Some artists are meticulous. Their albums often sound free and easy but that belies the hard work that has gone into them. Today’s featured acts are those kind of inspired craftmen, carving pretty pretty tunes out of the basic raw material of the popular song.
Nick Frater is serious about old stuff. His music is replete with references to musical styles from the 1970s, lovingly taped on vintage recording equipment from the era. But his recent long-player Aerodrome Motel doesn’t so much harken back to yesteryear as remodel those familiar sounds for a new age. I mean, sure, I could say that “The Pleasure is Mine” flows like a Squeeze Cool for Cats era character sketch. But it doesn’t just conjure the glory of Deptford’s favourite sons. These songs stand on their own. Take “Love Heist,” a killer bit of buoyant pop songwriting that I would suggest is merely elevated by some Supertramp-worthy keyboards fills. Or I could say I hear a bit of Jellyfish in “Stuck in My Ways” or 10cc in “Aerodrome Motel” or Fountains of Wayne in “American Expressways.” But that’s just a rough way of saying ‘if you like those acts, you’ll love this’. Lining up the should-be hit singles, I’d vote for “Rough and Tumble” with its great horns and programmed keyboard runs. Or there’s the Beatlesy (with just a touch of ELO) “Dear Modern Times.” What a gorgeous tune! The spacious piano opener and striking vocal arc that kick off the song are utterly captivating. I also like the darling “Dancing with Gertrude” and the stand out yet simple guitar lead line defining “No Hard Feelings.” By the time we get to “White Courtesy Phone” we’re ready for this last-dance, shuffle-the-patrons-out-the-door song. Frater’s put together a game changer here. While some prior albums have sounded like lovingly crafted period pieces, Aerodrome Motel is more a timeless distillation of the past with songs that sound good whether it’s yesterday, today or tomorrow.
With I’ll Remember the Laughter singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and music scribe to the stars Ken Sharp offers us a record of delicious indulgence, a collection of 50 songs! The package is like a chocolate box with no bottom. As a clever curator of 1970s-era styles Sharp basically brings your favourite acts from that decade back to life to record one more should-be classic. The range of pop genres here is incredible: beach tunes, Philly soul, glam rock, baroque pop, and more. Album opener “Maybe Next Summer” sets the scene, crossing the transom from the sixties to early seventies with a strong Beach Boys vibe. From there it is a very rapid ride over a wide variety of stylistic riffs. You may note elements of late-period Lennon-esque Beatles on “Nobody Told Me the World Was Round,” some Philly pop soul on “Philly Get Back,” a Paul Simon session with Big Star on “She Will Be” and a McCartney “Let Me Roll It” grind to the guitar on “Shut Out the Lights.” The record also has a few inspired covers, like the two recovered Rick Springfield gems “Comic Book Heroes” and “I’m Your Superman.” There’s too much here for me to cover every song – let me single out some of my faves. As much as I too recall fondly all the 70s song motifs on this album I’m more drawn to the jangly, almost new wave cuts. Like the sharp glam feel of “It Pays to be a Rock and Roll Star” or the hooky guitar lead line heavy “Somewhere South of San Diego.” I love how the rhythm guitar rings out on “Maybe You’re Right.” “No More Silver Lining” has an almost Blue Oyster Cult or Moody Blues hint of menace in the melody as well as some tasty guitar work. “Between the Lines” is just perfect poprock circa 1979 with winning guitar runs plus soaring, melodic vocals. This is the hit for me. Then there’s the lighter, more acoustic “Down in Monterey.” Lovely, hypnotic, pop folk. What we have here is really a ‘make your own album’ affair, one where listeners could selectively assemble their own seventies mini-album. Or they could just hit play and party for days.
Hit play on these albums and it’s easy to believe to world is a more pretty place than it may appear. Sometimes hearing is believing.
As fall settles in the headline news is full regal passings and rightwing populist posturing. Definitely time to check in with the poprock desk.
New Jersey’s The Happy Fits are back with their third album Under the Shade of Green and it is pretty amazing. If you could bottle up the intensity and explosive joy of youth it might sound like this. The band still seem like the late night love child of the Violent Femmes and the Killers to me but perhaps with a more consistent sonic palate this time around. The album kicks off dance-party style with a trio of stompers: “Around and Around,” “Dance Alone” and “Changes.” If you’ve seen any pictures of their concerts then you know ‘party’ is operative word. The band and the audience are serious about having fun and these songs deliver. There’s more of the same on the rest of the album but as we sojourn into the deep cuts you really start to appreciate the instrumental tension that binds these players into a singular musical force, how the cello and guitar and drums (with an occasional dose of keyboards) hold together and stretch apart as if by elastic. Check out the fantastic keyboard and cello interplay on “Little One” and “Another Try,” how they drive up the intensity of melody. Or there’s just the breathtaking 10cc-like melody that breaks out of the chorus of “Cold Turkey.” Hints of other influences are peppered throughout – the subtle dab of ABBA lurking in “Sweet Things” or the Cure-like kick off to “Place in the World.” Album closer “Do Your Worst” really showcases the band’s incredible musical tightrope act, contrasting opposing sounds like dramatic shades of colour, green or otherwise. Seriously, you could recapture a bit of your youth just by purchasing this LP.
