Should be a hit single: The Orion Experience “The Cult of Dionysus”

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I just found about NYC’s The Orion Experience and now it seems that life prior to this discovery was perhaps a bit more dull and unexciting than I had realized. Their 2006 debut album Cosmicandy throws a whole lot of uber cool sounds into the hopper – Blondie era-disco riffs, Chumbawumba-esque anthemic group singing, some Grouplove loose rock n’ roll – and a consistent, clever political and social commentary. It’s all good. Really good. But my hands-down fave on the record is the ELO meets New Pornographers rave up “The Cult of Dionysus.” The song is a rush of hooky adrenaline, constantly shifting its attack, from stripped back guitars to dueling vocals to a full-on wall-of-sound assault. Then there’s the understated bridge, where everything drops out to acoustic guitars and sweet sweet vocals that slowly build back up to a driving climax. It’s an instant repeat-play kind of tune. The band have a few equally good albums sprinkled over the past 15 years, a pleasant solo EP from group leader Orion Simprini, and some appealing brand new material coming out right now. But you’re gonna want to start here, with this song and this album. For poprock fans, it’s a guaranteed good time.

The Orion Experience have plenty of internet real estate but start with Bandcamp – that’s where the music is.

It’s never too late for Mike Browning

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If you need a dose of musical smiles and sunshine, dial up the good times vibe all over the recent Mike Browning releases. A self-admitted musical late bloomer, these recordings are actually brimming with a kind of youthful excitement and joy. Get started with “We’re Hanging Out” which opens Browning’s 2020 debut EP Never Too Late with a splash of that 1960s breezy sunshine pop, one part Buddy Holly, another part Beach Boys. Then “I Can See Nothing But You” combines some lovely jangle with a bit of late 1960s folk rock. “Hide and Seek” is bit more neo-1950s, in that way mid-1960s beach group would do it. Meanwhile “Watching  the Lines on the Road” feels so Monkees, leaning particularly toward Nesmith’s influence. Browning followed up this EP with a slick sounding single in early 2021, “Another Bite of the Apple,” a nice poppy number with a great hooky lead guitar break. This is feel good music of the very best kind.

On his most recent release Class Act Browning takes aim at covering hits ranging from the 1960s through to the 1980s, classics like the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again,” the Byrds’ “My Back Pages,” and the Beatles “Norwegian Wood,” What a challenge! But Browning somehow manages to pull it off with solid musicianship and an endearing vocal style. My own personal fave is his somewhat muted take on “Jenny 867-5309” where he manages to capture the song’s energy and excitement while reining its rock excesses. Or there’s the chipper fun cover of The Reflections 1964 hit “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet, or a super take on the obscure regional US hit “The Little Black Egg.” And so on through 12 tracks in total, covering artists as varied as XTC, the Kinks, Bob Dylan, the Spencer Davis Group, and more. Taken together, the feel of this record is like some kind of fabulous party for a multi-generational group to really enjoy. I, for one, would love to hear Browning’s band do these covers live.

With these recordings Mike Browning demonstrates it’s never too late to take up your musical dreams. And he’s now promising us more is on the way. Keep up with Mike at his website, Bandcamp and Facebook pages.

Poprock record revival: Steve Rosenbaum, Sorrows, Bruce Moody, and Doublepluspop

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From the 1960s through to the 1980s a lot of young people tried their hand at forming a rock and roll band. Not every act made it. Sometimes they just didn’t have what it takes but more often than not they just couldn’t dedicate their lives to the mission in the obsessed, manic way that is often required to succeed. Here’s how the story typically fizzled out: life intervened, marriage and/or kids happened, and suddenly the landlord/mortgage company demanded a more regular paycheque than rock and roll could provide. Well lately we’ve seen a lot of those deferred rockers making up for lost time, digging out their old recordings, polishing them up and turning them loose in the new, anything-goes internet form of music distribution. And the results are sometimes pretty special. Here we salute just a few of the more notable recent poprock record revivals.

Steve Rosenbaum’s monumental collection Have a Cool Summer! is like a message in a bottle that’s suddenly washed ashore. The album contains 23 songs recorded on his home 4-track between 1979-89 that never saw the light of day at the time. After spinning these tunes a few times all I can say is, what a shame. Get ready for a ‘great lost album’ experience because Rosenbaum’s songs are tight hooky little masterpieces, combining bits of the Raspberries, the Beach Boys and Marshall Crenshaw. Honestly, there are just too many highlights on this record to really sum the total effect. You can drop the needle anywhere and find something delightful. There’s a touch of the Plimsouls on “Tearing Up the Town,” some of that 1965 Beach Boys wistful ennui with “Me Alone,” a slight XTC feel to “72 Days,” and a whole lot of Costello circa Get Happy! in “Candyland” and “Confidential Love.” Then there’s the Marshal Crenshaw vibe on “Turn Out the Light” and “Girl from Seventeen,” neither of which would go amiss on MC’s debut album. I’d also nominate “These Girls Fly By” and “Come On Over” as the obvious should-be hit singles with their rollicking bouncy guitar and strong melodic hooks. Right now Have a Cool Summer! is only available on 8-track, with a digital download included, but come the new year it busts out into new formats. Trust me, it’s worth digging out your old tech for.

