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By Stewart Mason

JULY 27, 1998: 

Alibi "Ode to Stewart" Rating Scale:
!!!!!= Brian Wilson
!!!!= Dennis Wilson
!!!= Carl Wilson
!!= Carnie Wilson
!= Flip Wilson


The Special Pillow Ancient History (Zofko)

OK, the first thing you need to know about this CD is that the opening track, "Ascension to the Garden of Worm-Eaten Taboos," is 15-and-a-half minutes long. Now that the punkier-than-thou who feel that no good song has ever lasted more than two-and-a-half minutes have stopped reading, the rest of you should know that it's a fascinating, hypnotic song featuring purring cello and violin lines supporting billowing waves of multitracked guitars, not unlike a much more pop-oriented Jim O'Rourke or the spacier, more contemplative side of Yo La Tengo. Way more interesting than, say, Windy and Carl. If it's not your bag, well hey, that's why God invented the "skip tracks" button.

The Yo La Tengo comparison is an apt one, as the Special Pillow's guitarist is Yo La bassist/organist James McNew. Besides McNew, singer/songwriter Dan Cuddy has surrounded himself with the cream of Hoboken's indie scene: cellist Cindy Brolsma of Splendora, violinist Katie Gentile of Run On and noted local producer Peter Walsh on drums. However, it's Cuddy's show all the way, and after the expansive opening track, he delivers five stupendous, concise psych-pop gems that recall not only the best of '60s psychedelia but such current kindred spirits as the Green Pajamas, the Bevis Frond and, thanks to the prominent and sometime vaguely disturbing string sections, Lisa Germano.

The songs range from the lighthearted, genuinely amusing "Escape from Historic Williamsburg" and the relatively straightforward, almost Apples In Stereo-like "Paranormal" to the spare and moody "Tomorrow Night" and the downright creepy "Ladyfingers." Cuddy's melodic bass tends to propel the rest of the band while his breathy, high-pitched vocals hover just beneath the hazy surface in true psychedelic fashion. Meanwhile, McNew's multilayered guitar textures serve mostly as a rhythmic/atmospheric base for Brolsma and Gentile's swooping, skittering strings and Walsh's understated drums. Tongue in cheek title aside, Ancient History shows there's life yet in psychedelic pop. !!!!


The Merrymakers Bubblegun (Virgin)

Power pop seems like it should be so simple. Two guitars, bass, drums, keyboard accents, lotsa harmonies, songs about girls ... nothing to it. This must be why there's so many incredibly boring power-pop albums. The parameters are set in stone, and far too many bands are content to only work within them. Then, luckily, there are bands like the Merrymakers.

The Merrymakers, a drummerless Swedish trio, know that in power pop, it's the little things that matter. Bubblegun, their second album (after 1995's No Sleep Till Famous), is chockablock full of insistent hooks, neat little production tricks and two crucial elements for the success of any power-pop album: a sense of humor and a sense of dynamics. Too many power-pop albums feature one characterless mid-tempo tune after another, but Bubblegun shifts gears all over the place, following the hyperspeed "Superstar" with the leisurely "Monkey in the Middle," itself followed by the early-'70s AM bubblegum "Under the Light of the Moon."

Bubblegun's drummer is Andy Sturmer, formerly co-leader of San Francisco's Jellyfish, and that band's big glammy hooks flavor much of the Merrymakers' album. Again, it's the little touches that make the songs, like the brief a capella intro to the album-opening "Saltwater Drinks" or the way "April's Fool" starts and ends with the piano riff from ABBA's "Money Money Money," a nice (and surprisingly rare) nod to Sweden's first pop superstars. Elsewhere, weird synth and percussion accents elevate the tough 'n' speedy "A Fine Line" above the mediocre, while the stuttering "I'm In ... Love!" (featuring Sturmer's best drumming and a neat use of the "Sweet Jane" riff) is probably the album's highlight.

There's some missteps. A couple of the lyrics are clunkers, like the trite "Troubled Times:" "Only you can get you through your troubled times." Well ... thanks. But on the other hand, even that song has a chorus that turns around and bites you on the ass when you least expect it, which is pretty much all we ask of power pop. And that's what Bubblegun regularly delivers. !!!!


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