Following the release of a couple of superb albums and a slew of EPs celebrating a classic late 70s/early 80s power pop sound, Kurt Baker relocated from Portland, Maine to Madrid. New horizons brought new inspirations and Baker joined pop punk/power pop band Bullet Proof Lovers and also formed a new band, The Kurt Baker Combo. Although the Combo still worshipped good old power pop, their sound was a little harder around the edges than the previous Kurt Baker Band, injecting Baker’s songwriting with a touch of garage rock. This was most obvious on the Combo’s second release – 2018’s ‘Let’s Go Wild’ – where a desire for fuzzy energies sometimes came at the expense of some great melodies.
During an extended vacation back to the States in 2019, Baker found time to resurrect his old band and record enough material for a full length LP. Although the resulting ‘After Party’ is far more melodic than ‘Let’s Go Wild!’, it’s a long way from being just a quick rehash of ‘Brand New Beat’ (2012) or ‘Play It Cool’ (2015). The hallmarks of the band’s previous sound provide the heart of the songs, but the bulk of the material mines a richer vein for melody and – perhaps more importantly, variety – demonstrating how the musicians have grown during the intervening years.
In particular, ‘Keep Dreaming’, shows how Baker’s unashamed love of pop has never diminished. There are the usual jangling rhythm guitars, but Kris Rodgers’s dominant keys add a different kind of early eighties flair, showing an almost New Romantic influence as opposed to the usual Cars-esque quirks. ‘Over You’ takes the expected power pop keys and guitars and splices them with a few much bigger AOR flourishes. With the kind of chorus you might find on a Pat Benatar LP, some great call and response harmonies and a few extra bell-like keys thrown in for good measure, Kurt and the gang embrace the 80s like never before. In an even bigger musical shift, ‘A Song & A Drink’ completely dispenses with the choppy and the poppy and experiments with samba sounds. A duet between Kurt and guest singer Gina Brown, the track is hugely reminiscent of the UK wine bar pop of the 80s – specifically The Style Council’s more low-key cuts. There’s so much about this track that will remind people of ‘The Paris Match’ or ‘All Gone Away’ and although it won’t appeal to everyone, it’s very well crafted.
For the musically narrow minded folk that might feel cheated (or offended) by the slight increase in AOR elements, or any particularly European samba experiments, some consolation will come via ‘She Don’t Really Love You, Dude’, a punchy, punky number that takes the bones of Dan Vapid, Screeching Weasel and other Lookout! Records acts. Across a couple of minutes, the band throws out riff after riff as if it’s still the summer of 1995 and The Mr. T Experience are kings of their own garage. There are a couple of moments where the sheer drive couples with Kurt’s curly voice and throws the listener right back to The Leftovers, and although it isn’t quite as smart as the rest of the LP, it’s true importance is in its representing Baker’s earlier influences. One of the album’s most enduring tracks, ‘Good’ takes a reggae rhythm, a bass line that could be the work of Graham Maby circa 1980 and a general sassiness that suggests influence from Joe Jackson. A decade earlier, that might have been enough for Baker to consider the track finished, but this goes a step further with a bridge that hints at his current locale with a vaguely tango tinged rhythm and some castanets. With a spoken word break along the way, this feels particularly full-bodied for a tune that clocks in just shy of two and a half minutes.
Celebrating oldies radio, ‘Used To Think’ parades sunshine pop, loaded with Beach Boys harmonies and a harmonica, while the slower ‘Waiting For You’ dives into the calm waters of 60s MOR and Everley Brothers gold, teasing with something that’s more suited to a She & Him album than a “typical” Kurt Baker LP. Both are lovely, assuming you have tastes that are sympathetic to classic pop from a pre-psychedelia age. A number dating back almost a decade, ‘Should’ve Been The One’ began life during the ‘Brand New Beat’ sessions. The song didn’t quite come together that first time around and, in Baker’s own words, was abandoned “because it sounded too much like Genesis.” It doesn’t really…but if you overthink it, it has rhythmic similarities to ‘Understanding’ and a couple of Kris’s chosen keyboard sounds are a little like those Tony Banks used on ‘Deep In The Motherlode’, but that’s about as far as it goes. With a huge swagger and a rhythm that’s in keeping with all manner of 70s MOR, the band indulges in a world of harmonies while Baker applies a huge lead vocal throughout. Given years to mature and with Craig Sala supplying a hefty beat, it surely sounds better as part of this disc than it would have done as filler material in 2012. [If any of these homages appeal to you, make sure you check out ‘Losing The Frequency’ by Kris Rodgers & The Dirty Gems. It’s a great forty five minute romp through some fine retro inspired material.]
Then, of course, there’s always a bit of no nonsense power pop to fall back on, and the bounce of ‘I Like Her A Lot’, driven by a rigid rhythm guitar and pulsing bass, is a direct throwback to the finest moments of ‘Brand New Beat’. Wielding a huge but simple chorus, a barrage of “woo-hoo”s and other bits from a skinny tie wearing decade gone by, it’s instant familiarity also makes it an instant classic, while ‘Waiting For You’ conjures a similar feel good mood and shows why Baker would have been considered a great support act for Bowling For Soup nearer the beginning of his career. Meanwhile, the mid-tempo chug of ‘New Direction’ supplies something that could sit alongside a lot of previously released KB material and the heavily staccatoed ‘Outta Site’ is almost guaranteed to push the right buttons of music fans still reaching for those old power pop LPs from the golden days of 80/81.
Between a pleasing range of styles, some great hooks and more thoughtful arrangements than ever before, this could easily be Baker’s best album to date. It doesn’t always have the instant punch of ‘Brand New Beat’, but almost everything about it is superior. With rich pop hooks meeting a reasonable dose of the old party spirit, ‘After Party’ is proof enough that a musical maturity doesn’t always have to come at the expense of fun.