Around the dial: The Small Breed, Electric Beauty, Turn Turn Turn, and Best Bets

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Our first turn around the dial of the new year is like a melodic guitar rock testimonial, combining old with new sounds, the rough with the smooth. But it’s the superior song-writing on display here that will keep you from adjusting your set.

Those mourning the recent passing of David Crosby will want to catch up with Dutch band The Small Breed. Their most recent album Remember a Dream utterly nails the pop psychedelia that was such a part of the late 1960s west coast American music scene, with splashes of sunshine pop and other influences too. Title track “Remember a Dream” is a dynamite scene setter. The music is so sixties but the vocals remind of more contemporary groups like Django Django.  “Picturesque Pictures” puts a dreamy Moody Blues flute front and centre. Then “Wanda Your Angel” dials things down, offering up some captivating acoustic guitar with a vocal that evokes Billy Bragg at his most tender. “She’s So Lovely” has things take a rather baroque turn. I hear a bit of Madness lurking in this song and all over the more mannered “Finders Keepers.” And then there’s the crowd-singing should-be hit, “Mirror Man.” This one jumps out and says ‘hear me!’ Remember a Dream is wonderful mixture of old and new, clearly treasuring the psychedelic sixties but refusing to remain limited to the decade in terms of influences. Definitely a trip worth taking.

The members of Electric Beauty have been around and back again. Veterans of countless musical ventures over the decades this current project is about having fun and it shows on their self-titled debut. The songs have all got the earnest yet easygoing feel of players comfortable with each other. Check out the vocal on “Cindy’s Gone Away,” it’s so raw and unfiltered but it works fabulously with the straight up poppy rock and roll accompaniment. I also love the lead guitar line that hooks you into “Modern Lovers.” It’s so classic. Again the vocal here has a directness I associate with likes of Dion or Del Shannon (in non-falsetto mode).  “Something for No One” strikes a different note, an almost spacey instrumental I could see slipping into a 1980s SciFi movie. “Lonely at the Top” counterposes a lyric Crenshaw or Springsteen could pull off with subtle organ runs and some great rumbly guitar. “The Awakening” is another cinema-worthy, other-worldly instrumental. Electric Beauty is an album that will fit you like a favourite old sweater: familiar, comfortable, enjoyable. Welcome back boys.

Cindy’s Gone Away
Modern Lovers
Lonely at the Top

With a name like Turn Turn Turn you might expect churning Brydsian jangle or burning social commentary a la Peter Seeger. But this Minnesota trio manage to do both and neither on their brand new LP New Rays From an Old Sun. Opening cut “Stranger in a Strange Land” covers off the first theme. One minute in and that trademark Byrds/Tom Petty signature guitar drone lands in the first instrumental break. Both “Hymn of the Hater” and “7 Kids” nod toward social issues, in a decidedly Americana style. But what we have here is so much more than this or that influence. Overall this record is a gorgeous blast of harmony vocals and songs with mellifluous hooks. Everything is built on the strength of the song-writing – and it is impressive. Some are just a bit of fun. “Powder” hums along like a Monkees deep cut. And who doesn’t like a whistle solo? Others are more serious. “If You’re Gonna Leave Me” launches in like a great soul classic without losing its pop precision. “My Eyelids Weigh Mountains” could easily be mistaken for something by The Band in their prime while “Schisandra” is just so Bryds. This album is a winner from start to finish, so crisply produced, so joyously sung and played. Seriously, a veritable aural delight for your ears.

When we last left the boys in New Zealand’s Best Bets their debut EP Life Under the Big Top had that ever-so-nice Grapes of Wrath guitar band sound. But how things have changed with their most recent LP On An Unhistoric Night. The sound is rougher and rockier, exuding pure party band. It’s there with the cranked lead guitar lines on “The Point” and “Crystal Mausoleum” and really takes off with the mosh pit frenzy-fueled “Wrong Side of the Sun.” Definitely getting The Buzzcocks vibe on “King Cnut” and “Whataworld” while “Look Back with Mike” is reminiscent of a more Replacements atmosphere. “The Minor Leagues” is the obvious should-be hit single, it balances polish with a rough hewn guitar charm. You get a sense of what a great live band this troupe must be listening to “Always on the Losing Side” with it very sixties garage feel. Or there’s “European Cars” which simply motors along with a manic energy, conjuring a Nick Lowe “Heart of the City” drive. The albums wraps with a bit of departure, the more mid-tempo “That Movie Never Got Made.” The subtle guitar hooks and anguished vocals really elevate the song. Spending some time with this album I’d have to say Best Bets are definitely aptly named.

From the radio to the record store, that used to be the trip. Now you don’t even have to leave home to own these (should-be) hits.

Photo courtesy C.P. Storm.

Cover me! New Order “Blue Monday”

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I can’t remember the first time I heard New Order’s “Blue Monday” but I do remember purchasing Power Corruption and Lies in the spring of 1983, largely on the basis of the cover design. Living in a west coast Canadian backwater I had no idea who New Order were or what their music sounded like. Still, I played the album over and over and felt pretty cool while doing so. Then I got an earful of “Blue Monday.” That hypnotic bass line, the wall of overlapping synths parts, the impassive vocals – they were all so captivating I splurged for the first 12” single I ever bought.

This past week my friend Tom posted about Orkestra Obsolete’s amazing cover of the song played on 1930s instruments. The video both sounds good and looks great. That got me wondering: what other groovy covers might there be of this oh-so unusual song? Turns out – quite a few. The reliable SecondHandSongs site lists over 70 versions in all kinds of styles. Quite a few dial up the synth like a bottle of New Order-brand concentrate but you can’t really out-New Order the originals. Why try? More interesting to me were the genre switchers, the covers that tried to put the song into a totally different context. Like the afore-mentioned Orkestra Obsolete, a one-off put-together band for a BBC program that really captured the essence of “Blue Monday” despite a lack of synths and drum machines.

