VARIOUS ARTISTS: Come Out & Play – American Power Pop Volume 1 (1976-78)

I kid you not when I tell you this selection of pure gold nuggets and curiosities from the USA’s first wave of post 60s power pop makes for pretty much essential listening. Taking their cues from The Byrds and Big Star, a whole suave of bands paid homage to their heroes and opened new musical avenues in the process.

Kicking off with (now) well known ‘Shake Some Action’ by Flamin’ Groovies, you might know what to expect. There are plenty of 60s influences here and while possibly one of the best known tracks to be included as part of this collection, it’s not the best by any means. That said, it’s still good and very representative of this bands mid-late 70s stuff. ‘Wayside’ by Artful Dodger has a more contemporary 70s feel and much less garage sound. If you don’t know these guys and like Cheap Trick, I have a feeling they’re worthy of investigating. Sadly, to the best of my knowledge (and at the time of writing this) their three albums are out of print and have never been issued on CD, so that’s about all I can say about them. I’d really love to hear more, so if anyone can shed any light, that’d be great.

I was never a great fan of Billy Squier, but have often thought I should check out his old band Piper, purely on the strength of their song here. ‘Can’t Wait’ is great pop, but as you might expect, has rockier guitars than some of the other bands here. It took me quite a while to appreciate how good this track is, as I’ve never been especially fond of Squier’s vocals, but its quirky musical arrangement has a complexity which makes it stand out more than some. That’s all relative though; don’t expect kitchen sink complexity of a Todd Rundgren standard. This CD offers two cuts by The Nerves, fronted by future Plimsouls man Peter Case. The first, ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ will be familiar to all, having been covered by Blondie who made the song a hit, despite not changing its arrangement in the slightest. The almost punky energy still makes this two minute song as vital as it was back in the late 70s. The second Nerves track, ‘When You Find Out’, is pure straight-up 60s R&B. Wearing influences clearly on their sleeves, this honest tribute to The Zombies and The Yarbirds is equally essential listening.

‘The Summer Sun’ by the almost legendary Chris Stamey is also very strong. It’s another sixties inspired song (as with most of this wave of power pop), with a strong chorus and vocal melodies. The over all arrangement doesn’t veer at all from very familiar territory. For a better example of what this man can do, check out ‘(I Thought) You Wanted To Know’ from ‘Shake It Up: American Power Pop Volume II’ [reviewed elsewhere on this site]. Cheap Trick, like the Flamin’ Groovies, will require no introduction. ‘Southern Girls’ is from their ‘In Color’ album; a classic of the power pop genre – maybe even a bona-fide classic in its own right.

I must be missing something here. I’ve read in a few places before that The Scruffs’ album ‘Wanna Meet The Scruffs’ is a classic. Based on the track here, The Scruffs leave me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Musically, it sounds fine – a little Big Star, a little Pezband, but vocally it grates. The singer’s voice is strong, but has a slightly odd croony tone, like the vocalist from Prix, but not quite that bad. This is one of the few tracks here which I find myself skipping regularly, alongside The Names, who don’t do much for me for pretty much the same reasons.

Upon its single release, ‘Christi Girl’ by The Flashcubes supposedly wasn’t bought by many people. Some sources have claimed that it could be found in bargain bins in many of New York’s record stores. The song itself isn’t that bad. It has more than a nod to Gary Puckett rather than Big Star, which makes me think that had anyone actually heard it at the time, it may have reached a slightly broader audience than some power pop releases. Having missed out on success the first time around, The Flashcubes re-united in 1993 and recorded new material. You can read more about them at their official website.

After a twee intro, ‘All Kindsa Girls’ by The Real Kids is a cult classic. Showing the energy of the Flamin’ Groovies but less of an obvious sixties influence, this song has a proto-punk energy and as with The Nerves, should appeal to those who never quite understood the classic Ramones raw dumbness. As for this compilations title cut, performed by The Paley Brothers, one can assume they were either deathly serious or going for full sugar-overload with a knowing wink. There are handclaps, Phil Spector inspired glockenspiels, and a general infectiousness that’s as annoying as it is entertaining. It’s like hearing ‘Sugar Sugar’ by The Archies given a dusting down by mid seventies pop genius. I love it. I hate it. I love it.