Since the release of his pristine pop album Natural Beauty in 2020 Mo Troper appears to have been pedalling back to the rougher parts of his musical youth. 2021’s Dilettante wasn’t afraid to let its sound get a bit blare-y at times, an effective counterpoint to the reliably hooky melodies. Now his new MTV takes things even further, messing with tape speeds and offering up an indie-garage-like mix. The effect is like a cheesecloth-covered dream-return to one’s old apartment: it’s gonna be one part nostalgia and mega parts pure invention. As always, the tunes here are brilliant, testimony to Troper’s mastery of the pop song form. “Waste Away,” “Play Dumb” and “Under My Skin” are all Brill Building/Lennon-McCartney good. But their performance is curiously and sometimes challengingly brittle and cutting. Here Troper appears to be pushing against the grain of ‘authentic’ neo-1960s music that characterizes much melodic rock and roll of late. I love that sort of thing but Troper eschews laurel-resting and good on him for not sitting still. Ironically he goes forward by reaching back to a sound reminiscent of his own earlier band Your Rival, sort of. This time around there’s a greater diversity in sound and style, from the shoe-gazey Beatlesque aura of “Across the USA” to the transistor radio at full blast “I’m the King of Rock and Roll” to sunshine pop on “No More Happy Songs.” Though personally I’d buy the whole record just to get the exquisite should-be hit single “I Fall Into Her Arms.” That lead guitar line – so simple but so wow.
With Pressed and Ironed indie music veterans Tom Curless and Chip Saam establish their new act Crossword Smiles as the best lost 1980s band the new millennium has to offer. But we’re not talking simple retro here. The duo have cooked up a sound full of alluring cognitive dissonance. Steely Dan and Crowded House? On the same record? Yes. Things sound familiar but the genius is in the synthesis. Take the title track “Parallel Lines.” It’s got some jazzy Steely Dan, a dash of John Lennon psychedelic keyboard, a distinctly early Joe Jackson lurch, and vocal harmonies that are late sixties country rock. I wouldn’t believe it would work if I didn’t find myself hitting repeat repeatedly. On the rest of the album the influences abound like a cavalcade of poprock stars. There’s shades of Difford and Tilbrook on “This Little Town,” particularly in the chorus. Man, the violin and viola really work here. You can discern a bit of post-Rockpile Nick Lowe on “Where’s the Sense in That,” some Crowded House vibe on “October Leaves,” and a Grapes of Wrath Treehouse feel to “Walk Softly.” Not everything reminds me of yesterday’s heroes. “Feet on the Ground” could be Jeff Shelton’s Well Wishers, just mellowing out. Saving the best for the last the album rounds things out with three should-be hits: “Girl with a Penchant for Yellow” has a wonderful Tim Finn weirdness, “Second Guesser” is a lush jangle-infused delight, while “Take It On the Chin” combines snappy rhythm guitar work with an addictive wash of overlapping vocals lines. To really get the total effect you’ll want to set your player on repeat for this album. I think you’ll find that Pressed and Ironed allows you to love the past in the present tense.
You might not know it but Phil Thornalley probably got your attention a long time ago. Over the decades he’s played with and written hits for a host of stars, all the while keeping to the shadows himself. Recently he braved the spotlight under the guise of his fabulous retro 1970s-styled vehicle Astral Drive. Now he’s back, this time just as himself with his first solo album Now That I Have Your Attention. The record is a sonic love letter to a slightly different register of 1970s styles than before, emoting a whole lot of ELO, the Travelling Willburys and Tom Petty. “Heaven in a Hash Pipe” leans into the early 1970s ELO strings-plus-1950s vamp formula. By contrast, “One Night in America” seems to draw more from the Time/Balance of Power period. Then there’s “Fast Car,” the early release single. What a homage to ELO’s New World Record era! And while these tunes sound oh so familiar they’re not merely sound-alikes. Thornalley clearly knows how to write winning hooks all on his own. “Hellbent on Compromise” and “High on Your Supply” evoke the Travelling Willburys, the latter even sounding a bit Dylan early on. Those missing Tom Petty (and who isn’t?) will be floored by “Big Plans” and “Stand By Love.” Both sound like lost classics from the Wildflowers sessions. Is your fun meter running low? Give your attention to this long overdue solo outing from Phil Thornalley and let the good times roll.
That’s your poprock news headlines for now. Film at 11.
I count down the days to a new Freedy Johnston record like I used to anticipate releases from the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, XTC, and even Macca back in the 1970s. You kinda know what’s coming – solidly melodic and carefully crafted songs – but the delight is in where he takes it this time. After 24 hours of constantly playing the new album I can reveal that with Back On The Road To You Johnston has done it again. Now at this point scribes usually say things like ‘this is Johnston’s strongest effort in years’ but, hey, the quality of this artist’s work has never really flagged, even if public interest sometimes has. Johnston is like a half buried national treasure, feted by the music mainstream whenever they happen to stumble across a new recording. Stylistically the new LP falls somewhere between Nick Lowe and John Hiatt, with the former’s ear for hooky tunes and the latter’s eye for idiosyncratic narrative detail. But, then again, Johnston’s not really like anyone else. His songs develop in wonderfully unusual ways, his vocals pause in delightfully awkward places. I mean, just listen to how he tucks the ‘living the dream’ line into the pause before launching into the chorus of “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl.” The guy’s got a painter’s precision in detailing his songs.
