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« New York Stories | Main | A Tale of Two Modernisms »

January 09, 2005

Power Pop!

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I have had only limited success connecting with my sub-teen kids on music when I listen to the Mothers, Monk or Mozart, to say nothing of Eminem, whom I keep from them for the moment. I figure sooner or later they'll come along to less accessible stuff. There is, however, one genre of music that we can share, happily. That's power pop.

Do you listen to it or know much what it is? The way I see it, power pop is less a genre than a thread, a continuous line that runs between some of the most playful and spirited music of the past thirty or so years. The genre's base can be found in a couple of different strands: the percussive punchiness of the early Who (think: I Can See for Miles), the catchy melodicism of early to mid-career Beatles (think: No Reply), the jangly guitar harmonics of the Byrds (think: I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better) and the post-Four Freshmen vocalizations of the Beach Boys (think: The Warmth of the Sun).

Each of these groups, individually, either headed in different directions or stopped developing as time went on. The Who morphed into bombast and eventually helped lead to metal. The Byrds and its many offshoots (Gram Parsons, Burrito Brothers) pioneered the country rock genre. The Beach Boys ended its creative period with Brian Wilson's downturn. The Beatles just ended.

But what if you liked the music just as it was, and felt no need to morph that greatly? In that case, rather than worry over different development of separate creative artists with different ego needs, you'll simply mine the existing material, smooshing together the Byrds, Beatles, Beach Boys and Who (among others) to see what comes of the mix. And happily stay there.

And so it has been. Consider The Knack's My Sharona in the seventies. The Romantics, the Las or Marshall Crenshaw in the eighties. Or the collective output of Jellyfish in the nineties. They all tip their hats one way or another to Townsend, Wilson, McCartney, Lennon, McGuinn or others in an attempt to capture infectious good feeling in a short two to three minute time span.

Per the above, the genre is a very conservative one. Perhaps this accounts for why, despite being ignored for the most part by the critical establishment, power pop has been lauded in (of all places) National Review. And, in truth, it's as tight and uncompromising a little genre as film noir: under three minutes to create a mood and (usually) bounce through it happily.

My kids like it because it is supremely accessible. I like it for the same reason, and also as a break from less accessible music worth listening to for other reasons.

The development of power pop has been captured in a couple of different collections. There's a Poptopia series on CD, with collections for the seventies, eighties and nineties. There's also a (to my mind) superior collection entitled Yellow Pills, which comes in several volumes.

Individual artists? I really like Jellyfish, which put out two extremely engaging albums (if I may still use that word) in the mid-nineties, then disbanded. Of the current crop of contenders, there's the Merrymakers, a Swedish duo mining the territory between the Beatles and Jellyfish to good effect. I take it as a tribute that the Merrymakers CD, Bubblegun, has been in the car CD with mom and the kids for quite some time and no one has tired of it. Even pop likes it. We call him Power Pop.

Best,

Fenster

posted by Fenster at January 9, 2005




Comments

I'll be trying some of your suggestions, tks, although I'm feeilng even more out of it than usual. The entire '90s passed by and I never once heard of the Jellyfish? But I always loved the catchy 3 minute song a lot more than the more over-reaching pop stuff. What's not to appreciate in a short song that gives you a blast of "up" energy? I could never understand why this stuff wasn't more generally commercial. Can you explain that? I mean, Marshall Crenshaw, for instance. He had it all: hooks, humor, catchiness, likableness, melodies, beat. The whole package. Perfect AM teen pop, and stuff I'd have loved if I'd been a teen at the time. Yet unless I missed a major beat in pop-culture history, he was never anything more than cult figure. Why? It seems that pop these days has split between inanity on one end and mega-gloom-and-protest on the other. Anyway. Did you ever run across the Rubinoos? Another fave of mine. Mock-bubblegum popsters, a litle like Sha-na-na, only for bubblegum pop. Hilarious as parodists -- they had the cliches and haircuts down pat. The singer was a dreamboat, the lead guitarist was a guy in a striped t-shirt who wanted to play long solos ... And very appealing as pop songmakers too. "Hey, you, I wanna be your boyfriend" -- stuff like that. Blissfully bouncy, sweet and silly. I wonder if they qualify as power pop.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 10, 2005 12:32 AM



Nick Lowe! And who were those Britpunk Costello-ish guys who did "Tempted by the Fruit of Another"? Whew, the memory really is fading. Anyway, do they all qualify?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 10, 2005 1:05 AM



Techno is pretty cool and harmless.