The legend of the Sorrows failed second album is right out rock and roll cinema’s central casting. The band’s debut Teenage Heartbreak had wowed fans and critics alike with its muscular power pop sound and sweet sweet melodic hooks. It was like The Plimsouls had joined the revived Searchers. Then early The Who producer Shel Talmy joined up to oversee the band’s second record. What could go wrong? Apparently, everything. When Love Too Late came out in 1981 it was like the original band had been mugged by some AM corporate rock ringers. Talmy had ignored the band’s production ideas and style of playing, indeed replacing most of them with session players on various tracks. End result? The band badmouthed the final product and then broke up. Fast forward forty years and the group has finally managed to reclaim legal control over their songs and performances. But instead of just remixing and tweaking the existing album they’ve produced an almost entirely new recording. Love Too Late, the real album is a shocker. You’d swear it’s the band in their early 1980s heyday, they sound that good. The songs were always great but now they lean into their early 1980s style, with “Love Too Late” matching the manic sound and energy of their then-contemporary rivals The Plimsouls, “Crying” offering a bit of Madness ska, and “Rita” conjuring up memories of the Paul Collins Beat. The Beatles influence is definitely present on “Breaking My Heart” and “It’s Not Love Anymore while the band’s own distinctive dreamy pop instincts define the lovely opening cut “Christabelle” and “So Much Love.” The cover of the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting For You” is pretty special too. My own choice for single would the exquisitely hooky “What I Used to Know.” Love Too Late, the real album is a revelation, both a time capsule resurrection and contemporary renewal of a truly great band. You’re definitely gonna want this.

Another historic missed opportunity is the collected recorded works from Bruce Moody. Forever Fresh! features 23 cuts from tracks recorded between 1979 and 1986 that either fall into the Nick Lowe bubblegum style he perfected in mid-to-late 1970s or a Phil Seymour power pop register. A few of the songs here did see a contemporary release (on the 1982 EP Fresh Out!) while others were drip released on EPs much later in 2016 (Still Fresh!) and 2018 (Get Fresh!). Forever Fresh! doubles that past output and brings these mostly studio-quality AM radio-friendly poprock tunes all together in one attractively designed and modestly priced package. And the songs! Moody knows how to throw a solid hook into any kind of tune. “This Is It” opens the collection perfectly, a song seemingly caught between a 1970s bubblegum pop and early 1980s new wave vibe. Then “At the Rock Club” is so Nick Lowe circa Jesus of Cool. “Above Suspicion” moves more decidedly into 1980s territory, with shades of Squeeze’s kitchen sink narrative style. And so on – so many great tunes here. Personally, I love the Searchers-ish melodic simplicity on tracks like “Simple Love,” “Right to Know,” “The Closer I Get to You” and “You Do.” Then there’s the occasional departure from Moody’s relentlessly upbeat tone, like the  somewhat ominous melodic turns that appear in the verses to “Find Ourselves” (though the chorus quickly auto-corrects back to punchy positivity). Or check out how Moody builds the jangle-delicious “Gotta Move Away,” with its creative juxtaposition of attack and subtle Beach Boys influences (both in terms of song structure and low-key humour). Both charts and listeners lost out when these songs didn’t get released back in early 1980s. And yet Moody is on to something with his collection title – there really is something ‘forever fresh’ about these concise blasts of innocent poppy goodness.

Here’s another Hollywood happy ending sort of musical story. A band records some tunes but before anything can come of them they break up. Twenty years later a recording engineer at the studio stumbles across the recordings and voila! here is Doublepluspop’s should-have-been 2002 debut album Too Loud, Too Fast, Too Much magically resurrected. Definitely better late than never. The record is equal parts Matthew Sweet/Fountains of Wayne in terms of influences, with tasty guitar hooks and sophisticated melodies galore. Opening cut “Stumbling Back” really sets the tone with a buzzing wall of guitars and a classic FOW guitar solo. “The Dark Inside” has a very Matthew Sweet vocal and some guitar hooks reminiscent of Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room.” Things continue in this vein with more ear wormy tracks like “My Verona,” “Here’s to the Losers” and particularly “Everyone” with its cool vocal harmonies. There are few deviations from the basic script, like “If I Wasn’t In Love,” with its faint echoes of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” popping up here and there, and the rollicking good time feel of “What a Wonderful Time.” The juiced up cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” also really works. I’m just gonna say it, Doublepluspop are definitely doubleplusgood.

Stumbling Back
The Dark Inside
If I Wasn’t In Love

In today’s virtual world there is no yesterday, no past, no gone-for-good. It seems everything can be revived if there’s an audience to give it life. Today’s acts definitely deserve a turn on the poprock record revival circuit. Click on the links above to help make their misspent youth pay in the here and now.

Photo credit: Dale Stewart. Physical copies of the new releases from Bruce Moody and Doublepluspop can be ordered from Kool Kat Musik, Big Stir Records for Sorrows, and Dead Media Tapes for an 8-track version of Steve Rosenbaum‘s album.

Melody testing Cheap Trick

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Cheap Trick are one of those legendary bands I’m supposed to really like. But, as often as not, their material seems either too screaming-guitar-solo rawk or histrionic power ballad for my tastes. When they do turn on the Beatlesque hooks and harmonies, however, the band are unstoppable. The essential winning formula appears on early hits like “I Want You To Want Me,” “Surrender,” “Dream Police” and pretty much all of their best-selling 1979 album Dream Police. But from there Cheap Trick seemed to lose their artistic footing, struggling over the course of their next 15 albums to match differing production styles with their reliably good songwriting. Despite sometimes uneven results, I think every Cheap Trick album has a least a few worthy poprock singles lurking inside. Today we melody test the 19 album catalogue of Cheap Trick to find those melodic gems.