The record opens on familiar ground with title track “Back on the Road to You.” Is this poppy Americana or just something offered up from Freedy Johnston central casting? Love the electric piano break. One could easily imagine the Everly Brothers ripping through this one. Then there’s “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl,” a song that conjures up terms like ‘instant classic’. The track surely joins the pantheon of Johnston’s most celebrated singles, its construction and execution simply confirmation of his mastery of the popular song form. Another immediate ‘instant replay’ tune is “Madeline’s Eye” with its subtle hooks and alluring steel guitar work. On three songs Johnston brings in some featured vocal accompaniment but the results hardly amount to any kind of star turn. Instead Aimee Mann, Susan Cowsill and Susanna Hoffs apply their impressive vocal talents to deftly serve the tunes, adding subtle harmonies on the countryfied “Darlin’,” the more poprocking “The Power of Love,” and the lilting midtempo ballad “That’s Life” respectively. Things rock up on “Tryin’ to Move On” with its more Dave Edmunds boogie feel. Meanwhile “Somewhere Love” creates a 1970s soft rock ambience, like a stroll along the beach accompanied by a Neal Sedaka song. But the strings that come in at the one and half minute mark elevate the proceedings, adding an exquisite splash of classy sophistication. And the spacey keyboards that define the instrumental break don’t hurt either. “Trick of the Light” has this sunny 1970s summer ballad feel as well. The album closes with the suitably ‘end of a night of drinking’ song “The I Really Miss Ya Blues.” It’s a lovely tune made even more impressive by its inspired organ swells.
The stars have aligned on Back On The Road To You. The album looks good with its smartly designed cover and what’s inside is a typical demonstration of Freedy Johnston’s considerable skills as a songwriter and performer. Buy this album and see this performer live. He may just be one of the last greats of this genre.
In my neck of the woods it’s back to school time for just about everybody. Now if this were a movie there’d have to be a transition-to-school montage and event-appropriate music to mark the occasion. To that end we turn to Spain’s superior power pop record label Elefant to provide talent in sync with our theme. And boy do they deliver.
Legend has it that Elefant signed Cardiff’s The School after playing just four live shows in 2008. Since then the band have taken a go-it-slow approach to releasing material, putting out just 3 albums since 2010 and spate of stand-alone singles and EPs. What hasn’t changed over time is their loyalty to an early 1960s girl group-meets-English dolly bird sound, with the occasional nod to more upbeat Mod dance numbers. You can hear this variety on their debut album Loveless Unbeliever with tracks like “Valentine,” “Hoping and Praying,” and “Is It True.” Yet the vibe is not merely a retro revival. Tracks like “All I Want To Do” have got the updated 1960s aura that Tracey Ullman managed to capture in the 1980s while “Can You Feel It” has the energenic imprint of The Primitives. Still, if I’ve got to single out just one tune, I love the stylistic melange going that is “The One Who Left Me” with its great horns, Zombies-like breathiness and unpredictable melodic turns. Keyboards come to the fore on the band’s follow-up Reading Too Much into Things Like Everything in 2012. But the early 1960s sonic teenage melodrama remained the same on cuts like “Stop That Boy!,” “That Boy is Mine,” and “Some Day My Heart Will Beat Again.” Though this time out I prefer the more rocking numbers like “Why Do You Have to Break My Heart Again?” and the Farfisa-drenched “Never Thought I’d See the Day.” The band’s final album Wasting Away and Wondering from 2015 sees things heading into Holland/Dozier/Holland territory with “Love Is Anywhere You Find It” and reaching Dusty Springfield-levels of heartbreak on “Don’t Worry Baby (I Don’t Love You Anymore).” But the standout should-be hit single here is undoubtedly the propulsive and ear-wormy “All I Want From You Is Everything.” Oh, don’t miss “When He Kisses Me” from the Never Thought I’d See the Day EP – this is some skip-along, can’t stop smiling fun.
What would school be without pushy parents? Less toxic, sure. But the band Pushy Parents just want to make sure we get the melodic message they’re putting out. Coming together as a kind of one-off super group in 2011 Elefant managed to get them to put out one EP, the enigmatically titled Secret Secret. The quartet of songs assembled here are like a chocolate box selection, lusciously different but clearly by the same maker. Both “Secret Secret” and “Hold Me Tight or Let Me Go” sounds like something you think you know but they go unexpected places (e.g. check out the inventive bridge in the latter). The band’s presser links “He’s My Saturday” to Nancy Sinatra stylistically but what I hear is totally Lesley Gore in its bumptious melodic swing. Then there’s “Dear John” which sounds at times like an understated Pet Shop Boys, at others like a deep cut from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode Once More, With Feeling. What a gem this one-night-only performance turned out to be.
The fun is just starting for kids, parents and teachers. Let’s enjoy it before the inevitable crying begins.
