Since The Dreaming Spires wear their influences so proudly on their collective sleeves, it seems apt to set a review of their debut offering within the context of a brief history of the genre they fit most snugly into. The Spires are UK-born, Americana-tinged, “power pop”. So the choice of ‘Brothers in Brooklyn’ as the title-track of their debut album is about more than just a catchy title, it’s a declaration of musical fellowship. The opening track has referenced Gram Parsons before the music’s even started, and you don’t have to wait long before The Byrds are name-checked. But the point isn’t just the tip of a cowboy hat to our cousins across the pond, it’s a reference to just how intertwined we are musically.
Take power pop for example: as with many things, it began with The Beatles. Three minute melody-driven pop songs about young love formed the blueprint, with catchy guitar riffs pushed to the fore alongside vocal harmonies. The power was injected by a dose of the aggression and energy of mods like The Who and The Kinks. Keith Moon’s wild drums and Pete Townsend’s power chords were a formative influence and you’ll even hear it said that Townsend coined the phrase. So it’s no coincidence the first true American power pop bands like The Raspberries cropped up shortly after the British Invasion and the mod scene in the UK. They even dressed like those British bands. But they were going against the grain of the heavier rock ascendant at the time, so they had an uphill struggle on their hands…
Bringing us to the band most famously associated with the term “power pop”. Big Star has been called the second biggest cult band in the world after the Velvets, and while that’s open to debate, they were certainly one of the most ill-fated. Formed in 1971, marketing and distribution problems with their label, soul-based Stax records, meant their output went largely unnoticed by the public and resulting tensions (aka – outright brawls) ended their time together after just two years. Led by the song-writing duo of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Big Star were more than just power pop, but they were obviously influenced by the genre and subsequently influenced it heavily themselves, to the point where they’re now synonymous with the term. Bell struggled with depression after leaving the band and died in a car crash in 1978 at the tragic and infamous age of 27. But not before he crafted two of the most painful but beautiful records ever etched in vinyl – “You and Your Sister” and “I Am the Cosmos” – both later covered to haunting effect by This Mortal Coil.
The Spires’ love for Big Star is obvious – they host a monthly night, “Covered in Glory”, at The Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell, where they invite friends to help them play covers from a legendary artist, and the opening night was dedicated to Big Star (The Byrds and Gram Parsons, The Beatles and The Band have also been honoured), but listening to “The Strength of Strings” specifically brings Bell’s solo work vividly to mind. It’s a slow-burning, ever-building crescendo and an ode to the paradoxical power of melancholic music to lift the spirits that would feel perfectly at home on Bell’s posthumous album, “I Am the Cosmos”.
Power pop gained popularity as the 70’s progressed, with mostly US acts defining the sound. Compression in the electronics was added, making the sound even punchier, and keyboards began to appear. Early Tom Petty, some Todd Rundgren, Blue Ash, Flamin’ Groovies, Cheap Trick, etc., built the path to power pop’s moment of glory in the late 70s when, spurred on by punk and new wave, a string of classic signals marked the genre’s brief ascendance on both sides of the Atlantic.
Coming out of pub-rock and punk in the UK, The Only Ones’ 1978 single, “Another Girl, Another Planet”, wasn’t a hit at the time, but remains one of power pop’s best-loved tracks. That same year UK punk produced two other classics, which, if you squint at some critics’ narrow definitions enough, you can easily call power pop: The Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love” and The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”. Then, Nick Lowe, a figure variously associated with pub rock, punk, new wave and power pop, had a hit on both sides of the pond in 1979 with “Cruel to Be Kind”. Meanwhile New York new wave had produced the chimeric Blondie, who were pulling in influences from all over the shop, but while there’s some on “Parallel Lines”, “Dreaming”, the first single from “Eat to The Beat”, was pure power pop and did better over here than it did at home, reaching the heady heights of No 2 in the UK charts. The seeds of power pop’s decline had already been sown though, by what is probably the quintessential power pop single. The Knack’s “My Sharona”, was No 1 in the US and so ubiquitous on US radio that there was a backlash against the band which spread to the whole genre and, despite fine efforts from bands like The Romantics and The dBs, by the mid-80s power pop as we know it had faded from sight…
Gone but not forgotten. Around this time Big Star’s real impact began to surface, with bands like REM, The Replacements, etc., citing them as a seminal influence. The more nuanced and complex brand of power pop enshrined in the band’s output pointed the way towards the alternative rock of the 80s and 90s and songs like The LA’s “There She Goes” and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” and bands like Gin Blossoms and The Posies, showed that power pop, if not exactly experiencing a revival, was not exactly dead either. It was this landscape that birthed one of the other cornerstones of The Dreaming Spires’ inspiration. Teenage Fanclub’s 1991 album “Bandwagonesque” drew on both The Byrds and Big Star and fused power pop with indie rock and shoegaze to reinvent it and the band are name checked in the same breath as The Byrds in the opening track of the album.
The major US influence on the development of power pop was the jangle-folk-rock of The Byrds, who were themselves inspired by The Beatles, both of whom were big influences on Big Star, all of whom are loved by The Spires. So there really is no better word than “intertwined” and it’s this reciprocal relationship that ‘Brothers in Brooklyn’ celebrates. The band’s love of the music that inspired them shines through, and when they sing: “You said: ‘you know this is the real show,’ Singing Sin City in sweet, ragged harmonies,” the emphasis is on the ragged, rather than the sweet, but you feel that’s intended. It’s a genuine love of heartfelt pop music and it lends the whole album an earnest, authentic, joyous quality that it’s hard not to be affected by – I defy anyone to listen to “Everything All the Time” without an ear-to-ear grin. Yet, on closer inspection, hearing the line: “Walking down the same streets, wondering if it’s me or the city that’s changed…” you realise it’s melancholic, dwelling on the inevitability of human dissatisfaction, a la “I Can’t Get No…” or Steve Earle’s “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”. And that’s as good a definition of power pop as any: joyful sounding melancholy designed for singing your heart out to – to lift your spirits and exorcise life’s inevitable pains.
The album falters occasionally, usually in its slower moments (“Woman That You Are” for instance), but the rest is a joy to listen to and capable of transporting you to other places and times (admittedly mostly dusty 60s/70s America but that’s no bad thing). “Not Every Song from the Sixties Is a Classic”, recorded with friends from Two Fingers of Firewater, is an absolute gem which grows and grows,and the title track grooves along on an insistent bass riff, delivering their mission statement: “…we do it cos we must cos we need this the most, & we can’t give up, no we won’t give up the ghost, we’ve got a message to deliver to the people back home, oh carry me, carry me, carry me on.”
Amen to that.
Story by Simon Makin, for Notes from Mt Pleasant. Simon can be found on Twitter (@SimonMakin) or http://simonmakin.me.uk/
The Dreaming Spires – Brothers in Brooklyn is out now on Clubhouse Records. http://www.clubhouserecords.co.uk
The band is currently on tour with Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou and Danny George Wilson – hitting London Sunday 16 September at The Birkbeck, Leyton. For all dates, check their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thedreamingspires