Reviews: 7.9.19: The Ebb and Flow of a Life: Cloud Eleven’s Illuminating Song Cycle

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Cloud Eleven – Footnote (West Coast, 2019)

The minimalist front cover that houses Rick Gallego’s latest, meticulously crafted songs is bathed in a wash of lightened, sun-soaked grains of sand; at bottom right, water reaches a line on an ethereal beach. The new song’s titles are typeset within the upper half of the equally minimalist back cover; the small parade of players, all imaginary yet full of life, are listed below–cohorts in a dreamy song cycle (Gallego is the only actual living, breathing player).

The cover, an homage to the wrapper for Todd Rundgren’s 1976 album, Faithful, is no accidental nod; Gallego sends out “special gratitude to todd rundgren, who lighted the way to my own musical existence all those years ago” and sets the text in lowercase, just as Todd did.

Footnote is Gallego’s seventh go-round as Cloud Eleven’s chief cook and bottle washer. This new release is no mere footnote, however; it is, in fact, what the previous six releases have been traveling toward all along: a gorgeous song cycle about the ebb and flow of a life (a songwriter’s?) as one follows a path and discovers his or her essence along the way.

The songs on Footnote sound nothing like Todd Rundgren, even though the Hermit of Mink Hollow’s influence is in there; with each new release, Gallego paints a masterpiece colored as only a Cloud Eleven album can be.

Gallego’s songs and arrangements are crafted with a unique combination of hues, tints, tones and colors; one flick of his brush too many and his songs might tilt toward another form altogether. Here, as the songs on Footnote play, we get the feeling that Gallego is painting his soundscapes, touched by the spirit of ELO and the harmony-laden Beach Boys, while balanced on a tightrope of his own devising; what a gloriously creative and fulfilling place that must be to hang.

Footnote opens with a quartet of songs set in a melodically-charged dreamscape. The first song, “On Pismo Beach,” sets to sail with a ghostly strum of guitar that barrels into a rich blast of harmony before it draws a lyrical picture of a place where all is blissful and serene. “Aural Illusion” builds on that ideal, positing that in sound we prosper (“If you can believe that music is love / Then you’ll understand the meaning of / Aural Illusion”).

The second half of the first block of songs continues on the path set by the first. The lovely ballad “Solar Fields” suggests that, after allowing sound to enrich your existence, the warmth of the sun will help to complete you (“With the sun on your face / You will never fade away / In the bright glowing light / You won’t fail”). And, armed with the benefits realized from pleasing sounds and sunlight, you can trust in someone to lead you down a valid path of exploration (the Brian Wilson-ish “Bound to Follow”).

This emotional journey continues with the relaxed-sounding, Free Design-like “For Weal and Woe,” in which we discover that the days ahead bring a promise of discovery, so long as we are in tune with ourselves (“Our lives ebb and flow / For weal and for woe”). And then, we are transported to terra firma, where we learn even more about ourselves.

In “L.A. County,” we are entranced and inspired by a girl who gives us a reason to set down roots (“We will live our lives here”). “Skywriting” allows a songwriter to connect with the magical muse that surrounds him (“But I’ll try to do my best / Hope my muse will do the rest / It’s like magic when songs appear, I confess”).

Sometimes, though, it is hard–impossible, even–to connect. The subject of the grand, wistful ballad, “One Big Hideaway,” squirrels himself inside his home–inside his room–as the world turns around him. He misses his family, but can’t find a way to reach out to them. There will be no doubt in the listener’s mind as to who this song is about.

In the end, we are left to ponder the validity of our life’s journey. Do we learn from what we discover as we make stops along the way, or do we downplay what we have achieved and consider ourselves to be nothing more than a speck of dust because none of it will matter in the grand scheme of things? “Now I’m content to be / I won’t pretend I’m anything, but a / Footnote,” Gallego sings in the closing, title song.

Songs can teach us a lot about ourselves. Throughout our lives, we learn who we are by also learning who we aren’t. Rick Gallego’s illuminating song cycle won’t provide us with all of the answers we desire, but its beautifully rendered songs will at least provide us with some lovely, melodic hints.

