Guilty pleasures, pop edition

Aly & AJ. My usual defense against Disney musical acts is garlic toast and a crucifix, but I can’t keep Alyson and Amanda Joy Michalka out of my skull. The bangin’ Cali girls seemed manor-born to Disney back in 2004, when they signed with the affiliated Hollywood

Aly (top) and AJ

Records label. Aly was 15 and younger sib Amanda only 13, and the fit was imperfect from the start. Aly & AJ were already self-actualized singers and songwriters, hungry, ambitious and more gifted by far than the majority of their peers in Disney’s teen-dream sweatshop. They were also teenage girls who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs — not unheard of, but rare. Out of sheer, pint-size will, they delivered what I consider to be the Rubber Soul and Revolver of adolescent pop: 2005’s Into the Rush and 2007’s Insomniac. They were no sort of Second Coming – at any rate, they sounded more like Green Day sans the sneer – but every one of the 25 Michalka/Michalka originals on the two discs blew beyond what a couple of suburban girls in their mid-teens ought to have been capable of. The smart, shiny, sunny, occasionally cloudy tunes included hard pop candy like “Rush,” “Something More,” “Collapsed,” “Like Whoa,” “Chemicals React,” “On the Ride” (a lovely mash note to one another),, and their biggest hit, “Potential Breakup Song.” All are tunes I still have in

heavy rotation on my streaming playlist a generation later. Now in their 30s and approaching 20 years in the biz, Aly & AJ are still writing and recording, but, alas, they’re no longer guilty pleasures. Now they’re a couple of grown-up ladies playing down-tempo songs about enlightened topics in a self-described “stripped down” style whilst incorporating synths and occasionally – egads – wearing pantsuits on stage! Odder still, they frequently justify their new, just-okay output by diminishing the work of their younger selves (i.e. themselves!), criticizing “the girls” for being worldly unwise and unschooled in the ways of the heart. Well, sure, They were 15 and 13. What these girls had that the ladies have lost are the fearlessness and freedom that come with not knowing everything.

Aly (left) and AJ today

Gin Blossoms, When the Blossoms debuted in the early 1990s, the jangly Tempe, Arizona, group seemed to have it all: the hottest players in a decent local scene, crazed fans who packed their club dates, and, soon enough, a deal with A&M Records. From that union came the 1992 album New Miserable Experience and a passel of pretty darned great songs such as “Found Out About You,” “Hey Jealousy,” “Lost Horizons” and “Allison Road.” The follow-up,

“Lost Horizons,” Gin Blossoms

Congratulations I’m Sorry, was released four years later and included their best-known track, “Follow You Down.” The album after that? A greatest-hits package titled Outside Looking In that arrived three years later, in 1999. I don’t know whose heels were dragging – band’s or label’s – but a couple of discs and a best-of album spread over seven years is surely no path to superstardom.The group’s still together and recording, but not for A&M and not for the international audience the band had in the palm of its hand in 1992. How prophetic the title “Lost Horizons,” as well as that song’s line “I wouldn’t wish this indecision on anybody else.” 

Osmond Brothers. Let me be specific. I’m talking about the Osmonds of the early ’70s, then known as the Osmond Brothers. Back before the Donny & Marie variety show crushed their rock ’n’ roll dreams, Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay – and later Donny – proved

Mormons can rock. Right to left: Alan, Jay, Wayne, Merrill and Donny Osmond

that Mormon kids can rock. (The fantastic all-female Provo, Utah, band The Aces have confirmed it.) Though eviscerated by their critics, the Osmonds worked harder and dug deeper than their contemporaries, as proven in slam-bang rockers such as “Crazy Horses,” “Down by the Lazy River,” “Hold Her Tight” and “I Can’t Get Next to You.” At the same time, the bros gave the Jackson 5 a run for their money with huge pop hits like “Yo-Yo” and “One Bad Apple” (the latter a song the Jacksons passed on). Lead vocalist Merrill was, I think, criminally underrated. He was a charismatic front man with a distinctive delivery — the voice of Osmonds Classic. Few knew it, because Donny was the face. Two songs especially bore Merrill’s stamp: the Osmonds’ original “Down by the Lazy River” and the cover of “He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother).” It’s tough to differentiate between the Brothers’ and Hollies’ versions of the latter, except the Osmonds’ take is a tad more sentimental. (Hey, it’s the Osmonds.)

Merrill Osmond was a highly underrated rock singer.

But “He Ain’t Heavy” is vocally complex, and Merrill and company’ nailed it. You can fault the Osmonds for many things, but not their harmonies. There were plenty of miscues along the way – about half their songs were laughable, and an attempt at soul, “Motown Special,” was just plain preposterous – yet the Brothers weren’t always the laughingstock sock puppets they’re made out to be. They wrote many of their own songs, played their own instruments – except Donny, who I’m fairly sure was fakin’ it on keyboards – and left a legacy that’s been besmirched by a rash of crappy family decisions that followed. An example that still sticks in my crustacean craw is when the brothers dressed up as dancing lobsters to perform on Donny & Marie. They weren’t consulted and had no choice. Afterward, Wayne said, “When people see this, our recording careers are over.”