Posted by: Steel Turman on January 10, 2005 3:23 AM



Alot of the power-pop groups cited here had serious melancholic work as well. a 1990s group that hovered in a tiny space between power pop and indie rock was Ben Folds Five- hailed in NRO by then very young writer Ben Domenech. Kate may be a perfect gem of the genre with its silly bridge "Na, Na, Na"s . The group tried to expand to rock opera level pomposity (with tongue still in cheek) on its last album- which though gorgeous musically was a partial commercial failure after their hit song "Brick" - perhaps the only top ten song ever about an abortion.

Posted by: Michael Brendan Doughety on January 10, 2005 3:35 AM



And who were those Britpunk Costello-ish guys who did "Tempted by the Fruit of Another"?

That would be Squeeze, who I think were known in the US as the UK Squeeze cos there was already an American band of that name.

I'm listening to a box set Rhino put out last year (must start think of 2004 in those terms) called Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the 80s Underground. It's not all power pop as such, although some of the tracks on it would qualify as that, but it makes me ask the same question you do regarding why this stuff never got beyond cult level. (For the most part, anyway; some of this stuff actually was very successful outside the US.) Maybe it's just a matter of time and distance, but with a few notable exceptions ("Bela Lugosi's Dead" and "Holiday in Cambodia" were never going to be chart-toppers), very little of the stuff on the box set sounds particularly alien. I can only assume some of this stuff didn't go bigger purely because the bands didn't have big enough record company support behind them, cos I don't find anything terribly uncommercial about a lot of it.

Posted by: James Russell on January 10, 2005 4:36 AM



Jellyfish!? Wow! Haven't heard that band bandied about in, oh, 10-11 years. One of those Critic's Darling bands with minimal sales. Thought I was one of the few with their "Spilt Milk" cd's. I'll have to dust it off and give it another listen. Hell, if Wilson's "Smile" can attain some popularity now, so should Jellyfish.
Mr. F.M., nice piece on constructing that rickety musical bridge to one's kids; it's a scary and forbidding land over on the other side.

Posted by: DarkoV on January 10, 2005 8:45 AM



If you're a Jellyfish fan, Fenster, you should score copies of Jon Brion's solo album, Meaningless, and/or Ro Sham Bo, the lone album put out by The Grays, a short-lived power-pop collective which shared some members with Jellyfish. And if you're really harcore, seek out the 4-CD Jellyfish post-mortem, Fan Club.

Posted by: Father Mason on January 10, 2005 9:38 AM



I do know that Ben Folds is still relatively big on college campuses. He'd rather be Todd Rundgren than Blly Joel which may explain why more people haven't heard of these acts!! A certain mindset about big popularity...

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2005 10:25 AM



Michael--not that I want to rub in the idea that you've lost touch with the popular culture, but it's not "the" Jellyfish, just Jellyfish.

In fairness, I am just as out of it as you are. It's just that the modern world provides the simulacrum of community that can provide an (artificial) way of figuring these things out. I am speaking of things like the old Napster and Amazon's "suggestion" or "list" feature. That's how I figured power pop out--I knew I liked a particular song and mined the Amazon "lists". Lots of people there posted their favorite power pop music and, between the snippets available on Amazon and on-line access, I was able to figure out that what I liked was a genre, and what composed the genre. Heck, I even spent real money buying real CDs!

Michael BD--the contrast between the bitter and the sweet can be quite effective. Harry Nilsson is not precisely power pop, but he was very good at jingly-jangly hooks. But here are the lyrics to his "Daddy's Song":

Daddy's Song

Years ago I knew a man
He was my mother's biggest fan
We used to walk beside the sea
And he'd tell how my life would be
When I grew up to be a man
Years ago we used to play
He used to laugh when I ran away
But when I fell and hurt my knee
He used to come and comfort me
And the pain would go away

Years ago I knew a boy
He was his daddy's pride and joy
But when the daddy went away
It was such a rainy day
That he brought out all his toys
Now the momma did explain
Trying to take away the pain
He just couldn't understand
That his father was not a man
And it all was just a game

Years have passed and so have I
Making it hard to cry
And if and when I have a son
Let it all be said and done
Let all that sadness pass him by
------------------

All done is a frothy, sing-songy way.


James and Michael B: That's Squeeze all right. If you like "Tempted" you might be able to spend 99 cents on some other individual songs, since I find Squeeze a little uneven. I like "Black Coffee in Bed" and "Hourglass".

