The Favourites: “SOS” (4 Play Four002, 1979)

Best ABBA cover ever?  It has to be in the running.

The Favourites were from Nottingham, and they released two singles before calling it a day, but they were pretty memorable singles for such a here-and-gone band.

For their first a-side, they went to ABBA’s 1975 hit “SOS,” which had been in the UK top ten in 1975 (the only song in which both title and artist were palindromes ever to do so), and they really reinvented it for themselves. I love the bombastic guitar riff that slams in at the end of the first verse, and the general clipped indignancy  of the vocal, but by far the most brilliant thing the band built into the song is the Morse code guitar part that comes in on the chorus after they sing “SOS.” That’s “dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot,” or “SOS” if you’re unfamiliar with Morse code.  

I wish the band had recorded more. With their flair for the dramatic, I bet they could’ve made a pretty good album.

Sloan: “The Answer Was You” (The Double Cross, 2011)

The double cross is two “x”s. You know, 20. Sloan turned twenty in 2011, and named their tenth album to mark the occasion, albeit obliquely.

It’s not common for a band to start with four members and still have the same members twenty years later, but Sloan have done it. All four write songs for the band, and I think the rules they established early on—that everyone gets the same share of each record—have probably played a big role in keeping them together. You know that not everyone in the band is digging every song turned in by his bandmates, but they let it go for the greater good. How Canadian of them.

More impressive than the fact that they’ve survived so long is the fact that they made one of their best LPs in their twentieth year together. The Double Cross is a truly great album. In my opinion, it’s in their top three, with Between the Bridges and Never Hear The End Of It. It’s likely not coincidental that all three of my favorite Sloan albums have songs that flow into each other continuously, wrapping the bandmembers’ personalities around each other and playing their strengths off each other.

I chose to spotlight “The Answer Was You” mostly because this is my favorite Sloan mode—sweetly melodic, led by Jay Ferguson’s falsetto. Here, they’ve even brought in a little bit of keyboard that sounds Mellotron-y (maybe it is a Mellotron?) to make it even sweeter, and then they sandwiched it between two of the album’s harder-pounding tracks.

I don’t know what the album’s relevance will be in the future, or how far in the future a shift might occur. I do know, though, that in spite of the CD’s slow demise, the album is still an artform, and a difficult one to master. Sloan have mastered it. There weren’t many better than The Double Cross in 2011.

The Spongetones: “(My Girl) Maryanne” (Torn Apart EP, 1984)

The first few Spongetones records, made in the early 80s, might be the single best love letter to the British Invasion of their time. Their debut album (1982’s aptly titled Beat Music), the non-album single “She Goes Out With Everybody” and the Torn Apart EP demonstrate an incredible mastery of the form and a quality of songwriting that elevates it well above pastiche or simple tribute.

The band’s mastery was earned over the course of years playing around Charlotte, NC, as a cover band, playing songs by the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who and the Stones—they’re long past that phase of their career now, but the vocabulary they built back then has informed their music ever since. They’re still going, too—their last album came out in 2009.

"(My Girl) Maryanne" is one of their best songs, the kind of song I find rattling around in my head even when I haven’t listened to it in a while. The little double-stop bits after the refrain, the jangling guitars, the harmony vocals… there really isn’t an element of the song that’s not crazily catchy.

And I like the lyrics, too, which is something I don’t often find myself saying about this type of song. There’s something about this song that seems sort of progressive to me. They’re obviously singing about a girlfriend, using all the familiar terminology of pop songs (possessives, use of “girl” in place of “woman”), but it’s in the way they do it—they never once mention how pretty she is or anything like that. The attraction in the song is purely based on what she says, and he really seems to respect her for it. The opening “she tries to get in as many words as she possibly can” sounds almost dismissive, but it moves on to give her credit for having a lot to say, for understanding, and then reveals that every word she says makes him love her more.

I don’t want to give them undue credit for writing some sort of feminist anthem or anything, but the last few times I listened to this one, I couldn’t help being struck by how different the mechanisms of attraction are in this song relative to the usual things people sing about, like hair and eyes and abilities in bed. He’s into her for what she says. And it still fits into a perfect post-Invasion guitar pop tune.