Before the summer slips away there’s time for one last trip to the country. A decidedly rocking melodic bit of the country, that is. Today’s troubadours are stylishly intersectional in their musical tastes, interspersing a broad country élan with a load of other musical noise. Really good noise.
I got turned on to Seattle’s Oh Wells last May with the release of their EP Dakota. Halfway through opening cut “The Day We Kissed,” mesmerized by its buoyant, driving acoustic guitars and lovely vocal harmonies, I knew I was on to something special. Definitely going into the to-be-reviewed pile, I thought. But months later I am confronted with Alice, a whole new Oh Wells album coming out now, and I’ve yet to laud their previous recordings. So let’s play catch up. Dakota is defined by a broad, warm acoustic feel. “Angel of Mine” has a Elephant 6 low-key pop aura, very Apples in Stereo at times. “Wafflehouse Waitress” and “Loverville” muscle up the sound while “Without You” is more Crosby, Stills and Nash-influenced. Altogether the EP was a striking debut. Yet just three months later the band is back with an even more stunning sound. It’s like Oh Wells have caramelized the pop portion of their previous sound on their new long-player Alice, sweetening the hooks and filling out the sound. “Someone Walks Away” has the melodic pop sheen of Guster or Good Old War. “You Know the Way Home” is a more rocking in the vein of recent work by The Cactus Blossoms. The rest of the album then ably hits a variety of country rock marks: “Warmer Weather” and “Devil’s Bride” have a smooth Foster and Lloyd vibe while “Black and Bloom” and “Alice” dip more into traditional country territory. And then there’s “Oh Well,” a gorgeous, layered slice of country pop perfection. “Optimist Prine” rounds things out with a stripped-down tribute to Maywood’s modern Mark Twain. This is sweet, textured country-folk-pop of the highest order.
In 2019 I saidOrville Peck was primed to explode and boy did he ever. His debut album for Sub Pop Pony caught on with an eclectic mix of fans, exuding a hip cool that can’t be bought or manufactured. Before you or I knew it, he was duetting with the stars and signing major label deals. The result is this year’s Columbia Records release Bronco. Now we’ve all read this script before and know how it can go terribly wrong. But Bronco doesn’t steer wrong. If Pony seemed a bit tongue-in-cheek, this record abandons irony. It really is a melange of great rock and roll and country styles delivered straight up: Elvis obviously, but also Roy Orbison and, as Peck admits in interviews, Dolly Parton. “The Curse of the Blackened Eye” is so late 1960s Elvis in smoky ballad mode. Peck’s voice is shiver-inducing and the musical backdrop is understated and alluring. Another standout track is “Lafayette” with its uneven tempo, great, dark story song demeanor, and killer chorus. “Bronco” and “Any Turn” are more like an early seventies Elvis stompers. “Hexie Mountain” draws on a more Gordon Lightfoot ballad style. And then the album wraps up with “All I Can Say,” a gorgeous ballad performed with bandmate Bria Salmena. Gonna be hard defying the magnetic persona that is Orville Peck after this record settles in on the public consciousness.
Somewhere in the dark north of England a band called Cowgirl is ready to defy your expectations. You might listen to a few singles and think ‘punky’ or sixties-influenced garage rock and roll. The band themselves lean on the Jesus and Mary Chain label as self-description. But there is so much more going on here. What appears to be the band’s debut EP Cowgirl gives off a fresh Travoltas-like rock and roll blast. Then their 2020 album X Tracks mines early 1980s new wave for some pretty sweet guitar excess. Take “I’m Always Lost” with its relentlessly Plimsouls-era sonic attack. The guitar lines are etched in my brain – in a good way! “Nothing to Say” is just a sunny poppy rock delight. “Could Never Explain” has a guitar that rings out with a Clash-like impatience and hookyness. Later in 2020 the double A-sided single featuring “Only Lasts a Moment” and “Hold Me” shifts between dreamy pop and jump-out-of-the-speakers psych rock excitement. Then a few months later “Caroline” is going all VU-meets-punk. Surprisingly the band’s most recent LP, also simply dubbed Cowgirl, has a consistent sound – and what a very good sound it is. Guitars to the front, melodies buried deep but never lost in the mix, and smooth vocal delivery. “Figure It Out” and “Without You” showcase this combo nicely, though in different ways, the first with clear, elegant guitar lines, the latter leaning on a more dirty guitar mix. Ok, Cowgirl may not be that country but they’re so good I feel I had to shoehorn them in here anyway.
Country or no, today’s acts are worthy of a trip to the far reaches of Bandcamp or Spotify or wherever you take your musical journeys.
On today’s post having a bit of double vision is a good thing. We’ve got two new bands with new releases you’ll definitely want take in more than once.
