Hidden gems: Kasim Sulton, Sky Diving Penguins, Kacy and Clayton and Marlon Williams, and Moonlight Parade

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Hidden in plain sight, these gems almost escaped my notice from this year past. How I missed some I don’t know. I mean, Kasim Sulton’s not some unknown artist and he’s so in my 1980s poprock wheelhouse. Well let’s buff these up and see how they shine.

If you’re not already a fan you probably still know Kasim Sulton as the lead singer of Utopia’s sole top 40 single “Set Me Free.” Besides handling bass playing and lead singing for Utopia on nine albums he’s released a number of solo records and acted as sideman to the stars countless times in the studio and on stage. So what’s another album from this accomplished guy? Something special, that’s what. Kasim Sulton 2021 may just be the best record of his career. The songs are so good and they’re delivered in that candy smooth 1980s poprock style I love, think Hall and Oates, Greg Kihn, Huey Lewis, and Utopia (of course). Things kick off in style with “More Love,” a very Utopia-slick bit of poppy single-ing, with just a touch of that smart Steely Dan yacht rock feel. “Unsung” is a buoyant, tongue-in-cheek take-down on Sulton’s own perennial sideman career. “Blame Somebody Else” sounds like another should-be hit to me, with plenty of that 1980s big chorus bombast. Sulton reaches back to offer up some Beatles-inspired material on “To Her” and “Her Love is Sunshine” while “Sweetest Fascination” reminds me of Hall and Oates’s “Your Imagination” from Private Eyes. Then he slows things down on the touching, hooky ballad “What It Means to be Alone.” Man, this guy can still sing! I’m also very partial to “Fastcar.” This is AM rock and roll radio from its guitars aplenty, melodic heyday. What a delight when an old pro shows he still has a few surprises left, really delivering here on both the songs and performance.

Blame Somebody Else
Fastcar

What a backstory on Georgia’s Sky Diving Penguins. That’s the ‘back in the USSR ‘Georgia, not the US southern state. Formed against a backdrop of crumbling Soviet influence and an influx of western popular music, band leader Gia Iashvili stitched together bits of influence from bootleg Beatles records, Nirvana, Beck and Elliott Smith into a formidable sound on the band’s early 2001 EP Outspoken. Then nothing – until now. Louder Than War or Eclectic Music Lover can fill you in on the how and why of this unhappy state of affairs, I’m just going to skip right to the happy ending late 2021 release of the band’s self-titled Sky Diving Penguins long-player. The spectre of the late period Beatles is the most obvious influence haunting this record. But it’s often tempered with something else. Opening track “I Don’t Want, I Don’t Care” sounds like the single, its Beatles cues reminding me of Brenda Benson’s solo work. “Serotonin” takes its Beatles vibe in a more rock direction, combining sixties psych motifs with a grunge feel. The rippling acoustic guitar propelling “This is Breaking Me Apart” sounds a bit John Martyn meets the Moody Blues. “All Goes Back in the Box in the End” has a very English acoustic pop feel circa 1970 e.g. Brinsley Schwarz. For me, “Run Boy” is another contender for should-be hit single, with an appeal for fans of Eels or Beck in their more geared-down poppy moods. And this is just today’s impressions, tomorrow the list of faves could change. Altogether Sky Diving Penguins really delivers on the early promise of this band and then some.

Saskatchewan meets New Zealand on Plastic Bouquet, a collaboration between Canadians Kacy and Clayton and Kiwi Marlon Williams. Both acts have already established their cred on separate previous releases but working together it’s like there’s an electric current running through the whole proceedings. The album genre is retro folk/country, think Neko Case in country mode. Like Case, it’s got that 1960s rumble and twang but the aching emotional heft of the package is so of the now. Influences abound, some Patsy Cline torch country on “I Wonder Why” and “Last Burning Ember,” more folk country Ian and Sylvia on title track “Plastic Bouquet” and “I’m Going to Break It.” Sometimes the songs break the country mold, like the album’s opening track “Isn’t It.” It’s a track that really establishes the distinctive sound of this trio, reminiscent of the country side of The Poppy Family. Or there’s “I’m Unfamiliar” with its more rocky organ and electric guitar shots defining the song. “Light of Love” sounds like late 1960s pop country, the kind that appeared in all those sixties period movie montages. Or there’s just the straight up country and western vibe of “Arahura” and “Old Fashioned Man.” On the whole, Plastic Bouquet is a remarkable synthesis of these individual talents. If you’ve got heartache on your mind, Kacy and Clayton and Marlon Williams have set it to music on this LP.

On their third album Worthing UK’s Moonlight Parade turn up the jangle on What If? Just one listen to their magisterial opening cut “Amsterdam” and I’m primed to believe the band’s presser that this is indeed their “strongest work to date.” The guitar line echoes like it’s being performed in some old English cathedral while the song’s atmosphere is very Echo and the Bunnymen and The Verve. Should-be hit single, definitely. From there the album just goes from strength to strength, leaning in to the jangle on “The Way I Feel” and “Brother,” the latter oozing a Smithsian influence in the structure and execution. “Hanging Around” reminds me of The Coral’s crisp remake of 1960s guitar poprock. “Awkward” sounds like it came right out of the Modern English songbook. And then there’s the surprising shift to the Donovan psychedelic swing and fuzz guitar defining “No Way of Knowing.” Album closer “You Know Me Better” has a drone-y, dream-like quality, like Lloyd Cole in more introspective moments. What If? sounds like a lot of us are feeling right now, uncertain, hurting, looking for a bit of hope.

