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In the recent flick High Fidelity, Rob Gordon (a record-store owner played by John Cusack) muses that his excessive exposure to pop music -- replete with messages of "heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss" -- has perhaps contributed to his own desperate unhappiness. "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" he asks himself.Bruce Brodeen, president of the Fort Collins-based Not Lame Recording Company, a packed-to-the-power-pop-gills label and mail-order business, begs to differ with Gordon's view of pop music. And as the self-proclaimed world authority on power pop, Brodeen is uniquely qualified to do so. "Lyrically speaking, "pop music' as we're talking about here uncovers the nostalgia of longing glances and unrequited love. But that certainly hasn't affected me, because I'm not a real big lyric guy in the first place. I'm definitely melody- and hook-driven," he says, adding that he prefers "a big meaty hook to sink its little edge" into his soul and "bludgeon it away." Meat and bludgeoning. Sounds juicy, doesn't it?
Carnivorous thoughts aside, Brodeen's explanation does say a lot about the genre to which he is a faithful devotee. As many music aficionados already know, "power pop" was a term coined by Pete Townshend back in 1967. "Everything was called "pop' music back in the mid-'60s," explains Brodeen, "and given that the Who was loud, brash and angry, Townshend said, "We do power pop,' which their early stuff very much was. It was very poppy, but it was really an unhinged, primal-sounding music, and you had four guys running around without some structure to what they were doing, which was unusual in 1967." After the Who, bands like the Raspberries, Badfinger and the Zombies personified power pop -- and, of course, there was that little group from the UK called the Beatles.
Today, the only major power-pop artist to be found on commercial radio is, perhaps, singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet. "Tal Bachman is maybe the next great hope," says Brodeen, noting that Bachman's 1999 self-titled CD "is packed full of jangly Beatleseque music" (though you certainly couldn't tell that from his sappy sweet hit "She's So High"). Yet Brodeen and Not Lame -- a label he started in 1994 after returning to Colorado from a stint in Southern California -- have rarely relied on such conventional outlets as American radio to bolster the style on which the label is focused. Wary of the American music industry in general -- an attitude possibly fostered by his time in L.A., during which he managed the Boulder-born band Clamdog, worked as a publicist for IRS Records and managed Sam Goody stores -- Brodeen has looked to foreign lands (okay, England) when promoting his music. And they've looked back.
In the April 2000 issue of the British music mag MOJO, for example, an article titled "How to Buy '90s Powerpop" highlights Life on Planet Eartsnop, from the Baltimore-based Myracle Brah, a band Brodeen signed to Not Lame in 1998. Life on Planet Eartsnop was also listed at the top of a multitude of music writers' top-ten lists in 1998. Brah, which bandmembers insist is more Irish than lingerie-inspired, is fronted by guitarist Andy Bopp, former frontman and songwriter for Love Nut. That power-pop band was picked up by Interscope and then lost in the Seagrams merger shuffle just after its major-label debut, the well-received Bastards of Melody, saw release in 1995; Baltimucho followed in 1998 on the Big Deal imprint. Later the same year, Bopp moved on from Love Nut and formed Myracle Brah, releasing Eartsnop on Not Lame; the CD has outsold both Love Nut releases -- not bad for an indie label from Fort Collins -- and has helped Brah get a fair amount of press overseas. "I'm not really sure if [the publicity] is selling records, but it's nice to have the critical acclaim," says Bopp. "At least it makes you feel good that people are enjoying what you're doing."
If the response to a mini-tour of England in March is any indication, the Brits do seem to be enjoying what Myracle Brah is doing. "For some reason, our music is just really catching on over there, and the people are really into it. Every show we did over there is great, and I can't wait to go back," says Bopp. And go back they will. Bopp's band -- along with another Not Lame band, the Shazam -- has been invited to play at a fiftieth-anniversary celebration for Abbey Road Studios that will take place in London on May 29. Paul Weller, Bush and Moby are among the other featured performers for the event. Bopp admits that it's quite daunting just to have been asked. "If I tell people, "We're going to play Abbey Road,' they go, "Yeah, right.' I guess it won't be really exciting until I actually step in there."