Closing this compilation is the haunting ‘I Am The Cosmos’ by Big Star man Chris Bell. There’s a definite uneasiness to parts of this recording. While not obviously bleak like some of the songs from Big Star’s ‘Third’ (recorded after Bell’s departure, interestingly), and despite ringing guitars and a full band arrangement, there’s something in this song that’s a little unsettling It sounds like a man with the world on his shoulders, not quite beautiful, never ugly, always fragile. Not a fist-in-face cry for help, but it comes as no surprise that after leaving Big Star in Alex Chilton’s hands 1972, Bell attempted suicide a few times. He would eventually die in a car accident in 1978. ‘I Am The Cosmos’ is up there with the best of the Big Star stuff and can be easily found elsewhere on the ‘Big Star Story’ compilation CD.

This CD, issued by Rhino in 1993 is now out of print. You owe it to yourselves to try and track one down.

August 2007




BIJOU PHILLIPS – I’d Rather Eat Glass

The daughter of John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas (about whom plenty could be said, given some past revelations, but now isn’t the time) Bijou Phillips is actress. At other times, she’s a model. When neither of these, she’s been a wild child and your average Google search would suggest she’s someone who’s keen on taking her clothes off. Lesser known facts about Bijou include her abilities as singer-songwriter, which so far have yielded just this one album. ‘I’d Rather Eat Glass’, produced by ex-Talking Heads man Jerry Harrison, is a mixed bag. As the title suggests, it’s quite spiky around the edges, though essentially most of it fits neatly into the rock-pop mould. …And yeah, I’m pretty sure you’re thinking a model/actresses album is some kind of vanity project, but don’t dismiss this, as Bijou has a really strong voice and more than enough talent to make this work.

The opening track ‘Hawaii’ instantly grabs your attention. The guitar riff is a little off centre and in a tuning which seems a step away from the norm. Sadly, I’m not a musician, so I can’t elaborate on that, but it’s a great way to get things started. The alternative pop-rock seems in keeping with a large chunk of the album’s material, but just when you think you know where it’s going, it breaks into an odd calypso-ish break.The guitars are turned up for ‘I Own You’, which is very chorus driven. You’ve heard this all so many times before, but somehow it still retains its charm. Similarly as rocky, but delivered with a quirky vocal, ‘I Never Shot The President’ starts with attitude and then refuses to let go. ‘Little Dipper’ is a stand-out ballad, with a piano led arrangement and probably one of the most heartfelt vocal deliveries this album has to offer, telling a tale of childhood visits to the protagonist’s mother’s house. It stands out, in part, due to a contrast with the spiteful edge present on most of these songs. ‘I Am A Mountain’ seems at first to be in a similar style to ‘I Own You’, but then during the between-verse breaks, the guitars are quite thrashy.

‘When I Hated Him (Don’t Tell Me)’ was the lead single and it’s not difficult to see why. Its radio-friendly angst fit the late 90s model of strong female singers, after Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ took over the world and seemingly opened doors for dozens of people to bare their souls. At first listen, this may feel a little drawn out at over six minutes, but it’s a slow burner and the addition of gospel style backing vocals for the last couple of choruses is a nice touch. ‘Breakfast’ provides good closure, being acoustic based, allows the listener to wind down a little after some of the sharper edged stuff.

I’ve had this in my personal collection for a while now, having bought it purely on the strength of a couple of really positive reviews, without hearing a note. In short, I still can’t recommend it highly enough and most of the people I’ve played it to feel the same way. If you’re out there and those Natalie Imbruglia albums are just that little bit too sugary for you, you know where to look next. This could be a genuinely overlooked gem from the tail end of the last century.

September 2007/November 2009

MARILLION – Somewhere Else

It’s only fair before we begin, that I tell you how much I love this band.

It may be unfashionable, but I’m not one of those people who hold them up as some sort of middle-aged-but-still-trying-to-be-cool joke. I genuinely think they’re great. As a rule, their greatness far outweighs their faults. Even when in the past they’ve released albums I’ve not been so keen on, there have always been moments which truly stand out.

‘Somewhere Else’ really breaks the mould. The bad bits are bad. The average bits are average and, to be honest, the good bits are, just so…average. For a band who’ve often given it their all and been a band still capable of surprise some twenty-five years into their career, this album represents a band on auto-pilot; a band who, at best, sound somewhat pale when compared to their previous two outings (the epic and dark ‘Marbles’ and the surprisingly contemporary sounding ‘Anoraknophobia’). ‘Somewhere Else’ sounds like songs fashioned from bits of leftovers with some bleak lyrics, mismatched with some poor attempts at chorus writing.

