Growing up: Drew Beskin, Matthew Milia, Brett Newski, and Common Grackle

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Today’s artists are all grappling with growing up, shifting from their twenties spent aping cool to a thirties confronting responsibility, aging and loss. They’ve glimpsed the fork in the road that spells the end to endless wandering and possibility. It’s time to commit. Luckily these hard and sometimes painful experience translate into plenty of grist for their music mill.

Athens, Georgia everyman Drew Beskin is back with solo album number three, Problematic for the People, the title a cheeky riff on REM’s Automatic for the People. Beskin’s poprock bona fides were established long ago in bands like PURSES, the District Attorneys, and Party Dolls but on this record he lets loose his considerable stylistic chops to produce an album of gorgeous breadth and intensity. I mean, check out the perfect intro roll-out on the opening cut “I’m Not Human,” the languid way it establishes the basic lead guitar hook amid some effortless rhythm guitar flourishes. As the song continues, it delivers a big chorus, the kind that keeps you humming long after the fade out. From there the album shifts moods with ease, from the rocky early 1980s retro of “Going Alright for You” (reviewed previously here) to more stark acoustic numbers like “Culdesac” and “Torn and Blue” to the lush album closer “Atlantic.” There’s some really exquisite stylistic synthesis going on here. Like “Swimming in Bed,” a track that manages to send wonderfully mixed signals with a muted performance while still bursting with an Oasis-like feel and intensity. Personally, I love “Personal Shopping” with its low key seventies pop-disco feel and Beach Boys-doing-Double Fantasy vibe. My take, Problematic for the People is enjoyment guaranteed. Slip the album on your music player and enjoy the ride.

Matthew Milia‘s second solo album Keego Harbor kicks off with “Salad Bars,” a track whose intro piano trickles out like a lost Carpenters tune, only to suddenly lean hard on the country pedal steel. At that point, it kinda sounds like a deep cut from some early America album. From there the pedal steel and country vibe never really go away, but to my ear it owes more to Fountains of Wayne and the Beatles doing country than Nashville. A lot of it has to do with song structure, with songs like “Sunburnt Landscapers” and “Haven’t Heard You Laugh in a Long Time” sounding right out of the Schlesinger/Collingwood songbook. But another factor contributing to this is Milia’s vocals with their hints of Collingwood, sometimes a bit of Elliot Smith, even exuding some Ben Kweller on “With the Taste of Metal on my Tongue.” I will confess a partiality to the few more uptempo numbers on the album, loving the ‘do do do’s carrying “Condo Lakeshore” and Joe Jackson-meets-Apples in Stereo-ish “Autumn America.” In the end, Keego Harbour is more a musical a love letter to a time rather than a place. Still, you can get there just by hitting play.

It’s Hard to be a Person is described as the soundtrack to a book, a very cool idea. Brett Newski is nothing if not barrier breaking. Developed during lockdown, the project has seen Newski confronting his anxiety and depression via a reconnaissance of his past. The project is a new book of drawings and music developed from old notebook sketches and song ideas. Yet the end result looks and sounds as fresh as anything. Fans of Newski will recognize his familiar punk rock Tom Petty vocals while the songs veer toward a caustic acoustic attack not unlike the Violent Femmes (particularly the raucous “Lie in All Honesty” and “Dead to Me”). Things go a bit more poppy on the opening cut “I Should’ve Listened to Ferris Bueller,” which features a guest vocal turn from Steven Page. Despite the album’s consistent vibe, there’s still plenty of variety, with a great shuffle feel on “Lillian Road,” a country/folk swing to “Second String Heart,” while “Life Underwater” alternates between forceful punky verses and a more hooky chorus. But the album’s coup de grace is undoubtedly “Varsity (American Pie),” the obvious single with its steamroller pace, relentless hooks and engaging falsetto vocals (in the chorus). Ultimately Newski’s right, it is definitely hard to be a person. Listening to this record is one way to make it easier.

Old Dog New Tricks is the second LP-length release from Common Grackle, a collaboration between indie pop auteur Gregory Pepper and hip hop producer Factor Chandelier. The results are a decided departure from Pepper’s more typical, madly manic poprock. The ten songs (running just 20 minutes) are low key, often spoken word ruminations on life, loss and growing up. But engaging melodies lurk here too. The McCartney-meets-Satie piano on “Tiny Aphrodite” offers us just such an engaging moment. It’s there with the lead line buried deep in “Bad News.” You can hear it all over “Bud Dwyer” with its muted, discordant Beach Boys vibe. Sometimes the key element of the song is in the changes, like where producer Chandelier changes the aural setting so strikingly it’s almost a hook in itself. The shift in “Mint Chocolate Chip” at the 22 second mark is captivating and a bit additive. Turning to possible singles, the closest thing might be “I Got Scared.” Here I really like the horns and piano and winsome vocals. Bonus: the bandcamp download contains an extra 10 songs and they’re special too (particularly for me, “Please Stop” and “Canadian Raisin”).

Growing up is an exercise in transformation, shedding the old self for something new. Or maybe it’s just a re-arrangement of life’s deck chairs. Either way I reckon there’s insights and enjoyment galore on these here releases.

Radio station 1965: Justin Angelo Morey and John Myrtle

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My radio dial seems stuck on 1965, if today’s featured tracks are anything to go by. But both selections are actually brand new releases. Justin Angelo Morey knows the 1960s well, mining the psychedelic rock sounds of the time for multiple albums with his band The Black Hollies. But on this outing he dials things back a few years, with drums, guitars and a song structure that is so Beatles for Sale or anything by The Searchers. “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” brims with jangly guitar accents and an economical lead line that would make George Harrison proud. While Morey’s other recent singles (“I Want Your Love” and “Tell Me What’s Your Name”) also lean into the mid-1960s for inspiration, they’re more in the Yardbirds or Rolling Stones milieu. Personally I’d love to hear a few more tracks in this poppy Merseybeat vein. John Myrtle comes at things from a softer side of the 1960s. His earlier releases gave off a Donovan folkie vibe or the Moody Blues in a poetic moment. But his new album Mytle Soup ups the tempo and turns to more sunny pop hooks. “How Can You Tell If You Love Her” opens with a riff reminiscent of XTC’s “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” but from there the song is firmly rooted in 1965, calling up flashes of Peter and Gordon and The Hollies. The song is a stunning evocation of the period, complete with a delightfully understated instrumental break at the one minute mark.

