By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio
Vanilla | Mystik Knights of Tacoma
(Charlatan Record Cartel, 2019)
Win one of two copies of Vanilla’s Mystik Knights of Tacoma.
Vanilla’s latest, a remarkable, cogent collection of songs, some of which have trickled out over the past few years, tackles universal themes of self-preservation, love, love lost, and love found on its way to reaching the finish line by virtue of the band’s keen sense of what makes their songs tick, and these songs tick assuredly.
It’s all here, as is Vanilla’s usual wont: serious subject matter married to catchy melodies, peerless playing, and production gallantry. Following a punchy, opening faux-surf number, punctuated by cries of “Hey! Hey! Hey!”, handclaps, left-to-right panning of guitar scratches, and a pervading sense of spy craft in the air, Mystik Knights of Tacoma gets down to business.
A quick hit of backwards guitar ushers in the poppy, perky and confessional “On a Night Like This,” in which our hero drinks to keep reality at bay. Next up, Carl Funk takes to the microphone with a strong, committed vocal on “Save Me,” an upbeat drinking song in which love swoops in at the very last second to (maybe) save the day.
The art of imbibing also drips into the discourse on “Let’s Call It a Day,” a Kirk Adams-sung ballad about love gone away realized with the help of a Paul Buckmaster-styled string arrangement by Paul Hansen. But lest you think imbibing is the only subject up for discussion, along comes the miraculous “Sweetshop,” which I described back in July 2016 as being “dressed up…in catchy minor-to-major-key-and-back-again Beatlesque romping clothes adorned with backward cymbal; strangled, wah-wah-dipped lead guitar, and a “Hey Jude”-type playout that encourages head swaying to and fro.”
So much head swaying, and feeding ducks with a bun (listen to the lyrics) in the case of Vanilla’s joyous cover of the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park.” Sung by Strangely Alright’s Regan Lane in full glam mode, as if Steve Marriott and Queen’s Freddie Mercury had become a single force to reckon with, it’s a performance that does its source material proud.
There are many fine highlights to pick out and hug in these songs: the cello arrangement, by Paul Hansen, that lights the pretty ballad “Be Not Coy; the previously released ’60s homage, “Man of the Moment,” initially presented as a lost classic from 1966 and now as a full-fledged Vanilla offering sung sweetly by Jordani Sarreal (with a lovely flugelhorn part played delicately by Andy Omdhal); and the hard-hitting jazz-rocker “Don’t Lose Your Temper,” which is punctuated with pulsating pleasure by horns played by the Cliff Colon Trio, sounding like the long-lost cousins of classic horn bands Chase, Chicago, and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
It is quite a show that Vanilla puts on, even down to the clever, colorful comic book art on the cover, drawn by award-winning artist Ralph Reese, perhaps best known for the continuing strip One Year Affair, which he produced with Byron Preiss and published in National Lampoon from 1973 to 1975.
Reese’s wild and imaginative illustration for Vanilla’s cover depicts a gathering of the five Vanilla members as Shriners being shocked by a green alien being of the female variety popping out of a large cake. It’s a slick, loving (yes, loving) homage to the old line of creepy EC Comics from the 1950s. It is, frankly, spectacular.
(There is a sixth gentleman depicted on the cover; he is Ben Thompson, who has put in three decades as the graphic designer for both Liar’s Club (see below) and Vanilla, and has thus earned his spot in the EC-esque spotlight. He worked with Reese on the wild cover design.)
It is quite a show, this third album from Tacoma, Washington’s band of merry musical magicians–Jayson Jarmon, Sean Gaffney, Dana Sims, Mark Simmons and Gavin Guss (Jayson, Sean and Dana, of course, from the much loved and much missed Liar’s Club). Aided and abetted by top talent guests Carl Funk, Kirk Adams, Jeff Burch, Regan Lane, Jordani Sarreal and other like-minded fellow travelers (such as ex-Liar’s Clubber Kevo X. Thomson), Vanilla has crafted a winner of epic proportions.
And speaking of epic, the band puts a monkey in the spotlight in the closing rocker, “Monkey Punch” (“Monkey punch! (Total break down when the monkey comes to town)”). Vanilla has broached the subject of the monkey before, most notably in their classic “Monkeypox!”, which appeared on the band’s 2015 release, Vanilla 2.0.
You may remember me waxing poetic about “Monkeypox!”, which I described in my original review as “the musical equivalent of the old joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and says ‘Doc, it hurts when I go like that,’ and the doctor tells him not to go like that.”
Well, “Monkey Punch” is a different beast than “Monkeypox!”, but this specimen is a force to be reckoned with just the same. It is, in fact, a great rocking showcase for Sean Gaffney, who wrote “Monkey Punch” and plays electric guitar and bass (Dana Sims lets loose on the drum kit). And, you know, guitars…all over the place.
Mystik Knights of Tacoma is a dazzling display of pop and rock prowess. Vanilla’s attention to solid storytelling that puts the spotlight on some universal themes elevates their numbers to the highest of highs. And their ability to weave catchy melodies together with sparkling instrumentation guarantees repeat listens.
Don’t miss these Mystik Knights of Tacoma.
Win one of two copies of Vanilla’s Mystik Knights of Tacoma CD. Fill in the form below; type “Vanilla” in the Comment field and don’t forget to include your email address. US entries only. Entries must be received by tomorrow, Friday, March 8, at 5 pm ET. Good luck!
Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.
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