Give these hidden gems a few listens and I’m sure you’ll agree they’re certainly worth treasuring. And, as an added bonus, the gem shop hotlinks are always open for a leisurely perusal of the product and purchases. Gem photo courtesy Orbital Joe.

A boy named Elvis

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On album number 32 The Boy Named If Elvis Costello and his Imposters come rocketing out of gate with a manic ferocity. Opening cut “Farewell, OK” kinda sounds like the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” if Lennon and McCartney had been in the Clash. The message is clear: fans impatient for Costello to return to his This Year’s Model roots, the wait is over. Elvis may be 67 years old but he’s not too old to rock and roll. And lay on all his usual clever lyrical and melodic turns too.

Now when I say this record marks a return to This Year’s Model that’s only part of what’s going on. Drummer Pete Thomas is playing on the original kit from that record and you can definitely hear it at the start of tracks like “Penelope Halfpenny” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” But the songs simply refuse to be limited to influences from just one album. “Penelope Halfpenny” is really the lyrical and melodic cousin of “Veronica” from Costello’s 1989 Warner Brothers debut Spike, though the organ riffs would be right at home on Armed Forces. “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” also balances This Year’s Model drumming with an Armed Forces melodic vibe. At times it’s the sound and combination of instruments that harkens back to a particular time. “Magnificent Hurt” aces the early records formula of distinctive bass and organ runs. “Mistook Me For A Friend” and “The Man You Love To Hate” echo the gripping tension that the Attractions could sustain on a variety of cuts from the first few albums. Then again “My Most Beautiful Mistake” reminds me of the pop soul sound EC worked up on his mid-period release Mighty Like a Rose.

And then there’s the ballads. “Paint the Red Rose Blue” is that exquisitely mannered song style Elvis really got into from Trust onwards that pops up again and again over the rest of his career. I sometimes think he must crank a few of these out every day before breakfast, so effortlessly do they flow across his many releases. You want it darker? Both “Trick Out the Truth” and “Mr. Crescent” are those seemingly nice EC ballads that hint at a deeper menace the longer you keep listening to them. But the highlight on this album for me is “The Difference” with its keyboard dominated chorus. I’ve always had a soft spot for Goodbye Cruel World and the mix of elements here really remind of where Costello landed on that record.

Paint the Red Rose Blue
The Difference

Rock and roll Elvis is back. Though, in fairness, he never really went away. What nostalgic fans often want is a return to Elvis circa 1979, all snarl, pounding drums and relentless organ riffs. Well EC has seldom been keen to simply stand still creatively or retread old ground. He’s constantly pushed the limits of his rock and roll horizons. But on The Boy Named If Costello indulges the yearning for past glory, sprinkling hints of musical yesteryear all over the album. And the result, far from a retread, is a distinctively new Elvis synthesis.

Elvis Costello lives online here, at least some of the time.

Breaking news: Novelty Island, Sweet Nobody, Suburban HiFi, and The Shivas

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It may be a brand new year but we’ve still got a load of records from last year that really deserve more time in the spotlight. Damn all those other blog ‘best of’ lists! I’m playing catch up again … Alas, today’s breaking news may or may not be all that breaking to everybody but they’re definitely worth a listen.

You’ll find Novelty Island in the ‘McCartney circa 1968-73’ chapter of your Beatles encyclopedia. Band leader Tom McConnell has clearly deconstructed everything from Paul’s White Album contributions to the entirety of Band on the Run and the influences abound on How Are You Coping With This Century? The results are both highly pleasing and not derivative in the least, in part due to McConnell’s ace song-writing. “This Bird” kicks things off with a light acoustic guitar touch, only to build and soar melodically in the chorus. Then “Cowboy on a Bicycle” grabs you with its addictive banjo riffs and male girly group vocals. What’s going on here? McConnell keeps you guessing. “Michael Afternoon” is equal parts crunchy electric guitar chords and an almost baroque vocal approach. “Ladybird” is all whispery, McCartney-like whimsy wrapped in a delightful acoustic ballad. Only with “Jangleheart” does a more conventional band sound finally make an appearance, vibing Big Star in a big way. “Blank Wine” is also a bit of a departure, more of a Todd Rundgren workout. But all things come back to McCartney elsewhere (in a good way) with a particularly Wingsian finish on “Yes.” Man, he nails those vocals!

Sweet Nobody should get the award for most apropos album title of the past two years with We’re Trying Our Best. No kidding. And like the rest of us the record is all over the map in terms of mood and emotional self-regulation, ranging from free-wheeling, surf-tinged rocking abandon to low-key, melody-infused ennui. The record opens with “Not a Good Judge,” a track effusing the uneasiness of our times, delivered with an almost Suzanne Vega degree of emotional distance. “Why Don’t You Break My Heart” is the should-be hit single for me here with its great big chorus and rolling shots of jangle. “Five Star Diary” comes on a bit stronger so don’t even try resist the wall of sparkly guitar. This is like the Primitives in low gear with a chorus that also reminds of Kirsty MacColl. “Million Yard Stare” is defined by a mesmerizing electric guitar lead line opener that then threads its way throughout the song. Meanwhile “Other Humans” teems with restrained passion. Like a great country song, it sounds like it is about to break wide open at any moment. I could hear Neko Case doing this number or the fab country jangle bonus cut “Disturbance.” For a bit of dark-tinged surf rock see “Little Ghost.” On the other hand, there’s a definite Sundays or Cardigans feel to “If I Should Die Tonight.” On reflection, forget the ‘trying our best’ schtick, this is a band is not just trying, they’re doing.