RockFour: “One Fantastic Day” (Another Beginning, 2001)

One last power pop tune to round out the week. This one’s from a great Israeli band called RockFour. They’re not a pure power pop group, necessarily—like most acts on the Rainbow Quartz label, they draw from a wide swath of the 60s, including early power pop antecedents like the Help-era Beatles, Face To Face-era Kinks and first-album Who, but also reaching into the psychedelic grab-bag and occasionally even to proto-prog (they have a Mellotron).

"One Fantastic Day" hits every one of their strengths—the stretched vocal melody hovering over the cycling guitar, the big, echo-y Spector-sounding guitar in the verses… But the real treat of the whole thing is that patched-in mid-section, where they just rock for a few minutes, with Mellotron nipping at their heels. And then it’s back to the gently cycling guitars like nothing happened. A pop-psych suite in three parts.

Hidden Track

RockFour recently released a new single, this one sung in Hebrew.

The Shazam: “Some Other Time” (Godspeed The Shazam, 1999)

My wife bought this album back when we were in college (we weren’t married until after college, but we’ve been together since the summer after high school). I don’t know if she’d read about the band or just picked it up on a whim at one of the record stores on Kirkwood in Bloomington, Indiana (maybe Landlocked?), but it was a good find either way.

It’s a great power pop joint, stuffed with instantly memorable melodies and enough sonic invention that it really stands out from the large pack of similar records I have on my shelves. I could have gone for one of about five songs on the album (Not Lame’s rear cover art has the sequencing all messed up, should you ever find a copy of this), but “Some Other Time” was always my favorite.

It doesn’t have much of the enjoyable goofiness of the record’s other songs, but it makes up for that by being actually heartfelt. I always liked the “you and me could have really been something somehow some other time” hook—it could be applied to a lot of relationships across a lifetime. I also love that big, swelling ending—this band did flourishes like that so well.

After Godspeed the Shazam, the band released an EP called Rev9, which was built around a rock band cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9” that’s quite cleverly arranged (for instance, they turn the “block that kick!” chant into a chorus). I’m not sure what became of them after that. If you can ever find this album, though, do grab it. It’s very worth your time.

Paragraf Pop: “Med Dej” (Husaren Para-001, 1981)

Power pop: not just for English speakers! I figure as long I’m posting one power pop song from each of the last five decades this week, I might as well go global with it, too.

Not a whole lot to say about this one. I don’t know what it’s about because it’s sung in Swedish, and all I know about the band is that this is the a-side of their only 45, which they got to record after they won a contest. Too bad it’s their only 45—the b-side is pretty rad, too, riding a sort of ska-funk beat. I imagine on some level they knew this would be their only chance to record, and I like that they really went for it with a catchy song and some fantastic guitar playing.

I think it’d be fun to do a project that compiles 100 one-off singles that are great on both sides, but it would be undoubtedly quite time-consuming as well. I suppose I could pick a smaller arbitrary number to make such a project more feasible. #stuffi’llnevergetaroundto

Bram Tchaikovsky: “Girl of My Dreams” (Strange Man Changed Man, 1979)

A little more power pop for you, this time from the 70s. Bram Tchikovsky was both a band and the pseudonym of Peter Bramall. I guess it’s supposed to be some sort of hybrid reference to the composer Tchaikovsky and the author of Dracula? Thing is, his music had no pretensions to classical/romantic grandeur or the macabre. He’d come out of the same pub rock scene that produced Nick Lowe, playing in a band called the Motors.

No, it’s pretty pure power pop. “Girl of My Dreams” comes from his debut album, and it made the US top 40—if you consider the British Invasion and the music it begot a predecessor to power pop and not a part of the genre, then power pop peaked commercially in the late 70s and early 80s. The same tide that put this in the American top 40 also landed the Knack at #1 that year.

Bram Tchaikovsky made two more albums in 1980 and 1981, but never got back to the chart.

The Loud Family: “Why We Don’t Live In Mauritania” (Days For Days, 1998)

Matthew’s excellent Loud Family overview on his Fluxtumblr inspired me to add my own two cents.

