It’s one of music’s most noted ironies that power pop—a subgenre partly defined by its tendency to cut the fat out of pop songs and get to the catchy parts—is only rarely popular. For every Cheap Trick or Fountains Of Wayne that scores a hit by striking the perfect balance between the “power” and “pop” sides of the equation, there are countless bands who labor in obscurity, drawing inspiration from The Beatles, Big Star, and others while setting the sounds of teenage yearning to riffs designed to bring down the house. The Midwest proved especially fertile soil for power pop in the ’70s and ’80s. Cheap Trick broke out of Rockford while Zion, Illinois’ Shoes kept threatening to hit the big time alongside other almost-stars like Pezband. Buttons: From Champaign To Chicago, the latest collection from the music archeologists at Numero Group, brings together 19 power-pop tracks recorded by Illinois bands between 1973 and 1987, some of them from local favorites, some of them from groups that did time in the major labels, and some from vanity pressings that never made it into the quadruple digits.
The collection doubles as a shadow history of the era’s power pop. The Jets’ “Be For Me” from 1973 could almost be mistaken for garage rock if singer Mike Isenberg weren’t doing an impression of Paul McCartney at his sweetest. Julian Leal’s “Get Away,” which got a brief moment in the national spotlight when it appeared on American Bandstand Rate-A-Record segment in 1988 (and did pretty well), wouldn’t sound out of place playing over a montage in a Cannon B-movie. Between the two are a bunch songs that borrow liberally from the Raspberries, Cheap Trick (inevitably), and, in many of the early-’80s tracks, the poppier end of new wave.
Not all the tracks are gems, but even the weaker efforts—like The Jerks’ “So Life Like,” a twangy tribute to pinup girls—capture the sound of a band in a certain time and place doing their shameless best to ape their idols. And the stronger efforts sound like hits that should have happened. Rockford’s The Names match their hometown rivals Cheap Trick power chord for power chord with “It’s A Miracle,” and The Vertebrats’ “Diamonds In The Rough” could easily slip between The dBs and The Plimsouls on a dream power-pop playlist. Numero also supplies the usual fastidious liner notes detailing the histories of semi-obscure and deeply obscure acts alike, acts like Band Jocks, a bunch of high-school kids whose “At Practice” joins the narrative of Kiss’ “Beth” to a propulsive pulp beat. They cut one 45 that appeared three years after the group’s graduation, but for the length of its 2:27 running time the group sounds like stars.