I’m not going to dwell on the early ‘we’re gonna be stars’ period of the band. Rock writers have already penned countless columns noting their musical split personality, sometimes arena-noisy rawk gods, other times commercially slick Beatlesque hitmakers. The noisy rock roots defined their 1977 self-titled debut, with a few exceptions like “Oh Candy.” Less than year later In Color repeated the same formula, but with a few slick AM radio-ready exceptions, like the original version of “I Want You To Want Me” and “Southern Girls.” 1978’s Heaven Tonight saw the influence of new wave come to fore with the band’s first truly amazing single, “Surrender.” 1979’s Dream Police cemented their reputation as one of new wave’s most creative rock-oriented acts with the innovative title track and the more Beatlesque “Voices.” The band’s trajectory seemed to be following a classic rock and roll script, with every album improving on the last both creatively and commercially.

Oh, Candy

But something jarred loose on the way into the 1980s. The confidence of Dream Police seemed to give way to a fourteen year era of uncertainty about just who the band were and what they needed to do to succeed commercially and artistically. It wasn’t for lack of high profile collaborators. The next eight albums would see the band working with the likes of George Martin, Roy Thomas Baker, Todd Rundgren, Jack Douglas, Ritchie Zito and Ted Templeman. But the hits and previous rave critical reviews all but dried up. 1980’s All Shook Up failed to produce many standout tracks, other than “Stop This Game.” 1982’s One on One dialed up the rock vibe but the killer cut is undoubtedly the Beatlesy “If You Want My Love You Got It.” 1983’s Next Position Please was a much more melodic album overall, though critics complained that producer Todd Rundgren had the band sounding a lot like Utopia, particularly on “I Can’t Take It.” There are worse problems a band could have. Then the band reunited with Jack Douglas (producer of their debut album) for 1985’s Standing on the Edge and the results were brilliant. The songs and performances were back to Dream Police levels of confidence with highlights like “This Time Around” and the killer “Tonight It’s You,” a track that ranks with any of their best singles.

If You Want My Love You Got It
I Can’t Take It
Tonight It’s You

And then the wheels came off the comeback bus. 1986’s The Doctor stalled the band’s revival. Critics slammed the album’s cheesy drum and keyboard sound but the real problem was the songwriting, with only “Kiss Me Red” catching my attention. Under pressure from their record company to turn out some hits, 1988’s Lap of Luxury bears all the marks of a corporate ‘album by committee’. The band were forced to work with outside songwriters and the production style was essentially a slick FM kind of bombast rock. The gambit worked: the record ended up second in total sales for the group behind Dream Police and a power ballad single, “The Flame,” did go to number one. But the best songs in my view are still the ones written by the band, e.g. “Let’s Go,” “Never Had a Lot To Lose,” and my fave “All We Need is a Dream.” Producer Ritchie Vito returned for 1990s Busted but the formula failed to work a second time. Instead, the standout track here is the throwback sixties-influenced “Had to Make You Mine.” Working with Van Halen producer Ted Templeman brought back the rawk on 1994’s Woke Up With a Monster but a few melodic surprises make an appearance, like “You’re All I Wanna Do” and “Never Run Out of Love For You.”

All We Need Is a Dream
Had to Make You Mine
You’re All I Wanna Do

By mid-1990s Cheap Trick were without a major label deal for the first time in their career. This allowed the band to retake control of their musical direction, once again writing and producing most of their albums and releasing them on smaller, more independent labels. The results have generally been applauded by fans and critics alike. 1997’s Cheap Trick marked a creative reset, with stripped back poppy rock and roll numbers like “Hard to Tell” and the sixties-ish “Carnival Game.” Seven years later 2003’s Special One was less rawk than previous efforts but still strong songwriting-wise – case in point, “My Obsession.” 2006’s Rockford was another solid effort, with the single-worthy “All Those Years Ago” and the fab Bill Lloyd co-write “Dream the Night Away.” In 2009 the band delivered another melody-heavy package with The Latest. This one is particularly Beatles stamped – check out “Times of Our Lives.” Another seven years would pass before Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello in 2016 but the record has many highlights like “No Direction Home” and “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” (with its slight Bond theme undercurrent). One year later the band would return to their rawk default with We’re All Alright! but more melodic tunes appeared as well with “Floating Down” and “She’s Alright.” And then earlier this year album #19 arrived with In Another World, a collection that almost seems to showcase the band’s stylistic range across their whole career, including quite a few hooky numbers. My faves include “The Summer Looks Good on You,” “Another World,” and the more mellow “I’ll See You Again.”

Hard to Tell
My Obsession
All Those Years Ago
Times of Our Lives
Another World

I can’t say I love all of Cheap Trick’s albums but with every release there’s always been something to like. This melody test just proves that no matter how lost the band gets you can always find a good hook somewhere on any album. And some more than others! Who knows what surprises album #20 will bring. Don’t miss out – keep up with Cheap Trick news at their website and Facebook locations.

