BOB DYLAN

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BOB DYLAN Together Through Life (Sony/Columbia)

“You are as whorish as ever,” growls Bob Dylan in a backhanded compliment, before going to reference Jim Morrison: “Baby, you can start a fire.” Who else but Dylan can shape a line so sardonically earnest?

Dylan has made a strong case for being one of the most important and influential poetic voices of the 20th century, but rarely has his singing voice been given the same attention. A pity, because on Together Through Life, his 33rd studio album, Dylan sings with a compelling verve one hasn’t heard from him in over a decade, maybe two.

Granted, the years have taken their toll, and the octaves have gone off on his voice, but let’s face it. Bob Dylan has never been, and never will be a pretty singer. Even in his youth, Dylan strove to sound older than he really was, giving him a unique tone that would define his early work. Nearly four decades later, the circle is now complete; with the endless gravity only age can give present in every syllable of Dylan’s well worn voice.

The album kicks off with the devastated Tex Mex wheeze of Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, which sets the tone for the rest of the record with its accordion leads and the way Dylan transforms rather ordinary love song lyrics into an extraordinary lament. Life Is Hard, the spiritual sire of this record, is a slow but moving confession of remorse and defeat. Similarly, Forgetful Heart is a banjo-driven country tale of sorrow and weighed down memories. This is Dylan penning poetry of regret. The lyrics might have been co-written with poet and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, but the nuanced emotions that stoke the slow-burning flames of every song are more Zimerman than Hunter.

That’s not to say that Together Through Life is a confessional record in the vein of Blood On The Tracks. In its unabashed embrace of the Chicago blues and rusted desert songs of old, Life has more in common with 1969’s Nashville Skyline or 1989’s Oh Mercy. Nowhere is the 50s blues influence more prominent than on tracks  like the lusty Jolene, with its driving Chicago John Lee Hooker shuffle that keeps the record trotting along.

Dylan returns to ballad mode with the decent This Dream Of You, but it is on the anthemic I Feel A Change Comin’ On that he really nails it. Over an upbeat blues pattern and superb guitar work by Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, Dylan smoothly ties together personal and political imagery to paint a picture of modern-day America, torn between hope and despair. It’s a civil anthem one hasn’t heard from him since his days of aping Woody Guthrie, but now the epic detachedness has been replaced with a tender first person narrative that expresses everything from hope at Obama’s administration to the massive resentment and envy caused by the Recession. The record closes on the social observation of Its All Good, with Dylan spitting out a list of calamities drenched heavily in something straddling in between hopeful optimism and cynical sarcasm.

Of course, there are throwaway fillers here and there like My Wife’s Home Town and Shake Shake Mama, but part of Dylan’s rascal charm is his genuine ability to surprise. After the sprawling Modern Times, a record like this was probably far from everyone’s expectations. Dylan knows that. But he also knows that he is a man with the “blood of the land” in his voice, and that it’s a voice that will continue to capture audiences for years to come, lost octaves be damned.

(Samuel C Wee)

KEVIN HEARN AND THINBUCKLE

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KEVIN HEARN AND THINBUCKLE Havana Winter (Celery Music)

Hearn, better known as a member of Canadian band Barenaked Ladies, sings and writes the songs, co-produces the album, plays piano, guitar and keyboards. *Whew* You’d think that it sounds like a lot of work.

But the truth is the music on Havana Winter is anything but workmanlike or mundane. There is unmistakable verve about the songwriting where inspirations are taken from every possible genre, mixing and matching and delivered with impeccable musicianship.

In many ways, Kevin Hearn and Thinbuckle remind me of Steely Dan and yes, that’s a high compliment. Of course, Hearn & Co are closer to the pop pole of the spectrum rather than jazz and that’s a deadly combination.

For example, On the Runway, with its bright clipped guitars, Beach Boys’ backing vocals and prog-guitar solo. Or Reeling with its atmospheric Blue Nile-channeling melancholia. Or the gorgeous piano ballad Luna with its wistful tone.

Take your pick – the songs resonate with emotion and intelligence. Like I said, a deadly combination.

But the band knows how to up the pace as well (ever so slightly) – with the upbeat Huntsville, CA with its Lennonesque inflections and the early 60s vibe of In the Shade recalling the late Del Shannon.

A very satisfying aural experience. For those who like their pop smart and dense!

Official Site

Myspace

SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFE

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Anyone out there remember the Asian financial crisis of late 1997? It was my first real experience of an economic recession and by early 1998 it had hit really hard, resulting in a pay cut and general gloom all around. The Pernice Brothers’ debut Overcome By Happiness was released on Sub Pop that same year and it just seemed to express everything I felt during that melancholy year.

“You don’t feel so overcome by happiness/You’re broke/Do you think you might scrape your life together just in/Time to find you’ve got no piece of mind (Overcome By Happiness)

“Its a long way to fall/When you find out how it never was/Its a long way to fall/When you find out it never happened at all” (Crestfallen)

And it didn’t hurt when the music enveloping these fine lyrics resonated with the echoes of Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, the Bee Gees and the Beach Boys.

Lead singer and principal songwriter Joe Pernice has consistently produced great pop albums since then and expect a review of his latest effort soon.

…still there’s more…

MICHAEL GROSS AND THE STATUETTES

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MICHAEL GROSS AND THE STATUETTES Dusk & Daylight EP (Self released)

Michael Gross and The Statuettes is Michael Gross (vocals, guitar), James Kelly (guitar), Matthew Glass (drums, keys), Benjamin Johnson (bass) and Aaron Hubbard (keys).

I really liked the EP, and it is very likable and accessible, with catchy tunes and feel-good lyrics. There were songs on the EP that sounded a bit like Matt Costa and early The Ataris, which was a bonus for me because I grew up listening to them.

