Reviews: 3.7.19: Vanilla’s Mystikal Trip is Quite a Show

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.
Enter below.

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.)

Ralph Reese’s majestic, detailed cover for Vanilla’s Mystik Knights of Tacoma–a work of EC-inspired comic book excellence

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.

Where to Get It: Kool Kat Musik, Bandcamp, CD Baby, Amazon

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!

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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.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

New on Pure Pop Radio 05.10.17: The Blood Rush Hour, Lannie Flowers, The Del Zorros, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, and More

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Spins and Reviews | 05.10.17
By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

the blood rush hour who folds firstThe Blood Rush Hour | Who Folds First (2017)
This fantastic follow-up to 2014’s miraculous And Then… The Unthinkable Happened is just as wondrous and wide-ranging and crafted with care as has come to be expected from Robert DeStefano’s more-than-reliable outfit.

Encompassing a variety of song styles, all finely wrought melodic microcosms and performed with perfection, Who Folds First brings the hits and a few happy surprises, like the Manhattan Transfer-like, a cappella opening that introduces the Todd Rundgren-esque “No More Excuses.” “He Left the Party (Far Too Soon)” is a merry melange of Steely Dan-y pop and funk, punctuated by Andrew Griffiths’ trombones, trumpets, alto sax, and tenor sax arsenal. And “The Space that We Have Made,” about getting to the heart of the matter, is a triumphant Dan-ish number sung by Pure Pop Radio favorite Christian Phillips, who devised the three-dimensional vocal arrangements with DeStefano.

A contender for best-of lists from all quarters, no doubt.

black box Now playing on Pure Pop Radio: “No More Excuses,” “He Left the Party (Far Too Soon),” “Danny,” “The Space that We Made,” “6, 4, 5 and Sometimes 1,” “New Country,” “Find Another Russian Dancer,” “I’m the One,” “I Still See You,” and “What Does it Take”
black box Where to Get It: Nicola Records

lindsey buckingham christine mcvie album cover

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie | “In My World” and “Feel About You” (from the forthcoming album, Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie) (2017)
To nobody’s surprise, the first two songs released in advance of the highly-anticipated, self-titled Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie album sound as if they could have appeared on just about any Fleetwood Mac long player. And in some ways, since both Mick Fleetwood and John McVie appear on this duo roundabout, it seems like it will be a Fleetwood Mac album in all but the name. Bottom line is, this is superior pop music made by two historic, always able practitioners of the art. “In My World” marries a jaunty minor key verse with a typically happy, poppy chorus that puts upper-register echoed vocals up front in the mix. “Feel About You” is a leisurely, McVie-sung charmer, sporting a lovely, harmony-laden chorus that just plain delivers the happy in so many ways. Essential.

black box Now playing on Pure Pop Radio: “In My World” and “Feel About You,” from the forthcoming album, Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie
black box Where to Get It: Amazon (June 9)

chuck berry chuckChuck Berry | “Big Boys” and “Wonderful Woman” (from the forthcoming album, Chuck) (2017)
Nothing has driven aspiring rock ‘n’ rollers to take up that most expressive of instruments, the air guitar, more than the sound of the late, great Chuck Berry, whose body of work will continue to speak for itself into even the unforeseeable future. These two songs, featuring on the upcoming Chuck, ostensibly the master’s final album, continue the Berry tradition of immediately accessible, fanciful, lyrically astute, and simply wonderful tunes; both “Big Boys” and “Wonderful Woman” hit the sweet Berry spot, and then some. Oh, what a thrill.

black box Now playing on Pure Pop Radio: “Big Boys” and “Wonderful Woman,” from the forthcoming album, Chuck
black box Where to Get It: Amazon (June 9)

lannie flowers kiss a memoryLannie Flowers | “Kiss a Memory” b/w “Everything a Man Could Want” (2017)
Power pop meets sunshine pop meets Texas melodic powerhouse Lannie Flowers for a rip-roaring double-shot, courtesy of Spyderpop Records, that will more than satisfy fans until Lannie’s next full-length release. “Kiss a Memory,” an upbeat bopper with melodic teeth, should ably whip radio playlists into shape. Hanging over into the rock ‘n’ roll side of pop, “Everything a Man Could Want” shakes hands with The Faces and Stones for a beat-driven rave-up par excellence.

black box Now playing on Pure Pop Radio: “Kiss a Memory” and “Everything a Man Could Want”
black box Where to Get It: Petsche Music Group

carl funk the heart of a siren reduxCarl Funk | The Heart of a Siren (redux) (2016)
Last November, we added three songs from Carl Funk’s Amerisoulfulcana album, Black Horizon, to our ever-growing playlist. Now, Carl’s powerful vocal and songwriting prowess is on display within our rotation in the form of seven songs from this previous collection, originally released in 1995 and re-released last year with two additional numbers. Expect the same high level of thinking person’s pop from upbeat, should-be-hit-bound “Heartbroken Man” and “It Falls on Me,” and, for that matter, the wide swath of top-flight tunes populating this corner of the Funk universe.

