There are so many under-rated geniuses working in the power pop field, but none more deserving of huge recognition as Mike Viola, whose fourth full length release ‘Hang On Mike’- released under the Candy Butchers moniker – captures the singer-songwriter at his absolute best.
The album begins with ‘What To Do With Michael’, a tale of a hit-and-miss relationship, set to an almost guitar-less, bouncing arrangement with the piano firmly upfront. Its purely seventies arrangement features the best elements of early Billy Joel crossed with the sunshine vibe of ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ by Captain and Teneille. It’s one of those tracks which sounds eternally fresh; something about that particular style of stabbing piano is consistently pleasing (Let’s be honest, ‘Allentown’ by Billy Joel…it never gets old, does it?). ‘Nice To Know You’ continues the seventies vibe but has extra focus on vocal harmony; while ‘Hang On Mike’ showcases better songs than this, it holds up as a great example of how Viola knows how to write a simple, yet effective melody and how although fashions may change, the kinds of pop Viola loved in the seventies have an almost timeless appeal.
‘Not So Bad At All’ captures a perfect punchy pop feeling, hovering somewhere between Jellyfish at their most direct and New York’s Mark Bacino, but if it’s an instant pop frenzy you’re looking for, the Jellyfish meets Brian Wilson-isms of ‘Let’s Have a Baby’ will provide instant joy. The stabbing piano should be enough, but when combined with a quirky chorus vocal featuring potential baby names, the song hits a whole new level of infectiousness. At just under three minutes, the moment is gone before long, but it should be more than enough to leave you smiling. ‘Sparkle!’ is even more upbeat, with camp overtones as Mike’s trademark pop is driven towards show tune territory with a wry grin. That wry grin is hosted by the “untrustworthy narrator”, since although this is a number which sounds flippant and happy upon the surface, its lyrical content is somewhat steeped in sadness.
‘Unexpected Traffic’ demonstrates the flipside of Mike’s song craft. An acoustic based, introspective number, you get a sense of Mike’s voice cracking under emotional weight. In a similar vein, although lyrically far more direct, ‘Painkillers’ is heartbreaking, as it tells of the death of someone very close and the daily struggles of coming to terms with deep sadness. While the album’s acoustic numbers often give Viola more gravitas as a songwriter, it’s his poppier works which provide the album with its long lasting appeal and most memorable moments. ‘Kiss Alive II’ shows a sly humour, not unlike Ben Folds, where Mike tells the tale of musical discovery as he attempts to turn a friend on to the piano based mastery of 1970’s Elton John (specifically ‘Bennie and the Jets’) and in return gets a copy of KISS’s double live opus [It’s up to the listener to decide whom gets the best deal there]. The song’s structure is based around simple but fairly dominant piano chords – likely meant to evoke classic Elton, but somehow ending up a little more Billy Joel…which, of course, is more than fine.
The title cut features a slightly strained vocal on fragile verses, but is balanced by a perfect pop chorus in an autobiographical tale (“Hang on Mike, if there’s one thing you’re good for, it’s holding on / Hang on Mike, if there’s one thing your good for, it’s another song”). No-one is in a better position to recognise fame isn’t always an overnight success than Viola. He may have written the songs in the “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” movie and provided vocals in the Tom Hanks flick “That Thing You Do”, but somehow the accolade of being a true household name seems to have eluded him.
When his second album (‘Falling Into Place’) was released, Mike sounded as if he had the chops to be one of the greatest singer-songwriters to come through in a long while – and this fourth album leaves absolutely no doubt about his talent. If you still hanker after the days when things were as well crafted as Todd Rundgren’s ‘Something/Anything’, then this is essential.