Power Pop

The Soft Boys “Underwater Moonlight” (Armageddon, 1980)

 

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The Soft Boys opened their 1979 debut album, A Can Of Bees, with “Give It To The Soft Boys.” That’s what I’m about to do with this here review… praise, that is. For Underwater Moonlight is a stone-cold classic of neo-retro-psychedelic jangle pop, ablaze with memorable tunes and brilliant lyrics. According to some smart folks, it represents the peak of singer-songwriter-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock’s long, fruitful career. On certain days, I agree with that observation.

The album kicks off with one of the greatest one-two punches in rock history. “I Wanna Destroy You” might be the ultimate righteous-revenge anthem. Musically, this is one of the most effusive and potent power-pop songs ever, but lyrically it’s utterly sulphuric in its vengefulness—against the media, apparently. And man does it feel good when Hitchcock euphoniously yelps into the chorus; the “I”s here just explode. “The Kingdom Of Love” veers almost 180º in the opposite direction. It’s a cool, cruising rocker that expresses an exalted yet surreal desire, as Hitchcock equates extreme infatuation with insects crawling under his skin. When the song reaches the part where he sings, “You grow out of me like a FLOWER!” it sounds like his heart’s literally bursting in ecstasy and the song ascends to its most heavenly level. If these two cuts were released on a 45, it would represent an all-time Top 20 single.

The jittery, jangly, sitar-spiced power pop of “Positive Vibrations” makes you feel as good as the title would suggest. You’d best believe R.E.M. were taking notes while listening to this song. If you ever wondered what would happen if the Cramps were British absurdists, well, the leering, sleazy “I Got The Hots” would be your answer. “Insanely Jealous” gradually builds into an amphetamine’d blowout redolent of obsessiveness; the music’s a perfect analogue of the titular emotion.

Hitchcock fans may hate me for saying this, but “Tonight” verges on cheesy, sounding like a middling, long-lost radio hit or TV movie theme. It’s really Underwater Moonlight‘s only weak link. But the LP rebounds with two of its toughest pieces: the intriguing and torqued instrumental “You’ll Have To Go Sideways” and “Old Pervert,” the most jagged, vicious, oddly metered song here—almost No Wave-y in its angularity and abrasiveness. Then there’s a weird segue into “Queen Of Eyes,” an amiable, Byrdsy jangle rock bauble, before the title track closes things with an ideal combo of the rousing and the slightly rueful. Hitchcock’s and Kimberly Rew’s guitars shimmer in a vaguely Eastern manner while also slashing and clanging with fervent rock gusto. So much gusto! Roll credits, exit theater feeling exhilarated. Then repeat… over and over.

(In this century, Underwater Moonlight has been reissued on vinyl by Matador in 3XLP form and by Yep Roc. Rykodisc did a CD reissue in 1992 with eight bonus tracks.) -Buckley Mayfield

 

Sparks “Propaganda” (Island, 1974)

sparks-propaganda-frontSparks can sort of be seen in a similar light to Queen, although they ape their accents to sound quasi-Brit and ditch solos for lyrical cynicism. Maybe that’s why they have a bit of an underdog quality.

On “Propaganda,” Sparks are instrumentally tough and create simple ditties built around pop piano. The fat is cut with minimal solo’s allowed, so propulsive and repetitive tracks rule, from the mile-a-minute “At Home At Work At Play,” to the tempo-shifting “B.C.” They also make great use of the studio on “Achoo” and “Who Don’t Like Kids,” silly tunes which are grandly displayed. Why weren’t these guys signed to Discreet?

Well, despite lyrics appearing distrustful on some tracks, they were actually earnest sounding on “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” and delivered bonafide pop on “Something For The Girl With Everything.” It’s hard to really put a finger on where Sparks might be placed on your shelf, but I bet it’s somewhere near 10CC and Zappa. Especially this album, since they were still operating in top form as a band in 1974 and had not yet transformed into a New Waver two-piece… Enjoyable! -Wade

Shoes “Silhouette” (1984)

Despite guitars being toned down in favor of keyboards and electronic drums, Shoes’ Silhouette still retains a lot of the qualities of their earlier releases. While the sound is spare and dry to be sure, the consistency of their songwriting remains strong, with lightweight popsters like “Get My Message”, “When Push Comes To Shove”, and “Turnaround” taking prominence, though the robotic charm of “Will You Spin For Me” may be the single most irresistible track. Shoes’ airy, almost artificial sounding vocals actually make for a decent fit to the approach here, so if you don’t mind pure pop with an electronic heartbeat, I’d recommend Silhouette. –Ben

