'Toonsmiths

Boyhood passions and local music luminaries collide in Robin Wilson's new concept album-cum-animated series

"I've been a big fan of Tommy Keene for years," enthuses Wilson. "And I thought of him as soon as I was thinking about a Poppin' Wheelies series. At one point, I was listening to The Real Underground [a 1993 compilation of Keene hits, rarities and B-sides], and it occurred to me that the Poppin' Wheelies was a great place for other songwriters' unused material. Here were these perfect songs for my concept just sitting there."

Wilson has recorded a trio of Keene compositions for the album: the signature "Places That Are Gone"; "Back Again," from a 1984 EP of the same name; and "Babyface," a soaring, gossamer ballad also written during Keene's fruitful Dolphin Records reign. Wilson's voice is in good form throughout, even as he apes Keene's signature singing style on a sped-up take of "Places," which also features a nice bit of guitar work from former Blossom, current Peacemaker and sometime Keene sideman Scotty Johnson.

(As a side note, Keene will be recording a new album at Mayberry studios next month. The record, a follow-up to his critically praised 1998 effort, Isolation Party, is tentatively slated for a mid-2001 release and will follow on the heels of a live album, which Keene is currently mixing in Illinois.)

The Poppin' Wheeliesalso plunders the songbook of the late, great Starclub, a Brit-pop combo whose single "Hard to Get" penetrated the lower reaches of the American Top-40. The Londoners released but a single album, 1993's self-titled debut, before breaking up. A pair of cuts destined for the group's never-completed sophomore effort find their way onto Wilson's album. The high point comes with Steve French's "Ella Doesn't Care," a swooning, crashing slice of three-minute jangle euphoria. French, now a New York-based producer, also co-wrote a track on the Gas Giants record and contributed two songs to Wilson's Uranus Presents compilation.

Fellow Starclubber Owen Vyse (most recently a touring member of Echo and the Bunnymen) also checks in with the languid "Alone Again," a florid weeper with an insistent, drawling riff -- a surefire hit in an alternate universe where the Plimsouls' watercolor pop still reigns.

Wilson himself wrote five of the tracks on the album. Most are tied closely to the cartoon's story line. "Time 4U" and "Little Stars" are typical of other songs in his canon -- simple, bouncy nuggets that recall early acoustic forays and Blossoms B-sides. The slightly plodding "Danger Girl" -- inspired by the popular comic of the same name -- and the more sprightly "Radio Summer" are tips of the cap to Gary Numan and the Buggles, respectively.

The final song, "Spaced Out," is a bonus track that features production from internationally renowned Tempe-based DJ and Plastik Records label head Markus Schulz. Wilson calls the cut "a conceptual number by the Techno Pops, the evil New Wave robotic dance band that's after the Poppin' Wheelies' magic guitar."

Apart from a smattering of guests, the bulk of the tracks feature backing from the rest of the Gas Giants -- guitarist Dan Henzerling, drummer Phil Rhodes and bassist Mickey Ferrell -- and crystalline production from Wilson and engineer Chris Widmer.

Integral to the presentation and the disc's elaborate packaging are eight panels of artwork drawn by Alejandro Garza (the man behind the popular E.V.E Protomecha series) and inked by Liquid! Graphics colorists Christian Lichtner and Aron Lucen, three of the top names in the comic book industry. But more striking is the fact that the characters in the Poppin' Wheelies are modeled after some familiar local music figures. The fictional band's drummer bears a striking resemblance to Henzerling, right down to the goatee and wire-rim glasses, while the lithe, boyish-looking singer is something of a cross between Wilson and Keene. The band's guitar slinger, "Otis," with his lanky frame, long bangs, prominent nose and gold-top Les Paul (the "magic guitar" in question), is a spot-on caricature of late Gin Blossoms founder Doug Hopkins.

Though the appropriation of Hopkins' image could be viewed as an opportunistic bit of grave robbing, Wilson insists his motives are pure. Despite the public feud that raged between the two from the time of Hopkins' firing from the Blossoms in 1992 until his suicide in 1993, Wilson's early hero worship of the guitarist is well-known.

"I mean, I don't want this to seem like some gigantic tribute to Doug Hopkins and to dig up all that stuff again," Wilson says. "But it's no secret that the Poppin' Wheelies are based loosely on me and my friends. And that these characters are amalgams of people that I've been in bands with.

"They're named for people I care for -- Otis is named for Doug, Tommy is for Tommy Keene, Danny is for Dan Henzerling," he continues. "And the bass player, Tennessee, is an amalgam of rock 'n' roll cowboys that I've known."

Wilson's being disingenuous on the final count. The fact is that Tennessee is also based on another former bandmate and estranged friend, bassist G. Brian Scott, who was forced to leave the Gas Giants last year. Earlier drawings of the character bore an even closer resemblance to Scott -- and in the final version, there are also touches of Black Eyed Susans singer Jay Stevens, another local rock 'n' roll casualty who committed suicide in 1990.

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