Thursday, March 02, 2006

CD Review: Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '70s, '80s, and '90s
February 17, 2006
Gordon Hauptfleisch
Poptopia!: Power Pop Classics Of The '90's
Various Artists

Watch for those Beatle Bones, as Captain Beefheart might say. When it comes to music, I've been a sucker for the glib come-hither blurb. I can be taken in by the "New Dylan" clarion call for those who have since slipped under the radar or become where-are-they-now blips (where are you now, Steve Forbert, Elliott Murphy?). I try to be more wary of yearned-for Beatle-esque this or Beach Boy-like that, only to find the style lacking the substance, or the musical harmony without the visionary harmoniousness of a more indefinable and ineffable cast. If I do find such delectable power pop groups--and they are out there--more often than not the albums are an inconsistent mishmash with too much continuity-sapping and cost-ineffective flyover filler.

But it's Rhino to the rescue. The easiest thing to do to get my manic pop thrills is to just let Rhino Records do all the work for me. They've proven themselves time and again to be up to the task with their repackaging and re-releasing of albums of the worthy and near-forgotten greats, and in their careful attention to detail and diligence with their Nuggets anthologies of garage, punk precursors, and psychedelic bands going back to the 1960s.

To add to the mix, Rhino's series of Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '70s, '80s, and '90s--one sold-separately CD for each decade--is devoted to groups who've proven that Beach Boy fandom and the clash of Beatlemania, phony or not, hasn't bitten the dust. Combine the infectious melodiousness with an occasional Dylan-esque literary sensibility filtered through Byrdsian jingle-jangle folk-rock, and you have some formidable pop and circumstance, with torch-carrying of sublimity and serious fun getting gloriously and progressively rough-edged and sloppy at times as time marches on toward the '90s.

You gotta get through the '70s first, though, in both its pure-pop-for-now-people form and its skinny-tie New Wave phase, though. And Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '70s kicks off magnificently with an early forerunner--the spirited, um, romantic entreaty "Go All the Way" by the sorely underrated Raspberries, paradoxically ahead of their time in anticipating the backward-glancing simplicity of power-poposity. If this song doesn't get you feeling like it ain't no sin to be glad your alive, you've got ice water in your veins. This piece of paxilated-pop is followed by 17-count 'em-17 of Rhino's judicious blend of familiar songs from the likes of Todd Rundgren (his high-octane "Couldn't I Just Tell You"), Badfinger, Dwight Twilley Band, 20/20 (the reverberating and mind-bending "Yellow Pills") Cheap Trick, Nick "Jesus of Cool" Lowe ("Cruel to be Kind") and the Knack (refreshingly, not "My Sharona").

But mixed in are choice cuts from more obscure shoulda-beens. You can't travel far without a little Big Star--children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton's "September Gurls" trailing clouds of heavenly glory here. The Records, the Shoes, Blue Ash are also duly represented, while the intro to Bram Tchaikovsky's "Girl of My Dreams" sounds like a cross between the Rubinoos' and the Flamin' Groovies' songs that are also included here. Poptopia! The 70s ends, for better or for worse, with the Bay City Roller-esque "Rock and Roll Girls" by the Beat, perhaps better known at the time for forcing England's Beat to become the English Beat.

If you're not yet sick of the Romantics' "What I Like About You," (or not yet ready to let go of this guilty pleasure or the searing-retina image of the group in their red leather suits) what you will initially like about Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '80s is that this Kinks-like song kicks off this CD. Otherwise, you can skip ahead to the sprightly "Baby, It's You," by the late great Phil Seymour, one of the creative halves of Oklahoma's Dwight Twilley Band (whose propulsive "I'm On Fire" is on the previous Poptopia! CD). But if you're one of those instant gratification junkies, go straight to cut number 5, do not collect Great Buildings or Holly and the Italians (but be sure to get them on the return trip), because you must hear or re-hear a power pop standard of true greatness, the Plimsoul's guitar-driven soaring Byrd flight "A Million Miles Away," a song of such power that the group couldn't hold itself together in the face of such force, and so Peter Case was left to wander the earth in various well-regarded folk and rock solo incarnations, a million miles away from his power pop fame (though the Plimsouls would re-from briefly in the late '90s).

After that up-to-eleven workout, you might think the rest of the Poptopia! '80s, marked as it is by a wider variety of styles, would be anti-climactic. But you would be wrong, with such worthy entries among its 18 selections as Marshall Crenshaw's moony "Whenever You're On My Mind," Australia's Hoodoo Gurus jangle-fest "I Want You Back," and Tommy Keene's cutting "Places That Are Gone." The celebratory floating-on-air "Love is for Lovers" by the dB's (I dare you not to clap along), contrasts with the brooding, obsessive Smithereens song, "Behind a Wall of Sleep" about a girl who not only "had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton back in 1965," but also "held a bass guitar and she was playing in a band/ And she stood just like Bill Wyman/ Now I am her biggest fan." In which case, the smitten Smithereen may want to go on to sing the La's now-ubiquitous but always luminescent "There She Goes," which closes out the '80s CD rather nicely.

Cue the '90s, and some glaring omissions. Due to a lack of historical perspective and licensing issues that rushed the 1997 Poptopia! releases, certain groups like Fountains of Wayne, Teenage Fan club, Sugar, and others who came along during the last three years of a truncated Disc decade, are missing in action. However, despite disappointing selections from the Jellyfish and the Posies catalog, there's still enough substance to go around in the 18 songs here, with a curious mix of grunge-tinged groups bumping tracks with more polished fare. Whether mannered or manic, most of these songs--ranging from the Rembrandts to Redd Cross--display considerable hooks and heart.

Highlights on Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '90s include the familiar Matthew Sweets' "I've Been Waiting" and the Lemonheads' lilting "Into Your Arms." At the other end of the spectrum, The Gigolo Aunts' "Cope" is a wha-wha guitar frenzy; "Proto-Pretty" showcases the Wondermints, who, in addition to their own recording career, also back up Brian Wilson in the studio and on stage. Songs by Velocity Girl and Velvet Crush are infectious, harmony-driven delights, and the coda to Poptopia! the '90s, "You're All Forgiven," by Idle Wilds, is self-torment that manages to work in some evocative, gear-switching tunefulness and harmony.

Melodious, harmonious self-torment: that's about as good a description of power-pop as any. Though some can argue about what was left out, few can take issue with what made the cut--and that includes the informative liner notes and photos. Rhino's discretionary care in picking out the choice selections--this could've been an arbitrarily mis-handled mess--means that the more precious, facile, inauthentic of the genre was not even considered. So more power to them, and more power to us--if a little less pop.

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