If there’s one charge that can be honestly leveled at power pop as a genre, it’s that for all its classic trappings, it has a pretty consistent ability to sound the same. Familiar chords and classic riffs, catchy melodies and upbeat harmonies, and the all-important hook frequently combine in the power pop kingdom to produce bands that are barely distinguishable from one another. Such is the nature of any genre that has a distinct sound that all must strive for, but in power pop a break from the norm can be grounds for dismissal more than heralded bravery.
All of which makes the feat of putting together a three-disc, 65-song compilation CD that maintains the listener’s interest a singular accomplishment of its own. And as easily as such ambition could have failed, the good people at Not Lame have managed to succeed for the most part. Yes, it’s a glut of power pop candy for the ears, and this is hardly a collection that’s meant to be digested in a single sitting, but over the course of the three jam-packed discs, there are enough hooks (and more importantly, just enough variation) to make it a real treat for the guitar rock aficionado.
Of course, the size of this collection is a direct reflection of the explosive growth of the International Pop Overthrow festival that gave birth to the series. Once confined to Los Angeles, the festival has since spilled over into other major US markets like Boston, Chicago, and New York, as well as crossing the ocean to touch down in Liverpool, England, and as it’s ballooned outwards, it’s picked up an increasingly gigantic roster of artists who have performed at one festival location or another over the course of the years since its founding in 1997. With the festival’s official website boasting “Each International Pop Overthrow features between 100-180 of the best pop bands from around the world,” it’s not surprising that the affiliated compilation would be enormous as well.
As festival founder David Bash comments in the liner notes, the goal of power pop is always to craft a singular catchy song, and because of this focus on the song over the album, or even the artist, a compilation such as this works in some ways better than a marathon festival. You get one juicy cut from each act, and the band can offer their best effort in one three-minute burst of melody, rather than slogging through a 40-minute set that sounds like the 40-minute set that precedes and follows it. That said, because this is a power pop compilation there is certainly a general trend of same-ness, and because this is a hand-picked selection, the tracks here all display some talented musicianship and songwriting, making it difficult to stand apart. Therefore it is precisely the tracks that do deviate from the primary formula that manage to stand out.
Picking out just the highlights is a chore in itself, as each disc offers a solid handful of great songs percolating above the merely pretty good. These tracks tend to be the one that bend the traditional melodies, add in heavier doses of rock, or offer lyrics that aren’t about love’s mysteries. From Disc One you get some highly catchy mid-‘80s college rock from the Confusions, some lysergic oddity from My Pocket Zoo, bright energy from the Well Wishers, doses of new wave from Harkness, post-punk overtones from Beyond Veronica, and some live garage rock from the Trend. Disc Two has a bit more divergence into rock styles that walk alongside power pop’s claimed territory, with a Beck-like offering from the Supahip, a disco-charged dance number from Susan Hedges and the Other Kind, techno-pop washes from the Seesaw, psych-pop from Blake Jones and the Trike Shop, Elvis Costello/John Wesley Harding stylings from Garfield’s Birthday, and a psychedelic funk line laid down by Monogroove. If Disc Three has a separate identity, it’s the presence of more pure pop in a singer-songwriter vein. Morty Shallman delivers a dramatic pure pop gem, whereas the Afternoons provide a Rentals-esque slice of new wave fun, the lauded sparkle*jets UK wink and grin through a bouncy bit of Jellyfish magic, Truman Falls takes it delicately acoustic, Mark Johnson marries Springsteen to Billy Joel, Glowfriends take it slow and murky, and Beatnik Turtle tosses in some humor and horns to round things out. And that’s only scratching the surface of the offerings here.
If the bands listed above seem totally unknown to you, well, it’s no surprise, as the majority of the acts that work the power pop circuit and the International Pop Overthrow festival itself don’t tend to be big stars outside of the insular world of the genre’s community. And that’s where this CD is both a blessing and a curse for these acts. Because they’re highlighted here they get exposure they might otherwise miss (assuming an audience of power pop ghetto tourists, rather than diehard fans). But with 65 bands to discover, it’s hard to know where to start in looking for more. The liner notes are understandably limited and the whole affair seems a bit overwhelming.
But as a compilation of consistently strong power pop music, IPO Volume 8 does the festival, the fans, and the genre proud by collecting hours of catchy tunes in one crowded but handy place. For the average guitar rock fan, there should be at least a few songs here that will grab you hook, line, or singer.