New Album by Musician-Author Who Wrote the Book(s) on the Genre; Troubadour Debut September 2
By Stephen K. Peeples
With melodic, hook-filled power chords, layers of jangling guitars and stacked vocal harmonies, and dark lyrics borne of a good relationship gone bad, “New Mourning” by singer-writer-guitarist and author Ken Sharp is not your typical indie power pop album.
“It’s the feel-bad album of the year, but in a good way, as my co-producer Fernando Perdomo put it,” Sharp said of “New Mourning,” his fourth album, and the first since his “Sonic Crayons” album earned kudos from USA Today and Mojo nine years ago.
Power pop as a rock ‘n’ roll sub-genre is usually bright, uptempo, with lots of major guitar chords and hooks wrapped around yearning, hopeful, naive, love-struck lyrics.
[Earworm: The Who, “I Can’t Explain,” 1964. In fact, it was The Who’s Pete Townshend who minted the term “power pop” in 1967].
But as The Beatles were doing with harder, darker songs like “You Can’t Do That” [“A Hard Day’s Night,” 1964], Sharp dives deeper into the dark side.
Except for the monolithic, “She’s So Heavy”-esque guitar intro and close of the last song, “Loser,” and a couple of gorgeous ballads nicely sequenced among the rockers – the sensitive “1000 Guitars” and angst-filled “Haunts Me” – the 14 tracks on “New Mourning” are melodic and catchy.
But as you find yourself singing along, and start to pick up on the lyric messages, you can also feel the smouldering angst that sparked titles such as “Dynamite & Kerosene,” “Bad News,” and “The Worst.”
“I like to juxtapose dark lyrical content with a buoyant melody,” said Sharp, also a New York Times best-selling author with 20 books to his credit since the early 1990s, including several on power pop and power pop artists. Belaboring the obvious, he’s well-versed on the genre, as an author as well as a performer.
“Squeeze is a great example of a group that worked very well doing that type of tricky juxtaposition,” he said. “They did it on a song on ‘Argybargy’ called ‘Vicky Verky,’ which is a perfect example. The girl in the song might have to get an abortion. So, it’s an extremely up-sounding song, but if you listen to the lyrics, it carries that downbeat story.”
Writing and Recording ‘New Mourning’
Sharp said he wrote several songs as he was going through breakup hell, but a few others happened as he co-produced the “New Mourning” sessions with Miami-born songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Fernando Perdomo.
“Writing songs gave me an outlet to express the pain and struggle I was going through,” Sharp said. “I wasn’t consciously writing these songs about the struggles. It was just what was coming out. I feel it’s the most authentic, honest record of mine, and that’s why I think it’s by far my best record. There’s nothing false about it. There’s nothing about it that doesn’t ring true.”
Listen to the complete Ken Sharp ‘New Mourning’ interview.
Sharp and Perdomo (whose credits include albums with Todd Rundgren and Jakob Dylan, among others) recorded “New Mourning” in early 2016, mostly at Perdomo’s Reseda Ranch Studios in L.A.’s suburban San Fernando Valley with a side trip to Malibu.
Sharp released the album independently in June, and it’s available for download now on iTunes and at Amazon. The CD is available exclusively through Sharp’s website.
Sharp sings all the lead vocals and many backing vocal parts, plays electric and acoustic guitars, bass, Wurlitzer piano, percussion, and even a bit of ukulele.
Perdomo plays drums, percussion, bass, guitars, keyboards and contributes vocals. Aiding and abetting the core duo are Rob Bonfiglio (Wanderlust, Wilson-Phillips) and Ritchie Rubini (The Caulfields).
Among the special guest ringers are a few of Sharp’s other musician pals, among them singer-guitarist Rick Springfield (“Burn & Crash,” “Satellite”), guitarist Wally Stocker of The Babys (“Dynamite & Kerosene,” “Loser”), bassist Prescott Niles of The Knack (“Mr. Know It All,” “Dynamite & Kerosene”) and keyboard player Jimmy Waldo of New England (“Satellite”).