Orkestra Obsolete are just the most recent example of a common tendency in covering “Blue Monday,” namely to strip things down and build them back up again but with radically different instrumentation. Acid Cowboys take things in an urban country direction, adding a loping rhythm and plenty of pedal steel guitar. The Banjo Lounge 4 use their signature instrument to anchor the song, effectively replacing the synth and electric bass guitar. Of course, as a quasi-percussive instrument the banjo can take up this space and then some. Hannah Peel really does a sound reduction on the song, accompanying her spare vocal with just a music box mounted on a mandolin. Funny how all three acts also offer a cover of “Tainted Love” on their respective albums.

Now for something almost completely different, check out The Jolly Boys and their mento reworking of the tune. Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music that pre-dates and heavily influenced both ska and reggae while the Jolly Boys are a band with roots stretching back to the 1940s. They really capture the lurching tempo of the song with their acoustic instruments and the radically different vocal here is inspired. By contrast Buke and Gase mirror the original sound in many ways but twist and stretch its various elements, making some more harsh and others wonderfully strange. Really, a delightful reinvention. But probably my fave cover is from Rio De Janeiro’s Autoramas. It’s all retro guitars to the front of the mix and solid four-on-the-floor drumming in a version with no vocals.

New Order continue to put out interesting music but if “Blue Monday” had been a one-hit wonder I imagine we’d still be hearing about it today. It’s just that cool.

Poprock self-starter kit: Orchidales and Where Is Your Dog Now?

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The DIY force is strong with these two acts, conjuring band albums out of largely solo efforts recorded on Tascams at home. But the results are anything but amateur, proving that bedrooms are good for a variety of excitements.

North Carolina’s Orchidales is John O’Donahue over three albums released between 2012 and 2018. The sound is a shoegazey Velvet Underground homage that gets crisper and less gazey and VU over time. The self-titled debut sounds like some dark underground club somewhere, the guitar tones shifting between Velvets rocking rudimentary (“Junky”) and exquisite innovation (“Lushes”). “Everyone’s Girl” sounds like a 60s garage classic. The sound on this record also remind me Patrick Boutwell’s work from the same time period. A year later things sound a bit less VU on An American Album of Familiar Music but still pretty garagey rough and ready. I love the relentless drive of tracks like “Electro,” “Seventeen” and “Emily.” But the record is also marked by some more mid-temp material like “No Name #7” and “Above the Clouds.” Five years passed before Mysterious Skin and Other Favorites came out in 2018 and the production sound was markedly different, cleaner and with vocals more present in the mix. Just listen to the guitar and vocal seem to pop out of the speakers on “Mysterious Skin.” Or there’s the fabulously layered arrangement of “Mira Sorvino // Lisa Kudrow.” “No Name #9” strips everything down to acoustic guitar and a vocal to reveal something so magnificent and honest. But 60s garagey goodness still prevails here in strength on tracks like “Nightcrawler” and “The DEA Took My Baby Away.” Too many years have passed since this last installment of O’Donahue’s fuzzy musical vision.

Andrew Haworth writes a lot songs. He’s put out 9 albums under his own name and two more as his one-man band Where Is Your Dog Now? since 2017. And that’s not the whole of it. By his own account he dramatically overwrites for each album. He wrote 114 songs for 2020’s Songs from the Second Wave and 130 for 2021’s Country Songs for People Who Hate This Country. Holy over-productivity Batman – both records only ended up with 14 cuts each. So what are the results? His nine solo records are full of clever wordplay and fun absurdity, delivered with a Frank Zappa-like deadpan. But his more recent Where Is Your Dog Now? releases have a fuller sound, the hooks are more polished, delivered with an almost McCartney-esque sonic diversity. Hard to believe these are home recordings! The lyrics are still super-smart, cleverisms around every corner, but the tunes are earworm worthy. Case in point from Songs from the Second Wave: “How to Not Go Insane.” So many subtle shifts of hooky melody here. I’m also partial to the driving “Some Things Never Change” and handclap happy “Rewriting Your Narrative.” A year later Country Songs for People Who Hate This Country continued in the same vein, still madcap lyrically and musically full of popped out rock. You could sample the vibe with tracks like “Coffee Table Crooks” and “Claire’s Ween Playlist” but, frankly, just needle-dropping anywhere would work too. “New York Intellectual” reminds me of Momus’s “A Maoist Intellectual” not because they sound similar but because they exude a similar righteous disdain for pseudo-intellectuals. Should-be hit single? Check out “A Little Invested” for your earworm winner. Haworth is busy at work on album #3 for this project, to be entitled The First Songs in the World, and with four preview singles up it’s clear it’s gonna be another winner. My current fave is “Cave” and its cleverly crafted video.

Most of us learn by example. Looking to self-start your own DIY poprock recording career? You won’t get much better teachers than these two indefatigable acts. Click on the links to start your lessons today.

Poprock Record’s 25 must-have LPs for 2022

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Once again I’ve assembled a crack team of ace reviewers to whittle our towering pile of albums from 2022 down to an essential must-have list of just 25 choices. How could these stuffed suits know what’s hip, you might say? It’s kinda like how album covers can be deceiving – the dullest dust jacket may obscure a real gem. So I’ve had these guys working overtime to bring you the very best of 2022, as featured in the annals of this here blog over the past calendar year. They’ve combed through countless long-players, extended plays and concept albums to put together multiple ‘must have’ lists. Tough work but you can tell by quality of their tailoring that they were up for it.

