Power pop. It's the redheaded stepchild of rock. It started as a quick fix description of those mid-'90s bands who turned their noses up at grunge and preferred the sunny melodies and crunchy guitars of such luminaries as the Beatles, Big Star, the Raspberries, Cheap Trick, and, last but certainly not least, Jellyfish, who may be the first band to be christened with the dreaded power pop moniker. These days, the phrase is a death knell, not unlike what it would do to a gangsta rapper's career if you spread a rumor that he was gay.
It wasn't always like this, though. In 1999, power pop very nearly broke into the mainstream, thanks to a number of strong outings from artists such as John Faye Power Trip (whose debut also turned out to be their swan song), Ben Folds Five's dark but dazzling The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and Fluid Ounces' woefully underrated In the New Old Fashioned Way, which was like early Ben Folds Five without the arch but with twice the smarts. Even Nik Kershaw turned in the best record of his career with 15 Minutes, a near flawless guitar pop album, and XTC resurfaced after a self-imposed seven-year exile with the orchestral pop masterpiece Apple Venus Vol. I. Power pop was huge, baby. Well, if you asked that pale, friendless virgin boy in the glasses behind the counter at the local record shop, he would tell you that power pop was huge. Go ahead. Ask him. He's so lonely.
However, those albums all paled in comparison to the 1999 debut of one Will Owsley. After Owsley's first attempt at rock stardom crashed and burned in the form of the infamously unreleased Semantics album Powerbill (now available as Japanese import), he went on tour supporting Amy Grant and Shania Twain, making enough money in the process to build his own recording studio. He then made an album with his own money and offered it to the labels as is. Eventually, Giant Records bit (and later, bit the dust) and released Owsley, a fantastic collection of new wave- and classic pop-fueled gems that heralded the arrival of a Major New Talent. Nautica Jeans was on board right away, snatching the rocker "I'm Alright" for one of their ads. But Giant, in a fit of typical promotional foolishness, chose "Coming up Roses" as the first single, a fine mid-tempo song but by no means the album's most viable unit shifter. Surprise, surprise, the album stiffed, Owsley was dropped, and the major labels all swore never to let another power pop band within their ranks again.
The scene has changed considerably since then. Power pop is actually making its way onto the airwaves but in a mutated form, i.e., only the bands that used to be considered emo are acceptable for airplay (see: Jimmy Eat World, Death Cab for Cutie, Dash-bored Confessional). Owsley, meanwhile, bided his time and assembled another record on his own, but first had to sift through the ashes of Giant's demise in order to obtain the rights to release the record himself. Finally, and rather quietly, Owsley has released his sophomore album, the aptly titled The Hard Way. It sounds much like his debut, but there's this unshakable sense of compromise, which is ironic given that he's no longer under the guidance of a clueless major label. Is Owsley actually selling out, on his own accord?
One might certainly think so after their first pass at opening track "Be with You". The directness of both its melody and arrangement are startling, bringing to mind every other faceless pop rock song you'd hear on a Mix station. The fact that he didn't sound like every faceless rock song on a Mix station was what made people like Owsley in the first place. To aspire to that kind of blandness now is disturbing. He sounds desperate, and not only that, he sounds like a different person altogether; both the tone and the pitch of his vocals on "Be with You" are deeper, distant, off. Naturally, "Be with You" is being tapped as the single. Ye gods.
"Rise" and "She's the One" cover similar territory as "Be with You". They're both perfectly fine pop songs, yet beneath Owsley's ability, and after three completely underwhelming songs in a row, to lead off the album, no less, fear starts to creep in. Has Owsley lost his muse, or his mind?
Luckily, the fourth song, "Dude", changes matters considerably for the better from that point on. The chorus has Owsley's trademark harmonies and an equally trademark lyric in "Why'd you have to go and be so rude / That's no way to treat a dude". "Matriarch" is a pretty piano ballad akin to "Good Old Days" from his debut, and "Dirty Bird", the album's best cut, is its first flash of both flash and nerve.
And this is where the main problem with The Hard Way lies. As charming as the final seven songs are (he also hid his cover of "Band on the Run", made for the Macca tribute album Listen to What the Man Said, after closing track "Rainy Day People"), the entire album is surprisingly short on energy. There isn't an "I'm Alright", "Zavelow House", "Sonny Boy" or "Oh No the Radio" anywhere in sight, but there are a ton of "Class Clown"'s, "Sentimental Favorite"'s and "Good Old Days"'s to be had. Simply put: the album doesn't rock, and what made his debut so refreshing was his ability to seamlessly blend harder-edged rock songs with more sensitive balladry. This time, we get none of the former, and a whole lot of the latter.
Perhaps The Hard Way turned out the way it did because the trials and tribulations Owsley endured just to get the damn thing made eventually wore him down. The end result is, unfortunately, a mixed blessing at best. It's great to see Owsley make another album, but it would have been better to see him not make this album.