Saturday, March 31, 2012

Power Pop Lives….In Sweden?

Power pop is an enduring musical style that still has many loyal fans, including current acts like Fountains of Wayne, Tinted Windows, OK Go & The Smithereens. It draws its influences from the 1960s sound of groups like The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Beach Boys and The Byrds. The initial wave of power pop occurred in the 1970s and early 80s, when acts like Big Star, Cheap Trick, Badfinger, The Cars and Todd Rundgren were in their heyday. And for every well known group like The Raspberries or The Knack, there were many one hit wonders & cult favorites like The La’s, The Plimsouls, The Records or The dBs. There was even some crossover with the burgeoning punk & new wave movements, with musicians like Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, The Romantics, Squeeze and The Jam releasing music with at least one foot in the genre.

In the 90s and early 2000s, power pop had something of a renaissance: Artists like Matthew Sweet, Jellyfish, Fastball, The Rembrandts and Marshall Crenshaw recorded great retro pop records during this period. One of the best albums from this era is 1997’s Bubblegun, the second album by Sweden’s The Merrymakers. The duo of Anders Hellgren and David Myhr write songs that sound fresh, but would fit comfortably into the eras of their many influences. It's an excellent release, following up their 1995 debut No Sleep Til Famous, another great power pop record.

There are great melodies and killer pop hooks here, with wall-to-wall jangly guitars & sweet harmonies. Songs like April’s Fool (with it’s almost Abba-esque keyboards), the Squeeze-like A Fine Line, and the beautiful ballad Adore (which sounds like a Crowded House outtake) are some of the highlights. Superstar is swirling, fast & percussive; Troubled Times is another sweet love song with excellent lyrics; the McCartney-ish Monkey in the Middle and the bouncy, upbeat Under the Light of the Moon are also standouts. This is an album that demands repeat spins on your CD player, iPod or music system, and grows on you with each listen. You can hear influences in their sound from bands as diverse as Queen, R.E.M., The Hollies, The Beatles and XTC.

While The Merrymakers didn’t make much of a splash in the U.S., they did have their fans, including Andy Sturmer, best known as the leader of power pop masters Jellyfish. Sturmer had heard & liked some of the bands earlier music, so he offered to collaborate on songwriting and production work for the album. He plays drums on the record as well. In a way, Bubblegun became kind of a summit meeting of the power pop elite. If you’re a Jellyfish fan, you’ll appreciate the record even more. Sadly, the album is the last release to date by the band, but David Myhr has just released his solo debut, Soundshine, and if the single Got You Where He Wanted is any indication, it will be another retro pop classic.

Bubblegun is available at online outlets like Amazon and the iTunes store. Some versions of the album come packaged either with a few bonus tracks or an additional disc containing 5 songs from No Sleep Til Famous and they are also worth a listen. Stay tuned in the future for more coverage of classic & current power pop, and thanks for reading.

Here are links to April's Fool and Monkey in the Middle from Bubblegun.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Descendants: Family Loyalty, Life & Love in Hawaii

George Clooney has had a remarkable run of performances in recent years, in films like Michael Clayton, Up In The Air and The Ides of March. He’s added another fine acting job to that list. In 2011’s The Descendants, he plays Matt King, a Hawaii-based lawyer whose wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident. This leaves Matt to take care of their two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie. He’s been something of an absentee father, and now has to cope with their behavior (they’re both acting out at school), and deal with them as a parent in ways he didn’t previously.

He is told Elizabeth will never wake up, and he’ll have to make a decision regarding unhooking her from life support. In an emotional conversation with Alexandra, Matt learns his wife was having an affair. He’s shocked to find his family life & his world was not as well ordered as he thought. Matt decides to track down the man she was sleeping with, to confront him, and to give him a chance to visit Elizabeth. He’s also dealing with a larger family issue: he’s the trustee of a large portion of land the family owns, and the group is trying to make a decision on whether to sell it and make a huge profit.

As the story unfolds, we see all the emotions come to life in Clooney’s face, as he deals with these issues. You really feel this character’s journey as he comes to a new understanding about his family, and his life. It’s a quiet, understated performance, quite unlike the cool characters we’re used to seeing in movies like the Ocean’s films and Out of Sight. The rest of the cast is superb as well, with Shailene Woodley a standout as the older daughter, Alexandra. There’s also good work from Robert Forster, Judy Greer and Beau Bridges in supporting roles.