My favourite tracks on the EP would have to be Novocaine and Stone Face, which reveal the lyrical prowess of the band. I have to say that the EP is rather old school 70s pop-rock, so it might not appeal to indie rock set. However, it’s definitely worth a listen, especially for folks who dig melodic rock ‘n’ roll served the old fashioned way.

(Rebecca Lincoln)

Official website

Myspace.

ANOTHER SUNDAY AFTERNOON

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ANOTHER SUNDAY AFTERNOON The Uncanny Tree of Fractured Hearts (Self-released)

Recently there has been a little spike in the number of new S-ROCK releases. Not only that but these albums have been packaged as books and have been presented as concept albums. A case of great minds thinking alike or industrial espionage? So is it all a coincidence? Matters not as it represents boom time charlie for S-ROCK fans as Concave Scream, the Observatory, the Fire Fight and now, Another Sunday Afternoon make their respective marks with works that simply cannot be ignored.

Another Sunday Afternoon viz. Caleb Lye, Elf Seah and Xu Zhiwei, is a band I first came to know of at a gig at Plaza Singapura back in early 2007 (which turned out to be Popland’s final performance, that never was) and I was particularly struck by the melodicism of their music, which as regular PoP visitors will no doubt be aware, is a quality I hold highly.

Two and a half years later, I’m happy to note that the band’s debut album does not detract from that first impression with 14 songs that focus strongly on melody. Not only that, but with a reference list that includes the likes of Silverchair, Feeder, Fountains of Wayne, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Manic Street Preachers, Pearl Jam etc, it’s clear that the music of the 90s figures prominently as well. And with all the 80s post punk referencing around, that alone is refreshing.

Music-wise, The Uncanny Trees of Fractured Hearts is fairly easy listening, radio-friendly fare which does not quicken the pulse too much. Which makes me to believe that if most of the radio-listening populace of Singapore (and beyond) give this album a chance, they might find several of these tunes worming their way (insidiously) into their hearts. Songs like Janet Leno, The Great Excuse, When You’re Back, High and Staggersaurus will probably inspire mass sing-a-longs with the kind of over-arching mellifluousness that the pop-loving hordes would adore. Not only that but there are a few gorgeous piano ballads on show which in my book is the sign of a confident songwriter.

Of course, there are moments where the band try to show that they can rock out as well, with the Muse-channeling …Fall For You on which Caleb demonstrates his fret-wielding gifts and the indie rockin’ Playground (penned by Daniel Sassoon) but really by and large, this album is more reflective and contemplative than head banging. Which is all fine by me.

Which makes The Uncanny Tree of Fractured Hearts the perfect “come-down” soundtrack for another Sunday afternoon (pun intended) and whilst it is definitely more a slow burn grower than an immediate home run, there is much to be gleaned from its nuances, candences and hidden treasures.

Myspace.

WILCO

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WILCO Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)

After the esoteric experimental exercises of Yankee Foxtrot Hotel and A Ghost Is Born, I was very satisfied by Wilco’s return to basics with Sky Blue Sky, which contained some of the warmest material the band has ever produced. So when the release of seventh album – Wilco (the Album) – was announced, the big question was which direction would Wilco take?

Well, glad to report that Wilco has chosen the middle path with the new album, retaining the old school classicism of Sky Blue Sky and mixing it up with free-spirited experimentalism. You might say that Wilco (the Album) is Jeff Tweedy and co’s White Album.

Thus on the opening four tracks (viz. Wilco (the song), Deeper Down, One Wing, Bull Black Nova) Wilco reveals their game plan – razor sharp melodies, classic pop-rock references, studio sound effects and first rate instrumentation/arrangement. Astutely constituted in the midst of recording with the studio used as an extra instrument, Wilco (the Album) has aspirations of being a rock masterpiece of the calibre of Who’s Next or Something/Anything.

The rest of Wilco (the Album) covers diverse grounds, including rustic folk-rock (You And I – a duet between Tweedy and Feist), Todd Rundgren-channeling soul-pop (You Never Know), Dylanesque conceit (Country Disappeared), alt-country-folk (Solitaire), cheesey 60s bop (I’ll Fight), edgy post-punk (Sonny Feeling) and piano ballad (Everlasting Everything).

Something for every sophisticated lover of mature pop-rock. Does Wilco (the Album) conclusively establish Wilco (the band) as the band of this decade? Based on the evidence, it’s an argument that’s pretty hard to refute.

SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFE

Starting a new feature where I highlight some music that made an impression on my life. Music that soundtracked my existence, you might say.

In the 90s, alternative rock got a shot in the arm from the success of Nirvana, whose melodic crunch was labelled (crassly) as grunge. However, it would probably be more accurate to say that Nirvana were closer to being a powerpop band than a metal band with influences that included, amongst others, the Beatles and Neil Young.

Post-grunge, the alternative rock scene threw up many great like-minded great bands who were deft at combining catchy tunes with muscular guitar rock. Even as I revisit this heady music for a new project band, I am discovering how special that rock epoch truly was and I hope that this new feature will inspire you to check out these fine bands and their essential albums.

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TEENAGE FANCLUB Grand Prix (Creation, 1995)

No doubt in my mind that Grand Prix was the creative peak of the Fannies where their tremendous potential finally became reality. Melodies, harmonies, chiming & crunching guitars were the order of the day. Almost perfect. Highlights – Don’t Look Back (the opening guitar lines still gives me chills), Neil Jung (geddit? Possibly the one of the best Shakey tributes out there), Tears (thrilling blue-eyed soul) and Discolite (Gerard Love really has a way with tunes).

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DINOSAUR JR Where You Been (Sire, 1993)

Talk about tributes to Neil Young! With the hype surrounding “grunge” in the early 90s, how J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr remained fairly below the radar is beyond me. Where You Been was Dinosaur Jr’s 5th album and probably among their most commerically successful albums. Highlights – Start Choppin’ (when the guitar solo begins to soar halfway through – heaven!), What Else Is New? (probably the closest Dinosaur Jr gets to a pure pop song, with the fretwork kicking ass!), Not the Same (an epic ballad no less, where the spectre of Neil Young looms largest) and Out There (the anthemic opener).

