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Power Pop

A FRAGILE TOMORROW: MAKE ME OVER

(MPRESS RECORDS; 2015) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

South Carolina four-piece A Fragile Tomorrow features the brothers Kelly – Sean and Dominic, two of a set of triplets (the third passed away several years back), and their non-multiple sibling, Brendan – and bassist Shaun Rhoades. MAKE ME OVER is the group’s fifth studio album and first for indie label Mpress Records; lead vocalist Sean Kelly is the primary songwriter and his glam rock tendencies drive the sound, so… fans of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and, for the power pop-minded amongst you, Cheap Trick, strap in for one heck of a fun ride!

A FRAGILE TOMORROW (Brendan Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Sean Kelly, Shaun Rhoades) (photo credit: TOM MOORE)

The album kicks off with Sean’s paean to the legendary Slade vocalist and glam rock icon, “Make Me Over (Noddy Holder).” Actually, the track is Kelly wondering if pursuing the rock and roll lifestyle is really worth all the trouble: “Maybe we can start all over/Change our name and make me over.” Now that I see that in writing, that happened to Holder and his band before glamming up their image and purposely misspelling key words in song titles. The song features a pulsing, hard rock undercarriage, courtesy of drummer Dominic Kelly and the double whammy of bassist Shaun Rhoades (he of the standard electric variety) and guest musician, Ted Comerford (he of the twelve-string version). And, just that quickly, this record is off and running. “Tie Me Up Again” slows things down a bit, though it is equally as introspective as the first song. There are guitars aplenty from Sean and his non-wombmate brother, Brendan; I’m reminded of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (in a very jangly and precise way) and very early psychedelic Alice Cooper (via a sped up guitar freakout, a la Glen Buxton). The number also features a string quartet (cellist Ward Williams, violist Rachael Jones and violinists Diana Brewer and Lyais Hung, who crop a few more times later on), quite a nice addition. Musically speaking, “Billion” is sort of Beatlesque thing which quickly morphs into a spry little Power Pop affair that could very easily have outstayed its welcome; as is, it kinda ended at the perfect time. A ton of cool guitars keep things interesting, as does the bouncy drumwork. Another lush, jangley, pop tune, “One of Two, Two of Three,” hearkens back to such 1960s psychedelic-pop acts as the Jefferson Airplane, Roy Wood’s (and, later, Jeff Lynne’s) the Move, PET SOUNDS-era Beach Boys, as well as early ‘60s Phil Spector produced “Wall of Sound” records. Even the “trippy” title and the lyrically vague implications are drawn from that same general time period and fertile asthetic; the words still ring agonizingly true today: “One of two, two of three/Everything is as it seems/It’s not black and white, cut and dry.” Next, we have “Kissing Games,” a heartbroken power pop ballad that SOUNDS far happier than the words imply. It’s actually more of a self-empowering note that this person is finished being used and is taking control of his own life for once. The string quartet returns and is more upfront than on “Tie Me Up Again.” Rachael Sage offers up some very nice piano and bassist Rhoades delivers one of his best performances here. “Tell Me How To Feel” is shiny, poppy and pretty with a definite “Then He Kissed Me” vibe during the intro and with the drums throughout. It’s one of the few tracks here to feature the group’s four core members alone; only the odd guitar signatures save it from being the most disposable song on the record. The first lines of “In My Mind” says everything you need to know about A Fragile Tomorrow and MAKE ME OVER: “Oh, unrequited love/It’s kind of my thing.” Shimmery and solemn, the number is another “everything PLUS the kitchen sink” kinda thing with sleigh bells, timpani, guitars of varied stripes and, of course, the string quartet. Even though it seems like the song is about to take off a couple of times, it remains in first gear all the way… Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A FRAGILE TOMORROW (Brendan Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Shaun Rhoades, Sean Kelly) (photo credit: TOM MOORE)

