Two of the absolute best pure pop records from 2010 have been by ex-teeny bop princes Hanson, and little known Queens native Mark Bacino. The former, a hit at Bamboozle, continues to churn out spectacular under-appreciated albums such as Shout It Out while the latter has casually scattered a mere three recordings over a dozen years. Inexorably, both Hanson and Bacino identify with many post-Beatles ‘70s-related pop elements such as bright melodic hooks, urgent harmonic pleas, capricious piano strolls and raspy brass bursts.
Though it’s hard to choose Bacino’s latest endeavor over the “Mm-Bop”-propelled brotherly trio, the St. John’s University grad’s melancholy love letter to New York City, Queens English, surely ranks high. An uncompromisingly straight-ahead conventionality, better suited for ‘70s singer-songwriter types than today’s emotional hardcore brats, affirmatively affects his rhapsodic Big Apple paeans and evocatively reflective limericks.
On Bacino’s ’98 debut, Pop Job, the apprenticing multi-instrumentalist placed loud guitars and keyboard embellishments inside a straight-up power pop setting. 2003’s latent follow-up, Million Dollar Milkshake, broadened his scope, bringing a nifty bubblegum sensibility to the retro guitar-driven romps, giving horns and strings a bigger role.
Now married with a son, the ripened troubadour returns with his best effort yet. Brought up on Queens English—not the kind learned from British magnates but instead a hardened city dwellers’ vernacular—the native New Yorker has fattened up the increasingly dynamic arrangements.
Though he’s definitely one to wear his influences on his sleeve, Bacino’s thrillingly bashed title track ingeniously morphs iconic ‘70s figures. He distinctly and instinctively cobbles together Dave Edmunds’ lusty pub rock stank, Big Star’s mollycoddled arena rock fervor, Roy Wood’s coliseum-sized art-rock pastiche, and Kiss’ party-starting “Shout It Out Loud” exclamation. One listen will convince anyone of the man’s skillful eclecticism and detailed scoring.
But his embracing resourceful doesn’t stop there. Distantly recalling unheralded singer-songwriter Emmit Rhodes’ sarcastic piano saunter, “Happy,” plies a tuba-sounding French horn to caroused Carnaby Street quaintness. Next, the brassy “Muffin In The Oven” could be mistaken for Chicago if not for Bacino’s soothingly soft cocktail lounge baritone. Then, there’s a few balladic weepers redolent of stylish interpretive singer, Nilsson: maudlin heartsick memento “Camp Elmo” and poignant Classical commuter swoon “Bride & Tunnel.” He even touches upon light Jazz with delicate acoustic strummer, “Blue Suit,” a mild number that reaches nasally Elvis Costello lamenting nearly as well as reminiscing yarn “Middletown” does.
Despite the retro musical tendencies, Bacino’s lyrical hometown stories certainly prove he has his finger firmly on the pulse of modern day vagaries. His trusty domesticated treatises and frizzy photographic furloughs give the listener a precise inner city panorama any indigenous New Yorker should comprehend.
Why do earnest nostalgic remembrances dominate Queens English?
I guess this record was more about me moving back from Manhattan. I never ruled out coming back to Queens. Through circumstances – getting married, having a kid, buying a house. It’s looking back from a different perspective. It’s a traditional pop record, but not in a Britney Spears or Lady Gaga manner. I thought, ‘What could I do to make hooky melodic tunes more personal, stripped down, and, perhaps, adult. It’s not as carefree.
The horn section, in a few spots, makes no bones about duping popular ‘70s band, Chicago.
Definitely. I did an instrumental on Million Dollar Milkshake, so that Chicago vibe is always there. I embrace it.
Who were some of your early influences?
I grew up in the late-‘70s listening to the last dying breaths of AM radio. I had a handlebar on my bike where I put my radio while riding around the streets. At that point, AM radio was dying out but still had a semi-eclectic playlist of Genesis, Cheap Trick, and “Brandy.” I’ve gotten a lot of comparisons to Harry Nilsson. It came out more in Queens English.
“Bridge & Tunnel” felt like a nifty outtake from Nilsson Sings Newman.
That’s probably involved with my move back to Queens. With that song, I was taking the derogative term, bridge and tunnel, flipping it around and looking at it from the other perspective. Usually city folk complain that outsiders drive them crazy. Lyrically, I make it an outsider driving home and the narrative that goes on inside their head going to the outer boroughs or Jersey. A prideful mindset of where real people are. I turn the term on its head and make it positive. Also, I wanted to sing against an orchestral backdrop.
Where does an independent artist like you get a budget for orchestral maneuvering?
After making a few indie records you become resourceful. We multi-tracked four people. Jacob Lawson does the strings. We worked out arrangements for my chord structure. He did violin and viola and someone else did cello. Lee Alexander, former Norah Jones bassist, put down upright bass. I did vocals-percussion. It’s the modern miracle of multi-tracking.
“Camp Elmo” brings in Gospel organ and flute.
That’s actually a mellotron flute sound. It’s a tongue-in-cheek story of new parenthood. It’s got that Randy Newman angle of not trusting the narrator. Is he serious or not? My wife and I were out every night in Manhattan. Then, it’s boot camp watching this little kid. We used to go to bed when the sun came up. Now, we’re getting up with the sun. It’s definitely that side of parenting. What happened to us?
“Muffin In The Oven” would seem to be about pregnancy. But the lyrics teeter on an unwanted pregnancy.
That’s fictional, drawing on the nervousness of becoming a father. It’s my feelings couched within the story of these teenage kids.
Then there’s “Angeline & The Bensonhurst Boys.” Is that a true account?
That’s the story of my folks. My mom grew up in Queens and my dad in Bensonhurst. It’s about coming full circle, having kids of your own and looking at your parents in a different perspective. It’s tributary to them. You could identify with common hard working people trying to stake a claim for themselves. I thought I’d celebrate that.
The softest, slowest track, “Ballad OF M & LJ,” seems to be the most introspective.
That’s about me and my son, Lee Joseph—very personal. It’s the polar opposite of “Camp Elmo,” which showed the sarcastic downside of new parenthood. “M & LJ” brings the positive upside countering the hardship. I enjoy hanging out with the kid doing nothing. I revel in that. I live in Middle Village, the midpoint between 18th century farmers and Brooklyn market ports. Farmers would stay overnight in the city while shipping goods. It was a metaphor for the current middleclass town. Some friends I know have no desire to be in Manhattan. They have a provincial town-y vibe observing the inner city. It’s about holding true to your roots and being who you are.
The band Hanson started out as teenage heartthrobs thanks to number one single, “Mm-Bop.” But their latest work is perfectly maturated horn-infested pop that’s straight down the middle. Your music also has a worthy centrist mode. Do you feel cheated by today’s compromised commercial radio play-lists that narrow everything down to the lowest common denominator?
With every record I’ve done, I’ve heard that. ‘If you did this in 1973 you’d be on the radio and TV.’ I cannot even get Fordham University’s WFUV to play my records. They’ve totally shut me out. My music’s not 100% rootsy, but I feel it’d fit.
Mark Bacino’s new record Queens English is available now.