Cue drumroll – here we have it, Poprock Record’s 25 must-have LPs from 2022:

1. Tamar Berk Start at End
2. Trevor Blendour Falling in Love
3. Televisionairies Mad About You
4. Kids on a Crime Spree Fall in Love Not in Line
5. The Kryng Twelve Hymns to Syng Along
6. The Minders Psychedelic Blacktop
7. Eytan Mirsky Lord, Have Mirsky!
8. Edward O’Connell Feel Some Love
9. Phil Thornalley Now That I Have Your Attention
10. Kate Clover Bleed Your Heart Out
11. Push Puppets Allegory Grey
12. The Rubs (dust)
13. Afterpartees Family Names
14. Sloan Steady
15. 2nd Grade Easy Listening
16. Greg Pope Rise of Mythical Creatures
17. Papercuts Past Life Regression
18. Young Guv Guv III
19. Freedy Johnston Back on the Road to You
20. Pete Astor Time on Earth
21. The Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness The Third Wave of …
22. Superchunk Wild Loneliness
23. The Happy Fits Under the Shade of Green
24. Tony Molina In the Fade
25. Chris Lund Indian Summer

Tamar Berk’s outstanding album Start at End tops our list for 2022. Melodic, poppy, inventive, and with a smooth AM radio sheen that encourages repeated listening. And then it’s hard not to fall for the manic, almost gleeful energy of Trevor Blendour’s Falling in Love. The Televisionaries’ Mad About You is just a wonderful mixture of retro rock and roll and hooky modern melodic riffing. I could go on (and I have – click on the hot links to go to the original posts). The list has got old faves (Freedy Johnston, Edward O’Connell, Eytan Mirsky), power pop stalwarts (Sloan, Greg Pope, Chris Lund), and a whole lot that was entirely new to me (Kate Clover, Push Puppets, Pete Astor). And there’s jangle to spare (The Kryng, Young Guv, The Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness). The list is proof that, contra claims we are solely a sample culture, the long-playing album is alive and well in the new millennium.

And there’s more. The ongoing revival of the extended play record format has led to this list, Poprock Record’s must-have EPs from 2022:

1. The Happy Somethings Ego Test
2. Movie Movie Movie Movie
3. Sad About Girls Wild Creatures
4. Friends of Cesar Romero In the Cold Cruel Eyes of a Millions Stars
5. Ryan Allen I’m Not Mean
6. Love, Burns Fade in the Sun
7. Richard Turgeon Rough Around the Edges
8. The Genuine Fakes Extended Play Vol. 3

The Happy Somethings make me happy, about a lot of things. They say important things, they give me hope. And their tunes are swell. The rest of the list is pretty winning too. Great tunes in smaller packages. That leaves no excuses not to check them out.

Sometimes an album is bigger than its constituent parts. Sometimes it’s just big. So I had to carve out a special category for Ken Sharp’s latest homage to the 1970s, Poprock Record’s must-have concept album from 2022:

Ken Sharp I’ll Remember the Laughter

Our last category recognizes an artist of prodigious talent and shocking productivity. By my reckoning over the past year alone he has turned out 2 albums of completely new material, 8 EPs of new material, 3 double-sided singles, 3 greatest hits albums, a b-sides album, an EP of remakes, and a holiday EP. Sleep is apparently not for this guy. Thus we bestow the Poprock Record special award of awesome poprock merit to:

The Photocopies

Another year, another avalanche of great tunes. Melodic rock and roll lives and here is the proof. Click on the links and find your new faves. The guys in suits are done here (for now).

1954 ‘Speaking of Pictures’ ad courtesy James Vaughn.

Poprock Record’s should-be hit singles for 2022

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It was another busy year for melody-drenched rock and roll. Releases were coming fast and furious and frankly I could barely keep up. Still, I managed to get 82 posts up on the blog in 2022 and write over 64,000 words on the loosely-defined rock and roll sub-genre I call ‘poprock.’ I couldn’t write about everything that crossed my desk or what others may have necessarily thought was review-worthy, I just covered what caught my ear or worked itself into some kooky theme I cooked up. So let me be clear, what appears here is a completely arbitrary exercise in personal taste and discretion. I’m sure others may have a somewhat different set of worthy tunes that deserve more attention. And that is totally cool. The point is to celebrate the artists and perhaps give people another shot at checking them out.

So here it is, Poprock Record’s top 50 should-be hit singles from 2022:

