According to prevailing wisdom, the biggest problem with power pop in the here and now is that it’s marked by a general tendency towards sameness. Individually, bands may tweak this or that sound, rely more on this or that instrument, but the “power pop sound” is so codified over its long history that it’s constantly struggling against homogeneity.
One listen to an International Pop Overthrow compilation will make that feeling clear—no matter what the level of talent (and the genre draws plenty of talent), it takes a lot to be heard over the din of one’s peers. This is even occasionally cited as the reason that no one power pop band has been commercially successful for a while now, barring the exceptions of Fountains of Wayne, and maybe Barenaked Ladies, and the argument is easily made that their fame is due to their sense of humor more than their style.
What is often lost in that generalization is that the power pop we know and (some of us) love today is as much about lineage as anything else in music. While trends come and go and come again in the broader, more rockist music scene, power pop is built on minor developments that can in some respects be grouped into decades: the mix of bubblegum and psychedelic pop of the ‘60s, the guitar-centric power pop of the ‘70s, and now (as recent memory becomes history) the synth-ier strains of the ‘80s. Power pop’s shadow extends over the Beatles and the Zombies, the Raspberries and Cheap Trick, and on through the Cars and the Outfield. And that slow progression over time is one of the reasons it’s never gone away. In the present, reflecting that layering upon layering of sound, current power pop bands distinguish themselves by being archeologists, digging down to their favorite layer and mining that particular groove for their personal take on a sound.
Britain’s the Sails, recently hailed by the UK press as the best power pop band in England, reach down to the roots of the sound, and like so many of their compatriots on the Rainbow Quartz label, they mine the ‘60s more than anything else. But to say that the Sails are merely “Beatlesque”—as surely a worn-out term in power pop annals as anything—is definitely an oversimplification. But for all the praise heaped on this self-titled debut, the disc kicks off with the most generic of jangly power pop tunes in “See Myself”—all pretty strummed guitars and sweet melodies. Clocking in at under two minutes, it’s pure pop reduction, which is fine for the genre, but seems like a sputtering way to start an album that has so much more to offer.
Thankfully, “The Slow Down” picks things up immediately and raises the bar by employing a cheerily psychedelic organ and some dirty guitar soloing, much in the vein of the Jessica Fletchers (currently the crown jewels of the Rainbow Quartz family), and establishes the swinging vibe that runs throughout the disc. “Wonderland” injects a sense of rock and trippiness with its organ and (fake?) sitar strains, and Michael Gagliano’s rounded Neil Diamond vocals make the track different enough that you pay more attention. And just when you think it’s going to be a slow traipse through a purple-lights and lava lamps backdrop, the coda drops and the song bursts into some tambourine shaking proto-funk, though it quickly drops back into lounge croon.
Similarly, “Chocolate” gives bubblegum an ‘80s edge with use of vocoder and layered harmonies, but it never quite escapes the gravitational pull of the ‘60s, thanks in large part to the calliope organ underneath the pop guitar chords. It’s not until “Let’s Get It Started” that Gagliano and company finally allow the guitars to speak for themselves, and it’s actually a buoyant change of pace, ditching the psych undertones for some truly sunny pop. The rest of the album suddenly seems to take off by dint of simply letting the jangle and chords carry the music, and “Can You Hear Me?” and “The Losers” feel like they should have been introduced earlier to support “The Slow Down”.
Ah, but wait… let’s go back the Beatles for a moment, because that’s what’s most important, right? After the sudden, welcome shift to guitar pop, the “Lucy in the Sky”-plodding “Firebell Alley” is a disappointment—which is unfortunate, because the Sails do the sound justice. All of this adds up to the strangest moment: when “She Is All That Matters” drops a heavy dose of Van Dyke Parks arranging the Beach Boys on the disc, complete with orchestration, and it feels surrealistically fresh after circling the mid-‘60s for an entire disc (which could have something to do with the Broadway showtune element thrown into the bridge).
It’s difficult to say what’s exactly wrong with this release. In all likelihood, nothing is, and the Sails do prove themselves to be a talented, capabale, and capable of interest power pop band. But there’s an ebb and flow to the track arrangement that irritates. You want the Sails to suddenly discover Big Star, or even the Raspberries, and really hit the killer hooks, rather than relying solely on a well-trod past. Or it could be as simple as mixing the sonic movement of the album up a bit to give the guitar-driven tracks a stronger presence.
Ultimately, The Sails suffers from the same problem that hounds power pop in general: it sounds too much like itself. Not that the songs don’t have individual identity—they do, and that’s a feat in and of itself in the power pop world. But so many bands have already been where the Sails reside that it’s hard to make any claim to their being the best. Perhaps rumors of their great live shows are true, and that energy makes up for something in concert, but on this disc they sound too much like their peers—a notch above, maybe, but only that notch.
So the Sails won’t be the band that resolves the problem and breaks power pop back into the big time, but they’re a great power pop band. In all likelihood, you already know if that’s enough for you.