BAND: JOHNATHAN PUSHKAR
reviewed by NADJA DEE
Artwork: Will Wiggins
KEY to this album
(Hint: The closer to center white, the more Power Pop)
Although there's only 2 or 3 country songs on this album, it feels like a Country album with pop. Some Beach Boys, some Power Pop and some acoustic tracks
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Released 6/4/2021 (JEM Records)
Johnathan Pushkar (Vocals, Guitar, 12-string Guitar, Drums)
Wyatt Funderbunk (Keyboards, Synths, Bass, Guitars, Backing Vocals)
Geoff Britton (Drums: Tracks 2, 5, 8, 10)
Sandy Gennaro (Drums: Track 1)
Dan Ealey (Bass: Track 10)
John Merjave (Guitars: Track 10)
Kris Rodgers (Keyboards: Tracks 8, 9)
Matthew Thompson (Lead Guitar: Track 5)
Mandy Funderburk (Strings: Track 11)
Produced and Recorded by: Wyatt Funderburk at Nebulon II, Nashville TN
Assistant Engineer: Rich Kelly III
Drums Recorded at Pentavant Studios, Nashville TN
Mastered by: Justin Perkins at Mystery Room Mastering
All tracks written by Johnathan Pushkar except:
Track 3, 7: Johnathan Pushkar and Steve Rempis
Track 10: Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney
While my last review of Johnathan Pushkar's 2019 debut album, Straight Up, had me questioning whether Johnathan Pushkar was real, or if he perhaps was an A.I. product from a factory that cranked out groups like The Monkees, this review will discard all of that silly nonsense. In fact, it's time to get a little bit serious about his follow-up Compositions effort.
It's often been said that an artist has a lifetime to release their first album and a year for their follow-up album. Termed "The Sophmore Album Curse," the theory is that a band's first album is comprised of songs that they've been composing and perfecting since they learned barre chords. But, they have very little time for their second release, and it's even worse if their debut was a success, due to pressure from their label, fans, and the band itself. They've put most of their hits on the first album which sometimes leaves the follow-up with a lot to be desired.
Examples of artists who crushed their "Sophmore Curse"
The Beatles: With The Beatles
Elvis Costello: This Year's Model
Badfinger: No Dice (Technically the 2nd Badfinger album)
Foo Fighters: The Colour And The Shape
Oasis: (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?
Examples of artists who succumbed to the "Sophmore Curse"
Julian Lennon: The Secret Value Of Daydreaming
Jet: Shine On
The Killers: Sam's Town
The Stone Roses: Second Coming
Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better
The Magic Numbers: Those The Brokes
Kaiser Chiefs: Yours Truly, Angry Mob
Small Faces: From The Beginning
The Go-Gos: Vacation
XTC: Go 2
Up for discussion: Weezer: Pinkerton
The album trailer for Compositions
I try not to read album reviews before I write my own review. But in this case, Compositions had gotten a lot of heat, reviews that ran from positive to negative, and that's gotta be tough on a young musician. Writing music, much like any other art form is a lot like giving birth to an (art) baby. I viewed Johnathan Pushkar's second album as just more Johnathan Pushkar music. In fact, it could've been titled Straighten Up Pt. 2. The difference between the two is that Compositions has a lot more country influence. It's sort of a country album with a pop twist, there's no denying this kid is based in Nashville.
Take Track #2 "Gonna Be Alright," with its country two-step beat, Track #5 "Just Friends" with its banjo vibe as it wouldn't be difficult to imagine Johnathan Pushkar singing the song with a piece of straw in his mouth. Even Track #9 "Love Will Save The Day" has a fast-paced country beat, with a heavy retro Beatles influence to it.
Track #9 Love Will Save The Day
This album shows the love that Johnathan Pushkar has for 1960's British music, plus his love of The Beach Boys and good old American Country and Western music.
Johnathan Pushkar loves everything Beatles, he wears a suit and ties and sports a 1964 Beatles haircut. It makes me wonder if Great Clips has a classic "Mop Top" haircut on their menu? Johnathan Pushkar simply embodies that sixties British-American retro music vibe. If that's not your thing, you can't say you weren't warned! Everything about Johnathan Pushkar screams British Invasion.
In nature, there's a mechanism called Aposematism, boiled down it means advertising by an animal to potential predators that it is not worth attacking/eating. It does it by using
bright colors, patterns, or markings to warn predators that they're not the trouble.
Aposematism's main function is to prevent attack.
I feel like Johnathan Pushkar's retro suits, skinny black tie, Rickenbacker guitar, and Beatles haircut are ample aposematic warning that you're going to hear some British sounding Power Pop. And while Mr. Pushkar isn't toxic or poisonous, if you're not in the mood for 1960's style Power Pop then, you should probably not listen to music from a guy who looks like a missing member of The Dave Clark Five.
