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Category Archives: Year of Power Pop

Out of season.

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In the autumn of 1996 I was 23 years old, newly married and covering the Boston suburb of Brookline for a weekly newspaper there.

As part of my duties, I got a Brookline library card.

And as part of getting a Brookline library card, I took out their 2-LP vinyl copy of the Kinks compilation The Kink Kronikles. Sides 3 and 4 were too warped and scratched to enjoy, but sides 1 and 2 more than made up for it.

I taped my favourites — which, really, was just about the entire first album — and listened to them repeatedly that autumn.

There was a certain English cosiness and provinciality, even in the brasher numbers, that seemed to fit nicely with crisp air and dead leaves in the gutters. Even now, I associate those songs and that album very closely with autumn.

Fast-forward to the present.

Eastern Pennsylvania gets a few truly stinking weeks of summer every year, and we’ve just started one of ’em, with temperatures forecast to reach 95 degrees every day this week.

Reaching for some music on my way out the door, I grabbed both discs of The Kink Kronikles. (My old Brookline cassette has gone the way of dead leaves; there’s nothing in my car to play it on.)

About thirty seconds into “Victoria” it became clear that the music was totally, completely out of place on a hot summer morning.

I didn’t care. I listened anyway.

And I truly enjoyed the most autumnal song of them all, “Autumn Almanac,” which is a wonderful meandering slice of power-pop with enough production touches to shine any time of year. To list is to omit, but here are a few:

– One of those marvelous sad-sack Kinks horn sections.

– Ray Davies singing about his “poor rheumatic back,” and randomly mispronouncing “almanac” as if it rhymed with “Armagnac.”

– That upwards rip of guitar and/or saxophone that follows each “la la la la la” chorus.

– A few stray incursions of clap track — don’t sneeze or you’ll miss it.

– The tasteful use of backwards effects at the end of the song, which works marvelously in a tune that otherwise sounds like it could have been recorded in 1920.

“Autumn Almanac,” appropriately, was issued in October 1967 in the U.K. — where it hit the Top Five — and November in the States, where it went pretty much nowhere.

It’s still got the power, at least for two or three minutes, to take a little of the edge off a ferocious summer day.

Groan.

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Five points to Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards, who suggested on Twitter earlier today that news stories about the first lady’s “Let’s Move” physical-fitness campaign be headlined, “Pulling Muscles For Michelle.”

It’s time for mice to move on in.

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My Year of Power Pop initiative left the rails a while ago, but I’m bringing it back for a moment, conveniently annexing piano-pop into the power pop genre to suit my own needs.

Far too infrequently, I read a music blog devoted to Canadian independent music called Grayowl Point.

Earlier today, I stumbled on a post they put up around this time last year, offering a Canada Day playlist of explicitly Canadian-themed indie-rock songs.

I’ve listened to a few, and there’s some very good stuff there … but none as good as Will Currie and the Country French, a piano-pop band from southern Ontario.

Their song “Tommy Douglas” — a tribute to one of the fathers of Canada’s universal health-care system —  is pure ear-crack for pop fans.

There’s bouncy piano, and tempo shifts, and charming backing vocals, and some subtly used fuzz bass, and a guitar solo that intelligently heats things up at the end. Most everything but a clap track, in other words. It’s stupendously catchy and perfectly done, down to the ringing last chord.

(It’s also a history lesson in a box for those of us south of the border. The reference to the “mice (moving) on in,” and the cats going, is a reference to a fable often told on the stump by Douglas.)

You can hear it, in all its waltz-time glory, here. 

Don’t wait for Canada Day to do yourself a favour.

Five For The Record: Van Duren, “Are You Serious?”

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This is usually recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

This time around, it’s about an album I just bought a week or two ago, so it’s more of a review than anything else. It’s also part of my Year of Power Pop series of posts, for all of you anxiously waiting for more of those.

