MARC VALENTINE – Basement Sparks

If you believe a lot of the press Marc Valentine has gained over the couple of years prior to this album’s release, he’s been labelled as the great saviour for British power pop. It’s sort of understandable, considering that he’s not only dabbling in what’s essentially a very American sound, but also, he doesn’t really have too many UK based peers. There’s Portable Radio, of course, and a few others lurking within the true underground, but most British power poppers seem to be relics of a post punk boom; skinny tie wearing combos associated with 1979 episodes of Top of The Pops, and celebrated on Gary Crowley’s excellent Punk and New Wave box set of 2017.

Valentine’s core sound is a shameless throwback. For many, that’s seen as a welcome trait, and one listen to his ‘Basement Sparks’ LP of 2024 and it’s easy to hear why. Within seconds, ‘Complicated Sometimes’ has immediately hit the listener with a shiny pop melody akin to a more melodic Bowling For Soup, and Valentine has peppered the guitar driven pop with a few 80s synth-infused vocals. From there, he teases with a twin guitar melody that melds into the keys, and throws in a classic power pop riff that would suit any number of those late 70s practitioners. With the aid of a simple chorus hook, these two minutes – barely more – are a perfect nugget of Valentine’s retro charm. Opening into something broader, the overdriven guitar sound at the heart of ‘Tyrannical Wrecks’ owes a little more to the very early Wildhearts – it should be assumed that Marc’s love of early Cheap Trick is a mirror to Ginger’s own – but it’s quickly twisted into something more of the Marc Valentine mould with the aid of a slightly brattish vocal and a really crashy guitar part that’s a little more of the pop punk persuasion. Adding a punchy bass and a trashy chorus hook en route, it isn’t perhaps as melodic as some of the album’s best tunes, but it has a power and an energy that aims to make listeners jump up and down like loons with its feel good style.

In a slight change of mood, ‘Opening Chase Theme’ kicks off with a deeper guitar sound carrying a smidgeon of a garage rock tone, but it isn’t long before Marc’s love of pop begins to take over. First, he powers a strong verse with a mod-friendly rhythm which works very well against a thin sounding vocal that occasionally seems to be channelling The Wannadies’ Per Wiksten, and then adds a massive “na na na” for a chorus hook. If that hasn’t won you over, very little else on this album will. Valentine, however, isn’t taking any chances, and finishes the short and punchy track by adding a Cars-esque keyboard for that maximum retro factor. The fact that this sounds greater than the sum of it’s (very obvious) influences says a lot about Marc’s natural talent, whilst the slightly more pop punk derived ‘Repeat Offender’ casts a spotlight onto some great guitar work, particularly the way a bright sounding lead peppers a chunky rhythm between the verses. For the power pop purist, the chorus retreats into more of a melodic style, ensuring something that fits naturally between the other tracks. A brief sojourn into cod reggae suggests that, during the writing process, Valentine had overdosed on some of the classic power pop bands of yesteryear – when such a style was very much in vogue – but this twist feels very natural here. Overall, even with a few punchier moments, this is the kind of track that first time listeners could not only enjoy, but use as a gauge for Marc’s general talent.

Released as a single at the end of 2023, ‘Skeleton Key’ gives this album another solid track. It opens with a huge, crashy riff, augmented by muted guitar notes cutting through with a Morse-like urgency, immediately demanding the listeners’ attention. Moving into the meat of the number, a busy riff – almost adding an old school pop punk edge to the huge power pop – drives the song forward with speed, but extra layers of guitar are on hand with occasional Weezer-ish melodies and a few unexpected hard rock leads. Valentine, meantime, takes the huge melody in hand and adds a brilliantly breezy vocal that, once again, sounds a hell of a lot like Per Wiksten, which will certainly attract fans of 90s power pop with a relative ease.

With ‘I Wanna Be Alone’ exploring slightly more of a 70s melody throughout, the number allows Valentine an opportunity to experiment with a broader vocal without diluting his typical style too much, Another twin lead guitar applies an even bigger sound, supplying a great signifier of an artist who doesn’t always rely on the tried and tested. In case the shift in style wasn’t quite clear enough, he immediately follows that with the slow ‘3AM Anderson Drive’, a bigger foray into 70s pop where acoustic guitars and warm bass gives more of an AOR feel, and hints of Pilot and Steve Harley lurk beneath a melody that – surely by pure accident – occasionally borrows from an old Specials tune. In terms of experiencing Valentine flaunting a bigger set of influences, this is an important recording, even if it never quite feels like one of the most essential tracks on ‘Basement Sparks’.

One of the album’s biggest throwbacks, ‘Strange Weather’ immediately evokes the new wave sounds of 1980 but celebrates that with a punchier production. By opening with a broad, ringing guitar sound, Marc immediately vies for your attention, and latching onto a Tom Petty-ish vibe, his commitment to a retro style is very clear. However, in a more modern twist, the pop core of the track takes on the mantle of a Bowling For Soup classic, but this also suits the singer songwriter, more than admirably. Whether you find yourself attracted to its jubilant riff or a chorus absolutely dripping with alt-pop harmonies, it’s one of those numbers that really sticks after a couple of plays. It doesn’t quite muster the pure magic of his earlier Jellyfish-tastic ‘Jinx of Finchley Road’, but that actually says far more about how truly special that stand-alone single from 2023 actually sounded.

At the time of its release, ‘Basement Sparks’ has all of the hallmarks of a superb power pop record. Sure, its influences are often shared with the subtlety of a brick in the face, but Valentine’s easy gift for a big pop melody driven by chiming guitars shines through at every turn. The album’s best songs even sound like the kind of tunes that could later be found propping up a Cherry Red Records box set celebrating the cult power pop and melodic indie pop sounds of the early ’20s. It’s got that much of a great pedigree. Simply put, if you’ve spent years marvelling at the likes of Shoes, Jellyfish, the poppier end of The Posies, or even The Greenberry Woods, you’ll find a truckload of entertainment within the grooves of this LP. Don’t miss it!

March 2024