I love E minor rock and roll. Often dubbed the ‘sad chord,’ all the greats used it (e.g. the Yardbirds, Big Star, REM, etc.) and it’s all over Suburban HiFi’s late 2021 release Superimposition. First cut “In Her Reverie” delicately juxtaposes its various musical elements: intoxicating acoustic lead guitar work, striking electric guitar shots, and chilling FOW-worthy vocals. Then the opening guitar lick of “The Year in Pictures” knocked me back into 1979, the song so captures the brilliant, brittle intensity of the sound at that time. “Space Between Us” also exudes a late 1970s feel but the keyboards and drums are more characteristic of the disco/pop crossover AM radio hits of the era. Yet if I had to boil it all down, the material here mostly reminds me of all those hooky mid-tempo tunes cranked out by Fountains of Wayne in the late 1990s. I mean, check out “Beamed In.” If that’s not Chris Collingwood handling the vocals it’s a pretty fair imitation. Or there’s “Fight on our Wedding Night,” a track that both sounds FOW and has the observational chops of Collingwood lyrics at their dire best. On the other hand, “Vinyl on the Radio” sometimes sounds very Elvis Costello, sometimes somewhat Walter Egan. And there’s melodic outliers, like the wonderfully weird “Potemkin Honey” with its great interplay between bass and organ and the main melody. Seems to me Superimposition is the kind of interruption we could all use more of.

I’m definitely late The Shivas party, only coming in on album number 7, the new Feels So Good // Feels So Bad. From what I’ve read they were a hot teenage mess of rocking riffs and punky ‘tude when they started out fifteen years ago. What I hear now is a mature band balancing the rock with more tender tunes, firmly in control of their unique sound. Opening cut “Feels So Good” is an intense, gripping, almost dirge-like psych rock workout. “Undone” adds a strong melodic undercurrent to the rocking riffs, aided by some cool organ. Then comes the first obvious should-be hit single, the alluring midtempo number “Tell Me That You Love Me.” The feel is a very 1966 British dolly bird belter of a tune. Dusty Springfield anyone? Or, for a more American take, I could hear The Ronettes making this their own. Riffs remain central on tracks like “If I Could Choose” and “For the Kids.” But the latter is also marked by some ghostly, almost Fleet Foxes vocals, which also pop up on “You Wanna Be My Man” and “Sometimes.”  Then there’s the tender American Graffiti-revisited sound worked into songs like “Don’t Go” and “Please Don’t Go.” Contrast them with “My Baby Don’t,” a solid rocking down the highway tune, and you get a sense of the impressive breadth of accomplishment here.

Well there’s all the news that fits, for now. You’ve got the headlines, now it’s up over to you to follow up on the stories. Thanks to Koolshooters for the cool mast photo.

Something happened here: Ronnie Spector and Marshall Crenshaw

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The death of the legendary, incomparable Ronnie Spector is a shock. Did a singer ever seem more alive? From her ground-breaking singles with the Ronettes throughout the 1960s to various efforts to jump start her solo career from the 1970s on, Spector gave it her all. And while she never managed to pull off a Tina Turner kind of comeback in her solo phase she did produce some fine singles and albums, particularly those backed by Springsteen’s E Street Band. However, hands down, my favourite post-Ronettes release from Ronnie Spector is her collaboration with Marshall Crenshaw.

Recorded in 1989, Something’s Gonna Happen was only finally released in 2003. The EP is a dynamic blast of everything that made Spector special: gutsy vocals, Ronettes-quality background singing, and a crack musical backing from Crenshaw’s amazing mid-1980s band. And the tunes really work for her too. The EP focuses on material from Crenshaw’s first two albums, two from each and a rare cut that he never released, with the whole thing produced by Crenshaw’s early producer Alan Betrock. From 1983’s Field Day, Spector adds a tenderness to the vocal on “For His Love” and puts her own stamp on “Whenever You’re On My Mind.” But it’s the material from Crenshaw’s self-titled 1982 debut that really allows Spector to shine, adding a new spark to “Favorite Waste of Time” and turning “Something’s Gonna Happen” into a should-be hit single. The unreleased Crenshaw track “Communication” is another highlight, a solid tune that Spector really makes her own. In a better world, the release of this EP would have marked Spector’s triumphant return to the spotlight.

As the lights dim on the stage, Ronnie Spector is gone. But everybody in listening range knows something happened here. Thankfully we can relive the magic again and again with these great recordings. Visit her website here or check out her recent super holiday EP on bandcamp.

