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+

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 ...