Power Pop Redux

Pass it Along (DaDork Records)
Ultratone

Trust Falls (Independent)

Peter Searcy

By Tim Roberts

In the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case of Miller v. California, the late Associate Justice Potter Stewart tried to define the difference between erotica and pornography with the vague and puzzling statement, "I know it when I see it."

In an equally vague and puzzling way, the subgenre of music called power pop can have a similar definition: "I know it when I hear it." The only difference is that the story in a power pop song isn't about a plumber who stops by to take care of something dripping, clothing isn't immediately shed and the music doesn't go chick-a-pow-chick-a-pow (not often, anyway).

Indeed, it is easy to know power pop when you hear it: short songs that sparkle, tight harmonies, finger-snapping rhythms, guitar hooks that don't kick your butt but give you a friendly swat instead (if only to get you on your feet and shake your blues away). The sound can either fill the boundaries of your ears like a breeze, or it can be condensed and blast you like a gust of wind during an intense thunderstorm. Fortunately for us, we have several acts in Louisville that can do either or both and recent releases from two of them give us fine examples of each.

Pass it Along, the second release from Ultratone (featured as this month's cover story) is an exemplary representation of that first type of power pop sound. It takes advantage of the wall of sound and fills it with a froth of ambience that combines rhythmic strumming of acoustic guitar, keyboards, ride cymbal and harmonies that would make a barber shop jealous, all while keeping the lead guitar leashed up until the right moments when a song needs an explosive burst of energy. All this comes from the skills of vocalist and guitarist Joe Scheirich, lead guitarist Mike McGinnis, bassist John Hulcher and session drummer Nick Haas.

Lyrically, Pass fits what is expected in the power-pop model: nothing deep or pretentious, just songs about love that has been found or that is almost lost and love that needs to find a place to hang its hat and visit for a while. Yet there is a bittersweet tinge to some of the lyrics. In "Motel," there's the longing of a man reunited with a former lover, with whom he wants to return to the place where they often made love, as he relies on reminiscence to convince her to return to him. A guy searches for someone he has lost in "Where Did You Go," someone who has the "sparkling eyes / The kind that told me I'm yours forever." And the opening title track contains the lamentation of "Why does everyone you walk by look away / The recognition in their eyes, but they wouldn't say / Why are we afraid to see a smile and a wave?"

But Pass It Along isn't all morose. A lot of the songs are wrapped around some tasty styles that range from forceful as in "Black and White," to "Nothing to Say" and "I Would," both of which have an early 1970s blue-eyed soul vibe that makes them great for driving through town with the car windows down.

And like a long drive on a warm evening, the car windows open and the sounds of the road melding with the whoosh of air, Ultratone's Pass It Along fills your ears with the sounds of living: the bitter, the sweet and everything in between.

The other type of power-pop sound, the one that snaps like a whip crack, provides a medium for songs of pain and anger. But that sound also has a way to subtly mask those feelings and make the music cathartic without dragging the listeners down into some private hell, which is what Peter Searcy does skillfully in his recent release Trust Falls.

A former member of Louisville's Squirrel Bait, Big Wheel and Starbilly, Searcy has released three solo albums in five years, starting with 2000's Could You Please and Thank You. The previous release, Couch Songs, was a more intimate work with sensitive lyrics wrapped in light acoustic pop. For Trust Falls, however, Searcy keeps the honest, intimate lyrics but returns to the clean, powerful drive of Could You Please to create an audio experience that shatters the masks we put up to sometimes hide our feelings about those we know who, intentionally or not, play stupid games that tick us off.

Like the passive-aggressive partner in "Silence" who, as a relationship sours, "Slams the door to say goodbye" and will "Fix a drink just to say hello." Or the avoider in "Come Over," the one whom we're never sure if it is OK to contact because when we call we feel "Just like a kid / Asking if it's all right if I come over." Or even the ones who take us for granted as in "The Ballad of What I Became," who make us feel we're becoming nothing more than household appliances and all we ask is that they look inside to see what we are hiding behind.

But just as Ultratone balances their bitter with the sweet, Searcy's anger is balanced with honesty and even a tinge of awkwardness, such as in "One Thing," where he tells a potential lover that "No one's ever taught me / How to love the way normal people do / Just like me and you." And there's a cautious optimism in the opening track "Ready," with its line "Kentucky's like a drug / Once it gets in your blood / It never wants to let you leave." Sounds like a slogan the state should adopt for its new license plates.

The magic of power pop is that it gives enough fizz to any subject matter, whether it is a song about a relationship auguring in or a reminiscence about an old love, to make it digestible and memorable. And you can dance to it, too. What Ultratone does in Pass it Along and Peter Searcy does in Trust Falls is encapsulate that magic into two different-sounding, yet oddly similar, recordings: one external and ebullient, the other internal and taut, but both packed with a crackling energy.

But you'll know that when you hear them.

Fill in the blanks at www.petersearcy.net

and www.ultratoneonline.com.