David Bash dishes on some of the best new pop releases in recent weeks
Hello again, friends! It’s been a long while since my last column; I guess the pandemic got the better of me.
But I’m happy to be back, and I celebrate my return by reviewing five albums that are among the cream of the crop of 2021 releases and reissues! Enjoy!
Artist: Elton John
Album: Regimental Sgt. Zippo
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
This was one of the more anxiously awaited Record Store Day releases, and it has lived up to expectations. The cover is a bit misleading, as it conjures strong images of psychedelic pop, and while there are a few psych-pop numbers, particularly the title track, “Nina” and “Watching The Planes Go By”, most of Regimental Sgt. Zippo is more along the lines of late ‘60s UK songwriter pop with some baroque flourishes, which in the case of Elton John is surely a good thing. No doubt big fans of Mr. John are going to want this, as it’s a fine showcase of the nascent talents of Elton and Bernie. One of the most fascinating things about this release is it raises more questions than it answers:
Was this album really slated for release at the time?
Nobody is saying anything definitive at this point; some promo material would lead one to believe that the album was to be released in 1968 and then shelved, but some experts feel the tracks are a bunch of well-realized demos that were recorded at similar times, and thus went well together, but were never meant to be an album. As for Elton, he ain’t talkin’ at the moment.
If the album had come out at the time, how would it have affected Elton John’s career?
There’s an adage known as “the fallacy of the pre-determined outcome”, which assumes that if something in the past was somehow altered, what happened afterward would have still taken place. Others subscribe to the theory of the butterfly effect, which essentially states that if something were to alter the wing movements of a butterfly, it could have a profound effect on the future. We’ll never know, but had this album come out and received a certain amount of fanfare, it could have altered the creative path Elton and Bernie would have taken. Similarly, if the album had flopped, no label may have henceforth been interested and there wouldn’t have been any career to speak of. Something to ponder…
Had the album come out at the time, would it have been considered a landmark disc, or perhaps a long-lost classic after the fact?
As a longtime collector of late ‘60s pop records, I don’t think Regimental Sgt. Zippo would have been considered a landmark per se, but I do believe several critics would have liked it, and it would have received favorable reviews. It’s doubtful it would have made the UK or US charts, but as we all know, chart placement (or lack thereof) doesn’t always correlate with taste. I do think it would have been re-discovered, as so many obscure ‘60s albums have been, and celebrated in collectors magazines like Shindig! and Record Collector, as it surely will be anyway with its current release, not unlike Billy Nicholls debut album, Would You Believe, which never saw official release at the time, either.
All in all, Regimental Sgt. Zippo is a fine disc, and does foreshadow the kind of talent that flourished into several huge hit singles, Top 10 albums, and a Hall of Fame career. Check it out, if you can still find it!
Album: All A View
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
One could say, “fourth time’s a charm” with this album, except all four of Wanderlust’s platters have been excellent, beginning with their 1995 RCA Records release, Prize. All A View may very well be their best; it’s a combination of songs written for a proposed second RCA release that never happened, as well as tunes main man Scot Sax recently wrote. Sax, with a lot of help from band mates Rob Bonfiglio, Mark Getten and Jim Cavanaugh, sprays his rapturous stylings all over the record, with influences ranging from The Beatles, Elton John, Neil Young, Hall & Oates, and others, coalescing into some mighty catchy power pop! Even when the subject matter is a downer or negative in general, Sax’s voice and the band’s lusty playing takes the listener out of the doldrums and propels them into a world of happiness. Picks to click: “Black Currant Jam”, “Corduroy Moon”, “I Can Be Moved”, etc… How the hell could RCA ever drop these guys? Bad major label, bad major label!!
Artist: The Bablers
Album: Psychadilly Circus
Label: Big Stir Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The Beatles of Finland? Why not, as the music of this four-piece cries out for that kind of appellation! These guys have been doing it for quite awhile, as their first album was released in 1980, but 41 years on certainly hasn’t slowed them down. Psychadilly Circus will certainly whet the appetite of any fan of The Beatles or Badfinger, as it’s replete with that kind of melodic pop, and is a fine mixture of Lennon-esque ballads and McCartney-esque midtempo tunes. Main man Arto Tamminen sings with a gentle lilt on tracks like “All Because of You”, “Some Tears” and “Walking On Sunny Beach”, and others, such as “Love To Live” and “Child Of War” come right out of the McCartney/Rhodes playbook. The best track is probably “When You Were Growing”, which would be a big hit in a better world. The album is flanked by the best song Lennon never wrote, the anthemic “Love Is Everything”, and the “Speedy’s Sixties Mix” of same. Good stuff!
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
As many readers of this column know, 1960s soft pop has had an amazing resurgence, which began in the late ‘90s when Japanese bands and labels jumped all over the genre. Unfortunately, one of the albums which was not picked up on was the self-titled debut by the UK group, Design, because it had the temerity to be recorded in (gulp) 1971! Thankfully, a few years ago Cherry Red Records had the good taste to reissue Design’s first four albums on a couple of two-fer CDs; soon afterwards original group member Barry Johnston had the foresight to purchase the rights to the albums, and he’s done a 50th Anniversary reissue of the debut, Design, complete with a whole slew of bonus tracks!
Design consisted of six voices, two female and four male, and as you might guess, the blend is not unlike that of The 5th Dimension, and perhaps the group who actually did not inspire their name, The Free Design (Design hadn’t heard them until much later), so fans of both groups will certainly go for this album. One might say that the arrangements, all done by the band, are even more complex than those of either aforementioned group, and almost certainly, had the album been released a few years earlier, tracks from it like “Coloured Mile”, “Thinkin’” and the utterly lovely “The Minstrel’s Theme” could have been big hits. As the group was influenced by a lot of American music, the sound on the album is more U.S. than UK, although some tunes like “Matchstick Men” carry a distinctive UK flavour. Sublime.
The bonus tracks are also a treat, some of which recorded in 1969 for Apple Publishing, and some featuring post-Design projects of various group members. Soft pop fans are urged to purchase this CD, as well as seek out the Cherry Red reissues.
AUDIO: Design Design (full album)
Artist: Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey
Album: Our Back Pages
Label: Omnivore Recordings
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The term “indie-rock” has been used to describe so many artists over the past 30 years, but one could argue that The dBs, both in fact and in spirit, were the first notable indie-rock band. Without the benefit of a major label, or for that matter a U.S. label, their first two albums got lots of U.S. radio play, particularly on college stations, and garnered enough buzz to land them a deal with IRS Records. For many fans, it’s those first two albums which are most cherished, and it’s mainly from those discs that acoustic versions comprise Our Back Pages, the first album by the chief songwriting duo of Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey since 2008.
The gentle, acoustic versions of dBs classics like “Black And White”, “From A Window To A Screen, “Big Brown Eyes”, “She’s Not Worried”, and a lost Stamey masterpiece, “Depth Of Field” are just lovely, and fortify the image of Holsapple & Stamey as the Lennon & McCartney of the indie-age. f course collectors will need the Record Store Day vinyl version of Our Back Pages, but if you missed out and don’t want to pay eBay prices (a pox on anyone who buys RSD product to list it on eBay and jack up the cash), good news: a CD version will have been released by the time you read this, and contains two bonus tracks not on the LP!