Tag Archives: power-pop

Goodbye Kayfabe – Nick Frater

My friend Nick Frater, the creator of a series of slightly barmy power-pop gems, has a new release – a 7-track EP (or possibly a mini album – the distinction eludes me) called Goodbye Kayfabe.

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That’s Nick in the white suit and lucha libre mask.

Nick’s music reminds me of Jellyfish’s incredibly knowing but lovingly crafted meta pop – opener Built to Last recalls that band’s Spilt Milk standout Joining a Fan Club – both songs pull off that Paul McCartney trick of having about five different sections, each hookier than the last. Lead vocals on Built to Last come from Nicolai Prowse of Do Me Bad Things (drums throughout are by DMBT drummer Tommy Shotton, who plays a blinder) but elsewhere it’s Nick, with some help from a Lewitron – Nick’s homemade Mellotron featuring the voice of another Do Me Bad Things alumnus, Alex Lewis.

Nick, as you may have guessed, is a recording nerd. For real. He’s got it worse than me. But while that may not be great for his own sanity, it means that his songs benefit from smart arrangements and well crafted instrument sounds, as well as a meticulous mix that includes loads of cool details without crowding the vocal and critical instruments. So Built to Last features a triple-tracked bass line and a Hohner Pianet doubling the guitars, More Than This (not the Roxy Music song), has a real brass band on it and a trombone solo, while Paperchase has a lot of cowbell, a bunch of Nick’s antique synths and a drum track that quotes from Ringo’s Ticket to Ride beat.

Nick saves two of the strongest tracks for the end. Remoaner, like Donald Fagen backed by ELO, has some of the juiciest chord changes I’ve heard in a long time, while the lovely Asking for a Friend (written in 10 minutes, Nick says – the best ones always are) finishes things off on a wistful note.

Nick’s put out a fair amount of music in the last five years or so, so if you dig any of what you hear on Goodbye Kayfabe, be sure to check his older releases too.

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The Posies @ the 100 Club, 06/04/15

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to be among the lucky souls who saw Jon Auer play at the Islington, a gig that is probably among the best half-dozen or so I’ve ever been to. It made me reconnect with his music in a big way, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years listening to, not just his music, but power pop-type stuff generally.

As a teenager I was really into the idea of bands that mixed “proper” songwriting (meaning, I guess, Beatles-derived chord changes) and vocal harmonies with loud guitars and prominent drums, and the Posies did that as well as anyone since their illustrious forefathers Big Star (so well that Auer and fellow founding Posie Ken Stringfellow became members of the reconstitued Big Star, though if you’re reading this, you almost certainly know that). But that Jon Auer show got me really excited by the possibilities of that kind of music again, so seeing the Posies when they came through London again was hard to turn down.

The press photos that I’d seen used to promote the tour only showed Auer and Stringfellow, so I was half expecting a duo show. Instead it was Jon and Ken with drummer Frankie Siragusa, an LA-based multi-instrumentalist and producer. No bassist, but lots of parts being triggered by Stringfellow from his keyboards (and possibly pedals – I couldn’t see his feet from where I was).

Auer and Stringfellow seem hugely excited by playing with Siragusa, and sure enough, the dude can drum. He’s a bit of a monster, in fact. Unfortunately the mix privileged his playing over everything else, making it hard to hear the guitars and at times even the vocals (the songs where Siragusa kept time on the hats were OK; the ride cymbal was pain-threshold volume, though), which made it a little tricky to follow all the details of the new songs the guys are playing on the tour.*

Even amid the clang of cymbals, the quality of the new songs – and the evolution they represent for the band – was clear. Auer’s Unlikely Places, built on top of a robotic single-note riff, was an early highlight; single Squirrel vs Snake mixed a ’60s bubblegum melody with clever wordplay, and took on greater force than its studio counterpart; The Plague (for which they were joined by singer Gizelle Smith) welded together several hugely different sections into a seamless whole; and The Sound of Clouds was pensive, near-weightless and utterly lovely. All are in their different ways unlike anything they’ve done before.

The older songs were great, too, even without a bass player. Dream All Day got an early airing, Throwaway and Please Return It (two old favourites of mine, and the former a new favourite for Mel) were paired in the middle of the set, and Burn & Shine was a showcase for Siragusa’s fine drumming. He pretty much aced what must have been a hugely demanding song to be playing nearly 90 minutes into a set that had already thrown him some challenging material.