Where to Get It: Kool Kat Musik, Amazon (CD and digital), Apple Music (iTunes), CD Baby (CD and digital)

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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.

Reviews: 5.9.19: When Joy was Job One: Ken Sharp’s “World’s Fair” is an Affectionate Trip Back in Time

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Ken Sharp | “World’s Fair” (Jetfighter, 2019)

Think back to when you were a kid; think back to the things you had that were cool and full of joy, that you just had to bring to school the next day and show your friends and the kids who thought you were maybe just a bit weird and not fit to be a member of their cozy little clique.

When I think back to my kid days, I remember that, among the kids I hung out with, our love for the music we heard on the radio and our latest comic book acquisitions were tops of the pops. We bonded over our favorite sports teams (for me it was baseball and the New York Mets, however they were or weren’t doing). And we bonded over our hatred of our little brothers and sisters, because they had cooties and were just general pains in the neck.

When the New York World’s Fair was held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens in 1964 and 1965, it was the number one place to say you’d been. In my house, it was the number one requested family outing. To go to school and hold your head high as the kid who went to the World’s Fair was everything (well, it was for me).

The fair did not disappoint. Although my memory is rather vague as far as specific pavilions and attractions, I do remember the sheer enormity of it all; I remember walking through the grounds thinking that nothing could ever be as impressive. And that pretty much has held true even to this day (although the Beatles coming to America was pretty impressive, too).

I remember the Unisphere, the ginormous steel globe that still stands today (and figured into a rather madcap Coen Brothers-esque date I had back in the day), and I remember Disney’s “it’s a small world.” And I remember the General Cigar pavilion, most famous for its outdoor smoke ring machine and the button given out to patrons to attract attention.

I’m not sure how much attention this button attracted on the fairgrounds, but I know how it fared at school the next day. Those of us who attended the fair and visited the General Cigar pavilion would wear the button and ask kids to read it. They would invariably read it incorrectly. A typical exchange went like this: “Read my button.” “Meet me at the smoke ring.” “No. Try again.” “Meet me at the smoke ring!” “No, that’s not right. Try again!” “Meet me at the… um, smoke ring?”

Try it yourself! What does the magical button at left say? Careful…there is only one correct answer!

Hearing kids read the button incorrectly became a great source of amusement for a couple of days, until the joke got old–as old as the smoke rings that hardly ever emerged from the General Cigar smoke ring machine.

But remembering that button through our lives–certainly through my life–continues to be a source of inner amusement. Maybe you had to be there, but for those of us that were, it was a moment in time we will likely never forget.

Although musician and singer-songwriter Ken Sharp did not attend the New York World’s Fair, the idea of him being there and experiencing its wonders has rattled around inside of him, resulting in him capturing the excitement and magic of the event in what he calls his “wish fulfillment song.” It’s a catchy, melodic beaut.

“World’s Fair” opens with the sound of a crowd gathering and feeds quickly into a quick drum tumble and a towering, majestic, celebratory mix of happy instrumentation and Ken’s wistful vocal, evoking the love that flew in and out of the World’s Fair grounds. He places himself in the midst of it all, a wondrous thing to do (“I hear a thousand children laughing / Not a worry on my mind”). He gets the feeling of being there in Flushing Meadow exactly right.

Piano, guitar, horns, sitar, bell tree, maracas, drums, bass, and a theremin work in concert to recreate the experience of attending the New York World’s Fair. Best to close your eyes while listening, to get the full effect of this song that on April 19 was the first song recorded in the new iteration of Fernando Perdomo’s Reseda Ranch Studio (version 2.0, if you’re keeping track).


What keeps me going, writing about some of the greatest melodic pop music being released today and classic recordings from years past, is what these songs trigger inside of me. When I first heard “World’s Fair,” I was immediately transported back to my youth, to a much simpler time, when joy was job one.

It still is. Thanks for the trip back in time, Ken.

Where to Get It: Digital: Bandcamp, Amazon

A vinyl version is available (see left). Contact Ken directly at sharpk@aol.com

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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.

