Friday, October 28, 2016

Review: Cotton Mather - Death Of The Cool

So, what exactly am I supposed to impart here? Maybe you'd like to know how long it has been since we've had a new album from Cotton Mather? The answer to that question is it has been 15 years since their last new release The Big Picture, but really there isn't much to glean from that information. Speaking for myself, those 15 years have been filled with glorious sounds. Whoever I was and whatever I was listening to in 2001 I know for a certainty my musical world is simply richer and more satisfying today. That's all good, right?

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. An album like Death of the Cool hints at a potential world very different than the one I actually enjoyed. Imagine a world where Cotton Mather wasn't, to all intents and purposes, silent for a decade and a half. Such a place might not be the best of all possible worlds, but there is no doubt it would be a better one.

Or to put it more succinctly, I am a greedy bastard and I would love to have more Cotton Mather. A lot more.

"The Book of Too late Change" launches the disc into our ears with the propulsive force of a high velocity artillery shell. It is high energy, especially the fantastic drumming, and wild without being out of control. It is a meticulously planned riot, if that is even possible. "Close to the Sun" is a groovy, vibey rock song that manages to be classy and sleazy all at once.

What comes as a bit of a surprise, to me at least, is how often Death of the Cool is reminiscent of the band's first album Cotton is King. "Candy Lilac," "Child Bride," and "The End of DeWitt Finley" all feature a softer pop feel in a Difford & Tillbrook vein, sweetly tuneful with lyrics that can twist the sweetness ever so slightly in unexpected directions.

Indeed, the breadth of the album as a whole is amazing. It is only 11 tracks long, but it feels bigger and more expansive because so many different sounds are utilized. "The Middle of Nowhere" gives us a sparse soundscape filled with subtle landmarks, "Queen of Swords" gives us a quiet pop-baroque gem both simple and intricate, and "Waters Raging" yells at us for awhile. All of them are really good at what they do.

At the end of the day this greedy bastard has a simple plea: more, please.

Grade: A

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: The Well Wishers - Comes And Goes

Artists, if they stay productive enough over a long enough period of time, reach a point where their own back catalog can weigh them down. It's inevitable, as well, that their long time listeners will be tempted to view a new effort in the context of their work as a whole. Really, these realities are simply two sides to the same coin. Expectations are generated and these in turn are either reacted to or rebelled against by musicians and fans alike. At its worst the reaction can lead to artists recording, and fans accepting, bland reworkings or pastiches of earlier success. Rebellion holds its own dangers as well, as artists in their zeal sometime miss the fine line between creative destruction and "burn it all down" nihilism that comes across as contempt for their long time supporters. (Paging Todd Rundgren.)

Happily, neither of these dire possibilities describe the newest release from The Well Wishers, Comes And Goes, which rises above the expectations a decade plus long recording career will generate to give power pop fans a new thrill or two (or five.) Part of this is achieved by the production value of the album. This is always pretty good on Well Wishers discs, but there is a greater emphasis on a depth of sound here which is both noticeable and appreciated. Rocking tracks like "Get on By," "Somebody Lied," and especially, "Three Nights in Bristol"  benefit most from the production quality. Speed, high energy, and plain old kick ass loudness, though present in abundance, don't have to do all the hard work here, which allows the quality of the songwriting to shine through the decibels.

Songwriter Jeff Shelton isn't afraid of getting achingly pretty if it suits him. The sing song quality of a track like "Comes Around," complete with a charming background vocal from fellow power pop vet Lisa Mychols, is bouncy and soothing all at once. "Nobody's Dancing Alone" only manages to be the loveliest melody in the entire Well Wishers' oeuvre. (And, no, I wouldn't have used the word "oeuvre" if this song wasn't so damn beautiful.)

Other standouts are the opening number "Impossible to Blame" a tune in the classic power pop mode. You've simply got to have one of those, right? "Tomorrow" is a terrific song with a touch of 90's Brit pop layered on to nice effect. "Ill Equipped" manages to catch a specific REM vibe (think "Can't Get There From Here") and make it sound organically true to this album.

