Powerpop genius Josh Berwanger, formerly of 90s band the Anniversary, brings his breathlessly catchy songs to the Mercury on Oct 19 at 8 PM. This guy is a brilliant tunesmith: comparisons to Alex Chilton, Cheap Trick, the Raspberries and ELO are not an exaggeration. His new album Strange Stains traces a predictably doomed romance from its origins to the realization that it’s just not going to work out, along the way referencing several decades worth of catchy, anthemic three-minute songwriting.
The album opens with Bullets of Change, an incongruously successful blend of ELO pop with a C&W bridge – it’s so catchy that it actually works. Enemies mines a 60s noir Orbison doo-wop pop groove, the girl in question “overmedicated with all the pills I gave to you.” In the gorgeously jangly, Raspberries-ish Baby Loses Her Mind, the problem is that “Jenny’s up on the roof again, she’s not taking her medicine…she yells down, I was young, I’m getting old and it’s no fun.”
Time Traveller warps another Orbison-style pop tune into the 80s; it reminds of Milwaukee cult favorites the Shivvers with a guy instead of a girl in front of the band. Gypsy Girl & the Tombs of Atuan works its way to an angry, ominous vibe with a period-perfect late 70s twin guitar solo, bass rising against it tensely as it hits a high point.
Berwanger follows Mary, a la-la pop homage to ganja, with the dark, minor-key 60s folk-pop anthem I Can Feel the Moon. The 12-string guitar solo hits in the sweetest place possible, and then hands off to a terse blues solo, bass soaring underneath the sweep of the string synth. All Night Long sounds like Cheap Trick taking a stab at retro 50s rock, followed by the crushingly sarcastic, bouncy, horn-fueled Spirit World. The Spector-esque kiss-off number Sweet Little Girl is where everything unravels; the album ends with Everybody Knows, which is not the Leonard Cohen classic but another angry powerpop gem: “Everybody knows that your mind’s made out of clay, and you don’t have much to say,” Berwanger snarls quietly. What a cool new update on an old sound this is.