Right from the get-go, Steve Barton seems determined to put the power back into power pop. The former lead voice and guitar of alt-rock band Translator never lacks for energy on Charm Offensive, his second solo release.
But Charm Offensive‘s main charm is not its charismatic verve. Barton has a knack for writing rock songs in a variety of styles, covering a range from British invasion to punk to new wave, and then some. Barton says he set out to make loud songs with good lyrics—for the most part, he succeeds.
For production, Barton turned to his old friend Ed Stasium, who had produced the last two Translator albums (as well as other bands like The Ramones, The Smithereens, and Talking Heads). Then he assembled a band from some top west coast musical talent. Backing up guitarist/lead vocalist Barton are Casey Dolan (guitar/vocals), Derrick Anderson (bass), Robbie Rist (drums), and Dave Scheff (the original drummer from Translator). The results are worthy of the recommended loud volume.
The disc leads with “When You’re Gone”, a tour-de-force example of what upbeat love songs can be. It’s a song of reminisce and contemplation that’s driven by the power rhythm section of The Andersons band members Anderson and Rist. It’s also got those harmonies and guitars that power pop fans crave—end result, a great three-minute track.
The energy doesn’t let up any on “Kiss This”, a challenge that Barton presents quite effectively as a dare, declaring challenges to his love like throwing himself over the cliffs of Dover and onto his sword for love. Maybe it’s not subtle romance, but in these times, it might be a more effective rallying cry.
What follows next might be taken by some as sacrilege. Barton and his cohorts have taken the Lennon-McCartney soft ballad “She’s Leaving Home” and pumped it full of punk caffeine until it revs up into something quite different from what you’d expect. Here’s the best surprise—it works! Once you get beyond the concept novelty, the song still wins you over. It remains infectious as ever, even when running on a hyper-schedule like this. After a few listens, it’ll be stuck in your head (I know, it’s currently stuck in mine).
The first quiet moments are found in “Monument”, a sweet memorable song of professed desires: “Let me be your monument / I want to open my mouth for you / I want to wear your tattered crown / If we’re the king and queen of nowhere / then nowhere is someplace to be.” Derrick Anderson’s bass work is particularly fine here.
“Yours to Lose” has a sweeping organ accent that that makes it sound instantly familiar. The mise en scene here is one of broken hearts and stormy weather. Sometimes those things can go hand in hand.
In this current scene, where Scot-pop bands trade on what once was the signature sound from the Talking Heads, it’s only appropriate that Barton has written his own little tribute to the lovely Talking Heads (and Tom-Tom Club) bassist Ms. Weymouth in “Tina Finds the Silences”. Barton doesn’t stop making sense, but he manages a nice go of it nonetheless (I can picture him in his big white suit, singing this)—as does guest bassist Lisa Mychols.
It’s a trip back in the time machine for “Shy”. Here Barton writes a perfect little British invasion tune that invokes 1960s simplicity and charm in a big way. I’m a sucker for these melodic, harmony-laced ditties, and the backwards-guitar/Crickets lead (as well as the psychedelic coda) clinches it.
“Narcolepsy Baby” is another melodic winner, telling the unusual tale of a woman prone to sleep at any time: “She lays her head on a feather bed in the middle of the day / the sun can rise, she’ll close her eyes and drift somewhere away / and if she laughs at funny photographs and collapses in a heap / well it’s alright, it’s just day for night, she’s only gone to sleep / so don’t be scared boy / it’s okay / some things only happen in her dreams.”
While just a tad over the two-minute mark, “Hold a Shadow Down” is classic, retro, guitar-driven pop. Barton has it all here—harmonies, jangly guitars, powerful drums, a middle bridge and even the requisite handclaps. This is delectable ear candy, executed perfectly.
Those wondering if Barton can manage with an even earlier rock style need only hear the nice results on “Bertha Jane”, another sub-two-minute masterpiece that recalls the 1960s in a big way. Barton revs it up some for the new millennium, but this is good, dance-able entertainment (that comes and goes oh so quickly). The lyrics are laughably direct (“I wanna jump on your train / I wanna get to your station / without any hesitation”), but it’s not meant to be anything more than good fun.
The disc ends with the poignant ballad “What Treasures I May Find”, aptly conveying a relationship that’s also is coming to an end. This soft song has almost a Lilac Time, folk-rock feel to it.
At a total time of under 33 minutes, Charm Offensive definitely will leave you wanting more. Yet this CD doesn’t lack for quality - all 11 tracks display Barton’s talents well. He’s grown as a songwriter and can cover a wide realm of rock styles effectively. Steve Barton and his accomplished backing musicians present a most energetic and enjoyable effort, one where both the power and the pop are present and accounted for.
// Notes from the Road
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