Shelton maybe telling us by the album title that nothing, not even the very best of things, stays the same forever, but at least on this recording we can be happy there will always be a lot of here here.  To that I'll add "Hear! Hear!"

Grade: A

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Single Review: Mark Bacino - "Not That Guy"

I had the good fortune recently to spend an hour or so chatting with power pop songwriter and performer Mark Bacino. During our conversation I learned a few things. For starters, his family Americanized the name back in the day so it's pronounced "Bah-see-no" and doesn't rhyme with "Al Pacino" at all. Oh, and if you want Willie Wisely to sing on your record you can start by simply asking him to sing on your record. (Who knew?) I also learned Bacino takes a broad view of his brand of music making. To my ears Bacino's music has always put me in mind of 70's AM radio, with a touch of Todd Rundgren and Marshall Crenshaw thrown into the mix.

On hearing this Bacino laughed and said, "Yeah, thanks. Most people when they think about my stuff say the Beach Boys and the Beatles, and, sure, I love that music and it is definitely an influence.... I'm not saying it isn't.... but yeah I love that 70's stuff... Harry Nilsson... early Hall and Oates records... all that kind of thing."

Certainly the breadth of Bacino's interests can be heard in his output to date. After releasing two well regarded power pop records in the classic vein, Pop Job (1998) and The Million Dollar Milkshake (2003), Bacino returned with a quieter and more lyrical song suite, Queens English, in 2010. During our conversation I mentioned I considered this album his Village Green Preservation Society.

"Exactly!" he responded. "Or Muswell Hillbillies. It's funny that album got mostly positive reviews, but I did hear it from a few of the hardcore power pop guys. I never got that. I was exploring a Ray Davies kind of thing on that record. How is that not part of this kind of music?"

Luckily, Bacino is more interested in following his instincts when it comes to the music he wants to make. This is evident on the first listen to his new single "Not That Guy" (available at Amazon and iTunes.) For the opening few seconds the music sounds as if it is coming straight out of a transistor radio from 1971, before Bacino's vocal comes in over a bouncy piano that propels the song forward. The lyric is a take on the whole "nice guys finish last" scenario, which all of us nice guys have lived through often enough to add the appropriate level of poignancy here. The songwriting is top notch, and the singing and production are also excellent. It certainly should bring a smile to anyone who loved Pop Job.

There is also the good news to report that there are more sounds coming from Bacino. "I've got my own studio space now. Someplace I can go at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m. where I can work and not be annoyed with outside noise..... Actually, the next single is almost ready to go. It just needs to be mastered. The plan is to release a couple more singles and, hopefully, record the balance of tracks for a new album in the future."

If "Not That Guy" returns, at least a little bit, to the Pop Job sound the next single promises a slightly more Queens English vibe. After mentioning this to me Bacino laughed and stated, "The power pop guys might not be happy about that."

I don't know. This power pop guy will be pleased as punch.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Review: Bill Lloyd - Lloydering

The Premise: A compilation of 12 tracks power pop vet Bill Lloyd recorded for assorted and sundry artist tribute albums over the years.

The Verdict: One of the all time no-brainers of no-brainers.

What? You need more? Really you shouldn't, but on the off chance you are one of those people who have been raised by wolves and are only recently returned to civilization I'll go into a little more detail.

Well, for starters, the artists covered read like a Who's Who of good taste: The Beatles, Todd Rundgren, The Byrds, Badfinger, The dB's, and The Hollies are all represented with killer tracks, each one seemingly selected to perfectly showcase Lloyd's particular style of music making. For example, the Badfinger entry "Lonely You" winds up sounding more like a Bill Lloyd song than anything else. So much so you start to wonder what sort of time machine Badfinger used to jump into the future to steal it (time paradoxes be damned.) "Step Inside," originally Lloyd's contribution to the classic Sing Hollies in Reverse tribute disc, is, if anything, better than the original. The multi-tracked vocals layer upon each other dripping with warmth and delicious harmony. It is simply gorgeous start to finish.

