Power-pop fans are sore losers, which is why, facing the ascendancy of Nevermind clones and the fanzine media fixation on the lo-fi underground, they tend to be defensive and arrogant when discussing their passion. The problem is that it's hard to strictly define power pop -- are the whiny brats in Green Day power pop? How about lapsed hair farmers Enuff Z'nuff? -- unless you rely exclusively on the Rickenbacker jangle, Who/Kinks chord progressions, Beatles-esque vocals yardsticks. Still, such fans are a dedicated lot. The latest hot tips on p-pop Internet discussion groups: Virginia Beach's Mockers and Chapel Hill's B-sides.
The former, not to be confused with the mid-'60s Spanish garage band Mockers, debuted in '95 with Somewhere Between Mocksville and Harmony. Stateside and international kudos followed; by last year the quartet was holed up with venerable producer Mitch Easter working on the follow-up. Holland Tunnel is chock-full of familiar p-pop touchstones -- Abbey Road-esque chamber pop ("Funk #50" -- no relation to Joe Walsh), crunchy Nerves/Plimsouls swagger ("More Important Things"), swooping Byrdsian-by-way-of-Posies jangle ("Sheepwalking"), etc.
What sets the Mockers apart from the dime-a-dozen bands that ape the first two Big Star albums and claim to know the Pet Sounds box inside out are the nuances and details. In "Comes As No Surprise," for example, one encounters a kind of Davy Jones/"Daydream Believer" melody affixed to a Brian Wilson bass line, Clarence White cosmic cowboy lead licks twanging around deep in the mix and some oddly perfect Spanish guitar flourishes to boot. Or in the tough-as-nails stomper "C'mon Over to My Side," what deceptively starts out as a Who/Kinks chord progression abruptly shifts into a hang-10 surf motif -- and when the band extends the bridge to twice its expected length, the resulting release of tension as the guys dive-bomb back into the chorus (a gloriously perfect "C'mon girl, c'mon baby . . .") is as thrilling as seeing Keith Moon kick over his kit or Ray Davies punch his brother Dave in the mouth. Yeah, it's that good.
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The B-sides -- whose bassist, Ken Mosher, is a Squirrel Nut Zippers alumnus -- hew at times to the more ornate, almost Proggy side of power pop as previously practiced by the likes of Todd Rundgren's Utopia and Jeff Lynne's E.L.O. Case in point: "I Wore It 'til It Broke," a six-minute suitelike composition with enough grand piano flourishes, anthemic guitar riffs, baroque strings and fey, operatic vocal harmonies to make the inner Freddie Mercury in you stand up and wave an approving hankie. Elsewhere, however, these youngsters (median age about 21) snap, crackle and pop their way through no-frills tuneage such as the dB's-with-strings "Can't Get Through," the joyful Hollies/Zombies gal-namechecking of "Megan" and the magical-pet-sounds-mystery-tour that is "Japan." As with the Mockers, the B-sides deploy a wealth of instrumental subtleties (nice Mellotron, lads). These keenly complement what is arguably the group's most prominent feature, a celestial vocal tapestry that owes as much to the classic doo-woppers and college-frat Whiffenpoof vocal groups as it does the Brit Invasioneers. And yeah, they're that good, too.