Ring, ring goes the bell …

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School is a perennial theme of rock and roll that, on the whole, doesn’t fare too well. Sure, the Beach Boys have that cheery “Be True to Your School” vibe going but they’re an outlier. More typically school appears as a burden, as something to escape from, preferably as soon as possible. The traditional sentiments were ably established in Chuck Berry’s classic “School Days” back in 1957. More recently Australian indie poprockers Starky summed things up with “Theme from High School” from their 2004 debut LP Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre.

Starky – Theme from High School

Ok, so high school sucks. What about higher education? Is there musical love for technical college or university? Our mix of tunes offers a range of views, as is only appropriate for academe. Rogue Wave conjure up the uncertainty that is the uni experience for many on “College” from 2013’s Nightingale Floors. Things are less cerebral for 2 Wheeled Tricycle’s “College.” Here the issue is more about whether to go or not to, egged on by some nice edgy synth riffs. Gentle Hen vibe some Hayden on “College Town,” a song with a sunny, good times feel and just a hint of darkness.  Timmy Sean spares a moment during his concept album A Tale From the Other Side for his protagonist to reflect on “The College Year” and how decisions taken then impact what comes later, delivered with Sean’s larger than life theatrical pop hooks.  The Incredible Casuals are all about the party experience. On “College Girls” the band execute their unerring rock and roll chops with shimmery guitars and some seriously melodic humming.

Rogue Wave – College

Advancing up the academic ladder, Toronto’s hHead bash out a great melodic rock and roll tribute to higher education on “University.” A more indie Grapes of Wrath or Northern Pikes is what I hear here. Former The Trend songwriter John McMullan has put out a few great solo tunes, like his tell-all expose of legal education on “Law School.” I love the Springsteen organ and the hooky guitar lines all over this song. And McMullan actually did become a lawyer. Winnipeg music veteran John K. Samson knows academe as well as the music biz and captures every grad student’s dilemma on “When I Write My Masters’ Thesis.” Then he updated his musical academic CV in 2016 with “Postdoc Blues.” I guess he got that MA thesis written after all.

hHead – University
John McMullan – Law School

Forget enrolling in some school of rock, you can learn about great music just about anywhere. Like here. Right on this blog. Just scroll back through the posts for your own do-it-yourself degree in poprock.

Breaking news: Aaron Lee Tasjan, Benny Hayes, 3 A.M. Again, and Chris Church

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This just in from the teletype, my breaking news is not always so ‘breaking’ timewise. Oh well. I’m sure what appears here will be news to someone. Today’s post brings us old reliables and new discoveries, in equal measure.

I’ve run out of superlatives to describe all the great things that Aaron Lee Tasjan is. He topped our 2018 must-have LPs list with Karma for Cheap and I’ve gushed all over everything he’s put out since then. Stylistically, Tasjan has that Nashville rock and roll vibe going: shades of sixties country, more than a little Orbison tenderness in the vocals, and an unerring ear for rock and roll melody. But Tasjan’s new album Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! marks out new territory, pushing his songwriting and performance into new lyrical and sonic geography. Keyboards gain more prominence here. “Up All Night” has Tasjan’s vocal floating over a synth hook whose relentless texture propels the song forward. Lyrically Tasjan’s connects the 1970s gender bending rock and roll of Bowie and others to the present on “Feminine Walk” while celebrating the women of his past on “Sunday Women.” Perky poprock numbers are in abundance here, like “Computer of Love” and “Cartoon Music.” And there’s still plenty of this artist’s warm Wilbury’s song stylings on tracks like “Another Lonely Day” and “Don’t Overthink It.” Elsewhere Tasjan’s not afraid to give a song space to breathe.  “Now You Know” ambles along pleasantly, building ever so slowly to the most subtle of killer hooks. “Not That Bad” is another of Tasjan’s beautiful acoustic ballads, melding a bit of McCartney with Elliott Smith. Meanwhile “Got What I Wanted” is so wistful McCartney circa McCartney II. Altogether, this record is a delightful surprise from an artist who regularly delivers the poprock goods.