Mysterious Belgian outfit Cmon Cmon are apparently a reunited trio from decades back. But just what their back story is doesn’t get much exposure in recent interviews or their website. They apparently have an new EP and album in the works too but right now all we’ve got is a single single, “The Summers We Missed.” The song definitely leaves me wanting me more. It’s got that smooth pop sheen I associate with Family of Year, Propeller, or Daisy. New York New York’s Movie Movie are working a New Jersey rock and roll side of the street circa 1979. It’s a jangle-infused melange, built on a base of uber cool organ with touches of Americana here and there. “Bright Lights” works that formula to perfection, throwing in some fabulous Turtles-esque ‘bah bah bah’s in the latter half of the song. “No Long Goodbyes” is another strong track, adding some tasty pedal steel guitar to the mix. In fact, the whole Now Playing EP is solid, chock full of winning tunes played rock and roll party style. Fans of River-era Springsteen, late seventies/early 1980s Tom Petty, and even Greg Kihn should take note.
Cmon Cmon and Movie Movie are just getting started started. And they’re good good.
The surging summer heat of late August really could do with a soundtrack all its own. What better way to fill that void than this 21 single salute? Strap in, here’s another slew of could-be hits for your perusing pleasure.
How did I miss Ducks Ltd.’s fall 2021 release Modern Fiction? Could be the name switch up from Ducks Unlimited. I guess you can have too much of a fowl thing. Critics have been all over “18 Cigarettes” from the new album and hey it’s great but I’m all in for the strummy magic that is “Grand Final Day.” It’s got jangle, New Order-worthy bass work, and some killer percussion. The overall effect is very Cure-like. “Fit to Burst” is another favourite with its discordant lead guitar lines. Netherlands sixties-style rockers The Kryng have a new album out, Twelve Hyms to Syng Along, and a full review will be coming. Right now I return to their previous single and the driving-fun stomper b-side specifically, “Twenty Two.” This one is dancing shoes approved! It’s a full-on 1966 Top of the Pops go go-ing classic. A band experiencing a reanimation after some time away is Minneapolis rockers Flipp. Time has smoothed the pop hooks in their material, i.e. less Kiss more Romantics. Their new album Too Dumb to Quit kicks off with “You Can Make It Happen” – check out the riveting cowbell and slashing guitar chords opener! This is a song that pulses with urgency but these veterans know how to pace our interest, giving the tune plenty of sonic space and changes in tempo. Fans of The Tearaways and The Empty Hearts will love this. Rural France member Tom Brown has got a thing for Tom Petty, obviously. The most recent RF record had a song called “Teenage Tom Petty” and now he’s got a side band dubbed Teenage Tom Petties. Well if loving Tom were a crime a lot of us would be doing time. TTP gives this Tom a chance to go for a bit more rough sound than Rural France but without sacrificing any hooks. “Boxroom Blues” has a muddy feel to its mix but the lead guitar grinds out a relentlessly melodic line throughout. Things get turned up to 11 on Robby Miller’s new single “Staying for the Weekend.” It rides pretty close to going all rawk with its distortion and waka waka guitar effects at times but Millar has a knack for melody that ultimately reins in any guitar excess. An album of rocking Millar tunes surely can’t be far off.
Freshshould get an award for best fake-out opener to a song. The alluring distorted guitar hook that launches “Deer in the Headlights” says punky combobulations coming right up. But then things veer into a sophisticated pop vibe reminiscent of The Sunday’s debut album. The riff then keeps coming back in, jostling the listener – but it totally works. Just one of many creative contributions to the band’s new LP Raise Hell. Chicago’s The Embryos clearly spent some time taking in the mammoth Beatles’ Get Back documentary during lockdown because their new single “The Tone” is a subtle love letter to the sound of those sessions. The vibe kicks off casual, like a rehearsal session, but as the song advances things tighten up, adding more and more polish and nuance. The Demos “Streetlight Glow” is calling up so many different possible comparisons: the spooky background vocals sounds Zolas, the acoustic guitar-anchored verses has a Farrah feel, the electric guitar shots is so Vaccines. Despite this variety it all hangs together, descending into sing-along goodness near the end. The track is from their stylishly designed new long player 24 Hour Hotline featuring a stunning candy apple red Western Electric model 500 telephone. Monica LaPlante is a solid rock and roll gal. I mean, listen to her version of Echo and Bunnymen’s “Do It Clean” – it’s like she put it through some kind of B-52’s dance machine. “Selfish Bitch” is another good time rocker. But then other tracks exude a Chrissie Hynde cool. The 2019 single with “Tinted Lights” and “Opposite Sides” doesn’t just feature an classic looking cover, both tracks have a sublime sophistication. “Opposite Sides” is particularly striking, like Peggy Lee with a Nancy Sinatra swagger floating over wonderfully ominous musical textures. It would be great to pull all Laplante’s various singles and EPs into one great big album for easy appreciation. The Veras‘ new single “Sevens and Nines” has a wow-guitar chunkiness to it. There’s something very 1970s to the monster electric guitar chord attack, a bit glam with a touch of BTO swing. This one’s a party-time crowd-pleaser! You can preview a few more tunes from their upcoming new LP V is for Vera on their website.
