Power-Pop Perfection

Two of the great lost pop bands of our time. By any rights they should have had tons of hits and kicked REO Fuckin' Speedwagon's ass off the air, but they didn't, and the world is a worse place for it. The late '70s power-pop movement produced a lot of good bands that didn't make it and are all but forgotten except by music nerds like myself. These are two of the best (did someone say the best?).

A fan has put up a much-needed webpage for these two bands.

20/20 (1979) ****1/2

20/20's debut overlays heavy Roxy Music-influenced synthlines over Beatles-inspired guitar rock/pop, with a bit of a rockabilly undercurrent thrown in for good measure. It's a highly commercial sound, and why this didn't rocket up the charts like the not-disimilar sounds of Blondie and the Cars remains a mystery. Actually, 20/20 sound more mid-American than those two, as befits a band that formed in Tulsa, OK. The dense, layered guitars-as-synthesizers effect makes it one of the more unique sounding power-pop albums, keeping them well ahead of the more typically thinly-produced pack of skinny-tie contemporaries. "Yellow Pills" was the near-hit, and the namesake for four excellent power-pop compilations that came out in the '90s - that shows you how much of a power-pop landmark this album was! Lord, I don't even know where to begin listing all the great songs here. "Cherri" suggests the emotional desperation underneath these seemingly slight popsters, a theme that shows up again in the dark "Leaving Your World Behind". "Remember The Lightning" is a marvel of compressed energy. "She's An Obsession" and "Backyard Guys" sound kind of similar, but when you've got a good song, rewrite it, no? "Jet Lag" is my favorite this week....geez, am I going to list every song? There's really not a lot to pontificate about on this album. It's lyrically slight, catchy-as-hell, driving, somewhat angsty, richly melodic, etc., rock'n'roll, perfect for driving in your car listening to the radio, only radio doesn't play it.

20/20: Lookout! (1981) ****1/2

An equally great followup with just as many great tunes. They drop a lot of the synth-heavy density of the debut for a more straightforward guitar-rocky approach, with more spaces between the instruments opening up the sound. Also, they try to get serious with lyrics that touch on nuclear war, Vietnam, hit-and-run accidents, the American Dream, etc. They don't have anything particularly insightful to say, though I appreciate the attempt, and I prefer the darker, more realistic tone to the boy-meets-girl stuff of the debut. Not that they still don't have some boy-meets-girl songs like "Strange Side Of Love", deliciously desperate and paranoid. And "Beat City", a fantastic Who-like rocker, just says that nightlife in L.A. is pretty exciting for a heartland boy. The single "Nuclear Boy" is the highlight, and may be the best thing they've done, with a monster beat, driving guitar hook, and pseudo-nihilistic lyrics about being a nuclear boy in a nuclear age who doesn't want a steady girl. There's also a silly song about an "Alien", maybe a metaphor for alienation but probably just the result of watching "Close Encounters" too many times. Both 20/20 and Lookout! have been reissued on one CD, an essential purchase for any power-pop fan.

20/20: Sex Trap (1983) ***1/2

Their albums not moving product, 20/20 lost their major-label contract and released their third album on an independent label. That's the major problem here - stripped of the expensive recording technology that gave the first two records their densely hooky sheen, these new songs sound like demos in comparison. The songwriting seems to have suffered, also. However, this is a quite underrated album, and well worth seeking out (never released on CD, it's something of a rarity). "Overload" and "Walking Downtown" are almost as good as anything on the first two albums, and if nothing the rest of side two is measures up, the songs are still okay I guess. Side one's better, with a friend with a drug problem, a guy wishing he had a fast car, a woman who wants to trap you into domesticity with sex as bait (hence the title), and encouragement for a wallflower named Howard. Not bad at all, if disappointing compared to the previous two.

20/20 recently reformed and released a new album, 4 Day Tornado, in 1995.

Shoes: Present Tense (1979) ****

The Shoes have released at least a dozen albums since 1975 or so, and are still going strong. This one's the only one I own, and the quality of it would thirst me for all the rest except that all the Shoes songs' sound the same. As long as it's a good song, that doesn't matter (see the Ramones). The Shoes' formula is instantly likable and slowly addictive: thick layers of breathy harmonies and thick layers of fuzzy, choppy guitars on top of picture-perfect songs of love lost, gained, and hoped for. Ocassionally a keyboard shows up in the arrangement ("Now And Then"), and of course they alternate from ballads to rockers, but otherwise the formula remains remarkably consistent. "Tomorrow Night" soars into a heavenly chorus (I'm using a cliche, but heck, their music is based on the exploitation of pop cliches). "Somebody Had What I Had" stands out as one of my favorites for some reason, though I have a hard time explaining why. I mean all this as a compliment - these guys were apparently bred genetically to produce perfect pop songs on a regular basis, and are incapable of writing bad ones!

Shoes: Boomerang (1982)

I just got this. Look for a review soon.

Shoes: Best Of ***1/2

22 songs stretching from 1978's Black Vinyl Shoes to 1988's Stolen Wishes, this would appear from a distance to be the perfect Shoes record to buy if you only buy one. However, for some reason I don't play it much. It's got more good songs than Present Tense - in fact it collects nearly all of the best songs from that album - so why do I put that on when I want to hear the Shoes, instead of this best-of? Perhaps it's because 22 songs is more than I want to hear at one time by the Shoes - their style is too slight and lacking in variety for lengthy listening. Perhaps it's also because that good albums like Present Tense usually have good pacing and thematic coherence - the way each song blends into the ones beside it makes the songs stronger individually. This compilation isn't even structured chronologically, with the songs seemingly selected from a random play button of all the Shoes' albums. Ah, well - the songs are still good.

Reader Comments

Charter Leasing, CHARTER.IDEALEASE@worldnet.att.net

Good job on the sight, I have been looking for a copy of "Lookout" for a long time but I just haven't had any luck nobody has ever heard of 20/20 most of the time. If you know where I might be able to obtain "Lookout" please E-Mail me at POP2690@aol.com. Keep up the good work, the information you provide is great.

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Leaving Your World Behind