1. Grrrl Gang “Pop Princess”
2. The Bleeding Idahos “The Beat Said”
3. Dazy “Rollercoaster Ride”
4. Bloody Norah “Shooting Star”
5. Allan Kaplon “Restless One”
6. Televisionaries “Over and Out”
7. John Larson and the Silver Fields “Reversible Heart”
8. Push Puppets “There’s No-one Else Like Lynette”
9. Tamar Berk “Your Permission”/“Tragic Endings”
10. Freddie Steady Krc “Bohemian Dandy”
11. The Toms “Atmosphere”
12. The Proctors “You and Me and the Sea”
13. The Minders “Home”
14. Richard Turgeon “Better With You”
15. Flipp “You Can Make It Happen”
16. Bill DeMain “Lone Ranger”
17. Limblifter “Haystack Rock”
18. Stephen Schijns “I Met Her Yesterday”
19. The Rubs “When I Dream About You”
20. Edward O’ Connell “Golden Light”
21. Superchunk “Endless Summer”
22. The Kryng “Get”
23. Freedy Johnston “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl”
24. Phil Thornalley “Fast Car”
25. Lawn “Down”
26. The Stroppies “The Perfect Crime”
27. Beachheads “Jupiter”
28. Martin Luther Lennon “jfkha”
29. David Woodard “Stupid Kid”
30. Linda XO “California Girl”
31. Richard X. Heyman “When the New Dawn Comes”
32. Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard “Break Right In”
33. Sloan “Magical Thinking”
34. Teenage Tom Petties “Boxroom Blues”
35. The Demos “Streetlight Glow”
36. Suburban HiFi “In Her Reverie”
37. Moonlight Parade “Amsterdam”
38. Ricky Rochelle “In a Dream With You”
39. The Telmos “What She Knows”
40. Marc Jonson and Ramirez Exposure “Tape Recording”
41. Sky Diving Penguins “Run Boy”
42. Novelty Island “Jangleheart”
43. Goodman “Au Pair”
44. Pictish Trail “Melody Something”
45. Kevin Robertson “Tough Times (Feel Like That)
46. U.S. Highball “(You’ve Got To) Activate a Carrot”
47. The Wends “What A Heart Is For”
48. The Rallies “Must Be Love”
49. Jane’s Party “It’s Been Years”
50. Frank Royster “Open Door”

There were so many great songs put out this past year, I was spoiled for choice. And choosing wasn’t easy. Sometimes I cheated a little. Grrrl Gang’s “Pop Princess” technically came out before 2022 but I only got around to writing about it this last year. What a tune! It’s a perfect example of the kind of excitement a great single can generate and, really, why I write this blog. People need to hear it! Or there’s the fresh indie hooks driving The Bleeding Idahos’ “The Beat Said” and Bloody Norah’s “Shooting Star.” Dazy had a knock out AM radio earworm with “Rollercoaster Ride.” And then there was veteran songster Allan Kaplon coming on like The Highwaymen at first only to let loose the Rockpile hooks in the chorus of “Restless Ones.” There were new faces and old favourites and surprises aplenty. Click on the links to go to the original posts featuring each song.

I had to create a few new categories this year, just to capture all that was good and groovy about 2022. The post-Covid covers album phenomenon continued and most were great fun. But some were particularly inspired. And then there were a lot of acoustic guitar-dominant tunes out this past year that I felt really needed to be singled out in a category I’ve dubbed folk pop.

So, without further ado, here are Poprock Record’s most inventive covers from 2022:

1. Kurt Lanham “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (The Beatles)
2. Lisa Mychols and Super 8 “I Can’t Explain” (The Who)
3. Bill Lloyd “The World Turns Around Her” (The Byrds)
4. Andy Bell “Light Flight” (Pentangle)
5. Murray Atkinson “Bus Stop” (The Hollies)

And here are Poprock Record’s top folk pop singles from 2022:

1. Fjord Mustang “Health Class Field Trip”
2. Rogers and Butler “Oh Romeo”
3. Bats “Golden Spoon”
4. *repeat repeat “Hm Feels Like”
5. Steve Robinson and Ed Woltil “Make Amends”
6. Chris Castino “Chinese Whispers”

I do love making lists but the choices do not amount to any big heavy pronouncement on anything – just my bit of fun and chance to celebrate these artists a little bit more. Check them out and see if you don’t agree, they’re seriously good!

Photo courtesy Fred Rockwood.

Lowered expectations new year

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Psst. Reasonably pleasant new year to you. I’m just keeping this celebration thing on the down low. If we’ve learned anything over the past few years it’s don’t get your hopes up, don’t expect big and bold good things, just rescale your sense of what’s possible. Between war and inflation and these almost-over but really never-ending pandemics we’ve all taken a beating. So let’s start 2023 with an attitude adjustment, a reality reset, a proper mind-frame for (limited) success. And a few tunes.

Talk about timely. Austria’s The Geezers literally have just released an album and single entitled 2023. This from a band with song titles like “Jeff Lynne” and “Tom Petty,” which tell you a lot. But this new song suggests they might need tunes named for New Order or some of those Britpop artists. An interesting mix of rock and roll and dance synth elements. Perhaps 2023 might be time to take what’s familiar in some slightly new directions.

Brian Dunne’s most recent album is Selling Things. With song titles like “Getting Wrecked on Election Day” and “I Hope I Can Make it to the Show” you get the sense he’s fully onboard with this whole lowered expectations thing. But his track “Nothing Matters Anymore” is an acoustic guitar-loaded gut-wrencher from the Springsteen school of social realist heartache. Really the song is saying ‘what does matter’? And that is the question for our age. RL’s response is “Be True.” Stripped down name, stripped down sentiment. With some groovy, rather spacy organ riffs and spare guitar work.

In times like these some people turn inward, looking for love in all the most available spaces. Sweden’s The Genuine Fakes make the whole enterprise sound pretty sweet melodically, if still somewhat lyrically dicey, on “Two Fine Lovers.” Rogers and Butler country-rock things up on “Oh Romeo” in a Steve Forbert kind of way, calling for Romeo to play his predictable bad boyfriend part. Janelane is having no part of that on “Goodbye to Heartache,” responding with a Tamar Berk sense of upbeat rocking melody and noticeable electric piano hooks.

Of course, another option to go really inward, like ‘dude where’s my inner peace?’ inward. That does make some sense. Now with wacky tibaccky legalization happening most everywhere across western countries Bellows suggest just letting “Marijuana Grow.” This mellow tune is so channeling the Elliott Smith school of breathy poprock – and I like it. The Moneygoround call for you to ‘hazy up the day’ with a Beach Boys vibe but perhaps that’s not spliff code on their light and breezy single “Catch a Breeze.” Or maybe it is. You can enjoy it either way.