The wild exciting sound of Marshall Crenshaw

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It was indeed a ‘wild’ and ‘exciting’ sound when I first heard it back in 1983. I’d stumbled across a ‘DJ-only’ pressing of “Whenever You’re On My Mind” and I was hooked, that Steve Lillywhite, reverb-drenched guitar line forever ingrained on my consciousness. From there I would double back to discover his amazing 1982 self-titled debut and go forward buying every real time release from 1985’s Downtown on. And unlike much of the studio-centric music of the period, Crenshaw’s accessible brand of new wave-tinged rock and roll was made to be enjoyed as much live on stage as on vinyl.

All of the above is just a roundabout way of saying that The Wild Exciting Sounds of Marshall Crenshaw: Live In The 20th and 21st Century will surely be a welcome addition to any Crenshaw fan’s collection. With 26 tracks, the collection is basically what we used to call a double album. One half focuses heavily on Crenshaw’s first two albums and his crack band from the period are in fine form. 12 of the 16 tracks here cover tunes from his debut and follow up album, the self-titled Marshall Crenshaw and Field Day, with two Elvis covers, an Al Green cover, and MC’s early Shake Records single “Something’s Gonna Happen.” The second batch of songs represent a Crenshaw-curated selection of tunes from the rest of his catalogue, with nearly every album getting a look in barring Downtown and What’s in the Bag? (Ok, I’ll admit it, I was bummed to see no Downtown tracks included here but, in fairness, they do appear on both of Crenshaw’s other live album releases). As with all things Crenshaw, the album design is stylish and cool while the song performances give us new insight into their versatility and melodic depth. There’s no doubt in my mind, fans are going to want to get wild with this set.

Buy this record from Marshall’s Bandcamp page to make sure he gets the maximum on your money appreciation and check out his website and Facebook for tour and music news.

Around the dial: Tommy Ray, Kiwi jr., Nicholas Altobelli, and The Jack Cades

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Today’s turn around the dial brings some glam rhythm guitar, Dylanesque vocalizing, folky poprock and a 1965 cellar full of noise.

With an opening guitar reminiscent of Greg Kihn or Tommy Tutone and a vocal vibing Phil Seymour, “In Love Again” gets Tommy Ray’s new album Handful of Hits off to an exhilarating start. Follow up “No No No No” seals the deal with a 1980s English guitar band remake of Marc Bolan, kinda like Modern English does glam. Again and the again this record captures that sense of seventies’ fresh punky excitement but with tunes that pack a melodic punch. It’s busting out all over “Loser’s Anthem” with its hooky organ and guitar lines. “If You Need Anything” is a rollicking romp of a dance stomper. Meanwhile “Feel the Pain’ channels that 1970s reinvention of fifties rock and roll to a ‘T’. But my fave tune here is addictive “Runnin’” with its catchy mix of chunky guitar chords and piano shots. This album hits all the classic melodic indie rock marks and then some. Soundtrack your party with this release and let the fun begin.

Cooler Returns is a confident album number 2 from Canadians Kiwi jr. “Tyler” kicks things off, reintroducing the band with a confessional vocal style not unlike Ben Folds. “Undecided Voters” continues to be jangle relevant and just in time for a Canadian federal election. “Maid Marian’s Toast” has a pastoral Dylanesque sound, if he were an eighties indie artist. And that’s just the first three tracks! Stylistically, this is sometimes an album of big choruses – just hear them burst open melodically on  “Highlights of 100” and “Omaha.” Or sometimes it’s more about distinctive rhythm guitar work, as on title track “Cooler Returns” and “Dodger.” And then there’s the occasional departure from the script songwriting-wise, like “Nashville Wedding.” I can hear the girl group double claps in my head in the verses as this one rolls out. It’s the kinda thing my 1980s FM radio stations would put in maximum rotation. I’m also really keen on “Waiting in Line.” Again, such a great roll out beginning to the song with its jangle guitar and plinky piano. You can even get a comic book of the record’s illustrated lyrics designed by Toronto illustrator Dmitry Bondarenko. Those Canucks!

I love the artwork on Nicholas Altobelli’s new album Technicolor Hearts. The purples and blues of the fairground at night give it a captivating allure. Sound-wise Altobelli veers out of his usual, carefully crafted, folkish pop lane, more solidly aiming at a contemporary, almost Hall and Oates poprock sound (which I’m loving). On the other hand, there is a very Darryl Hanlon vibe to what is going on here, with that guy’s ever so melodic mediations on sincerity and experience. The former is present in the title track, with those hypnotic keyboards and Springsteen “I’m On Fire” percussion. The latter is there on “Bless Yer Heart” despite the hard rock chorus and “Midnight Radio.” The record also offers up yet another reworking of last year’s stand-alone single “Ghost,” this time with some funky Kraftwork-worthy keyboards. 2016’s “Exit Polls” also gets a new treatment that tones down the guitar in favour of leaning into the vocal melody a bit more, with good effect. In our ‘what about surprises’ category, check out “Time Will Tell” with its Aimee Mann-ish keyboards. On the whole, I declare Technicolor Hearts a delight, an enjoyable accompaniment to your night out at the fair. And, hey, buy it over on Bandcamp and get five demos of songs from the record and a country version of “Time Will Tell” for no extra charge. That’s like getting a free, extra go-round on the roller coaster at the end of the night.

