ALBUM: STRAIGHTEN UP
BAND: JOHNATHAN PUSHKAR
reviewed by NADJA DEE
Released 9/27/2019 (JEM Records)
Musicians: Johnathan Pushkar (Instruments, Vocals) All tracks 1-10
Wyatt Funderbunk (Keyboards, Bass, Backing Vocals) 1,2,3,8
Sandy Gennaro (Drums) 5,6
Jeff Alan Ross (Keyboards, Backing Vocals) 5
Jason Yuhas (Guitar) 9
Rob Shanahan (Drums) 9
Produced by: Wyatt Funderbunk
Produced at: Nebulon II, Nashville, TN
Recorded at: Schoolhouse Studio, Armbrust PA
Recorded at: Record One, Nashville TN
All tracks written by Johnathan Pushkar except Hackensack (Written by Adam Schlesinger, Chris Collingwood)
Johnathan Pushkar shouldn’t exist.
No wait, let me rephrase that, Johnathan Pushkar does indeed exist, but one can easily argue that he’s an anomaly…at least in 2019.
You see, if this was 1966 and Johnathan Pushkar released Straighten Up, I would insist that he was a product of some powerful record executives’ think tank machine. A way to capitalize on the success of the British Invasion with a plasticine replica of the Fab Four all rolled into one named Johnathan Pushkar. Even his name sounds like a mix between John Paul and Ravi Shankar. But, it’s not 1966, it’s 2019 and both The Beatles and the movement that spawned groups like The Monkees have long passed. Or have they?
No one can argue that it’s been at least 50+ years since The Beatles first took America but the reissue of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, released in 1969, has once again returned to the top of the charts. (Currently ranking in at number 3 on the Billboard 200). So, maybe it’s not a fluke that someone like Johnathan Pushkar has come along once again.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I didn’t believe Johnathan Pushkar was real and when you see him, how can you blame me? The first image, I saw, showed this young millennial decked out in a gray Beatle’s suit, holding a red sunburst Rickenbacker guitar and rocking a Beatles’ haircut. It looked like a very accurate retro rock star Halloween costume. Most millennial’s are wearing thick glasses and sports attire listening to Bieber not Beatles. Plus, it wasn’t a full band, like Maroon 5, Five Seconds of Summer or BTS. It wasn’t even a pair of brothers like the Gallaghers, the Finn’s or the Jonas’. Nope, Johnathan is a solo artist, which makes it even more unbelievable. To add to the "Paul is dead" level of suspician I'm spewing, in the 60s Screen GEMS delivered classic TV shows and sitcoms like The Monkees, and here in 2019, Johnathan Pushkar is on JEM records!?! Coincidence? I think not!
Ok, I'm kidding. Johnathan Pushkar is the real thing folks, even if I don’t fully believe it myself.
Enough of the conspiracy melodrama, let’s talk about his music.
Straighten Up, a play on Badfinger’s album title Straight Up, is Johnathan Pushkar’s first release, although he first put out his first single, Smile (Track #7) back in 2015. This was followed a year later with I Can’t Help The Way I Feel (Track #10) and then with the 3rd single, The Girl Next Door (Track #1) this year just before the release of Straighten Up, followed by Isabella (Track #3). Releasing this many tracks off an album reminds me of the days when the Beatles had many hit singles off the same album. But, again, this is Johnathan’s debut album, it’s not like he’s taken over the country by storm. In fact, he’s not from England, he was born in Pittsburgh, PA and now resides in Nashville, TN. You may think that he should be releasing an album targeted for the country/western charts, not the Power Pop ones. But, if you’re familiar with bands like the legendary Big Star, the Power Pop of David Brookings and The Average Lookings, or the dream pop meets power pop of the band *repeat repeat, you’d probably conclude that there must be some Power Pop potion in the Tennessee water. So, where did this heavy dose of the British Invasion come from and infect the 23 year old Johnathan?
According to many interviews (Lord Rutledge’s Faster and Louder and Power Pop Aholic to name a few) his influences are The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, The Searchers, *Fountains of Wayne, The Click Five and the music from the film That Thing You Do! *(See Fountains of Wayne/Adam Schlesinger). All of these influences are evident throughout Straighten Up and it’s a good thing, even flavoring the music videos that accompany the singles.