My favourite on the night, though, was The Glitter Prize, from 2010’s Blood/Candy, another song with Gizelle Smith guesting. The 3-part harmonies were glorious, and sent me scurrying off to iTunes to pick up an album I hadn’t got round to yet. The recorded version is superb, too. Its mid-tempo 4/4 groove puts me somewhat in mind of Fleetwood Mac, as does the mix of male and female harmonies – co-writer Kay Hanley (formerly of Letters to Cleo) also sang on the track. It’s an unusual sound for the Posies, who normally rely purely on the Auer/Stringfellow vocal blend.

I’d seen the Posies from far away at the Reading Festival, and I’d seen Auer close up at the Islington, so yesterday I payed particular attention to what Ken Stringfellow was doing. He’s a quite terrific singer, able to push his voice into screamy rock territory, sing full-throated top-line harmonies à la Graham Nash and dial it down to a delicate, intimate whisper, but his versatility last night on the guitar and keyboards was hugly impressive, too. Which reminds me, I should really dig out his first solo album, Touched – a record I’m rather fond of but haven’t listened to in full for a couple of years.

Quibbles with the sound mix aside, it was a fine show, and it’s great to see Auer and Stringfellow playing with so much enthusiasm after what must have been a horrible year for them**. It’s not an easy task to carry an audience with you for 20-odd songs when most of the crowd have never heard over half of them, but the guys managed it. I’m already enjoying spending time with their new record and looking forward to the next time they’re in London.

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Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Never stop, guys.

*The tour is in advance of the release of new album Solid States. They are selling pre-release copies at the merch table though.
**This past year their drummer Darius Minwalla and former bass player Joe Skyward have both passed away.

 

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 3: Sick of Myself – Matthew Sweet

Of all the supporting players on Matthew Sweet’s 1990 album Girlfriend, it’s his lead guitarists who drew all the attention. Small wonder, when the guitarists in question were Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. That’s some serious fretboard power. On a record that’s somewhat sonically unsatisfying (small-sounding, excessively dry, underwhelming low end), Lloyd and Quine provide most of the excitement and most of the rock.

By the time Sweet made 100% Fun in 1995, the grunge wave had crested and receded, but his sound was still saturated with alt.rock sonic signifiers (similar things happened to the Posies and Aimee Mann in the same period). Compared to Girlfriend, 100% Fun sounds like it’s been pumped up with steroids. Sweet’s Epiphone semi-acoustic grunts and growls rather than chimes, and Ric Menck’s drums are an enormous foreground presence rather than a discreet tapping from somewhere at the back (or worse, the side) of the mix.

Good rock music is all about the energy and power provided by the drums, and it’s Menck who steals the show on album opener Sick of Myself, despite the best efforts of Television’s Lloyd and his squalling Fender. Menck smashes his crash cymbals in the intro and choruses, plays big smacking hi-hat quarter notes in the verses and generally pounds on his snare drum like it’s done him a personal injury. There’s no showiness to any of it. He’s just making as big a noise as possible. He sounds like he’s having a ball doing it. According to Sweet, when they tracked what became Sick of Myself, he hadn’t really written the vocal parts other than the hook line in the chorus, and it was how great the drums and rhythm guitar track sounded together that inspired him to finish the piece and make it into a proper song.

Aiding and abetting him were producer Brendan O’Brien and O’Brien’s frequent partner in crime, tracking engineer Nick DiDia, who cooked up a particularly great drum sound for the album. The snare is absolutely huge (it sounds very wide, if that makes sense – presumably from just the right blend of close snare mike and stereo rooms, but I’m taking a shot on that. Could be wrong), and if the toms are comparatively small, they don’t really play a huge part in the performance; if O’Brien privileged the snare when mixing, he made absolutely the right call. It’s the crucial instrument in the mix. It’s what supplied the song with its attitude. Fittingly, the guy playing it sounded like he was having 100% fun.

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Sweet shills for Epiphone  (1996) – and who among us would turn down a free Casino or two?

My Secret Life – Redd Kross

The first for-real band I ever saw play a for-real gig on a for-real stage with a for-real PA in a for-real venue was Redd Kross in 1997 at the Astoria in London, supporting the Foo Fighters. They sounded fantastic. I’d never (literally) heard anything like it. I was 15 and I’d played a gig or two with the terrible high-school grunge band I played bass in, but that hadn’t prepared me for what a focused, tight and loud rock band on stage would sound like. They had loud guitars, bashing drums and glorious harmonies. Nostalgia may be playing a part in this assessment – and granted, 15-year-old me had nothing to compare it to – but still, their set remains one of the best I’ve seen by a support act.

That and a recommendation in (I think) the Melody Maker prompted me to go out and get their then single, My Secret Life.