I end up in 1965 – musically – so often some might say my radio is broken. But I’m not complaining. There’s a joy in that moment of musical history that contemporary artists keep going back to and making their own. Today’s artists are exhibit A.

Moody melodies: Pearl Charles, Lord Huron, and Lane Steinberg

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There are records that strike a mood instantly. You put them on and slip into some place totally defined by the ambience. Today’s artists are just those kind of full immersion performers.

Pearl Charles is being written up in all the usual trend setting and mainstream places. Her self-described ‘country funk’ sound is all the rage with tastemakers in the US and Europe. But she is the real deal, a performer whose songs instantly evoke any given musical moment from mid to late 1970s. I was struck by the opening of “What I Need” from her 2021 album Magic Mirror, drawn in by its smooth keyboards, unmistakable Fleetwood Mac rhythm feel, and alluring pedal steel guitar. And then there’s her light, piercing vocal style. By the chorus I was convinced this must be some kind of 1978 re-release, the track is so era-note perfect. This only  seemed to be confirmed with “Slipping Away,” a more haunting hooky rock and roll number but still cast in a late 1970s register. Charles’ back catalogue is worth a listen too. I love the Abba-esque guitar shimmer on the title track from her 2018 album Sleepless Dreamer. I’m also really partial to the lead guitar riffs driving “I Ran So Far” from her 2015 self-titled debut EP. But don’t let all this retro music talk give you the wrong impression. While Charles is definitely inspired by the past, her tunes are enjoyable in the here and now.

I don’t think Lord Huron need any help from me to sell records. But I feel the need to write about their latest album Long Lost as it is quickly becoming my favourite album of 2021. The record’s first single “Not Dead Yet” caught my ear with its jaunty feel and Duane Eddy lead guitar. But as I started listening to the album as a whole I surrendered to the band’s cinematic neo-1950s musical landscape, with its dynamic emotional tension stretching between a prairie desert ennui and a honky tonk Saturday night. “Mine Forever” captures it all between the rumbly lead guitar, sweeping strings backing, and a tender, somewhat tentative vocal. The record then advances through a juxtaposition of songs and spoken word links, the latter sounding a bit like Andy Griffith’s creepy radio populist in Elia Kazan’s brilliant movie A Face in the Crowd. The guitar tones are also one of the real stars of this record. Just listen to the opening bars of “Love Me Like You Used To” to see how a delicious guitar resonance can make an already fabulous song even better. But arguably it’s the band’s talent in synthesizing so many disparate influences that makes this album such a remarkable achievement. Case study: title track “Long Lost.” The song manages to meld a very Beatles Sgt. Pepper strings section with some classic Owen Bradley plinky piano that is just so Patsy Cline. And the combo somehow works. I could go on (and on) about every other song here as the record really represents the band at the peak of their songwriting. Instead, I’ll just highlight the impressive Johnny Horton-like vocal buoyancy kicking off “Twenty Long Years,” the lovely duet on “I Lied,” and the subtle melodic hooks pulling you in on “What Do You Mean.” But you’ll have your own favourites.

Lane Steinberg is a prolific artist, literate both intellectually and musically. His records are chock full of inverted pop culture references, clever social commentary and more than little dark humour. I discovered him via his fabulous, action-packed 2018 collection Lane Steinberg and his Magical Pony, reviewed here. More recently he’s released a cool EP of Grateful Dead covers (Lane Plays Dead) and a catchy collaboration with former bandmade Steven Burdick (Wondertrack). But I’m here to rave about his recent powerful, stripped down EP The Invisible Monster. Though it’s just Steinberg’s voice and guitar, I find the record riveting. The opening cut “The Invisible Monster” oozes menace, managing to convey both fear and vulnerability. Song-structure-wise, the tune is pure Hoagy Carmichael while the lyrics might be the dark side of Johnny Mercer. The rest of the EP is mostly covers, but you’d be hard pressed to recognize them from the originals given their transformation at Steinberg’s hands. For instance, “I Talk to the Wind” is from King Crimson’s 1969 debut album but the version here emotes a spare 1950s Mel Torme yearning. In fact, all the 1960s cuts on the EP sound like they’ve been put through a Torme/Brazilian jazz filter (and that’s a good thing, in my view). The formula works on material as disparate as Bacharach and David’s Dionne Warwick hit “In Between the Heartaches,” Love’s “Andmoreagain” (from Forever Changes), and Chico Buarque’s 1966 single “Quem Te Viu, Quem Te Vê” (obviously). Steinberg has a slightly different demeanor on a touching remake of the Beach Boys “I Want To Pick You Up” (the vocal reminds of Mark Everitt’s style on his E recordings) while his run at Kurt Weil’s “Lost in the Stars” sounds like something Elvis Costello would work up. The record ends with another original, the timely Bacharach-tinged “These Ain’t Normal Times.” If you’re looking for something to accompany those dark nights of the soul, something for Sinatra’s wee small hours, spend some time with this Lane Steinberg EP. You’ll feel something. Good.

Music can be like a magic mood changer if you’ve got records like these. Visit Pearl Charles, Lord Huron, and Lane Steinberg for your non-prescription mood altering drug.

Excitable boys: The Blendours and Ed Ryan

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Some performers really lean on the excitement part of music. They’re a barely containable blast of pure energy. You can tell they just can’t wait to get on stage, to roll tape, and let go. That’s today acts, though in very different ways.

