Pop That Goes Crunch!

Seven Decades Of Melodic Rock & Roll

Archive for the tag “Cotton Mather”

Mark Helm’s Lost And Found Classic

Mark Helm -- everything;s ok

Mark Helm released his one solo album, everything’s ok, in 2001. Reviews were great. “Elegant…more hooks than a fly fisherman’s vest,” declared the Washington Post. An “orch-pop noir gem,” gushed Gary “Pig” Gold.

Years passed. The road of life took its unexpected twists and turns. Helm ultimately found his way to Nashville, and to a career as an English professor. Music seemed to be a part of the increasingly distant past.

Helm, however, dusted off everything’s ok in July 2015, and reissued the long-player on Bandcamp, along with a generous (and growing) collection of odds and ends. This is a work of broad eclecticism. Its sounds run the gamut from guitar-propelled Power Pop to quiet orchestration to acoustic folk to “alt rock” to baroque pop. Its themes capture life’s ups and downs, the good, the bad, the in-between and the indifferent. It is at once a deeply personal work, but it nevertheless conveys universal truths and familiar emotions. Its “handmade” quality is reminiscent of Cotton Mather’s Kontiki, in execution and in the way Helm expertly melds disparate pop and rock elements into a cohesive whole whose overall quality exceeds the combined virtues of its various parts.

everything’s ok begins with “So Faraway,” its spare instrumentation and harmonies imparting a hymnal quality to this brief tale of loss. Next, the rocking “Galaxy Of Cars” rips the hooks right off of that fly fisherman’s vest, and delivers a chorus that will unconsciously ring around in your head all day long:

“What Holds The World Together” emerges from a dream and sits in delicate suspension, broken only by a brief baroque interlude. “[T]his is a very obvious nod to ‘strawberry fields’/’penny lane,” Helm says in the notes that accompany the reissue. The acoustic “Haircut” would feel quite at home on Big Star’s Third. “Week Of Days” begins with a blast of distorted guitar. Then, a muscular sound takes over and nicely compliments the song’s themes of romantic ambiguity and mystery. “Airplanes and Radiosignals” is a quiet rumination about crossed signals and how, sometimes, its “hard to tell what’s real, what’s ridiculous.” That everything’s ok is an ambitious, challenging and ultimately quite stunning work is evidenced by the beautiful, orchestral piece, “Sweet Dreams Baby,” which appears about three-quarters of the way in:

The digital reissue of everything’s ok is rounded out by a collection of ten bonus tracks, including a nice, digital four-track acoustic recording of “God Only Knows,” and Helm’s covers of Gene Clark’s “American Dreamer” and ELO’s “Strange Magic,” both of which appeared originally on tribute LPs released by Not Lame Recordings.

everthing’s ok is a great “lost and found” record, rising unannounced to enliven the second half of the year. This is music that can be enjoyed equally on a dark and lonely night, or on the brightest and sunniest of days. Its also a steal — 26 tracks for a mere $5. Run, don’t walk, to Bandcamp and get it. Or, you can simply click right here.

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Tweaking The Top 200 Power Pop Albums

Shake Some Action“If you’re a power pop fan, you’ve got the book, and quite a labor of love it was. But if you could tweak John Borack’s 200, what albums would be #1-#10?” So went a question posed in an on-line discussion group.

The book in question is Shake Some Action, a photograph of which appears to the left. It’s out-of print, but a list of the Top 200 can be found (with an occasional Spotify link) here

Lists of “the best” of anything can be difficult to compile. A fine line distinction between, say, Number 4 and Number 5 can be agonizing and, ultimately, quite arbitrary.

But this assignment was different. It used someone else’s list as a jumping off point. There were also “rules,” most particularly that there could only be one entry per artist on the list, and that “two-fers” could be included.

So I was game. Have I listened to every album in the Top 200? Of course not. That limited the playing field even more.

So here’s my quick, down and dirty tweaking of “John Borack’s 200.” No agonizing over fine line distinctions went into creating this list:

1.  Big Star, #1 Record/Radio City: All roads lead to and from this “two-fer.” If I created a list of my Top 100 songs of all-time, it would include “September Gurls,” “Thirteen,” “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” etc., etc., etc.

