The Great White Wonder (Zoo ’91) Rating: A
The Pooh Sticks are a rare joke band in that you don’t even need to get the jokes in order to enjoy some great songs. Featuring wholesale lifting of lyrics (“like Sweet Baby James you’ve got a friend”), song titles (“Desperado,” “Good Times”), and riffs (most obviously a note by note steal of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” solo), the album itself is named after a legendary Bob Dylan bootleg. The band would probably be really good even without such thievery, but that’s what makes them unique, and it’s fun trying to pick out what came from where (or you can cheat and read Trudi’s delightfully unpretentious liner notes). Songs such as “Young People,” “The Rhythm Of Love,” and “Sweet Baby James” are instantly appealing examples of the band’s rocking brand of bubblegummy power pop, and though a couple of short songs kinda come and go, “I’m In You” (named after a Peter Frampton album) stays for almost 15 unforgettable minutes. Immediately settling into a poppy, overly repetitive chorus, the song’s elongated jam ending is the album’s piece de resistance. Surging along on an ever-escalating rhythm, Paul’s Neil Young inspired extended guitar solo soars to several thrilling climaxes, resulting in arguably the best guitar raveup of the decade. The sad and pretty album closer “When Sunny Gets Blue” is anti-climactic by comparison, but I’d still like to thank the Trouser Press Guide for turning me onto this thoroughly enjoyable (and undeservedly obscure) band and album.
Million Seller (Zoo ’93) Rating: B+
After a long search, I finally bought this album on ebay for $2.06, including shipping and handling. Damn, I still feel kinda guilty about it, for this album is a guilty power pop pleasure. Again the band lifts choruses ("That Was The Greatest Song") and song titles ("Let The Good Times Roll," "I Saw The Light") from obvious and not-so-obvious sources, and the album has a disarming innocence and charm. Singable choruses with sweet harmonies (male and female), alternately loud and well played acoustic/jangly guitars, and an unabashedly poppy sound are band trademarks, and they can make you laugh ("Susan Sleepwalking," which features the memorable line "I defend the right to walk in the night" - right on!) or break your heart (the sad piano ballad "When The Girl Wants To Be Free") just as easily. More often than not, however, they simply deliver catchy, fun songs that aren't too deep or self-consciously "important". I suppose you could even call some of the songs slight ("Million Seller" and "Sugar Baby," for instance), and many of them come and go all too quickly (9 of the 13 songs clock in at under 2:40). In addition, the guitar solo song, "Jelly On A Plate," is no "I'm In You," but given that this song is almost ten minutes shorter and that "I'm In You" is one of my all time favorite guitar solo songs, that's not too surprising. Besides, it's still good, and songs such as "Baby Wanna Go Round We Me," "Rainbow Rider," and "That Was The Greatest Song" are almost impossible not to sing along to. Long story short, though this album will never be a Million Seller, it delivers plenty of feel good summertime fun.
Optimistic Fool (Atlantic ’95) Rating: B+
There are fewer jokes this time around, or at least the jokes are more obscure. Which is fine, because this band’s greatest strength is in their songs, anyway, most of which are quite good here, though the album again lacks a definitive epic a la “I’m In You” to take it to the next level. In fact, the album’s longest song, “Song Cycle,” is probably too long at 5:27, while several other songs are frustratingly short. Alternately amusing and affecting, these sugary sweet pop songs rock just hard enough, and are cheesy without being too cheesy. Highlights include the beautifully melodic “Sarfishing” and the sprightly “Working On A Beautiful Thing,” while “Optimistic Fool” and “First Of A Million Love Songs” deliver soulful pop worthy of Hall and Oates, and “All Things Must Pass” is an earnest sing along about loss. Most of the other songs sneak up on you, too, such as the one about the cat who’s “Cool In A Crisis” and the doo wop flavored “Prayer For My Demo.” Yet most of these songs are very good but not great, as some expected excitement and guitar muscle is missing. Of course, the album’s clever and catchy songwriting makes Optimistic Fool another album that's well worth searching out, especially since if you look hard enough you can probably find it at a discounted price.