The film is directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) and he unfolds the story slowly, focusing on the characters and their relationships. The Oscar winning screenplay is by Payne, Nat Raxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kari Hart Hemmings. The beautiful Hawaiian locations and authentic music score add a great deal of atmosphere to the movie. This is a sincere, well-acted comedy drama that is truly one of the best films of 2011. It’s a movie that sneaks up on you a little, and will resonate with you after you watch it.

The Descendants is alternately funny & heartbreaking, and has some real truths to impart about life & family. It’s one of my favorite films of 2011. In this writer’s opinion (with all due respect to the other nominees and winner Jean Dujardin), Clooney deserved the Best Actor award for his role. The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray with an assortment of extras that include interviews with the cast & crew, though the Blu-ray features more extra content. Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Covers Gallery IV – Tribute Album Edition

The latest set in my series honoring covers is drawn entirely from tribute albums:

1.    Opelousas (Sweet Relief) – by Maria McKee from Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams. McKee’s transcendent version of singer-songwriter Williams’ song is one of the highlights of the album.
2.    #9 Dream – by R.E.M. from Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur. The alternative rockers do a nice, dreamy cover of John Lennon’s solo hit.
3.    Poor Poor Pitiful Me by Jackson Browne & Bonnie Raitt - from Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon.  Browne & Raitt pay tribute to the late, lamented Zevon with this energetic reading of a song made famous by Linda Ronstadt’s version.
4.    Yesterday Once More - by Red Kross from If I Were A Carpenter. The power poppers re-do The Carpenters hit, emphasizing the melancholy inherent in the song's lyrics.
5.    Raining in My Heart - by Graham Nash from Rave On Buddy Holly. Pretty, stripped down version of the Buddy Holly tune by Nash. From one of two star studded Holly tributes released in 2011, the other being Listen To Me: The Songs Of Buddy Holly.
6.    You Won’t See Me - by Dar Williams from This Bird Has Flown: a 40th Anniversary Tribute to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. One of the best songs on this tribute to a classic Fab Four album.
7.    Tush - by Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. Grace & the boys get the groove right on this cover of the ZZ Top hit, from ZZ Top: A Tribute From Friends.
8.     Deuce - by Lenny Kravitz from Kiss My A**: Classic Kiss Regrooved. Fantastic version of the Kiss song, also featuring Stevie Wonder.
9.    Girls Talk - by Dave Edmunds from Songs Of Elvis Costello: Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous. Edmunds’ hit cover leads off this eclectic album of Costello classics by a variety of artists.
10.  Washable Ink - The Neville Brothers - from Love Gets Strange: Songs of John Hiatt: There are several Hiatt tribute albums, but this out of print disc from Rhino has an excellent lineup of musicians and songs, including The Neville Brothers funky take on this tune.
11.  Encomium: A Tribute To Led Zeppelin: Tangerine - by Big Head Todd & The Monsters. Moody, folk-inflected version of the Led Zeppelin III track.
12.  I Want You from Inner City Blues: The Music of Marvin Gaye. Madonna’s smooth, sensual reading of the Marvin Gaye hit.
13. Gypsy Woman – Bruce Springtseen’s excellent take on the Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions classic, from All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute To Curtis Mayfield.
14. You Got Me Floatin' - P.M. Dawn’s psychedelic/r&b version of the Jimi Hendrix tune, from Stone Free: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix.
15.  Burn Down the Mission - Phil Collins' emotional cover of the early Elton John tune, from Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs Of Elton John & Bernie Taupin.
16. The Chain by Shawn Colvin, who does right by this Fleetwood Mac classic on Legacy: A Tribute To Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
17.  Fat Bottomed Girls - by Antigone Rising from Killer Queen: A Tribute to Queen. The all girl rockers get it on with their version of the hard charging Queen hit.

Bonus Track: Sugar Sugar - by Mary Lou Lord & Semisonic from Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits. One of the best tracks on this wonderful collection of cartoon themes & songs from shows like The Archies, Scooby Doo & The Flinstones. A real treat for baby boomers.