I first cogged on to Benny Hayes with his The Good Good Things project, particularly the title track of the EP Soundtrack 2000. I loved the marriage of the slightly discordant vocals with his self-described guitar pop style. Hayes is back with a new EP Night Drives that retains the guitar pop but with an overall package that sparkles a bit more. There something very early Everything But the Girl or Housemartins going on here, like Hayes is the punky younger brother turned loose in the studio. It’s there on the opening tune “Authentic Me” with its up front acoustic guitars and in-your-face vocals. “Don’t Make Me Go” has a smoother feel, a bit of acoustic pop soul, with a tasty melodic guitar solo. “Night Drive” harkens back to Hayes more discordant guitar pop past, with another very engaging solo guitar near the end. “Sunshine” sounds like the single to me. Night Drives is mostly a guy, his guitar and voice, but somehow Hayes makes great big beautiful noise that just right for your car radio.

If you’re looking to get caught up with Boston shoe-gazey jangle band 3 A.M. Again then Come Back from the Sun is the album for you. Combining tracks from a number of previous EPs and long-players, the collection is a mammoth 20 track set that is very attractively priced. The record opens with a solid should-be hit single in “I Can Always Tell the Difference,” a song that builds nicely with a lilting swing and breezy melody. Folkie acoustic guitar work defines this album, definitely shading the distinctive feel of songs like “Painted from the Moving Train” and beautiful instrumentals like “Thatcher Road.” But sometimes the tempo picks up a more rocky demeanor on songs like “Bring Me Out” and “No Help When You Were Young.” There’s a sixties psychedelic pop feel to “You Should Let Me Love You” while “Not Willing” exudes California sunshine pop. I love the late 1960s acoustic guitar folk feel and CS&N vocal style on “Does It Help.” This record is the perfect accompaniment to a sunny day out walking somewhere.

I thought I knew Chris Church. I’ve reviewed more than a few of his singles and albums. His guitar work is typically highly finessed with just a bit of grit thrown in, coating but never obscuring the basic melodic strengths of his songs. But Game Dirt is a game changer. Here Church conjures up the ghosts of the mid-1970s California country-tinged rock and roll scene of Warren Zevon or Walter Egan, mingling them with some of the most genre-stretching material of his career. “Learn” opens things up with strong dose of David Lindley/John Fogarty bluesy rock but then “Faderal” shifts gears, an urgent, original dose of poprock that seems to owe more to arty bands like Split Enz or mid-period Squeeze. “Fall,” “Lost,” and “Trying” then sets the tone for much of what follows, a easygoing 1970s westcoast feel, a bit Fleetwood Mac, a hint of the Eagles, even a little Marshall Crenshaw on the last entry. Some signature Church guitar returns on the should-be single “Know” where the guitar hook winds itself around the central vocal melody with propulsive force. Country comes to the fore in a down-home rollicking sort of way on “Smile” while “Sunrise” has a  very Jayhawks ambience. Looking for some nice pop hooks and a bit of jangly guitar? “Removed” will fit the bill. Basic takeaway: Game Dirt is a remarkable piece of work from an artist that clearly still has a few surprises for us.

I’m always thrilled to find new artists or old artists scaling new heights. Visit Aaron Lee Tasjan, Benny Hayes, 3 A.M. Again, and Chris Church to get the lowdown on both these new records and their glorious past releases.

Trixie Mattel’s not pretending

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You probably know Trixie Mattel as a world famous drag artist, stand-up comic and New York Times bestselling author. But she has also turned out tunes for four albums and a number of stand-alone singles as both songwriter and performer. This is a bit unusual. As Trixie noted in a 2019 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation “drag queens don’t play guitars and sing. It’s just not a thing.” Part of that is because drag is all about pretending, by lip-synching, imitating big stars, and messing with gender roles. In a 2017 interview with GQ she summed the drag performance dynamic as “… a room full of people knowing damn well that that’s not a woman, but we all, including the performer, simultaneously pretend that’s the truth now.” But when it comes to recording and playing songs, Mattel is not pretending. She’s got the songwriting and performing goods, delivered across an impressive range of styles.