2.  Myracle Brah, Life On Planet Eartsnop: 20 songs meant for blasting out of an AM car radio in 1972 while driving around town with windows open and without a care in the world. The lead track, “Whisper Softly,” sets the tone for everything that comes after:

3.  Cotton Mather, Kontiki: The yin and yang of melodic rock. Slow, dreamy stuff (“Spin My Wheels”) slides effortlessly into full-throttled Power Pop (“My Before and After”). And it does it over-and-over again.

4.  Jellyfish, Spilt Milk: Some bands fly under your radar and are never noticed. Some are simply overlooked. Some are purposefully avoided. Jellyfish fits into the last category for me. No way, no how was I going to listen to this “hippie” stuff in the early-90s. That was just so wrong. Spilt Milk is simply the most brilliant collection of self-indulgent, over-the-top, bombastic circus pop ever released.

5.  Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend: This grafts some of the greatest guitar playing in the entire Power Pop universe onto fifteen almost perfect songs. More than twenty years after-the-fact, it sounds like it could have been released last month.

6.  Wondermints, Wondermints: Beautifully encapsulates almost the entire history of rock and roll as it existed in 1995. The finesse with which the band handles such a wide variety of styles is all the more remarkable because it seems so effortless:

7.  Chris von Sniedern, Big White Lies: One meticulously crafted pure pop gem after another by one of the true craftsmen around. A slightly softer version of the recreated AM rock experience of the early-70s than Life On Planet Eartsnop.

8.  Eugene Edwards, My Favorite Revolution: It grabs you immediately and refuses to let go. And it shouldn’t. Its un-fancy, bass-guitars-and-drum rock and roll, smartly written from start to finish:

9.  The Plimsouls, The Plimsouls . . . Plus: Some of this supplied one of the soundtracks to my high school years. Its Power Pop, but with some R&B and garage rock sprinkled into the mix. “Zero Hour,” “Now,” “Everyday Things,” “Great Big World,” “How Long Will It Take” and “Great Big World” remain perennials for me more than thirty years later.

10. The Merrymakers, Bubblegun: This is pretty sounding Power Pop. Not only is “April’s Fool” one of the best songs of the past two decades, it is easily the most exuberant song about being “dumped” that I have ever heard. For good measure, Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish (see No. 4) assisted with production and percussion — and is listed as co-writer of “April’s Fool” — so my circle is entirely complete.

And that’s my current tweaking of the Top 200. These things change over time. Who knows, maybe there is a to-be-discovered gem in the 200 that I have not yet heard.

Best Listens Of 2012

Michael Carpenter

Michael Carpenter

This site is not necessarily about the “latest” music. Its about the past seven decades of a certain type of music. It proceeds from the viewpoint that “if I haven’t heard it, its new to me.” And, of course, “if you haven’t heard it, its new to you, too.”

So, what follows is some music I really liked in 2012. It’s in no particular order. Some of it was released in 2012. Some of it was released more than forty years ago. Some of the older music I knew previously — even liked quite a lot in the past — but which nevertheless resonated more over the past twelve months than it did in years gone by:

Cotton Mather, Kontiki (Deluxe Edition): Back in 1998 when Kontiki was originally released, music discovery was not quite what it is now. On-line resources were limited and were accessed largely by dial-up modem. My music discovery in the old days consisted of reading about something new and different, or driving to the Virgin Megastore to use its many CD listening stations.

I first heard Kontiki in its entirety after it was re-released earlier this year, along with twelve bonus tracks, following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The results are glorious, and Kontiki brings to mind The Beatles’ Revolver with straight-ahead pop songs blending seamlessly with more reflective psychedelic pieces punctuated by wood and string instruments, piano and analog tape tricks.

Starbelly, Lemonfresh (Deluxe Edition): This is another reissue of a 1998 release that I heard for the first time in the past year. Actually, this is a digital-only reissue by Futureman Records of an earlier reissue that added twelve bonus tracks to the stew. Its one one of those records that makes you think on its first listen “damn, this is good.” Its more than seventy minutes of non-stop hooks, melodies, chiming jangly guitars, occasional big beats and consistently clean production. There is not a bum track in the entire twenty-three song collection, although the eleven that comprised the original 1998 release remain the standouts.