Today’s subject: 1977 indie-label debut album by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from the formidable Memphis power-pop scene. Released in the U.K. under the title “Staring At The Ceiling.” Made nary a dent on the charts as far as I know, but became a cult item among pop geeks, especially after the Internet enabled its wider distribution.

RUSerious

And here’s why I like it:

1. The axework. Duren apparently played just about everything on the LP except the drums. He was/is a pretty good piano player and a solid bassist. But more than anything, he had a knack for fluid, memorable pop guitar solos and biting rhythm lines (some of them enhanced by warm retro late-’70s signal processing, as well.)

I’ve commented before that the solo on “Oh Babe” (which should have been the album’s single, and maybe even was) reminds me of Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine’s contemporary playing in Television, only much terser. That’s pretty high praise around here. Check it out:

2. The waiting is the hardest part. There’s one song on every album that wedges itself into my head and comes to represent the entire record. It’s not usually the one with the biggest hooks, or the one that I find easiest to like on first listen.

On Are You Serious?, the song that sticks with me most is “Waiting,” a plaintive ballad of insomnia and longing. Its melody bespeaks McCartney; its yearning lyric and spare piano-bass-and-drums arrangement suggest Lennon. That’s pretty high praise too, of course. But I think it’s merited:

3. I give you the bride and groom. The love evoked in power pop songs is generally teenage by nature (as in “I Saw Her Standing There,” for example.)

Duren goes for something different on “Positive,” a lovely, glowing ballad that is as stone perfect a wedding song as any I’ve ever heard.

It’s goopily sentimental and a little bit gauche, like all good wedding songs, and I could no more listen to it every day than I could eat fondant and buttercream frosting for breakfast.

Still, if you know any pop geeks getting married in the near future, you might want to be sure to give them a copy of Are You Serious? before the big day, rather than after.

4. The !drama! Interpersonal relationships are pretty much the sum and end-all of Duren’s artistic inspiration. There are no songs about ecology or Wolfman Jack or the streets of Barcelona on this album.

Where there is love, there will be heartbreak. And two of the tunes on the album — “Grow Yourself Up” and “Yellow Light” — find Duren in a sort of emotional chest-puffing Eric Carmen mode, reflecting bitterly from the bottom of his throat on relationships gone wrong.

He doesn’t carry it off all that well … but the tunes are catchy, and endearing in a he’s-cute-when-he’s-mad kind of way.

Here’s “Yellow Light,” just for comparison, complete with James Brown-style “huh!”s:

5. The carbon copy. Most of Duren’s songs on Are You Serious? do not blatantly reveal their sources. All in all, he does a pretty good job mixing Badfinger and the Beatles and Todd Rundgren (and maybe America) into his own radio-friendly jawn.

The exception is “Stupid Enough,” which sounds like three or four different songs from Rundgren’s landmark Something/Anything? album welded together. (The closest direct resemblance is probably “Saving Grace,” with its clumsy drum transitions and foursquare piano playing, but there are bits and pieces of other songs in there.)

They say you have to fake it ’til you make it … and I give Duren extra points for apparently drawing inspiration from a truly classic and idiosyncratic pop album, and one close to my own heart.

Perhaps with a few more breaks, Van Duren might have ended up as a quirky, Rundgrenesque one-man-band musical cottage industry. He never quite got there. But he gave us pop songs like this, and that counts for something:

#yeahyeahyeah

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I haven’t written anything about my Year in Power Pop lately, so I’m gonna claim this as another entry in that direction.

If you’ve ever spent any time on Twitter, you know that teenyboppers periodically descend on it like locusts, parroting hashtags that declare their fealty to their favorite performer.

(#BeliebersRuleTheInternet is probably my favorite tag; but fans of One Direction, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga and others all swoop down from time to time in gang-like shows of devotion.)

This led me to a thought I’ve had before: If Twitter had been around in 1964, it would have been all Beatles, all the time.