The video for Track #1 The Girl Next Door finds Johnathan walking around places like Grenich Village, NY with his trusty 12 string Rickenbacker (a loan from a friend) singing about a girl named Mary Jane. The commentary reveals that Mary Jane is Peter Parker’s girl, Mary Jane from Spiderman. But she’s a girl that’s next door but never shows her face in the video. Dressed up in his grey Beatle’s suit (but this one with a collar), he looks like a man out of place and time when compared to the locals passing him by. It’s as if he fell out of a time machine that missed the 60s by several decades.
There’s a bunch of other locations pertaining to Spiderman throughout the video: Doc Ock’s lab, a cameo by Mitchell Ellison -aka- Geoffrey Cantor from Daredevil, the bridge where Peter and Mary Jane broke up and so on.
At one point, halfway through the video we see him in jeans and black blazer only to Clark Kent his way into his “super suit” by way of a bank. Are retro suits so expensive in the future they require a bank loan? There’s a reference to a building with the address 1777 Bleecker Street which has ties to the address of Dr. Strange yet another in a video full of hidden easter eggs, especially Super Hero ones and it makes sense that besides music, Johnathan is well known for his LEGO themed persona online, MiniSuperHeroesToday.
The lyrics are straight up hard rhymes, the harmonies are layered and any true fan of Power Pop will find themselves right at home like a hit play on Broadway.
Song #2 We Could Be Together picks right up where Girl Next Door leaves off. It feels like a love letter to the same girl. It’s a straight forward song about longing for a particular girl.
By Song #3, Johnathan has left Mary Jane and now it’s all about a new girl named Isabella. Isabella has the early Beatles feel even more than the other tracks and it’s my favorite song on the album. Even the ending seems straight off of The Beatles Second Album with the closing harmonies from She Loves You. Isabella also finds him in the center of Fountains of Wayne sound, even doing his best Chris Collingwood voice. Isabella has made it onto the great Rodney On The Rock playlist.
The Isabella video was shot in Nashville, TN by Ten/28 Film. Johnathan cast his beautiful friend Falon Danita in the title role, though I don’t feel the music video captured her beauty as well as in the behind the scenes video. Natural and timeless.
There’s a nice scene where Falon, as Isabella, visits a vintage clothing store, changes her wardrobe from jeans and a t-shirt and transforms into a 60s bombshell once again showing the power of retro clothing in a Johnathan Pushkar video. (See the bank scene from The Girl Next Door). The video also has a very strong cactus theme but I have no insights there.
Track #4 is a cover of Fountains of Wayne’s song Hackensack off of their 2003 Welcome Interstate Managers album. If you needed further proof beyond Isabella of Fountain of Wayne’s influence on Johnathan, he actually covers one of the New York Power Pop band’s songs. It's a good song to choose, but he could have picked a song like Hey Julie and it would've fit just as perfectly. Johnathan does a fine cover of the song, his voice is a bit softer and higher than Chris Collingwood’s throatier voice. The guitar in the FOW song is more pronounced and defined. Other than those differences, the two songs are almost identical, both songs even clock in at an even 3 minutes and that’s where I have a slight criticism of bands that do covers.
On one hand, when an artist covers a song, it has the power to open up the song to an entirely new, sometimes younger, audience. Take Weezer’s cover of Toto’s song Africa. I wonder how many twenty year olds heard the song for the first time because Weezer covered it?
On the other hand, why cover a song if you’re going to make it sound exactly like the original? I prefer when bands bring their own element to a song, not just making it their own, but changing it in a way that makes it unique, different and sometimes even better. There’s many examples of this, but one that stands out in my opinion is when Gary Jules covered Tears for Fear’s song Mad World for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. He made it his own and I really loved his version of the song. There’s a million other examples like Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ‘n Roll (The Arrows), Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Robert Hazard), Soft Cell’s Tainted Love (Gloria Jones), Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy (The Strangeloves) or The Clash’s I Fought The Law (Bobby Fuller Four). Many of these songs were covered so well that many folks think the cover artists wrote the song. For more evidence of this, just talk to singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord. Mary Lou has a knack for choosing songs that fit her lyrics and style so well that many fans, my included, sometimes think she wrote them when in fact they are perfectly chosen covers.
But, it’s a nice cover of Hackensack and hopefully it will turn young folks onto the legendary band. It is odd that he places a cover song at track #4.
Track #5 Boyfriend seems to continue the narrative. It began with falling for the girl next door, thinking they could actually be together, asks her to take his hand in Isabella, waits for her in Hackensack, but apparently has found out that she has a boyfriend. It could make for a cute romantic comedy.
