King Of Power Pop
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/24/2010
Power pop might just be the Rorschach test of musical genres; it almost is whatever you want it to be. Any genre that readily includes both the traditionalist guitars-and-harmonies of Marshall Crenshaw and the raucous punk-and-roll of the Ramones is by definition a big tent—although a fair argument could be made that all power pop in fact derives from the year 1965; specifically, power pop is descended in equal parts from the melodic craftsmanship of mid-period Beatles and the pure aggression of early Who. The common elements are tight three-minute songs with repeated riffs and choruses, frequent use of harmony vocals, and a driving beat, whether the song’s underlying tone is celebratory, angry, thoughtful or playful.
Paul Collins has been a significant part of the power pop scene for 35 years plus. From his early days as drummer for cult-hero power-poppers the Nerves, to his brief leadership of the Breakaways, to his establishment of the Beat (a.k.a. Paul Collins’ Beat), Collins has championed the three-chords-and-a-chorus style that gives this album its cheeky name. King Of Power Pop is in fact a 13-track celebration of the genre, and it’s successful on just about every level. The songs are tight and memorable, the guitars are sharp and punchy, the beats make your feet tap, and the shout-along choruses dare you not to.
Kickoff track “Come On Let’s Go” has all the requisite snap and bounce this album’s title calls for, seeming to locate the nexus between Ritchie Valens, River-era Springsteen and Elvis Costello. Following right on its heels (and keeping the listener on yours), “Do You Wanna Love Me,” one of the shortest songs here at 2:02, captures all of the above in a concise sonic blast. If the insistent harmonica reminds of early ‘80s New Wavers The Romantics, it should, since it’s provided by guest Wally Palmar of said group.
From there Collins detours into the early Joe Jackson New Wave sass of “Doing It For The Ladies,” whose snotty panache is both amplified and distilled in frenetic thumpers like “Don’t Blame Your Troubles On Me.” In between, “Hurting On My Side” delivers a “cry in my beer” ballad with a chiming guitar hook; Collins sings it with sincere gusto, his voice cracking.
The album was cut almost entirely with four guys—Collins on lead vocals and guitar, Eric Blakely on lead guitar, Dave Shettler on drums, and Jim Diamond handling both bass and production—who feed their power pop jones with one tight, aggressive arrangement after another. As noted above, Collins’ voice can run a bit rough in places, but that actually adds an endearing humanity to a genre that is sometimes guilty of buffing songs to a sugary sheen. This album has rough edges aplenty and in places feels as much garage rock as power pop.
“Many Roads to Follow” is a welcome change of pace, a primarily acoustic tune co-written with Peter Case, Collins’ bandmate from the Nerves, and featuring terrific harmony vocals from Blakely. “Losing Your Cool” offers a tougher but related strain of frayed melodicism, before “Off The Hook” barges in with another sassy kiss-off.
Collins mixes in two covers, and the first is a doozy. Infusing the ‘60s classic “The Letter” with a kind of ragged exuberance, Collins delivers a rendition that’s more than reverent; it’s driving, even steely, capturing the throaty urgency of the original in a fresh and energizing way. And the decision to follow “The Letter” with the fabulistic title track is sheer brilliance; first a legendary song, then a song about the legend. Musically, “Kings Of Power Pop” feels like a mind-meld between Buddy Holly, Ric Ocasek and Joey Ramone, but lyrically it’s all Collins, awkward only in its frank self-awareness, and managing to be witty, nostalgic and fatalistic all at once.
This is not a perfect album; there are moments in songs like “I Go Black” where Collins’ enthusiasm gets the better of his musical judgment and/or what remains of his road-worn voice. That said, there’s simply no denying an album this sincere in its intentions and passionate in its execution. As an album title, King Of Power Pop feels like a self-mocking punchline, but it really doesn’t matter how serious Collins is or isn’t, because he plays the music with such authority, sense of purpose, and flat-out joy that you want to award him the title regardless.