They might be named for an English insurrectionary leader from the 15th century but you won’t need a history class to appreciate The Jack Cades. I mean, not If you like a jangly, mid-1960s San Francisco-meets-swinging London sound, with just a touch of garage band immediacy and excitement. After two killer albums of strong original material the band return with an EP of covers to wile away the pandemic, cheekily entitled Infectious Covers. All four songs are fabulous, though I wish the band had provided a bit more background on some of the more obscure tracks. The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” is the easy one, while The Dovers breezy, lead guitar line-led 1965 single “What Am I Going To Do” wasn’t too hard to dig up. But “Once Before” and “Go Ahead” left me stumped. Both are super songs, performed with a psychedelic rock feel on the former and a lonely, singer-avec-some gentle jangle on the latter. One thing striking about this band is how they so effectively echo a past era without sounding stuck in it.

Each of today’s artists would love to meet you. Electronically, that is. Check out their websites, Facebook and/or Bandcamp to get the full deets.

Top photo credit: cropped from Nicholas Altobelli’s new album cover for Technicolor Hearts.

Harry versus Hardy Nilsson

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Two musical acts separated by a single differentiating letter – there must be some connection? But no, Swedish band Hardy Nilsson are not some Harry Nilsson cover band. Nor do they seem influenced by the commercially successful American friend of the Beatles, originator of a kind of baroque pop and the mash-up song. Hardy Nilsson actually take their name from a Swedish championship hockey player and coach. I guess everything in music doesn’t revolve around an Anglo-American axis after all. Well now that we’ve brought them together we might as well dig into what they do a bit.

A lot has been written about Harry Nilsson. He wrote hits for himself (“Me and My Arrow,” “Spaceman”) and others (“One” for Three Dog Night, “Cuddly Toy” for the Monkees), made other people’s songs big hits (Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” Badfinger’s “Without You”), and managed to be a big star in the early 1970s without ever touring or playing live much at all, a feat very much against the grain of the times. But eventually his music career appeared to be eclipsed by his more outrageous public behaviour, particularly repeated drunken outings with John Lennon. By the mid-1970s his records had stopped selling and after 1980 he never released another one in his lifetime. To get a sense of his playful inventiveness and what would become his trend-setting production techniques, check out his revisionist take on the Beatles “You Can’t Do That” from his 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show. Nilsson slows the song down and then proceeds to invent the ‘mash-up’ form, incorporating snippet references to 18 other Beatles songs into the track. He also recorded a version in Italian.

Harry Nilsson – You Can’t Do That

Swedish band Hardy Nilsson put out three albums in the 1990s, all very pleasant Teenage Fanclubby poprock outings. Shortly after starting one band the same members started another, Tommy 16, with a similar musical MO, though perhaps with a touch of Badfinger thrown in. The big difference between the two was a swap on lead singing duties and a shift from Swedish to English lyrics. Fans of both bands still debate which had the best shot at success and should have been the main focus of the musicians and record companies involved. A good illustration of what both produced can be found in the singles singled out below. Hardy Nilsson’s “Popsang” was a minor hit for them while “Come On Come On” was a single for Tommy 16 that got included on a number of 1990s compilations of Swedish acts.

Hardy Nilsson – Popsang
Tommy 16 – Come On, Come On

Harry Nilsson died not long after Hardy Nilsson put out their first album. It would have been cool if he’d heard about them, even if he wasn’t their inspiration. Could have made a great double bill.

Life at 45 rpm II

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For The Smiths guitar slinger Johnny Marr the 45 is a “short burst [that] is going to explain where we’re at, right here and right now” from “artists who are taking that three, four minute moment really seriously.” Forget the album as artist statement – for Marr, the single is where an artist can really say something. He also makes an interesting observation about the class dimensions of the form, arguing that in the sixties and seventies (when 45s were at their peak popularity in the UK) their brightly coloured sleeves and concise musical content served as a kind of working class art for the “young women who were working in Woolworths, and young men who were working in shops and warehouses and bus stations.” It’s in that spirit of love for the 45 that we continue with our second post of fab new late-summer singles.

Franco-American duo Freedom Fry just can’t help themselves. They’d barely gotten their French-language album L’Invitation out the door last April when two EPs of covers followed just one month later and now this summer three more original songs have hit their Bandcamp page. Productive much? Not that I’m complaining. There is always something so fresh and positive about a new Freedom Fry record. Like “Colors,” with its saucy keyboard lick opening and buoyant melody. Let this light and breezy single colour your listening time with a hit of audio sunshine. Another bit of fun pressed into 3 minutes or so comes from the Barenaked Ladies new album, Detour de Force. “Bylaw” is a goofy yet still melodious mediation on a topic I’m fairly certain has largely evaded musical attention up to now. But leave it to BNL to make it sing! The rest of the album is pretty catchy too, particularly the topical “New Disaster.” Indie power pop supergroup The Legal Matters are back with their third album, entitled Chapter Three. On the whole, its another reliably hooky installment in their ongoing musical saga but the song that leaps out at me is “Please Make a Sound.” I love the low-key jangle and the lighter-than-air harmony vocals. Stylistically it really stands out from the rest of the album, underlining how these guys can pull off just about anything. Have you been missing that tight, almost chrome-coated seventies rock and roll sound perfected by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds across a series of great albums, both solo and with Rockpile? Well relax, you can get your fix with Geoff Palmers new record, Charts and Graphs. Hey, this shouldn’t be news. Palmer’s been acing the Lowe/Edmunds sound for years with his band The Connection. I’m just letting you know he’s done it again. I’m singling out two tracks as my preferred double A-sided 45, “Tomorrow” and “The Apartment Song.” The former comes off like new wave as if the Beach Boys had gone that route in 1979 (instead of doing that disco album) while the latter is a rollicking, hooky stomper (and, as Ralph points out in the comments, a Tom Petty cover). I’ve been on a bit of Los Lobos bender for the past month, really getting to know their Spanish language recordings (e.g. Del Este de Los Angeles and La Pistola y el Corazon). You don’t need to speak Spanish to understand these records are telling you to kick up your heels! For 2021 the party continues on Native Sons with the band covering a host of their favourite radio hits, songs like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and the Beach Boys “Sail On, Sailor.” But I’m keen on the album’s only original cut, the title track. It’s a lovely Americana slow dance supported with a beautiful horn section that is all about the band themselves and their relationship to their home town.

