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Wonderboy had never completely arrived on record before Napoleon Blown Apart, a supreme piece of pop/rock and, by a long shot, the finest of the band's three recordings. After blowing the dust off the speakers with the quick thrash onslaught of "Tick," the album settles into a superlative string of first-rate songs, a few of them among the best out of the great L.A. pop underground scene, various participants of which show up in force throughout. Members of the Negro Problem, Wondermints, and Cockeyed Ghost, among others, all dropped by to add touches to the album, and the spirit of collaboration and
camaraderie seems to be one of the factors that spurred the quartet to new heights. The transformation isn't so much a result of the band's performing capabilities -- those were never in question even in the lesser moments of its first two albums -- as it is from an entirely sympathetic and idiosyncratic production melding beautifully with an unimpeachable, multifaceted set of tunes from Robbie Rist. Instead of treating the process like a live recording, Wonderboy gives in to the full range of studio flourishes, even peppering the music with keyboards, accordion, and horns at times. The production has depth, with a really warm and full low-end sound that the first album, in particular, lacked, and capturing more than the single speed (fast) and decibel level (earsplitting) that Wonderboy had previously been content to show. Rist also comes into his own as a vocalist. His singing had always been an acquired taste, but here attains a level of control and subtlety that perfectly suits the band's eclecticism. He manages the volatility of punk, the aggressiveness of rock, and the sweet naivete of pop with equal aplomb, but also shows himself capable of navigating more complex, jazzy melodic lines, such as on the brief, unlisted final track. The album exposes the full range of Wonderboy's inspirations. Elements of Buddy Holly and ska (both on "Unconditional Love") and even a touch of zydeco ("Rumours for Sale") coexist with the band's usual jones for '70s AM rock and pop, while punk takes a back seat. And '60s influences emerge more substantially than they ever had before, particularly in the guitars of Patrick McGrath and Rist, as well as in the lovely harmonies. The band transforms the jangle of early Byrds into a more aggressive attack on "What I Mean" and "Angel Wings." And if the music of the Monkees had been more informed by power pop than bubblegum, the Prefab Four might have arrived at something that sounded like "Taken," which marries the band's usual blistering attack to a melody that recalls "Pleasant Valley Sunday," then filters it through the countrified haze of '70s Laurel Canyon. "Insecurity Girl," too, has a Monkees-esque charm as well as a harmonic arrangement and structural intricacy worthy of the Beach Boys, with some of the campier piano bar flourishes of Harry Nilsson thrown in for good measure. It's unfortunate that the great advances in Wonderboy's music evident on this album had to stop here. ~ Stanton Swihart