Should be a hit single: Grrrl Gang “Pop Princess”

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Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s Grrl Gang explode across your ears at the start of “Pop Princess” with a song that says – no demands – ‘dance to me!’ The driving, droney guitar is a relentless call to shake something. Surprisingly, the chorus is not the hook magnet here. If anything the chorus taps the brakes, letting you catch your breath before diving back in. The song appears on the 2020 collection Here To Stay! that brings together material from the group’s stand-alone early singles and EPs. There’s plenty more fab stuff here like the Teenage Fanclubby “Dream Grrrl” and the Smithsian “Night Terrors.” The magic here is how the band combine a Scottish indie pop elan with just a hint of post-1950s American song styles. And smart? Whoa. These peeps have got something to say and they’re going to say it now, particularly on restrictive gender roles and sexuality. But they manage to meld those political passions and insights into the music almost seamlessly. Fist pumping and arm waving, all at the same time. The band’s more recent single “Honey, Baby” is also pretty special, dramatically expanding the sonic depth of their sound. All this and they’ve yet to release an actual debut album – now that is going to be a thing.

Visit the Grrrl Gang at their Bandcamp, Instragram or Facebook pages and catch the wave.

Poprock Record’s 25 must-have LPs for 2021

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In our social media-saturated universe it seems that your 15 minutes of fame has been reduced to just 15 seconds. Who going to give up the time to listen to a whole album, let alone gaze longingly at the cover (like we used to do) while it plays? That means today’s albums have really got to have something special going on, like great tunes, engaging styles, and hooks that seem to improve with repeated listenings. Those are the standards we applied to the 2021 album releases we encountered this past year, resulting in a list of 25 must-have LPs we think you should get to know. But wait, that’s not all. We’ve also helpfully culled the racks for top EPs, covers albums, and long lost albums that finally saw the light of day in 2021. Forget the Columbia House Record Club, we’ve got all the long-players you need and then some. Hyperlinks take you to the original review.

So let’s get the show rolling with Poprock Record’s 25 must-have LPs for 2021:

1. James Henry Pluck
2. Brent Seavers BS Stands For
3. The Boys with The Perpetual Nervousness Songs from Another Life
4. Lane Steinberg The Invisible Monster
5. Ruen Brothers Ultramodern
6. Aaron Lee Tasjan Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!
7. Greg Townson Off and Running
8. Rich Arithmetic Shiftingears
9. Richie Mayer The Inn of Temporary Happiness
10. Drew Beskin Problematic for the People
11. Rob Ellis Orrall 467 Surf and Gun Club
12. Nicholas Altobelli Technicolor Hearts
13. The Friends of Cesar Romero War Party Favors
14. Steve Robinson Swallowing the Sun
15. The Brothers Steve Dose
16. Lolas All Rise
17. Lo Talker A Comedy of Errors
18. The Armoires Incognito
19. Tommy Ray! Handful of Hits
20. Chris Church Game Dirt
21. Matthew Milia Keego Harbor
22. Henry Chadwick We All Start Again
23. Rich Mattson and the Northstars Skylights
24. Ken Sharp Miniatures
25. Fishboy Waitsgiving

Putting James Henry as my number 1 album choice for 2021 might surprise a few blog watchers but frankly I don’t know why Pluck isn’t topping all the indie charts. Maybe it’s the subdued cover art or perhaps the album just falls between the genre cracks, I don’t know. But if you love those highly listenable 1980s Squeeze or Crowded House albums, this guy is for you. Each song should be stamped ‘earworm warning’ as a positive public health measure. Take it from me, Pluck is a relentless hook machine. 5 stars for sure. Other choices – Brent Seavers, The Brothers Steve, Lolas, Chris Church – are perhaps more predictable. Hey, they’ve delivered before and here they deliver again. Genre-wise, Lane Steinberg and Fishboy undoubtedly raise boundary issues but damn they are fine albums with subtly hooky tunes. And the rest? Well they’re all defined by content that is mucho killer, nada filler.

Next up, Poprock Record’s top five EPs for 2021:

1. Daryl Bean Mr. Strangelove
2. The Blendours Go On Vacation
3. BPM Collective Catastrophe Girl
4. The Cudas Alien Vacation
5. Rumble Strip Let’s Roll

Can’t spare the time for a full album experience? These extended play releases will meet your need for more than a single but not quite a long-player. But fair warning, these concentrated blasts of melodic goodness may leave you wanting for more. They’re that good.

Then, there’s Poprock Record’s top five covers albums for 2021:

1. Richard Turgeon 10 Covers Volume Two
2. Mike Browning Class Act
3. The Speedways Borrowed and Blue
4. The Unswept Power Pop for all the People
5. Spygenius Blow Their Covers

The pandemic moved just about everyone to put out an album of covers. But they’re actually pretty hard to nail, ranging in quality from elevated karoke to the unrecognizable. The trick is to rework the unique creative spark in the song, making it both recognizable and different at the same time. Turgeon’s a master of song reinvention, taking up tunes others wouldn’t dare to try (from the likes of The Monkees, The Mamas and Papas, and the Bryds, among others) and succeeding. Browning applies his own distinctive poprock chops to material from the sixties to the eighties that lets you fall for the classics all over again. Ditto 3, 4, and 5 – they love the songs and it shows.

And finally, Poprock Record’s 5 best long lost albums of 2021:

1. Sorrows Love Too Late … the real album
2. Steve Rosenbaum Have a Cool Summer
3. Bruce Moody Forever Fresh!
4. Doublepluspop Too Loud, Too Fast, Too Much
5. Underwater Sunshine Suckertree

The idea that a band could put all the work into writing, playing and recording an album and then not have it released almost seems like a crime in my book. Numbers 4 and 5 had their work ‘misplaced,’ only to accidently resurface recently and get released. Numbers 2 and 3 were indie artists whose various DIY and professional recordings never got gathered together for a proper release, until the rise of recent niche music markets made it viable. And number 1 is a remarkable story of a band that wouldn’t let their record company/producer’s mangled version of their album stand. So instead they rerecorded it, this time getting it right. That the Sorrows could make their rerecording of Love Too Late sound so 1981 is a testament to their talent and sheer doggedness.