Like Sharp, each musician has deep cred in the genre, and would not trifle with Sharp or his music if they didn’t think them worthy. Stocker and Niles actually volunteered to contribute to the album after hearing some initial mixes.
Shades of Keith Moon
And like Sharp, none of the players is a kid, either. But there’s a youthful energy to “New Mourning,” driven by Sharp’s power-chording and Perdomo’s tough, propulsive drumming, which (to this veteran rock drummer’s ears) blends the fiery fills of a Keith Moon with the rock-steady slam of a Hal Blaine.
“The record was mainly done, instrumentation-wise, by Fernando and me,” Sharp said. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone more talented, someone who can pretty much do everything.”
Sharp has high praise for his studio partner’s intuitive musicianship, but “some of the songs I specifically dictated [drum parts]. He had me play on my legs the parts I was wanting, and certain songs like ‘Dynamite & Kerosene’ and ‘Bad News’ are completely in the Keith Moon mode,” he said.
“Fernando said, ‘You can’t have fills in every part of the song!’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ [laughs]. So, I pushed him much further into that mode than he normally would go,” Sharp said. “[He] says I’m the hardest on him in terms of what I want from him as a drummer.”
That was especially true when recording the basic tracks for “Bad News.”
“I think he was only able to do two or three takes because of what I was demanding from him with the fills, and he literally destroyed the kit,” Sharp said. “Two and a half takes and that was it. Thankfully we were able to piece [the track] together.”
Shades of Moon during The Who’s West Coast debut at Monterey Pop in June 1967.
One also envisions Perdomo as an octopus in the studio – multiple limbs doing everything at once, but perfectly orchestrated.
“Pretty much,” Sharp said, laughing. “Yeah, he’s the Squiddly Diddly of the music world.”
Sharp a Musician First, Author Second
If “New Mourning” sounds much stronger than a lame vanity trip by a music writer trying to stroke his own ego, it’s because Ken Sharp has been in the music game a long time, as a fan, player, and journalist.
The music came first for Sharp, as a kid growing up in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, during the late ’50s and early ’60s, learning how to sing and play guitar by emulating his early idols as heard on the radio and seen on TV.
“Actually, I remember first singing ‘Johnny Angel’ by Shelley Fabares  and thinking, wow, I can kind of sing like she does, with the high voice,” he said. “I’ve always been involved with playing guitar or writing songs, and then writing books came after that as a way to try to earn a living. And I’m still working on trying to earn a living.
“The music I grew up loving, whether it was The Beatles or The Four Seasons or The Who, has always been part of my DNA,” Sharp said.
“When I learned how to play guitar, one of the things I first tried to do is try my hand at writing songs,” he said. “My first song was called “Second-Rate Romance,” which sounds like a great country title [ref. Russell Smith’s “Third Rate Romance”]. So, I went from there. Music really fueled me from an early age, and because I loved it so much and just put my hand in it, I wanted to write about it and also share my enthusiasm in the writing circle.”
Sharp made his recording debut with “1301 Highland Avenue,” released in Japan only in 1995, followed by “Happy Accidents” in 2000 and “Sonic Crayons” in 2006, the latter partly recorded in PA and completed after Sharp relocated to the Los Angeles area in 2001.