Redd Kross was founded by brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald in 1982, and its first gig was supporting Black Flag. Probably because of their love of everything kitsch about the 1960s and ’70s, Redd Kross are sometimes left out or downplayed when the history of American punk is retold, but they were there and part of it almost from the start. On guitar in the band’s early days was Greg Hetson, later of the Circle Jerks and Bad Religion, and a virtual who’s who of LA punk would go on to pass through its ranks: Dez Cadena and Ron Reyes (both Black Flag), Vicki Peterson (the Bangles), Robert Hecker (It’s OK) and Jack Irons (Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers), to name a few.

My Secret Life was pretty far removed from the band’s on-stage sound, which mixed sugary harmonies with some seriously loud distorted guitars. My Secret Life is a big – huge – melodramatic ballad, with piano, acoustic guitar, tympani, Mellotron strings and the band’s trademark 3-part harmonies, a sort of updated Spector. Surprisingly grand for a band that spent most of its career celebrating everything low-brow and trashy about Californian teen culture.

It’s customary for a certain type of critic to point at a cult guitar band (those artists that take Big Star and Raspberries as the starting point for their sound) and say that they made “perfect pop music”. This sort of boosterism is usually misplaced. There’s always something that stopped those bands being as big as the Beatles were (or even as big as the Raspberries or Cheap Trick). Marshall Crenshaw was too gawky. The Posies started off too fey, then got too muscular. Jellyfish lacked a really great lead singer. Teenage Fanclub didn’t quite have the choruses. But any band can produce a perfect moment. That’s what’s so great about pop music. And when Redd Kross crash into that final chorus of My Secret Life – this time complete with tympani – and harmonise the word “life” over an unexpected F minor, it pretty much is a moment of pop perfection.

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Steve and Jeff McDonald from Redd Kross, in the studio, 1993

My Life is Right – Big Star

There are two ways to approach the music of Big Star these days. The first is through the rock-canon myth of the Unruly Genius of Alex Chilton, Big Star’s singer-songwriter. In that case, start with their third album Third (also known as Sister Lovers), released in 1975, and work back. This is the standard rock-critic take on the record:

To listen to it is to be plunged into a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. Songs are drenched in strings and sweet sentiment one minute, starkly played and downcast the next. No pop song has ever bottomed out more than Holocaust, an anguished plaint sung at a snail’s pace over discordant slide-guitar fragments and moaning cello.

Parke Putterbaugh, Rolling Stone

Here’s my take on Third. It’s a mess, and only a couple of songs reach the standards of the band’s best work. The myth of Alex Chilton the Unruly Genius is just that, a myth: in the early years of Big Star at least, Chilton was a disciplined craftsman, but that was an image he didn’t care to project (and besides, that image doesn’t appeal to jaded music critics). But it was Chilton the craftsman who gave us the Ballad of El Goodo, Give Me Another Chance, Thirteen and Watch the Sunrise, all of which are absolute classics of their type. Songs like Ballad of El Goodo don’t happen without work. A lot of it.

Which brings us to the other way to approach them: through the first album, #1 Record, from 1972. This is the one that the Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, the Bangles and Elliott Smith owed so much to. This is the one that first made cool the idea of mixing 1965-era Beatles-style songwriting with big drums and guitars that were jangly, but loud, with an edge to them, guitars so sparkly they’re almost harsh. This version of Big Star were responsible for the lion’s share of the band’s enduring songs.

This version of Big Star had two singer-songwriters, and it was the push and pull between Chilton and Chris Bell, author of My Life is Right, that made #1 Record such a fine record. Without Bell to bounce off and to provide nearly half the songs, Chilton struggled to pull together enough strong material for a whole album. Bell shared Chilton’s Beatles obsession, but was a more damaged, less hedonistic, individual. Depressed by the commercial failure of #1 Record, dependent on heroin and, it has often been said, conflicted about his sexuality, he seemed destined for a bad end.

He met it, at the wheel of a Triumph TR-7.

He cut a classic single after leaving Big Star (I Am the Cosmos/You and Your Sister), which is  known to later generations though This Mortal Coil’s cover of the B-side (with vocals by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly) and the inumerable covers of I Am the Cosmos. But not enough people talk about how great his contributions to #1 Record are: his vocal on Don’t Lie to Me is the album’s most startlingly aggressive moment; Try Again is a beautiful, weary song, beaten down but ready to start over, refusing to give in; My Life is Right is his most joyful song, and maybe the band’s. There’s nothing more grin-inducing than Chilton and Bell straining to hit their high notes on the line “You are my day” in the chorus while drummer Jody Stephens plays bubbling triplet fills on his snare and rack toms. And what a great drummer Stephens is – I could write a book!

I can’t recommend #1 Record highly enough. Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers certainly have their moments, but for me they’re the work of another, inferior, band. The first version of the group were less mythic, but a lot more consistently rewarding.

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Alex Chilton, Chris Bell