Ok, one last category, Poprock Record’s best ‘best of’ album of 2021:

Dropkick The Best of Dropkick

Sometimes greatest hits collections really hit the mark. The Best of Dropkick is one of them. It’s a comprehensive overview of this great band’s career, packaged with attractive artwork, and at a very nice price.

Well we stretched the 25 album limit but it really was the only way to be fair to all these super LPs and EPs. I think this post demonstrates that while classic era of the album may be over, there’s still lots of tremendous long-playing records out there. If you love them, support them, whether its live or Memorex.

Lego records graphic courtesy art/design student _Regn.

Poprock Record’s should-be hit singles of 2021

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Welcome to our sixth annual collection of should-be hit singles gathered from the artists, albums and tunes featured on Poprock Record in the previous year. You’d think after five tries I would have come up with some kind of rock solid science to make these choices. But, no. Still winging it, going with whatever takes my fancy. I mean, I think you’ll see a pattern: catchy guitar hooks, soaring melodies, earwormy compositions, all accomplished in three minutes or less usually. Putting this list together was particularly challenging this year – positively spoilt for choices! My initial list of possible songs had over 200 selections. The hyperlinks below will take you to the original post about each artist as they first appeared on the blog.

So let’s get to it, Poprock Record’s top 50 should-be hit singles for 2021:

1. The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness “I Don’t Mind”
2. White Fang “Never Give Up”
3. The Vapour Trails “That’ll Do It”
4. James Holt “Mystery Girl”
5. Brent Seavers “More Than A Friend”
6. Timmy Sean “The College Year”
7. Aaron Lee Tasjan “Another Lonely Day”
8. Ruen Brothers “Cookies and Cream”
9. The Martial Arts “Bethany”
10. Daisy House “Last Wave Home”
11. The Coral “Vacancy”
12. Robert Ellis Orrall “Sunshine”
13. Deadlights “Breaking Down”
14. Love, Burns “Wired Eyes”
15. The Blendours “Tell Me The Truth”
16. Daryl Bean “Keeping Me Alive”
17. Stoeckel & Pena “Why”
18. Richard X. Heyman “Ransom”
19. Automatics “Black Velvet Elvis”
20. John Myrtle “How Can You Tell If You Love Her”
21. The Red Locusts “Another Bad Day For Cupid”
22. James Henry “So Many Times Before”
23. Lane Steinberg “The Invisible Monster”
24. Geoff Palmer “The Apartment Song”
25. Mike Browning “The Little Black Egg”
26. The Eisenhowers “Suffer”
27. The Jack Cades “What Am I Going To Do?”
28. Friends of Cesar Romero “Thinkin’ About Leavin’”
29. The Kickstand Band “Hey Julianne”
30. Pseudonym “Before the Monsters Came”
31. David Brookings “Mania At The Talent Show”
32. Lolas “Pain In My Heart”
33. Tommy Scifres “Thought You Knew”
34. Vanilla “I Shall Be Re-Released”
35. Hyness “Cruelty”
36. Tim Jackson “How Do You Mend A Broken Heart”
37. Caddy “Cost of Love”
38. Chris Church “Know”
39. Tim Izzard “Breaking Me Down”
40. BPM Collective “Catastrophe Girl”
41. Benny Hayes “Don’t Make Me Go”
42. Steve Robinson “Mr Empty Head”
43. The Poppermost “Laziest Fella In The Realm”
44. Liz Phair “Hey Lou”
45. Juliana Hatfield “Gorgon”
46. Robert Sherwood “Blue All Over”
47. Kurt Hagardorn “You Are My Girl”
48. Richard Turgeon “Goodbye to Summer”
49. Ed Woltil “Paper Boat”
50. The Amplifier Heads “The House of Young Dolls”

This year’s list privileges strong, strong hooks. I’m talking the jangleliscious guitar work from the ever reliable Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness on “I Don’t Mind,” the relentless driving guitar riffs animating White Fang’s “Never Give Up,” or the delicious 1960s roll out kicking off The Vapour Trails’ “That’ll Do It.” Or the pumping, plinky piano and organ cocktail that undergirds James Holt’s killer single “Mystery Girl.” Then there’s the more traditional poprock Brent Seavers, springing the earworm in the chorus of “More Than a Friend.” Still, there’s room for variety on this list, from the tender acoustic Aaron Lee Tasjan ballad “Another Lonely Day,” to the Beach Boys homage in Daisy House’s “Last Wave Home,” to a folk rock duet from Steve Stoeckel and Irene Pena on “Why,” to the striking sonic heartbreak embodied in Richard X. Heyman’s touching “Ransom.”

Truly, this list is just a bit a fun, one more chance for me to shine a light on the artists whose work had me hitting replay in 2021. But I’m sure you might make different choices. Feel free to tell me all about them! Either way, don’t forget to find some way – buying music, attending live shows (when it’s safe!), or taking up those opportunities to interact with them online – to support their bottom line. They may not only be in it for the money, but money does allow them to stay in it.