black box Now playing on Pure Pop Radio: “Heartbroken Man,” “Swirl,” “Dreamtime,” “It Falls on Me,” “Fall Together,” “The Party,” and “Take Your Time”
black box Where to Get It: Bandcamp

the del zorros happy anniversary babyThe Del Zorros | “Happy Anniversary Baby” (2017)
Monte and Stede Del Zorro pretty much have the romantic musical missive market sewn up; their latest, most welcome number is a ’70s-styled, softly-sung, sweetly-realized notion with a simple, from-the-heart message from one partner to another. Warm and inviting, and humalongable.

black box Now playing on Pure Pop Radio
black box Where to Get It: Bandcamp

Also added to the Pure Pop Radio playlist and currently spinning in rotation:

mod hippie big wow Mod Hippie | Big Wow (2017) | “Up and Away,” Gone All Day,” and “It Ain’t Like that No More” Karma Frog Records Store
phenomenal cat pop wasteland
Phenomenal Cat | Pop Wasteland (2017) | “Pop Wasteland,” “Motorways,” “The Dancehall,” and “Pacifico (Cowboy Version)”
Bandcamp

colman gota fear the summerColman Gota | Fear the Summer (2017) | “What Goes in My Head,” “For a Reason,” “Call It Quits,” and “Fear the Summer” Kool Kat Musik
kirk adams after hours

Kirk Adams | After Hours (2017) | “Head 4 Sunshine,” “Wrong Side of the Wrecking Ball,” and “Make a Move” Bandcamp

flora reed settle downFlora Reed | Settle Down (2002) | “Beloved,” “Flowers at My Feet,” “Happiness Is,” “Mutter,” “Sweetly Said,” and “Who Brought You Down”
Amazon

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New on Pure Pop Radio: The Nines’ Alejandro’s Visions: A Harmony- and Melody-Drenched Delight, Chris Murphy with Michael Carpenter, Dana Countryman, and More

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Spins and Reviews | 11.15.16 | by Alan Haber alan 5 small

Lovingly crafted and full of heart, Alejandro’s Visions is Steve Eggers’ masterpiece

The Nines | Alejandro’s Visions | 2016

the-nines-alejandros-visionsAfter incorporating a variety of styles into a stream of releases spanning a nearly-20-year-long career, the Nines’ Steve Eggers has delivered perhaps his most heartfelt musical statement—a love letter to the classic song structures that populated the output of artists in the pre-1962 era and the more contemporary sounds that have influenced him.

Rolling and then filtering the influence of the music of writers such as George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart into a mix peppered with the harmony styles of the Beach Boys, the Four Freshmen and even doo-wop, and then topping the resulting flow with his love of artists such as the Electric Light Orchestra and XTC, Eggers has delivered a harmony- and melody-drenched soundtrack to an imaginary film, somewhat of a sequel to the last Nines album, Night Surfer and the Cassette Kids.

In the story that drives the songs on Alejandro’s Visions, Alejandro, one of the main characters of the garage-rock-centered Night Surfer, travels back in time to an alternate version of the late 1950s, where he falls in love with a girl named Marie. Unfortunately, it’s a love that doesn’t last.

The songs on Alejandro’s Visions bring Eggers’ ideas to life. Witness such lovingly crafted creations as the beautiful, bittersweet, old-fashioned “When Our Love Was in Bloom,” stacked deep with gorgeous harmonies and an irresistible melody; and the early rock and roll/pop hybrid “Operator (Coming Home to You),” which sports a meaty, catchy, percussive piano riff, opens with an aural allusion to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and lays out a delectable Jeff Lynne-ish bridge that will make you smile.

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Steve Eggers

A student of popular songs created across the decades, Eggers continues to write and record music that moves him and, as evidenced by his ongoing popularity, his ever-growing audience. Alejandro’s Visions, while perhaps a collection of songs that is unexpected, is moreover a sterling addition to a body of work that stands tall among pop music’s greatest achievements. This is Eggers’ best and most assured work yet, an immensely satisfying work that belongs in every melodic pop music fan’s collection.

black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: “And Suddenly,” “Beachfront in New York,” “Can’t Go Back to Ocean Town,” “Darling I Adore You,” “Escape from a Small Town,” “Everybody Knows Me,” “I Have Found You,” “I’m an Old Soul and You’re Old Fashioned,” and “Operator (Coming Home to You)”
black box When and Where to Get It:
Kool Kat MusikCD Baby, and Amazon (mp3)

Here are four more recent additions to the Pure Pop Radio playlist:

chris-murphy-and-michael-carpenter-real-love-sleeveChris Murphy with Michael Carpenter | “Real Love” This absolutely gorgeous ballad recasting of John Lennon’s song, released in 1996 on the Beatles Anthology 2 as the second new group track after “Free as a Bird,” is one of this year’s major triumphs in melodic pop music. For one thing, the tempo has been slowed, allowing Murphy to lovingly communicate the depth of the emotional lyric. Murphy’s vocal may well be the best vocal performance of the year. His ability to hold a melody line’s final note in such an artful way, to sustain its resonance and maximize its impact on the listener, is something to behold.