Well, that’s just the first instalment.

…still there’s more…

GET BACK LORETTA

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GET BACK LORETTA Where Did You Go? EP (Pacific)

Get Back Loretta does exactly what it says on the tin…in the fact that what is said on the tin is taken from a Beatles song title. To say that Oasis ripped off The Beatles has always been a matter of debate (more so for me as no one mentions the shameless T Rex part of that rip off). If critics insist that the lads from Manchester ripped off The Beatles, then Get Back Loretta may as well be a tribute band. It is impossible to listen to opening track When You Notice without noticing (did you see what I did there?) that these guys wear their ‘we really really love The Beatles’ badges warmly on their sleeves.

The trouble is as you delve deeper into the San Diego’s six track Where Did You Go? you begin to hear even deeper influences, to the point where you are stumbling around, confused from one point of reference to the next and you have to stop and ask yourself, is this the beauty of this band? I cannot lie to you, despite my initial dismissal of this band, I started to like them. At one point I was hearing Queen, the next Radiohead were making an appearance, but all along this is mixed so beautifully together to form Get Back Loretta. It is almost as if the band have spread their record collection out in front of you in music form, but done it in such an original way that you cannot dislike them for it.

What this forms is a purely rock album, I hate to use that term but there is no other way around it. It is so straight forward and direct in only a way that a rock band can be. You can tell this band love writing, love playing together and want you to feel as much a part of the experience as they are. When You Notice bounces along, stashed away in the seventies but peaking over the brow of the modern hill with a cheeky smile. Grown so Cold shuffles it’s feet along the stage and tips it’s hat to the audience. We then move on into the amazing title tack Where Did You Go? with a deep, solid bass line and a chorus that refuses to leave you hours after listening to it. Mrs Miller has a lead riff that you swear you have heard before but you will never place it and finally everything comes to a close with a jig in Lottie Dottie. It really seems to skip by that quickly but that is part of the whole experience of Where Did You Go?, it passes you by before you have even noticed and is on another trip around much sooner than you had expected.

I honestly recommend this album to anyone purely to have the fun of listening to it and picking out who you can hear. That is not an insult to Get Back Loretta at all, I mean who or what is original anymore? Who does not lend from the artists who have inspired them in the first place? The difference is some do it purely because they cannot come up with something more. This is not the case with Get Back Loretta, they have pulled together all the best bits and mixed it into their own sound.

(Adam Gregory)

Myspace

CHRIS CORNELL

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CHRIS CORNELL Scream (Mosley Music/Interscope)

Frankly, I only know Chris Cornell as the rock singer who fronted popular bands like grunge superstars Soundgarden and Audioslave. Guess I should have realized that the cover image of Cornell smashing a guitar was a metaphor for the album’s music as well. Of course, the other clue is the fact that Scream is produced by Timbaland!

Thus, the guitar is conspiciously absent from this predominantly electronic effort as Cornell and Timbaland explores a sound that can probably be best described as hip-hop-rock. Which to these ears is pretty mainstream and should appeal to a broad range of listeners, bringing in new fans without alienating the existing fanbase.

Personally, I appreciate a good hybrid of electronic pop and rock styles and Cornell’s excellent voice does manage to ease rockist tendencies into considering alternatives. The music is edgy in parts but a little bit too synthesized for my taste though I appreciate the effort Cornell has expended to forge a different sound. Call it a failed experiment then.

Check out Chris Cornell’s Myspace page.

CHRIS COLLINGWOOD – LIVE IN SINGAPORE

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Dreams do come true! Sometime in 2008, I posted an event on Facebook for my performance (with the Groovy People) at Rock the Sub. I got a bit of a shock when Chris Collingwood (the voice of power pop legends Fountains of Wayne) wrote on the event wall that he would love to play in Singapore!

Well, in about 5 weeks’ time, Collingwood will in fact be playing in Singapore at Baybeats 2009 on the 29th of August to be precise. And if that wasn’t exciting enough, yours truly will be backing Chris playing rhythm guitar and singing backing vox! Yes! Really!

Let’s just say that I have been a big fan of FOW since their gorgeous eponymous album was released in 1996 – the one with the kid playing Superman holding his pet bunny – and I can barely wrap my head around the fact that I will be on stage with Chris playing great songs like Radiation Vibe, Sick Day (my favorite!), Red Dragon Tattoo and Stacy’s Mom!

So, stay tuned as Power of Pop begins its countdown to Baybeats 2009, with special emphasis on my experiences with Chris in the coming weeks! Oh by the way, rounding up the band are Eugene Wee and Desmond Sim out of S-ROCK legends The Lilac Saints!

Check out my review of FOW’s third album, Welcome Interstate Managers, which I wrote a few years back. Still there’s more.

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Ten tracks into this, the third and latest album from Adam Schlesinger, Chris Collingwood and company, Fountains of Wayne delivers a truly incandescent pop moment with the ‘70s soft-rock evoking “Halley’s Waitress.” With the inspirations of Burt Bacharach and the Carpenters trailing in its wake, “Halley’s Waitress,” with its baroque piano, poignant string arrangement, vibes and theme of wistful regret, represents the rare indications of heart (rather than mind) dictating the Fountains Of Wayne pop agenda.

This superior mood and tone is mirrored in the folky “Hackensack” and the balladic Fire Island, not to mention the radio-friendly “All Kinds of Time.”

