Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review: Bryan Scary - Daffy's Elixir

No one asked for this album.

I mean, no one ever said, "I sure do hope someone somewhere will record a glam'd-out steampunk pop/rock western."

Luckily, for us, Bryan Scary did it anyway.

As unusual as this album is in some ways, it is easily accessible for those well versed in the last forty-plus years of pop music. The list of "influences" one could detect here would be nearly endless. Off the top of my head I hear nods to ELO, Queen, Elton John, Supertramp, Jellyfish, 10CC, Yes, Mott the Hoople,  Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, The Sweet, The Beach Boys, etc. The result is an album that will be too prog for pop hounds and too pop for prog die-hards, but should hit a sweet spot for those ear candy/sound sluts among us.

The opening track "The Wicked Frontier" sets the stage with some beautiful Beach Boys style harmonies playing over a landscape of rolling tumbleweeds and dusty plains, though the album doesn't beat you over the head with jokey western cliches. Indeed, the album is too busy covering a vast expanse of pop music styles to get pigeonholed for too long. The next three tracks ("Ziegfield Station," "Cable Through Your Heart," and "The Silver Lake Mining Company") are so different from each other that you would think the incongruous nature of it all would drag the whole thing down. However, the theme running through the album is so strong the listener is happy to play along. It doesn't hurt that each track is so damn tuneful and inviting.

"Ballroom Kid" sounds exactly the way a pop fan would want it to sound; big, brassy and rollicking. "Day-Glo Waterfalls" visits 1970's pop/soul in a way that reminds me of Hot Chocolate.... kinda.... sorta... whatever its doing it works beautifully. "You Might be Caught in Tarantella" is a spooky piece of Gothic horror that draws as much from cinema as anything else.

There really is something cinematic about the whole thing. It's as if it were an album as produced by David Lean. Fittingly, the 15-track, 70 minute affair may go on a smidge too long. (How Leanian.) However, there is no doubt in its ambition and execution Daffy's Elixir is something of a small classic.

Grade: A-/A

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: Redd Kross - Researching The Blues

The very short quiz version of this review: Did you like the Redd Kross albums Phaseshifter or Show World? If you answered "yes," you will like Researching The Blues. If you answered "no," what the hell is wrong with you?

Redd Kross are the owners of a hard rocking crazily melodic form of power pop in a Cheap Trick meets The Shazam style, and if you are somehow unfamiliar with their output, wow, do you have a treat in store for you. The title track and the great single "Stay Away From Downtown" kick the album off in a blistering style, though no matter how loud they get they can still find room to fit in the odd "Sha la la la, la la la la la" when they need to.

Other standouts include the hard edged "Uglier," and the short and snappy "Meet Frankenstein." My favorite tune on the album is the poppy "One Of The Good Ones" replete with hand claps, a terrific bass line, and chiming guitars which are only matched by the chiming backing vocals. Sublime pop music making.

My only complaints about the album are 1) Its so damn short: It has been awhile since the last album, and ten songs doesn't exactly provide the fix fanatics have been longing for, and 2) I missed a top notch anthemic ballad along the lines of Show World's "Girl God."

Basically, I'm saying "more please." I don't think anyone should be too pissed about that.

Grade: B+/A-

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review: Secret Powers - More Songs About Her

Alright, I'm playing catch-up here... but there is something fitting about that fact. When I heard my first Secret Powers tune (the delightful "Tangerine" featured on 2011's International Pop Overthrow: Volume 14) they were already on album #4 with album #5 on the near horizon.

However, in the world of power pop "better late than never" is a motto which is certainly operational, and when it comes to More Songs About Her you will definitely will not want to be in the "never" camp. You've been warned.

The work of Jeff Lynne has been the common sonic touchstone running through all of the previous Secret Powers records, and you can certainly detect that influence here though it might be a little subdued compared to those earlier efforts. Indeed, when I am tempted to make comparisons with other material I find I'm more often comparing subject matter as opposed to how the song sounds. For example, "Dragon Slide" is Secret Powers doing their own personal version of "Helter Skelter." Or, there is "Suburban Fascination," a classy rocker casting a jaundiced eye over McMansion-land ala "Pleasant Valley Sunday." And, let's face it, when you write a jaunty pop song about Joseph Merrick ("Elephant Man") I'm gonna compare it to the only other pop song about Merrick I know (Webb Wilder's "Olde Elephant Man").