Recorded with precision and heart by Carpenter on the occasion of singer Kylie Whitney’s wedding (Whitney also sang background vocals), this new version of this wonderful song is proof positive that covers can reveal new layers of emotion not previously brought to the surface. Murphy, whose superb solo work can also be heard on Pure Pop Radio, proves, in the space of four minutes and ten seconds, all this and much more. Carpenter plays all of the instruments. Essential listening.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio
black box When and Where to Get It: iTunes. Hear it on Spotify, and see the lovely video on YouTube

dana-countrymans-girlvilleLisa Mychols | “I’ve Run All Out of Tears (To Cry Over You)” I had the great pleasure and distinct honor of premiering this lovely retro-charmer, the first single from the forthcoming labor of love, Dana Countryman’s Girlville! New Songs in the Style of Yesterday’s Hits, on November 10. The occasion was an exclusive interview with Dana on Pure Pop Radio: In Conversation, during which he talked publicly for the first time about this album, which I predict will be one of the most talked-about long players of 2017.

Close your eyes while listening to this three-minute-long, lovingly-crafted number, built on a genuine love for the girl group and Brill Building sounds of the early 1960s, and you will find yourself transported back to a much simpler time, perhaps, when melody and joy were king. Lisa Mychols’ authentic, warm-hearted vocal is a blast of musical love. Dana paints his soundscape with colorful, period brushstrokes, even as he tops his creation off with a Brian May-like guitar solo from Klaatu’s Dee Long.

You will hear more, much more, about the girl group sounds lovingly celebrated on Dana Countryman’s Girlville! New Songs in the Style of Yesterday’s Hits closer to the album’s January 13, 2017 release by Australia’s Teensville Records. Until then, savor this lead track and smile.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio (exclusively through November 15)
black box When and Where to Get It: Bandcamp

the-flat-fiveThe Flat Five | It’s a World of Love and Hope From out Chicago way comes this group of harmony-centric harmony hounds. A supergroup of sorts due to the member’s affiliation with artists such as Neko Case and the New Pornographers, the Flat Five took a long road toward making this, their first album, playing a growing number of gigs during which they performed songs written by group member Scott Ligon’s brother Chris. Intent on getting a wide audience for Chris’s songs, they set about recording them. The result is a deliciously wondrous assortment of luscious pop dressed in a variety of comfortable musical clothing that runs the gamut from the Manhattan Transfer-meets-hep cat vibe of the delightful “Buglight” to the Paul McCartney retro-sway of “I Could Fall in Love with You” and the pretty back porch balladry of Roches-like “Bottom Buck.” Records like this one don’t come along every day, which makes It’s a World of Love and Hope pretty special.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: “Florida,” “Buglight,” “Bottom Buck,” I Could Fall in Love with You,” “Birmingham,” and “This is Your Night,” which sounds like a cross between the Free Design and the Association, an unlikely combination perhaps, but oh so tasty.
black box When and Where to Get It: Bloodshot Records, Amazon, and Bandcamp

cult-of-wedge-loch-nessCult of Wedge | Loch Ness Monsters and Motherships This latest musical missive from UK parish Rowley Regis’s Pete Hackett notches a best-album-yet nod for its top-notch selection of catchy songs, all performed with gusto. Hackett’s obvious love of the pop form glistens on the half-dozen songs from this album now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio. Earworms all.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: “That Song Last Summer,” “When I Was Young,” “Miss America,” “Oh Lindsay,” “Wish Ourselves Away,” and “Shine on Me”
black box When and Where to Get It: Bandcamp

carl-funk-black-horizonCarl Funk | Black Horizon Vanilla fans will be familiar with Carl Funk from his widescreen lead vocal on “The Angel of Swain’s Lane” from the group’s 2.0 album (also appearing here), sung, as I said in my October 15, 2014 review of the song, “with deep emotion and old world style.” Carl’s committed, soulful voice drives these songs, carved with (and yes, I am coining a new word) an Amerisoulfulcana blade which fit perfectly among the various pop colors in our on-air mix. Wonderful stuff.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: “Time and Time,” “Resolution,” and “The Angel of Swain’s Lane”
black box When and Where to Get It: carlfunk.com

More tomorrow.

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