Originally proud altar boys at the Church of the Holy Mersey, North Carolina’s SpongeTones — Jamie Hoover, Patrick Walters, Rob Thorne and McCartney lookalike Steve Stoeckel — have evolved from the zesty Beatlish originals of their first two releases to producing lush, superbly crafted pop-rock that owes a debt to other British Invasion acts (Searchers, Zombies) without coming off as slavishly imitative.
Beat Music is a gas from start to finish, a collection of lovingly performed early-Beatles pastiches. Don’t miss the high-octane “She Goes Out With Everybody” or the simply wonderful “A Part of Me Now,” two of the greatest songs the Fab Four (and the Rutles) never wrote. The six-song Torn Apart is more of the same; the explosive title track is one of the SpongeTones’ finest efforts. Beat Music and Torn Apart were consolidated on CD as Beat & Torn, with a previously hard-to-find bonus track.
The SpongeTones expand their sound a touch on Where- Ever-Land (three tracks produced by Don Dixon), adding dabs of garagey rock (“Up in Smoke”), soulful, horn-fueled pop (“Self Sufficient Guy”), full-tilt screamers (“Forget About May”) and slightly psychedelic balladeering (“Images”). The best thing here by far is the Hoover/Greg James collaboration, “Anna” — four minutes of delicious harmonies, subtle guitars and beautifully imaginative lyrics tucked inside a to-die-for melody. Two Merseybeat-flavored tracks are buried near the end of the album, almost as an afterthought.
Moving to Shoes’ Black Vinyl Records, Oh Yeah! takes the SpongeTones ferrying back down the Mersey with often sparkling results. Stoeckel’s “Stupid Heart” hearkens back to Beatles ’65, while Hoover’s “Return the Boy” is a heartfelt beat ballad. The disc’s only real negative aspect is the disappointingly thin-sounding production.
Textural Drone Thing finds the SpongeTones branching out again, with splashes of breathy Zombies-like melodicism, Claptonesque guitar and instrumental variety (mandolin, saxes, dulcimer). Three songs co-written by Hoover and Bill Lloyd are as rootsy and poppy (pootsy? roppy?) as you’d expect, and there are still flashes of the SpongeTones of old, especially on Pat Walters’ Lennony ravers, “Try to Please” and “Rattle My Chain.” Have Mersey!
Beat! The SpongeTones is a 25-track collection of demos and other rarities from the group.
Recorded with minimal assistance (he does pretty much everything but drum here), Hoover’s pleasant solo debut departs slightly from the Spongetones’ sound, mainly in the lead vocal style, which is often more soulful (“Soldier”) or gut-ripping (“The Box,” “In the Black”); the overall presentation of Coupons, Questions and Comments is more forceful. Hoover’s knack for winning melodies remains intact, especially on the ‘Tones-like “In Shame,” the sweetly simple “Jack in the Box,” the kinetic “Forgive and Forget” and the downright nasty “Watching You Stumble.” Two instrumentals (one cutely titled “Ignoramos and Andy”) mainly showcase his beefy guitar work. Odd coincidence(?): the opening riff to Robyn Hitchcock’s “So You Think You’re in Love” is identical to Hoover’s “Questions,” which preceded it by a year. In late ’95, Hoover resurrected his long dormant solo career with the release of “Nobody Wins This Time,” a single on the Swedish Sound Asleep label.
A decade later, Hoover assembled a batch of covers he’d done for various tribute albums, recorded some new ones to fill out a baker’s dozen and released it as Jamie Hoo- ever. Proof of his adaptability and diverse skills, Hoover comfortably handles songs by the Traveling Wilburys (“Handle With Care”), Let’s Active (“Horizon”), the Everly Brothers (“Cathy’s Clown”), Todd Rundgren (“Izzat Love?”) and, of course, the Beatles (“It’s Only a Northern Song”). But he stretches far afield from the obvious for such ancient AM radio hits as “You Were on My Mind,” “Theme From a Summer Place,” “Elusive Butterfly” and “Sukiyaki.” Hoover approaches each number with respect and originality, making this a strange but exceedingly pleasant jukebox.