As a description, “Power Pop” ranges from a ‘thumbnail illustration,’ to ‘useless.’ Most listeners can name bands that fall into said genre, but damned if anyone can really define it. A genre that began with the Beatles, it was coined as a term over a decade after the British Invasion held sway. Yet some artists who got lumped into the melting pot were made up of much more than lazy rock critic jargon.
Tommy Keene, Marshall Crenshaw, the Cowsills, the dBs and the Bangles all made wonderful pop music, but to straightjacket them with the power pop albatross would be selling them short.
Tommy Keene released his first solo album in 1982, flirted with major labels and even retirement, but is still at it. At times, Keene’s best work picks up Big Star’s torch before Alex Chilton made a wide left turn. An early Keene EP included a killer version of Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child,” as if to say, “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it!”
A few years ago he played an off-night gig at Milwaukee’s Mad Planet to less than 20 fans. But you would not have known that from the energy Keene projected from the cramped stage. It was all systems firing and a real treat to those in attendance.
Under his own name and collaborations with Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices (Keene also toured as guitarist for Paul Westerberg), Keene has recorded well over a dozen albums. Laugh in the Dark continues with his melodic hit-and-run style of songwriting coupled with slashing and brawny guitars. Then again, “All Gone Away” suggests introspective album cuts that can only come from time experimenting in the studio.
But Keene relies on his stock in trade: crunching, melodic rock and roll. “Dear Heloise,” and “Last of the Twilight Girls,” are radio hits in an alternative universe.
Detroit-native Marshall Crenshaw absorbed that city’s myriad influences, from the MC5 to soul, to jazz, before making his name portraying John Lennon in Beatlemania (and later Buddy Holly in film). His 1982 debut album snapped, crackled and was brimming with great songs that still hold up to this day – last year’s Milwaukee gig at Shank Hall with the Bottle Rockets as his backing band featured a healthy dose of those songs.
Crenshaw adapted to the changing tides of the record industry by taking matters into his own hands. He offered his fans a subscription of vinyl EP’s. #392: The EP Collection assembles some of the highlights. Often working with co-writers, Crenshaw’s best songs here grow on the listener and just seem to go deeper.
A slow driving lament like “Red Wine,” offers up details like a finely tuned short story. Likewise, “I Don’t See You Laughing Now,” offers up a series of observations on a power broker’s tumble to the bottom.
Unafraid to make music for grown-ups, Crenshaw thrives on challenging himself and trusting his listeners to follow. Case in point is his cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Close to You”, where Crenshaw illuminates the slow, thick arrangement of a song often brushed off as mawkish.
This collection finds Crenshaw navigating the vagaries of the modern music business, determined to keep on evolving. You can’t ask for any more from an artist.
The Continental Drifters may go down as the great lost American band. Originally formed as an ad hoc band playing in a Los Angles club called Raji’s for door money, the original lineup centered around Dream Syndicate bassist Mark Walton, Ray Gancheau, Gary Eaton and Carlo Nuccio (from whose long ago band New Orleans group the name was revived. Not exactly household names but musicians who could write and play well enough to build a word of mouth weekly following. Eventually heavyweights like Jackson Browne wanted to sit in.
The first disc of Drifted: In the Beginning and Beyond collects the band’s LA daze. Fresh from quitting REM, former dB Peter Holsapple originally joined to play keyboards only. But the key element was the addition of Susan Cowsill and Bangle Vicki Peterson. It is Peterson’s “Who We Are, Where We Live” that kicks off the collection. Nothing less than a tour de force, Peterson conjures a lyric and sonic wake. To see a later version of the band play this live was as powerful as an experience gets.
The band recorded a 7” single, and in 2003 a German label released their debut LP. The next chapter found the band relocating to New Orleans. Following the Los Angeles riots sparked by the police beating of Rodney King, Nuccio returned to New Orleans, followed by Ganchea. The rest of the band, save Eaton, also eventually made the trip to NOLA.
The second disc collects eighteen covers, and if this was all The Drifters ever released, it would be a treasure. Radio broadcasts, tribute albums and live performances reveal a sympathetic group of musicians paying reverence, balanced with a devil may care attitude. On the live cut of the Beach Boy’s “Farmer’s Daughter,” Peterson asks Cowsill, “Are you ready?” and her reply is, “No. But I’ll do it anyway.”
This was a band that willfully chose to ignore genres. They covered soul (“You Don’t Miss Your Water”), bubble gum (“Tighter and Tighter”) and invited me to sing Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” with them when my band opened for them at a Milwaukee gig.
The final eight cuts on the collection are Fairport Convention-related tunes. Deep, heartfelt, and steeped in British Folk — these Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson-penned tunes offer but a single indication of where this band might have drifted.
The Continental Drifters – In the Beginning and Beyond (Omnivore Recordings)
Marshall Crenshaw – #392: The EP Collection (Red River)
Tommy Keene – Laugh in the Dark (Second Motion Records)