John Felice is the frontman and primary member of Boston band the Real Kids, who have been producing some of the best in macho-sensitive, quasi-sexist, arrested-adolescence rock ‘n’ roll on and off for nearly 30 years now. They’re beloved by well-intentioned but kinda boring trad-garage types (like the people at Norton Records, who put Nothing Pretty out) for sticking to their guns or whatever. Nothing Pretty was originally recorded and barely released in ’87, during a temporary Felice hiatus from the band, when he would’ve been about, let’s say, 37, and accordingly, the vibe is resolutely midlife crisis. The lyrics to almost every song are potentially embarrassing middle-aged/old-man sentiment. One song is actually nostalgic for 1964! Are you kidding me? What was there in 1964? “Perfect Love” is about his new (presumably post-divorce) girlfriend from Texas and how he likes her a lot and he’s finally found someone he can have fun with. Good times for him, I guess.
The catch is that Nothing Pretty is more coherent and defined than all but the best Real Kids songs (which mainly means their most famous one, “All Kindsa Girls,” which “I’ll Never Sing That Song Again” may be about, as Felice plays the opening riff at the end). Whatever public attention and expectations were ever placed on the Real Kids throughout their career, there were certainly even fewer in 1987, perhaps permitting Felice to take a more relaxed and craftsman-like attitude. Who knows? But it’s clear that just about everything here (maybe barring the small-town bar songs, pretty great in their own right) resonates with a leather-tough brand of back-on-the-street optimism that the Real Kids rarely captured. Songs coming out of the furrow Felice has chosen to till can be expected to be at least a bit derivative, but his have always been based around a melodic garage dynamism that is harder to trace. “Ain’t We Having Fun” is the most Stonesy by virtue of both its backbeat shuffle and junkie story line, while most of the others have the propulsive chordage and melody moves that add up to classic suburban sidewalk rock, no matter how cringe-worthy the lyrics (“keep talking about maturity/yeah that’s one word you won’t find in the rock ‘n’ roll dictionary”). Awkward beauty is really the name of the game. You can laugh at him, but you can never say he’s not sincere.