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By Stewart Mason

MAY 24, 1999: 

The Aluminum Group Wonder Boy Plus (Minty Fresh)

While Chicago-based brothers Frank and John Navin finish recording their third album (due late summer 1999) with wildly busy producer Jim O'Rourke, Minty Fresh Records has reissued the brothers' impossible to find self-released debut, 1995's Wonder Boy, newly augmented with 10 other rare and unreleased tracks, and it's a delight.

The first (and second, and third ...) time I heard their second album, Plano, last year, the Aluminum Group seemed like a band trying their hardest to sound like the Magnetic Fields, from the synth-heavy arrangements and twittering drum machines to the conscious approximation of Stephin Merritt's world-weary romantic lyrical persona (unfortunately lacking Merritt's biting wit). One of the brothers--Frank, I think--even aped Merritt's dry as dust baritone singing voice! It's not that Plano was a bad album (the world could always use more bands who sound like the Fields), but the resemblance was often just a little too close for comfort.

Ironically, the 21 earlier songs on Wonder Boy Plus sound infinitely more self-assured and far less derivative. While there's still a certain resemblance to the Magnetic Fields in a couple of places ("The Smallest Man in the World" especially), that seems more due to the album's apparent influence from some of the same early '80s indie pop pioneers that Merritt champions. For example, the beautifully sparse, jazzy opener, "Chocolates" (later remade on Plano, a version that sounds much worse in comparison to the original), bears striking resemblance to the beatnik-esque jazz-pop of the Young Marble Giants, yet never resorts to mere mimicry.

The regular use of strings and muted horns will cause lazy reviewers to use the tired term "neo-Bacharach" yet again, but the Navins' spacious arrangements, heavy on acoustic guitars and upright bass and colored by subtle keyboards, sound more of a piece with early Everything But the Girl and Felt. And honestly, following up a chamber-pop version of Guns 'n' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" with a very similar arrangement of Lerner and Lowe's "Loverly" betrays a certain twisted genius. The Aluminum Group certainly don't rock--at their most heated, they sway gently from side to side--but Wonder Boy Plus is an unexpected soft-pop gem. ¡¡¡¡¡

Badfinger Airwaves (Permanent Press)

Despite Badfinger's early success--oldies radio still plays their hits "Come and Get It," "No Matter What," "Day After Day" and "Baby Blue," as well as Harry Nilsson's monster smash with their "Without You"--the band was dogged at every step by bad luck and even worse business decisions. They were also consistently ragged by "serious" rock critics for their sometimes uncanny resemblance to the Beatles, for whose Apple Records they originally recorded. Shortly after their best album, 1975's Wish You Were Here, was withdrawn by their label because the band's manager couldn't account for some funds he'd siphoned off, guitarist/songwriter Pete Ham hanged himself.

Four years later, guitarist Joey Molland met a Los Angeles-based struggling musician named Joe Tansin. Inviting Badfinger's other primary songwriter, Tom Evans (who also committed suicide, in 1983), to join their new band and calling themselves Badfinger for lack of a better alternative, the trio recorded Airwaves, which promptly disappeared without a trace, as did its follow-up, 1981's Say No More.

Reissued for the first time on CD with five bonus tracks, Airwaves is in many ways a Badfinger album in name only. The British Invasion-inspired power pop of classic albums like No Dice and Straight Up is almost entirely absent, replaced by late '70s California soft rock that sounds uncannily like a less-quirky Lindsey Buckingham. While there are several excellent songs here, particularly Evans' lovely piano-and-strings "Sail Away" and his dramatic ballad "Lost Inside Your Love," and Evans and Molland's trademark harmonies sound wonderful throughout, the album has its weak links. One is trite lyrics (Evans' "Look Out California" is just painful), another is dated production (dig the clichéd electric piano on "Sympathy"), but the most detrimental is Joe Tansin, an unexceptional singer and uninspired songwriter who wrote seven of the album's 14 tracks, at least four too many.

While Airwaves is nowhere near as pathetic as last summer's performance by "Joey Molland's Badfinger" at Camel Rock Casino, neither is it a proud addition to the band's mostly exceptional body of work. ¡¡¡

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