Michael Carpenter, SOOP Sampler: Carpenter has released five records of “songs of other people” (“SOOP”) over the years. A twenty-one track digital download sampler from Futureman Records (for a whopping $7) is a good place to start exploring this substantial and consistently great body of work. The highlights on this collection include Carpenter’s versions of The Hollies’ “Look Through Any Window,” “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” and “Wild Honey,” which bests the Beach Boys’ original. My favorite, though, is Carpenter’s version of The Zombies’ brilliant and beautiful, “This Will Be Our Year”:

The Supahip, Seize The World: Carpenter recorded this one-off back in 2006 with Mark Moldre. “They set about the idea of writing, recording and mixing a track… arriving in the morning with nothing except maybe some loose snippets of songs, and leaving with a completed track.” And it worked. Seize The World delivers twelve uncluttered, melodic pop songs (you even get “mono” versions of ten of the tracks) that go down easy and will stay in your brain for days, particular the quiet, reflective “No Tomorrow”:

Seth Swikrsy, Watercolor Day: This 2010 release was on my car stereo almost daily for a couple of months this year. Its just addictive. As I wrote previously, the Beatles are an obvious influence on Swirsky’s solo work, yet Watercolor Day feels much more like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Trumpets, french horns, violas, cellos, oboes and trombones appear seemingly out of nowhere, but nevertheless fit perfectly in the mix and saturate the sound with texture.

Cliff Hillis, Dream Good: Hillis wrote, sang and played on Starbelly’s Lemonfresh. His fourth solo outing is my favorite record that was actually released for the first time in 2012. Its a textbook example of perfect pure pop, covering all the necessary territory from mid-tempo pieces with acoustic guitars to full-fledged rockers to grand, more baroque pop, all of which is beautifully sung and played.

Myracle Brah, “Simplified”: Three-chord rock? Think one-chord rock on this one from 2001. That’s why it works. It just pounds its way relentlessly into your brain for a minute, fifty-four seconds and then refuses to leave. Its as simple and as powerful as it gets.

Doug Powell, “When She Awoke”: Powell wrote and performed this one from 1998 on cassette 8 track with Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick. Despite using a recording process that Powell calls “the audio equivalent of drawing in the sand with a stick,” the song nevertheless occupies the opposite end of the pop spectrum from “Simplified.” It’s  lush, elaborate and dreamy, and filled to the brim (actually, far beyond the brim) with gorgeous harmonies.

The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time: “Waiting For The Sun” from 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall ranks in my all-time Top 40. The Jayhawks, though, were never quite the same after Mark Olson left the band in 1996 to follow his inner-Gram Parsons. His return on Mockingbird Time, released in September 2011, marked a return to form for the band. All of the trademark Jayhawks elements are present — the sharp songwriting, the full sound and, most importantly, the beautiful harmonizing of Olson and Gary Louris.

Big Star, “The Ballad Of El Goodo”: I’ve written about Big Star on this site, and I have liked “The Ballad Of El Goodo” for years. But this year, I really came to love this song about hope and perseverance against “unbelievable odds.” It features one of Alex Chilton’s finest vocal performances, great backing harmonies and is one of the band’s best songs. It also directly or indirectly influenced everything else on this list.

So, that’s a capsule of the music that made me the happiest over the past twelve months. How about you?

Starbelly’s “Mother Of Pearl”: A Turn Of The Century Classic

As I noted the other day, I recently contributed a piece on the expanded version of the second re-release of Starbelly’s 1998 Lemonfresh to a relatively new site call The Cultural Purveyor. I guess my job there is to spread the word about resurrected, lost Powerpop classics since I  wrote previously on that site about the re-released and expanded version of Cotton Mather’s 1994 masterpiece, Kontiki.

I digress, although Starbelly has become a mainstay on my morning and afternoon commutes to and from work. That brings me to the track that first drew my attention to the band. That would be the original version of “Mother Of Pearl,” the re-recording of which appeared on the band’s second long-player, 2002’s Everyday And Then Some.

On its own, the “official album” version of “Mother Of Pearl” stands out as a stellar track, one of the best on Everyday. The real brilliance, though, is in the original version song, recorded with the band’s initial three-piece line-up. Its occasionally muffled vocals set against a strong, melodic chorus, ringing guitars, and typically beautiful harmonies will lodge the track firmly in your subconscious for days. If that’s not enough, the subtle hip-hop rhythm and long fade-out with mysterious whispers gives the whole thing an American gothic feel, an effect that is enhanced further by the song’s official video:

The original version of “Mother Of Pearl” is available on Not Lame’s Six Years of Powerpop, which can still be purchased digitally or streamed on services such as Rhapsody. Its easily in my Top 40 of all-time.

Not Lame's Six Years Of Powerpop

 

 

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