This album is filled with great up-tempo tracks, from the frenetic "Running at this Pace," to the marvelous "Not That Kind of Girl." Throw in the wonderfully tuneful "Telepathic" and the gloriously snappy "Drip Drop Drip," which somehow manages to be a non-creepy stalker song, and you have an album that will leaving you humming even after the last note fades.

Grade: A-

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review: Power Pop Prime by Bruce Brodeen

I am such a dork.

Thank goodness.

There comes a point in the life of every power pop fanatic when he or she just has to face the fact that the cool world has passed them by and they will never be a part of the "in-crowd" ever again. If you are a guy in your early 20's when this happens there may be a momentary bout of panic as you start to worry this means you'll never get laid again, but, in the main, this is a liberating moment. Never again need you feign interest in a passing fad you always detested anyway. You could instead immerse yourself in the sounds that truly moved you.

If you had the good fortune to "come of age" in the 1990's there was a small ocean of power pop to get lost in, as well as a cottage industry of indie labels and fan-zines that tickled your musical fancy while they taxed your wallet. And all the while your friends wasted their money on luxuries like food and shelter. Talk about your screwed up priorities.

The eclectic series of books labelled Power Pop Prime are something of a cross between a time capsule and a scrapbook of power pop in the years 1995 to 2010. The time period of the books is defined by the years of operation of the late lamented and seminal record label/retailer Not Lame, which should come as no surprise as the author/compiler of the volumes is none other than Not Lame founder and pop savant Bruce Brodeen.

So what exactly makes these books eclectic? Well, for starters, of the four volumes of the proposed nine to be released so far there are three different formats. Volume One and Two, covering the years 1995 to 1999, offer up Brodeen's Top 100 (well, 100-ish) power pop releases of the 1990's, interviews with some of the artists selected for that list, as well as reproductions of actual Not Lame mail catalogs of that era. Volume Seven, actually the first of the books to be published, covers the years 2007-08 by offering a more encyclopedic listing of notable releases and reissues that runs nearly 300 pages. Volume Nine covers 2010 with a smaller list of top releases from that year with accompanying interviews from some of those artists.

There is a "Hey! Let's put on a show in the barn!" feel to the series which, strangely enough, fits in with the subject matter perfectly. Those who remember the pre-internet triumphant days of hard copy mail catalogs and imperfectly edited zines will notice and appreciate the labor of love quality here. That D.I.Y. spirit can also be seen in the way the volumes have evolved over time. The interviews published in Volume Nine, the second book released, were heavily scripted affairs that basically asked everyone the exact same series of questions, and as a result they weren't always quite as informative or entertaining as they should have been. By comparison, the interviews in the most recently released volume (number Two) are tailored for each artist, and they are both informative and wonderfully fun to read, even if some of the stories are cringe worthy. From time to time you'll be wondering if you should laugh or cry, which is exactly how good power pop is supposed to affect you, right?

I'm not certain where the series will go from here. While the Best Of List plus interview format is coming together nicely there is something to be said for the Trouser Press guide style of Volume Seven. Who knows? Maybe they will go off in an entirely new direction. Wherever they go I'll follow along.... just like any good power pop dork would.

My advice is to pick these up while you can.


I forgot to mention each volume comes with at least one CD of  music from the time period of the book, which only helps the "bang for your buck" quotient. Enough said.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Review: Bill Lloyd - Boy King Of Tokyo

"Hello old friend."

It's nearly impossible not to think that phrase whenever I experience the good fortune of slipping a new Bill Lloyd disc into my player. Oh, I never know exactly where Mr. Lloyd will be taking me, but I know with a songwriter like this the ride will be smooth.

