Bigger Than Life

Jack Lee

Alive!, 2016

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Only serious students of early power pop and '80s underground pop – think the Plimsouls and San Francisco's Paisley Underground movement – are aware of Jack Lee. He was part of the short-lived and influential trio The Nerves with Paul Collins and Peter Case, who went on to work separately in The Beat and The Plimsouls, while Lee (the chief songwriter) went on a solo path.

For a brief time, it looked like Lee had a future with the cheekily-titled Greatest Hits Vol. 1, his 1981 solo debut, but only a tiny handful of people took notice of the power pop album and Lee went away. He tried again in 1985 with an eponymous disc that was similar to the first, but it too went nowhere due in part to its concession to '80s cliches, and that was pretty much all she wrote for Lee's career.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The enterprising folks at Alive! Records have collected and remastered both of these albums, adding one B-side, and released it as Bigger Than Life. The immediate concern is that we were too busy with bands like Devo and the Buggles in 1981 to notice Lee's dusty gems, which is to our detriment. To be sure, his work is firmly in the paisley power-pop camp, all short songs and cheerful chords and raspy vocals that sound like an influence on Bon Jovi.

Lee is one of those songwriters whose songs sound better when covered by other artists, the most famous example being "Hanging On The Telephone," which Blondie took to a new dimension on Parallel Lines. Lee wrote the original for the Nerves and then re-recorded it for his first album, and in two minutes it does what any good pop song needs to do. In fact, the majority of the songs are like that, making this an efficient listen – each album was about half an hour long – and a nice touchstone for those interested in the roots of later power pop bands.

Unfortunately, although Lee writes solid songs, he doesn't really write memorable ones, favoring generic form over function (as was the case with much of the paisley underground, as anyone who suffered through the second Nuggets box set from the '80s will tell you). There are some great ideas here, not just "Telephone" but the raw garage rocker "Crime Don't Pay" (which could have been a hit for Iggy Pop a few years prior, had he heard it), the fine "Come Back And Stay," the rollicking "Sex," and the pensive "Somebody Else To Love."

The bulk of the second half – the Jack Lee songs – are pretty run of the mill for their era, hamstrung by '80s production and generic songwriting, squandering the cheerful vibes of the first half as Lee tries to find his songwriting role. These are the kind of songs that make decent raw material but that talented bands can turn in to something great, and it's a shame Lee didn't have more opportunities to do just that. But he did write a few good songs, and for fans of power pop and this era of music, it's worth seeking out the titles mentioned above and going from there.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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