Also notable is "Somewhere Else," which deftly melds a vaguely psychedelic, Pet Sounds-like section with a raucous, guitar-fueled coda that—for lack of a better description—kicks ass. In these uncertain times, the Explorers Club is creating music that's the aural equivalent of a much-needed warm hug. Grade: A

Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry - Sunshine Walkers: The Best of Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry (KL Recordings)

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For those who may only be aware of the singing, songwriting and guitar playing prowess of Kimberley Rew through his seminal work with the Soft Boys and/or Katrina and the Waves—he wrote a little thing called "Walking on Sunshine"—this 21-song compilation should prove to be something of a sonic revelation. Sunshine Walkers is not only jam-packed with tuneful tidbits spanning Rew's intermittent solo career, but it also includes some first-rate contributions from his musical partner in crime for over 20 years (and his wife), Lee Cave-Berry. Berry's lead vocals on the couple's appropriately garagey cover of the Troggs' "I Want You" are aces, and her compositions "It Makes Me Happy" and (especially) "Backing Singer Blues" are two of the highlights of this collection. (Should Tracey Ullman ever decide to record another album, the latter tune would suit her to a T.) Rew's tunes range from the wonderfully propulsive power pop of "English Road" (some lead guitar greatness here as well) to the gently mocking, Chuck Berry-styled rocker, "The Dog Song." ("Dogs don't get religion/dogs don't go to church.") Three tunes from Rew's 1982 EP The Bible of Bop also make an appearance; these include contributions from 3/4 of the dB's and Mitch Easter. Rew tries on several other styles—reggae, balladry, a holiday tune, even children's music—and there's not a duff track in the lot. Grab this one, pronto. Grade: A

Jim Laspesa & Rob Bonfiglio - "Dear Madam Barnum" b/w Derrick Anderson - "Don't Lose Your Temper" (Futureman 45)

For my money, these are two of the top tracks from the most excellent XTC tribute collection Garden of Earthly Delights, so it's a treat to see these Andy Partridge compositions released on a limited edition single as a double A-side. The Laspesa/Bonfiglio track is a loving re-creation of the original with both musicians splitting the lead vocal, while Derrick Anderson's reading of "Don't Lose Your Temper" slightly slows down the manic tempo of XTC's version, adds a prominent saxophone (courtesy of Colin Kupka), and transforms the tune into a power pop/soul hybrid that's pretty damned cool. Robbie Rist and Michael Simmons (sparkle*jets UK, Yorktown Lads) provide additional vocal and instrumental support, and the vinyl comes housed in an attractive, sturdy picture sleeve designed by Steve Stanley. Hit up Jim Laspesa via Facebook if you want to grab a copy. Grade: A

The Bye Bye Blackbirds - Boxer at Rest (Double Potions)

The Bye Bye Blackbirds' fifth full-length effort is definitely their finest to date and was mainly tracked during an extremely stressful time for the Northern California-area combo, while guitarist Lenny Gill recovered from a heart transplant. Bradley Skaught's musically upbeat and lyrically thoughtful tunes sometimes belie and other times reflect the difficult conditions in which the album was conceived: "All Our Friends" and "Watch Them Chime" both sound like instant power pop mini-classics (the latter evokes Teenage Fanclub), with Skaught's British Invasion-influenced lead vocals and plenty of harmonies joining forces with those ringing guitars pop fans covet. The moving acoustic ballad "Words & Signs" is more measured, a horn section helps power the fab "Baby It's Still You," and the insistently pounding, nearly eight-minute "If It Gets Light" gives the band a chance to stretch out, particularly Gill on guitar. Excellent. Grade: A-

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