Boy King Of Tokyo feels a little less like an album, and a little more like a big collection of toys Lloyd has decided to pull out and play with... and I mean that in more ways than one. The title track is really a mini (or kiddie) rock opera of royalty, complete with tearful abdication... well, at least a relocation. "Com-trol" is a painful morality tale that encourages us to laugh because the only other option is to weep, and who wants to do that?

"Home Jeeves" is a nice slice of roots rock goodness that would sound right at home on a Terry Anderson album. "Indubitably" is one of those perfect 2 minute pop gems Lloyd can make sound effortless. And, just to show he has access to better toys than you and I, Lloyd tosses off two classy instrumentals using vintage guitars from Doc Watson and Chet Akins.

However, Bill Lloyd is no braggart. As the cool track "The Best Record Ever Made" makes clear, he is in many ways as much a fan of the music we all love as we are. He just happens to be able to make that music as well.

Lucky us.

Grade: B+/A-

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: The JAC - Faux Pas

If there is one thing that pop music can handle it is a D.I.Y. ethos. From garage bands with a rudimentary grasp of two and a half chords to various revivalists who seek to recreate a sound from a previous era, we pretty much got it covered.

One of the more cherished sub-genres is the one man band. Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything or any of the Richard X Heyman records give testimony to the power of imagination and multi-track audio recording. You'll have to add Joe Algeri's The JAC to this brotherhood with the release of Faux Pas which can lay claim to being one of the quirkier efforts of the year.

The analogies do not necessarily flow easily here. Oh, you can pick up a hint of Ram era Paul McCartney here or Smiley Smile era Beach Boys there, but the overall effect is something all together different. For example, a track like the rocking "Persistent Man" probably owes more to the early 2000's Tim Finn albums than anything else, which says something about the kind of weirdness (and good taste) we are dealing with here.

"Time Machine" takes a trip back to the 60's and invites us along to have a blast in the past....but, hey, if you already have a time machine why not use it to go forward in time as well? Well, that is what the next track, "Future Computers" in fact does. (And who wouldn't want to have a computer that wouldn't become obsolete in the time it takes to drive from the store to one's home?)

This isn't the only point on the record where Algeri has fun with the conventions of record making. The opening track cheerfully gives us the pluses and minuses for someone who says "I Play All The Instruments". The track "I'm A Glass of Orange Juice" is every bit as odd as its sounds...well, actually its a bit odder as it ends with an unexpected invocation to Jesus Christ. I'll admit I didn't see that coming. Oh, and at any given moment Joe can decide to sing in a different language. It's just the way he rolls.

This kind of playfulness is both an attraction and a potential distraction, and really a lot will depend upon one's openness to this kind of silliness. Mileages will vary greatly I expect. I enjoyed it, but, then again, my wife will look at me, roll her eyes and say "You would."

Still, I have to admire an album that can say "Ramona the dog is humping Ginger the cat. What'll I tell the kids?"

That's a real good question.

Grade: B/B+

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Review: Cliff Hillis - Dream Good

Some albums scratch the reptile part of my brain. Most of the time I can sit down and dissect the song writing, instrumentation, vocals and harmonies of a recording, teasing out exactly what I appreciate and what doesn't quite appeal to me, but sometimes all I can do is react instinctively. Its as if I've turned into caveman Rich who can only grunt and say "Sounds sound good."

Cliff Hillis's Dream Good is a prime example of sounds that sound good.

It's my favorite album of the year, and I doubt seriously if anything will offer a serious challenge as the year winds down. It is also an album that I contributed to as a Kickstarter backer. I got my money's worth and then some.

The album begins brightly with the Matthew Sweet-ish "Keep The Blue Skies" and never really lets up from there, whether you're talking about the spritely "Sing it Once Again" or the Beatley "Talking Tree" or the thumping "Twin Sisters."

Special notice should be given to the two tracks co-written with pop icon Scot Sax, "Welcome to You" and, especially, the magnificent "When You're Listening," a driving power pop anthem for a new generation. These tunes are so good and so fully realized I cannot help but wish Hillis and Sax would get together to record an entire album of material. (And, yes, I'd back that Kickstarter as well. Just try to stop me.)

