With the veritable tempest of shit passing for new album releases being hurled against the proverbial wall by the major labels, Illinois-based indie Parasol Records offers much needed cover with its catalog of quality releases.

Originating in 1991, as a mail order outfit, Parasol Records has grown dramatically in the last decade to become a well-respected indie label with its specialist imprints viz. the rock-oriented Mud, the roots-focused Spur and the rarities-themed Hidden Agenda.

The Power of Pop has been fortunate to have received full support from Parasol Records in the last two years, this Special - highlighting some pertinent recent issues - is not only my way of showing my gratitude but also serves to draw the attention of all discerning modern rock and pop fans to these deserving titles.

Why Men Fail

When asked why he entitled his new album, Why Men Fail, Neilson Hubbard replied - " The title works very well with the records because failure is so much a part of our humanity. Failure is surrounded by so many human emotions - sadness, longing, loneliness, and fear. Even more positive emotions, like hope, happiness, and peace are directly related to our failure, because the pursuit of these desired emotions leads to the undesired ones when there is failure. That’s what happens because we are human, and that is what this is about." 

Which I suppose is excellent background to approach this album with. Primary to Hubbard's conception of Why Men Fail is the expression of positive and negative emotions in his music. This sophomore effort, a follow-up to 1997's The Slide Project, finds Hubbard in revelatory mood. Many of the blue confessional tones summon up the melancholy style of Alex Chilton, Mark Eitzel, Mark Kozelek and the late Epic Soundtracks. 

This is certainly true right from the moment the chilling country blues of “Towns” wafts from the speakers as a military snare beats out a funeral march and Hubbard’s vocal delivery evokes the threadbare style of Neil Young and Wayne Coyne. Haunting. And it never lets up from then on – the drivin’ organ (by Peter Holsapple) that envelopes “Speedin,’” the truly lovely strings that embellish the mellifluous “Wonderful Pain” and “Beautiful Yesterday,” the Bacharach-Wilson charm of the dulcimer-filled “The Girl That Killed September,” the breathless Hubbard – Tywanna Jo Baskette duet of the Beatlesque “Hollywood 1995,” the rockin’ “Surrounded” with its obvious nods to the Band, the disembowelled drum beat that anchors the fragile “Where It Hurts” and the aching acoustic “Sweet Goodnight,” reveal Hubbard to be an artist with the awareness of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev in taking familiar classic rock and pop elements and sculpting them into beautiful shapes.  

Ironic perhaps that an album about failure succeeds so well in convey the emotions connected with failure – in its approach, in its musical direction and in its technique, Why Men Fail is the epitome of the new pop, rooted in the fundamentals but always breaking new ground. (8) 

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In A Glass Darkly

This 5 track EP, inspired by the writings of J. S. Le Fanu - Irish novelist and short story writer, often called the father of the modern ghost story - is the latest in a long string of premier psychedelic rock documents that have been the hallmark of this supreme cult band.

With five albums to their credit (not to mention numerous cassette-only LPs collected on Indian Winter), the last being 2000's sublime Seven Fathoms Down and Falling, Green Pajamas relay all the right psychedelic pressure points (e.g. The Beatles, The Move, Syd Barret's Pink Floyd, Robyn Hitchcock) into their superlative material.

Given the subject matter, the 5 songs here are rather dark and creepy in nature. This tone is achieved mainly by presenting songs in descending chord structures, horror movie-type instrumental figures, atonal deadpan vocals, hollow-sounding harpsicords, spine-chilling mandolins and theme-sensitive lyrics.

Not quite as immediately accessible as Seven Fathoms Down and Falling, although “Uncle Silas” and “Laura Silver Bell,” are simply magnificent psychedelic English folk, In A Glass Darkly is a superb example of pop music meeting literary pretensions admirably. (7.5)

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It is always invigorating to come across a pop artisan who plies his trade mainly on the piano. Although I must point out, before the thought runs through your mind, that one must discount the kinetic and jaunty Elton John/Billy Joel/Ben Folds approach in this equation. It would be more appropriate to consider the likes of Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney and um…that fabulous late 70s British duo, The Korgis, when assessing this rather fine album.