The big fat post of everything II

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In a race against time we’re squeezing the final artists on my ‘to write about in 2021” list into this second installment of a big fat post of everything. It’s not pretty but it gets the job done.

Sometimes the parts don’t add up the way you might expect. Angel Du$t is a supergroup of sorts comprised of members from various hardcore bands but the record is anything but. Yak: A Collection of Truck Songs is the title of the album and it’s a misdirection too, the collection is more Weezer than hillbilly hangout. Check out “Big Bite” to get a taste of the poppy flavour of this outing. Mmm, good. Boston’s Glowbox grab you with guitars up front on opening cut “Screaming at the Sky” from their recent record Your Call is Very Important to Us. But that’s just the lure, it’s an album full of catchy tunes in that straight up, stripped back late 1970s rock and roll form. For instance, “Don’t Give Up on Me” is the should-be hit single for me. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin are such an amazing band it’s not surprising that their spin off projects are pretty cool too. SSLYBY guitarist Will Knauer is one half of Hey Pam! along with Marrisa Mac and they’ve got an album of tunes that fall somewhere between Dropkick/Teenage Fanclub and The Weepies. It’s a bit hard to find but check out “Apocrypha” to get a sense of what they’re doing. I don’t know what it was about the pandemic that said ‘hey bands, do albums of covers!’ but they have, again and again. But Canterbury’s Spygenius give the formula a new twist on Blow Their Covers, recasting the tunes in the register of different eras and choosing a truly eclectic mix of tunes. I initially tuned in for Gene Clark’s magisterial “So You Say You Lost Your Baby” but had to stay for the reinventions of Squeeze’s “Is That Love” and Madness’ “Michael Caine.” But the real gem here the brilliant cover of The Soft Boys’ “Queen of Eyes.” He’s the driving creative force behind Dropkick and The Boys with Perpetual Nervousness but hey, that’s not enough, Andrew Taylor has another project, Andrew Taylor and the Harmonizers. So what is different here? Not that much, some pedal steel guitar maybe. Don Valentine over at I Don’t Hear a Single dubbed them ‘country guitar pop’ and that fits the bill. Basically it’s another album of Andrew Taylor goodness. Don recommends “Life is Good” and “Older” and they’re great but I think you should start with “It’s Misery Again” with its creative melodic twists and turns.

Hey Pam! – Apocrypha

Speaking of over-achievers, Guided By Voices dropped three albums in 2020 and another in 2021 and still found time for a Dukes of Stratosphere side project called Cub Scout Bowling Pins. So far there’s an EP Heaven Beats Iowa and album Clang Clang Ho and the results are wonderfully offbeat. Check out “Copyright 123” or “Magic Taxi” for representative samples. Bejamin Belinska’s Lost Illusions is marked by gently buoyant guitar playing that sometimes reminds me of Bruce Cockburn, despite its somewhat darker themes. The guitar lines that opens the album on “Dancing on the Southside” are so lyrical and set the stage for the whole album, a marriage of guitar impressionism and dark of night folkie vocals. And yet I think “Disappearing” is more of a rollicking ride in the country single. One man band LMNOP is a blast of DIY poppy fun with just tinge of punk here and there on his curiously titled album, WhatNOP dONW7. Opening cut “Things” is a good introduction to what is going on here but I’m more partial to the lilting swinging “Diver’s Head.” Very 1980s UK guitar pop. Forever Only Idaho is Harrison Lemke’s concept album of sorts, tracking what happened to the 2006 graduating class of Coeur d’Alene High School by 2018, in song. I was drawn to the contrast between the complex concept here and the simplicity of its execution, a rustic acoustic guitar heavy post-folk effort. Dip in anywhere on the record to get the feel but I’m really liking “Hayden Hello.” Ed Ryan put me on the Francis Lung and any Ed recce is usually good news. What a guitar player! Miracle is full of inspired playing and memorable tunes. “Bad Hair Day” is the single, sounding like a more uptempo Elliott Smith.

Spanish band Exnovios bring together old and new influences on their album Un Neuvo Dia, late 60s psych-tinged rock and roll, 1980s and 1990s indie artists, and more. But I’m digging the jangle on tracks like “Vuela Jambo” and particularly title track “Un Nuevo Dia.” Next up, literally the great white north. Danny Laj and the Looks hail from Sudbury, Ontario, far from those wimpy border towns where most Canadians live. But that hasn’t hardened their hearts, if the joy emanating from their new album Ten Easy Pieces is anything to go by. There’s serious rocking all over the record but it’s the light boppy feel to “Don’t Keep Me Guessin’” that is keeping a smile on my face. Brighton, Michigan native Daryl Bean has got the must-have EP this year with Mr. Stangelove. Just four songs long, it’s gonna make you hate Mr. Bean – why just four songs? We want more! Spin “Keeping Me Alive” and see if you don’t hear a deliriously good reanimation of the golden years of Squeeze, Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello. Or check out his musical love letter to Fleabag star “Phoebe Waller-Bridge.” Wow. This guy should be on the star track. I’ve only heard one song from Chicago band Walcot’s upcoming album Songs for the Disenfranchised but I like it. “Dreaming Away” launches like a jaunty 1970s reinvention with just a hint of B.J. Thomas buried in the tune but as it goes on it develops in a totally original way. Can’t wait to hear more. My last contribution is from John Sally Ride’s recent LP Now Is Not A Great Time. I’ll be posting a more in depth review in the new year but for now know this, it’s amazing. Great tunes, beautifully played. Here’s a teaser, “She Doesn’t Do Nostalgia.” This is clearly ‘grade A’ Difford and Tilbrook inspired stuff.

