Sobule, Happy Town (Atlantic 1997) - With Happy Town
(her second major label release), Jill Sobule comes into her own as
an alternative popwonder. If you think E (of Eels
fame) knows how to make a great power pop album, then take a trip to
Sobule's first release generated the homo-erotic hit, "I Kissed a
Girl," which was banned on several Southern radio stations. But that
1995 effort was too quirky for me. On Happy Town, Sobule
eschews her eccentricities and focuses on searching girl pop, with glorious
Happy Town is another of those self-recorded labors
of love; Sobule laid down almost all of the instrumentals, with guest
appearances on guitar by Steve Earle and producer Richard
Highlights include "Half a Heart" and "Clever" (the hit single), both
of which feature Alanis-style questioning/confrontational
lyrics, and the title track ("Happy Town"), which has a Liz
Phair flavor. More reflective is "Soldiers of Christ," which
resembles Belinda Carlisle's post-Go-Gos
It's the surprises on Happy Town that make it such
a pleasure. Thus, subtle blends of organs and horns create a richly-satisfying
musical tapestry. Another terrific cut is the frank, "Love is Never
A delight from start to finish (though the cheesy album cover leaves
a lot to be desired), Happy Town is a solid pop contender.
Don't judge this album by its cover.
Dog, Retreat from the Sun (Geffen/DGC 1997) - According to
the old saying, the third time's a charm. And that's certainly true
for That Dog, whose third major label release is power pop dynamite.
Retreat from the Sun marks the first time that That
Dog has used an outside producer (Brad Wood, who has
worked with Liz Phair and Veruca Salt).
And it shows. Retreat from the Sun is a much more focused
and polished effort, employing a variety of instruments (including cello,
synthesizer, and even french horn) to create a full pop feeling.
That Dog is fronted by 24-year-old Anna Waronker,
who acts as singer, songwriter, and spokesperson. Rounding out the band
is Rachel Haden on bass and vocals, sister Petra
Haden on violin and vocals, and Tony Maxwell
on drums and percussion.
Retreat from the Sun has a solid alternative pop
feel, with some of the British edginess evidenced by Elastica
and Lush (whose 1996 release, Lovelife,
was an unrecognized gem).
The band's signature three-part harmonies and idiosyncratic violin
have been expanded by Anna's discovery of the piano, which she taught
herself to play. Says Anna, "Charlotte Caffey (formerly of the Go-Go's)
came over on New Year's Eve 1996, and played 'Head Over Heels' on my
piano after midnight. I was intrigued by the way she plays, and practiced
'Head Over Heels' for days afterwards."
With songs like "Gagged and Tied" and "Long Island," singer Waronker
walks a fine line between pop sweetheart and alternative bitch. Yet
she's not afraid to let her guard down, as reflected on songs like,
"Cowboy Hat." And who couldn't love a three-minute pop ditty, complete
with broken-hearted love story, named after my hometown ("Minneapolis")?
Retreat from the Sun shows the benefits that result
from good production work. That Dog channeled its talents to create
a pop delight, which will charm you all summer long.
Holsapple, Out of My Way (Monkey Hill Records 1997) - With
a recording career stretching 20 years, including stints with the 80's
pop group the dB's and most recently, the Continental
Drifters, Peter Holsapple has a reputation as a consummate
musician, songwriter, and producer. Out of My Way,
his first solo release, is an uneven slice of power-pop, with Holsapple
supplying most of the instruments and vocals.
During the past two years, Holsapple has been most visible as Hootie
and the Blowfish's utility musician, playing guitars, mandolin,
organ, piano, and accordion. Holsapple also opened Hootie's
shows during a three-week European jaunt last winter.
In fact, Holsapple plays so many instruments that he can hardly list
them. Yet he draws from a talented circle of friends for the new album,
including Carlo Nuccio on drums, Benmont Tench
on keyboards, wife Susan Cowsill on backing vocals,
and Vicki Peterson (ex-Bangles) on
Holsapple recorded Out of My Way during a six-year
period, which, frankly, shows. Out of My Way does not
have a cohesive center, although some of the cuts are brilliant. In
particular, the title track ("Out of My Way") is a great slice of power-pop.
Albums that are recorded over too many years, or with too many producers,
usually don't gel. And that's the problem with Out of My Way;
the pudding never quite sets. Though the ingredients are tasty indeed.
-- Randy Krbechek