All those chicks who shrieked their way through concerts and flooded request lines in support of the Fab Four would have done the exact same on social media. And the people who hated the Beatles passionately back then — mostly boys — would have responded in kind.

Which led me to a new and different thought: How would Beatlemania have been different had there been social media?

I’ve always believed that distance breeds obsession.

When you don’t really know what the object of your affections does all day, you fill that gap in knowledge with an imaginary narrative that suits you and fuels your desire.

But when you’ve actually seen the person with toothpaste all over their face, or seen them trip on a perfectly flat sidewalk, you know they’re human just like you, and their grip on your emotions weakens.

(Plus, the more you see of them, the more chance you have of being exposed to something about them that conflicts with your interests: “Yuck. He smokes? Cigarettes are gross. I don’t wanna kiss anybody who smells like an ashtray.”)

Imagine, then, if the young Paul McCartney had been able to favor his fans with Instagrams of his morning scone, or selfies of himself shaving, or candid pix of himself with his arm around Keith Relf in some London nightspot.

Would that have fueled the fire of Beatlemania, or deflated it? Presented on a regular basis, I think it would have deflated it.

Not completely, of course; there would still have been shrieking and mob scenes, just as there would still have been great music. But I think it would have removed the wilder edges of Beatlemania by making the Fab Four more human in the eyes of their admirers.

And we haven’t even touched on the real wild card:

Imagine a Twitter account in the undisciplined, opinionated hands of John “Fookin'” Lennon. Just the idea of that is enough to give Brian Epstein a posthumous coronary.

Let’s just say that the Beatles wouldn’t have lasted long enough to get bigger than Jesus if Lennon had had a direct line to his fans any time he wanted one.

Encore Performances: A question.

From the old blog, January 2009. A fitting re-post for the Year of Power Pop, given the video clip in question.

I’m watching a video of an old favorite Seventies pop toon on YouTube, which inspires in me a question.

If I’d ever been a serious musician, I might know the answer to this question.
But I wasn’t, so I don’t.

Why must headphones in recording studios always require at least one hand to hold them onto your head?
(Note in this video how the singer is caught violating protocol at the beginning, and how quickly he claps his hand onto his cans about four seconds in.)

Is it a real need — like, do they come one-size-fits-all and a little big?
Or is it just a rock’n’roll affectation, like not shaving and wearing your guitar slung low?

Gonna have to ask my rock-star friends.

PS: A friend whose husband was in a working band at the time of the original post was kind enough to leave me an answer to this — namely, that holding your cans helps you hear better. Thanks, Jess.

Five For The Record: Cheap Trick, “Heaven Tonight.”

The latest installment of an ongoing feature. Also could be construed as the first fruits of my self-declared Year of Power Pop.

Today’s subject: Third studio album by snarky power-pop-cum-hard-rock band from Rockford, Illinois. Released May 1978, to middling commercial success in the U.S. and stark raving mania in Japan.

And here’s why I like it:

1. The entire first side. Choosing the best album side of the Seventies would be a monumental task, even if you broke it down into categories (singer-songwriter, hard-rock, soul, etc.)

I think Side One of Heaven Tonight can hang with just about anyone in the hard-rock category — even with Side One of Aerosmith’s Rocks, a long-beloved favorite of mine.

Side One starts with the definitive Cheap Trick song, “Surrender;” moves on to the powerful stop-start riffing of “On Top of the World;” then into the loose-jointed boogie stomp of “California Man.” Any of the three of these could have been a separate reason I like this record.

We also get “High Roller,” a portrait of a self-important sleazeball, in which the AC/DC swagger of the verse gives way to a Lennonesque chorus; and “Auf Wiedersehen,” a song about suicide whose thorough lack of sentimentality is either callous or kinda refreshing, depending on your point of view.

Side Two, unfortunately, isn’t quite as memorable a ride. If it were, Heaven Tonight would rank as an unquestioned classic, rather than just a very good Seventies riff-n’-roll record.