I first heard this band in 1998. I had a radio show at WECS in Willimantic, CT, and this was in the “free pile” that I think pretty much all college radio stations of any size have. When things fell out of rotation and didn’t enter the permanent collection, that’s where they went, to be spirited away by the ragged collection of aspiring DJs who manned the station.

Honestly, I almost left Days And Days on the pile. The artwork was cheesy and amateurish, even by the standards of computer art in the late 90s, and I had no clue who the band was. I don’t think it even occurred to me that they might be an established group with roots in an important 1980s indie rock band. I liked a few of the songs titles, though, so I flipped a coin between “Good, There Are No Lions In The Street” and “Why We Don’t Live In Mauritania,” and “Mauritania” won. So I did what I often did: I played it on my show to see if the CD was worth taking home.

Well, twelve years later, I still own the album, so you know the answer. “Why We Don’t Live In Mauritania” is still one of my favorite Loud Family songs, and now I know enough to make the connections I couldn’t before. For instance, that’s Camper Van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segel on violin. I still love the contrast between the muscular rhythm track and general nerdishness of the lyrics.

It was a few years earlier that I learned about the band’s predecessor, Game Theory, while interning for a tiny record label whose owner had all their albums. It’s a damn crime that all those Game Theory records remain out of print.

Title Tracks: “Steady Love” (It Was Easy, 2010)

Apparently, the easiest way to be ignored while making great music is to make power pop. I don’t know how else to explain it. You know that Paul Simon line “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts?” Well, every generation also has about 800 amazing power pop songs that go nowhere.

Craft and good performance alone just aren’t enough for a band to separate itself in the relentless hype cycle, and so bands like Title Tracks are easily overlooked in favor of artists that sound more of-the-moment. This is reality.

Not that the band doesn’t have a bit of backstory/good publicity add-ons. This is the band of former Q And Not U member John Davis. Two songs on the album feature that lady from Camera Obscura. Sorry to sound grumpy, but when you’re surrounded by band press and blog buzz all the time, it gets a little exhausting to see songs like this—songs you love—fall through the cracks.

I mean, listen to this song. It’s catchy as hell, and perfect in pretty much every respect. I love the way the end of the verse sounds great going either into another verse or into the ascending “oh ohs” of the chorus.

So don’t let this one fall through the cracks. Give it a listen. You might love it too.

Pitchfork 90s list omission #6:

Sloan: “The Good In Everyone” (One Chord To Another, 1996)

To stick with guitars and harmonies for one more song, if Pitchfork were based in, say, Hamilton, Ontario, rather than Chicago, there’s no question that this song would have been on our list—probably somewhere in the top 20. That’s because Sloan are huge in Canada, their home country. And frankly, if other countries (like the one immediately to the south) can’t see their way to venerating this quartet of power-popping Nova Scotians, it’s our collective loss.

All four of the band’s members are songwriters, and not in the way that Ringo might get that one song in on a Beatles LP—there are only a couple records in their whole career that don’t have at least two songs from everybody. Now that’s band democracy. Sure helps that each of them is capable of writing infectious pop songs—really, they’re the closest thing you’re ever going to get to a Fab Four for the Great White North (assuming that Klaatu actually wasn’t the Beatles, of course).

"The Good In Everyone" is one of Sloan’s most enduring hits (#9 in Canada, #nothing everywhere else), and it’s easy to see why. It gets in your brain and sets up shop with those harmonies and cool little basslines. It’s also weirdly stitched to to these little discordant outbursts that feature a lot of canned cheering, which gives the song an off-kilter charm and swagger it might not otherwise possess. When they play it live, all that cheering is very real, though.

And don’t you just love the full-length video? The shady meeting in a remote location, the testing of the merchandise, the subsequent rocking out… It’s as much of a blast as the song.

Hidden track:

One Chord To Another isn’t my favorite Sloan album, by the way. I’d say that if you’re only ever going to buy one Sloan LP, make it 1999’s Between The Bridges. That album is phenomenal—when Pitchfork made its last 90s album list back in 2003, I had it at #80, which is about 40 places lower than I’d have it today. It’s sequenced really well, with one amazing song after another flowing right into each other. Worth listening to as an album for sure.