A great number of wrong-minded people believe great power pop stopped happening a long time ago. For those of us who know differently, I think it’s wise to educate and enlighten such people. Cliff Hillis’ new CD Be Seeing You is a good place for this education to begin, mainly because it not only delivers stellar power pop, but does so in various polished styles. If you didn’t know this was just the multi-talented Cliff Hillis, one could pass this collection off as some sort of Yellow Pills compendium of the best work from recent power pop bands.
Hillis proves here that he is more than ready to take the spotlight, after previously being merely an integral part of both Starbelly and The John Faye Power Trip. On Be Seeing You, Hillis lets loose with a dozen powerfully accessible songs. What makes this solo debut so impressive is that Hillis handles all the instrumentation, save guest drummers and your occasional trumpet or flugelhorn, and produces the record as well, quite adeptly. Hillis knows his musical history and as a virtual one-man band creates a clean sound, with pleasant vocals and chiming guitars well separated for maximum pop listening pleasure.
The CD opens with the optimistic “Coming Out Alive”, a song you can sing along with on first listen (go ahead, I dare you). You’ll find it easy to join the chorus: “It’s all a matter of time/ we’re coming out alive/ we’re holding it together/ we’re coming out alive/ we’ve never felt better”. “Second Dimension,” the second song (clever, that) and “Grounded” sound incredibly like The Tories at their TV-theme song power pop best. Great strong lead vocals, perfect harmonies (both lead and backing vocals), superb bass, fun drumming and driving guitars brought together in clean, tight arrangements—what more could you possibly want?
Hillis also handles slower songs well. His “Never December” is a sweet melody with a bridge of sweeping doleful guitars, while the lyrics deal with pondering the idea of hanging it up: “Never December, never again / try to imagine where it would end / never December, now you’re alone/ try to remember just what went wrong.”
Hillis has managed to capture that Wonderful Life Tories’ sound and make it his own, powered by his strong guitar licks and natural ability to write catchy melodies. “Me and You” offers hints of Splitsville and Greenberry Woods (almost the same thing), with a little Churchills and The Rembrandts thrown in for good measure. “Before and After” takes Hillis into a Brian Wilson-ish realm, with soaring harmonies weaving in and out of a song that could fit comfortably on any Wondermints CD. “Sheila Said” continues in this vein, crossing it with a Squeeze-like sensibility and an upbeat horn section that makes it a unique Hillis original composition. “All of Your Sunshine” uses its “Good Day Sunshine” horns to good advantage, creating an instantly familiar sound that would be a welcome addition on say, Sloan’s One Chord To Another. “Nothing Matters More” has unusual rhythms paired with a nice pop melody that made me think of some Neil Finn solo compositions.
As with any strong infectious pop analysis, your references may vary. Remember that such references may appear larger than actual size. You might hear some Matthew Sweet here, some Posies there, possibly some others yet more obscure. Still, the key here is the strength of the music itself. Song for song, you’ll be amazed at the quality. Hillis knows his stuff—and offers up polish and finesse with both his song craft and delivery. His fine vocals hold up admirably even on the softer songs like “Wake” or “When You Feel”. All told, fans of the newer power pop need to add Cliff Hillis to their list—and those who think that power pop ended in 1969 can start their fresh musical education here. Be Seeing You deserves to be heard.
// Notes from the Road
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