Recording of May 1999: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

BILL LLOYD: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Koch LOC-CD-8035 (CD). 1999. Bill Lloyd, Scott Baggett, prods., engs.; Brad Jones, prod.; Robin Eaton, Marshall Crenshaw, engs. AAD? TT: 56:46
Performance ****?
Sonics ****

Bill Lloyd's hooked on hooks. In three albums—the second of which, 1994's Set to Pop (ESD 80892), is still my album of the millennium—he's become a master of power pop. Power pop is distinguished from its stickier, sweeter cousins—play-it-to-death Top 40 and the really nauseating, Flintstones chewable variety pandered by N'Synch, Spice Girls, and Britney Spears—by amusing love'n'lost lyrics, an abundance of crisply realized major-chord melodies, intricately layered voice and guitar mixes that often take on a rock-guitar edge, and a healthy dose of surprising lyrical and musical quirks.

In the most recent monthly installment of the ongoing friendly summit between Stereophile editor John Atkinson and me over "Recording of the Month," JA said, of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, "I've already heard the Beatles...but don't listen to me; I'm out of touch."

For the record, he isn't out of touch, and in this case he hit the nail on the head. Mentioning the Beatles and Bill Lloyd in the same breath is a natural occurrence that the Nashville-based-but-Anglophile power-pop singer-songwriter-guitarist doesn't seem to mind.

In fact, in the song-by-song descriptions that accompany the promotional copies of this, his third solo album, Lloyd mentions the Beatles and John Lennon twice each, speaks of setting out to write "a new 'Glass Onion,'" and throws in references to the Zombies, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. The only American references that apply in his descriptions are the Byrds (thanks to Lloyd's love for big, chimey, 12-string Rickenbackers) and those randy, early-'80s founders of alt-rock, Memphis' Big Star. On Standing..., Lloyd rolls all those influences into (damn, here comes the inevitable onslaught of confectionery power-pop metaphors) a big jelly donut of a record.

While no album is Set to Pop's equal in terms of impossibly infectious songs, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants has its share of moments—including the title cut, which opens the album with a display of Lloyd's verbal and musical gifts. Over a bed of crisp snare shots and ringing guitars, he sings, "We all long to make our mark / leave a crease in the line of time / I'll sing this song until I can honestly call it mine / Who deserves more than a tip of a hat? / Well, I got no problem with that... / Here's to all who came first and begat / the rules we're breaking." Fairly expansive thoughts for a pop tune. Next is the softer "Cool and Gone," which, like several songs here, is the result of a long-distance collaboration, in this case with David Surface. The Rickenbacker sound makes its first appearance on "Sweet Virginia," which is not the Rolling Stones tune of the same name.

The sinuous, Beatle/Victorian-titled "Dr. Robert's Second Opinion," which somehow uses its mouthful of a title as the key line of its chorus, is followed by this disc's most fully blossomed pop tune, the Lloyd-Crenshaw collaboration of "Holding Back the Waterfall." Another highlight is "Years Away from Here," which Lloyd describes in his notes as "dreamy," and which reminds me of a cross between one of the Beatles' eastern-flavored experiments and a '70s love ballad from 10cc. And, like Lloyd's other albums, this one contains the obligatory "rawk" tune—the chunky, crunchy "Complaints."

As for Beatlesesque quirks, there's the stop/start, third-time's-the-charm opening of "Holding Back the Waterfall," the burbling moments of feedback at the end of "(Who You Gonna) Run to Now," the one-last-blast ending of "Complaints," and the abrupt ending (as Lloyd describes it, "as if we used garden shears on the tape") of "Turn Me On Dead Man" (yes, that's a humorous title). And there are two hidden tracks at the end, one of which reminds me of the scene in the film Animal House in which the character D-Day performs the William Tell Overture by drumming his fingers on his throat.

One of the keys to Lloyd's art lies in how long it takes him to put a record together. While he's closing the distance between albums—only four years separated the releases of Standing... and Set to Pop, as opposed to the eight between Set to Pop and his solo debut, Feeling the Elephant (now out of print)—the craft and care remain. His plaintive, often yearningly earnest singing is fine, and he's an increasingly accomplished instrumentalist, playing guitars, bass, keyboards, and, like any power-popper worth his weight in Swan and Vee Jay Beatles singles, a mean tambourine. But Lloyd's songs are the big attraction here. I assume they're one big reason why the supporting cast includes old pal Kim Richey, Big Al Anderson (NRBQ), Marshall Crenshaw, Al Kooper, Rusty Young (Poco), Amy Rigby, Greg Trooper, Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick), and Dennis Diken (Smithereens), among others.

A definite throwback to the classic pop of the past, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants exceeds the goals Lloyd sings of in the title cut to make its own timeless mark. If ageless pop music is the "science"—also mentioned in the lyrics of the title tune--that Lloyd seeks to master, then this popster is making more than just "a crease in the line of time."—Robert Baird