Graded on a Curve:
Paul Collins,
Out of My Head

Paul Collins is no stranger to this column. That’s because in the annals of power-pop, he’s one of the greats. But he’s also a cult figure, so the spotlight isn’t exactly preaching to stadium-sized choirs. Cult music can often be esoteric or challenging, but not Collins’; this is power-pop, after all. Cult subjects can also ooze loads of thorny personality, but the man seems like a nice, together guy. As an intro, one can check his classic stuff with The Nerves and The Beat, but Out of My Head, his latest available September 28 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Alive Naturalsound Records, won’t disappoint. In fact, by any yardstick through which melodic guitar action is measured, it’s a stone winner.

The thing, well, one thing about cult figures is that it’s often damn near impossible for them to conjure up new music that gets into the neighborhood of quality that spurred the belated “but have you heard” buzz in the first place. As said above, Paul Collins’ chosen genre works in his favor, as does the fact that he never had a Third/Sister Lovers period that leaves listeners agape with the tortured brilliance of it all.

Instead, Collins just dishes out rocking songs loaded with catchiness and most importantly depth, which keeps the music from wearing thin after repeated play. Backing this up: Out of My Head sounds better to these ears on the sixth consecutive play than it did on the first. It’s also quite the classically informed LP (in the pop-rock sense of classicism) without being belabored about it. That is, while certainly recalling the ’60s, it’s not retro (or even neo) in comportment, but as it plays, more than a couple of the songs might lead one to wonder if they are covers.

They are not. For the record, Collins sings, drums, and handles most of the guitar playing, while Paul Stingo contributes bass, harmonies, and most-notably, is the writer of the trim set’s first track “In and Out of My Head,” which springs from the Everly-Orbison-Pitney-influenced wing of ’60s garage rock, with the guitar big and the solo ripping; in another way, it’s a bit like the Beau Brummels on a Duane Eddy kick.

It’s not what a seasoned Collins fan might expect as an album opener, and it’s to his credit that he’s welcomed an outside writer on the record. It’s followed by the crisp up-tempo Beatles-esque jangler “Go,” though it hits a little more like a late ‘70s Bomp single than something a la The Knickerbockers. And that’s cool. Even cooler is the sunny, but not too sunny, ’60s pop-rocker “Kind of Girl,” which keeps the guitars, harmonies, and rhythm hitting in perfect balance.

This mode continues in “Just Too Bad You’re Leaving,” which also extends the Beatles aura, but stripped-down and with handclaps. At least initially. By the latter portion of the song, those harmonies have gushed forth, and things suddenly feel as big as Montana. All this in a classic runtime of under 2:30 and a surprise ending, to boot.

So far, so solid from a rocking standpoint, but “Emily,” another Stingo tune and a fine piece of writing, leans into harmony-rich (again, lightly Everlys-like) love-ode pop without losing track of the instrumental component. Truly sweet for the ear, and a big but not grandiose (or in any way strained) moment, though Collins’ “Midnight Special” swings the pendulum back to sharp, tough pop-rocking.

It might connect as a modestly-scaled entry, but the thrust is in reality an appealing slice of autobiography, dealing lyrically with growing up and with particular attention to the ’70s music performance TV show of the title. In a genre that shoulders the burden of overcoming or at least withstanding “I love you” or “good times tonight” clichés, it’s terrific that in 2018, Paul Collins doesn’t have to worry about sourcing non-trite sentiments.

Not that he’s scrambling around for unique subject matter and striving to be different. “You Belong to Me” just jumps out of the speakers like one of those discovered ‘60s nuggets (Nuggets) that hit upon a combo of Beatles and Byrds (and with just a hint of Dylan’s less impressionistic stuff in the lyrics). Fucking lovely.

Contrasting, “Killer Inside” is lyrically ambitious but literary/ cinematic (without, per the title, delving into Jim Thompson-esque turpitude) rather than personal, and reminds that Collins was once part of a Los Angeles scene that produced Wall of Voodoo and The Motels. From there, “Lost Again” shows that he can effectively dish some country-tinged (but non-twangy) singer-songwriter pop, though by song’s end the pop-rock feel does take partial hold.

“Killer Inside” and “Lost Again” slow the momentum a bit, but they do serve as a nice prelude to his most boldly conceptualized cut on the record, as “Tick Tock” employs keyboards and additionally backing vocals (not harmonies) that, rather than enhancement, are integral to the song’s success. After that, a safe bet would be a closing rocker, but instead, “Beautiful Eyes” wraps things up with a dose of Collins at his most emotionally resonant (in terms of both writing and singing). It underscores the breadth of his talent and makes clear he’s in no way coasting on his cult stature.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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