Shoes “Black Vinyl Shoes” (1978)

My pick for the fizziest power pop album ever made. The home-recorded guitar buzz even gives the cozy impression of a warm and constant carbon dioxide “fffffffff” across these fifteen catchy melodies. The group recorded it themselves as a demo—then they just released it as is—and each track is pure melody adorned only with the barest, ghostly living room production. It’s a uniquely spectral record, a little hook-filled cry in the night. Everyone notices its odd sound. Today, roughly 275,000 homemade albums come out each year, but in 1978 there wasn’t much else that sounded like this. Today, it feels timeless. It’s also consistently good. I can’t pick favorite songs off this any more than I can pick which M&M was the best out of the bag, but I’ve thrown “Fatal” onto a few mixes due its great percussion. —Jason

Zuider Zee “Zuider Zee” (1975)

During their existence, Zuider Zee stood as one of Memphis’ more talented (if lesser known) contributions to mid-’70s power-pop. They’re also one of those bands that deserved far greater recognition than they were given. Kim Foreman and Richard Orange originally came together in Louisiana, cutting their first record as members of Thomas Edison’s Electric Light Bulb Band. By 1969 they’d picked up a mentor in the form of manager Leland Russell, along with a new name. Relocating to Memphis, the band started playing local clubs. A 1973 showcase for Elektra failed to score a contract, but within a year they’d recruited a new drummer (Robert Hall) and signed with Columbia.

Their 1975 eleven track debut is a truly engaging set of UK-flavored power-pop. Imagine the best of Badfinger’s Pete Ham, or perhaps 10cc’s Eric Stewart doing their best Paul McCartney impressions and you’ll get a feel for the musical landscape. While “Zuider Zee” may not have been the year’s most original album, the set had more than it’s share of pleasures, including the Rickenbacher-propelled rocker ‘Zeebra’, ‘You’re Not Thinking’ and the slightly ominous Haunter of Darkness”. Normally a Paul McCartney comparison serves as a creative kiss of death, but Orange was among the few guys who could actually pull it off (Emitt Rhodes also readily coming to mind). Orange had a great voice which was particularly appealing on songs like the rocker ‘Rubber Men’ when he employed his raspy edge (imagine McCartney’s vocal on ‘Helter Skelter’). Skeptical of that description? Close your eyes and check out Orange’s truly uncanny McCartney-like deliveries on the rockers ‘She-Swing’ and ‘The Breaks’ (the latter sounding like something from “Band On the Run”). A package of great melodies and excellent guitar made this a pleasure for anyone who enjoyed Badfinger or The Raspberries catalogs.

From a marketing perspective having spent a fortune recording the LP, Columbia’s promotional and marketing scheme was curious. Credit Columbia’s art department with coming up with one of the year’s most unimaginative covers. Columbia decided not to tap the album for a single. Tour support was lukewarm at best, the band opening for a staggering array of acts ranging from Caravan (???) to The Tubes. Coupled with a pseudo-glam image that may have been a tad fey for many mid-1970s American audiences and in an era of punk aggression and disco madness the album vanished without a trace.

The final blow came in December 1976 when bassist Bonar interrupted a group of thieves trying to steal the band’s van. Beaten and stabbed, he was lucky to survive the attack. The band effectively collapsed when the other members refused to continue touring with a replacement while Bonar underwent extensive physical therapy. —Scott Blackerby

Pretty Things “Parachute” (1970)

While Parachute is less innovative than its predecessor, SF. Sorrow, it shows the Pretty Things at their most mature, lyrically and musically. It begins with a medley that stretches through the majority of side one, one that vaguely resembles the one on The Beatles’ Abbey Road. While it doesn’t reach the cathartic heights of that medley’s finale, it’s melodically stronger than it’s counterpart.

The noisy Scene One is a discomforting opener, with wild drumming that establishes a manic atmosphere. But then it goes away, and you get the peaceful beauty of The Good Mr. Square, which immediately makes it clear that the Pretty Things have improved melodically since their last album, and almost all of these songs boast strong melodies and breathtaking harmonies. Even better yet, they spin that melody into a lovely gospel song in She Was Tall, She Was High, and it’s interesting to see how, in the space of a minute in a half, the song builds up and falls with its soaring chorus Then we get the gorgeous in the Square, with a melody so great, that Radiohead decided to rip it off for Paranoid Android. The song also starts introduce the dichotomy of the city and the country that’s such a prominent theme in this album. Then we get a terrific rocker in the form of Miss Fay Regrets, with it’s fantastic riff, and almost schizophrenic lyrics, and Grass, one of the album’s highlights, with its brooding piano line, and it’s lovely rising melody. The song sounds like a less self-indulgent Pink Floyd with similar production values, only, not only does it predate that classic sound, it actually exceeds it, achieving it’s lovely atmosphere without the use of any of the sound effects Pink Floyd cherished.