In general the versions here are faithful to the original records. Lloyd's version of "Coconut Grove" is a little slower and a little more trippy than The Lovin' Spoonful did it, but then again, why the hell not? John Lennon's "Across the Universe" gets a suitably reverent, if also slower, rendition that sounds both sparse and lush at the same time. Technically speaking that shouldn't be possible but Lloyd pulled it off.

Lest you think Lloyd skews entirely towards 60's and 70's material, he adds classic alt-80's fare with note perfect renditions of The dB's jaunty "Neverland" and Let's Active's hook laden "Every Word Means No" as well as a groovy take on Wreckless Eric's pop staple "Whole Wide World."

This album is so much fun first note to last that any fan of this type of music will only be sorry to hear it end. Of course, that is why God invented "repeat" buttons.

Grade: A

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Review: Nick Piunti - Beyond The Static

The basic needs of humanity are pretty simple: food, water, shelter, companionship, sex, and electric guitars. Okay, okay... so there is some debate about the absolute necessity of sex but the others are indisputable.

I'm pretty sure Nick Piunti would agree with me on this, as his 2015 release Beyond The Static is crunchy guitar power pop at its most elemental and vital. The approach here both in songwriting and production is direct. There are no baroque flourishes to distract a listener, only good, simple, honest tunesmithing by a skilled practitioner of the art. It's a sound, part Posies, part Matthew Sweet, part 70's bar band, that defined the center of power pop in the first decade of the 21st Century. It is as worn and warm as a favorite comfy sofa. The only thing required is to sink into it and feel good.

"It's a Trap" kicks things off with high energy and a driving beat. It is the sort of song that pulls you along because it is so straightforward and earnest. In a similar vein "Time Machine" piles on the chunky power chords and keeps things revved up to a high pitch.

Songs like "Six Bands," the closest thing to a ballad on the record, give us a bit of a breather with its clever lyric expounding on a girl "drowning in the talent pool." The bouncy strum of "Seven Days a Week" is another winner, as is the highly polished "Fell For You" which wears its heart on its sleeve, which a song this direct and heartfelt should. Once again, the feel is just right.

The absolute best thing on the record is the second track on it, "Heart Stops Beating." It is a glorious power pop tour de force filled with hand claps, call and response vocals, dreamy sounding keyboards, and one of the most perfectly placed "hey!"s in the history of rock music. Alone this song would make the album worth picking up. The fact that so much of the album is also terrific makes it all the better.

Maybe owning this record wouldn't forestall the need for sex forever, but it would sure make celibacy a lot more tolerable.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Review: Nerf Herder - Rockingham

I must confess I'm not a huge fan of the whole nerd culture thing. It's all too self-consciously precious and, at its worst, narcissistic to appeal to me despite my admitted affinities for Monty Python, complex board games and MST3K. As a result an album dedicated to this particular pseudo sub-culture isn't exactly in my wheelhouse. That being said, I've enjoyed Parry Gripp's amusing songs on YouTube, and I simply adore Linus Dotson (not that there is anything wrong with that,) so when the chance came to pre-order this album I thought "oh, what the hell."

I'm glad I did. Rockingham is not going to cause anyone to shun their copy of Revolver or even the first Fountains of Wayne record, but there are far worse ways to spend an hour. "Portland" kicks off with a rant against everything that, frankly, needed to ranted about when it comes to rainy Pacific Northwest cities obsessed with their own shit. Sure, it is a bit of an easy target, but no one can claim they don't deserve it. "At the Con" and "Allie Goertz" win with wit and obvious charm.

The high point of the album comes with the terrific "We Opened for Weezer" a fond reminiscence of 1990's days gone by that rises above being an exercise in simple name dropping. They might not have meant to do it but they struck genuine poignancy. However, the album will not allow us to grow melancholic. Before you can blink the high octane power pop of "Jackie Got Married" is ready to whisk you away and that is a very good thing.