The Barenaked Ladies – Bylaw

Is it wrong to like a band’s cast-offs album more than the main release? I mean, don’t misunderstand me, I think Scottish band The Eisenhowers’ third album Judge a Man by the Company He Keeps is a bonny collection of sophisticated tunes. But somehow I’m more drawn to the tracks that didn’t quite make the official album but did get released a few months later on the aptly named Too Much Music. For instance, “Suffer” is lovely lilting poppy tune, a little bit Crowded House, a smattering of Barenaked Ladies. And that’s just the first of many winners that got cut from the main LP but manage to appear here. Dave Strong tries to hide his classic sixties melodic instincts behind a punky veneer but “Little Girl” can’t be denied. This single is a blasting two and half minutes of gloriously amped up poppy fun. B-side “I Would” is pretty cool too. Detroit’s basement pop exemplars The Kickstand Band have been holding out on us. Just one single since 2017 and nary an LP or EP since 2016! Well the wait is over because a double A-sided single is out, “Cube” and “Hey Julianne.” The former is a neat if somewhat ominous low-key number that breaks out melodically briefly – but spectacularly – in the chorus. The latter is a killer should-be hit, in the mould of the band’s amazing synthesis of early 1960s and late 1970s AM radio hits. Those harmonies! Let’s have a new TKB album please. From the northern US to the deep south, The Blips hail from Birmingham Alabama and they deliver that wonderfully messy country rock sound we might associate with Titus Andronicus or the Band. “Inside Out” is the featured single from their self-titled debut LP and I’m loving it. If this style is your thing, I think you will too. Tampa Florida’s The Easy Button have an astonishing collection of 22 tunes out right now for the price for a regular album. The record is Lost On Purpose and it runs the gamut of clever poprock: a bit of Beach Boys, a lot of Fountains of Wayne, and plenty of fun. There are just so many great tunes here but I’ll draw your attention to the playful, generationally-focused “ReRun.” Though I’m more a seventies television guy I know a lot of the name-checked references here.

I came upon Kimon Kirk via a link to a duet he did with Aimee Mann in 2017. So I thought, ok, I’ll bite, let’s check out this guy. There’s wasn’t a lot to find, just a handful of releases since 2009. But what an interesting range of material! Like Mann, there’s a great American songbook feel to some of his stuff, like the cabaret feel to “The Road to No Regret” from 2011’s Songs for Society. Other releases are crazy good guitar poprock like stand alone 2017 single “Powerstroke.” His new record is Altitude and the song I’d single out is “The Girl I Used to Know” which cooks along like a Lindsay Buckingham track with just a tad more enthusiasm in the chorus. Richard Turgeon is back with a seasonally appropriate new EP of cool tunes, Campfire Songs. Once again he mixes a slightly discordant element into otherwise reliably poppy rock tunes. The timely “Goodbye to Summer” has the feel of an uber cool summer single, its cinematic potential fueled by classic sounding guitar embellishments and Turgeon’s own minor key vocal. But I also really like the easygoing rock and roll songbook feel to “Never Good Enough” and “Promised Land.” Chicago’s Kerosene Stars often sound like some 1980s English guitar band (and I like that!) but their new batch of singles seems to mark a new direction for the outfit. Ok, maybe there’s still an English feel to “Where Have You Been?” with its wordy but eloquent lyric delivery, but I like it, and it clips along with a somehow both reserved but still manic tempo. Recently I wrote about Pearl Charles’ eerie 1970s throwback material and that moved someone dropped me a line about Toronto-based Stacey. Wow. Also very 1970s. Like a Tardis time-travel good recreation. Check out “Strange (But I Like It)” from her latest LP Saturn Return. It’s got a minor key feel in places that reminds me of Sniff ‘n’ the Tears “Driver’s Seat” or any mid-period Little River Band. At this point it’s hard to believe that anyone could do anything new with Bob Dylan material, it’s all been covered by so many people and in so many ways. But Australian Emma Swift manages to add a new twist to the Dylan’s classic “Queen Jane Approximately.” With its light jangle and Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac rhythm section feel, the song sounds more like a radio hit than ever. It can be found with a host of other Dylan songs on her just released Blonde on the Tracks album.

Continuing in Dylanesque vein, Brisbane Australia’s Full Power Happy Hour give us a fresh dose of melodious folky-country guitar noodling on “Old Mind of Mind.” The song is the opening cut on their self-titled debut long-player and it combines keen guitar work with an inspired vocal. Heading back to the UK 65MPH anchor their sound with a striking mix of acoustic and electric guitars and tunes that mine a new neo-folk rock sound that I associate with acts like The Fronteers. “Cruel World” is just one of a host of peppy, winning singles the band has put out over the past few months. Rounding things out on this singles extravaganza, a deep cut from the latest album by Toronto band Harkness. The songs on The Occasion run a gamut of styles, featuring unusual instrumental choices and some complicated vocal arrangements. Personally I’m taken with “Tornado” and its solid mid-1980s Brit band mix of moody guitars and vocals.