Time to turn down the lights for a mellow moment with Franco-American duo Freedom Fryon “True to Ourselves.” This starts off spare but just wait until Marie Seyrat gets to the line “Well it’s you and me, my friend till the bitter end …” Bliss! Very early 1970s folk pop in a Poppy Family way. Former (and current, I guess) Ride guy Andy Bell keeps releasing singles from his super solo record Flicker but the latest “Lifeline” contains a special treat, a cover of Pentangle’s “Light Flight” from their 1969 album Basket of Light. I love the English twist on sixties folk rock with its unique guitar tunings and medieval aura. Hard to live up to guitar masters like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn but here Bell proves he’s no slouch. Speaking of the Middle Ages, The Happy Somethings give a solid folk footing to their paean to Everything But the Girl’s female vocalist on “I Wish You Could Sing Like Tracey Thorn.” Who doesn’t? They offer two versions on this double b-side, both delightful in their own way. Austin’s Wiretree deliver their reliable strummy goodness on a recent one-off single “Inside.” No breaking headlines here, just the usual quality merch, a dreamy mix of acoustic guitars and swirling vocal harmonies. Or for something completely different, check out Lysa Mychols and Super 8’s expert deconstruction of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” Powerpopaholic called it a ‘beatnik version’ and I’d have to agree, right down to the finger snapping and period wardrobe in the video.
Time now for the Jeff Lynne portion of our programming. Starting with Phil Thornalley. Phil’s usually that man behind the curtain, writing, producing and playing on hits for all sorts of people without taking the spotlight himself. He recently launched a strong solo effort with his Astral Drive project, particularly the should-be hit single “Summer of ‘76” (reviewed here). And his soon-to-be released solo effort Now That I Have Your Attention promises to be a winner if this pre-release single is anything to go by. “Fast Car” is a loving homage to everything ELO. It’s got the strings, the pumping piano, the army of background vocals, and an earwormy set of melodic hooks. Another artist working some Lynne-isms into their new song is Bill DeMain, co-songwriting partner to a load of should-be stars and one half of Swan Dive. “Lone Ranger” is a brilliant riff on fame and heroes well past their sell-by date. But musically it’s like a easter egg hunt for ELO motifs. Pretty genius stuff here. The Rooftop Screamers offer a more distant echo of Lynne influences on “The Great Unknown.” It’s there more in the melange of sounds, the organ, Tim Smith’s great vocals, and the song’s relentless hookiness. Another drip released single on the way to a new album undoubtedly. Belfast’s Neil Brogan combines a wonderfully weird set of styles on his recent album Things Keep Getting in the Way. Not so much ELO as the melodically-folky, sometimes-rocking sound of acts like Darren Hanlon, Hayden, and Ron Sexsmith. Title track “Things Keep Getting in the Way” is a case in point: the sonorous guitar lines jump out but the vocals are so folky understated. Now get ready for a bit of joy wrapped up in a new single from Drew Beskin and the Sunshine, “Spoilers.” The opening instrumental roll out is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, the chorus is so uplifting, and the musical breaks just bolster the good feeling. A single from the much anticipated upcoming album Somewhere Sideways Same as You.
We wrap up this batch of singles with a brand new cut from Frank Royster. Those familiar with Royster’s two phenomenally good but overlooked solo albums understand what good news this is. “Open Door” has a hint of The Smithereens songwriting stamp all over it while it’s message of faith is in your face but curiously not jarring. This is the second new single from Royster this year in anticipation of an album coming in 2023.
Whew, 21 options for your end-of-summer playlist. Surely something here to tickle every fancy.
Scott McCarl’s got a dream rock and roll story if ever there was one. After playing in numerous bands in the late 1960s and early 1970s he sends a demo of songs to Raspberries leader Eric Carmen – only to get invited to join the band! As it happened, Starting Over turned out to be ‘game over’ as the group split shortly after its release. But McCarl got the full ‘joining the band’ treatment: co-writing 5 of the album’s 11 cuts, singing lead on one track, and getting to tour with the group. So despite the Raspberries demise McCarl would appear to have had all the chops for a solo career. All of which makes his subsequent meagre solo offerings more than a little bewildering. There was the fabulous Mersey-drenched Play On that came out on a small independent label in 1997. But that’s it – sort of. Now there’s a new version of Play On that’s come out with a very different running order and mix of songs, drawing on recording sessions from 1970, 1981, 1995-6, and 2021. The whole album is really good and has a consistent vibe despite its multi-decade gestation. Drop the needle anywhere on the LP and dig that sixties-influenced songwriting and performance. Still, I felt I had to single out “I’ll Be On My Way” for your special attention. No, not the Lennon/McCartney song that Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas covered. This one is by Billy Sullivan, who also plays the ripping, jangly lead guitar lines.
Wow, talk about making a guitar sing! And McCarl’s vocal is so in the very pleasing 1980s sixties-revival mode. You can (and should) pick up the album from McCarl’s Bandcamp page, where you can also find a breakdown of the songs, when they were recorded, and who played what. Who knows, maybe there are more cuts lurking in the McCarl vaults for a new Play On … and On.
They get to me. The self-promoters with their musical wares. They write emails, they messenger me, they hit me up through my blog’s Facebook page. And I love it! Each message is like a mini-present just waiting to be opened. I always wonder what’s inside. Not every letter has the right address but most do. Case in point: today’s mailbag is full of dynamite poprock that is definitely worth a read, uh, I mean, listen.
