After listening to the latest pop-rock/neo-psychedelic albums by Jellyfish, the Rembrandts and the Posies, you get the feeling that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who grew up in the '60s and those who wish they had. All three records are extremely derivative, but shamelessly, even gleefully so.
Granted, San Francisco's Jellyfish likes to think of itself more as a product of the '70s, a band that proudly boasts its allegiance to Elton John, Cheap Trick, Supertramp, Kiss and Queen. Clearly, Top 40 success along those lines is not something this group intends to sneer at. Yet nearly everything about the quartet's album "Bellybutton" (Charisma), from its trippy studio effects to its surreal cover art, suggests older pop influences, including the late-'60s Beatles.
Trouble is, like Electric Light Orchestra, Jellyfish has little more than an elaborately polished style to recommend it -- that and perhaps the fact that singer-drummer Andy Sturmer's tuneful McCartneyesque voice is awfully easy on the ears. Lavishly produced by Albhy Galuten of "Saturday Night Fever" infamy, "Bellybutton" is sonically dazzling at times, complete with overdubbed, wraparound harmonies, shifting acoustic-electric textures that move from chamber and orchestral sonorities to ringing guitars, and a sometimes snappy, sometimes soulful air.
Even the most likable tunes, however, lack melodies and lyrics that display much originality. "The Man I Used to Be," for example, pales when compared with some of Prince's paisley creations, which could well have inspired it, and the carefree attitude the band adopts on the agreeable ditty "Baby's Coming Back" is the sort of thing that Crowded House and Squeeze have done frequently in the past -- and done better.
In fact, coming from a band that aspires to commercial success, "Bellybutton" is surprisingly bereft of strong melodic hooks and catchy choruses, a void that not even the elaborate production can mask. As ear candy, it's certainly palatable enough, but it's also curiously hollow at the core. You're left wondering whether Jellyfish's obvious flair and enthusiasm for studio craft isn't all it has going for it. The band may prove otherwise when it performs at the 9:30 club Nov. 13.
'The Rembrandts' The Rembrandts, too, are no slouches when it comes to evoking pop's tie-dye past, especially the British variant, but their new self-titled album (on Atco) is a lot less concerned with the trappings. Blessed with a comparatively streamlined production, it focuses on songs that still sound like songs, not overwrought or fanciful period pieces, and solid lyrics and tuneful hooks are always a welcome substitute for conceptual strokes, even deft ones.
The duo -- Danny Wilde and Phil Solem -- is a product of L.A.'s late-'70s rock circuit that spawned the Knack, the Plimsouls and the Motels. After drifting apart, Wilde and Solem got together recently with a couple of friends -- drummer Pat Mastelotto and keyboardist Dave Zeman -- and recorded 13 songs that eventually attracted major label attention.
The results may not be earthshaking, but they are pleasing in the same hard-to-resist fashion that the best '60s-derived pop is. What the duo lacks, oddly enough, is the one thing Jellyfish has in abundance -- a singer with personality. Wilde's voice is strictly a generic rock instrument, and it doesn't help matters any when he pushes it beyond its limitations, aping the way McCartney aped Little Richard, only with far less charm or success.
Happily, the combination of Wilde's lyrics, Solem's insinuating guitar work and an evocative but not overblown production makes up for the album's lapses. "Everyday People" is typical of the duo's ingenuity. It kicks off with Bob Dylan's refrain about "the times they are a-changin' " before cleverly incorporating other '60s slogans and catchwords into a latter-day peace anthem. Likewise, the innocent Beatlesque love song "Goodnight" and the wry "New King," with its passing reference to Lennon and McCartney's "Yesterday," emphasize the duo's pop influences without ever overdoing it.
The Posies: 'Dear 23' Seattle's Posies, who appear at the 9:30 club Monday night, also started out as a duo with garage band roots. But on their major label debut, "Dear 23" (DGC), founders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow are joined by bassist Rick Roberts and drummer Mike Mussburger for a lot of Brit-flavored pop that's highly reminiscent of the Hollies. While other '60s influences are apparent on the album -- the Fortunes, for one -- it's really remarkable how much Auer and Stringfellow sound like the Hollies on "Golden Blunders," "Apology," "Mrs Green" and other cuts, even though they reportedly were unfamiliar with the group until recently.
John Leckie, producer of XTC and the Stone Roses, builds the entire album around tart, soaring harmonies, so that even the songs with the bleakest lyrics have a peculiarly buoyant quality about them. And if you were to strip the studio veneer from most of the tracks, you'd still have a batch of songs strong enough to whip most of the retro-rock competition.