New Pop City is populated with highly competent, melodic jangle-pop and is easily the best effort yet from this Eugene, Oregon quartet, so why do I feel I want more? Sure, there are Rickenbackers and harmonies enough, catchy retro beats and ambitious basslines, occasional handclaps and fine musicianship all around. This is a good CD, rife with well-constructed powerpop, middle bridges and all, the kind of stuff you used to hear on radio in decades past.
Yet, my gut take on it is this: here's a good band that could approach great with slightly better material. Many of the songs here, though catchy, seem just one or two hooks shy of being better. Don't get me wrong -- these guys are talented, and cover a good range of pop and rock sounds in an accomplished manner. They've come an enormous way from their inception as a cover band in 1986.
After a few years playing the local circuit (along with various personnel changes), the group broke up in 1989 so that each member could go his own way. In 1993, the group reformed with a determination to do original music, playing shows throughout the Northwest and gaining a good reputation en route to recording a debut album in late 1994. That CD, 1995's Worlds Apart, earned them placement in the 1995 Ticketmaster Music Showcase, where they were one of 185 bands chosen from over 10,000 entries. Even then, their talent was evident.
Their second release, 1997's Suite 420, showcased the group's ability to handle a variety of styles and garnered more critical notice. Now, on New Pop City, we get ever tighter playing and the merits of a band maturing and establishing its own musical identity. These four know their historical pop references, and aren't afraid to wear them proudly (the CD art is a big Ludwig bass drum sporting the group's name, while the cover art features the Statue of Liberty and her mapleglow Rick 12-string).
It's no mystery that they play well as a unit. This band has opened for Rick Derringer, Foghat, Quiet Riot, Starship, and more recently The Knack and has toured extensively, including a successful jaunt to Denmark (which also is the title of the opening track). All told, a very talented and industrious foursome: Jesse Ruggles and Roger McConnell handle guitars and vocals, while Mike Trathen offers additional vocals and plays bass (these three also share songwriting duties), while Ron Petty holds it all together with the drums. Ruggles and Trathen share keyboard duties, and Ruggles helped with graphics, while Trathen engineered and helped mix the tracks.
New Pop City has clean, guitar-driven songs with a versatility of sound that recalls a certain Liverpudlian quartet at times, or maybe The Hollies, The Byrds, Badfinger and Cheap Trick at others, and occasionally even more obscure power pop groups like Spongetones and Ice Cream Hands. The music is new, but the overall sounds are derivative, even though well produced and expertly performed.
The CD opens with traffic noise that fades into the jangly "Denmark", a catchy little number that urges you to "open up and let your love shine in". It features some great bass work by Trathen (who penned the composition), and guitars and harmonies that seem directly transported from the 1960s.
The majority of the songs on the new collection are written by Ruggles, who is well versed in his pop history. "She Won't Have It" successfully revisits the days of the Brit-pop invasion with a lead that begs to be topped with a bell (listen and you'll hear what I mean) and gives us this lyrical advice: "You need some love but you won't have it / you want some happiness but you don't need it / there is something you should know, if you let your feelings grow / you've got to let the bad times go, but you won't have it".
"Kristen Did It" borrows an opening hook from The Mindbenders "Groovy Kind of Love" and again, Ruggles shows himself a deft practitioner of the Britpop sound, offering an upbeat catchy love song that clocks in at 2:32. "What's Wrong" vies for most infectious song of this collection, with lead guitar underlining the vocals each time the title line is sung in a manner that stays with you long after you've heard it. "Love Me Alone" is perhaps Ruggles' best achievement here -- another great catchy song with fine guitar licks.
"Volcano Mouth" covers Cheap Trick terrain impressively, with a middle bridge that features XTC-like phase shifts. ". . . And She Goes" is another short Ruggles formulaic powerpop gem that explores the expectations surrounding a romantic meeting.
"Allie" is a pretty ballad/tribute to a particular woman, while "Going Crazy" plays upon the psychedelic pop vibe, with a little Jack Nicholson sound bite thrown in for good measure. The appropriately titled instrumental "Where's the Words?" reminds this listener in parts of The Churchills' "Everybody Gets What They Deserve".
When Apple Records sought to give artists Badfinger a jump-start, they enlisted McCartney to hand over his "Come and Get It", which proved a reliable hit and did the trick. Ironically, that same song is covered in this collection in a fairly straight rendition, making this reviewer wish McCartney could provide Phamous Phaces with a similar "radio-ready" guaranteed hit today.
This 13-song collection is solid throughout, but leaves one wanting the good to be great. With slightly stronger material, this band has the talent to make a real difference in the world of pretty jangly guitar-driven three-minute powerpop. New Pop City is a step forward for Phamous Phaces, but it's a safe bet their best still is yet to come.