Not that the band’s trademark driving sunshine pop-rock doesn’t in itself justify a recommendation. It’s just that I’ve always felt that this particular kind of Cheap Trick meets Pixies melodic crunch has been better served up by the likes of Weezer and Grandaddy. Worse still when juvenile urges are indulged with the rather distasteful “Stacy’s Mom” – imagine a much creepier “Jesse’s Girl,” where instead of lusting after another guy’s girlfriend, this time it’s your girlfriend’s erm mother – although I presume it’s done as a parody but why go there at all?

That aberration apart, the songwriting duo’s knack for stitching together vivid novelettes ala Ray Davies remains intact. The working class dilemma is outlined in tracks like “Mexican Wine” – “I used to fly for United Airlines/Then I got fired for reading High Times,” “Bright Future in Sales” – “I had a line on a brand new account/But now I can’t seem to find/Where I wrote that number down” and “Little Red Light” – “Stuck in a meeting on a Monday night/trying to get the numbers to come out right.” Even happier to report that the boys’ sense of humour is not lost in songs like the bizarre action-replay paean “All Kinds Of Time,” which simply describes an American Football TV scene, “No Better Place” with “Is that supposed to be your poker face/Or was someone run over by a train” and “Hey Julie” which illustrates the mundanity of the working stiff – “Working all day for a mean little man/With a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan.”

Hailed years ago as the Great White Hope of power pop, Fountains of Wayne do not disappoint with Welcome Interstate Managers, clocking in at 55-plus minutes and 16 tracks, discerning pop fans will relish every nuance and every lick. Indispensable.

ZALLEN

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ZALLEN Eclectica (Self-released)

Two sides to every coin. Whilst advances in recording technology have meant cheaper costs and the inevitable deluge of music recordings out there, the flip side is that it has also allowed talented musicians to deliver great music without having to relying on loan sharks (i.e. major labels) to graciously provide financing for the proverbial “arm and leg”. Yes, that does mean that for every 100 pieces of crap, you may get one album of worthwhile music but its worth the discovery. And that’s where the Power of Pop comes in…

So… may I introduce to you, loyal visitors, Zallen, a one-man recording machine, who has a few albums under his belt and continues to deliver listenable pop-rock in the classic old-school fashion, that is, with melodicism and imagination. Zallen’s new album – Eclectica – naturally lives up to its name, encompassing mid-70s orch pop ala ELO, late 70s Bowie, early post-punk Talking Heads, 80s-era XTC and maybe even 90s Britpop-styled Blur.

What is astonishing is that Zallen records all instruments/tracks (save for drum programming) live into 24-track digital recorder. Believe me, as a musician and recording artist myself, this is an amazing achievement as each song is brilliantly performed, arranged and produced.

With 14 tracks to suit every pop-rock taste, Eclectica is a dream come true for all lovers of pop music, done the way it should be. After all, even the great Tony Visconti (who produced legendary records for T.Rex and Bowie) is a Zallen fan and frankly, I can’t think of a stronger recommendation than that. Except perhaps, mine…

Check out Zallen’s Myspace page.

Eclectica is available at CDBaby.

AIMEE MANN LIVE IN SINGAPORE

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I recently wrote a review of David Mead’s excellent new album and lamented how difficult it is for sophisticated pop songwriters to earn their keep in the superficial modern rock scene. Well, Aimee Mann has certainly faced her fair share of challenges since she left 80s band ‘Til Tuesday in 1990. Releasing her first two albums (Whatever and I’m With Stupid) to critical acclaim but relatively weak sales, she was released from her contract with Geffen who were indifferent about third album, Bachelor No. 2, which she subsequently self-released under her own label, Superego.

Fortunately, director Paul Thomas Anderson was introduced to Mann’s music via husband Michael Penn and composer Jon Brion (Brion who has also scored Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch-Drunk Love & I Heart Huckabees, was once a member of seminal powerpop band, the Grays!) and featured Mann’s songs prominently in the Magnolia soundtrack (starring Tom Cruise). This brought Mann the public attention her talent deserved.

Since then, Mann has had the luxury of creative freedom with subsquent albums Lost in Space and The Forgotten Arm, establishing Mann as one of the foremost singer-songwriters of this epoch.

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Mann’s latest album, @#%&*! Smilers, is a collection of character vignettes written from the perspective of a novelist or journalist but rendered in song form. The title itself is a rather cynical comment on our current smiley culture and people who are always “up”! The music covers a wide range of pop-rock styles from folk to country to piano ballad to pop and hearkens back really to the 70s singer-songwriter era. Overall, the album is fairly introspective but not downbeat, with most of the tracks not intended to quicken the pulse with the lyrical concepts given room to breathe.

My favorite song is the opening Cars-channelling Freeway with its hilarious line, “Where everyone’s a doctor or a specialist in retail/They’ll sell you all the speed you want, if you can take the blackmail”. Heh. The soaring Looking for Nothing comes close with a look at a girl with no thoughts of the future – “Just spend the money I made/I ain’t gotta do nothing today”.

The rest of @#%&*! Smilers retains that lyrical bite whilst exploring diverse pop-rock agendas. Not for casual pop listeners, Aimee Mann is highly recommended for anyone who is serious about pop music as an artform (which means you, faithful PoP visitor!).

More info on Aimee Mann –

Official Website

Myspace

So get your tickets for Aimee’s Singapore show here.

ALMOST CHARLIE

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ALMOST CHARLIE The Plural of Yes (Words On Music)

There are a few things that a casual listener should take note of, concerning German band, Almost Charlie.

First, singer-composer Dirk Homuth possesses a nasal vocal style that is borrowed heavily from the late great John Lennon. Uncannily so, in fact.

Second, lyricist Charlie Mason is not part of the band and in fact has never even met Homuth before! These song collaborations have been carried out over the internet. What will they think of next?

Music-wise, Almost Charlie (oh, I get it now!) parlays a chamber-folk-pop sensibility that is pleasant enough without being too deeply affecting. I suppose you could make comparisons between the musical approach here and the Beatles’ own folk-pop excursions on Rubber Soul & Revolver. Or you could easily discern references pointing to another late great, Mr Elliot Smith.

