The very essence of Gruppo Sportivo, The Netherland's late-'70s ambassadors of power pop, has emerged in Philadelphia of all places. Maggi, Pierce and E.J. have without realizing it channeled the heart of that incredibly unique and super-talented band into three discs which they have titled Morgen, Mittag, and Nacht (German for morning, midday and night) and what discs they are. Borrowing from numerous genres, they fold influences in a power pop casing and feed it to you whole. Early Brit rock, folk, psych--- even the manic edges of the Beat Farmers and Frank Zappa are here for the digesting. But make no mistake, they don't copy. They create.
The discs start innocuously enough (morning is, after all, a time for reflection) and acoustic rules, albeit with an electric edge. Light single piano strokes lay a Satie-like motif over early Simon-and-Garfunkel-like acoustic guitar in the opener, Whale Song, and the result is ethereal and hauntingly beautiful, a perfect opening theme. Maggi has an intriguing voice and Michael showcases it to perfection. A simple, lighthearted folk song, it doesn't seem like much, but it is and that slight waver and her unassuming delivery is really quite disarming. Bare Naked Ladies could have placed Melt Away on one of their earliest works and you wouldn't blink an eye, it's that good, hook and all, with harmonies straight out of early '60s Fleetwoods, to great effect. Maggi and her slight waver return in Castle Walls and you begin to realize that that voice is really something oddly special. A great acoustic underbelly carries Lies Behind the Sun way over the top and the break sounds a little Amon Duul II with a touch of Popol Vuh for effect. Big Falls, WI takes the lightness of the earlier Michael a step further and allows all three to intertwine voices, which they do quite nicely. Light pop gives way to rock when E.J. takes the beat up a notch and then production kicks in, ending with jazzy repetitions of "Do you think the world's a funny place?/We've almost filled up every space". Gruppo Sportivo would be proud.
Disc two rocks a little harder. It is, after all, midday and the sun is high in the sky. Kennison kicks it off with pure rhythm guitar-driven power pop, Pierce throwing in primo over-amped guitar licks on top of crunching rhythm worthy of the best. They even plagiarize The Who's He's a Boy at the last second, only here it's You're a Girl. The jazzy side of Gruppo Sportivo surfaces with flying colors in Music of the Sea, light acoustic Tighten Up guitar riffs in swing vein giving the bass a perfect reason to dance. Throw in perfecto sax from guest Jim Hoke, DJ duties from 1 Take Willie and primo rap by Maxx from Hack Tao and stick a fork in it. Step right into another Gruppo Sportivo moment next, A Moment echoing the best of what they had to offer in the late '70s. Snowed In With You draws a bit from early '70s Zappa, especially the extended jam in the middle which would have fit in any Winterland or Fillmore-type venue available at the time, light show and all. If you like psych, this is killer! Sea of Green is one of those short but enjoyable pop tracks and while nothing overpowering, it makes its point. Late '60s garage lives in possibly this disc's most impressive track, Ezra's Stove, as it echoes a bit of Love's classic Signed D.C. (thanks to the spacey harmonica), with a break worthy of early Widespread Panic. For Brit fans, there is even a hint of East of Eden here. Disc two ends with a simple pop tune about a scarf worn on the Rosie O'Donnell Show [The Scarf (David's Riff)]— a bonus not listed on the disc or jacket, ending with humorous prologue and epilogue phone message supplied by Maggi's mom(?).
Disc three, Nacht, slips into a kind of frenetic metal-pop sensitivity, crunching rhythms taking over on the Ramones-like opener, Yipee-i-a. Mutant reverb drives the rhythm into the skull like nails when played loud and if you've heard Hoodoo Gurus at their loudest and most manic, you get the idea. Hard rock rhythm guitar bangs out One Hand, a gritty and raunchy killer track with head-vibrating break. Supposed Indian (or should I say Native American) rhythms preface Pocahontas, Illinois and slide right into a slightly psychedelic/power pop mix which should have psych fans beside themselves. I mean, what a guitar break! Whew! Fade in drums, out. The dark side of psych rules InSeine and for once production dominates. Layered vocals and instrumental tracks take you to an as yet unvisited MPE world of depth and more depth. Superb. String of Pearls is pure shock therapy, beginning with slash/punk nastiness and suddenly interrupted by the soft, floating (and perfect, I might add) voice of Maggi. Don't listen standing up. It makes you dizzy. When you adjust to the beautifully crafted melody that follows, you slowly realize that you are trapped inside Maggi's world of desolation. Deep breath. If Country Dick ever sang for Zappa, it might have ended in something like 706, which sets itself up from the first line: "Why do you think I'm the devil." By closing time, the music degenerates into a cacophony of electronics, voices and rhythms. A fitting end to it all.Should you buy this? If you like pop, psychedelic and power-pop, absolutely. Maggi, Pierce & E.J. have pulled off the quintessential musical coup here, taking us from morning to the depths of night in three discs--- from Heaven to Hell, if you will. Is it good? It is astoundingly good. Musical styles and production techniques are all over the map which makes this pure musical adventure. Of course, if your idea of such is more like the safe mediocrity of Superstar X, you may want to pass. This is not—I repeat, not—safe. What it is is addicting and guess what? There are numerous other discs to feed that craving. I'm thinking maybe Play Their Landlady's Favorites next, if it's not already out of print. If not, I'll take my chances with any and all of the remaining six. Superstar X will just have to wait.
You interested? Check out their website. In the meantime, don't bother me. Listener at work.
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