The album is so assured that even the material that could have been a misstep works perfectly. Take the agnostic talking to God song "What's Your Name." Really fine artists have bungled badly with such subject matter (Yeah, Andy Partridge, I'm looking at you!), but Hillis hits just the right note of pathos and humor to keep the song from descending into the depths of juvenilia.

So, do yourself a favor and buy this album. The reptile part of your brain will thank you.

Grade: A/A+

Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: P. Hux - Tracks & Treasure Vol. 1

You know the drill.

Any recording artist who has been around for awhile, especially in our current fragmented music scene, collects odds and ends over time. A culled album track here; a tribute album cover there; and dusty demos everywhere. Eventually a critical mass of them accumulate and out comes the Rarities Collection no one except die hard fans was clamoring for.

As I said.... we all know the drill.

Luckily, no one informed P. Hux of this, as his Tracks & Treasure Vol. 1 rises above the usual fate for these kinds of albums. In fact, Tracks & Treasure sounds more like a planned album than most efforts you hear these days. Some of this has to do with the consistently high quality of the songwriting, but there is also the continuity of sound P. Hux has employed since at least the late 1980's.

The 10 listed tracks contain a good half dozen songs which will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed P. Hux's long players. "Things Could Be Worse" is a rocker which could have easily fit in on P. Hux's classic 1995 album Deluxe. "My Girlfriend" and "Kifissia Girls" are brash loud tunes, fully realized recordings of the sort you rarely find amongst odds and ends and leftover bits. Huxley even revisits his earliest days in a terrific reworking of "The Air Gets Colder" by his early band The Blazers - he even tacks on the original as a hidden track just so we can all hear how he has always had it.

On the album only the classy Badfinger cover "Perfection" and the cheery 30 second throwaway "Pop Dreams" lets the listener in on the varied origin of the material here, but they are so well done they simply fit in perfectly.

All in all, this is a very solid effort. And you don't even have to be a Parthenon Huxley fanatic to get it.

Grade: B+

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Baby Its You"

My Beatles criticism project continued:

This classy cover of the David/Williams/Bacharach composition (also done by The Shirelles) shows just how much the Beatles were a band of their time. The opening "Sha la la la la la la" performed by the backing vocalists (George most prominent), places the song not only in terms of style but also in an entire era of music.

Lead vocals are handled by John, whose approach is both tender and firm. The lyric explains to a girl why she is the only one for the singer. It is straightforward enough. That it works so memorably here is due to the subtle sense given that this is the first time the singer could truly say this. There have been other girls (why else would he say "It's not the way you kiss, that tears me apart"?), but now he only wants the one. ("What can I do? Can't help myself! 'cause baby it's you.")

This is not to say the girl is worth it. It becomes clear that she is probably not quite as sold on our protagonist as he is on her. ("You should hear what they say about you - cheat - cheat - cheat")

The arrangement has a nice mid-tempo rock and roll feel. The drums and vocals propel the song forward nicely. There is something inexorable about the whole thing. Even the slight organ and guitar solo adds to the feeling that this all has to end in tears. ("Don't what nobody, 'cause baby it's you.")

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: David Myhr - Soundshine

Expectations are funny things. From the early video release of the David Myhr track "Got You Where He Wanted" and the appearance of "Loveblind" on last year's International Pop Overthrow comp I felt I knew exactly what to expect from the full release.

Then I put the album on and was greeted by a very slick (and very poppy) tune straight out of the 1980's. In fact, "Never Mine" has an air of Hall & Oates about it. There is nothing wrong with that, per se, but it definitely wasn't what I was expecting. (I remember having a similar experience putting on Jellyfish's Bellybutton for the first time. "The Man I Used To Be" was a shock going into the album knowing/expecting "That Is Why" and "The King Is Half Undressed".) Of course, that is kinda the point when listening to a whole album (and something that is sadly getting lost in this age of digital downloads.) Over the course of 10-12 songs an artist can take us where they want to go, and if, at first, the listener finds himself in unfamiliar territory I've found its best to just relax and enjoy the ride.

