Strictly speaking, "pop music" refers to the songs, singers, sounds and singles that find favor with the vast, mass vinyl-consuming public at any given time. In the mid- to late '60s, pop became synonymous with white rock 'n' roll because of the prodigious success of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds and bands that followed their lead.
These groups made a simple yet immensely attractive kind of noise: short, snappy tunes played on gaily chiming guitars, a wild, driving beat Records and sweaty-sweet vocal harmonies. It was a sound full of emotion and energy that provoked extraordinary excitement and an unprecedented sense of personal involvement in audiences. The impression made on our culture's subconscious was so great that the style is still called pop, though its commercial halcyon days have long since passed.
The dB's, Bongos, Beat Rodeo and Los Angeles' Bangles are all pop groups in this somewhat anachronistic sense of the word; '60s rock is a crucial point of reference for all of them. Their songs are concise, melodic, guitar-oriented and prone to the occasional cliche'.
"It's a Wonderful Life" (DB Records, DB66) is Chris Stamey's first solo outing since the formation of his dB's, one of the first post-punk pop outfits, nearly six years ago. It's an album that defies easy categorization, though listeners familiar with the band's two superlative import albums, "Stands for Decibels" and "Repercussion," will recognize many of the strategies.
"Face of the Crowd" is like a lot of Stamey's dB material. A pretty, vocal melody is methodically, perversely reshuffled, twisted 'round a thousand which ways. The instrumental track shifts gears precipitously, lopping the ends off potentially catchy riffs, setting up obtuse rhythmic structures. "Never Enters My Mind" is likewise a torturous exercise, saved at the last moment by some brilliant, angular lead guitar, equal parts Neil Young and Tom Verlaine. Only with "Oh Yeah!" does Stamey let a song speak for itself, free from overbearing conceptual shenanigans. The soft-focus ballad "Depth of Field" is the sole instance of plain old prettiness for prettiness' sake he allows himself.
Stamey's game is to avoid cliche's, confounding expectations again and again, turning pop traditions topsy turvey--but at what cost? In the context of the dB's, Stamey provides the perfect foil for Peter Holsapples' pure pop predilections while Holsapple tends to soften and ameliorate his partner's more extreme eccentricities. It's chemistry that "It's a Wonderful Life" fails to improve on. Stamey opens for Holly and the Italians at the 9:30 club tonight.
Richard Barone is lead singer for the Bongos and James Mastro is his lead guitarist. "Nuts And Bolts" (Passport PB 6021) representing a sort of busman's holiday for the pair, is a far more straightforward venture and pleasanter experience for it. On one side of the album, Barone dresses up some stock, might-have-been Bongos numbers in tasteful frills that the band's more economy-minded hard pop format probably would have precluded. "Flew a Falcon" has a string section, Barone and Mastro overdubbing. Other cuts feature synthesizers, odd percussion and the like. "Lost Like Me" is a standout cut, starting with a lovely, ballad passage before breaking into a punchy, rock chorus, returning to a folkish, acoustic sound on the verses. The only disappointment is "Jacob's Ladder," an instrumental that's too close to David Byrne's score for the "Catherine Wheel" ballet for comfort.
Mastro's side marks his recorded debut as a lead vocalist and his emergence as a composer. "Time Will Tell" displays a strong sense of lyricism and a voice strikingly similar to Eric Carmen's during his tenure with the Raspberries. The cover of "Dizzy" is bouncy and to the point, while "Angel in My Pocket" is impeccable teeny-bop fodder, the sort of thing that Shaun Cassidy might well have recorded and probably have had a huge hit with.
The Beat Rodeo is actually a working unit nowadays, but the "Beat Rodeo" (Coyote COY 002) EP is essentially a solo vehicle for Steve Almaas, recorded before he assembled the present lineup. Having left the Bongos to make way for Mastro, Almaas cut these four songs as demos, prototypes of the Rodeo sound. He was aided in the studio by Barone and one Mitch Easter, producer of R.E.M. and engineer on both the Stamey and Barone/Mastro sessions. "Do You Mean It?" is his best performance, a rollicking Buddy Holly-flavored rave-up. The other three tunes tend to be somewhat less original, and the playing not so enthusiastic.
The Bangles are a dark-horse entry in the field. This all-woman quartet is scarcely a year old and barely known outside its native Los Angeles. "Bangles" (Faulty FEP 1302) is very traditional sounding, and yet feels fresh, spontaneous, almost novel. Their honest enthusiasm and frank craftsmanship are a welcome change from East Coast intellectualism and emotional reserve. The Bangles break new ground within the genre without resorting to occasional parody or paraphrase. They produce an eerily authentic yet wholly original folk rock sound, replete with the most beautifully vocal harmonies you'll hear this side of the Roches. It's a stunning opening shot.