As the album hurtles towards its end, we get She’s a Lover, another fantastic rocker, with its Phil May’s lovely falsetto chorus and surprising middle 8 After that, we get What’s the Use, which stuffs three different songs into less than two minutes. It’s a little confusing, and I sorta wish the three parts could’ve been developed more, because they’re all strong, but that’s all made up for with the title track, which is gorgeous beyond words, and features some of the best harmonies this side of the Beach Boys. And that build up, when the drums and piano join the guitar, has to be the most cathartic moment on a Pretty Things record. The best part, is that rising synthesizer near the end, it just keeps soaring up and up and is almost overwhelming, and then the song stops. It’s a great and daring ending for an album, and is just another display of the bands great mastery of atmosphere. This is a fantastic album! —Foxtrot

Game Theory “Lolita Nation” (1987)

Power Pop Eden indeed. Being so extremely tough to come by and, since indeed it is sprawling as can get, Lolita Nation has been gaining a reputation of being a lost masterpiece of sorts, kinda in the same way that Big Star’s third record took forever to see the light of day. Well, it might not be as “where have you been all of my life” impactant as Alex Chilton’s notoriously damaged “Third/Sister Lovers” but across its 27 tracks there’s plenty for power pop fans to rejoice with. Relatively to their previous albums this one posesses a harder edge, with tunes like “Dripping with Looks” beginning to show a toughening process that clearly anticipates Scott’s future work with Loud Family. The two records Game Theory released leading up to “Lolita Nation” are surely much easier to approach but there’s an undeniable charm and an endearing quality to Miller’s craft, having a wispy voice at best he comes up trumps with immensely imaginative arrangements and oddly hummable tunes (The World’s Easiest Job, the fabulous Chardonnay) to form a colossal, irregular yet ultimately wholly appealing piece of music. —Johnny

Crabby Appleton “Crabby Appleton” (1970)

With a lot of obscure rock bands from the ’60s and ’70s you might be able to pinpoint that one ingredient the band may have been missing in order to grab hold of a large audience or get radio play. With Crabby Appleton, any listener should be at a complete loss for words as to how this band got denied the success they so richly deserved! The band’s 1970 debut for the Elektra label speaks for itself, and loudly at that. From the first cut to the last, there isn’t one musical misstep on this entire L.P.! It is truly a lost gem of the early power-pop genre. Led by Mike Fenelley who teamed up with local L.A. band Stonehenge to form Crabby Appleton, the band’s main strength was their irresistible pop rock sound, but there was much more to the band than just a Top 40 style garnered for mass appeal. How many pop-rock bands could also incorporate a Santana styled percussive section into their music and make it sound completely natural? Or suddenly break out into a little classical based prog-rock without missing a beat? That’s not to say you’re going to have to endure any over the top Santana jams or 30 minute Emerson, Lake, and Palmer solos with Crabby Appleton, just a pinch of each to liven up the mix. Rolling Stone magazine actually gave this album a crowning review when it was released and you know THAT’S saying something. I’m certainly glad I took a chance on this album because I was rewarded GREATLY! —M McKay

Raspberries “Raspberries” (1972)

Ground Zero for Powerpop on this side of the Atlantic started with the Raspberries debut album. After the initial wave of British Invasion bands faded, American rock fans moved onto the music of the “Summer of Love”, with their long psychedelic jams and politico-leaning lyrics. But on the shores of Lake Erie, Eric Carmen and Wally Bryson still believed in the power and the spirit of supremely crafted pop songs packed with the excitement of their musical idols – The Beatles, The Hollies, The Who and the Small Faces. From the opening chords of their mega-hit ‘Go All the Way’, Bryson’s magnificent blistering guitar work, Carmen’s raw Steve Marriott styled singing, and Jim Bonfanti`s wild approximation of Keith Moon, served notice that the 3-minute power chord song was alive and well.