The word I associate with The Blendours‘ creative force Trevor Trieber is ‘glee.’ He’s kinda like that foul-mouthed, badly-behaving distant cousin your parents worry about but you can’t wait to hang with. His work conjures up a pristine world of early 1960s song structures, melodies and harmony vocals, but slathered with obscenities and observational lyrics that wouldn’t make it on American Bandstand. But as Trevor might say, ‘Fuck it.’ There’s just too much fun going on here. Go On Vacation is the band’s fabulous, delightfully crude new EP. It’s only ten minutes long but manages to space it over seven songs. Trevor doesn’t linger or belabor the point but, hey, you can always hit replay. Some tracks race along, like the manic “Buzzkill” with great lead guitar runs and a clever juxtaposition of vocals. Others, like “Tell Me the Truth,” take their time, expertly mimicking that early 1960s feel of teenage emotional drama. Instrumentally the album is pretty spare, often just acoustic rhythm guitar carrying things with some electric lead guitar adornments. But Treiber somehow makes it sound pretty rock and roll on tracks like “I’ll Be the Guy.” And how many writers can slip a ‘sha na na na’ into a song so effortlessly? I love it in “Good to You.” Album closer “Goodbye Christine” even offers up some jazzy electric guitar shots. You can read this blog’s love letter to The Blendours back catalogue here. Go On Vacation is definitely keeping that love alive.

After a long career in various rock and roll outfits Ed Ryan’s recent string of solo efforts has allowed us see the many, many sides to his musical personality. Albums Roadmap and Furious Mind both kicked off with screaming guitar solos but last year’s Even Time softened us up with a hooky keyboard effect on its opening cut. Then inside each release were songs cast in a range of styles spanning decades of melodic rock and roll influences. Now he’s back with another installment that both confirms and challenges our expectations. Don’t Follow Where They Lead is not just a timely caution given our recent political winds but another celebration of melody, in a variety of fun jaunty styles. First on my agenda are the straight ahead poprock gems. Album opener “Anytown” sets the tone with jangly guitars and hooky descending bass lines. Or there’s the choppy rhythm guitar and those distinctive early 1980s vocals driving “Biggest Fan.” Another fun poprock confection is “Maybe I’m Dreaming,” easily a missing deep cut from some cool 1979 guitar band.  But the obvious should-be hit for me is the sneaky earworm, “Everyone Wonders.” I love how the song shifts intensity and attack, while offering striking changes in the  structure and melody. Beyond the expected poppy rock and roll Ryan shakes things up tempo and style-wise on the mellow John Waite-ish title track or with the hepcat shuffle defining “Fish in the Sea.” Or listen to how the piano line weaving through the chorus of “Made Me” adds an extra allure to tune. I also like the guitar tension Ryan creates on “Why Doncha Do It,” only to serve up a glorious release in the chorus. The album also includes a few delightful slower numbers like “What’s True” and “So Far Away.” Altogether, Don’t Follow Where They Lead is another winner from Ed Ryan.

Who am I kidding? I’m clearly the excitable boy in this post scenario. There are just some acts I can’t wait to hear more from, like The Blendours and Ed Ryan. Check them out online and see they don’t raise your pulse just a little.

Photo credit: “Excited boy playing gamepad in VR glasses” courtesy https://www.lyncconf.com/.

I get mail: Half Catholic, All Over the Shop, Astro Chicken, James Henry and more!

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The mailbag is full. So many of today’s artists have to do it all: write, record, make the tea, and slop the product to people like me. The least I can do is respond with a little word love.

Rockford isn’t just the name of some trailer park living, hard luck 1970s private detective. It’s the Illinois home of Half Catholic (formerly Pink Beam) and their neo-1950s goth poprock. Right now they’re just a single: the stylized, mixed-genre “Slow Down.” The song has some nice 1950s touches layered into the background of a contemporary melodic angst rock number, particularly the swooping background vocals. It has a consistent feel, despite various timing changes and shifts in aural attack. Keen to see where an album or EP will take these elements. Just a state away Detroit’s All Over the Shop offer up a distinct rock sound featuring stripped down guitar work and a vocal timbre that conjures the intimate intensity of early Roxy Music on “Moving Too Slow” and Richard Thompson, particularly on the should-be single “If That’s Magic” and “Brand New Summer.” The latter track has some striking melodic changes, particularly into the chorus, with the guitar and vocals in a dynamic but complementary tension. These tracks and more all appear on the band’s recent self-titled debut EP.

If we keep moving east we’ll end up somewhere else. Like Astro Chicken’s new record Different Town. The band still reside in NYC but stylistically they’ve moved on, to a more intimate sound, sometimes folky (“Fight”), sometimes just a more laid back poprock (“Hey Charlie” “SOB” “Card Trick”), sometimes both (“Fred”). If I were a bet-making guy my money would be on “Love Comes Close” as should-be hit single material with its unmistakable Nick Lowe/John Hiatt notes. Though I admit I’m partial to the languid lead guitar driving the instrumental “At Least For Now.” Get caught up on the arc of AC’s past heroic indie poprock efforts from our previous post on the band and then enjoy the adventures this new album represents. Heading north Toronto’s Robby Miller hit 2020 with a nice bit of poprock crunch on his debut EP. But his new single “Little Words” turns up the melodic elements in a very nice Beatles/FOW sort of way. The rhythm and lead guitars nicely balance each other and there seems to be a new confidence in the songwriting. A whole album of tunes along these lines would be most welcome.

Fans of Squeeze, Crowded House, Paul Carrack or any of those early 1980s guitar poprock groups (like the revived version of The Searchers) are going to love James Henry’s new album Pluck. Henry is a virtuoso guitar player and some of his earlier work reminded me of John Martyn or Roy Harper in their more melodic moments. But with Pluck he embraces his 1980s beat group sensibilities, tossing irresistible hooks into every song. Album opener “A Girl Like You” has a vocal and song structure that is so Glenn Tilbrook meets Paul Carrack. But I hear a bit of Neil Finn (“I’ve Never Loved You More”) or Joe Jackson (“Cinema Haze”) or Todd Rundgren (“Currently Resting”) or even an updated Beatles (“Available for Selection”) elsewhere on the album. Currently I’m hitting replay on the addictive “So Many Times Before,” with its Merseybeat guitar flourishes and Billy Bremner sense of heart on the vocal. Other should-be chart toppers include “Only Find Love” with its killer chorus and background response vocals and “Tomorrow May Be Too Late” featuring those hypnotic lead guitar hooks. Get a copy of Pluck, the album is a masterclass in poprock songwriting and performance.