“Hold Her Tight,” Osmond Brothers

Charlotte Campbell. It’s unlikely you’ve heard of her, so it’d be difficult for you to censure me for being a fan. I dig Campbell and her ever-sunny ways, as well as quirky tunes like “Hello & Hi” and “Wonderful World.” The young, white-blonde, huge-eyed Londoner began her musical life as a busker. She was also one of those sad devotees who cover other people’s songs and post the copies on the Internet, though she’s mostly over that. Campbell has developed into

British songbird Charlotte Campbell

a songsmith who’s a slayer when she’s on and a raving lunatic when she’s not. Slayer: “Songbird.” Freakin’ awesome, world-beating song with impeccable harmonics and spare, effective lyrics:

I said that I’d hold your hand, but I let go

We say a lot of things when we don’t know

That times they change

And faces age

Insane asylum: “Back to Ohio.”

No I won’t go back to Texas

Though I liked it ok

I might stop off in NYC

If it was on the way

But there’s one place that feels like home

And every night I pray

I can go back to Ohio some day

First reaction: WTF happened in Ohio?!?

Second: Campbell’s most significant shortcoming is that she has no filter.. Her songs are first drafts, sans editing. As with “Songbird,”

“Songbird,” Charlotte Campbell

every now and then her first inclination is correct, but that’s luck. Campbell’s still a promising songsmith, and I’m hoping she’ll learn the lesson as she grows more mature as a person and writer. She could be phenomenal once life kicks her in the teeth a few times.

Huey Lewis and The News. Maybe it’s because he played an authority figure – the geeky vice principal – in 1979’s Rock and Roll High School, but I always think of Huey Lewis as a project manager rather than a rock star. The project was a band named The News, drawn from the revolving door of Bay Area pals Lewis played with since his early club days in 1971. You sure can’t say Lewis and company didn’t pay their dues. Lewis ponied up 11 years’ worth before finally breaking through in 1982 with the album Picture This. The products on the conveyor belt were songs, and they just kept piling up through the ’80s. As clever and catchy as most were and are, they grow wearisome after a couple or three spins — a bad sign

— and have no high highs or low lows that I can make out. (“The Power of Love” is an exception, a left-field phenomenon with some very, very high highs. I believe the little-known but more typical Lewis/News song “The Only One,” above, proves my point.) Most of Lewis’ songs are midrange and workmanlike, like the kind you hear in nightclubs, only a little better. Hey, don’t blame me! They said it first in “Workin’ for a Livin’.”

A*Teens. I stumbled upon this Swedish quartet when searching for Elvis Presley. It was odd because the group was originally named the ABBA Teens and at that time sang all ABBA, all the time. They stopped doing so for two reasons: 1) they were called upon to cover

A*Teens reunion: They’re still friends.

Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” for the soundtrack to the movie Lilo & Stitch and 2) because the four zillionaires in ABBA didn’t want anyone making bank off of them. (They might’ve said “protecting the legacy,” but they meant “making bank.”) So, the young Swedes went with the name A*Teens and branched out into other acts and styles before the end of their run in 2004. While active, the four singers – two blondies, Marie Serneholt and Dhani Lennevald and bookend brunettes Amit Paul and Sara Lumholdt – brought joy and Scandinavian synchronized dancing to the world. They nailed every ABBA song they covered – other than the mechanized background music, it was hard to tell the difference – and came darned close to breaking big in the U.S. market before hanging it up. (“It felt like when you’re growing out of a shirt and it doesn’t fit as well anymore,” said Lennevald at the time. But the split was amicable, and they’re all still friends.) Interesting tidbit: Their video for “Dancing

Queen” was based on the John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club and starred Paul Gleason reprising his iconic role as study-hall goon Richard Vernon.

Henry Gross. In music as with any other profession, gimmicks can carry you far. In the majority of cases, they’re career-killers. For Gross, it was a sky-high falsetto that raised him up (No. 6 on Billboard with “Shannon” in 1976, No. 37 with the follow-up “Springtime Mama”)

and then beat him down. It was obvious to most – possibly even Gross – that he couldn’t sustain high-level success with a vocal contrivance that made half the population cringe. (Equally cringeworthy, “Shannon” was written, as a benediction of sorts, for a deceased dog of Beach Boy Carl Wilson.) But there’s more to Henry Gross than his fleeting brush with fame. Prior to 1976, he co-founded the popular 1950s revivalist group Sha Na Na. Before and after that, he did significant session work for ’70s superstars such as Jim Croce and Judy Collins. Gross has never stopped writing and recording, and has even had spotty success here and there. I include his bubbling champagne fountain of a song “Springtime Mama” on every one of my Top 40 streaming lists, and I salute any musician with the cojones to poke fun at himself, as Gross did when he named his 2006 album One Hit Wanderer. Pitch perfect.

Honorable mentions: Ashley Tisdale, Diana DeGarmo, Lobo, Asia

Have your own opinions? Please send ’em on and I’ll include them here.

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