New York City’s Brother Dynamite have been making music for decades but only just got around to releasing their debut album, If We Dare. Talk about late bloomers. The sound is poppy rock and roll, with just a hint of what we used call AOR (album-oriented rock). This used to be all over FM radio in the 1980s. LP opener “Summer’s End” sets out the brief with a great hooky swirl of overlapping electric guitars offset by Shawn Moynihan’s unique vocal attack. The hook in this song has the addictive guitar grind of Blue Oyster Cult in their most poppy moments. Then “Everything Changes” definitely brings to mind smooth melodic rockers like Fastball, Everclear and Semisonic given its easygoing jauntiness. Other tracks in this vein include “You Could Do So Much Better,” “This Time,” and hit single-ish “You Cannot Bring Me Down.” But the album is also defined by some dynamic vocal work that might be more associated with the likes of Supertramp or Styx, particularly notable on “Lucky Me” and title track “If We Dare.” And then there’s the ballads. “All Your Life” kicks off with a Paul Simon-esque fingerpicking bounce, only to build to something bigger. “Until the Stars” is a grand lead guitar-led ballad worthy of an ocean of waving Bic lighters. “Beautiful Lie” is just a gorgeous tune, sometimes vibing a Band On The Run McCartney, sometimes sounding more pop Eagles. With If We Dare Brother Dynamite recall the best of 1980s poprock, without all the hair product and spandex.
A turn through Andrew Bobulinski’s back Bandcamp pages suggests he’s an artist just toying with us, stylistically that is. After a long stint in heavy metal bands Bobulinski’s solo career has been careening all over the indie poprock map, from Weezer-like slathered guitar and sibilant vocals to horns aplenty over 1970s-ish soft rock. His latest project is an ABOB release entitled ABOB’s Summer Home. The songs have that breezy 70s pop feel, contrasted with some punchy horns on “Sabrina Knows” and “Talk to Her.” My fave here is the less 70s title track with its KC Bowman-like vocal sheen and straight up poprock hooks. For a more rocking demeanor, click a few pages through to Bobulinki’s earlier releases, particularly the EP entitled 2015 and the dynamite longplayer Suburban Apocalypse. The latter record has got some serious variety, from edgy guitar-distorted numbers like “Right Where You Wanted to Be” to more jaunty rock and roll with “Johnny Utah.” My fave is the killer 1960s retro-remake Bobulinski pulls off on “There’s a Reason.” Perfection! ABOB may be a musical enigma but I like mysteries. Just another fab export from Birmingham, Alabama’s bustling music scene.
I don’t usually need a message from Richard Turgeon to remind me about his latest record – I’m on it. But his latest release Rough Around the Edges has piled up a load of glowing reviews so quickly I’m looking positively out of the loop. Now I was out of the gate early reviewing his fabulous opening cut here “Better With You” last March, describing it as a ‘shot of feel-good guitar-oriented power pop’ with just the right amount of Matthew Sweetener. And this album banks on that formula. There’s a Sweet-ness to most songs here, perhaps cut with a bit of Weezer. But that just says Turgeon has achieved a trademark-able sound and songwriting style that lends his albums coherency though never sameness. The record’s first three cuts – “Better With You,” “I Never Loved You,” and “Please Take Me Back” – all deserve heavy rotation on what’s left of rock radio. They’re a masterclass in how to weave a solid hook into your song. In addition to these reliably hooky guitar wonders, the record does take some chances too. “7 Stories” is a bit more mellow, vibing a glorious Lindsay Buckingham/Well Wishers vocal style in the chorus while “Goodbye Home” has a languid Marshall Crenshaw deep cut feel. Or there’s “You Always Believe” which opens with an uncharacteristic solo piano before adding in Turgeon’s signature guitar sound. And check out the melodic shift in the chorus – it almost sounds like something from The Smiths. As Rough Around the Edges is Turgeon’s seventh album in just five years, there’s really nothing rough about it. He just keeps turning out should-be hits, waiting for the world to catch up.
I closed out 2021 with a brief notice about Chicago band Walcot and their single “Dreaming Away.” I really liked the song’s 1970s happy vibe, it’s jaunty B.J. Thomas-like demeanor. Now it’s back as part of the band’s recent EP release Songs for the Disenfranchised, appearing with “Another Man” and “It Feels Alright.” The trio make for a winning combination, sharing a similar smooth poprock polish. “Another Man” makes harpsichord sound cool on a tune that seems one part Paul McCartney, one part mid-period ABBA. By contrast, “It Feels Alright” has a more contemporary pop radio feel, like something from an early Sam Weber or Ron Sexsmith record. My only complaint about this EP is its brevity. With just three songs it’s all over in just 8 minutes. Serious boo hoo! Perhaps think about Songs for the Disenfranchised as more of a maxi-single teaser for an album that can’t arrive soon enough.
Clearly today the mailman brought me no more blues. After all, this is a poprock site.
