Mello Cads

Soft as a Rock

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If Soft as a Rock was any more of a loaded cocktail than it is, it would be almost lethally boozy. As it is, the album is lethally fun, a deliciously self-deprecating aperitif that topples, even as it reverently embraces, every soft rock and lounge cliché. Nearly everything about the record screams schmaltz, from the cover art depicting head Cad David Ponak as a smug, turtlenecked, '60s-styled hipster surrounded by Bond-like go-go girls (and ready for his close-up) to the florid, grandiose spoken word interludes. And it is something of a concept album, with Ponak playing the part of a swinging, roguish lover man. He oozes supercilious self-confidence and lizardly Vegas shtick. He struts and preens like a singing coxcomb. Each lyric is a queasy come-on in a deep, dreamy voice that is the very model of ingratiating smarm. But when the house band (including Probyn Gregory, Nick Walusko, and Linus of Hollywood, the latter also responsible for the record's impeccable production) starts to play, it all comes out as transcendent pop. It's as if Sinatra had ditched the Cole Porter songbook in exchange for a medley of Beach Boys hits, and had surrounded himself with the crème de la crème of Wrecking Crew session cats, or as if Scott Walker turned from Jacques Brel to singing sanguine, breezy tunes while sipping a string of piña coladas. Candlelit, supper-club bossa nova crosses paths with Lee Hazlewood ("As for Tonight," a sassy duet featuring Kim Fox). Free Design ("Now Is the Time") collides with teen idol melodrama ("In My Dreams," like vintage Frankie Avalon). The album has the lush, sophisticated melodicism exhibited by Burt Bacharach, the affaire d'amour of Hal David's lyrics, the sweeping, open-ended arrangements of the Carpenters. "Soapland" even grafts together Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" and "The Love Boat Theme" (the latter, incidentally, originally performed by spiritual forebear Jack Jones), with a ridiculously audacious verse sung in karaoke Japanese. But a primary inspiration for the Mello Cads is clearly Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, two of whose songs are covered (including a "To Put Up With You" that is totally David Cassidy). The former, a soft pop icon if ever one existed, even makes an appearance to croon on his own "The Drifter." Camp? Sure. Tongue in cheek? Of course. Kitsch? Check, once again. But Soft as a Rock is camp, tongue-in-cheek kitsch of a most sublime sort.

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