The opening track, ‘The Other Half’ promises so much, with its big sound working from a rather Beatles-y loop. It’s a slow-burning opening track which leads the listener into thinking this will be an atmospheric journey, kind of like a familiar friend but with a new slant. It’s after this that things go awry, when the first single, ‘See It Like A Baby’ emerges from the speakers. The verses are full of unimaginative clichés about trying things for the first time, which become almost unbearable when Steve Hogarth utters the line ‘taste it like you’ve never tasted it before’; a line which no matter how many times I hear it, I expect him to be endorsing Cadbury’s Flake. No thanks. Things aren’t saved from despair when the chorus presents itself as ‘See it like a baby (x4)’. Is this really the work of a man who has been a songwriter for some three decades or maybe more? Is it the work of a man who has written things of a poetic nature in the past? I have trouble believing it myself.

‘Thankyou Whoever You Are’ sounds like something Marillion binned at the demo stage on previous attempts and then dragged out in desperation to pull this album up to ten songs. Musically, it’s more than competent, but sounds very much like a composite of previously released Marillion songs. I kind of hoped that lyrically, something would save this from being mediocre, but again, witness the chorus: ‘Thankyou whoever you are (x4)’. I could point out that thank you is two words, but that’d just be pedantic.

Before the album was released, the song ‘Most Toys’ was touted as a groundbreaking number in the Marillion cannon. It was supposedly the fastest, heaviest thing the band had ever recorded with [quote] Ian Mosely finally getting to drum like he’s in System Of A Down. In reality, that’s not true. It’s slightly tougher sounding than a lots of the band’s previous outings, but certainly not that much faster – not really any faster than, say, ‘Hooks In You’ or ‘Separated Out’, and as for the System Of A Down drumming comparison…that’s laughable. The chorus again is a one-liner; I wish they’d not tried writing choruses at all, to be honest. The title track, musically, is one of the albums strongest offerings – sprawling and atmospheric, but the lyrics add little to the over all result and the main hook, again, features too much repetition of one line. ‘A Voice From The Past’ and ‘Last Century For Man’ have a similar feel, but are ultimately forgettable and while ‘No Such Thing’, at first, seems to be on the right track atmospherically, it’s ultimately spoilt by a trippy vocal effect (used by Black Sabbath to far greater effect some thirty-seven years previously on ‘Planet Caravan’) and some spiteful lyrics, including ‘no such thing as a faithful wife’. Thanks for that. That’s lovely.

‘The Wound’ is the album’s other upbeat moment (aside from ‘Most Toys’ which should be swept under the carpet) and here, I’m pleased to say, it’s an improvement. Sure, compared to some of Marillion’s previous great moments it’s average, but compared to most of ‘Somewhere Else’, it’s a step forward. Steve Hogarth is in fine voice, the tune has a rock edge which feels natural, rather than forced, as it does on ‘Most Toys’. It’s the closest ‘Somewhere Else’ comes to representing how good a band Marillion can be. The rock bits are balanced by an atmospheric mid-section which reminds me of late-90s ‘dotcom’ era Marillion. By this point though (track 8 on a ten track CD), it’s really not enough to save face, particularly after ‘See It Like A Baby’ and ‘Most Toys’. Closing the album is ‘Faith’. As a song in an almost finished form, this has been kicking around for some time. It’s a gentle acoustic-based affair, somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’. Its simple arrangement is one of its strengths. Maybe that’s why I preferred the earlier performances without the brass section. Even though this is one of the rare moments of ‘Somewhere Else’ I enjoyed, it’s hard not to feel just a little let down when a ten song outing, which took years to make, features something most of us were familiar with from what now feels like so long ago.

To be honest, ‘Somewhere Else’ is by far the worst album in the Marillion catalogue to date and even as a huge fan, I can’t bring myself to recommend it to anyone. I’d go as far as to say that although this isn’t the first time Marillion have left me disappointed, it’s the first time they’ve let me down to such a degree that I’m actually embarrassed by at least half of this album.  All great bands have their off-days, but in terms of misfires, this one’s special – the spark that often drives music’s “best kept secret” has totally gone out…


September 2007

GREGG ALEXANDER – Intoxifornication

It’s probably fair to say that if you heard Gregg Alexander or were aware of his work in the early 90s, you almost certainly discovered him by accident. This seems a pity as this, his second solo album, is a decent record. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but like Prince (who seems an obvious influence on bits of the album), sometimes it’s the flaws which make it more interesting.