Sidebar 1 – Ken Sharp Bibliography
Just happened to have Ken Sharp’s bibliography handy, from most recent book to first:
- “Sound Explosion: Inside L.A.’s Studio Factory with the Wrecking Crew” (2015)
- “Play On!: Power Pop Heroes Vol 1” (2014)
- “Play On!: Power Pop Heroes Vol 2” (2015)
- “Play On!: Power Pop Heroes Vol 3” (2015)
- “Kooks, Queen Bitches and Andy Warhol: The Making of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory” (2014) (out of print)
- “Nothin’ to Lose: the Making of KISS (1972-1975)” (2013)
- “Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy” (2010)
- “Elvis: Vegas ’69” (2009)
- “Rick Springfield: A Year in the Life of a Working Class Dog” (2007) (sold out; author has a few copies; email email@example.com)
- “Elvis Presley: Writing for the King” (2006) (sold out; author has a few copies; email firstname.lastname@example.org)
- “Raspberries: TONIGHT!” (2005)
- “Eric Carmen: Marathon Man” (2004) (sold out; author has a few copies; email email@example.com; Kindle version available)
- “Reputation is a Fragile Thing: The Story of Cheap Trick” (1998)
- “KISS: Behind the Mask” (2003)
- “Small Faces: Quite Naturally” (1997)
- “Power Pop!” (1997) (out of print)
- “The KISS Years!” (1997) (out of print)
- “Meet the Beatles…Again!” (1995) (out of print)
- “Overnight Sensation: The Story of the Raspberries” (1993) (out of print)
In between and in conjunction with various books, Sharp has also written liner notes over the years for albums by Springfield, The Babys and ex-Baby John Waite, as well as Elvis Presley, Sly & The Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Small Faces, Santana, Cheap Trick, Raspberries, Eric Carmen, KISS, Hall & Oates, Rick Springfield, The Guess Who, Jellyfish, Jefferson Airplane and more.
Sidebar 2 – A Ken Sharp Power Pop Primer
Okay, so since Sharp is a well-respected expert on power pop, I asked him for a quick power pop primer for the kids, and as a flashback for first-generation fans. Here’s how he broke it down:
“You can make a case that everything you need to know about power pop can be found on The Beatles’ 1964 album, ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ Songs like ‘Anytime at All,’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love,’ ‘You Can’t Do That,’ ‘I Should Have Known Better’ and the title track = Power Pop 101, a master class teeming with massive, Empire State Building-sized hooks, soaring vocals and gloriously unforgettable melodies – all topped off with an unstoppable incandescent energy.
“Back in 1967, Pete Townshend coined the term, stating: ‘Power pop is what we play, what the Small Faces used to play and the kind of pop The Beach Boys played during the days of “Fun, Fun Fun,” which I preferred.’
“And from 1965 to 1968, it can be argued that no other band delivered on the promise of power pop better than The Who, as witnessed by perfect sonic powder kegs such as “’Pictures of Lily,’ ‘I Can See for Miles,’ ‘So Sad About Us,’ ‘The Kids Are Alright’ and ‘I’m a Boy.’
“Okay, so ‘power pop’ means different things to different people. For some, it begins and ends with The Beatles and bands that carried that Liverpudlian torch like Raspberries, Badfinger and Big Star.
“For others, [British Invasion bands] The Kinks, The Dave Clark 5 or The Who were the reigning kings who helped establish the form. Some traditionalists go back even earlier, citing [American] ’50s rockers Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran as lighting the fuse.
“For another sub-section of the fan base it’s the more aggressive, supercharged outfits like Cheap Trick, Slade, Sweet or The Babys, and for still others it’s groups that mined a more production-heavy, harmonically rich style like The Beach Boys (‘Pet Sounds’ era), The Zombies, ELO or Jellyfish.
“Latter-day bands like Fountains of Wayne, Rooney, Jet and Pugwash and artists like Matthew Sweet, Rob Bonfiglio and others proudly carry the power pop flag, too.”
Sharp Music Also Came Before Sharp Books
Given Ken Sharp’s bibliography and other choice writing projects, he sometimes still gets tagged as “just a writer” by people who haven’t heard his music or don’t know his story.
“That’s a battle I’ve been facing throughout my career because what I do for a living is write about music, but music – whether it’s songwriting or playing music – came long before it, and my heart and soul are into that,” he said.
Typecasting aside, Sharp would certainly like his music to reach a wider audience, and hopes “New Mourning” will do that.
