• Woodentops
  • Giant (Rough Trade/Columbia) 1986 
  • Straight Eight Bushwaker EP (Hol. Megadisc) 1986 
  • Well Well Well ... (Upside) 1986 
  • Hypno-Beat (Upside) 1987 
  • Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway (Rough Trade/Columbia) 1988 

In this era of retro-rock, revivals and ripoffs, it’s not easy to find truly innovative pop music. That’s what makes this quintet from Peckham so special — they literally defy categorization. Led by the exuberant Rolo McGinty, the Woodentops employ only the barest of essentials — vocals, keyboards, acoustic guitars, bass and rudimentary drums.

The first two records chronicle a string of five brilliant singles. The Dutch EP collects six tracks. “Move Me,” like many of the Woodentops’ songs, builds to a manic crescendo before collapsing into a wall of sound; “Well Well Well” is held together with skittering drums and pulsating keyboard chords; “It Will Come” rushes along in a flurry of guitar, piano and good-natured mayhem. The Woodentops tend to throw caution to the wind on their B-sides, and the three here explore all sorts of new territory. Well Well Well adds two more B-sides (from 12-inch singles) and substitutes a longer version of “Well Well Well” that has incredible keyboard and drum breaks. (When that record was subsequently issued on CD, it was retitled The Unabridged Singles Collection.)

The Woodentops’ long-awaited debut album proved to be more than worth the wait. Giant is a bright handful of pop gems hallmarked with the band’s special sound. They’ve filled out musically with the addition of trumpet, marimba, strings and accordion, and the songs are more structured. But that in no way detracts from their originality. You’re not likely to hear more innovative pop than “Hear Me James,” “Love Affair with Everyday Livin'” or “Travelling Man.” An incredible first album.

Recorded in Los Angeles at the end of 1986, Hypno-Beat draws its material from singles and Giant and reveals that the Woodentops play three times as fast onstage as they do in the studio. You’ll work up a sweat just listening to this. The CD adds the contents of Straight Eight Bushwaker; the cassette also contains an extra pair of live recordings.

Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway finds the band suffering a bit from a lack of fresh ideas and the loss of keyboard player Alice Thompson. Some good songs appear (e.g., “In a Dream” and “What You Give Out”), but there is little distinction between this album and Giant. Some bands survive for years (even decades) by making the same album over and over; the Woodentops deserve a better fate.

[Altricia Gethers]