Father M--I have the Grays CD--a worthy Jellyfish spin-off. Jon Brion seems to be getting his moment in the sun, too, nowadays. He got one of those NPR stories on him, and seems to be active in film scoring. I have heard several tracks from that solo effort and may now track it down, thanks. I haven't chosen to spring for the big bucks for the Jellyfish box--I'm not that addicted to out-takes.

Annette--Todd is God!

Posted by: fenster on January 10, 2005 11:25 AM



Shameless self-promotion warning. Power-pop is alive and well in Boston:

www.scamper.net

Thank you for your attention.

Posted by: Brendan on January 10, 2005 2:17 PM



Now that I am almost 40, I find it a bit disconcerting to really get into music by artists in their early 20s, but two recent Pop tunes I highly recommend for their infectious energy are:

"Somebody Told Me" by the Killers
and
"Take Me Out" by Franz Ferdinand.

Unfortunately the rest of the albums do not come close to the strength of the singles [Yes, I bought the CDs...]

Paul

Posted by: Paul Worthington on January 10, 2005 2:49 PM



Oh, Squeeze is not to be missed for power-pop goodness. Their recording career was very uneven, as mentioned above, but the album "Argybargy" is hard to beat. "East Side Story", their next, is also good, but tends to slow the tempos down. I disliked the turn that most of their music (and that of their core, Difford and Tilbrook) took after that, but I'm told that the later album "Frank" was a bit of return to form. I'll have to try it.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 10, 2005 2:49 PM



Seconds on the Squeeze and Nick Lowe ("Cruel To Be Kind" is the very definition of power pop) but I've got to throw out a plug for Fountains of Wayne. They live for nothing more than to carry on that great Cars/Cheap Trick 70's pop legacy and "Welcome Interstate Managers" was one of last year's most entertaining albums.

Posted by: Scott D on January 10, 2005 3:05 PM



Ha, Jellyfish. I knew the keyboardist, Roger manning, in high school, very talented guy, now plays with Beck. Um, that's it.

Posted by: sac on January 10, 2005 3:07 PM



Brendan! Whoa! A real power popper right here at 2Blowhards!

"Sophie" is terrific. It's got all the pieces.

FYI I just bought "Leave Your Glasses On".

So cool, I gettin' in touch with da kultcha.

Posted by: Fenster on January 10, 2005 3:42 PM



Fenster! You're a Todd-is-God guy?? Who knew? I actually like Todd Rundgren very much. Just one victory, baby...

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2005 4:26 PM



Squeeze, that's it. I was once a fan. Amazing what a couple of decades of not following a field can do to your memory of it. I haven't followed any kind of pop music since circa 1984. Held on a little longer where Costello and David Byrne were concerned, but gave up on them too. Everything since is a big empty space to me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 11, 2005 1:26 AM



If what one is looking for in power pop is an accessible musical energy pill more than any musical merit, a few numbers by the Hoodoo Gurus, such as "What's My Scene"& "Miss Freelove '69" or Cheap Trick's "Surrender" (unless "accessible" automatically includes kid-friendly)are hard to beat. I've been a fan of power pop for years & didn't know it... I've always called it "workout music."

Posted by: baldcypress on January 11, 2005 1:46 AM



Hey Fenster,

Thanks for the compliments and buying the CD. Support your local power popsters!

Posted by: Brendan on January 11, 2005 9:52 AM



I had to read through all the above comments to make sure nobody else had recommended it, but the perfect power pop album is Matthew Sweet's early 90s "Girlfriend". He's still around, but never really delivered on the promise of this amazing album.

Posted by: Michael on January 11, 2005 9:55 AM



Michael:

Glad you mentioned that. The cut "I've Been Waiting" off that album by Matthew Sweet is often trotted out as a power pop examplar, and I like it a lot. If the whole album is that good, I am off to Amazon.

Posted by: fenster on January 11, 2005 11:45 AM



I'd also like to submit some other recent artists who could be wedged into the Powerpop thread/genre with "Fountains of Wayne":

- Pink - her rock stuff, not her ersatz hiphop
- The Darkness - they are a squishy but fun reincarnation of Queen
- Jason Mraz - Floats between singer/songwriter troubadour and powerpop guy, one of the songs on "Waiting for My Rocket to Come" sounds like Chicago - he's got it all, really.
- U2 - yeah, U2. "Vertigo" off of their latest is the definition of powerpop.
- Jet - kind of a cross between "The Knack" and "The Ramones"
- Smash Mouth - though their last album didn't really register with a larger audience
- Scissor Sisters