The Shazams' Hans Rotenberry is equally humbled by the invite. Hailing from the unlikely music mecca of Kingsport, Tennessee, the band put out its second release, Godspeed the Shazam! on Not Lame in 1999. Thanks to the label's support, the offering appears to have catapulted the band to another commercial level -- overseas, at least. During a tour of England at the start of this year, the band opened for Cotton Mather, an increasingly popular British power-pop band. One night, members of Oasis just happened to be at the show. Apparently, the Shazam caught the eye and ear of Oasis bad boy Liam Gallagher. "Liam said, "Caught the last thirty seconds of your show. It sounded top!'" says Rotenberry, who was able to intuit that "sounding top" was probably a good thing in Britspeak.
Such an endorsement didn't go unnoticed by Brodeen. "Receiving Gallagher's "blessing' is a huge deal," he says spiritedly. Asked why his bands have developed more of a following in England than in the old U.S. of A., Brodeen becomes even more passionate. "In England, there's a really basic appreciation for the art of a well-written song, a well-crafted piece of music that taps into classic musical archetypes," he says. "In this case, those archetypes are the Beatles. They're the Alpha and Omega for lots of rock and roll. The kind of music that Not Lame deals with parades that out front."
So how does a guy from Fort Collins -- a city that's not exactly known as a hotbed of international pop -- unearth all these talented acts? Since Not Lame put out its first releases in spring 1995, Brodeen has discovered raw talent at festivals like the Los Angeles-based Poptopia and the International Pop Overthrow. Sometimes the music just falls into his lap.
"The first tape I ever received in late 1994 was a tape from a New York-based band, the Rooks. The first song that was on there was this amazing song, and to me, they're a very special band," he says. As opposed to Myracle Brah (which Brodeen says takes a more streamlined Revolver-ish angle) and the Shazam (inspired by the Move -- Jeff Lynne's band before the Electric Light Orchestra -- and a whole bunch of "real big-ass" '70s rock and roll), the Rooks are a "more cerebral, very sophisticated type of pop," he says. "[The Rooks] are like a 25-year-old bottle of cabernet that you open and you have to sit it on a table for an hour and a half before you can even begin to pour and enjoy it properly."
Lead guitarist Kristin Pinell isn't surprised to hear that kind of praise for the band's music from a label owner who is clearly more interested in the perpetuation of his favorite sounds than in cashing in on record sales. "Bruce supported us from the beginning," Pinell says. "He had a very good vision of how we should market the band to find the people who like the music. He really found us a niche," she says.
Brodeen is hoping to find a similar niche for his latest project, a Posies boxed set of unreleased demos and B-sides. Because the Posies are a recognizable name and a band that even the non-initiated identify as power pop (just try to deny the chorus of "Dream All Day"), Brodeen feels the release "will add some validating aura to the label." When the Posies set is released in August, it won't mark the first time Brodeen has issued material centered around a name act, however. The double CD Full Circle: A Tribute to Gene Clarkfinds some of Brodeen's favorite pop artists covering songs written by Clark, the co-founder of the Byrds who's credited with later inventing newgrass. Brodeen says that response to the recording, which was released earlier this year, has been "universally outstanding. It looks like there's already a re-pressing on the horizon, and that's very unusual." Among the contributors on the record are the Merrymakers, Myracle Brah, the Shazam, the Gripweeds (Pinell's other band), Sid Griffin from the Longriders, Steve Wynn from Dream Syndicate.
Brodeen, his label and the bands on it may not be household names. Maybe in a better world -- a world that appreciates the well-placed meaty hook, love longings set against an electric backdrop of guitar crunch -- they would be. Doesn't sound lame at all.