Well, there it is, another colossal mix of singles, all mini musical manifestos from a wide array of acts. Think of them as ever so brief introductions to people with much more to say. Click the hyperlinks to continue the conversation.

Life at 45 rpm I

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If there is someone who understands the power of the 45 rpm single, it’s Smiths’ guitar man Johnny Marr. In an interview with Clash magazine in 2019 he was quoted saying “the seven inch single for me has always held a mystical position because it’s such a brilliant format.” Why? In a word: impact.  For Marr, the single format forces artists to “pack the message, the hooks and everything into a shorter space.” Citing examples like The Beatles “Paperback Writer” or even his own “Panic” Marr argues that with a single “you get pulled into a world for three and a half minutes, exploring art or philosophy …” But, he adds, “it also has to be wildly entertaining.” Here at Poprock Record we couldn’t agree more. In the first of two posts, we explore the magic and concision of some recent glorious 45s.

We get things started with a solid ‘hitting the road’ tune, Dan Israel’s latest single “The Hang of It.” The song has a 1970s FM radio feel with his reliably Dylanesque vocals, Harrisonian pedal steel and party jam band vibe. The lyrics are so of our time: “I’m getting out of the house, I been crazy as a loon, I’ve been quiet as a mouse …” Here here brother. Next we step on the pop punk pedal with Edmonton’s Real Sickies. These guys are graduates of the Ramones school of rock, blasting power chords but always with an accessible melody line threaded in somewhere. “Communications Breakdown” is from their latest long-player, Love is for Lovers, and it’s a breakneck party tune, a surefire get-them-dancing number. The Skullers front man Jack Skuller has returned with a new solo EP, the more somber My Disappearing Act. It has the carefully curated guitar sounds we might associate with his past work but, on the whole, the project is more introspective than his full band work. All five songs here are winners but I’m drawn to “Antibodies (Buy You Time),” with its timely sentiments and a subtle hookiness that reminds me of early Josh Rouse. Slipping down-under for a moment, Adelaide Australia’s Teenage Joans describe their sunny guitar-heavy tunes as juice-box pop punk, a fresh take on the punk-meets-pop genre. Their new EP is Taste of Me and it is definitely a strong sampler of what this duo of teen gals can do. The first single “Something About Being Sixteen” has been getting plenty of attention but personally I think opening cut “Ice Cream” really showcases the breadth of their talent. The punk feel takes a back seat to seductively layered background vocals, droning hooky guitars, and melody accentuated by a lead vocal that reminds me just a bit of The Sundays at times. Another band exuding a strong punky vibe is Friends of Cesar Romero. But punky more in sentiment than sound. The ‘band’ is really just one guy, North Cheyenne/Lakota garage rocker J. Waylon Miller, but you’d never know it from his voluminous bandcamp collection of singles, EPs and albums. Some tracks are driving, noisy sixties garage rock verging on punk. Others draw from the melodic side of the 1960s, more like carefully crafted musical sketches. “Summer Boyfriend” is the Miller’s latest single and it’s a real treat, combining an urgent propulsive energy with melodic hooks worthy of any Mighty Lemon Drops song. B-side “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” is pretty special too, with a hypnotic drone and catchy guitar line in the chorus. I can’t wait to dig into FCR’s back catalogue.

Oslo Norway’s Beachheads brought out a killer self-titled debut album in 2017. Mixing elements of Weezer with Oasis and Husker Du the album is explosion of guitars and earwormy tunes. But somehow I managed to not write about them. I don’t know what happened as I bought the album and remember thinking it was pretty amazing. Well, suffice to say, check it out. It’s a no brainer purchase. And you can add their brand new single to your shopping as well. “Jupiter” has a slightly more sweet melodic flavour, reminding me a little of the melodies I recall from Et Tu Bruce’s early work. Boston’s Kid Gulliver offer up a stylized old school new wave single with “Stupid Little Girl” from their latest EP Gimme Some Go! The vocals are so reminiscent of a load of early 1980s indie girl groups and girl-led bands. Speaking of old school, the Automatics have something in their DNA that allows them to effortlessly synthesize a host of 1960s influences. It’s there in how the vocals meld with the guitars on their great new single, “Black Velvet Elvis.” This is a should-be hit single. I hear just a hint of Freedy Johnston in the vocals, particularly in the chorus. Santa Monica’s The Popravinas continue to develop their unique blend of poppy Americana on their new single “Do the Creep.” It comes in advance of their new LP Goons West and breaks new ground songwriting-wise for the band, with its sleek guitar lines and rather dark moody aura and lyrics. Pitchfork called Quivers’ “Gutters of Love” an ‘instant anthem,’ the sound of 1980s bedsit indie college rock. I’d have to agree. As the opener to the band’s new album Golden Doubt it’s a marvelous ‘welcome home’ for fans and a hearty ‘hey, hello’ to new listeners. The light jangle, alternating vocals, group singing and soaring choruses are very Grouplove or The Smittens on a particularly tidy day. You’ll come for this single but stay for the rest, for sure.