Levy may be better known for his days with The Sneetches, releasing classic pop music that contained cheerful melodies juxtaposed with reflective lyrics.

Five years in the making, Fireflie possesses that special immediacy with songs that are at once complex yet straightforward, if you can grasp that concept. Take the opening unadorned piano ballad – “Someone Like You” – filled to the brim with brilliant Nilsson/McCartney elements especially when the strings sneak in.

“New Day,” is a joyous celebration of a fresh perspective, expressed in lively albeit restrained fashion; “Some Days,” is a slight jaunt through doubt and pessimism – “The sunny days break down on me;” “(There’s Always) Something Wrong" continues this dismal perception but delivered in a subdued Latin dance; “Away From My Head,” burrows into your sensibilities like a soft bullet, its cooing harmonies and funky beat sealing the deal; “I Need To Tell You,” with its Tin Pan Alley inflections reminds me of a very young Randy Newman; whilst “Take This Child Away” may as well be John Lennon with Levy’s nasal vocal delivery.

All the right musical suggestions add up to a very satisfying classic pop experience – what I really admire is the subtle mix of styles yet presented in a fairly consistent fashion. As the eerie hidden chimes and bells brings Fireflies to a close, you are conscious that with his little gestures, Mike Levy has illuminated our surroundings even if only for a fleeting moment. (7.5)

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Days of Plenty

There is no mistaking George Usher's primary musical focus - the folk-rock/garage/psychedelic axis of the American response to the British Invasion in the mid-1960s. Certainly, Usher's penchant for Byrds-like Rickenbecker 12-string arpeggios has been well-documented in albums like Miracle School and Dutch April.

Days of Plenty continues very much in this vein and whilst there are times where the melodies are not quite able to match the overall intent of the arrangements and performances, there is no denying those special moments when Usher and his crack band nail it perfectly.

The gorgeous title track is a prime instance of this. With a wistful mellotron leading the way, Usher and group narrate a warning against cautious optimism – “And it won’t be long till it comes round again/And what’ll you do when the days of plenty” to a background of of pleasing rhythms and Usher’s languid delivery of a truly memorable tune. In similar vein is the melancholy almost Nick Drake-ish “The End and the Beginning,” where Usher – accompanied by acoustic guitar and cello – sings, “Where was the sun when all my days were blind/Where was the moon in the darkness above?” In “Baby, Where’d You Go?” Usher begs to know the reason for his depression as this folky song, ornate with its French horn and harpsicord, paints a reflective picture. Usher completes the mood with the luxuriant chamber pop of “Long Long Never,” evoking the Zombies and Left Banke effectively.

Whilst dynamic material like “Smoke That Kiss,” “I’m Not Gonna Be Around,” “Crowded Mind” and “Unfinished Prayer” are no means inferior but are fairly indistinctive in the scheme of things.

Despite these reservations, fans of folk-rocking sweetness will not be disappointed. (7)

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Parasol’s Sweet Sixteen Vol. 3

What? You need proof that Parasol Records are a happening, eclectic modern rock and pop label? Here are eighteen reasons – the third volume in this excellent sampler series. Whatever turns the discerning pop hooligan on is exhibited right here: textural cross-genre pop (Jenifer Jackson, Neilson Hubbard, Shalini); electronic pop (Club 8, Vitesse); dream pop (Fonda), alt. country (The Beauty Shop, Steve Almaas, Very Secretary); lo-fi rock (The Mezzanines, Hot Glue Gun); New Acoustic Movement (Waltz for Debbie, Bette Servert); POWER pop (Adam Schmitt, George Usher Group, Jack and the Beanstalk), psychedelic folk (Tractor Kings, Green Pajamas) – whew!

Quite a line-up, eh…?

For me, the highlights this time around – Schmitt’s dynamic demo (?) “Let’s Make This Easy,” a song from his upcoming Demolition CD; another tuneful and breezy nugget from Joe Algeri’s Jack and the Beanstalk – “She Drives A Volvo;” the highly Dylanesque freakbeat of Tractor Kings’ “I Thought You Loved Me” and the sublime Green Pajamas with their spiraling “Night Boat to Gondal” from the upcoming EP, The Caroler’s Song.

I rest my case. (9)

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