Overall, the vibe one gets from The Plural of Yes is a likable evocation of Beatles circa 1965, and if you’re into that era then this album is for you. Simply put, good music for those melancholy rainy Sunday afternoons.

Check out the band’s Myspace page.

A clip of a lively rendition of Leaving is Easy follows…

PoP ESSENTIALS

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PoP Essentials. Yes, a new series where I will try to explain why I love the music that I do and what Power of Pop is about. A cliff notes to understanding the sometimes incomprehensible gibberish that I try to pass off as music reviews. And of course, it begins with The Beatles…

Growing up, my favorites Beatles album was the so-called White album. For me, this double LP encapsulated everything I loved about the Beatles – the melodicism, the cutting-edge experimentalism, the eclectic styles, the sense of humor and the moments of odd weirdness.

In recent times, critics have complained that the vaunted Beatles quality control on White album was absent as the Fab Four ran amok in the studio, citing examples like The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, Don’t Pass Me By, Why Don’t We Do It On The Road and Rocky Raccoon. Or that the White album should have been released as a single instead of a double LP.

Personally, I think the White album is perfect as it is. Like most Beatles albums, it is easily listened from beginning to the end but what is extra special is that there is more to go around. Even George Harrison gets four songs (all winners) – the dynamic While My Guitar Gently Weeps (with Clapton on guitar solo, no less), the tongue-in-cheek(y) Piggies, and the quirky love tones of Long, Long, Long & the ode to candy that is Savoy Truffle.

John Lennon – who would be somewhat overshadowed by Paul McCartney in the latter years – is in fine fettle here. Providing singularly idiosyncratic music – with topics ranging from insomnia (I’m So Tired), Beatle in-jokes (Glass Onion), his mother (Julia), blues parody (Yer Blues), the Maharishi (Sexy Sadie), silly lullaby (Good Night) and the political times (Revolution No. 1). Instant classics each one. And with the arty-farty promptings of Yoko, managed to include the experimental sound collage – Revolution No. 9 – on side 2 of disc two.

For Paul McCartney, the de facto leader of the group after Brian Epstein’s demise, the White album showcased the qualities that would put him in good stead for the next ten years and beyond with Wings and as a solo artist. Songs like Back in the USSR, Birthday and Helter Skelter highlighted Paul, the rock ‘n’ roller whilst songs like Martha My Dear, I Will and Blackbird proved that Paul would always be the one with the pleasing melodies.

As is apparent from the above, by this time, the Beatles were a group in name only and the songs were treated almost as solo projects. Ironically, the White album stands up as the ultimate peak of Beatles music-making both critically and commercially. Within two years, Paul McCartney would file for dissolution of the Beatles.

SINGAPORE 60S

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VARIOUS ARTISTS 100 Greatest Singapore 60s: The Definitive Collection (Universal)

In the introduction to this lavish 5CD set, the writer declares (and laments?) – “This five-cd box set of Philips Sixties depicts a time in Singapore’s pop music history when the universal fever for pop also reverberated here and the breadth of styles and music played here reflects that diversity. Perhaps a feat never to be repeated.”

Ironically, of course, the Singapore music scene is undergoing a mini-revival at the moment, with many local bands playing regularly both home and abroad and a multitude of albums & Eps seeing release. Of course, none of these bands are household names in the same way their 60s counterparts were. But still, its a good time for this collection to see light of day to remind bands and fans alike of the days that used to be.

The music is mainly culled from recordings made in the mid-60s, at a time when the Philips label was making inroads in establishing itself as a regional music label. With bands like Naomi & the Boys, The Crescendos, the Cyclones and the Thunderbirds delivering local interpretations of the melodic rock ‘n’ roll pop sound popularized by the Beatles, Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Beach Boys and the like, Philips made a vital contribution to the vibrant local music of the time.

The first 3 CDs feature the complete Eps of the aforementioned bands as well as Shirley Nair and the Silver Strings, Sue, Bobby Lambert and the Dukes, Bryan Neale with the Checkmates. Immensely listenable, it is no wonder that these bands were popular in their heyday with enthusiastic fans snapping up releases and attending gigs, with the high quality on display.

4th CDs brings us on a romantic journey with love songs from The Boys, Heather, Tony Chong, Janice Wee ans so on. Whilst the final CD shows the Singapore bands moving on with the times as fuzztone guitars signal the arrival of psych rock, folk pop and garage onto our shores. Bands like the Dukes, the Dee Tees, Cells Unlimited et al start to reveal greater diversity in styles to mirror the going ons in the USA and the UK.

Sadly, of course, the powers-that-be basically declared war on rock music in the 70s and that was the end of the Singapore music scene, with the recovery scene only occuring two decades later. But that’s another story.

One caveat – the tracks here have been recorded off the vinyl records and not magnetic tape – which speaks volumes of the treatment of Singapore music in the years that followed this golden age. And so, the sound quality is pretty poor considering modern CD standards. But one has to keep in mind the historic importance of these songs and what they will continue to represent to the current local music scene. Personally, despite the challenges facing the S-ROCK musician in 2009, I believe that we can still emulate our 60s forefathers and maybe even surpass them…

In the meantime, head on down to your nearest music store and get this box set now.

ELIZABETH & THE CATAPULT

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ELIZABETH & THE CATAPULT Taller Children (Verve Forecast)

If you’ve been following the Power of Pop long enough, you’d realize that I live for that moment when listening to an album, watching a film or reading a comic book, I can exclaim – “Whoa, I did not expect that!”

With the amount of albums I listen to nowadays, the above sentiments are rare commodities indeed. But these precious moments can be found in abundance on Elizabeth & the Catapult’s magnificent new album, Taller Children.