I’ve been messaging Jonathan Kupersmith about getting his fabulous tunes up on some service where the whole wide world can buy them. So far he’s just got an album’s worth of stuff on YouTube videos. I guess that’s working for him. “Number One On My Playlist” seems apropos for our ‘scaling it back’ theme here. Or, going back to The Genuine Fakes fabulous new EP Extended Play Vol. 3, perhaps  “We’re All We Need”?

What’s advice worth? Not the e-paper it’s printed on. But anyways, happy new mumble mumble …

Photo courtesy Stefan Van der Straeten.

Record round-up III

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This is it, round three of our year-end record round-up, our final one for the year. And it is definitely a strong finish. If round one was rocking and round two was retro then round three is a tad more out there and experimental. But oh-so listenable.

Everyone Stop is *repeat repeat’s sprawling new 27-cut double-plus album. Just released at year’s end, you can enjoy it as an uninterrupted 91 minute experience or skip all over its many different contributions, needle-dropping your way through its musical depths. With so much material here the record lacks the laser-like stylistic focus of the band’s magisterial 2019 release Glazed. But the expanse gives them a chance to hang out in so many different sonic playrooms. The results are a rocking good-time funk dancing acoustic emotional ballad roller coaster. You’re gonna need to hang on tight to hang in here. The first three cuts are a good introduction to the textured genius of this band: “Everyone Stop,” “Dearly Departed,” and “Arrangements” hit you with such cool guitar tones, a solid dance bass/drum combo, and airy-light vocals. The whole album could have just stayed in this lane. But suddenly “Adult Friend Finder” flips the script, taking us into alt-folk territory not unlike the likes of You Won’t and Bombadil. Just looking for earworms? Let’s cut to the hits chase: “Hmm Feels Like,” “Diamonds,” and “Tripping (I Know I Will)” are all should-be hit singles. What hooks! What sonic artistry! There’s so much to love here and I can only scrape the surface of what the band accomplish on this LP. Right now I’ll just draw attention to the wistful “I Was Happy” which lays its dreamy pop over a musical bed that sounds so Portugal the Man. Or there’s my today-fave cut (it may change tomorrow) “Burn Another Layer.” My recommendation: you’re going to need to set aside some time to fall in love with Everyone Stop. But you will.

I fell hard for The Stroppies killer 2019 single “First Time Favourites” with its harpsichordian keyboard riffs and folk rock vocals. So my first hit of their new album Levity was more than a bit jarring. But I loved it. What an interesting shift of musical emphasis from this band on this record, to a more daring, somewhat techno-experimental sound laid over solid rock and roll tunes. You can feel the creative tension of this mixture rippling throughout opening cut “The Perfect Crime,” with the guitar and keyboard parts pulling in different directions. Then “Smilers Strange Politely” floats a pleasant melody over a relentless guitar riff that gets seared into your consciousness. The record is really all about letting the electric lead guitar drive the songs – songs like “Up To My Elbows,” “I’m In the Water” and “Figure Eights” all let the guitar work cut loose in exciting ways. And yet there’s still a folk rock feel to so many tracks here, like “Material Conditions” and “Butchering the Punchline.” Seriously, Levity is a great new direction from a very good band.

Philadelphia’s 2nd Grade always give a little bit more. 2020’s Hit to Hit had 24 songs. 2021’s Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited had 23. Now in 2022 they’ve scaled back – to 16 cuts. But new LP Easy Listening does not skimp on quality. This is one fine crew of melodic tunes, accent on poppy. Opening cut “Cover of the Rolling Stone” hits all the classic powerpop marks, vibing Mo Troper pretty strongly for me. But then “Strung Out On You” throws some 70s rock jauntiness into the mix. “Hung Up” is all 1980s guitar pop. “Me and My Blue Angels” works in a few more minor chords while “Wouldn’t It Be Nice to Let It Be” lets a big room rumble guitar fill the space in another otherwise airy lowkey number. For variety check out the Stones rhythmic slouch all over “Poet in Residence” or the bubblegum Ramones feel to “Beat of the Drum.” This record is like some K-tel super hits collection, there’s so much diversity here (and I’m not even half through the album). Personal faves: “Teenage Overpopulation” and “Hands Down” – such exhibit A perfect poprock singles. “Planetarium” is pretty sweet too. Easy Listening is not just truth in advertising, it’s 100% fun.

I feel like I’ve been trying to write about The Rubs all year. Ever since I ran across their Stonesy “I Want You” last March and found their album (dust) in August it’s been on the shortlist. But for one reason or another the record didn’t fit into this to that post. Not for lack of trying. So now let me say, this album is phenomenal piece of work. It’s like a great lost record from the 1979 to 1982 period, it so nails the guitars and poppy rock and roll songwriting and sound of the records in that era. Songwriter and one-man band Joey Rubbish (not his real name?) takes a host of classic rock motifs and pops them up, front-loading some great melodies. Opening cut “I Want You” is an attention grabber, so classic rock and roll but those candy coated vocals make it irresistible. But then things shift with “Dana” and its kooky fun spacey keyboards. From there variety comes in many forms, from the folk rock “Here In My Dreams” to the keyboard punchy “I Don’t Wanna Wait” to Thin Lizzy-ish “Hang On To Me.” Rubbish so nails the everyman rock and roll vocals of the late 1970s on tracks like “Waste of Time” or the propulsive Plimsouls guitar drive on tunes like “The Same Thing to Me.” But my vote for outstanding track here is “When I Dream About You,” a genuine poprock tour-de-force. What a majestic melody! Don’t waste time, just place (dust) directly into your ‘best of the year’ pile.