Sometimes the mail presents me with boundary issues. Is this song/album/band really poprock? I’d put Sweden’s Kingfisher somewhere near the border yet still inside. Overall their sound may be a bit on the rock club/dancy side of things but “Illusions” has the punch and swing and melodic chops I associate with genre-crossing acts like Portugal The Man, particularly the guitar work. So I’m counting them in. Their current release of three singles definitely shows tremendous promise. Meanwhile Old Town Crier has that old timely Americana thing going on. “Don’t Go” sounds like something Lennon and McCartney might have vamped during those extended Let It Be sessions, Americana with a touch of punk. But most of the EP I’m Longing for You Honey in Middleboro, Mass has a more Springsteen meets Titus Andronicus vibe, particularly the distinctive harmonica/piano combo on “I Might Get Lost.”

You don’t need a letter from me to find these acts. Click on the hotlinked artist names to reward their melodic hustle.

All Canada’s Tomorrows

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This is not a holiday post. While Canada may not fly the flag like our neighbour to the south this year’s national day is even more muted than normal as the nation grapples with its state’s historic mistreatment of indigenous peoples. The gist of today is then more about reckoning than celebration. Just what does an invocation of nationhood even mean anymore? Today’s songs all draw on ideas or stereotypes about Canada that people in this space we call Canada are starting to question.

The Sheepdogs not only sing about Canada, they’re from Canada. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to be specific. “Up in Canada” appears on their 2018 album Changing Colours and captures the longing and nostalgia for home of an Canadian expat living in the American south. The song has a fresh country pop sound reminiscent of so many mid-1970s crossover hits, with pretty pedal steel guitar and plinky piano. The song also seems pretty lyrically positive about their northern home, though the singer admits Canada ‘has got our ways to go’. Slowpoke, another Canadian band (this time from Toronto), has written a song simply entitled “Canada.” The mood of the song shifts from jaunty to somber but the lyrics are hard to decipher. There’s something about ‘winter’s dawn’ and ‘fire’ and how ‘in Canada you always lose it all’ but just who and what is losing or being lost is unclear.

Other bands pitch an image of Canada from popular culture tropes: vernacular, sports, how we are perceived by people in other places. Guster let loose with a host of familiar Canadianism with the help of Barenaked Ladies member Tyler Stewart on a customized version of their 2019 single “Overexcited” from the Look Alive album. It was just one of eight extra versions of the song the band recorded in different languages to suit different cultures. As such, the tune has plenty of ‘eh’s and references to Tim Horton’s. While fun, it reproduces the jokey view of Canada as a generally nice place, perhaps a bit obsessed with hockey, cheap coffee, and not being American. Sure Canada is all that but there’s a darker side to the country that such characterizations tend to obscure. On his Threeep EP Matt Pond sings about getting “Calls From Canada” and he seems to be considering whether it represents a better life for himself as an American. The song is a pleasant, airy hummable tune, with nice strings and acoustic and pedal steel guitar. But really, how can Canada offer a ‘better life’ for others when it fails those who’ve been around for thousands of years?

Matt Pond – Calls From Canada

The largely uncritical international view of Canada as ‘good’ is probably why an Ann Arbor, Michigan band decided to name themselves after the country. I mean, no one is rushing to name their band after Uganda or Belarus. Giving their 2006 album This Cursed House a spin, the songs don’t appear to deal with anything distinctly Canadian. Then again, maybe the LP’s title would seem apropos to indigenous peoples. Canada’s music is a nice rootsy folk pop that reminds me of Bombadil. I’m particularly taken with their clever use of a typewriter as a source of percussion on the instrumental “Hey Garland.”

You never really get away from the sins of the past. Sooner or later, somebody’s gotta pay. On this day the indigenous peoples in this geographic locale we call Canada are demanding change. Everybody else here needs to think deeply about just how to do that.

Today’s banner visual was designed by the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist Curtis Wilson. The design features swimming salmon on the side panels with an orca whale inside the maple leaf.

Almost summer singles mixtape II

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Day in, day out, new singles arrive at our Poprock Record headquarters. It’s a wonder we can keep the Technics 1200 turntable running smoothly what with all the needle dropping going on. Especially today with the second installment of our ‘almost summer’ single mixtape event. So get ready for another twenty – that’s 20! – solid selections for your perusal and possible inclusion on a seasonal singles mixtape.

The arrival of any new recording from Aberdeen’s jangle heavyweights The Vapour Trails is something to cherish. Now that band’s main songwriter/guitarist Kevin Robertson has a solo album but it’s something a bit different. On Sundown’s End Robertson goes exploring stylistically and the results are pretty sweet. Case in point: title track “Sundown’s End.” It kicks off with a very VT guitar hook but as it develops the song moves in a more rocky psychedelic direction than we’re used to. Another guy moving in new directions is Jeff Shelton. The hardest working man in powerpop show business has a new project: Deadlights, a slightly more dreamy take on his usual pristine poprock goodness. Turns out, his new path ends up in basically the same place he usually goes, with solid tunes, earwormy hooks, and enticing playing all over the record. Opening cut “Breaking Down” sounds very REM to me with great swirl of vocals and catchy lead guitar lines. Turning to yesterday’s heartthrobs even working class dogs can learn new tricks, if Rick Springfield’s latest release is anything to go by. Album 22 for Springfield has hit the racks under the moniker The Red Locusts and the results are fantastic. The mild jangle, the harmonica, the big rhythm guitar chords and Rick’s great vocal make “Another Bad Day for Cupid” a should-be hit single. The album is like the Wonders meet the Romantics, it’s that fun. From the ‘never lets you down’ file, Brad Marino is a guy who knows what he likes and he delivers it again and again. His solo work and records with The Connections effectively mine the neo-1950s, post pub rock sound of bands like Rockpile to perfection. But on Looking for Trouble Marino leans into Merseybeat on cuts like “Fell in Love Again.” Love the chime on the guitar and sweet harmonies. Was it just a year ago I was singing the praises of formerly-from-Portland band The Memories? The album was Pickles and Pies and the song I couldn’t get out of my head was mini folk masterpiece “Second Try.” Well they’re back with something that is nothing like that. They’ve segued into a kind of Donovan-meets-Jonathan Richman motif on a new EP Beautiful Sunrise, and particularly with the goofy “Banana.” I mean, who doesn’t like a whistling solo? This definitely sounds like beach blanket material.

