Power pop doesn't get much better
Coming at the tail end of grunge (Hole’s Live Through This and Nirvana MTV Unplugged) and the last gap of slacker rock (Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain), 1994 was not a particularly auspicious year for power pop. To be sure, it was the year that Guided By Voices released its landmark Bee Thousand and Sebadoh turned substantially more melodic with Bake Sale. Still search as you might through old Pazz and Jop lists, there was nothing popular that sounded remotely like the Grip Weeds House of Vibes.
The New Jersey band’s raucous blend of Cheap Trick’s power chords, the Byrds’ ethereal jangle and CSNY’s airy harmonies was different, half a decade too early for the New York-based garage revival of the early 00s, and a decade or so too late to be in sync with the West Coast’s Paisley Pop movement. No wonder this self-recorded, self-released gem of the power pop art fell on mostly deaf ears, lauded by a few Jersey visionaries, hailed in Germany but completely ignored by commercial radio and MTV.
It’s too bad, because if there ever were a record tailor-made for blasting out of AM radio on the way to the beach House of Vibes is it. From the first crunching chords of “Out of Day” through the last feedback tripping psych solo of “Walking in the Crowd”, the record balances precisely at the tipping point between rock and pop. It’s the same enticing ground that the Who covered in their classic Sells Out, simultaneously hard-edged and accessible, blossoming with melody and rackety with drums. And along the way, the band cranks out half a dozen classic songs, “Salad Days”, “Close Descending Love”, and “Don’t Belong.”
This reissue of House of Vibes encompasses the entire original CD, remixed and remastered from the original multitrack tapes, plus 13 additional tracks recorded at about the same time in two radio appearances and a live show at Manhattan’s Tilt. It has extensive notes about the band’s then unusual DIY approach to recording, the original House of Vibes where they lived and worked and made the record, and the faux House of Vibes whose photo adorns the cover. (It was close by and more photogenic than their real house; it looks like the Adams Family house.)
The core of the album is, naturally, the original material, recorded in 1993 and 1994 by brothers Rick (guitar) and Kurt Reil (drums), guitarist Kristin Pinell, who had just joined, and Mick Hargreaves on bass. (Hargreaves has since left the band.) Their sound is classic 1960s Nugget-style pop, chiming guitar chords punctuating instantly memorable melodies, and everything sung in full-band, three- and four-part harmonies. It is embellished occasionally with additional instruments. There is a sitar and flute on the dreamy, bongo-paced “Realise” and some wonderful organ work on “Don’t Belong” and “Salad Days.” But mostly what the Grip Weeds play is almost the platonic ideal of power pop, hypnotic sweetness, amped and riffed and drummed into rock intensity.
Like all good power pop, these songs can be read as either sad or happy or somewhere in between, depending on how and when you listen to them. There’s a bubbly effervescence here, unquestionably, yet also a measure of melancholy. The lyrics, too, have a thoughtful, spiritually questioning cast to them. “Realise,” as breezy and sweet as a summer song can be is all about existential angst, with lyrics like “So how can you tell me that the love I sense is just a dream/when the fear of loneliness is in your eyes/to say would be the end/a moment to comprehend/that there is more before you realize.” And even hard, Kinks-rocking “Don’t Belong” slips themes of alienation, illusion and the hopes for transcendence in between howling psych-wailing guitar solos.
The main problem with House of Vibes Revisited is that classic power pop records have an ideal duration, maybe 45 minutes max. The original material fits these parameters exactly. However, with the radio interviews, demos, live alternate versions and other extras, the album clocks in at more than an hour. It feels a little bloated.
And yet, there is one track in the extras that has never been released anywhere, and which is, without a doubt, one of the band’s strongest songs. That is “Edge of Forever,” a slow-chorded, intoxicatingly harmonized mini-pop masterpiece that will remind you of a whole slew of great 1960s bands, the Byrds, the Monkees, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, while remaining essentially itself. It also contains the album’s best line, the koan-like, be-here-now couplet “Paradise is never far away/And the edge of forever is a day”. If you like power pop, it doesn’t get much better than that.