Soundshine is quite the excellent ride.

Myhr, as if sensing a comforting sound might help those who already know some of his work, quickly moves into the lush Merrymakers pop of "Looking For A Life," which really is the only track here that would fit seamlessly on an album such as Bubblegun. The aforementioned "Got You Where He Wanted" and "Loveblind" stake out an uptempo pop vibe which would have to be described as more "indie" than "power pop," but which fit the material perfectly.

Other stand out tracks include the McCartney-esque pair "The One" and "Ride Along" and the stunning "Don't Say No," which is in the running for my favorite tune of the year so far with its Harrison-esque melody line and sing song chorus. In fact I may have to stop writing this review to listen to it again.....

O.K.... I'm back. (And, yes, I really did.)

In fact the closest thing to a real misstep here is the song "Icy Tracks" which is so chock full of juicy pop hooks it can be forgiven if Part A of the chorus is a little "blah" compared to Part B.

If one goes into this album hoping for another Merrymakers album it will probably disappoint. However, if you are open to where a talented songwriter wants to take you I promise you will love the journey.

Grade: A-/A

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Cotton Mather - Kontiki (Deluxe Edition)

I'll set the scene:

It's December, 1997 and I'm living in the Washington, D.C. area. The daily mail has brought into my greedy possession the new Cotton Mather album Kontiki, and I take it, sound unheard, over to my buddy Tony's place. Tony, a sometimes Austin resident, had introduced me to the Cotton Is King album a couple years earlier and I decided to pay back that kindness by listening to the new album with him over a few beers.

We slip the disc into the player and press the little green triangle... and are transported.

So, it is safe to say when it comes to Cotton Mather I was an "early adopter." The success the album enjoyed, at least in Britain, was heartening to see, though I don't think I appreciated the cult status the band and particularly Kontiki was developing. It only dawned on me years later just how few people had actually bought the thing when it was available, and, if the prices copies were commanding on Ebay were any indication, plenty of people were lamenting that fact.

Well, now they have the chance to get it right, because 15 years after its first release Kontiki is available again, this time in a Deluxe 2-Disc edition. It is hard to think of an album from that era more deserving of such a classy rebirth. And, classy is exactly what this package is. It starts with an attractive and informative 24-page booklet, which contains not only an overview of the recording process, with remembrances from most of those involved, but also notes on all the original tracks as well as the bonus material.

The album itself sounds as fresh as the day it was released proving, as if it needed it, its status as a seminal 1990's power pop classic is well deserved. I cannot say if the sound quality has been improved on this release as I'm not really an audiophile. Rest assured, it still kicks ass.

The bonus material is well worth the purchase price for those who already owned a copy of the original release. The demo versions of Kontiki songs are sufficiently different to make for engaging listening. Tracks like "Little Star" and an amped up version of "Altar Boy" (a track from their wonderful Hotel Baltimore EP) shine here. The inclusion of the wistful "Innocent Street" is a perfect gift for those who preferred the mostly Squeeze-ish sounds of their first record. Indeed, the bonus material is so good the disc will be listened to in its own right and not just as a curiosity.

Do yourself a favor. Buy this album.

Grade: A+

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: The Well Wishers - Dreaming Of The West Coast

Consistency is a great thing, especially when it comes to artistic endeavors. Musicians so often are afflicted with wild swings in mood, temperament, interest level or even taste that their work can be a roller coaster of thrilling highs and disappointing lows. As a result the artist that puts out consistently good work is something to appreciate.

Jeff Shelton's project The Well Wishers was a prototypical example of such consistency.

Until now.

Dreaming of the West Coast is not a solid body of good work consistent with the rest of The Well Wishers' catalog. No, its way better than that.

From the first note of the jaunty opener "Escape the Light" to the fade out (and fade back in) of the wonderful Sugar-esque album ender "Mother Nature" Shelton is firing on all creative cylinders here. The result is the first Well Wishers album that really doesn't lend itself to the easy comparisons (for example The Posies) that would have sufficed when reviewing the earlier albums. The influences are so organic here it winds up sounding most like itself.