Seventeen year old Melody Caudill is back with her Career Woman project, still blending an Elliott Smith esthetic into her work with a new shoe-gazy single, “Balcony.” Once again the guitars are up front (though perhaps toned down a bit from her prior “Teacher’s Pet” single), particularly early on in the solo acoustic part of this new song. Something wonderfully Mary Lou Lord or Annabelle Lord-Patey is going on here. Our next artist deserves an apology. I bought their fabulous debut I Swear My Love Is True but then neglected to write about it. And that’s a shame because Donaher’s work is some fun pop punk in the best Me First and the Gimme Gimmes or Bowling for Soup tradition. From that album, “Heather” particularly deserves your attention. Their new EP is Angus Soundtrack 2 and contains a super remake of what sounded like a demo on the prior album, “Courtney.” Another band I really grooved on was Purses whose “Wheels on the Run” was on pretty constant repeat throughout 2016. So when I heard band member Drew Beskin had a solo outing coming out, I shifted mode to ‘interest piqued.’ The album is Problematic for the People but only a few singles are available. So far I’m loving “Going Alright for You” with its early 1980s Pat Benatar rhythm guitar slashes and otherworldly synth background. Damn, if this single isn’t alive with 1980s excitement! Keeping this manic feeling alive, Cult Stars from Mars have a new single and it combines everything that makes them a fun hot mess of 1970s pop rawk. I’d almost swear there was spandex and cheap lighters embedded in “Funny Face” somewhere but the cool ‘whew hoo’s temper the excess. It helps that the chords are extra chunky with a side of pumping piano. Cincinnati’s Flying Underground really arrive with their latest single, “Nothing.” All the elements of the band really come together with the songwriting, singing, and performance. I love the guitar effect on the arpeggiated solo at the 17 second mark, one that is repeated throughout the song. It’s striking track with so many cool musical adornments that it oozes should-be hit.

I can’t keep up with Freedom Fry. Seems like every month or so they’ve got another single, EP or new album. They sing in English and French and offer up creative, often dramatic covers of classic songs as well as finely crafted, engaging original material. Their brand new album is L’Invitation, all new songs, all sung in French, and up to their usual high standards. But here I’m going to reach back, all the way to last December for their happy-go-lucky one-off single, “One Big Happy Family.” The duo really excel at this kind folky, endearing sunshine pop, their voices melding effortlessly against a backdrop of spare musical accompaniment. Both versions of the song are worth getting to know. In rise-from-the-ashes news, I was gutted when The Strypes called it quits in 2018. I couldn’t believe that their last album Spitting Image, which I thought was their best, did poorly on the charts. Now three of the four band members have a new outfit named after an old Husker Du record, Zen Arcade, and I have new reasons to be excited. “Don’t Say a Word” takes  the former Strypes fellows into a more punky new wave direction than their previous act. Very Stiff Little Fingers or Mould’s Sugar outfit in terms of musical demeanor. Right now there’s only two singles but what a launch! These guys are definitely going places. Another band I hated to see go was Crowded House. Thankfully, they keep coming back around. Dreamers are Waiting is the band’s first record in 11 years and it gives fans just what they want: midtempo lush melodies and gorgeous harmonies. Many highlights here but I’m digging “Start of Something” for its hewing to the classic Crowded House sound. A band that never really goes away is They Might Be Giants (and that is a very good thing). Their new song is “I Broke My Own Rule” and it is an intricately developed piece of pop songcraft. I don’t know how these guys manage to be so productive, to constantly move in new directions while still sounding oh so TMBG. This is what you get when you apply genius to poprock songwriting and performance. In a more pop punk vein, Indiana’s The Putz prove that Buddy Holly is alive and well and lurking inside their new album, Rise and Shine. It’s all over the last track on the record, “All the Time in the World.” At first I thought this might be some Bond cover tune but the drumming and guitar alerted me that this would be a not-so-pure but still great Lubbock, Texas-inspired event.

Crowded House – Start of Something
They Might Be Giants – I Broke My Own Rule

Jenny’s Justin Mauer has many different outlets for his creativity and he’s using most of them in his autobiographical comedy play Falling on Deaf Eyes. One of his bands appearing on the soundtrack is Suspect Parts and they have a groovy song in “Alright With Me.” The guitar riff and vocals are so mid-1960s fed through a 1980s indie filter, with just a hint of a punk rock Tommy James. The guitar and organ work here is perfection. Looking for a crazy band origin story? Stephen’s Ruin have got it. Original band arrives mid-1980s to some notoriety and success. Now the son of one of the founders restarts the band with a new crew and some pretty amazing 1960s-meets-1980s tunes. The band’s recent double A-sided single “Runaround”/“Tonight” is a pure retro beat rock and roll delight. The former is a frenetic garage-y melodic rock romp, with spot on new wave call and response background vocals. The latter lulls you with its sweet rumbly guitar licks and pristine harmony vocals. I want a whole album of this! Another act mining the past for good measure are Steve Stoeckel (from The Spongetones) and Irene Peña on their one-off single, “Why.” This one hits me right in the musical solar plexus, immediately calling up all those beautiful folk rock duets from 1960s, from Ian and Sylvia to more recent efforts by Don Dixon and Marti Jones. The song is so 1965 and Steve and Irene’s vocals blend perfectly. Really, a lovely piece of work that will have you hitting ‘replay’ again and again. Now if you’re looking for something that screams subtle summer movie blockbuster theme song, Tim Jackson is your man. His new single “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart” has the confident pop stylings of a great Hall and Oates or Crowded House single. It’s pretty straightforward keyboards and vocals but the simplicity masks a clever complexity in the melody. This one is an earworm that works its magic in a sneaky ‘I’ll just listen to this one more time’ sort of way. From his soon-to-be-released second album Litter in the Park. Rounding out our pool of twenty artists is the prolific Richard X. Heyman from his recent album Copious Notes. 70 year old Heyman has been rocking since the 1960s and solo album 14 shows no decline in his songwriting and performance standards. “Tell Me When” literally springs out of the speakers with head turning piano trills and impressive vocal gymnastics. And it’s just a damn good song. Another stand out from the album is the moving love song “Ransom.” The achingly beautiful melody is given depth via Heyman’s incredible vocal and baroque keyboard/strings instrumental backing.

