late '70s LA power pop touchstone and its difficult follow-up get a single-disc reissue.
With the benefit of hindsight, there's a couple of different ways of looking at the first two albums from LA-by-way-of-OK New Wave power poppers 20/20: there's founding members Steve Allen and Ron Flynt's early years in the Sooner State, crossing paths with the similarly-minded Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour (who lit out for El Lay and scored big with "I'm On Fire"); the move to Los Angeles and '78 debut single on Greg Shaw's Bomp! label ("Giving It All" b/w "Under the Freeway"); the '79 rising-tide-lifts-all-boats assist from the Knack's "My Sharona" that helped 20/20 score a deal with CBS subsidiary Portrait... whew. Y'all caught up?
As for the albums themselves, 1979's 20/20 and '81's Look Out!" combine to form a textbook case of a breezy, clever, classic power pop album -- a standout even in an era where albums like this came out on what feels like a near-weekly basis -- and its difficult, belabored follow-up. 20/20's reputation in power pop circles rests almost solely on their eponymous debut, and, specifically, on their gem of a track "Yellow Pills" (which, of course, Jordan Oakes used to title his power pop fanzine/album compilations), a four-minute ode to uppers and top-of-the-world youth, augmented by a nervy guitar lead and glints of synthesizer. If you haven't listened to the tune in a while, it's tougher-edged than you remember. That said, there's hardly a duff track on the debut: "Tonight We Fly" flirts with boogie rock; the jangly (of course!) "Remember the Lightning" captures that first moment a girl strikes your fancy, and a few darker tunes -- the (admittedly stalker-ish) "She's An Obsession" and "Leaving Your World Behind" -- leaven the saccharine rush-of-love-and-youth jams. It's easy to forget from the vantage point of 2012-13, that power pop wasn't always frozen in amber, that flesh and blood young guys were out there making it up as they went along, and 20/20 is one of the genre's finest examples of that.
And then there's Look Out!, a perfectly cromulent record whose chief role is to further the glory of its predecessor. Ignoring the maxim to strike while the iron was hot, the band took nearly 15 months to birth Look Out! (and lost a drummer and traded in producer Earle Mankey, of Sparks fame, for Richard Podolor). Despite the outward-facing title, Look Out! is a deeply claustrophobic, interior record, full of paranoia and discontent. The spectre of a mushroom cloud hangs over opener "Nuclear Boy" and things don't get much brighter from there: A woman helps an alien who lands in Cleveland (not Howard the Duck), who when splits for the West Coast on "Alien"; the narrator of "The Night I Heard A Scream" witnesses a hit and run accident and "Mobile Unit 245" revisits the Vietnam War, which had ended only six year earlier. Thematically, the record is all over the place.
The darker lyrical turn and tougher sound rarely plays to the band's strengths: charming power pop with some New Wave keyboards. That said, the Springsteenian (or Springsteen-parody) "Life in the USA" and the closing "American Dream", ticking off the isolation of freeways, microwaves and "television suicide", as well as asking the prickly question, "Don't you want to be a part of anything?", offer an interesting Third Way for the band: the sardonic power pop song -- and it's funny to think that Black Flag, just a few miles down the road, were also playing the American Disillusionment card... and that both bands stole it from Creedence’s “Ramble Tamble”.
To these ears, Look Out! marks one of the bigger sophomore slumps in rock -- overwrought, overcooked and trying too hard to Say Something. It's an interesting failure, and one too rarely seen in these play-it-safe days. Allen and Flynt released three more albums under the 20/20 banner in the ensuing years, but never recaptured their early magic. Hopefully a few ears will find their way to this first-time-on-CD release. (The disc also includes two non-album tracks, “Childs Play” and “People In Your Life”.)