NYC’s Cherry Slide are a slice of acoustic guitar pop, dropped from the Family of the Year mold. It’s all strummy strummy strummy against a wash of harmony vocals. Except when it’s not. “Not Fair” captures the basic sound: acoustic guitar front and centre, light and airy vocals, all in the service of a poppy tune. “I Took a Number” adds some variation to this with its nice lead guitar accents. But then we have “Generate This!” It’s a wonderful single that just cooks along, riding a strong acoustic rhythm guitar and dropping in bits of electric guitar amid a captivating mix of vocals. Picked straight from the ‘hits’ tree. The band also offer up a souped-up cover His Name Is Alive’s rather spare “Wall of Speed” adding a soft-rock Spector Wall of Sound effect. Moving north Halifax Nova Scotia’s Municipality also ride the lowkey guitar pop train, sounding a bit more Elephant 6 though. On their debut Sunroom they really do sound sometimes like Apples in Stereo just popped into the Beatles Let It Be sessions. “First and Last” and “Let It Go” have really got that late period Abbey Road feel. But the material itself is more 90s indie poprock e.g. there’s a bit of Elliot Smith on “Without You.” On the other hand, “All in My Mind” sounds like the single to me with its hooky guitar shots.
It’s been an odyssey, getting through this end-of-the-year record round-up. But so worth it – so many great acts, so many great tunes. And dropped in just in time for 2022.

Photo fragment of 57 Chevy ad courtesy James Vaughn.

Record round-up II

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On episode 2 of our year-end record round-up we’re going seriously retro. These acts know their influences and lean into them, heavily. But not without some creative licence.

What happens when you bring a bona fide 1970s indie legend into contact with a Spanish sunshine-pop hipster? Magic my friends, that’s what. Marc Jonson and Ramírez Exposure’s debut collaboration Turning On The Century, Volume 1 is a love letter to California’s sunny pop traditions, a bit baroque a times with a whole lot of sixties rock and roll heart. Opening track “Tape Recorder” brings a masterful Beach Boy-like vocal interplay to a song that goes Dion and on and on. Or just listen to how the acoustic lead guitar bounces along carrying “The Real Sound of the World.” “Sour Lemonade Sour” sounds bit more mid-1970s sweet pop while “Appears” is a great tune where the vocals seem to float over a very late seventies McCartney-like backing. “I Don’t Know Your World” adds some Neil Diamond-ish musical change-ups to a song that I could hear the Everly Brothers doing. Then the duo wrap things up with a more modern 1980s sound on “The Anchorite.” Seems like Turning On The Century, Volume 1 is just begging for a volume 2.

Once upon a time I looked to artists like Matthew Sweet to deliver album after album of reliably poprocky hooks. Now I turn to Greg Pope. Over the course of now eight solo albums he just never lets me down, turning out absolutely fabulous hook-filled long-players. This year’s Rise of the Mythical Creatures is no exception. Album opener “As You Love” sounds very Sweet, very much like the should-be hit single. Then “Words No One Can Say” has an intensity and occasional vocal presence that has me imagine a new wave John Lennon. But what is striking about this record, and perhaps a bit of a departure for Pope, is how the acoustic rhythm guitar is pushed to the top of the mix in so many of the songs here, in a very seventies way. It’s obvious in the absolutely dynamite single-ish “Sorry I Wrote This Song.” But you can really hear it on “Holding on to a Sunny Day” and “Looking Down.” I’m also partial to “Backwards Through a Door” which echoes the best of the poppy efforts from bands like Blue Oyster Cult. Sometimes myths are true – this record proves you can believe in Greg Pope.

Somewhere Sideways Same As You is the first album for Drew Beskin with his new band The Sunshine, gathering together a bunch of things he’s been working over the past year or so. Tracks like “Lisa Simpson Fangs” and “Horror Movie Plot” came out a while back. Others are more recent, like “Spoilers,” a buoyant, lighthearted keyboard romp from this past summer. What all this means is that while the record contains a mix of styles it still somehow establishes a constant mood. I hear the refined Americana pop sound of Sam Weber on tracks like “Not If But When.” But then cuts like “Pear Plum Blues” add some grit to the guitar, establishing a heavier, almost punky sound. My personal fave is “The Mystery of Being a Boy.” The song is just a great straight-up poprock tune, breezing along with the abandon of a deep cut from Rank and File or the Grapes of Wrath. “Sun Cancer” reverts to a Weber-like pop sophistication, dropping in some clever hooks.

Who is Peter Astor? I don’t know. But after hearing “New Religion” from his recent Time On Earth album I feel like I should have. Turns out, he goes way back, to the late 1970s break out new wave/punk scene, to the moody 1980s English band scene, to plenty of solo records. Man, have I got a lot of homework to do with his back catalogue. But for now, let’s take on Time On Earth, an album that meanders through a variety of styles. There’s the wonderfully mannered, mellow ruminations that remind me of Black e.g. “English Weather” (what horns!). Or the obvious should-be hit-single “New Religion” with its great combo of distinctive synth work and a vocal melody reminiscent of Boo Hewerdine’s work. And what about that Steve Nieve-worthy keyboard work on “Time on Earth”? Killer stuff. “Miracle on the High Street” is just a lovely folk tune. On “Undertaker” Astor goes all Nick Lowe elder statesman, the guitar warbles just so, the vocal harmonies shiver on cue. Then “Fine and Dandy” calls a wrap on the record by actually turning up the amps and knocking off a few tasty guitar solos. I’ve listened to this record more than few times and each time I’m impressed by Astor’s effortless mastery of whatever he’s putting out.