Richard X. Heyman – Tell Me When
Richard X. Heyman – Ransom

Summer’s not going to organize itself. Thankfully your beach tuneage is squared away. With 40 solid poprock artists to choose from your seasonal mixtape this year will be brimming with hooks and jangle.

Almost summer singles mixtape I

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It’s so close you can almost taste the vodka cocktails. Summer! And that means music to accompany those warm breezes, surf and sand, and lazy, hazy days of scorching heat. To that end, let me present an almost summer bevy of selections for your mixtape, uh, I mean, playlist. In this first of two installments, we offer up 20 suggestions for high rotation seasonal singles.

Let’s get started with my hometown, Vancouver, and some nice ringing guitar from The Uptights on “The Pulse.” The song is from the longplayer Back Again, which came out right near the end of 2020. I love the organ that really comes to fore as the song progresses. 4000 kilometres away (but still in Canada!) Waterloo’s B.U.D. rises from the ashes of Goldfinch in a new solo project from Omar Elkhatib. There’s not much not to like here. Crunchy guitars, punchy synths, and a solid swinging hook anchors “What’s the Point of This (If I’m Not Into It).” A promised follow up EP has yet to materialize but a few more singles have arrived, like the rollicking fun “Popstar Rock N’ Roll.” Ok, enough Canadian content (for now), we’re off the NYC and a bit of a boundary tester for this blog from Laura Stephenson. “After Those Who Mean It” is just a heart-wrenching acoustic number from an artist who normally rocks it up a bit more. There’s something searing and so melancholy about this performance. I can be such a sucker for a good sad song. In Memphis, Your Academy offer a pick-me-up with “Starlight,” a great guitar poprock tune with a slight country feel, from their recent self-titled debut. Now I say ‘debut’ but the band are all veterans of the local music scene and it shows all over this tight record. Brooklyn’s Answering Machine also have a debut album out (well, actually, it’s been out for a year …). Verdict? Bad Luck is more of the eerie melodic rock goodness that appeared on previous EPs and stand-alone singles. For me, the stand out song here is “Marie.” The lead vocal has the soulful country ache of Neko Case cast against a driving lead guitar hook and surging rock and roll beat. It would be a killer cut live in concert, no doubt.

Now, generally speaking, I’m not a live album guy. But when I saw the cover of The Shambles Live at the Casbah with its obvious nods to The Beatles Second Album (Long Tall Sally in Canada) I thought it warranted a needle drop. The opening cut was the band grinding through their first single from 1993, “(She’s Used to Playing With) Fire,” and from the opening rhythm guitar I was hooked. The performance is anything but a shambles: loose yet solid, exciting, with great harmony vocals. The album was assembled from various shows at this location early in the new millennium and it showcases the band’s strong material and serious live chops. Another California band effectively working the retro rock and roll scene are The Forty Nineteens. Their new album The New Roaring Twenties vibes those classic 1960s rock and roll outfits (e.g. Rolling Stones, CCR) while still giving off a bit of 1980s indie (a la The Replacements), depending on which track you pick. I was torn about whether to choose the rockin’ Joe Walsh-ed vocal on “I’m Always Questioning Days” or the more melodic package that is “It’s the Worst Thing I Could Do.” I went with the latter, with its pumping piano and judicious use of jangle guitar. Throwback Suburbia’s drummer had an interesting idea. Write some songs and then ask a gang of different artists to sing on different tracks for a new band, Rooftop Screamers, and a new album, Next Level. It’s a project idea that can easily lose its focus but Mike Collins makes it work, largely because the songwriting is so consistently good. Case in point: “Buckle Up,” featuring Jellyfish vocalist Tim Smith. The song has the sleek pop aura of a top rank Crowded House single. I fell hard for the ear candy that was Ten Tonnes “Better Than Me” from his 2018 self-titled debut. Recently he reignited that spark with the glammish “Girl Are You Lonely Like Me?” with its shuffle beat and emotional vocal, kinda like The Vaccines or Haircut 100 in therapy. The kid’s got swing and killer sing-along background vocals. For those of us who can’t get enough of the Bryds, a very special record is due out soon from an exquisite jangle-friendly band, The Floor Models. You can get a taste of their fab back catalogue from the 2013 retrospective Floor Your Love but here I want you to enjoy their indie-fied version of “Lady Friend,” a teaser from their soon-to-be-released album, In Flyte Entertainment: A Tribute to the Byrds.

The Floor Models – Lady Friend

Jeremy Porter and the Tucos’ “Dead Ringer” is straight ahead melodic Americana, reminding me of the more upbeat moments on that first Peter Case solo album back in 1986, particularly vocally. I love the synth snippet that kicks in at 3:10 in the final few moments of the solo. It’s featured on their new longplayer, Candy Coated Cannonball, and it’s just one of many highlights. Given that Ramirez Exposure’s latest album is named after an environmental newsletter that advocated the end of humanity as a solution to environmental crisis, the contents are surprisingly chirpy. Opening track “Bridges and Roads” is light and sunny, but it is the title track “Exit Times” that really grabbed my attention with its cool electric guitar arpeggiations and dreamy vocals. Sometimes I imagine NYC as just teeming with bedrooms for making pop music. Like the work from Goodman. I’ve featured this talented, almost totally one-man-band before and every new release reveals new depths and influences. On his new record Goodman Versus the Nostalgia Machine he is like Ray Davies reborn, piling up catchy tunes with clever commentary. “Bitter. Alone. Again” shimmers with sneaky, subtle hooks and vocals that add emotional colour and depth. From the mean streets of Baltimore Bombardier Jones offers us the cool vocal delivery of a Steve Miller. “Great Ideas” from Dare To Hope is just a straight up AM radio goodtime single, circa 1975. Love the spare piano solo to bursts on the scene two thirds in. Cotton Mather guitarist Harold Whit Williams has a side project that might conjure up the ‘s’ word for any remaining red diaper babies out there. It’s called Daily Worker. Now you don’t have to be a card carrying anything to enjoy what he’s doing here. I mean, check out the shuffling strut behind “I Got Hypnotized” with its creative mix of acoustic guitar rhythm, sixties organ, and tasty lead guitar. The rest of Hometown Hero is a winner too, with a Harrisonian soft rock flair competing with a Plimsoulsian new wave vibe.

