20/20

20/20/Lookout! (Portrait ’79, Portrait ’81, Oglio ’95) Rating: A-

For those who of you who missed out on these sadly overlooked but highly worthwhile albums the first time around, this 2-for-1 reissue should be quite a treat. The band’s greatest asset is their songwriting consistency, and their ability to provide continuously catchy hooks marks these infectious power popsters as something special. A dual guitar attack heavy on the jangle (with many a choice riff), big synths, a bigger beat, and melodic, propulsive bass playing are the major components of a disarmingly one-dimensional sound. Occasionally wimpy vocals (par for the course for a power pop band) are compensated for by airy harmonies or rowdier shout alongs, and amusing vocal affectations distinguish songs such as "Out Of This Time" and “Tell My Why (I Can’t Understand You)”), giving them their most hummable characteristic. The band's big synths perhaps makes them sound somewhat dated, but like other new wave influenced acts of their era (I'm thinking of The Cars), this doesn't impede my enjoyment of these albums too much, as the self-titled debut is especially excellent despite its dated flaws. Though “Yellow Pills” is their most well known song (Rhino Records even named one of their power pop anthology series’ after it, as did a popular fanzine), almost every other song is really good as well, with the sighing ballad “Tell My Why (I Can’t Understand You)”) (which recalls prime Cheap Trick or perhaps ELO) winning the honors as my personal favorite (along with "Yellow Pills," of course), despite stiff competition from the likes of "Cheri," “Remember The Lightning,” "She's An Obsession," "Leaving Your World Behind," “Backyard Girls,” and “Jet Lag”(probably my third favorite). Most of these songs have a healthy (and sometimes not so healthy!) obsession with "girls," but regardless of the topic most if not all of these 12 songs are likely to get under your skin at some point. “Nuclear Boy” starts off Lookout!, their sophomore effort, with another one of their very best songs due to its big beat, agreeably jangly guitars, and easily singable chorus, and "Out Of My Head" and "Strange Side Of Love" continue with more bright guitars and catchy choruses, while "A Girl Like You" reveals a moodier side, as the album on the whole is a bit darker and more musically generic (it's more distinctly American as well; gone are the vocal affectations, for example, and song titles include “Life In The U.S.A.” and "American Dream"). Other notables include "The Night I Heard A Scream," an affecting, bittersweet pop rocker, and "Big Beat," an aptly titled, high energy rocker (on the chorus, anyway, as opposed to its sighing, melodic verses), and the aforementioned “American Dream,” which has memorably airy vocals and is also more experimental than usual. On the whole, though, the overall quality of the album isn’t quite up to the previous album's lofty standards, though the band seems incapable of writing anything less than a solid song and Lookout! likewise has its fair share of highlights. Unfortunately, being a great pop band has never been a surefire formula for commercial success, and the band’s inability to move units caused them to break up, though they did release (the supposedly lesser) Sex Trap in 1983 before reconvening many years later for (the supposedly far different) 4 Day Tornado (1995) and Interstate (1998). But these acclaimed early albums are the ones on which the band's reputation rests, as they're among the best that the underdog power pop genre has to offer, especially at the budget 2-for-1 price.

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