Well there you have it. List checked off. My apologies to the artists for cramming you in like this but I had to write something about your great recordings before the year was over. Click on the hyperlinks to explore these efforts with the attention to detail they deserve.

The big fat post of everything I

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It happens every year. My meticulous lists and projected scheduled posts invariably go awry and artists I had every intention of featuring somehow get left out. But then I had an idea. An awful idea. A wonderful, awful idea. Actually it’s one I stole from those canny Brits. What if I just packed those missing artists into one big fat of post of everything? Then I could tuck them all into 2021 no problem. It’s not a pretty … but it’s what we’re doing. Here’s the first of two installments.

Spain loves power pop, as is obvious from Hank Idory’s recent album, Sentimental Jamboree. The record has a range of tempos going but I’m drawn to the whipsmart Mersey-tinged “Un Rayo De Sol.” Austin, Texas duo Hovvdy serve up some pretty special, self-dubbed ‘pillow-core’ on True Love. It’s got a some Bon Iver, a bit of Hayden, and even some New Order in its droney intensity at times. The whole record could wallpaper an evening of low lighting intimacy for you but a quick take lands on the title track “True Love.” Rochester New York is a serious rock and roll town with so many great bands from there. Like the early 1960s beach riffing rock and roll outfit Televisionaries. Crank up “Charlotte Beach” and let the beach bingo party begin! B-side “Cuckoo Clock” is a pretty special bit of fun too – love that guitar solo. To get some jangle on, let’s turn to Gabriel’s Dawn and their exquisitely gentle, flowing single “Loose Canyon.” Kinda like the Bangles geared down for a ride in the country. Proving old indie dogs can learn new tricks, Swansea Sound come out of Wales demanding ‘indie bands of the world, unite!’ The song titles are blast – “Corporate Indie Band,” “I Sold My Soul on EBay” – and not at all off the mark. But I’m digging the more blatantly poppy “Let It Happen.”

Kent’s The Pastel Waves are also working the political side of street on their EP The Influencers. There’s a 1980s Silencers feel to the package with distinctive guitar while the politics is served with strong melody e.g. opening track “Starts Right Here.” A solo record from Cotton Mather’s Robert Harrison is a big deal and people have been writing about it all over, deservedly so. Watching the Kid Come Back is a delightful collection, marked by whimsey and emotional depth. The title track alone is worth the album price, a remarkable work of melodic minimalism. Is it wrong to buy an album for the cover? Ok, so the music got to me too but the cover of Atari Ferrari’s new Pleasant Surprise had me on pause for while. The record itself is an extraordinary distillation of 1970s influences – Marc Bolan, Queen, a raft of guitar picking singer/songwriting guys, and more. Hard to choose just one tune but I’d have you start on the Cat Stevens-ish “Keep Lookin’.” Las Vegas band The Laissez Fairs clearly just tipped out of the Tardis from 1969, they so nail the psych-poprock sound of that time. The album is “Curiosity Killed The Laissez Fairs?” and it’s a winner. But pressed for one hit, I’m really digging “Sunshine Tuff.” Two Whiltshire UK boys are Rural France. I know, it’s confusing. But ignore all that and just wade into their fab new album RF. The slightly DIY indie vibe tends to obscure the songwriting talent here – what songs! So many possible key selections: “Clementine,” “Teenage Tom Petty,” “Sing Yr Hook,” and so on. I’m voting “Resident Comedian” as the should-be hit single.

Sal Baglio is having a busy year. Project one is another Amplifier Heads long-player, SaturnalienS. All the usual ingredients are there: hooky lead guitar lines, clever lyrics and surprising melodic turns buried everywhere. Just check out the Costello-worthy guitar licks launching “The House of Young Dolls.” What a tune! And then on project two he pulls a Dukes of Stratosphere move with new band The Peppermint Kicks, melding late sixties rock with a Romantics era new wave. It’s all there on “Johnny D’s (Play It Again).” One band is just not enough for some people. Going out on a limb with this next one, all the way to Selkirk Manitoba. Goody Grace has got a spooky EP out, Nostalgia Kills, and it vibes a pretty contemporary sound. But check out the 1980s spacey guitar and overall ominous poppiness to “Hold Me in the Moonlight.” Here’s another outlier from Madrid Spain group Howe Gelb and a Band of Gypsies. Overall, Algrias is tangorific, with airy background vocals and some pretty amazing guitar playing. But the standout feature of this band is how the musical accompaniment combines with the Leonard Cohen-esque lead vocals. Magic! Start with “Notoriety” and go from there. Vancouver’s WUT are great. There is something so performance artist punk about their whole demeanor on their record Now. For instance, “White Walls” almost sounds like a chant but still has some quirky melodic undercurrent carrying it through what is obviously first person account of a coffee shop apocalypse.

We’re not done. There’s even more ‘big fat post of everything’ coming your way. Tomorrow.