Thus you can hear the glam rock beat in the track "Tonight" but the song itself is something entirely different. This high quality in the songwriting stands out throughout the album. The introspective tunes "Nothing Ever Changes Around Here" and "Truth Is Coming Home," as well as the blistering "All I Got" deserve special mention in this regard. Add a fab cover of Smoke's "Have Some More Tea" and you are in "more fun than a barrel full of monkeys" territory.

Grade: A

Friday, February 10, 2012

Speaking Of Kickstarter...

...I recently supported a project called Jarinus, made up of Jarret Reddick of Bowling For Soup fame and Linus Doton of Linus of Hollywood fame. (Which reminds me I forgot to put a widget for Jarinus up on here. Oh well, they made their goal with room to spare without it.) As part of the package the guys answered a question via mp3 that I had put to them. It's fun.

Linus has always been a good friend to the station, going out of his way to make nice promos/bumpers for the Pub, which I still use because they are awesome.

Keep your ears open for Jarinus. It promises to be hugely entertaining.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Don't Get Me Wrong...

...I love what Kickstarter does, as shown by the fact I've contributed to a couple of successful projects - and one unsuccessful project, the sadly under supported Smith Bros. album.

However, whenever I peruse the site I begin to feel like I've stumbled into a Portlandia sketch.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"P.S. I Love You"

My Beatles criticism project continued:

From the first 5 seconds of "P.S. I Love You" it is clear that we are not in the realm of rock music. There is no steady back beat, there is no hint of a blues sensibility in the music, and there is no energy behind the vocals. What if left is a rather watery pop stew that leaves this listener unsatisfied, and hungry for something else.

Paul's lead vocals have center stage here, filled out by George and John's backing vocals. The lyric carries the conceit of a love letter written by an absent lover throughout. The basic idea has been good fodder for rock artists right from the start, but here it is pap. There is nothing of the uncertainty and anguish that fuel a great rocker like "Please Mr. Postman" or "The Letter." Instead, we have the most dutiful of boyfriends telling his girl (presumably) exactly what she wants to hear. ("Remember that I'll always, Be in love with you") ("I'll be coming home again to you love, Until the day I do Love, P.S. I Love You, you, you, you!") I know we have all come to expect Paul to be a little spineless, but here it is extreme.

The instrumentation gives the song nothing but the lightest of touches. Ringo (or Andy White) hits nary a snare, and the guitar sound is safe enough for the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.

After about 1 minute and 20 seconds of this, Paul seemingly remembers "Hey! I'm in a rock and roll band!" and begins to add totally incongruous vocal flourishes. The background vocals coo "As I write this letter", Paul yells "Oh!" (Although this could be John's's hard to tell.) "Oh!"????? Gee, letter writing isn't usually considered so sensual an experience. The cooing continues "Send my love to you" to which Paul answers with a guttural "You know I want you to remember!" which sounds phoned in from another song all together. But after these moments the song resumes its lackluster character to its "You! You! You! - You! You! You! I Love You!" finish.


Monday, January 2, 2012

The Pure Pop Pub's Top 15 For 2011

I know, 15 is a weird number. In any case here they go:

1. Wild Bores - Welldone & Charred
2. The Smithereens - 2011
3. The Red Button - As Far As Yesterday Goes
4. Bic Runga - Belle
5. Scott Gagner - Rhapsode in Blonde
6. Meyerman - Who Do You Think You Are?
7. Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes
8. Peter Baldrachi - Tomorrow Never Knows
9. Wiretree - Make Up
10. Secret Powers - What Every Rose Grower Should Know
11. Tim Butler - All The Rest
12. The Wellingtons - In Transit
13. Buffalo Tom - Skins
14. Gary Ritchie - Hum, Sing....Repeat
15. PopFilter - Pop This!

Some of these I've not had a chance to do a full on review for. I hope to change that at some point in the future.

Genre Hell: Americana

Here is a definition of the music style known as Americana pulled from a Wikipedia article: Americana, as defined by the Americana Music ...