Hit Parade” is about the ultimate search for that ever illusive “Hit Single.” Unlike most of the rest of the album, the song features the four band members exclusively along with an actual guitar solo; it’s very catchy, in an XTC sort of way with lyrics that include: “Same old turn of phrase/Here’s your chord change/Please make way for the hit parade/All my dignity’s gone.” That pretty much sounds like every musician I’ve ever met! “Interlude” is an odd little ditty that features absolutely none of the actual band members, with samples by Michaelangelo, drums by Russ Broussard (even though I really didn’t hear them) and, naturally, the by-now obligatory string quartet. “Siouxsie” is obviously a song about X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene. With vocals by Dominic and guest artist Mark Hart (of Crowded House fame) providing organ and lap steel, it is actually a tune extolling the (many) virtues of Siouxsie Sioux and her undeniable influence on – not only punk and Goth – but popular music in general. It’s fun and bubbly and you may catch yourself humming along to the melody… in a totally anarchic punk kind of way, of course. John Cowsill and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson add their voices to “Everybody Knows,” another wicked swipe at stardom. The track is sort of a lo-fi avant-surf masterpiece with a guitar/trumpet (the latter provided by Clay White) interplay that’s echoey and (maybe) backwards; that alone makes the song, at the very least, quite interesting. “Can’t You Hear Me” is another cool power pop thing that features, of all things, a singing saw performed by the multi-talented Clay White. Everything is hitting on all cylinders on this one; it’s a definite favorite on what is a fairly solid record. I think that the term “bonus track” may have been applied to “One Way Ticket (Coda)” simply because it features Joan Baez (THE!) and Indigo Girls Amy Ray (on mandolin) and Emily Saliers (on banjo). I mean, those are some heavyweight names right there! Did I forget to mention that the cut also features White and his saw? This song alone makes MAKE ME OVER worth owning. Yeah… it is THAT good. Of course, you get the additional bonus of the first twelve songs, too. So, what are you waiting for? Pick up your very own copy from your favorite dispenser of fine music… now!

JOHNNY WORE BLACK: WALKING UNDERWATER, PART 2

(DEAD CHERRY RECORDS; 2014)

Johnny Wore Black

Johnny Wore Black is the musical alter-ego of a stuntman who prefers to be called simply, “Jay” (his most recent stunt work is currently on display in FURY, with Brad Pitt). Considering his day job, is it any wonder that the music Jay creates is adventurous, risky and maybe even a little bit scary? WALKING UNDERWATER, PART 2 (PART 1 was released earlier this year) is a balancing act of hard rock, progressive metal and pop sheen, all laced with a dollop of blues and soul. Jay’s backing band are on point throughout the ten tracks on the album, maybe kicking things up a notch with the presence of bassist (and co-writer on several tracks) Dave Ellefson of metal giants, Megadeth. So, without further ado, let’s get into some of the specifics that make this record so cool.

Johnny Wore Black (Dave Ellefson and Jonathan Cohen) (uncredited photo)
Johnny Wore Black (Dave Ellefson and Jay) (uncredited photo)

The album kicks off with “Firefly,” a progressively melodic blast of hard rock. The track features great guitar work from Pete Mathers and James Coppolaro (a theme we’ll see repeated throughout the album) and a very “progressive” rhythm (it sounds like synthesizer, but there are no synths or keyboards credited). “A Cut Above” has a heftier guitar and vocal sound, as Ellefson’s bass drives the tune along quite nicely. There’s a certain groove that kinda reminds me of mid-era solo Alice Cooper and a stinging, dark progressivity that gives it the feel of a Floydian outtake from THE WALL. With a brighter, somewhat jangly guitar, “Comfy Slippers” features an overall more high-end – bordering on shrill – sound. The song is highlighted by the melodic, slightly jazzy drumming of Simon Hutchby.

Even though the lyrics on this record are, as the second song’s title implies, a cut above, “Fallen Angel” features some of the best: “Like a fallen angel/You spread your wings and cry.” The scope of the lyrics and the music are very theatrical, giving it a definite prog rock concept album feel. “Gift of Desperation,” the final co-write from Ellefson (he also co-wrote the record’s first two tracks), is a heartfelt prayer for forgiveness, wrapped in a very dark, nearly Gothic musical soundscape. Ellefson’s bass has a sort of bubbling quality beneath the atmospheric stabs of guitar doomary. Probably my favorite song on the whole album. The title and ambiguous lyrics of “I Do Dissolve” reminds me of my fave dark romanticist, Gary Numan (an utterly fantastic use of the words “dissolve,” “absolve” and “evolve”). The funky, skittering guitars and bass line also have a quality reminiscent of SHORT BUS era Filter (the one with “Hey, Man, Nice Shot”). “Noise” is, overall, a creepy sounding punk pop thing with some exceptionally eerie guitar. It’s kinda like the Damned’s Dave Vanian or Rob Zombie fronting Good Charlotte or Fall Out Boy (but with better music… so, I guess it ain’t like that at all).