The Italian rock scene is holding its own these days. We reviewed Vicenza’s Hearts Apart’s recent single “Waste Time” and now the rest of its accompanying EP is out, Number One to No One. The five songs alternate between punk pop and more straight up rock and roll. I’m digging the rollicking “It’s All the Same” with its cheeky guitar licks and hint of Americana in the chorus. Though “Lonely Days” is a pretty close runner up with a vibe reminiscent of The Vaccines. London’s The Speedways have delivered a neat little EP entitled Borrowed and Blue, featuring covers tunes from bands as diverse as Hanoi Rocks, ABBA and Kirsty MacColl. But the track that knocked me over was the cover of Billy Ocean’s 1976 single “Love Really Hurts Without You.” The band really crank the Motown feel, driving the hooks home like The Jam might do. The other covers here are equally inspired, a very fun collection. One look at The Sheepdogs website and you know these guys are heavily into the 1970s. Their music is clearly inspired by the poppy boogie rock of that decade. Being from Canada, they remind me of bands like The Stampeders or even mid-period Chilliwack. Their latest single is “Keep On Loving You” from their No Simple Thing EP and it’s pure AM radio 1974. Its got the swing, its got pumping piano action, its got those guitars with chorus effects that go on for days. Mostly its got that countryfied vocal sound that bands as disparate as the Doobies, the Eagles, and Band went in for in the mid-seventies. Remember Sports are the band formerly known as just Sports. They’re also the band formerly known for ‘basement rock’ but their new LP Like a Stone has come upstairs. The sophistication of the album has drawn comparisons to Sleater Kinney and Rilo Kiley. There’s plenty of variety here but I’ve fastened myself onto the almost Buddy Holly punk title track, “Like a Stone.” There’s an edge to the song that belies but somehow intensifies it melodic content. I’m also partial to the very Rilo “Out Loud” and the country-ish “Odds Are.” Spain is a land full of power pop lovers. One day I plan to go there to see some kick ass Spanish power pop band. Perhaps like Madrid’s Macarrones. The band’s latest album is emblazoned with XX across its low-key cover. But inside is a blistering collection guitar-slashing, very danceable tunes. I’m just going to focus on one that has a bit of a new wave groove and some sweet background vocals, “Más Que Una Idea.”

Wildings compilation album Hello My Name Is … is described as ‘folk pop’ but there are more than a few departures from that script on this fabulously diverse collection of his tunes from the past decade. Like “Swipe Right.” A bit of 1960s pop psychedelia, a dab of XTC, even a hint of The Vaccines, it’s a delightful dose of manicured indie poprock. And the other 19 songs are worth checking out too. On their prior records The Mergers sounded like they’d got lost on Merseyside around 1964 and somehow just resurfaced with their setlist intact. But the band is actually from Germany and with their new record Three Apples in an Orange Grove they are striking out for new musical territory as well. They’ve expanded their sound for a broader neo-psychedelia meets Britpop, kinda like Love meets Oasis. You can really hear that hybrid on “Seekin’ for the Light” but I’m more drawn to guitar hook anchoring “Right as Rain.” We wrap up this instalment of Life at 45 rpm with a pair of teen brothers from Ohio who have got their jangle down. As The Laughing Chimes their debut record In This Town is proof these guys know their way around those early REM and Smiths records. The jangle is off the charts and the songwriting is strong. My current fave is “Back to My House.” I love the ways it builds with plinky piano, reverbed-up guitar and vocals that remind me of early Grapes of Wrath.

The Mergers – Right as Rain

Well there you have it, a whole lot of 45s to take in – and there’s more on the way. Needle drop your way through these selections and click on the hyperlinked names of the ones that grab you to learn more.

The top photo is actually of a collection of paintings by Morgan Howell. He paints very large versions of classic rock and roll 45s. You can check out the range of his work here.

Should be a hit single: The Mavericks “Touch a Lonely Heart”

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I discovered The Mavericks via their 2003 self-titled album, The Mavericks. I was blown away by the songwriting: “I Want to Know,” “Shine Your Light,” “Would You Believe,” and many more. But I also fell in love with lead singer Raul Malo’s fabulous diversity of singing styles, sometimes echoing the clipped diction of Buck Owens or the emotional intensity of Roy Orbison or the country blues sadness of Patsy Cline. The band themselves play a lively mix of Tex-Mex country/rockabilly with flashes of Cuban and Cajun influences. This particular album emerges at an interesting juncture in their career, coming out three years after their initial break up and nine years before they would unite again. The song I’m focusing on here, “Touch a Lonely Heart,” is also from this period, actually appearing as the b-side to the first single from The Mavericks album, “I Want to Know.” I can’t believe something this good could be left off the album! Just listen to the initial roll out of the tune with its snappy electric lead guitar line, “Help Me Rhonda” pumping fairground organ, and irresistible melodic hook. Then Malo’s vocal slides in with a candy-coated smoothness that is utterly seductive. The sonic elements of the song seems so immediately familiar but this is no derivative sound alike tune. Instead The Mavericks wield the constituent elements with the mastery of a band that has played a thousand nights together. This is textbook should-be hit single songwriting and performance.

Touch a Lonely Heart

If you like what you hear here, you’re going to love the rest of the band’s catalogue. You can catch up on their early period hits with the cheekily-titled Super Colossal Smash Hits of the 90’s: The Best of The Mavericks from 1999 or dip in to any of their post-2013 albums and not go far wrong. Their most recent album is 2020’s fab Spanish-language En Espanol. You can read all about The Mavericks, their recordings and tour news on the band’s website here.