Reviews: 4.11.19: Brad Marino Makes a Rock, Pop and Roll Connection

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Brad Marino | Extra Credit (Rum Bar, 2019)

The Connection’s Brad Marino serves up a dynamic and breathless 11-song rock, pop and roll romp on his beat-driven solo album, Extra Credit, paying homage to a group once dubbed “England’s Newest Hit Makers,” Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello and, well, Rockpile with the gloves on. The guitars are plugged in and raving, and, oh yeah, the guitars are plugged in and raving.

It’s that kind of album, about a minute and a half shy of a half-hour long, with most songs dressed in tight-fitting get-in-and get-out-before-they-overstay-their-welcome ensembles, which is as it should be. These songs take no prisoners and make no apologies.

From the hit-the-road-running “Broken Clocks,” a breakup song in which the girl’s the bad guy and the breakneck-paced solo channels Chuck Berry, to “C’mon, C’mon, C’mon,” about a girl who plays hard to get (“The girl who plays so hard to get / Is always worth the score”), Marino hits the mark with rockin’ and rollin’ spirited performances (he plays all of the instruments other than the keyboards, which were essayed by sometime Connectioner Kris Rodgers). The album comes to a close with a four-on-the-floor, there’s-a-speed-limit? cover of Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny”.

Last month, we waxed poetic about previously-released-as-singles songs “What Comes Naturally” (“…extols the virtues of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in a song that portrays a Rolling Stones-meets-outlaw country vibe”) and “Broken Record” (“…an upbeat pop-rocker with teeth, very catchy and singalongable…”). Not a bad way to kick off an upcoming album, right?

Well, that upcoming album is almost here (mark your calendar for April 19). With six songs scribed solo by Marino, a co-write by Pure Pop Radio favorite Kurt Baker, two songs written by Michael Chaney (another is a co-write with Marino), and a well-chosen Chuck Berry cover, Extra Credit, produced by Marino and Rodgers, is this season’s breathless hit platter.

Cue the guitars and get that snare a-drummin’…Brad Marino’s pumped and ready to rock, pop and roll.

Where to Get It (Releases on April 19) (Pre-order Now): Bandcamp, Amazon

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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.

Reviews: 4.10.19: Brian Gari Paints a Heartfelt Musical Picture

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Brian Gari | Jeanne’s Album (Original Cast, 2019)

A kind of old-fashioned, heartfelt song cycle, Brian Gari’s tremendously affecting and musical Jeanne’s Album chronicles his life with his wife Jeanne through their ups and downs and up agains.

With keyboards and guitars primarily played by Gari and Peter Millrose painting Gari’s songs with colorful, catchy brushstrokes, we learn that the couple’s romance has not only come upon some bumps in the road, such as Gari’s open-heart surgery and Jeanne’s bout with breast cancer, but conquered and surpassed them. Theirs is a love story for the ages, told in beautifully rendered songs.

Swimming in the same creative pond as fellow travelers like Gilbert O’Sullivan, Hurricane Smith, Richard Carpenter, Barry Manilow and Paul Williams, Gari has crafted 14 genuine pictures of a life in motion, played out in relatively short songs graced with gorgeous, affecting melodies.

The breezy and catchy “I Got What I Wanted” gets Gari’s program going with a sweet look at being fulfilled by one true love. Songs like the light bossa nova roll, “I Like Looking at Your Face,” tell the tale in what-you-see-is-what-you-love terms (“Your nose…I just love the shape of it / Send me off a tape of it / And I’ll marvel all night long”); other songs concern themselves with more serious shades of a love.

The upbeat, poppy “She May Think You Like Her” warns against giving a woman the wrong idea (“The perfect one is there at home / She fits you like a glove / But she may think you like her / You like that other girl but like ain’t love”). “No Checks” is a bluesy pop number that looks at being broke with a sense of humor (“And we don’t have a nickel / We’re in quite a pickle”).