Alongside a handful of tunes featured in different form on ‘Michigan Rain’ (Gregg’s incredibly rare debut), this sophomore album features some new material. Pop-rock drum loops mixed with rock guitars provided the basis for the smut-driven ‘Smokin’ In Bed’ and ‘Electric Girlfriend’, both of which very much set the tone for this album. The title track, as you’d expect, follows suit, but benefits from a punchy guitar riff and a verse with a call and response vocal (it’s amazing what you can do with a ‘hey hey’ if you’re gifted enough), but it’s the pre-chorus which is the real star. Gregg was always meant to be on the radio – and once you hear this, you get the feeling that he presented this track (and indeed the rest of this album) with nothing but arrogant self-belief.   ‘I Wanna Seduce You’ is slightly different, in that the slightly alternative leanings present all but vanish; this track is pure 80s chorus-driven goodness. It reminds me of a Def Leppard cast off except it’s better than that. ‘Save Me From Myself’ (one of the songs originally from ‘Michigan Rain’) provides a decent counterpoint to a lot of the more up-beat tunes and has a vocal delivered with anguish. Even though it’s never going to be a classic album, I’d say the only time the album really misses the mark is on the uncredited bonus track (listed on the Japanese pressing as ‘Wear Your Love Beside You’). I’m not sure what happened here, but Gregg’s voice sounds lethargic and the music sounds like it came from a tape which was slightly warped. I suppose it was an uncredited track for good reason.

After the release of the album Gregg co-wrote most of the songs on ‘Arrive All Over You’ the debut album by Danielle Brisebois (who’d provided backing vocals on ‘Intoxifornication’). As you may expect, her album continued where Gregg’s ended with a similar style of power pop, rock and tongue in cheek smut. Unsurprisingly, her album was greeted with similar indifference by the public at large. [At the time of writing, Danielle’s second album remains recorded but unreleased].

 I’d owned ‘Intoxifornication’ for a couple of years and was convinced that only a few people in the UK would ever hear Gregg Alexander and then at the tail-end of the 1990s, something unbelievable happened. Out of nowhere, a band named New Radicals appeared. Their single ‘You Get What You Give’ was a monster hit. The vocals felt very familiar, but no, it couldn’t be…could it? Gregg Alexander fronting a hit band? Danielle Brisebois appearing on the album too?! Their time had finally come…and then, after a fairly short time in the spotlight, Gregg and Danielle retreated once again, but those with a keen eye and ear can spot Gregg writing songs for Ronan Keating, Rod Stewart, Enrique Iglasias and Danielle writing with Natasha Bedingfield, among others.

Good luck with tracking down any of Gregg or Danielle’s albums mentioned here; they’re worth it.

April 2008

COYOTE SHIVERS – Coyote Shivers


Canadian-born Francis Coyote Shivers is one of those people whose career never seemed to get off the ground in the traditional sense. In the UK, at least, he’s only really known for playing Berko in the film ‘Empire Records’ and even then, most of his scenes only seem to be in the longer cut of the film. He is, however, of most importance to the final scene, performing the not-quite-anthemic ‘Sugarhigh’ on the record store roof.

What, then, can we say about his self-titled album? Trashy. But is it trashy in a glitzy and cool way like Beat Angels and other post-glam acts, or just plain trash? The hard truth is, well, it’d like to be the former but often ends up falling short. ‘Guilty’ has a rock ‘n’ roll heart which could appeal to fans of Gilby Clarke (ex-Guns n’ Roses) and ‘Happiness Is A Warm Bong’ is cool, with a nod toward early Replacements and the previously mentioned ‘Sugarhigh’, so it could be argued the Coyote’s influences are present and correct.

Sadly, the song writing is often lacklustre and the attitude on show doesn’t quite cover up the weaknesses. Of the twelve songs, half of them would have been binned by Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson at the demo stage. ‘If’ kind of reminds me of The Stooges, but Shivers doesn’t quite have the charm of Iggy Pop to make it truly work. Pure adrenalin makes ‘Bisexual Girl’ stand out, provided you can get past the lyrics, which hover somewhere between a joke and vulgar.

Despite a couple of stand out tracks, this is one of those albums which comes with little to recommend it, especially when so many others out there do this kind of thing so much better. Why, then, do I play this some days and almost connect with its disposable non-sentiments?

Worth it for ‘Sugarhigh’, but generally, you’re better off with Coyote’s ‘1/2 A Rock ‘n’ Roll Record’ EP, which boasts the genuinely great ‘Plus One’, and mercifully, the show’s over in less than half the time.

September 2007