Great newspaperman A.J. Liebling boasted that he wrote faster than his competitors who could write better, and better than those who could write faster. Pinwheel can claim a similarly qualified distinction in the world of power-pop.
This band of veteran local players throws out catchier melodic hooks than bands that rock harder, and rocks harder than bands that are catchier.
After two spins through “Chemical Jar,” I can report that, as with certain other experiences, I know I had a good time, but I can’t remember much of what happened. Front man John Surge has written a bunch of songs tuneful enough to keep a fan of melodic-pop well-entertained while the record plays, but not strong enough to linger after the music stops.
What sticks is the swarming, driving, hefty and muscular onslaught of guitars and drums that Pinwheel produces. Surge’s songs surge mightily, with one lighter, chunkier change of pace, “Just Like Me,” that generates momentum without quite so much mass. (We’re not counting a wistful hidden track at the end that jangles as if some other band had produced it.)
Surge’s voice has a touch of Roger Daltrey’s reedy angst, without the Who singer’s large-scale sense of drama. Drummer Ron Cambra--Surge’s mate in Nervous Touch and Trouble Dolls, dating back to the 1980s--helps Pinwheel blow hot with an unbridled, messy attack that recalls the Who’s Keith Moon.
Surge’s economical lyrics cohere well over the course of the album. A running theme develops--a disappointing quest for clarity, authenticity and staying power that mainly uncovers nothing but a bunch of phonies and quitters.
In “Just Like Me,” he neatly skewers the pretensions of people who act out their lives instead of living them, thinking they’re chicly dangerous when they’re merely deluded.
We could be a tabloid story
The drifter and the drama queen
We could star in our own movie
Where nothing’s quite the way it seems. . . .
Don’t you know we’ve got a lot in common
Nothing to say and nothing to say
While concluding that existence has a squishy “velveteen center I’m learning not to trust,” Pinwheel takes momentary refuge in the pleasures of honestly idiosyncratic music: namely that of Charles Thompson (better known by his aliases Black Francis and Frank Black). “Oh, Charles” is a spirited fan letter of a song crammed with fast-flying allusions to Black’s numerous lyrical quirks and obsessions.
Pinwheel plays a nice joke by avoiding musical aping of Black and his old band, the Pixies (“Oh, Charles” is more of a Replacements-style sloppy burner). Until, that is, the moment after the tribute song is over. The space-launch liftoff of massed guitars that opens the next track, “Flying Monkeys,” sounds just like the Pixies.
Surge may not be an elite brawn-pop songwriter like Matthew Sweet or John Easdale, but it’s fairly certain that he and Pinwheel are capable of a sweeter, more versatile album than “Chemical Jar.”
For now, the band has produced a record emblematic of the world of trade-offs and compromises it passionately and intelligently observes: While not exactly what confirmed power-pop fans might want, its mix of qualified tunefulness and unrestrained forcefulness is enough to give them what they need.
(“Chemical Jar” is available from Pinwheel, (562) 421-5922; e-mail: Pinwheeler@aol.com or https://www.interplace.com/pinwheel)