Okay, this first observation of what Pop Evil is offering with their sixth album, Versatile, doesn’t actually have anything to do with the music pressed into the vinyl, but it would be easy to extrapolate an impression of the merits of this album, how it’s presented and the potential difference between “how it’s presented” and “what you get” from it. On the (surprisingly large) hype sticker which adorns the cover of Versatile, interested parties are told that the vinyl record they’re set to buy is pressed into 180 grams of, “transparent ruby and opaque white” vinyl – which sounds pretty neat in print, but actually looks more like ripe grapefruit, in fact. The differences between “what you see” and “what you get” continue clearly when one takes the album cover into consideration, too; the front cover of the album features a great and colorful image of a skull surrounded by an octopus as well as other underwater ephemera which could lead one to imagine a complimentary sound of stoner rock – but that is not the case. Rather, the sound contained on Versatile is more in line with modern rock aesthetics – along the lines of bands like Finger Eleven, Thornley and many of the other bands that were getting play during the Attitude era of the WWE. It is, needless to say, a potentially problematic departure from expectation – but after one is made aware of those differences, it doesn’t take a long time to actually appreciate the product that Pop Evil is peddling.
As soon as stylus catches groove and “Let The Chaos Reign” explodes to break open the album’s A-side, Pop Evil manages to singlehandedly warm up the time machine to take listeners back to the late Nineties and/or the first decade of the new millennium for Versatile. Very, very grind-y guitars and a deep, vibrant bass tone are the orders of the day here, and they’re so well presented that they’ll cause even those listeners who figure they’ve heard this all before to blink in surprise and maybe even start to fall in line dutifully when Hayley Cramer’s snare cracks to set the song in motion properly. The energy exerted in the introduction here sounds very gratifying, and the way that singer Leigh Kakaty’s vocals compliment that drive is excellent – but the real payday hits when Kakaty’s performance aligns with that of the band in the first seconds of the chorus. The effect in that moment is the sort that many bands hope to strike anytime in their careers, but seldom do; there, the sublime alignment (which feels a lot like the work of Thornley, Disturbed and Finger Eleven) hits like an instantly accessible and aggressive chime and is capable of holding listeners of the correct mind utterly enthralled.
Immediately after “Let The Chaos Reign” lets out, Pop Evil lets listeners know what their band’s name really means as they backslide into Nickelback territory with “Set Me Free” (which may lose a few listeners and cause them to, yes, set the band free), but Pop Evil reclaims its energy with the glitchy production which holds up “Breathe Again” and then really baits those who remain unsold on what the band is trying to present with “Work.”
With “Work,” Pop Evil prove that, while the paradigm they’re working within is not without flaw, the band is most definitely capable of striking on a sound which can resonate with a mass audience – when they try. There, percussion hooks and a rhythmic vocal intermingle together perfectly from note one, and the band doesn’t have to try very hard to make it work for them; Kakaty swaggers along boldly with lines like “It’s been ninety days since I’ve seen a friend/ Since I’ve had some time to allow this/ I remember the days with time on my own/ But now there’s barely meat on the bone,” and they’re further bolstered by the rhythm guitar figure supplied by Dave Grahs – which actually shines brighter than any of the “guitar hero” poses struck by him or lead guitarist Nick Fuelling prior to this point in the side’s running. As the song progresses, listeners will fall easily under the spell of the fraught-sounding vocal melody – and while the band does miss the potential joy which could have come with a dense wall of guitar in the song’s chorus (listeners have to hear it to understand – the lean presentation in the song is the definition of a missed opportunity), listeners won’t find that they’re so frustrated that they’ll just turn the record off.
“Work”continues to miss most of the mark for the remainder of its running, but the power balladry of “Inferno” is capable of sustaining listeners and the chunky drums paired with the coy vocals of “Stronger” (where “They say that rock is still dead” and then proceed to try and rock listeners’ collective pants off) will at least keep listeners engaged enough to have them flipping the record over to see what more there might be coming.
…And while the B-side of Versatile starts on just about the least ideal note possible as “Raise Your Flag” angles toward a guitar tone that one might expect of The Flaming Lips, Pop Evil proves their muse hasn’t been exhausted yet as “Human Nature” smooths out all the wrinkles in a great alt-rock number, adds a couple of new wave dynamics to the mix and beautifully sticks their landing. Even those who might have already written Pop Evil off before getting to “Human Nature” will have to admit that the band is capable of greatness Kakaty front-loads a great idea onto the song (“I had to punch my way out to take a shot in the dark”) and the mercurial arrangement of the song ends up hooking listeners harder and better than which tried earlier in the album’s play. After that, the side remains far from flawless (“Worst In Me” might do well as a blanket dance at your local strip club, but couldn’t possibly play well anywhere else and “Same Blood” is a Nickelback power ballad that no one needed), but the crunchy guitar tone which powers “Fire Inside” at the side’s close will have listeners ready to pick their pay through the good cuts on the album all over again, as soon as it ends.
But is “picking through cuts” what listeners really what listeners want from this album? Isn’t it preferable to just put a record on and let it play? I would think that’s true, but just don’t see it being possible with Versatile; true, there are a couple of really good songs on it, but the softer cuts are very capable of testing a listener’s patience. There’s no arguing that Pop Evil is brimming with potential – but Versatile illustrates that the band still has some work to put in and may need a really strong-handed producer on the board with them who can help them realize it. [Bill Adams]
Versatile is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.