There's more out there, probably, but the current implosion of the radio and music industry makes them hard to find. I still think things will right themselves within three years, and we'll be back to having listenable radio - but that just may be the optimist in me talking.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 11, 2005 1:04 PM



I have mixed emotions about MP3 Blogs [intellectual property issues, don'cha know], but today brings a pair of MP3 postings relevant to the discussion here:

First, "Scenestars" -- http://scenestars.net/2005/01/grays-friend-of-mine.php -- posts four tracks from The Grays out-of-print album. Meanwhile, "The Stypod" (the MP3 blog of Stylus Magazine) posts a live recording of Jon Brion performing Radiohead's "Creep" [Radiohead could have turned into a fine power pop band if only they weren't so darned depressed, eh?] . . . in the style of Tom Waits, here: http://www.stylusmagazine.com/ipod/archive/001466.html

Posted by: George Wallace on January 11, 2005 4:53 PM



Matthew Sweet recently came out with an album called Kimi Ga Suki. If you're a harmony freak this is as good an introduction to his music as any. He also continues his blending of dark lyrics with happy sounding music.

Posted by: Mark on January 11, 2005 9:47 PM



Oh my what a good topic. I could go on and on. But let us just throw a few handfulls of mardi gras trinkets from the float and keep moving -- but don't try to eat them! They are made of EAR CANDY ...

OK -- Puffy">http://www.puffyamiyumi.com/">Puffy Amiyumi. Very nice, catchy pop songs, with many arch references to other peoples songs ("Jet Police" is the almost "Won't Get Fooled Again", etc.) but the wiseguyishness never gets in the way of the yummy candy coating or the nougat filled center. The compilation "Illustrated History" is a nicens wee introduction oh my brothers, so betakest thyself to thy web-vendor and click on buy

May I say The Muffs? Yes, some punk rockish screaming. But. The brainlatching tunes, the little songlike lead guitar parts, Kim's idiosyncratic singing with its peeps and snarls -- "End it All" or "Sad Tomorrow" or the title song from the new one "Really, Really Happy" are all mighty fine pop. One really cannot go wrong with them. The Muffs are meant to loved.

The too little known 6X have a small masterpiece called "What Can I Do?"here (scroll down). (The others are good too.) (Oh Lara Kiang, please come back!)

And we may not in good conscience pass over that sometime worker of pop miracles, Lisa Marr, of Cub, Buck, The Beards, The Lisa Marr Experiment and who knows what-all else. Go here, scroll down and listen to "Sidewalks" -- so sweet, so wistful, the worthy successor of Walk Away Renee or Don't Worry Baby. Temblors may yet shake our slumbering continent -- the stars are coming into course and the long-foretold solo album from her may emerge to slay us with happiness in -05 .

And looking back in time, I see the misty mountain peaks of pop past -- Sixpence None the Richer touching (once, only once) the empyrean with "There She Goes", and that luscious concoction "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles (Oh wuh oh wuh) and yet farther back -- yes! I dare to say it! I, a straight man! -- SOS by ABBA (that which no greater pop song has ever graced our ears) and "Sister Golden Hair" by America, that silken perfection as 60s guitar pop quivered on the brink of easy listening, but before the fall and barely glimpsed in the distance the sky-huge range of the heartland of the pop Gods THE SIXTIES: "Downtown" and "Waterloo Sunset" and "When You Walk in the Room" and and Oh one could wander soul-smitten amongst those vales of song forever

Posted by: Lexington Green on January 11, 2005 10:15 PM



About a year ago I bought Pet Sounds (I'm 31 and somehow missed out on the Beach Boys as a child) and after devouring the album I found myself on a power pop tear. I picked up the following based on Amazon Listmania recommendations:

Teenage Fanclub - Songs From Northern Britain (one of the brightest albums I've ever heard; all of their albums are worth owning actually)

Merrymakers - Bubblegun (you already mentioned it but I thought I'd list it again)

Tripping Daisy - Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb (think power pop on acid; has "Sonic Bloom", a song that can't help but bring a smile to your face)

Velvet Crush - Teenage Symphonies to God (not outstanding, but contains some great songs)

I love how discussions about music bring certain people out of the woodworks; I'm sure you'll find yourself swamped with recommendations. Do give Teenage Fanclub a try though. If you like the Merrymakers, I think you'll love Songs From Northern Britain. It's not as poppy, but it's upbeat, and the harmonies are fantastic.

Posted by: Brian on January 11, 2005 10:16 PM






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