Boyfriend is full of backing harmonies, a driving backbeat and continues to fit into the Power Pop genre. If Power Pop was in the center of the musical target, each song would be perfect bullseye.
When Track #6 It’s Alright started I thought I was listening to a cover of The Byrd’s I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better, as it seems to have the same jangly chord progression. But, that’s where the comparison ends. Unlike the “I’m ok with moving on” lyrics of I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, It’s Alright’s lyrics are a lot more supportive and encouraging.
At first I thought Track #7 Smile, was going to be a cover of the Charlie Chaplin, John Turner, Geoffrey Parsons song. It’s not, but it could easily be a cover of a hidden, lost Buddy Holly gem. It’s a song all about the power of a girl’s smile. I would love to hear a Buddy Holly impersonator cover this song and show just how at home it would be in the Father of Power Pop’s hands. It would make a fantastic song to roller skate to back in the 50s.
Just like It’s Alright reminded me of the same chord progression of I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, Track #8 Don’t Leave Me could be a sped up version of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love. Upon further research, even the Elvis Presley song, written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss, takes it’s melody from "Plaisir d'amour", a popular French love song composed in 1784 by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini. So that puts Johnathan in good company especially if he didn’t realize the melody was so similar. He’s simply channeling the great songwriters of the 18th century possibly proving that this young man has immense talent.
The second to last song, Track #9 I’d Rather Be Late Than Never is a hot rocker, jumping off the starting line with a cranking guitar riff, played by Jason Yuhas, that’s worthy of a Lenny Kravitz rocker. It’s the first song that doesn’t seem to be about love or longing for a girl. It’s as if Johnathan has realized that the true meaning of life is to just participate, whether you get girl or lose the girl the real truth is to just show up, better late than never and that’s a good way to start to close out the album.
Track #10 I Can’t Help The Way I Feel, the last track, isn’t about seeing a girl and falling in love with her, it’s not about breaking up, it’s not about leaving it’s about telling the girl that you’re there for her. It’s a relationship that’s matured, it’s not desperate, lustful or proud. It’s a humble love song as if the character (Johnathan himself?) has come to terms with his muse(s).
I was curious, if you read into the lyrics of the songs, even if you include Hackensack, really do play out like the plot to a romantic comedy. So, I took the last lines from each of the songs and put them in poem.
Don’t walk away from me Mary Jane
We could be together
Isabella take my hand what do you say?
(If you ever get back to Hackensack, I’ll be here for you)
I only wish I knew she had a boyfriend
It’s alright, it’s OK
You gotta turn around so I can see you smile
Don’t you ever leave me
Let’s take a chance ‘cause I’d rather be late than never
I can’t help the way I feel
It would make a very formula rom-com movie, most likely starring someone like Jennifer Aniston and Hugh Grant. Plus, it could be called “Straighten Up.” I’m only half kidding.
With the exception of Hackensack, every song was written by Johnathan Pushkar. He’s a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing almost all the instruments on many of the songs on Straighten Up. When guest musicians do appear they are amongst the best of the best.
Sandy Gennaro (drummer for Cyndi Lauper, Joan Jett, The Monkees) on “Boyfriend” and “It’s Alright”
Bill Cinque (bassist for Neil Diamond) - bass and BGVs on “Boyfriend”
Jeff Alan Ross (music directorship for Al Jardine of Beach Boys and Peter Asher) - Keys and BGVs on “Boyfriend”
Rob Shanahan (photographer for Ringo Starr, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith) - drums on “I’d Rather Be Late Than Never.”
It was produced by the talented Wyatt Funderburk (of note for working with Kurt Baker, the Connection, Explorer’s Club, Bullet Proof Lovers, The Loblaws and Second Saturday)
It’s a short album, not a single one of the ten songs is over 4 minutes long, and the entire album is just a little over half an hour long. (Which means you can listen to it again and again).
But what it’s short for in running time it makes up for in catchiness and it's definitely a solid freshman release. It seems there’s a small wave of young musicians brave enough to embrace the unpopular genre of Power Pop. Musicians like Kai Danzberg, Addison Love, David Novotny and The Lemon Twig’s brothers Brian D’Addario and Michael D’Addario. (The Lemon Twigs aren't exactly Power Pop but they have a heavy Power Pop influence in their music). But I'd say, in addition to Kai Danzberg, Johnathan Pushkar is at the head of the young pack of Power Pop musicians and Straighten Up proves that he’s someone who I’m certain we will hear from for many years to come.
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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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