Power pop may not be the best-selling sub-genre of rock, but it sure is one of the most resilient. It’s been kicking around since at least the glory days of Cheap Trick and the Knack, when it actually achieved some commercial success. Even today, a really good power pop band can make it onto the mainstream radar, as Foo Fighters have. Then there’s Superdrag, who seemed poised to be a success story, but didn’t quite make it. The Knoxville, Tennessee natives made a splash with their 1996 full-length debut, Regretfully Yours, on Elektra, and its accompanying MTV Buzz Bin single “Sucked Out”.
So what happened? The story is all too typical: the follow-up (1998’s Head Trip in Every Key) bombed, and they parted ways with their label. Bassist Tom Pappas left the band, but John Davis (vocals, guitar), Brandon Fisher (guitar), and Don Coffey, Jr. (drums) soldiered on, recruiting Sam Powers as Pappas’s replacement. Instead of being a sad last gasp from a band whose time had passed, 2000’s In the Valley of Dying Stars, their first post-major-label release, was an assured, energetic return to form. Now that they were out of the spotlight, the band could get back to making good rock ‘n’ roll instead of fretting over contracts and commercial viability. Their new album, Last Call for Vitriol, proves that the comeback was no fluke. There have been a couple of significant changes—Brandon Fisher has been replaced by Mic Harrison and Sam Powers has taken on a larger role, singing three songs and writing or co-writing five tracks—but Vitriol is mostly another lovesick, beer-infused combination of sweet melodies and crunching guitars.
The album kicks off with a majestic acoustic guitar line that sounds like the band could be heading into self-important Smashing Pumpkins territory. But then John Davis comes in with the gooey sweet words, “She’s one in a billion / With lips of vermilion / She created the heavens / Baby goes to eleven”. Guided By Voices’ Bob Pollard chimes in with his harmonies, and it becomes obvious real fast that this is going to be pop, sweet pop. And then, just when you’re good and prepared for a sunny, lovey-dovey set, “I Can’t Wait” starts up and shatters all expectations with its no-holds-barred arena rock ferocity. Let’s subtitle Vitriol “the many moods of Superdrag” so you get an idea of what you’re in for. For every rocker like “The Staggering Genius”, there’s icky sweetness like “Extra-Sensory” or the Lemonheads-like “Way Down Here with You”; something in between, like “Feeling Like I Do” and “Remain Yer Strange”; and an oddity like the Eagles-ish country of “Safe & Warm” or the sad troubadour lilt of “Her Melancholy Tune”.
Instead of making the album sound inconsistent, exploring these many moods and including new voices merely prevents Vitriol from becoming redundant, a feat which Superdrag’s last album, for all its virtues, didn’t accomplish. Whereas In the Valley blew its load with four great songs, then slid into more forgettable material, the songs on Vitriol are of a consistently high caliber most of the way through. They also clearly betray a ‘70s rock influence. Besides the full-on arena rock of “I Can’t Wait”, “Feeling Like I Do” cops bits of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (while otherwise sounding nothing like it), and “Drag Me Closer to You” convincingly riffs on ZZ Top. Like the Hives and the Mooney Suzuki (who cop ‘60s sounds rather than ‘70s ones), Superdrag aren’t slaves to their influences, but merely incorporate them into something that is at once contemporary and their own. Bravo to that.