Yes indeed. It’s that spine tingling sense of recognition that you’ve chanced on something extraordinary like on the ornate, baroque, whimsical pop of Rainiest Day of Summer, which is simply the best song I’ve heard thus far in 2009. As the influences of the Carpenters, Paul McCartney, the Kinks, the Band and XTC combine perfectly to form a timeless classic that is almost too good for this generation of emo kids and metalheads.

Its also the head-bopping, smile inducing elation of grasping the full import of the bouncy, infectious soulful nugget that is Taller Children, the rootsy, breezy, sophisticated folk-pop of The Hang Up where the melodic splendour of Aimee Mann is easily conjured and the jazzy, Gallic, smooth soft pop of Right Next To You where collages of bright rainbow colours are painted on melancholy soundscapes.

You get the picture. Whilst there is no doubt that Elizabeth & the Catapult’s strength lies in the sum of its parts, it is Elizabeth Ziman’s vocals that provides the winning stroke of genius – equal parts the aforementioned Aimee Mann, Karen Carpenter and Chrissy Hynde, her’s is a voice that pop lovers could consume for eons on end.

I’m am truly awed by the achievement of this delightful album, almost as if pop music itself had decided that it had enough with all the ugliness and angst of modern rock and appointed Elizabeth & the Catapult as its spokespersons to get the true message out. Well, I’m certainly listening, you should too…

Check out the band’s Myspace page.

TELEKINESIS

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TELEKINESIS Telekinesis! (Merge)

Michael Lerner is Telekinesis. Inasmuch as Lerner plays and writes every song on this intriguing LP. Produced by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, the appeal of this album is its immediacy and irresistible infectiousness. Y’know, the way that good old-fashioned pop-rock used to unashamed to be.

There are no clever arrangements, just basic representations of memorable tunes, toe-tapping rhythms and cool vibes. Simple.

Sure, in may ways, its pretty standard indie pop fare you might hear from the Shins, the Decemberists and the like, but there is something so unique about Lerner’s songwriting and recorded delievery that the word that ‘pops’ into your head will always be ‘extraordinary’.

Yes, boys and girls, Telekinesis! is one of those albums you could easily listen to from start to finish. And you will, repeatedly.

Check out Telekinesis’ Myspace page.

Video for Tokyo below.

THE ENEMY

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THE ENEMY Music For The People (Warner Music)

Imagine if Angus Young never grew old. Now imagine him slipping into a houndstooth blazer, and coerced into taking the stage with a smittering of self-indulgent Britpop. Imagine that his recognizable swagger and sneer has morphed into  (horrors) happy, jump-abouty jauntiness.

Maybe they are taking a cue from their neighbours down under, but it seems to me that the latest wave of British bands to hit the airwaves have narrowed down their musical formulae to one of three M.O. — wan covers of lesser-known tunes, rehashing the 80s, or, perhaps more tastefully, revisiting the joys of ballsy blues-based Rock N’ Roll, albeit in a less angsty, folk-centric manner.

Coventry’s The Enemy is a prime exemplification of this trend. While their latest release, Music For The People possesses a markedly Rock N’ Roll sensibility, the band displays their thorough understanding of this contemporary rock/indie dichotomy by subtly packaging a jangly, twangy, MTV-friendly sensibility into their music.

This is a markedly apparent theme throughout the album, one that lends itself to instant recognition. Without having to aurally desconstruct the record, it is possible to identify (most obviously) the strong AC/DC influence. The gritty, bare-bones character of the riffage does however manage to hold enough airiness to straddle the fence between late night beers and late-morning tea.

The advent of this album has also afforded me to opportunity to voice another gripe, in that music publications tend to have a manner of rapturously overhyping new albums. I’d hardly call the album anthemic or rebellious, given that its subject matter deals with British clichés like the middle-class divide, life on the street, and, get ready for this, Revolution.

*insert gratuitous editorial pause here to allow rumination over previous sentence*

Somebody should tell them that their predecessors have done it to death. It’s time to move on, and I’m sure there are more pressing themes that haven’t been explored. Make no mistake however, I do like the album.

If you are an ardent advocate of a strict rock vs indie divide, then this is not the album for you. If, however, you are open to exploration, feel free to have a couple of spins. It won’t kick you in the nuts, it won’t tickle your grey matter, but I promise you it will have your feet tapping.

(Sherwin Tay)
Check out The Enemy’s Myspace page.

BIG FRESH

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BIG FRESH B.F.F. (Big Fresh Forever) (Garden Gate)

I hate bands like Big Fresh!

Why?

Well, I’m annoyed by the level of pop magnificence they somehow manage to concoct in these home recordings. I detest the way the band creates these decidedly lo-fi albeit inventive pop gems with such seeming ease and much aplomb. I abhor the cute litte psychedelic touches, the electronic bleeps which make the songs all precious and spacey.

OK.

Let me put it in another way. I find it positively inspiring that so much has been achieved with (allegedly) so little. This is the bloody mythic core of pop tunesmithery – throwing the collective consciousness of pop cool (e.g. the Move, Syd-era Pink Floyd, Smile-era Beach Boys, ELO, XTC, Flaming Lips, Guided By Voices, Fountains of Wayne, Blur, even MGMT et al) into the melting pot and mixing it up!

Nothing is sacred as Big Fresh explores corny old school synths (Entertainment), psychedelic-folk (Joy Bombs #1), luscious surf harmonies (W.L.U.V.), Rhodes-channeled whimsy (Satan, No) and falsetto-tinged dirges (Heat Death of the Universe), in the supreme hope that we will cotton on to the buried treasures locked into every groove, melody line and instrumental choice. And we will…

Check out Big Fresh’s Myspace page and the video of Lost and Found (not on B.F.F.).