There's some good songs on this album, my favorite is Track #4 "Making Plans," with it's Fountains of Wayne laidback vibe. It's a song about making plans with someone who isn't going to be part of it with you. It's about a relationship that's not going anywhere, or doesn't exist at all. It reminds me a bit of a song by The Pop Cycle called "Hideout," at least in subject. The two songs even have similar lyrics:
My friends say I should get out more
But I tell them it's not that bad
Making plans for all the fun we could've had
(The Pop Cycle)
So I'm hiding in my house
My roommates bring me food
They beg me to come out
And I don't mean to be rude
Making Plans (Johnathan Pushkar)
Hideout (The Pop Cycle)
I also liked the keyboard part in Track #8 Alexandria, played by Kris Rodgers. It reminded me of a Ray Manzarek solo from any number of The Doors hits. It's another short, catchy song, continuing in the style that Johnathan Pushkar presented in 2019's Straighten Up. Sure, the lyrics are about girls (What Power Pop isn't?) and they're straightforward perfect rhymes. You don't find many slant rhymes in the Power Pop style. Lyrics that use "love" often go hand in hand with "above," not "blood," in Power Pop music. So if your example of rhyming poetry is Dr. Seuss, then Power Pop is your matching style.
Alexandra (Keyboard Part)
Track #10 Junior's Farm is Johnathan Pushkar's version of a great solo Paul McCartney song. He even enlisted, original drummer, Geoff Britton to perform drumming duties (Geoff Britton has only recorded this song twice, once with Paul McCartney and once with Johnathan Pushkar). I thought he did a decent job covering the song until I went back and listened to the original version. I compared the two songs, and I feel like there was something missing from Pushkar's version, namely "patina."
When you build props for a movie, your final step is to distress the object, add a layer of dirt and grime to show that it's had years of wear and tear from being exposed to the elements. But, the young Johnathan Pushkar doesn't have this weathering, he doesn't have McCartney's experienced years of playing Hamburg nightclubs, touring and writing with The Beatles, and all the things that make Paul McCartney...well, Paul McCartney. And while Paul was only 32 years old when he laid down Junior's Farm, he already had been through a musician's boot camp. While guitarist John Merjave ("Rocky Weekling") pulls off a great lead guitar, the cover of Junior's Farm on Compositions, can't compare to McCartney's version and made me realize just how great a band Paul had with Wings. A great musician makes it look easy when it's not.
I've said it before, I have very strong opinions regarding cover songs. I don't understand why an artist covers a song that sounds so similar to the original version. Personally, I don't want to hear a copy of a song when I can listen to the original? A cover version of a song, unless it has reasons to imitate the original*, should offer us something new, something unique, and make us hear the song in a new light. Johnathan Pushkar's version of Junior's Farm, albeit competent, doesn't do that.
* An example of a cover needing to imitate the original version is Squeeze's album, Spot The Difference. The band wanted to regain rights to their songs so they re-recorded new versions of the songs.
Junior's Farm cover by Johnathan Pushkar
One advantage of covering songs is that it introduces folks to great music they may not have heard before, so maybe it'll do that. I know that Weezer's Teal album introduced a bunch of young folks to Toto's hit song "Africa." Many younger kids only know classic hit songs because they've been covered. I hope that they're intelligent enough to seek out the original version and learn that artist's entire catalog. However, I didn't think Weezer brought anything new to any of the cover songs they recorded on their Teal album. (See, I'm even critical of the great Weezer!)
I've been listening to this album for a few weeks now, trying to figure out why some people love it while others hate it. At the very least, the album takes a while to grab you, to sink it and I think, one reason is that Compositions sounds like an album of B-Sides. (Does this mean "I don't hear a single?"
It feels like a collection of alternate songs left off of Straighten Up. It's an album that could've been titled Straighten Up: The demos and B-Sides.
Track #1: Any Second Now, the most Power Pop of the songs feels like part 2 after the intermission of music theater. Quite a few songs on Compositions felt like they belonged on a musical.
ANY SECOND NOW (Official Video)
Track #7: Can't Get You Out Of My Mind, (Co-written by Steve Rempis), reminded me of an unused Meatloaf track from Rocky Horror Picture Show.
CAN'T GET YOU OUT OF MY MIND imagined
as a Meatloaf musical number
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Track #3 "Does What She Does," (Also co-Written by Steve Rempis) takes its influence from The Beach Boys. But "Does What She Does" has more of a Beatles tune written in the style of The Beach Boys. The backing vocals are good, and just like Paul McCartney, none of Pushkar's lyrics venture past simple, hard rhymes. He rhymes "town" with "around," and"hand" with "man" in Any Second Now. It's early Beatles rhyming before The Beatles met Bob Dylan (August 1964). An infamous meeting where Dylan criticized Lennon for not writing more complex lyrics, and Lennon, in turn, criticized Dylan for writing simple melodies. Besides, the introduction of marijuana, both songwriters benefitted from the meeting.
In fact, it would be fair to equate Johnathan Pushkar's music to the direction The Beatles music took, prior to meeting Bob Dylan:
The subject matter of boy meets girl relationships
Songs that seem unaltered by mind-altering substances
It's been well researched that after this infamous meeting, The Beatles music focused more on complex lyrics, John Lennon writing the Dylan sounding "Norwegian Wood." But the influence wasn't one-sided as Bob Dylan started releasing music where he played electric guitar. I heard it paraphrased that "Dylan told Lennon that his melodies were good but his lyrics sucked, and Lennon told Dylan that his lyrics were good but his music sucked." (Don't quote me, it's a summary!)
