One of the ironies with power pop is that while it's the quintessential teenage soundtrack — a mix of hormones, harmonies and bright-eyed optimism — the best practitioners of the form are usually on the wrong side of eighteen. Tim McAvin is no teenager — he has been playing in bands around St. Louis for the past twenty years, and that accumulated experience has sharpened his pop prowess. His most recent role was that of singer, guitarist and keyboardist in Tight Pants Syndrome, then and now a proving ground for lovers of sugary highs and hook-heavy choruses. So when McAvin assembled Karate Bikini with a host of other scene vets, he decided to act his age. On Sauce of the Applehorse, McAvin and company run through eight stylistically diverse songs that showcase the strengths of the band members. McAvin has stacked the decks here, with John Horton (Bottle Rockets) on lead guitar, bassist Mike Martin (Painkillers, Tinhorn), saxophonist Michelle Rae (Jon Hardy & the Public) and Prune keyboardist Rich Ives, who played with McAvin in the near-legendary Lydia's Trumpet in mid-'90s. This is a pop band that's more interested in exploring the vagaries of adulthood than in leading la-la-la sing-alongs (though those pop up on occasion).
The self-doubt on opening cut "Liar's Parade" is evident from the first line — "I don't know how to sing/It don't mean a thing" sung by McAvin in strong, strident form. He knows how to sing just fine. The vitriol in the song comes later, in simmering fashion. As a songwriter, McAvin can rely a little too often on easy rhymes or seemingly nonsensical segues that undercut some of the emotion in the songs. It helps, though, that his voice is so loaded with character that you can practically hear the juncture, as Cole Porter said, where a smile becomes a smirk. The bright, buzzy pop sound comes out best in "Medic," though the band revisits one of McAvin's Tight Pants Syndrome songs, "Breaking Up With You," at a less frantic pace. There are twinges of pothead paranoia ("Smuggler's Nightmare") and psychedelia ("E.S.T."), and both show the range of the band at creating convincing moods. But the best evidence of Karate Bikini's collective strengths comes on "Hot Box," an accordion-fueled ballad sung to a departing lover in the midst of a cigarette break. Rae in particular earns her stripes on the track, contributing to the low end via her resonant baritone saxophone as well as the upper end with simple, subtle harmonies. On pedigree alone, Karate Bikini is a band of people who could bash out an album of fat, juicy pop songs and still be home in time for supper; we're lucky that for this debut recording, they chose to exercise a little patience. How very adult of them.