PAUL STEEL

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PAUL STEEL Moon Rock (Raygun)

Young singer-songwriter Paul Steel does all us music journos a favour by listing his influences inside the CD sleeve of Moon Rock. Handy, huh? Amongst them, we get the usual pop suspects viz. Brian Wilson & the Beach Boys, the Beatles, XTC, High Llamas, Super Furry Animals, Grandaddy and Supergrass. A first rate list. I must confess.

However, to these (weathered) ears, Steel seems to have omitted the most obvious inspiration of all – JELLYFISH! Yeah, the short-lived but beloved band fronted by Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning Jr that released two memorable albums, Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, in the early 90s, during the height (depths?) of grunge.

Throughout Moon Rock, the Jellyfish vibe is so pervading that you might even mistake this delightful debut LP for the long-lost 3rd Jellyfish album. Which is the best news for all fans of sophisticated pop. Don’t get me wrong. This is not a putdown of Steel’s own abilities. Neither does it take away from the achievement of Moon Rock. I’m not saying that Steel rips off or that his music is derivative of Jellyfish. Rather that Moon Rock is an album created in the spirit of Jellyfish.

In the same way that Jellyfish took the elements of classic pop-rock of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, Supertramp, Queen and XTC to point the way forward for powerpoppers everywhere, Steel is flying the flag high for modern day proponents of this much underrated (and maligned) genre.

Favouring dense instrumentation and arrangements, melodic hooks galore, whimsical moments and trainspotting references, Moon Rock is one of those albums that true pop enthusiasts will obsess over for weeks on repeat mode, headphones on, salivating over every nuance.

Highlights are aplenty – the instrumental coda to the title track, the helium-inflected jaunty Oh No! Oh Yeah!, the softly infectious I Will Make You Disappear, the pleasing balladry of Rust & Dust, the 90s Britpop dynamism of Your Loss and the delicate beauty of Summer Song.

So exciting news for the pop underground, for I have seen the future of sophisticated pop and his name is Paul Steel.

Check out Paul Steel’s Myspace page and the video of Oh No! Oh Yeah! below.

LANE STEINBERG

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LANE STEINBERG Passion & Faith (Transparency)

If you like your music completely unique and bashfully eclectic in every possible way, then this album is right up your alley. An alley that echoes the beats and rhythms of old school jazz, Brazilian bossa nova, flights of calypso, the Grateful Dead and the Beatles. It’s almost like picking out the broken pieces of the shattered identity of someone with multiple personalities. Venturing into the variety that this album offers definitely requires an open mind.

This is Steinberg’s third solo effort having had stints as part of the equally eclectic duo Tan Sleeve. Passion & Faith comprises of 13 tracks, each burrowing into the ambience of the specific style being served with relish. Seven of which are Steinberg’s take on ethnic and rock classics that inspired him.

It begins with the first track, a cover of A Pagina Do Relampago Electrico by Beto Guedes, sung in its original language and nicely complemented by the jangly guitar riffs reminiscent of George Harrison’s licks. This is followed by the very interesting and original What Do I Do With The Rest Of My Life – co-written with R. Stevie Moore. It starts off once again with a comfortable and familiar Beatles-esque chord repetition and a catchy hook with the guys melodiously singing, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus…”. Don’t be surprised to hear a baby’s gurgling laughter mid-way through the track and just when you think it’s done, it starts again.

The next track is titled Clube Da Esquina after the legendary album by a selection of Brazilian musicians of the same name. Steinberg claims to have been floored by the album without understanding any of its lyrics and he pays tribute to it with this track sung in its native Portuguese. The rest of the tracks are truly an ecelectic (have I used the word enough?) mix of calypso with Two Bananas, country/blue grass with Equatorial (sung again in it’s native language), psychedelic rock with How Insensitive originally a Brazilian song but covered by Sinatra in English and it’s this version that Steinberg chose to do.

The title track Paixao E Fe (which translates to Passion & Faith) originally a Brazilian number as well and sung in Portuguese once again, in the likes of the Fab Four with psychedelic movements, complete with Harpsichords and harmonies.

Worthy of special mention is the very accurate take on Grateful Dead’s Dark Star, down to the vocals, the guitar work and the atmospheric echoes of the organ. This track just barely hits the 21 minute mark and it is quite the trip. Steinberg is a self confessed Deadhead.

An encouraging effort by Steinberg and definitely not for the masses but it does tatefully satisfy and calm the growing few who have embraced the wide and unconventional direction that music is heading towards. To quote Steinberg on his thoughts about the album, “I suppose most people’s eyes will simply glaze over at the eclecticism contained within this new CD. I can’t blame them, really. I have long made a career out of shooting myself in the foot, so why make things easier now?”. Enough said.

Check out Lane Steinberg’s Myspace page.

PATRICK WOLF

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PATRICK WOLF The Bachelor (Bloody Chamber)

What was meant to be a double disc album titled Battle has become two separate offerings by Patrick Wolf, a 25 year old, English singer songwriter and multi talented musician playing the harp, clavinet, harpsichord, guitar, piano, autoharp, organ, mountain dulcimer, clavichord, harmonium, accordion, theremin, ukulele, spoons, harmonica, mandolin, viola, and violin, among others. He has decided to release his epic musical cum rock, techno, electronic, indie, celtic themed opera storyline with The Bachelor (to be released on June 1 2009)  and The Conqueror (to be released in 2010). Wolf had gained international success with his previous album, The Magic Position (2007).