2. The faux teenage mania. I have a certain affection for the late-Seventies and early-Eighties teensploitation genre — all those movies and songs that presented slices of teenage life (often sun-kissed Californian) with a practiced adult cynicism and tongues planted firmly in cheek.

(And well-toned teenage arses planted firmly in short-shorts … gotta think of the box office, after all.)

This genre could include everything from “Rock N’ Roll High School” to the “Grease” movies to “Gorp” to “Up The Academy” to “The Van” to Celebration’s “Almost Summer” … feels like I’ve only scratched the surface, but if you’ve seen a few of these, you get the idea.

Cheap Trick’s cynical attitude and fondness for catchy hooks creates a natural affinity with the genre. It’s probably no coincidence that “Surrender” ended up on the soundtrack of “Up The Academy,” for instance.

Heaven Tonight features a classic teensploitation song, “On The Radio,” which combines brilliantly polished pop production with a baldly dumbheaded teenybop lyric (“Hey, mister, on the radio / You’re really my best friend / Please play my favorite song for me.”)

Maybe a song about music on the radio was just a little too meta to score with the general public in ’78. But it would have played bee-yoo-tifully over the opening credits of a teen film, perhaps while the heroine gets out of bed, puts on her satin jacket and roller skates, and heads off to school.

3. The title track. I would have imagined — nay, I did imagine — that a song called “Heaven Tonight” would have been a blissful Friday-afternoon pop romp in which a letter-jacketed suitor dreams of the pleasures to be had that evening with his lissome significant other.

Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In Cheap Trick’s hands, the title track of Heaven Tonight plays like the warped love-child of Alice Cooper and the Beatles.

It’s a slow, menacing, Halloweenish horrorshow of a song, apparently about death by drug overdose, set to an effective combination of harpsichord, strings and heavy guitar.

Frontman Robin Zander gets to yowl and croon on other songs; but he’s at his most effective on the chorus here, whispering, “Would you like to go to heaven tonight?” like a devil on someone’s shoulder.

To those of us who grew up in the relatively uptight 1980s, the ’70s have a reputation as a time of widespread and casual drug use. Set against that background, “Heaven Tonight” plays like a eulogy — maybe even an anthem — for a lost generation of longhaired kids who took too many barbiturates and kicked the oxygen habit.

4. The bits and pieces. For whatever reason, I find it especially easy to play spot-the-influence on Cheap Trick records.

I’ve already mentioned Alice Cooper and the Beatles (who show up several times, none more so than in “On The Radio,” when Zander sings a quavery line about “at night I turn you on” that’s instantly redolent of “A Day In The Life.”)

Listen carefully — through my ears, anyway — and you might just hear Jeff Beck, Jeff Lynne, Dylan, the Who, Paul McCartney, and maybe the Raspberries make cameo appearances.

On some records, that would be annoying. But I’m willing to let it slide here, because these guys don’t claim to be geniuses or craftsmen … they’re just four irreverent scrubs from Chicagoland, trying to make their way in the crazy-quilt corridors of Seventies rock n’ roll.

5. The ending. Heaven Tonight ends with “Oh Claire,” a barely minute-long track that consists of Zander bellowing, “Oh, konnichiwa!” over a slamming series of power chords. (The songlet purports to be live, though I’d bet it’s really a studio construction with overdubbed crowd noise.)

It’s not all that engaging … but it’s just random enough to make me wonder: What is it? A random nod to the Japanese market? An inside joke?

And whatever it is, why close the record with it?

(I’m one of those geeks who believes that the sequencing of a record actually means something, and the song you choose to end a record should be some sort of Grand Statement that sends the listener off in style.)

Maybe Cheap Trick’s rejection of Grand Statements is the entire point here. Heaven Tonight is a rock record custom-made for a time and place when Grand Statements were passe, and all that counts are some Big Riffs here and some clap tracks there.

(And in the end, the love you take is equal to konnichiwa.)