Given the surprising death of Dallas Good earlier this year Colder Streams marks the final release from The Sadies classic line-up featuring Good family brothers Dallas and Travis. It’s a shame for many reasons, not least of which is that the quality of the band’s recent musical output has shown no signs of fading. Depending on how you count their records Colder Streams is their 20 LP and it is undeniably rip-roaringly good. What we have here is a wonderful synthesis of garage, psych and jangle, sometimes tipping more rock, sometimes leaning country. Opening cut “Stop and Start” even sounds like The Smithereens-meets-The The, put through a psychedelic filter. I’d divide the album into three thematic realms. There’s a western Morricone feel to “More Alone” and certainly the deliberately cinematic “End Credits” which throws in some Bond elements too. I love the Gregorian chant vibe infused into the otherwise spaghetti western-ish “Cut Up High and Dry.” Then there’s garage rock and psych influences defining “No One’s Listening” and “Better Yet,” the latter evoking such seminal acts of the genre as the Chocolate Watch Band. I also hear a very REM gloss on a few tunes, such as “So Far for So Few” and “Ginger Moon.” On the outlier front, there’s country banjo lurch of “All the Good.”

People familiar with Marco Busato’s previous band More Kicks will need to adjust their expectations. On Night of My Times, Busato’s solo debut, the power pop intensity is dialed down in favour of a more subtle sonic shading and impact. The songs here are light pop confections, elevated with a variety of delicious guitar tones. Feel the gentle swing of opening cut “Sunken Ships” to fully get the brief here. The overlapping lead guitar lines are often short, simple and utterly seductive, tied together with some heavenly vocal ‘ahhs’ wallpapering the background. In another way, the record is a bit disorienting. The different musical elements sounds so familiar – there’s bits of 60s psychedelia, 70s AM pop, surf guitar, etc. – but nothing here is really retro. Instead this palette is used to add colour to these oh-so pleasant songs. Check out how the lead guitar and offbeat rhythm brighten “I Don’t Know Why” and particularly the surf-ish instrumental “Tropical Downtime.” At other times the feel is so 1970s AM radio melodious, as on “Find the Way” and “Night of My Times.”

Rounding up records can be like herding sheep, there’s a lot of noise and you’re not really sure where things are going. But that’s half the fun. More to come!

Photo courtesy of James Vaughn.

Record round-up I

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It happens every time. Year-end rolls around and the ‘to-be-reviewed’ pile is groaning under the weight of the thus-far neglected, could-be super hits. To give everyone some airtime in their year of release this is the first of three record round-ups before the new year. I may accent brevity here but know this, the love is as fulsome as ever.

I just discovered that Farewell Horizontal is not just the name of a Melbourne noisy pop outfit but also Pavement’s last album. I don’t really hear a connection. Farewell Horizontal, the band, get noisy here and there, like on “Nosy Parker.” But most of their fourth album Tales of Woah has a killer poppy undercurrent on the rock and roll, like the best of Matthew Sweet. Opening cut “Brighton’s Full Of Arseholes” catches your attention for its title alone, but the song cooks, the vocal melody carrying us along. “Summer of Disease” is a bit more acoustic guitar pop in a Guster style. I love the oscillation between menacing and dreamy themes sustaining “The Answer is No.” Things lean in a Pixies direction on a number of cuts, like “Uh Oh (No)” and “The System Works.” Love the lead guitar opening and recurring throughout “Never Give Up (Unless You’re Shit).” On the whole, Tales of Woah is a ‘don’t hold back’ kind of album purchase.

People have been writing a lot about Washington D.C. rock and roll stalwarts Dot Dash and their new release Madman in the Rain. And why not? It’s so listenable. There is something early 1980s poprock with a jazzy tinge about this record, sorta like what the Style Council and Everything but the Girl were doing back then. Just hit play on “Space Junk, Satellites” to get the feel. Other tracks are more straight up 1980s guitar pop, with cool extra vocal adornments. Like the ‘ooh oohs’ sprinkled throughout “Forever Far Out.” I hear a lot of Roddy Frame influence here, on “Madman in the Rain” particularly but also more generally in terms of the album’s overriding ambience. The keyboards steal the show on the single-worthy “Tense and Nervous” along with all those new wave band/song shout-outs. Or one might recall The Grapes of Wrath listening to “Saints/Pharaohs.” Where is my sideways button-up shirt?

Turn on In Deed member Richard Öhrn’s new solo album Sounds in English and you are immediately transported to a pop-psychedelia English summer garden circa 1967. It’s in the jangle, the mock flute solos, and the emotional ennui soaking all the songs. “Seal Your Move” is practically a musical poster child for the era, shaded with touches of the Hollies and the Turtles here and there. Then “5th Month Announcement” sounds like a cross between Simon and Garfunkel and Moody Blues. And who but an expert on the late 1960s folk pop era could drive along “Someone to Forgive You” with something that sounds like Greek balalaika lead lines and a subtle organ undercurrent. “Take This Bottle” comes back to the Hollies, but with a bit of the Searchers thrown in for good effect. And then there’s the utterly delightful piano lines defining “Love and Friendship.” What an album! Öhrn’s magic touch is in making the musical past fully present again.

Album number 13 is still lucky for Canadian east coast power pop institution Sloan. How do they keep turning it out? Could be their democratic creative ethos – all members sing and write songs. There’s no ‘front man’ here. Right from the break-out guitar driving album opener “Magical Thinking” Steady is in your head – to stay. This record is all highlights: “Spend the Day,” “Scratch the Surface,” “Keep Your Name Alive” – all are glorious guitar-heavy, chord-bashing wonders. They’re songs that will have you asking in exasperation ‘Just where is 11 on this crummy amp?!’ Of course, I do especially love the really melody-heavy numbers, like “She Put Up with What She Put Down,” “I Dream of Sleep,” and  “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” the latter with a decidedly Revolver-ish panache. No need for hard judgement here, just file this in the ‘best of the year’ pile.

