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“Whatever happened to innocence? Whatever happened to real romance?” sings Kyle Vincent, of the defunct and little-mourned Candy, deep into the second volume of Rhino’s Poptopia!. Taking its name from the much-discussed California music festival, the three-CD series is full of such sentiments. In the process of defining, cataloging, and celebrating power pop, Poptopia!, the home entertainment experience, also inadvertently points up the ultimate decline of the genre over the past decade. Such nostalgic pandering has had more than a little to do with an overall drop in inspiration and quality.
It wasn’t always thus, although “power pop” as a style was often a little reactionary, even in its infancy. Rooted in the pre-psychedelia guitars and vocal harmonies of the Beatles, the Who, and other British Invasion acts major and minor, power pop coupled musical values unsullied by prog-rock pretentiousness with content sometimes as culturally stubborn, though sometimes gloriously subversive. It shone brightest in the hands of early practitioners like the Raspberries and Big Star.
Poptopia!’s ’70s disc rounds up those groups’ signature songs, “Go All the Way” and “September Gurls,” as well as other usual suspects and one or two ringers. (Badfinger is represented not by one of its truly timeless Apple singles, but a later, pretty good effort made for Warner Bros. shortly before leader Pete Ham’s 1975 suicide; Fotomaker’s “Where Have You Been All My Life” is entirely too wispy to belong here.) Also present are oft talked-about, rarely heard outbursts of emotion like Blue Ash’s “Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?).” Despite the straightforward stance of “September Gurls” in relation to other tracks on the band’s 1974 Radio City, Big Star’s lack of concern for wrapping its Lennon/McCartney borrowings in neat packages is reflected in Alex Chilton’s slightly strained voice and Jody Stephens’ drum rolls, which threaten to capsize the record. The Dwight Twilley Band’s “I’m on Fire,” a Top 20 hit in the summer of ’75, is steeped in period lingo (a “lady,” not a girlfriend; a “toker”).
Other bands of the era engage in Beatlings that, by comparison, were already archaic. Pezband’s 1977 “Baby It’s Cold Outside” finds singer Mimi Betinis deploying inflections straight out of a Billy J. Kramer record to complain about a “bad little girl.” The CD’s new wave-associated numbers from just a couple of years later are generally less sentimental (the Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t,” featured on Poptopia! in its “sittin’ on your face” album version rather than the cleaned-up 45; Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind”), more mournful (Shoes’ “Too Late”), and even outright disaffected (20/20’s “Yellow Pills,” one of the most sophisticated productions among Poptopia!’s 54 cuts).
The old ways are still honored on the ’80s disc, particularly on the Romantics’ Kinks-damaged “What I Like About You” and the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” where the gurl in question looks like Mick Jagger’s circa-’65 model-girlfriend’s sister. Generally, though, these tunes are a lot weirder and darker, from the Bangles’ cover of Kimberley Rew’s “Going Down to Liverpool,” a sardonic ode to the collapse of the social contract in 1984 Britain, to D.C. hero Tommy Keene’s “Places That Are Gone,” which waves goodbye to the idealized past of the Candy song in a way that lets you know he really doesn’t miss it that much.
Notable especially on this volume is Rhino’s slight (and typical) redefinition of the term for its purposes, which have to do nearly as much with making a compilation that works the way a good mix tape does as with providing an eternal genre textbook. This allows for the presence of a record such as the Hoodoo Gurus’ “I Want You Back,” which fits perfectly despite its creators’ lack of power-pop clique credentials. The Gurus, despite having hooks galore, were always more of a straight rock ‘n’ roll band, mixing surf, garage, and punk. Similarly, Keene never worried too much about meeting a narrow standard of what was pop and what wasn’t, which allowed him to perform raucous covers of Lou Reed, the Stones, and Roxy Musicthe first two much darker than anything that ’90s acts like Wondermints would ever consider. In this sense, Keene and the utterly desperate-sounding Plimsouls, who are represented by their minihit “A Million Miles Away,” are the true heirs of the warped, nearly bereft sensibility Chilton displayed in Radio City’s “Back of a Car” and “You Get What You Deserve.”
If one problem with the term “power pop” is that the best of the music is distinguished by elements that already have a perfectly good namerock ‘n’ rollthen another is that too much of the new stuff showcased on Poptopia!…’90s lacks those same ingredients, at least to the heart-stopping degree that the pop ideal demands. Despite cult interest in and industry curiosity about some of the new, young bands, it’s here that the thread threatens to break from being stretched too far. Some of Rhino’s choices on the third CDWondermints’ “Proto-Pretty,” for oneare agreeable records, but hardly have the immediacy necessary to merit the power pop tag.
Likewise, Jellyfish and the Rembrandts offer good concoctions that are a little bit too easygoing to qualify as true power pop (liner notes-writer Carl Cafarelli hedges his bet with a reference to “pure pop,” not quite the same thing at all)instead, call their contributions “pseudo-catchy post-Crowded House adult album alternative” or something. (I’m dancing about architecture as fast as I can here.) They’ve got sing-along choruses and a certain propulsion, but they’re too polite to make you bang on the steering wheel. The Rembrandts’ contribution, “Rolling Down the Hill,” replete with sophisticated changes and jazzy guitar solo, is especially self-satisfied.
All this suggests that a dead end has been reached. There are loads of tunes out there worthy of the sort of worship we heap on old Cheap Trick and new Matthew Sweet albums. And sure, there’s room for disagreement about what “power pop” really is. But while Sweet, the Posies, Gigolo Aunts, and Redd Kross belong, too much of what’s on Poptopia!…’90s is lacking in both.CP