You’d swear contemporary LA band Electric Looking Glass were giving it to you straight from 1968 Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. It’s not like they’re hiding their influences with an album title like Somewhere Flowers Grow. But it really is there in the music too. Opening cut “Purple, Red, Green, Blue and Yellow” kicks off with a solid blast of psychedelic pop guitar before opening up into a great bit of Turtles/Jefferson Airplane hippie poprock. Moving back to the future, there is something so cool about the brooding New Order-ish riff kicking off and driving Mattiel’s recent single, “Those Words.” I really enjoyed the rough-hewn rock and roll sound of the band’s last effort Satis Faction and this new song suggests there more where that came from. The band’s vocalist/songwriter Mattiel Brown really delivers on both here, with a striking performance and timely lyrics. Some bands like a real challenge, like writing a song about American President Warren G. Harding. Who, you might ask? He’s no Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Kennedy but The Rose Petals manage to turn out a western style performance a la True West or Rank and File all about Harding’s many foibles. It’s the opening track on the band’s engaging debut LP American Grenadine. Now for a complete change of mood, there’s Robert Sherwood. On Mr. Sherwood he showcases a bevy of light pop sketches that remind me Roddy Frame’s Aztec Camera. Sherwood does wonders with interesting vocal harmonies and spare but intriguing lead guitar work. On “Blue All Over” and the rest of this highly listenable record there’s more than a hint of a genius song arranger bearing similarities to Richard X. Heyman or the Eels’ Mark Everett. Ok, big finish time and what better band to close things out by taking us over the top than Weezer? Seems like an army of haters are out there just waiting for Rivers and Co. to stumble but the band just keeps on delivering the goods. The playful Van Weezer is no exception. “The End of the Game” cleverly rides the edge of rawk bombast with love while delivering the band’s signature knock-out hooks. And there’s more to love here – my blog writing friends can’t agree on what track they love the best.

The pent up energy for a perfect summer this year is swelling all out of control. People are desperate for fun. Here at Poprock Record we take our public service role seriously. So relax, we’ve got your music sorted. And even more is on the way with part II, coming soon.

Double Dutch: Want Want and Fokko

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Those Brits really know how to throw historical shade, cooking up a host of put downs for their Dutch political and economic rivals in the 17th century that are still in use today. But the time is long overdue to reclaim these expressions and use them in more positive ways. Here ‘double Dutch’ just means doubling up on some exciting power pop groups from the Netherlands. Now our two bands – Want Want and Fokko – are actually the creation of a single creative force, songwriter Fokko Mellema. And their earliest and most recent releases sound remarkably similar, bearing the unmistakable influence of Weezer and Fountains of Wayne. I mean, Want Want’s debut album Mijn Meisje Vindt Me Leuk Zoals Ik Ben even includes a pretty fab Dutch language cover of FOW’s “Sink to the Bottom.” But in between there are some interesting stylistic detours in the transition from one band to another. But, in the end, everything usually comes back to crashing guitars, sweet harmonies, and irresistible melodic hooks.

Kip Paard Koe (Sink to the Bottom)

Want Want hit the record scene in 2010 with Mijn Meisje Vindt Me Leuk Zoals Ik Ben, which roughly translates as My Girl Likes Me the Way I Am. Unlike a number of European acts trying to make it in the music business, Want Want do not sing in English but in Dutch. Ok, I have little idea just what they are singing about but with tunes this catchy, who really cares? What comes through is the sense of freewheeling fun on title track “Mijn Meisje Vindt Me Leuk Zoals Ik Ben,” “Klaasjan” and “Stuff Scoren” (Scoring Stuff). These songs remind me a lot of another great Dutch band, Sunday Sun. There’s even a bit of the irrepressible positivity of Linus of Hollywood on tracks like “Denk Er Niet Meer Aan” (Don’t Think About It Anymore). Things go a bit more indie with “Kip Paard Doe,” the band’s Dutch-ified cover of Fountains of Wayne’s “Sink to the Bottom,” and “Heleen” with its hints of Oasis in the verses. Other songs harken back to more 1960s influences, like “Klote” (Shit) and Beatle-ish “Niet Aardig Meer” (Not Nice More). Then there’s the sonically interesting juxtaposition of organ and guitar on “Hoog” (High) and lovely Big Star-like guitar palate on “Sanne.” 2012 saw the release of the band’s follow up EP Neit Huilen (Do Not Cry) which featured an even more concentrated dose of hooks, like the monster should-be hit single “Angelique,” with its addictive chorus and some tasty lead guitar work, and the relentlessly chirpy “Ik Denk Aan Jou” (I Think of You).

Mijn Mesje Vindt Me Leuk Zoals Ik Ben (My Girl Likes Me the Way I Am)
Ik Denk Aan Jou (I Think of You)

Yet despite some positive notices, Mellama shut down the band in favour of playing some solo living room gigs post 2012. Exactly when this all turned into Fokko is a bit unclear. Three EPs appear under the band name over 2014-15 period, the sound decidedly more acoustic and playful, a little less frenetically power pop. “Anna” is carried by a boppy acoustic guitar, “Ahoe” adds piano and some darker melodic shading, “Tijdbom” (Timebomb) puts a pretty cool violin into the mix, while “Eeuwig en Altijd” (Eternal and Always) dramatically scales things down to a lovely delicate juxtaposition of voice and instruments, reminding me of Farrah in their more mellow moments. Things pick up tempo-wise by the third EP with the gently raucus “Ruzie Op De Radio” (Quarrel on the Radio) and the very FOW “Hoofdpijn” (Headache). But the EP ends with the restrained “Tot Je Van Me Houdt” (Till You Love Me), another lovely acoustic guitar number delivered with the quiet, intimate confidence a la Elliott Smith.

