Welcome to the most convoluted CD review you will ever read.
In an interview conducted by his son Nick for Esquire magazine, Kiss bassist Gene Simmons said in early September, “Rock is finally dead.” He did not say it with bravado either; uncharacteristic of the figure he has cut for four decades. The majority of his ire was directed at the file-sharing and download culture which is making it impossible for new bands to exist, and the end of the supportive record label system. At one point, such a methodology subsidized prestige acts that did not have massive sales numbers, and they did it through the sales of broader, more chart-friendly acts. Why did they do that? Because there was honor and respect in having those artists on the label. That was a calling-card that said, “We nurture the new talent and respect the established.” Rather, Alice Cooper’s sales helped a pre-Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac stay on Warners. A post-Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac helped Randy Newman stay on Warners, and the label was very happy for it.
It is a mindset that has been jettisoned completely in the new music age. There are still labels, but most of them are run by massive companies outside of the music part of the music business. They expect fast returns on every investment or they cut loose the “dead weight,” perhaps weeks or months before their possible big breakthrough. It doesn’t matter. Every single is a lottery ticket, and if the winning number isn’t drawn, out in the trash goes that strip of paper. There is a story floating around now, which may be thoroughly apocryphal, but still is worth considering in that the thought process as identified is right on target. Interscope Geffen A&M Chairman Jimmy Iovine purportedly put out the word that agents should not send his labels “rock-based” product for consideration. The sound doesn’t sell, so they would be much better off doing some sort of independent option. The majors aren’t in the rock business anymore. (It should also be noted that Iovine was a longstanding producer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and, in a twist, Stevie Nicks’ solo efforts, so this ballyhooed ambivalence to rock-based acts is either complete hogwash or the most dispiriting thing you’ll read this hour.)
For anyone that looked out from the mid-1990s and thought the trinity of guitar-bass-drum had finally relegated synths back to where they belonged, the modern pop charts must come as a hell of a shock. The synth now creates both the bass and the drum, and no one seems concerned that the guitar is completely wiped from the equation.
In the immediate aftermath of Simmons’ statement, a lot of bands made public comments to proclaim “rock is not dead,” causing the public to rise up, reclaim the majesty of rock, storm the record stores and buy every rock record on the shelves, and this never happened. Rock is, in fact, neither dead nor alive. It has gone deep underground, waiting to be rediscovered by individuals who will seek to make it new. That was how it always had been, from R&B roots, to rockabilly and pop, to hard rock, metal, glam, and on. There was lineage and the drive to top the previous generation. What does any of this have to do with International Pop Overthrow?
The IPO organization of pop-up festivals, which inform plentiful three-CD compilations that appear in the late-summer/early-fall, is the brainchild of David Bash, one of the “true believers” as it were. 2014 brings on Volume 17 of this recorded endeavor, and much like previous editions it is a great excuse to kick back, roar up the amplifiers, and just let it all loose. Volume 17, which is co-presented by Pop Geek Heaven honcho Bruce Brodeen (formerly of Not Lame Records) provides sixty-six tracks for your perusal. Much like an IPO show, the set is a buffet, and you are not expected to love everything set out before you. You are expected to sample a little bit of a lot of stuff and find new flavors that intrigue you. That is precisely what the IPO set continues to provide and, much as before, the International Pop Overthrow collections tend to be a good investment and a great deal, considering.
IPO has labored under the loose confines of being a “power-pop” festival for a long time, but I suspect that Bash would personally leaven that description heavily. Power-pop is really just rock music, the kind that was the jet engine fuel for radio from the 1960s to roughly the mid-1980s. The songs were short and energetic, but were not overtly preoccupied by subjects beyond the classics: love, lust, heartbreak, happiness, unhappiness, living life, and enjoying the life you have. The liner notes in the latest IPO disc admits that the parameters have been widened from what is casually considered power-pop, but in the end it is all rock, and why shouldn’t it be?
Volume 17 features some old, dear friends of Popdose: Lisa Mychols, Michael Carpenter (found here with the group Popdudes), and Michael Laine Hildebrandt in the guise of his Bubble Gum Orchestra alter ego. New flavors in the mix include a touch of southern rock (Sonny Lee & The Layovers with “Set ‘Em Up”) and Sonya Titus who brings late-’80s pop sheen with “Come Into The Light,” a song that recalls Amy Grant’s heyday in the best possible manner. We also have a deep reach-back into ’60s psyche-pop as well as the speedy crunch with sweet harmonies that generally typify the power-pop ethos. The collection is quite possibly the most well-rounded effort yet to come from the series.
The set is an entertaining investment, and several of the acts have nominated themselves for my further investigation. Even so, there was something that struck me in a melancholic way. I love my British Invasion music, my Beach Boys music, the power-pop of the ’70s from Cheap Trick, Raspberries, and the like. I appreciate hearing that other acts share that appreciation and carry it on. But if you listen to the 3-disc set in its entirety, you start to catch onto the lack of influences from the past 15 years, mostly because there aren’t any. The closest we may come is a callback to Jellyfish, but even that has metaphorically graduated high school and gotten a job by now. This is not a knock on the artists on the discs who are enthusiastic and show their deep love of these sounds. That is worthwhile, and may they continue for many years to come.
It nonetheless shows that this bloodline is becoming dangerously close to losing the family name. I’m not a hardcore purist in that I feel that guitar-based music should be at a level of crushing dominance. There is room at this table for all styles, or so we have been led to believe by proponents of digital music, espousing the democratizing effect of having everything available to everyone all of the time. I’m not about to contribute to the misguided outcry of elitists who say how digital music is killing their particular groove (lest Popdose’s Dave Lifton take us to task). But I will say that the power base of what is left of the music industry still wields a lot of power, still has the ability to make a hit of a song people, in a moment of candor, would call trite and irritating. IPO stands against that in many ways, but on a Hot 100 list that doesn’t reinvent, but has excelled in replicating itself into absurdity, this power-pop sound that we as consumers crave is moving farther and farther away from vital connections to the current.
I cannot say if that necessary new generation of rock musicians will come from an IPO show or not. It certainly is one of the best places where it could happen, with one of the most supportive audiences and fan communities out there. But I hope there are individuals out there who still want to try. Rock is a form of music that should be able to grow and develop, not simply becoming a verb that describes “doing stuff” (as in, I’m totally rocking this review, aren’t I?) While I eagerly await these compilations year after year, if we continue to have full decades without new influences to continue to build upon, Mr. Simmons may be correct, and that is an awful declaration to make.
International Pop Overthrow Volume 17 can be purchased at: http://popgeek.highwire.com/product/va-international-pop-overthrow-volume-17-2014-3-cd-set