Two songs deal with some serious life-changing bumps in the road that Gari and his wife went through. The first, the endearing piano ballad, “Saving Each Other’s Lives,” suggests that the couple was brought together to breathe life into each other’s hearts just when they needed that the most “(Grateful seems to be the perfect word / Amazing what the two of us endured / And somehow we showed up to change our flight / Otherwise we might have said goodnight”).

The second, “Whose Hair is Longer,” a sad but ultimately uplifting ballad, posits that losing her hair during chemotherapy didn’t change who his wife was (“Your heart’s still the same”) or would continue to be (“My hair is longer / That’s only for now / What’s more important / Is we don’t allow / Any thoughts or concerns / That might interfere / Cause what matters the most / Is that you’re still here”).

A pair of Christmas songs appear as bonus tracks on this emotionally-satisfying album, a gathering of intensely personal songs that sketch out a world where everything may not always be hunky-dory, but it will always be true.

Where to Get It: Amazon

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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.

Reviews: 4.4.19: The Armoires’ Two Songs of the Moment

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

The Armoires | “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?” b/w “Not a Good Man”
(Big Stir Digital Singles, 2019)

The 23rd release in the ongoing Big Stir Digital Singles series is a whizzing whizbang that juggles velocity and an ever-present cadre of moving parts that sizzle and steep like a teabag that has dutifully filled an oversized mug with aromatic flavor.

In other words, this is a thing that cannot be contained because why would you want to? The Armoires are back, baby, and the fruits of their new labors compel you to chugalug with abandon.

This is the song pairing of the moment, and it’s a toss-up as to which track wins its way into your heart over the other. I mean, pick and choose your favorite and do the very same an hour later and I submit that it would be hard for you to choose.

“(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?,” a stomping garage rocker with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them baroque touches, ear-ringing background harmonies, spit and a whole lot of polish, co-written by Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko, kicks in with a very Byrdsian guitar figure atop drum smacks, cymbal crashes, and Larysa Bulbenko’s steady viola. Spygenius’s Ruth Rogers pilots a runaway bass line that works in tandem with Derek Hanna’s drums to propel the track forward. And, if you determine that Christina’s vocal is delivered in the best Debbie Harry tradition, you would probably be correct.

The story told is one of a mismatched couple who hang in there against all odds. But why is this couple together? The narrator sums up the perilous situation with one of the cleverest lyrics I’ve heard this year: “They call me three miles of bad road, but babe, I’m the whole 405 / And the biggest mistakes take the longest to kill you, and that’s why you’re still alive.”

Produced by Plasticsoul’s Steven Wilson with the Armoires, the half-parenthetically-titled “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?,” which will feature on the Armoires’ forthcoming album Zibaldone (due in August), is a hoot of thing, a real live honest-to-goodness keeper. But, and your mileage, as they say, may vary, the song’s digital single mate, “Not a Good Man,” may well eclipse it and wind up your favorite.

If “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?” is a stomping garage rocker, “Not a Good Man” is full of extra-added stomp. A supercharged back-and-forth duet, with Rex Broome taking the Sonny position and Christina Bulbenko taking the Cher, this I-don’t-deserve-you-well-I-don’t-care four-on-the-floor rock and roll-until-the-finish-line-is-in-sight track is fully baked with crunchy electric guitars, pumping drums, and Larysa Bulbenko’s viola as the musical cherry on top.

Round about the 2:47 mark, the band ever-so-temporarily hits the snooze button, and Rex mutters “Probably should have finished the song.” Christina coos a knowing “Uh-huh,” Rex mutters “Okay,” the guitars kick back in, and Christina gets the band back in gear with a strong-willed “Sock it to me!” in her best Judy Carne verbal guise. From there, the guitars are in charge, the background singers chant “Awoo not not a” as if they’d just wandered in from recording America’s “Sister Golden Hair,” and the track comes to a close, but not before tipping its hat to early ELO with a thump of a tag that would only have raised even more hackles had a full orchestra been ushered into the mix.

