Sound Check

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As the '70s gave way to the me decade, power pop's identity crisis was exacerbated further, thanks to the genre's catchy intentions being obscured -- and often confused with -- all things trendy and somewhat slightly New Wave. So it's no surprise that there's a certain disposability prevalent on Power Pop Classics of the '80s -- as evinced on track one, the Romantics' faceless dance-floor/radio staple, "What I Like About You." Still, for every predictable chorus (Holly and the Italians' "Tell That Girl to Shut Up") and throwaway hook (Candy's intolerably cute "What Ever Happened to Fun..."), a classic emerges to maintain an air of respectability. Among the more relevant of the latter are Marshall Crenshaw's unapologetically lovestruck "Whenever You're on My Mind," the Plimsouls' soaring, Byrds-of-a-feather anthem "A Million Miles Away," the Bangles' ebullient rendering of "Going Down to Liverpool" (written by Kimberley Rew of Katrina and the Waves fame) and steadfast college radio ditties from the Hoodoo Gurus ("I Want You Back") and the Smithereens ("Behind the Wall of Sleep"). And for sheer wide-eyed homage to power pop's leading light, it's hard to beat the Spongetones' "She Goes Out with Everybody," which sounds like it was lifted from Meet the Beatles. Ditto the La's' "There She Goes," which could pass for a single off the Fab Four's mythical post-punk reunion release -- if there was such a thing. (***)

The uniform excellence of Power Pop Classics from the '90s certainly bodes well for the genre's future. In yet another testament to power pop's rotten sense of timing, many of the groups included here peaked artistically just as grunge was establishing a grip on mainstream radio. As a result, Jellyfish, the Posies, Matthew Sweet, Redd Kross and the Greenberry Woods -- all vital links in power pop's modern evolution -- were swept under the rug by major labels eager to ride out the Seattle wave. At the same time, many power pop bands began toughening up their sound. They broke out the guitars in full force, tearing through their polished melodies with a barbed aggression befitting the times. It was quite a concept, and one that is best rendered on Poptopia! by the Posies' "Solar Sister," Sweet's "I've Been Waiting" and the sonically overblown epics from Red Kross ("Lady in the Front Row") and the Gigolo Aunts ("Cope"). Each is a breathless slab of feedback and hooks, marked by a distinct undercurrent of restraint. For the most part, the remaining tracks on Power Pop Classics of the '90s follow that bristling lead. (**** 1/2)

So where to now, power pop? At this very moment, say enthusiasts, seeds of a major power pop resurgence are being planted in places such as California and Colorado. Los Angeles is now home to the annual Poptopia! music festival, a melody-driven communion of artists and fans from all over the world, and the West Coast has also become the site of a nascent power pop scene, reflected in the small but significant cache of fresh music on Poptopia!'s '90s CD. Encouraging Southern California newcomers include the Tearaways (whose latest CD, The Ground's the Limit, is worth tracking down) and the Wondermints, whose coolly engaging "Proto-Pretty" joins the Tearaways' "Jessica Something" among disc three's surplus of highlights.

Meanwhile, in Denver, the Not Lame label has stepped up its indie campaign to blanket the country in power pop with CDs from New York's Rooks (whose "Reasons" is another Poptopia! entry) and Martin Luther Lennon (a.k.a. Tony Perkins, founder of the Poptopia! festival). Not Lame can also claim credit for the superb (though hard to find) CD compilation, The World's Greatest Power Pop Compilation ... Really!

All in all, Rhino does the so-called power pop revival proud with its Poptopia! set, despite the occasional lapse in judgment. The label does the commendable job expected of an archival giant -- and in taking a chance on several new acts, perhaps a bit more. The music is enhanced tremendously by liner-note essays from power pop's premier historians and written reflections from some of the genre's more articulate kingpins, among them Raspberries frontman Eric Carmen, Todd Rundgren, the Plimsouls' Peter Case, Jellyfish alumni Andy Sturmer and Jason Falkner and the Posies' Ken Stringfellow. Their insights lend potent historical perspective, validity and form to an often hazy phenomenon.

"I'd say a lack of schmaltz characterizes the genre -- and often a certain immaturity of subject matter," quips Rundgren in the liner notes to Poptopia!'s '70s disc. "It's avoidance of depth and avoidance of schmaltz."

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Hobart Rowland