And now for a bit of baroque pop. A whole lotta baroque, actually. How Birmingham, Alabama’s The Mellons come off sounding like a pitch perfect Beach Boys on their debut Introducing … The Mellons is just one of those mysteries of life. A definitely delightful mystery! Just hit play on “So Much to Say” and see if Beach Boys doesn’t register immediately, with a hefty dose of sunshine pop adornments. From there its beachscape all the way. You can practically hear the waves lapping up on “Devil’s Advocate” and “What a Time to Be Alive.” Though to be fair, there’s a strong psych pop feel to what is happening here, apparent strongly on “It’s Just a Phase” and “Salad Made of Butterflies.” Introducing … The Mellons is like time travel. A band that plays this good is a ‘happening’ for sure.

Another solid album is this year’s release from Ian M. Bailey, You Paint the Pictures. The sound is so sixties reminiscent but fresh and now at the same time. Title track and opening cut “Paint the Pictures” is a case in point. The jangle is clearly Brydsian through a Tom Petty filter but still timeless in its execution. If anything it reminds me of the AM radio-friendly work from McGuinn, Clark and Hillman in the late 1970s. “I Wanted the Sun to Shine” adds a slight country undercurrent to the rippling jangle while “I Don’t Want to Start Again” takes a more folk rock turn. “Life Without You” moves things into more Al Stewart/Gerry Rafferty territory while “Hey Little Girl” offers up a country pop vibe. For breezy should-be AM radio single I’d vote for “Change is Easy.” Song by song, this is a strong outing by any measure, for jangle-heads You Paint the Pictures is a real treat. Available from Kool Kat records here.

Paint the Pictures
I Wanted the Sun to Shine

Our record round-up is now well underway. I’m not saying we’ve left the best for last in these posts but we’ve clearly got some stuff left that is pretty good. Stay tuned.

Photo 1974 Spokane Expo World’s Fair postcard courtesy Joe Haupt.

Happy Beatles-mas!

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Now I know many of you are probably jingle-exhausted after months of a festive sounds dogging you every time you ventured out in public. But I can’t help bringing together two of my favourite things on this special day: the Beatles and holiday music. Only certified Beatlemaniacs could come up with something as kooky as this and make it work. Today’s bands fit the diagnosis and then some. Here’s what they do: they mash together a holiday standard with some classic from the Beatles catalogue. The point is meld the two as seamlessly as possible, typically maintaining the tune of the holiday song while putting it to a Beatles beat or adorning it with recognizable Beatles riffs. It’s easy to do but hard to do well, as our three fab yulesters musically demonstrate.

First up, The Butties from Syracuse, New York. Starting out in college in the 1980s they just kept getting together yearly, playing gigs and eventually recording some holiday tunes in a Beatles style. In 2005 they released an album of them entitled 12 Greatest Carols (the cover riffs on The Beatles 20 Greatest Hits). Our featured choice from the LP is their take on “Joy to the World” which incorporates “Please Please Me” in various ways. There’s the distinctive “Please Please Me” harmonica and rhythm guitar end-of-verse turnarounds. The vocal harmonies on this track are super and the harmonica runs are so Beatles but in other ways the synthesis doesn’t quite gel for me.

Number two on our docket is Danish Beatles cover band Rubber Band. Their 1994 album Xmas! The Beatmas also offers 12 Beatles-re-engineered Christmas songs. A lot of review attention at the time focused on the band’s reworking of “Last Christmas” to sound a bit like “Please Mister Postman.” The Wham!/Marvelettes mash-up didn’t grab me but there are other examples here where the synthesis works better. Like the creative combining of “Feliz Navidad” with “No Reply.” The latter adds some drama that the former sorely lacks. And then the decision to mix “Ticket to Ride” into “White Christmas was sheer brilliance. The distinctive guitar hook wraps around the tune like a warm blanket. The middle-eight break out to Lennon’s “Happy Xmas” was a nice touch too.

Rubber Band – Feliz Navidad (No Reply)
Rubber Band – White Christmas (Ticket to Ride)

All this is well and Beatlesy good but you haven’t heard anything till you hear the masters of this particular arcane genre, The Fab Four. They’ve got the accents and vocal tics down, the guitar sounds are spot on, and their ability to seamlessly stitch holiday song and Beatles classic together is unparalleled. Just listen to how they lay an “I Saw Her Standing There” backbeat onto “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” It’s like they were made for each other. Or putting “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” together with “Help.” Once you hear it there’s a ’duh’ moment that immediately follows. And for Beatles geeks check out how they combine “Good King Wenceslas” with Help! album deep cut “Tell Me What You See.” Genius! I first enjoyed these tracks on the band’s 2002 10-song collection A Fab Four Christmas but eight more were added for a revamped 2012 re-release now entitled Hark!

The Fab Four – Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (I Saw Her Standing There)
Good King Wenceslas (Tell Me What You See)

Wrapping things up (pun intended), we turn to the actual Fabs themselves from their 1967 fanclub-only 45 release “Christmastime (Is Here Again).” Too bad they didn’t work this up into a fully proper song as there are some great melodic elements here.

Well there you have it, two great tastes that sound great together – traditional holiday tunes done Beatles-style. From everyone here at Poprock Record, here’s hoping you’ve had the fab-est ‘whatever-you’re-celebrating’ holiday season ever!