Graded on a Curve:
Paul Collins,
Feel the Noise

In a truly just world Paul Collins would require no introduction. Sadly, a globe of perpetual unfairness spins around the sun, so it bears mentioning that as a member of The Nerves he helped shape the original “Hanging on the Telephone” and subsequently helmed The Beat. In 2010 Collins issued the LP King of Power Pop! and now he’s back with the swell Feel the Noise, a 12-song effort pressed onto vinyl by Alive Naturalsound Records of Burbank, California.

As a young mid-‘80s pup in short pants, I first heard of power pop in relation to accusations of faddism, specifically to the fleeting if massive chart dominance of The Knack. From the svelte dudes at the mall to the crustier counter jockeys of the mom-and-pop shops, the band fronted by Doug Fieger was decidedly unpopular with store clerks in my berg, and this train of thought seemed to extend all over hill and dale.

However, a perusal of voting trends shows how off-target opinions of the ‘80s could get. The brass tacks of the matter is that power pop is an essential rock ‘n’ roll flavor; spawned in the guts of ‘60s by The Beatles, The Byrds, and The Who, their torch of melodic crunch was carried into the early-‘70s by The Raspberries, Badfinger, and cult cornerstone Big Star. Later in the decade it was healthy and highly prolific, encompassing Cheap Trick, The Cars, Blondie, even Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that’s just in the USA.

Arguably, the true essence of power pop is an obscure 45 plucked out of a dollar bin in a wrinkled sleeve adorned with at least one, preferably two, band photographs. The single is taken home and promptly put on the turntable to kick the listener’s ass in a quick and tidy fashion. Over the years a whole lot of music matching this description has been discovered and anthologized, and that’s a grand circumstance.

But it’s important to not neglect the hard-working outfits that achieved moderate to substantial if short-lived success amidst the longevity of practice sessions and gigs; Shoes, The Romantics, Greg Kihn, The Dwight Twilley Band, The Plimsouls, and apropos to this review The Beat, aka Paul Collins’ Beat to avoid confusion with the British ska act known on North American shores as The English Beat.

Collins’ work in The Nerves (with Jack Lee and Peter Case, later of The Plimsouls) and The Breakaways (he and Case, 13 songs collected in 2009) along with The Beat’s ’79 self-titled debut and ’81 follow-up The Kids Are the Same remain amongst my favorite power pop artifacts. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Collins’ endured with The Beat across the ‘80s through thick and increasingly thin; by the early ‘90s he’d shifted gears and was recording solo in country-rock mode.

Great power pop is equally invested in writing and execution, and Collins’ ’10 comeback in the style proved he hadn’t misplaced the rudiments. He headed to Detroit to work with in-demand producer and Dirtbomb Jim Diamond, lined up simpatico area musicians (Diamond on bass, David Shettler on drums, Eric Blakely on guitar) and then grabbed Romantic Wally Palmar to blow some harmonica and Nikki Corvette to supply a few backing vocals.

King of Power Pop! featured two well-done covers, namely The Box Tops’ warhorse “A Letter” and the Flamin’ Groovies majestic “You Tore Me Down,” but the real trick was offering a batch of originals that hang without a hitch. On Feel the Noise Collins attempts to do it again, returning to the Motor City, reengaging Diamond and Shettler and for a song Corvette, though his success is ultimately insured by simply bringing another strong group of tunes to the studio.

Opening with a title track that’s succinctness runs from a strummy mid-tempo sing-along into revved up and distorted emotional outpouring, it’s basically a power pop statement-of-purpose wielding words to match; the second half should tease the trousers off Robert Pollard fans as the lyrical angle of Rock ‘n’ Roll as Sweet Sustenance is likely to cheer the lovers of Springsteen.

It’s a raucous start moving straight into the crisp engine-like propulsion of “Only Girl,” which could’ve been sandwiched between The Boss and The Pretenders in an FM radio “Rock Block” from around 1981 or so. Collins’ voice is aged but still capable and his rhythm guitar slinging even better as Shettler’s energetic delivery increases the heft.

It’s followed by “Baby I Want You,” the album’s lengthiest number (appropriately under four minutes) striking my ear as a blend of Costello/Parker with a touch of Romantics, a sprinkle of Corvette’s back-up and a dash of country-rock seasoning; it’s a song durable enough to adapt to a variety of genre contexts, and while “I Need My Rock N’ Roll” clicks as an ‘80s hit that wasn’t, therefore seeming pretty specific to Feel the Noise’s agenda, the same versatility applies.

The stomper “Don’t Know How to Treat a Lady” picks up the pace, Eddie Baranek’s extra guitar oomph mingling nicely with judiciously employed vocal harmonies and a rampant tambourine; it’s one of the record’s best moments. And one of the biggest compliments I can bestow upon Collins’ is that his compositions often feel like covers of unexplainably underheard nuggets.

But that’s not really his style. As the last LP displayed, the tunes he chooses to borrow are right there in plain sight. By extension, I initially assumed “With a Girl Like You” as a Troggs lift, but ‘twas not to be. And yet no disappointment, for Collins’ does conjure a definite mid-‘60s ambiance, though by the end he’s strutted into the ‘70s.

By contrast, “For All Eyes to See” could only derive from a guy who assisted in shaping the late-‘70s/early-‘80s rock scene. To elaborate, its anthemic quality comes on a little strong, but that was clearly the intention, so it’s hard to carp too loudly; I envision a bunch of drunkards risking arrest by bellowing the chorus as they stumble down a lopsided avenue shortly after last call.

To Collins’ credit he largely eschews revamping prior material, though the rockabillied-out and Bomp!-ified “Little Suzy,” previously encountered via the Breakaways, is a welcome addition. Next is “Can’t Get You Off of My Mind”; anybody that’s ever fallen asleep to the accompaniment of Teenage Fanclub should find it to their immediate liking.

Speaking of that potential-cover vibe, the Bobby Fuller-channeling-Buddy Holly atmosphere of “Baby I’m in Love with You” is another of Feel the Noise’s highlights. It’s also exactly two minutes long, which means it can be played fifteen times in a half-hour. It leads into the disc’s sole actual cover tune, a thoughtfully fitting to its recording locale and quite swank reading of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There;” nodding to the ‘50s for the close is the vocally harmonious slow-dance readymade “Walk Away.”

Similar to its predecessor, Feel the Noise is a lean LP solidly reinforcing the musical vitality of Paul Collins, and in the manner of all worthy power pop it’s a grower. It should easily satisfy those holding a banged-up copy of The Beat in their collection.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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