So, this also means that I think a young songwriter like Johnathan Pushkar can go on to write some truly great music. I don't think he's there yet, but he certainly has the potential.
I felt like Track #9 "Love Will Save The Day" would've made a better opening song than Any Second Now. If it had opened the album, it may have been a better introduction to the album, with lyrics like:
I don't understand the world today
People talk but they don't say
A word about what's going on
We're misinforming everyone
But love will save the day
I've seen it happened once before
Back in 1964
We were into something good
That love would save the day
Sure, I dig the message, "Love will save the day," but I've learned that "Love is NOT all you need." You need money to live, food to eat, healthcare, and a roof over your head. And LOVE will NOT save the day...by itself.
I wish love was all we needed, I wish we could solve world hunger, the homeless problem, and global warming with LOVE. I wish that LOVE will save the day, but that's not enough. During a global pandemic, you need vaccines and people to get vaccinated to save the day. You need to teach people how to argue without rioting or killing each other. LOVE isn't going to pay your taxes, teach your children how to not be privileged a-holes, or even how to be kind to each other. I see more truth in Tina Turner's What's Love Got To Do With It (Written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle) than I do in Love Will Save The Day.
If Johnathan Pushkar had placed Track #9 first, maybe its message would've gotten through.
"Folks, you're about to hear an album that would rather be back in 1964, than in 2021. You're going to listen to songs from someone who thinks all it takes is LOVE to save the day, who thinks it worked well before." But, we all know just how tumultuous the '60s were**. Still, it's nice to hear a positive message in these trying times, even though it's dangerously close to "Let's make American great again."
** The 1960s were one of the most tumultuous and divisive decades in world history, marked by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and antiwar protests, political assassinations, and the emerging "generation gap."
The album ends with Track #11 No One Ever Said You Had To Stay, a little acoustic ditty that recalled the acoustic tunes from Death Cab For Cutie's I Will Follow You Into The Dark, or more to the point Green Day's acoustic song "Wake Me Up When September Ends." I think this is one of his best songs, and it reaches for the same gold ring that Ben Gibbard and Billy Joe Armstrong reached for on that musical carousel.
Taken from Albilad Daily, "Remembering-the-1960s"
No One Ever Said You Had To Stay (Johnathan Pushkar)
I Will Follow You Into The Dark (Death Cab For Custie)
Wake Me Up When September Ends (Green Day)
Compositions is an album that takes a while to grow on a listener. While it's in the same style as his last album, Straighten Up, there aren't landmark songs on this album. Many of the songs have the same tempo, the same feel and there are no standout tracks. But, he continues to write Power Pop adjacent music.
I love Power Pop, and a lot of Johnathan Pushkar's music is in this genre. I can dig it, I can get behind what he's going for most of the time. I wouldn't say that he's written his "Hackensack," or his "September Gurls," song yet. But, I also don't think it's completely out of his reach. The guy is still in his 20's, he lives for Power Pop and he could surprise us all.
If I were his agent, I would suggest that he would benefit from doing a stint as The Beatles did in Hamburg, paying dues, and learning the ropes. Getting those chops in and a layer of Iggy Pop level grime. If those Hamburg musical boot camps no longer exist, he could try forming a group of like-minded musicians, young in age but old in musical spirit. Maybe he could form a superband with Kai Danzberg and Addison Love? Maybe he could follow in the footsteps of Mike Reukberg and form his own Red Button? Or, he could cover songs that are lesser-known from the artists he aspires to be like, and not a well-known hit like Junior's Farm?
I recommend picking up a copy of this album. See if it grows on you over time as it did for me.
But these are just my thoughts from the outside. I'm a walking cliche of "those who can't do...teach." If being a music journalist were easy, and reviewing music was easy, everyone would do it. It's not. I feel like the choice of title, Compositions, for this album was extremely fitting. The clever use of a Mead notebook reminded me of the courses I took in college.
Partner Michael Beirut says he's been using composition books since 1982. And Pentagram graphic designer Aron Fay is so obsessed with the bi-chromatic books that he decided to redesign them. Named comp, Fay's contemporary composition book reimagines the simple cover with a super minimal, 21st-century look.
A composition notebook is often used to jot down ideas, thoughts, or to work out your drafts as you're working on your thesis paper. Some folks use composition notebooks for journaling. Rarely, are Composition notebooks the final draft of a work. It's the work leading up to your masterpiece.
And on that note, it's the perfect name for Johnathan Pushkar's 2nd album. Let's hope there's a master's work on the horizon.
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DISCLAIMER: HOP ON POWER POP doesn't give stars, a grade or any sort of quantifiable rating. What HOP ON POWER POP does is let you know what H.O.P.P. thought of the music by the band at this particular time. If an album isn't to our liking or fitting into the Power Pop genre enough, we simply won't review it.
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