When Cheap Cassettes first appeared on the power pop scene with their ‘All Anxious All The Time’ album, they didn’t really sound ready to be appreciated by the world at large. The demo quality recordings had spirit, but the song writing wasn’t great, and the overall package lacked the necessary hooks to make it memorable. A few of years on, the ‘See Her In Action’ EP was a massive improvement on every level. The short collection of songs provided riff after riff of classic retro sounds; the choruses were big and – overall – Cheap Cassettes’ quick and cheap approach to recording showed a massive confidence. For lovers of middle period Replacements, Boston heroes Watts and The Dirty Truckers, the Cheapos were now pretty much guaranteed to bring a thrill or six.
Fast forward a couple more years, and the best bits of their eagerly awaited follow up ‘Ever Since Ever Since’ continues their trend of onward and upward; bigger and better, without opting for anything overly commercial. The lead track ‘She Ain’t Nothing Like You’ wastes no time in wielding one of the band’s huge, Replacements-derived riffs, only this time peppered with the tones of the T-Rex classic ‘Get It On’. The bar room rock and glam hybrid is great – certainly a solid base to build upon – and does a great job in driving a simple groove ever forward, while Charles Matthews works a very natural vocal throughout. Lyrically, it’s all very simple, latching on to a one-line chorus, but this is one of those cases when obvious repetition works for the best, and a couple of plays allows that hook to stick. With the addition of a cool-but-sloppy lead guitar break and a few early Cheap Trick styled harmonies, it creates the kind of power that’s more power than pop, but sounds superb played at top volume.
That very much sets the tone for the bulk of the tunes that follow, hard and fast, in quick succession. The excellent ‘Malnutrition’ sounds like a mash up of ‘And The Horse They Road In On’ era Soul Asylum, Watts and an early 80s power pop band with a heady mix of rootsy riffs and under-played harmonies. An early contender for one of the album’s standout tunes, it places drummer Kevin Parkhurst in the spotlight thanks to some heavy tom work, before another deftly played lead guitar really gives a lift to the arrangement. Another highlight, ‘One Black Summer’ leads the way with a huge, ringing guitar riff set against an almost doo-wop inspired melody, before switching gears into a punchy verse that borrows heavily from The Replacements, mixes that with a pinch of Greenbury Woods and the swagger of peak Watts to create the kind of tune that’s now synonymous with the Rum Bar label. Although offering nothing new, there are plenty of strong flourishes from the lead guitar, and regardless of a few wobbly harmonies, the chorus is pretty smart too: in just a few bars, it recycles some of the late 70s power pop sparkle, and shows how the Cassettes’ sometimes rough ‘n’ ready approach could have a timeless appeal.
‘Red Line Blue’ never rises beyond Boston bar rock by numbers, often sounding like Watts on half power, or an early Shoes number played by rote and with less enthusiasm. Any feelings of the band possibly phoning in their performance will soon pass, however, since repeated listens to this tune show that it offers plenty for extant fans. For starters, its mix of chopping guitars and retro organ swirls will certainly bring just enough to the table to make it a welcome addition to any decent playlist, whilst another valiant attempt at big harmonies suggests the band are pushing themselves for bigger sounds…even if the results aren’t always perfect. For anyone keen on the crashier end of power pop, there’s plenty about the brash ‘Wishing The Sun Away’ that’ll feel like an old friend almost straight off the bat. Huge chords collide with a hefty four-four beat; the nasal vocal on the chorus harkens back a couple of the Gigolo Aunts’ more raucous tunes and – eventually – the band’s trademark Stones/Replacements fixations cut through via a massive twangy lead guitar break. Almost everything here is great – there’s a real enthusiasm shining through the performance which makes up for any flat vocal moments and, for fans of the style, this recording will more than prove that a genuine heart can be so much more important (and exciting) than any amount of recording sheen or performance perfection.
Possessing more of that good heart, but not quite reaching full potential, ‘Endless Summer’ wheels out a Stones-ish riff, a natural vocal leaning towards the 90s Boston/Fort Apache scene, and a medium sized hook, all of which taps into Cheap Cassettes’ more direct retro rock and power pop influences. Unlike some of this album’s strongest tunes, it doesn’t quite have the intended impact due to be being played a little too slowly, and likewise, ‘Baby Don’t Get Weird’ would have sounded better with a bit more pace. That said, it shows off a brilliant live in the studio sound carried by a fantastic guitar tone, and flaunts a reasonable hook, and the very fact that even the weakest moments of this album are so much better than the bulk of ‘Anxiety’ shows how far the band have come – and how much more time has been applied to honing their craft, without losing those naturally rough edges. A very welcome bonus, the acoustic number ‘Cold Summer’ joins ‘Baby Don’t Get Weird’ in having a very live feel to the recording, and its stripped down sound makes you really feel as if you’re in the room with the musicians. The clarity of the performance pretty much captures the buzz of the guitar strings which compliments a very relaxed vocal throughout. There are hints of Pete Droge at his most reflective, but in the main, this really sounds like the Cheap Cassettes’ own tribute to the likes of Freedy Johnston. This homage to a time when quiet became the new loud more than suggests their best attempts at song-craft are strong enough to stand up without the distraction of flashy guitar parts and other unnecessary noise.
If you’re already familiar with Cheap Cassettes, you’ll no doubt be keen to give this album a listen, and approach the material with a very open ear. If the band are new to you, but you love all things with Replacements and Dogmatics overtones, there’s certainly something here that’ll appeal to you too. Just don’t expect perfection, and the band’s raw but focused charms will certainly become apparent in time.