It’s no surprise how elastic the term “power pop” has become when one considers how misunderstood the genre has always been. Its definition crunchy, loud music so catchy that it refuses to be evicted from the brain is a remarkably colossal umbrella that has covered countless bands for over 30 years. From the “inching-toward-New-Wave” tendencies of The Cars and The DBs, to the Sunset Strip-style Byrds influences typified by The Flamin’ Groovies, to the straight-up pop jams of Nick Lowe and Cheap Trick, power pop has been stretched for years to hold many guises.
In the end, however, all roads lead to one band. THE band, actually. Power pop, with its characteristic ringing guitars, harmonies, catchy-as-hell riffs and handclaps, is almost exclusively a collection of dedicated followers and revivalists of the Fab Four.
The Spongetones began their career nearly 25 years ago as group of those followers. During the past two and a half decades, their interest in being known as “Beatle-esque” has wavered periodically. But pay no attention to the fact that Number Nine is the band’s ninth album; the White Album reference is assuredly not a coincidence. The album finds the Spongetones cementing their rightful place at the front-line of British Invasion revivalists.
Most people call the Spongetones the most underrated power pop band of all time, and it’s damned hard to disagree. Their first two albums Beat Music (1982) and Torn Apart (1984) are almost Pitch-perfect emulations of the Beatles circa 1964 to 1965, when Merseybeat was king and falsetto background vocals were standard (or even cool), and song writing was so distinct no one would fathom calling the group copycats. Eventually the Spongetones branched out to more “serious” music, as most dyed-in-the-wool power-poppers eventually do. The near-decade jaunt produced an album or two of psychedelia and standard rock before they returned to their jangle-pop roots.
It would be inaccurate to call Number Nine a return to form, at least concerning the band’s early days; they no longer carry torches for Lennon and McCartney exclusively (despite the album title) and their song writing has changed course slightly. But how can they be blamed? The ‘Tones brushed genius with their first album and managed to do it again with the second; anything else they did would be doomed to a comparison with two near-masterpieces.
Perhaps this is why the leadoff track on Number Nine, a song called “Anyway Town”, is about the inability to live in the past. Indeed, the Spongetones are now assuredly middle-aged, and it shows in the album. (This is neither a put-down nor a problem; actually, it makes for an interesting spectacle. Very few power pop bands have lasted more than three or four albums without a hit, let alone 25 years.) The ‘Tones have weathered the years and kept the love-conquers-all mentality of the greatest power pop without becoming bitter and cynical, though Jamie Hoover, the group’s closest thing to a front man, still writes Lennon-esque songs about betrayal and paranoia, such as “Other Girls”.
Musically speaking, Number Nine is too rough to be the Fab Four, too jangly to be the Stones, too retro to be identified with any other modern power pop band. It is a child with British Invasion parents but with a face all its own, which is precisely what keeps the Spongetones firmly in the trenches of revivalist bands and saves Number Nine from being a tribute album.
And there is a difference. There are no Ringo look-alikes, no faux-British accents, no Hoffner bass copies. They’re just four guys playing the kind of music they want to see live forever.
Above all, the one thing Number Nine avoids being is a cheap attempt at the Spongetones circa 1982. “I Dance to You” harkens back to their glory days, but the majority of the album is a modern sound steeped in retro influences. A lot of artists refuse to acknowledge that their work derives from music that is, honestly, much older than they are. The Spongetones are lucky enough to know they’re not going to fool anyone into thinking they invented the style.
The album’s major letdown is the lack of one identifiable “hit”. The greatest power pop albums may be slightly uneven, but they have a number of great songs that end up on mix tapes and burned CDs for friends. Number Nine has really great moments, but almost all of them are moments that only your power pop buddies are going to care about.
Number Nine probably won’t set the world on fire like their heroes did over 40 years ago, but the album has enough flame to cause fans of the genre around the world to lose an eyebrow or two.
// Notes from the Road
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