Mike Viola

The autobiography of Mike

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By Bill DeMain  

Power pop musicians are a little like child actors. They charm us with cleverness and fresh faces, but then puberty hits and they find themselves at the wrong end of the old "Whatever Happened To . . ." question. Candybutchers' leader Mike Viola made his first record at age thirteen with notorious producer Kim Fowley. He went on to be the voice behind "That Thing You Do" in the Tom Hanks movie, and over three critically acclaimed albums, he's mined a lot of gold from the Beatles-Kinks-Who vein.

Viola is now thirty-three, dangerously old in his chosen genre. But on Hang On Mike, he does what so few before him have done - he grows up gracefully.

The songs here go beyond his latest misadventure with a girlfriend. They are autobiographical snapshots that capture times both tender and tragic in Viola's life. "Kiss Alive II" explores a turbulent childhood friendship that's endured into adulthood. "Unexpected Traffic" beautifully captures the kind of depression that the modern world afflicts on us all. "Let's Have A Baby" endorses the rollercoaster ups and downs of parenthood. And the two strongest songs hang an even weightier subject upon their sharp melodic hooks - death. "Charlie" is an elegy to Viola's mother, who grew up an orphan, while the hushed, gorgeous "Painkillers" pays last respects to Viola's late wife, who succumbed to cancer.

Where in the past Viola favored carefully wrought arrangements, a la XTC or Squeeze, on Hang On Mike, he's stripped things down to the bare necessities. There's an early '70s singer-songwriter warmth and directness to the sound. Think Tumbleweed Connection meets Tapestry, with a little McCartney thrown in. It's a strategy that serves the material well and brings its emotional content into vivid relief. Band members Todd Foulsham, Pete Donnelly and Mike Benigno all add tasteful flourishes throughout, but the songs are strong enough to stand on their own legs.

Mike Viola has been a child star, a dubbed voice behind an actor, and an underground power pop hero. But now he's something better. A songwriter and musician with something to say. And judging from the quantum leap he's made on this album, he's got a future.

Musician and journalist Bill DeMain writes frequently about music. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Entertainment Weekly, MOJO, and Musician.