When whoever said everything old is new again said it, I'm not sure what they were referring to, but it could just as easily have been popular music as anything else. For the first thirty plus years the goal in pop music was to write a song between two and four minutes in length – ideally just over three – that combined vocal harmonies with a melodic sound and appealed to as broad an audience as possible.
Inevitably the record companies moved in and began trying to package the sound and ended up diluting the product. With the introduction of more and more electronic equipment like drum machines and workstation keyboards, popular music started to turn away from the format that served it so well and became something easy to produce and mass market without much originality or human passion involved.
Thankfully the same technology that was allowing for the mass production of hits was also enabling the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock to thrive. The development of home computers with the power and sophistication to serve as recording studios has made it even easier for small bands to ensure that their music can be placed in the hands of their fans without being tampered with by those wishing to make them fit into a formula.
One of the newer bands that are showing a proficiency in writing popular songs is Johnny Action Figure. Their newest release, Asks The Room To Please Stop Spinning, is a collection of seven wonderfully crafted pop songs. While they won't change the world or raise any deep philosophical questions about the nature of life, the universe, and everything, they are well written, intelligent, and a whole lot of fun.
What is especially appealing about them musically is the contrasts that appear in their songs. Most bands feel grateful to be able to maintain a consistent style or sound with their compositions. Johnny Action Figure has no problem generating a power pop sound that is less about assault and more about being heard, but what really sets them apart is their vocal harmonies.
They are so spot on and amazing sounding that they balance the aggressive musical sound one always associates with "alternative" pop. They don't even have to pull back on their guitar sound to make the harmonies stand out and smooth the sound out. It's been a long time since I've heard harmonies that work as well together – think of Crosby, Stills, and Nash with out the sappy sentiment, and you'll get an idea of how good they are.
It probably doesn't hurt their harmonizing efforts that two of the people handling the vocals are brothers, guitarist Brendan and guitarist and keyboard player Christopher Fullam. Along with fellow guitar player Chris Sheehan, they handle the vocals while the really tight rhythm section of bassist Brendan McGeehan and drummer Mr. Wonderful provide the backbone that keeps the songs on track.
I don't know what it is about family members singing together but they are usually able to create vocal harmonies that sound just a little bit better than other combinations. Listen to the chorus on the opening track "Lose Our Face" as the harmonies punch through the almost Phil Spector-like sound of the guitars and keyboard and you'll be amazed at their potency and clarity.
As befits their status as an alternative band, the sound on Asks The Room To Please Stop Spinning is stripped down and basic, two to three driving guitars and bass and drums holding it all together. But even within that rather limited attack they are able to generate enough diversity of sound that their songs don't all begin to sound the same like too many other bands of this style.
Not only do they understand the principles of the power pop song perfectly, they also show they know how to work within that genre to be as creative as possible. What I'd personally like to see them do is continue to develop their sound, maybe pulling back from the power aspect a little and bringing in a sound that might do more to exploit their very distinctive vocalization.
Asks The Room To Please Stop Spinning isn't in stores or on Amazon yet, but if you wanted to pick up a copy before it becomes readily available you can go to the Johnny Action Figure site at CD Baby and order it. Of all the new power pop bands out there that are once again reinventing the wheel of popular music, Johnny Action Figure is one of the few that I have heard that not only has the familiar potency we've come to expect from alternative pop, but adds the vocal dexterity of groups of far more renown.
If you have grown bored with the sounds that emanate from your radio and want to listen to music that is not so wedded to its genre that it's not afraid to diversify, then pick up the newest disc by Johnny Action Figure, Asks The Room To Please Stop Spinning