Snowflake singles

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Tis the season for shovels and snowflakes … and singles! What better way to wrap up the year than a slew of new 45s. Here’s 21 songs to get you through your snow-shoveling workout.

Atlanta’s Mattiels have early-dropped a single from their forthcoming new LP, the aptly named Georgia Gothic. The song is titled “Jeff Goldblum” and this outing is a bit more pop, kinda like something 1978 bordering on new wave. I like where this is going. I’m sneaking in another holiday-themed tune, but only because it’s so subtlely done. Brad Peterson’s “Beautiful and Bright” is lovely low-key ode to peace and goodwill, and who really gets enough of that? Nobody, that’s who. A year ago it was political drama central but amid all the competing headlines I somehow missed Sloan’s fabulous on-point single, “Silence Trumps Lies.” No fake news here, just slick melodies and wise sentiments. I may be getting to it a bit late but it’s definitely worth a replay. With “Stranger” Evan Myall combines some classic rhythm guitar shimmer with a nice bit of Todd Rundgren-like pop songcraft. From his recent EP Snail. Sticking to America’s west coast L.A. Exes offer up a light jaunty neo-early 1960s romp on “Baby Let’s Pretend.”

Cupid’s Carnival are clearly working their way up to a new album release sometime soon, given the singles we’ve seen this year. “Thinking About You Girl” is what the boys do best, another catchy mid-period Beatlesque charmer. Boston’s Bird Mancini manage to sound both very familiar and highly original, all at the same time. From their recent album The One Delight, I’m loving the rollicking joy of “Space Between Two Worlds,” driven by Ruby Bird’s impressive vocals. Sydney Australia’s Middle Kids remind me of a certain kind of contemporary poppy rock sound, like Grouplove. The keyboard opening to “Stacking Chairs” is so magnetic, drawing you in, building to a calliope-like drive in the chorus that’s aided by some nice guitar work. The song is from their most recent long-player, the perhaps only slightly over-stated Today We’re the Greatest. Dave Sheinin takes his reliable power pop chops in a sometimes rockier, sometimes more mellow direction on his recent release The Measure of Things. “St. Paul” has got a hooky bar band rockin’ feel. Richard Turgeon turns on the mellow meter for “7 Stories,” lulling us with some nice guitar swing and vocal harmonies that vibe that distinctive Eagles shiver-inducing effect.

Cupid’s Carnival – Thinking About You Girl

It’s been a while since we’ve heard an album from Wollongong, South Australia band Leadfinger but a few new singles have come out this last year. I’m currently attached to “The Fall of Rome” with its addictive lead guitar runs and ominous melodic undercurrent. I’m guessing a new album is not far off. Ottawa’s teen sixties retro band The Rockyts are clearly between albums so they released “It’s a Dirty Shame” to tide us over this year. The track plays to their melodic rock and roll strengths while adding just a bit of contemporary polish. Jeff Roberts is a mysterious guy from Charlottesville, Virginia who likes to just give his songs away. That’s right, just click on ‘free’ on Bandcamp! And you’re gonna want to with tracks like “Bones,” a shuffle-demon of a track that’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. Half Catholic is another band on its way to a new album, for sure, if the spate of recent singles is any indication. “What Good is Gone” has his trademark jangly lead guitar and expressive vocal delivery. It’s mournful and peppy in the same moment. For a change in direction, we head to Munster, Germany where Nah … get their twee baroque pop going on with a new single “The Useless Model.” It’s very theCatherines with some Everything but the Girl thrown in.

The Rockyts – It’s a Dirty Shame

DIY poprocker Stephen Schijns has a load of one-off singles on his Bandcamp page and they’re all pretty good. Indeed, some are pretty great even. Like the alluring charm of “I Met Her Yesterday” with its Byrdsian overtones and Al Stewart inflections. “What Do I Know About Love” is also pretty sweet. The Brandy Alexanders’ “Conventional Lie” starts off very George Harrison “My Sweet Lord” but quickly segues down its own distinctive path, combining winning vocals with some cool guitar and keyboard lines. Palmyra Delran and the Doppel Gang give their single a super-charged lick familiar to any early 1960s pop fan but it works on “Lucky in Love,” adding rather than overwhelming the tune. They’re a group with a limited resume that I’d love to see more from. New Orleans band Silver Synthetic have got a classic Americana thang going on. You can’t go wrong dropping your needle anywhere on their self-titled debut album but if I were calculating special moments I’d put my money on “In the Beginning.” The Caternary Wines have an otherworldly aura about them. There something Moody Blues/Jethro Tull spooky here. I’m hard pressed to choose one song from that their fab record Birling Gap but I’m going with the Enya-esque “Face on the Rail Line.”

The Brandy Alexanders – Conventional Lie

I can’t recall who put me on to Nashville songstress Tristen but whoever you were, thank you. Thank you!  She has an amazing ability to reach inside you and find some feeling you barely knew was there. At some point I’ll pay tribute to her great catalogue but for now let’s attend to her latest LP Aquatic Flowers. This is a very listenable album, with so many great cuts. I was going to recommend “I Need Your Love” and it is a great song but if I can only feature one tune then it has to be “Athena” with its dissonant lurch and melodic purity. It’s pretty special, but then Tristen is no ordinary songmaker.

No snowflake is exactly the same – ditto our singles. Celebrate the icy cool of our snow-inspired single selections. And drop a few bucks over at Bandcamp for these stellar artists.