“Go All The Way” opens the album. The song speaks for itself in both spirit and meaning. “Come Around and See Me” with its Latin music-accent and lovely acoustic guitar, showcases a band loose enough in its self-impressed mod guitar band status, that “the guys” toss around lines like “Que Pasa, Baby” just for fun at the song’s end. Further showing off their influences, ‘I Saw the Light’ and ‘Waiting’ are fine slices of baroque rock, ala, The Left Banke. Side two’s “I Can Remember” offers an eight-minute melody in the mold of early Bee Gees. Here, Eric gives us the first sampling of his classical music training. It starts off as a gorgeous ballad, just Eric’s beautifully sweet voice and piano, then progresses into an up-tempo rocker, full of chord changes and the band’s trademark, multi-part harmonies.

Nearly 40 years later, “Raspberries” has stood the test of time in its stature and place in rock annuals. Listen to it again or for the first time, I think you’ll agree as well. –Ed

Jellyfish “Bellybutton” (1990)

From The Beatles right through to the likes of The Lightning Seeds, Britain has a knack of producing bands who deliver a brand of pure, polished pop. The content may have dark or serious overtones but the melody and vocals carry a rare, unblemished character. When a band is lauded as new pop sensations in America don’t expect the same characteristics. In some respects our pop is their AOR whilst their pop arrives way over from left field. They Might Be Giants and Eels are good illustrations of this idiosyncrasy and Jellyfish can be added to that list. They may have more rounded edges than the others but, underneath, they are equally strange. Vocally the closest comparison to Jellyfish is Crowded House (Andy Sturmer even sounds like Neil Finn), but when it comes to lyrical content they are a mile apart. Absent fathers (“The Man I Used To Be”), prostitution (“The King Is Half Undressed”), marital abuse (“She Still Loves Him”), rampant consumerism and parental neglect (“All I Want Is Everything”) are all covered. It’s testimony to the skill of the band that, no matter how heavy the subject, the music retains a lightness of touch to stop proceedings becoming too maudlin. Special mention should also be given to “I Wanna Stay Home” and “Baby’s Coming Back” which, on their own, prove that Jellyfish was definitely a band that got away. –Ian

Badfinger “Wish You Were Here” (1974)

Simply put Badfinger’s best album, contains no hit singles and was surprisingly pulled from the shelves (which can’t have helped Pete Ham’s fragile mind) but everything here has a cohesion and quality control lacking on other albums. ‘Just A Chance’ is a fabulous rocker, amongst the best of the band’s career, ‘You’re So Fine’, ‘Know One Knows’, ‘Love Time’, ‘King Of The Load’ could all quite conceivably been hit singles, all show the band’s poppier style to fine effect, ‘Got To Get Out Of Here’ and ‘Dennis’ show off a more acoustic, reflective almost countryish style whilst ‘In The Meantime/Some Other Time’ and ‘Meanwhile Back At The Ranch/Should I Smoke’ are pure power pop, lavishly arranged, musically and melodically as inventive as the band was ever to get, it lacks one of Ham’s gorgeous ballads but otherwise this is as good as they ever got, shame then that it was to be the band’s final album before Pete Ham’s suicide, they could have gone on to even better things. –Derek

The Quick “Mondo Deco” (1976)

The Quick’s 1976 debut, and only, LP is hands down, no arguing allowed, the best powerpop album ever recorded. Song after song, side after side, this record delivers on so many levels it’s almost comical. Danny Wilde’s (yes, THE Danny Wilde from the Rembrandts who penned the ultra annoying ‘Friends’ theme song..) vocals are so high pitched they occasionally make Russell Mael from Sparks sound like Bowser from Sha-na-na. The guitar tone is pure glitter/punk and the drums and keyboards are trashy and pounding. Lovingly produced by Earle Mankey (Sparks, Dickies, 20/20, Paley Brothers) and Kim Fowley (everyone else in L.A.), this record truly is the sound of glitter and punk, on speed, colliding in the heat of Los Angeles. The lyrics are that perfect mix of gum chewing, over sexed, punk smartass and theater major, that somehow, when sang in a 14 year old girl falsetto, sound even more manly..(scientists are still scratching their heads at this phenomena…). Out of print for years on vinyl, and never legitimately issued on cd (aren’t major labels SO COOL??!!), masterpieces like this LP and Milk and Cookies one and only LP are finally available. Fans of old punk take note, the Dickies classic ‘pretty please me’ is a Quick cover. Between the shimmering beauty of Kimono My House and the golden pop culture trash heap that are the the first two Dickies LP’s lies this diamond. It does not need appraisal, its cuts speak for itself. –Richard