Although Portland’s Nice Boys are pushing “Johnny Guitar” as the single, the go-to song on their debut album is actually “Teenage Nights”, a cow-bell spinned, stop-and-go riffed instant classic that could take on—right here, right now—any of the power pop classics. That’s right, put it on next to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”. Lay it on a mix CD between the Records’ “Starry Eyes” and the Flaming Groovies’ “Shake Some Action”. There will be no sag at all. This is a song with all the ingredients for success circa 1975—the rhythmic insistency, primal “unh!” between guitar riffs, the sweet-sad verse, the poignant nostalgia for adolescence, the triumphant harmonized chorus. It’s the kind of summer-time rock ‘n’ roll anthem that no one is bothering to make anymore, maybe the best song you’ll never hear on the radio this year.
You can’t write about the Nice Boys without mentioning that guitarist Terry Six is the lone surviving member of Exploding Hearts, a promising young band cut short by a van accident in July 2003. Yet musically, the two bands share only a general predilection for ‘60s-influenced pop rock; their actual output is quite different. Where Exploding Hearts rocked fast and simple and hard, Nice Boys explore more baroque textures and glam theatrics. There’s a Gary Glitter beat under “Dugong Along” that’s far more arch and playful than the straightforward pulse under “Boulevard Trash”, a dreamy ELO-mania in “Avenue 29” that billows and harmonizes more elaborately than the old band. Even the palm mute chugging, drum-kit battering “Only in Dreams” is full of guitar flourishes and delicate wordless backup vocals. There’s muscle at work in the syrup-viscous guitar work, but vulnerability, too, the sort of combination that made Big Star and the dBs so appealing. (“Southern Streets” could be a Holsapple outtake.)
And how about that single that we so blithely skipped over at the start of this review? Well, it’s good, not as good as “Teenaged Nights” but no slouch either. Its bare-bones shuffle of four-four drums is shot through by power chords, its sweet sung melody joined in multiple-voiced harmonies. It’s a radio hit from an alternative universe, a song that you might have known all your life if you weren’t hearing it for the first time.
People are going to toss words like “derivative” around when they talk about Nice Boys, but that’s just lack of imagination. Nice Boys are picking up where the great pop bands have left off, putting together the power chords and breezy melodies that people hear with their lizard brains as instantly, familiarly right.