The Bachelor boasts of 14 artistically refined tracks which span from the cinematic promise of Middle Earth’s landscape, the futuristic beats and electric disco sensations of a psychedelic space age, to the gothic musings of a lonely drifter, who can easily be substituted for a modern day teenager. The album, originally conceived with political themes shifted focus to the depression experienced by Wolf while on tour. However, before entering the studio, he fell in love, changing the direction of the album again, and eventually providing enough material for two releases.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make out of this album when I caught a glimpse of the cover and of the titles of the tracks listed. But once the first track Kriespiel began, the 47 second intro set the tone for the amazing narrative that started to unfold. Again, this is in every way a soundtrack album for me. I don’t know how else to describe the beautiful eastern ethnic strings of the Sitar, complementing the clear and manifesting voice of Tilda Swinton (the actress) echoing Wolf’s deep, passionate and melodious pleas on the 12th track: Theseus. Swinton is featured as the “voice of hope”, the narrator on four tracks of the album. Wolf’s list of collaborations on the album also include, Alec Empire from Atari Teenage Rioter, electronic maestro Matthew Herbert, folkie Eliza Carthy and classical musician Thomas Bloch.

The first single of the album, Vulture opens with a snazzy feel of the post-disco, retro eighties hook and I’m already sold. Again, this is a one off in the genre pool explored throughout the album – because it immediately follows with the stirrings of a soft, piano ballad of Blackdown, building up slowly and beautifully with claps, drums, violins and winds down again with the lonely notes of the piano.

The Bachelor is an ambitious, complex yet sophisticated presentation of an amazing musical and narrative journey. I have to say that I was impressed with this album. Wolf’s music is perhaps best described in Tilda Swinton’s words in relation to working with him on this album – “His music feels like the unexpressed soundtrack of a great film I want to see — and try to catch every night before I go to sleep. It’s a lovely thing to be a part of that magical landscape.”

This is one artiste and the first of two albums to look out for if you enjoy musical storytelling and fantasy laden escapades with an assortment of genres all packed in one amazing production.

Check out Wolf’s Myspace page

ANDREW RIPP

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ANDREW RIPP 50 Miles to Chicago (Self released)

As far as endorsements go, they don’t come much more impressive than one by Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine guitarist, Tom Morello. It makes it even more impressive when the artist in question is a soulful funk riffer who comfortably incorporates jazz, funk, soul and slick R&B into his brand of pop-rock. Muses Morello in his blog, “He sounded great…like a mix between Ray LaMontagne and someone else I can’t quite put my finger on…” We’re talking about Chicago native Andrew Ripp, who debuted last year with his first album, 50 Miles To Chicago.

Produced by former Tonic bassist Dan Lavery, 50 Miles To Chicago is a collection of heartfelt songs that sound readily comfortable for Top 40 airplay. Album starter Get Your Smile On is infectiously funky and energetic with a bouncing bass, light keyboard flourishes and a confident vocal performance that assuredly straddles the middle ground between Jason Mraz and Anthony Kiedis. 3rd on the track listing finds Tim’s Song, a quieter piano-driven track strongly reminiscent of Gavin DeGraw, while hints of cowpunk find their way onto It’s All Good, from where the album takes its title.

It should be noted too that the talented Mr. Ripp is no stranger to a good hook. On  The Privileged Life, a track that makes a strong case for best track of the album, the Caribbean rhythms are incredibly infectious in that odd sort of manner where your body feels like its been taken over and you can’t stop yourself from moving to the beat. Throw in a snarling vocal, stirring lyrics and inspired, gleeful instrumental breaks and you have a winner. Unfortunately the album takes a detour into filler blandness after the genius of Privileged Life. The Gavin DeGraw influence makes a return together with shades of Train on Lifeline, a song that is a tad too MOR for my taste. The same goes for Just Another Song About California, a song title ironic in its self-fulfilment. Thankfully, however, the record picks up towards the end with the inspired bluesy You Saved My Life, a rollicking rocker drenched in gospel choruses. Dresden Wine finishes the album on a somber yet awfully emotional note, as Ripp holds nothing back and sings his heart out.

I’m going to stick my head out and predict that we’ll seeing a lot more of this fella in years to come as well as hearing him on our airwaves. Andrew Ripp marries a  strong, soulful and expressive voice with a fine ear for a pop hook and an inspired invention in arrangement. He’s harder than Mraz, looser than Mayer and edgier than Maroon 5, and I wouldn’t like to be the one who bets against him becoming just as popular as any of the aforementioned. One to watch out for.

(Samuel C Wee)

Check out Andrew Ripp’s Myspace page.

Video of Dresden Wine live in the studio below.

OCEANSHIP

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OCEANSHIP s/t (Self-released)

Inevitably, when discussing piano (or keyboards)-based music in modern times, it’s virtually impossible not to raise the spectre of Coldplay, the Fray and Keane into the conversation. Which in my view, doesn’t mode too well for this particular genre. Maybe I’m biased and old-fashioned but I used to enjoy it when piano-based music meant Elton John, Billy Joel or even Ben Folds. So where does that leave Canadian duo Oceanship?

Consisting of singer Brad Lyons and pianist Carly Paradis, both hailing from differents parts of Ontario, Canada, after having hooked up via a newspaper ad (yeah, cliched but what better way do you know?).

With a self-titled EP under the duo’s collective belts, and touring China extensively in 2006/2007, Oceanship’s debut album is a sophisticated work with well-crafted songs embellished with thoughtful arrangements and tasteful production. That said, the majority of the songs here cannot escape the references to the above mentioned bands, especially in the falshetto chorus of Excited, the familiar lanquid vibe of Don’t Wear Me Out and the epic, pseudo-classical Go.

The highlight for me is Hotblack (video below), where Lyons channels Peter Gabriel and the point of reference is more 80s, and the listener is captured by irresistible melodies and harmonies and a singalong chorus hook.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in Oceanship trading in the soundscape of their sonic environment and certainly, there’s enough substance in tracks like the melancholy Anywhere At All, the fragile Wait For Me and the atmospheric Mistake to suggest that there’s much more to Oceanship than their influences. In fact, a concerted effort to pierce the veil will reveal nods to Pink Floyd, The Blue Nile and Rachael Yamagata. All good in my book!

A confident debut from a duo to keep a close eye on.

Check out Oceanship’s Myspace page.