“With [“New Mourning”], Ken continues to explore the essence of power pop, this time, with a harder edge, and some fine guitar and vocal work from Rick Springfield. He’s also found a new depth and confidence in his lyric writing, his voice and his production on this new recording. It’s his best work yet!” — Eric Carmen
“I think if people give it a chance, they’ll see ‘New Mourning’ is no vanity project,” Sharp said. “It’s my fourth album and I think it really reflects an authenticity that supersedes any misconceptions people may have of my intentions. My intentions are pure creativity and pure love of what I do, and that came long before my writing career.”
He recognizes in 2016, it’s a challenge even for established artists who have sold a lot of records to really gain a foothold.
“I’m hoping I get lucky with someone hearing my music and saying, hey, it will be good for a film or a TV show, or for someone to cover it,” he said. “So, I’m certainly open to all those possibilities and I’m going to try to remain optimistic something like that could happen.”
Get Sharp Live at the Troubadour September 2
Sharp’s been to the Troubadour to see others countless times before, but he makes his onstage debut at the world-famous nightclub in West Hollywood on Friday night, September 2. He’ll be singing and playing guitar, backed by Perdomo on drums, Bonfiglio on lead guitar, Niles on bass, and, on a couple of tracks, guest keyboardist Paul Mouradjian.
“I’m doing seven songs from ‘New Mourning’ and one new song called ‘Mr. Popularity,'” Sharp said. “And I can’t tell you, Stephen, how excited I am to play the Troubadour. It’s my second electric show ever in L.A., and to be able to play a place that launched The Byrds or Eagles or Linda Ronstadt or hosted Elton John or Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, it’s surreal and exciting and also a bit scary at the same time. So, I’m really looking forward to it and hoping people come out.”
Showtime’s at 8:45; get tickets here.
‘New Mourning’ and Depression – Cause or Cure?
A last thought about Ken Sharp’s “New Mourning” album and its bright and dark sides, does he think the album will resonate with listeners who are depressed and want to wallow in it? Or to listeners who are depressed but want to hear music with a positive vibe, something that might help them get happy again?
Sharp said he thought the album could appeal to either – or both.
“It’s definitely an immersive record that can take you into that dark world,” he said. “But if you don’t listen closely enough to the lyrics, you’re going to be uplifted and there’s going to be some joy there.”
One hallmark of a memorable record is that the listener can get a different but equally satisfying experience each time it’s played.
To these ears – still ringing with those perfect little sonic masterpieces created during the first generation power pop, when I was in my early teens – “New Mourning” warrants repeated listenings. ‘Scuse me while I dive in for another.
Find out more about Ken Sharp at his official website.
Santa Clarita journalist Stephen K. Peeples was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for the Westwood One Radio Network from 1988-1990. Peeples, a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival,” MIPF/Rhino, 1992), is a veteran record industry media relations executive (Capitol Records, Elektra/Asylum Records, Westwood One, Rhino Entertainment, 1977-1998) and website content manager (Warner New Media, 1998-2001). He was music and entertainment features writer/columnist for the Santa Clarita Valley Signal (2004-2011), and The Signal’s award-winning online editor (2007-2011). He then wrote features for Santa Clarita’s KHTS-AM 1220 News (www.hometownstation.com) and SCVNews.com (2011-2016) and hosted, wrote and co-produced the WAVE-nominated “House Blend” music and interview show on SCV community TV station SCVTV (2010-2015). Today Peeples is Vice President/New Media & Editorial (Emeritus) with Los Angeles-based multimedia pop culture company Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. and CEO of Pet Me Happy Gifts & Treats. For more information, email skp (at) stephenkpeeples.com or visit https://stephenkpeeples.com.
Article: Ken Sharp ‘New Mourning’ – Bright Power Pop with a Dark Side
Category: News and Reviews
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Article Source: StephenKPeeples.com