The second half of the album loses a little steam. "I'm the Droid (You're Looking For)" never really lives up to its title. "Ghostbusters III" and "Doctor Who" are energetic but a little one note. Luckily, the truly funny and catchy "Stock Photo Girl" comes along to entertain, while the album ender "Close Your Eyes and Dream" comes across like an inside joke we've all been invited to join. It's a bit of a microcosm of the whole album in that it asks "Why don't you come along? This will be fun!" They're not wrong.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review: Elvyn - Valley Of The Kilowatt Hour

It is a sad age we live in.

Growing up in the 1970's and coming of age in the 1980's I would have never imagined living long enough to experience the nadir of the album as an artform. Little did I realize it would take less than 25 years for the vital impulse that brought us everything from Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds to Spilt Milk and Girlfriend, not to mention everything in-between, to come sputtering to a halt. Instead we live in an age where pop music is all about the single, the novelty, the intangible, the disposable. We've even witnessed the sad spectacle of established artists giving away their new album as if they were slightly embarrassed at having created such a product so at odds with the ethos of today.

Unlike impotent critics like yours truly (culturally speaking only, thankfully), Canadian power poppers Elvyn can do more than rage against the machine. With their late 2015 release, Valley of the Kilowatt Hour, Elvyn reminds us all what the album had and has to offer. Maybe it was the circa 1965 album art that triggered this particular rant of mine, but the look and feel of the cover fits perfectly with the sounds contained within.

I am not saying the album sounds like mid 60's pop music. Oh, there is a lovely Beach Boys tinged track ("Robins Song"), but the emphasis is on the band displaying an impressive mastery of their own sound. That sounds draws equally from americana/roots music, think of the poppier side of fellow Canadians Blue Rodeo, and 90's alt guitar rock in the Toad the Wet Sprocket vein, with occasional nods to classic 60's sounds like the aforementioned Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel.

There are 11 tracks on this album and it is almost right to say there are 11 highlights on it. "Ellie" invites you to sing your heart out with its lovely melody and "everyone join in" chorus. "This is the End" with its working stiff anthem lyric is just as engaging, and the groovy shuffle of "Landslide Cities" could get even the most lethargic of us to get on their feet to sway rhythmically. "Turning me Down" is an acoustic guitar and electric organ toe-tapper (yeah, that's a thing) that simply charms.

"AM" is probably the heart and soul of the record. Part lament for the musical world we have lost and part of a celebration of what we still have to enjoy, it is propelled by a gloriously slutty guitar riff. It's not trashy, it just wants it so bad, whatever "it" might be.

Maybe we are walking among our own ruins and we haven't realized it yet. However, if we can have albums like this one playing in the background it won't be nearly as bad as it might be.

Grade: A

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

New Lolas Demos

It should be pretty obvious that The Lolas would be a band that hits a sweet spot for me. So when main man Tim Boykin starts putting up a bunch of new Lolas demos it makes for a good day for yours truly.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

I Really Thought I'd Sail Right Through This...

...but I must confess the official end of The Pure Pop Pub radio station hurts.

I keep telling myself, "C'mon Rich, it was just a damn hobby... and one you didn't always follow with the greatest of enthusiasm."

That is true..... but it was always there. For almost eight years I could plug myself into this little niche corner of the musical world and get lost for a bit. I could be a devotee... and there is precious little in this world worthy of being a devotee of in my book. There certainly isn't one that cover so many bases, so many of my own personal primordial pushbuttons, as did this silly little radio station.

This isn't rolling off my back. Color me surprised.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

It's Official, It Is An Ex-Radio Station

I've looked at the other "alternatives" to continue my online radio hobby and, simply put, none of them are affordable for me. This means that Jan. 31st will be the last day for The Pure Pop Pub as a streaming station. I'm pretty sure this means the name will only be in existence for this blog. (I'm not certain what this might mean for the "Let's Go Pop!" podcast, but that too might have to die a horrible death. We shall see.)

Nothing but bad news I'm afraid. If you will excuse me I need to go downstairs and crank Jellyfish's "Brighter Day" at ear splitting volumes.

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 ...