Hoofdpijn (Headache)

2019 saw the band back with a big, big power pop sound on the full album release, Stadaarnietzodoeiets. This time, the return of crashing guitars and a more manic pacing was accompanied by a bit more menace than Want Want’s take on the genre. “Goeroe” (Guru) combines big guitar crunch with guest talk-vocals and a smooth hooky chorus. “Hose,” “Kim,” and “Plekje in De Zon” (A Place in the Sun) all balance melody with some killer lead guitar work. “Met Een Biertje Op De Bank” (With a Beer on the Couch) is a rollicking retro romp while “Is Het Nog Steeds Vandaag” (Is It Still Today) has some very Matthew Sweet adornments. The whole record is like one long surge of adrenaline, offering up 14 songs in just 35 minutes! Since then more stand-alone singles have emerged (“Ktll” and “Alles Gaat Kapot En Ik Trek Het Niet Meer”) that confirm a continuing focus on the power side of poprock.

Plekje in De Zon (A Place in the Sun)
Is Het Nog Steeds Vandaag (Is It Still Today)
Alles Gaat Kapot En Ik Trek Het Niet Meer (Everything is Going to Break and I Can’t Take It Anymore)

Those Brits, they don’t know what they’re missing with all their Dutch hating. This double scoop of melodic rock and roll from the Netherlands is proof positive that great art transcends borders, language and historic animosities. Want Want and Fokko’s recorded output is readily available at all the usual e-music outlets – get yours there or from the source.

(My thanks to Ron Bormans for introducing me to this band!)

High octane hit-makers: The Cudas, Killer Crush, The James Clark Institute and Love, Burns

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Some acts really know how to hit the exhilaration pedal in their music. The songs just beg for movement, preferably pogoing in a friendly mosh-like environment. Today’s performers offer up a bevy of sizzling song excitement on their albums, EPs, and double A-sided singles.

I’ve been totally grooving on The Cudas’ early singles with their Ramones-meet-Cheap Trick retro vibe. But the band’s new extended play release Alien Vacation shows they are so much more. Sure, those early influences are still there, particularly on the Tommy and Rockets-ish opening track, “Autorama.” And yet there is something else, some decidely inventive melodic hooks and a great Fountains of Wayne synth solo. “I Don’t Want to Go Out” has a darker edge, reminding me of Rooney or The Cars at times. “My Summer Song” has the songwriting mark of a Adam Schlesinger or Rivers Cuomo. “Space Coast” goes a long way on its distinctive opening groove, only to explode melodically in the chorus. It would appear that The Cudas’ creative force Reinhard Leon van Biljon is slowly working us up to a full album release. If this EP is a snapshot I can’t wait to get the big picture.

Hard to get many details on Killer Crush. Apparently transatlantic friends for two decades, they decided to join forces for the first time on this self-titled debut project. The result is a mix of songs rooted in an acoustic guitar laden attack, straight up post-pub rock, or the melodic indie scene. “Wait” sounds like two jumbo Martins layered with some sweet harmony vocals. Or there’s a slight western tinge to the poppy melody carrying “The City.” The boys break out the electric guitars for “Street Lights” and “French Kiss” but not at the expense of the melodic hooks. “Plain and Simple” clips along with the feel of any early solo Nick Lowe deep cut while “My Love is Gone” vibes a more Rockpile/Dave Edmunds sound. “Maria” updates things to a more nineties indie pop theme. “Love Song” is the obvious single, with distinctive ‘ah ah’s and ‘who hoo hoo hoo’s. All in all, this is a killer debut, packed full of strong songwriting and subtle production choices. Definitely worthy of repeat listens.

Ok, you could be forgiven for mistaking the opening few bars of The James Clark Institute’s new album The Colour of Happy for something from Imperial Bedroom. The dynamic combination of organ and piano is clearly a brief homage. But quickly “Little Powder Keg” turns a hooky melodic corner seldom so openly embraced by EC himself. Instrumentally, the song is brilliant, riffing some jangle, The Who, and a host of other influences but with subtle restraint. And that quality is what you’ll come to expect all over this record. The songs are more than your usual poprock fare, embracing an ambitious songwriting tradition associated with Graham Parker, Joe Jackson and early John Hiatt. I mean, just give “Selfish Portrait” a listen and tell me JCI has not nailed the Aimee Mann/Michael Penn school of haunting-yet-still-jaunty tune-smithing. At other moments, tracks like “Blue in the Room” are just toe-tapping good hummers, in this instance with a very Ian Gomm delivery. Or there’s the killer jangle/organ combo driving “Better Than I Remember.” Other highlight here for me include “Should I Tell Her” and “Next Best Thing.” But this album is all good, a bevy of melodic delights, resting on some obviously strong influences but never just colouring within the lines.

With Love, Burns Phil Sutton of the Pale Lights charges out of the gate with a new project that is blistering in its intensity, anger, and damn good melodies. Both tracks on this double A-sided single are a knock out. “Wired Eyes” is like the Byrds pitched just a bit faster than you might expect, with a jangle run that will set your heart racing and lyrics that will move you to action. “Hard to Fall” has a guitar/organ interplay that also tugs on something deep inside, again, with a strong Bryds or International Submarine Band feel. The guitar solo here is also something special, such a perfect distillation of the song’s melody. This is what hit radio should sound like all the time.

There’s a spark in some music that just makes people want to move. Today’s high octane hit makers pull out all the stops to get you going, somewhere. So why not give them a visit? You can find The Cudas, Killer Crush, The James Clark Institute, and Love, Burns at their hyperlinked internet real estate.