Ken Sharp’s “Beauty in the Backseat” digs deep to produce power pop gold
Ken Sharp may be the country’s foremost purveyor of the sweet and jangly musical art form known as “power pop) (AllMusic describes the style as “a cross between the crunching hard rock of the Who and the sweet melodicism of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, with the ringing guitars of the Byrds thrown in for good measure”).
As a writer, Sharp has traversed many musical genres, both as a journalist and as a best-selling author. But as a musician, it’s clear where where his passion is most deeply rooted. Over the course of several well-received albums, Sharp has consistently crafted smart, catchy, well-produced power pop that while paying homage to certain favorites, always winds up on the right side of original.
Sharps latest, Beauty in the Backseat, (the title a riff on the oft-forgotten 1977 Daryl Hall and John Oates album Beauty on a Back Street), continues to mine the sort of sonic confections that have become his trademark, while also pushing into several other notable styles that are a nice addition to his traditional power pop ouvré.
One of the prime examples is “Philly Kind of Night,” a smooth, seductive, Sigma Sound-infused groove that features none other than John Oates on backing vocals. Sharp, a Philly native himself, nicely conjures up the swirling textures that help define this local sound of his youth. Hall & Oates, Gamble and Huff; they all come to life in a danceable, early-70s-flavored cut that stands out as a nice funk/power pop hybrid that touches all the Philly-soul bases. Of course, having Oates on the track gives it a special pedigree.
There are a couple of other guest shots on the album, including Utopia’s Kasim Sulton and a scorching-yet-sumptuous ride-out guitar solo by Ace Frehley on the album’s opener, “Rock Show.”
As interesting as the guests may be, it’s the writing, production and performances that makes the album succeed. Teaming up once again with producer/musical savant Fernando Perdomo, the pop-savvy pair tap into their collective love of all things Raspberries, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren, Jellyfish, and others that have found success in this deceptively simple world of power pop to create their own sweet, sometimes salty grab bag of glazed, hazed and phased pop nuggets. Layers of cascading background vocals, warm and weird keyboards, mellotron sounds and more, punctuated with intense, succinct solos at certain points sound like what might be birthed if the Beatles and Bowie had a baby.
What has always been the key with good power pop songs, for me, is that as simple as they sound, as catchy and sugary as the hooks may be, they are not simply as light and frothy as they seem at first glistening appearance. Good, timeless power pop is also built upon serious emotions that go beyond innocent high school crushes and memorable one-night stands. Sharp’s lyrics tell simple stories that also happen to be based on deep feelings and a sensitive world view.
Whether he is eulogizing David Bowie ("The Day that David Bowie Died”) or calling for unity in a world gone mad (“Listen to Me”), the earnestness and sometimes seriousness of the lyrics help give the songs the weight and gravity that makes for truly satisfying, authentic power pop.
Sharp’s enthusiasm and fervor for good music is well documented in the articles and books he has written. However, I think to understand the true fan and advocate, it’s best to listen to an album like “Beauty in the Backseat.” The care he has put into the songs makes for a refreshingly, honest and sincere musical experience over and over again. He is most true to his roots here, celebrating the magic of all things glam, soul, classic rock, and of course, the irresistible charm of power pop.
First video from the album: “Lemons to Lemonade”