As a young man one of my ambitions was to be a novelist. I plowed through a load of 19th century Russian and 20th century American novels in my early twenties so I was pretty sure I’d absorbed enough alienation and ennui to pull it off. But after many fruitless nights home alone with a typewriter it became clear that novelizing was not for me. I just couldn’t put my ideas into someone else’s mouth. I was more of a ‘lay it out direct’ kind of guy and damn the artistic pretences. Eventually I found an academic writing home but, happy ending, I do get my creative writing fix here with this blog. So today’s post riffs on the ‘novel’ side of music, with acts that exude a literary demeanor to me in one way or another.
This might seem like a stretch but Appleton, Wisconsin artistAmos Pitsch has a name that sounds like a character from a Harper Lee novel to me. I came to Pitsch’s work on his debut solo record, the bracing, delicately lyrical, mostly acoustic guitar-laden Lake Effect. To get a sense of the ambience you might check out “Lake of the Old Northeast,” a track that reminds me of The Shins or Guster in a mellow mood. Or dig the subtle melodic hook buried in the spare acoustic guitar and vocal performance of “Shiny Things to Stop Your Tears.” But the standout track here for me is the title song “Lake Effect,” a real poprock gem – again, simple and direct in execution with a wonderful swirl of vocals, up front rhythm guitar, and colourful piano lead lines. There’s a light Ben Folds air about the song. Pitsch’s new 2022 album Acid Rain departs from this ambience, adding more lyrical bite and musical distortion. Opening cut “I’m So Angry” lays it all out over a buzz of reverby, distorted guitar. The album is a incisive critical rumination on where America is now politically. “(We Got It Made) In the USA” bristles with sarcastic condemnation, practically sung through gritted teeth. There are upbeat moments too though, like the keyboard-riffic “It Feels So Good (To Know That You’re Around).” Or the seventies-positive Wings vibe on “In Our Old House, Part Two.” The album wraps with two tracks that capture the 1970s cross-over country feel of The Band. “Oak Hill Blues” is hit worthy and wouldn’t be amiss covered by The Sheepdogs. “Dying Young” has a more soul vamp, like 70s Hall and Oates meets Levon Helm. Basic takeaway: Pitsch is smart but relatable, like any good novelist should be.
Another novel-like character name is Trapper Schoepp. I can see him springing from the pages of Sinclair Lewis or even Jack Kerouac in his later period. Musically, this boy is a great big ball of talent. Over the course of five or so albums his crack band has conjured up an Americana sound with bits of influence from the Byrds, Tom Petty, Wilco and early Bruce Springsteen. “Pins and Needles” from 2012’s Run Engine Run is emblematic of this fun synthesis, vibing a Replacements-style ramshackle excitement. On 2016’s Rangers and Valentines producer Brendan Benson gives Schoepp’s word-packed tunes a wonderful poprock sheen. So many highlights here like “Mono, Pt. 2,” “Ogailala,” and “Settlin’ or Sleepin’.” The album oscillates between uptempo and more Dylanesque folky numbers. Check out the Springsteen River-ish feel on “Dream.” As an interlude 2017’s EP Bay Beach Amusement Park is a neo-1950s celebration of the rides on the midway. 2019 brought Shoepp’s tour-de-force recording Primetime Illusion. What a collection of tunes! Again, I hear some Springsteen, this time a less bleak Darkness-era aura, particularly on “Drive-Thru Divorce.” Shoepp’s strongly socially-conscious lyrics shine powerfully on his anti-sexual assault song “What You Do To Her.” The album also contains his co-write with Bob Dylan on “On, Wisconsin” though my personal fave is “TV Shows” with its tasty guitar work. In 2021 Schoepp took a pastoral turn on May Day, mixing up the tempo from tune to tune, from the lovely “Paris Syndrome” to the more acid “Hotel Astor.” With song titles like “May Day” “Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man” and “My Comrade” there definitely something literary going on here.
And now for the inspiration behind today’s themed post, New York City’s The Great American Novel. These guys have got it all: literary references, wry humour, and hooks galore. The band’s debut Kissing is essentially a concept album revolving around the post-teenage experiences of the group’s creative force, Layne Montgomery. Songs deal with kissing, being good at kissing, sleeping alone, being bad with girls, and wanting to hang out, interspersed with numbers dropping clear literary references. Alienation and ennui? Check. But hold up, the tunes themselves belie such downer labels. “Sleeping Alone” is the peppiest rumination on the theme I’ve ever heard. “American Weekend” is a rollicking poprock romp.”Raymond Carver” lands where pub rock meets new wave, with great organ and background vocal highlights. “Kissing” sounds like it borrowed keyboards from the Penguin Café Orchestra. A year later album number 2 featured a harsher sound and a less coherent concept but the songs were still strong. I’d single out “Wish You Were Beer” and “Rad Education” for special mention. The next seven years would only see the occasional single or EP surface, like the punchy “Teenage Feelings.” In 2021 the band finally turned out a new LP, the very Sloan-ish Extremely Loud and Incredibly Online. The amps are turned up and the songs have a bit more attack: less jokey tentative, more rockin’ you direct. “Grabbin’ a Slice” sounds like 1990s FM radio hit single material. The short cut opener “Bad News, I Still Love You” is a winner too.
Well if today’s post has taught us anything it’s that some acts belt out the tunes and have something to say. In our visually saturated world, that is novel.