“Not a Good Man” dates back to the Armoires’ earliest days, being the first song they played live. Produced with gusto by Nathaniel Myer with the Armoires (Myer features on the track behind the drum kit, plucking the bass strings and handling the guitar solo), this is one of the kind of musical moments that, thanks to your incessant toe-tapping, will have your downstairs neighbors all hot and bothered.

“Not a Good Man,” by the way, will not feature on the upcoming Armoires platter, Zibaldone, so you will want to snap this single pairing up without delay. Offering “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?” alongside “Not a Good Man” seems like the bargain of the century, or at least of the moment. However you look at it, it’s quite the thing.

Where to Get It and Preview Tracks (Releases tomorrow,
Friday, April 5): Big Stir Digital Singles (Preorder)

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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.

Reviews: 3.21.19: The Squires of the Subterrain’s Radio Silence: Ghosts are Afoot

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

The Squires of the Subterrain | Radio Silence
(Rocket Racket, 2019)

In the achy, far-from-silent world that the characters of Christopher Earl’s new songs inhabit, ghosts, or feelings that go bump in the night, are afoot, the past is a bubbling mess ripe for healing, and actions have their consequences.

Channeling Tom Waits and Randy Newman’s somewhat-skewed New Orleans-flavored optimism, Earl tells some tales about people who may or may not ever emerge from their nightmarish stupor and, you know, be able to get a Slurpee at 7-Eleven without looking over their shoulders for that which is forever haunting them.

Radio Silence will come as a surprise to listeners who were expecting from this album some kind of rock and pop and roll exposition. Even within Earl’s considerable catalog, this album is something else entirely–an aberration of sorts, but still quirky, if a bit off-balance.

This is an album settled comfortably (or uncomfortably, as the case may be) in the waking netherworld of men and women haunted by their day-to-day uneasiness. That it is also tremendously entertaining and a thinking-person’s collection of wildly creative songwriting makes it a living, breathing object of your affection.

These songs, jazzy, bluesy, and loose-limbed-like-skeletons, function as a lo-fi song cycle masquerading as a waking nightmare. The characters on display have their work cut out for them, being haunted by the ghosts of feelings past that live inside and surround them. Telling these tales with saxes and trumpet, ukulele, piano, drums, guitar, banjo and vibraphone, Earl lets the narrative chips fall where they may as these compositions unravel.

A pair of songs about ghostly feelings rolls out after the moody title track. “House of Ghosts” is a New Orleans jazz stomper with blaring, loosey-goosey flurryed horns that almost celebrates a life surrounded by the ghostly remnants that haunt it. “Another Ghost (In the House),” a slow, moody, jazz grind punctuated by plinking piano and bluesy guitar lines, ponders the state of a home living with its secrets.

In the determined dance of “Whiskey Closet,” which sounds not unlike a hora, the narrator sings of the place underneath the stairs where you go to toss your cares away. In “Tequila and Gin,” a jazzy shuffle that finds Earl sliding brushes atop his snare drum, liquor is thicker and whatever you’re pouring is the cat’s meow.

The subject of the Steely Dan-ish slow, bluesy roll, “Fever Eyes,” holds sway as those in his gaze fold like cheap clothing. In prime Tom Waits territory, Earl sings about the “8th Wonder of the World,” a slow burner of a tune about a temptress with powers far beyond those of mortal women (“She’s a genius of deception and disguise/She’ll pull the wool right over your eyes”). The track rides atop thumping bass hits, bluesy piano and Earl’s emotive vocal.

The idea of ghostly feelings shadowing our waking souls is prevalent throughout this album. Earl finishes with a short, closing rumination, “Shadow,” in which piano, banjo and the artist’s lively vocal tell the tale. And the tale? Shadows follow and keep following, but what those shadows tell us is up for debate.

The Squire

What isn’t up for debate is the weight of The Squires of the Subterrain’s Radio Silence. For Squires of the Subterrain fans, and fans of eclectic, left-field turns that think outside of the box, this collection, “recorded in the basement on analog gear” according to the artist, dazzles. It is quite an achievement in a long career that is defined by them.

Where to Get It: The Squires of the Subterrain website, CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes

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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.

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.