Johnny Wore Black (Jonathan Cohen) (photo credit: MATT BROWN)
Johnny Wore Black (Jay) (photo credit: MATT BROWN)

Shine On” is a spooky, horror movie power ballad. It’s a truly beautiful number with a stirring, charging second half. Sara Renar, a talented Croatian singer of great depth and feeling, guests on the song. “Whose Children” is all about the groove, with evocative guitar, pulsating bass effects-drenched vocals. The sole cover on the album was originally recorded in 1990 by a dance band called Bomb the Bass, with vocals by the song’s co-writer, Loretta Heywood. The band adds heft to “Winter In July,” which, in its original version was a rather lightweight quasi-disco affair. Johnny Wore Black’s heavier, more rocking take still manages to maintain the basic groove of the track. As an added bonus, Ms Heywood supplies her voice to the proceedings. You may have noticed that all through this review, I’ve managed to speak about the excellent musicianship from the band and the guest vocalists, but haven’t really mentioned Jay’s voice. Why? Well, this review features enough redundancies without adding more by talking about what a talented and emotionally adept singer he actually is. Coming in to this thing, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I certainly wasn’t expecting to be blown away, as I was, from the very first note to the final fade.

THE WHIGS: MODERN CREATION

(New West Records; 2014)

whigs-modern-creation

The Whigs are back! Five albums and three bass players into a twelve year career, the Athens, Georgia trio are showing no signs of slowing down; in fact, they rock as hard (or harder) than they ever have. “You Should Be Able To Feel It” kicks off MODERN CREATION in fine fashion. It is, quite simply, the best kind of power pop/punk with a little dose of twang thrown in for good measure… think Artful Dodger or the Replacements. Julian Dorio’s drumming is powerful and rock steady, while Parker Gispert offers up enough chunky power chords to fill an hour on any Classic Rock radio station. The chugging, percolating “Asking Strangers For Directions” has a more menacing vibe with Clash-like drumming propelling the song forward. The track has a very bottom heavy feel and the guitars are featured more as texture than anything else, until a wicked sounding phased-out solo. Not as radio friendly as the opener, but it’ll definitely show up on plenty of personal playlists. The guitar on “The Particular” has a definite metal tonality, while the whole thing has a rather minimalist, stripped down feel. Timothy Deaux’s bass playing in this setting is particularly intriguing. For comparison’s sake, imagine Tony Bourge-era Budgie filtered through early Everclear (Gispert’s vocals even sound a bit like Art Alexakis).

The Whigs (publicity photo)
The Whigs (Julian Dorio, Parker Gispert, Timothy Deaux) (publicity photo)

Hit Me” is a funky, jangling hybrid of everything that made you love music in the first place. It’s the first single from the album and one listen will tell you why. If handled right, “Hit Me” could become a sleeper radio hit for the summer. In a similar vein, the chiming guitar, vibrant production and elastic bass of “Modern Creation” makes it another radio friendly number. The witty lyrical content is of a type that would make the studious gents from Eve 6 envious. “Friday Night” is a snotty punk song, with vocal nods to Billy Idol and the aforementioned Everclear frontman. Alternating between a plodding drone and a pop metal charge, “She Is Everywhere” has me contemplating a joint writing effort by Pete Townshend and the Oakland, California post-metal tribe, Neurosis. While that may seem like an odd combination, the Whigs pull it off spectacularly.

Too Much In the Morning” sounds like one of those late ’90s alternative rock songs that may have prompted Dorio and Gispert to say, “Let’s start a band.” It’s a neat ballad with a charging bridge and chorus section that really elevates the song to another level. With a bouncey melodicism, “I Couldn’t Lie” is the kind of gently rocking song that Phil Lynott would sneak onto every Thin Lizzy album, a bit too heavy to be called a ballad and a little too poetic for a hard rock workout. One of the highlights of MODERN CREATION is the literate, well-conceived lyrics. “The Difference Between One and Two” continues the exceptional wordcraft, enhanced by powerful performances from the rhythm section and an almost stately guitar part, which is quite reminiscent of a Link Wray stroll. The band’s schedule has them delivering an album every other year and, while I would certainly like to have more, if the wait between releases continues to yield music of this quality, I’m happy with that. The guys are currently touring in support of MODERN CREATION. Upcoming dates can be viewed at www.thewhigs.com.