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The Mommyheads: New Kings of Pop
by George Graham
(Independent Release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/23/2020)
Art rock or progressive rock has taken a number of forms over the years, from the complex, quasi-classically influenced music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and Genesis, to the more jazz influenced music of Soft Machine and Allan Holdsworth, to the creative, complex pop of groups influenced by Queen and XTC as two ends of the spectrum. This week we have a new recording by a long-running group that can well be placed in the art pop category, with a number of parallels drawn to XTC, with maybe a smattering of Queen influence. It’s the Mommyheads, and their new release, about their thirteenth since 1987 is called New Kings of Pop.
The Mommyheads were founded by Adam Cohen, in New York, while he and the other members were still in high school, with their first official release coming out in 1988. They began to attract attention for their quirky, melodic songs with often complex arrangements. Adam Cohen later changed his stage name to Adam Elk, to avoid confusion with Leonard Cohen’s son Adam Cohen, also a musician. The other personnel with the band has been somewhat fluid with keyboard man Michael Holt, and drummer Dan Fisherman being with the group since 1990. The band released a major label eponymous album in 1997, which put them on the musical map, but they broke up in 1998, with the members working on other projects, with Adam Elk becoming a composer of music for television commercials, Holt doing a solo album, and Fisherman going from a career in computers to being a college professor of mathematics and philosophy the Randolph School in Wappinger’s Fall, NY. But in 2008, the Mommyheads reunited to do a new album, You’re Not a Dream, and they have been occasionally active ever since, releasing a series of recordings including some revised versions of their previous albums. Their last full release was in 2019.
Now they are out with New Kings of Pop and it’s a thoroughly first-rate collection of creative melodic pop, with musical and lyrical sophistication and cleverness with crisp production. One of the distinctive aspects of their sound is nearly constant presence of acoustic guitar, in the midst of the often elaborate rock arrangements. There’s not a lot of instrumental virtuosity going on, but the playing is in the service of the songs, which sometimes tell stories or are allegorical. And with the acoustic guitar, the music can evoke some folk influence.
Opening is a song called Speaker Heart with the band’s creative mixture of pop and cleverness. The lyrics are an intriguing story, while the tune is one that you can going around humming. <<>>
More on the art rock side is A Speck Among Giants, with its 7-beat verse and lyrics that seem to be a kind of roundabout love song. <<>>
Another distinctive track is Take Me As I Am, whose message is summed up in the title, while the tune can evoke musical theater or cabaret, more than pop rock. <<>>
The title track New Kings of Pop is one of those instances in which The Mommyheads channel the style of Queen. The result is quite well-done. <<>>
The album includes a clever, and thoroughly interesting tribute to the young climate activist Greta Thunberg, with her name serving as the song’s title. The band is in its full art rock mode for this track. <<>>
Probably the most elaborate piece on the album is called Forensic Hero Deconstruction, with seemingly allegorical lyrics. It’s not clear if the song was about anyone in particular. But the Mommyheads turn it into a kind of musical dramatic presentation in several parts. <<>>
Also exhibiting the band’s art rock facet is Flame to the Moth which shows their edgier side, in another creative piece of composition. <<>>
The album closes with another of their elaborate pieces of musical writing and arrangement, a song called Focus Group in which the research tool of the title seems to be given a sinister connotation. <<>>
New Kings of Pop the latest recording by the long running, though intermittent band The Mommyheads, is an excellent example of contemporary art pop, in the tradition of XTC or Queen. The band brings great writing with sophisticated arrangements, and lyrics that are often intriguing and hardly the sort of simple pop cliches one might have expected for such generally upbeat music. The material is multi-layered and borrows influences from earlier bands, but the Mommyheads’ sonic mixture is all their own, with plenty of creativity on display.
Our sound quality grade is a B-plus. Most of the instruments are well recorded, including the acoustic guitar on several tracks, but there are some instances of distorted, overdriven vocals, which earns demerits in my book.
There is a lot of worthwhile retro music happening, with younger bands recreating the styles of the music of previous generations. Adam Elk and Mommyheads have been making music, on and off, for 33 years now. So their creative art pop blend is not really retro. In any case New Kings of Pop is definitely a worthwhile album likely to appeal to both young retro fans and those who remember what it was like back in the day.
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