Our story begins with her debut album, 2017’s Two Birds. The record is a stripped down country affair, so rustically acoustic and 1950s in feel it comes across more as an example of kitsch country today. It’s a great bit of fun but follow up album One Stone takes things in a more developed direction, with a full band and broader range of songwriting styles. There’s a very Kacey Musgraves aura at work here, with her combination of humour, some traditional country embellishments, and strong pop hooks, particularly on “Little Sister” and “Moving Parts.” Meanwhile tracks like “Red Side of the Moon” offer up an emotional depth that country, at its best, really can deliver on. 2019’s Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts (The Acoustic Soundtrack) returns to the spare sound of the first record but something’s different, Trixie’s vocal delivery is more vulnerable, adding more aching beauty to songs like “Moving Parts” and “Heavy Crown.” Like the documentary it accompanies, the record is more serious than it first appears.

After three albums of country Trixie shifted into a more poprock direction, admitting she was ready to channel something “more post-Beatles Invasion, beach bimbo, B-52s-meets-Blondie-meets-Fountains of Wayne.” The look and sound of her 2019 single “Yellow Cloud” exudes this sunny pop style with up-front electric guitars, plenty of ‘ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh’s’, and an addictive swing. The transition was completed on 2020’s Barbara with a sound and songwriting approach that would be definitely Fountains of Wayne approved. The record is chock full of FOW-ish hooks and clever turns of phrase on songs like “Malibu,” “Girl Next Door” and “Jesse Jesse.” But Trixie’s still a little bit country on “Gold” and even vibes a bit of Taylor Swift (in country mode) on “I Don’t Have a Broken Heart.” Over the past year the experimentation has continued with a daring reinterpretation of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” and a kick ass fun cover of the Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun.” In both cases Mattel pushes the melodic themes more to the front of the mix, with good effect.

Who knows what Trixie Mattel will do next. Personally, I can’t wait to see where her musical muse takes her, with or without the make-up. Keep up with Trixie on Facebook, her website, Bandcamp, and listen to more of her songs on Soundcloud.

If you want to see how Trixie brings it all together – drag, comedy, and song – check out the hilarious, entertaining short living room show/concert Trixie Mattel: One Night Only.

Melody testing The Jam

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Today we inaugurate a new feature here at Poprock Record: major artist melody testing. Now let me state at the outset that our trained scienticians observe only the highest testing standards in bringing you the finest quality poprock product. Our new soon-to-be-patented ‘melody testing’ technology never fails to identify superior hooks, hidden jangle, and potentially hair-raising harmonies. Today’s nominated product for testing: the recorded output of The Jam. Our goal – to single out the most melody-drenched cuts you can find on each album, EPs or singles.

Like so many end-of-the-seventies and into-the-1980s punk/new wave bands, I came to The Jam just at the point they were winding down. I’d stumbled across “Town Called Malice” and was absolutely smitten with its driving bass, uber cool organ line and working class lyrics. I couldn’t afford the album it was included on (The Gift) at the time but did pick up a heavily discounted packaging of the band’s last two EPs featuring “The Bitterest Pill (I Had to Swallow)” and “Beat Surrender.” I loved “The Bitterest Pill” with its Bacharachian over-the-top 1960s pop excesses and biting social commentary. Later I would slowly collect all the band’s earlier albums but to be honest I never really listened to them all that carefully. I just didn’t have the whole-album-loving-experience that typified my responses to records from Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, The English Beat or Marshall Crenshaw. So for this post I’m going back to revisit The Jam to see just what I’ve been missing, melody-wise.

The Jam’s 1977 debut In the City was a dramatic guitar-slashing bit of punky rock and roll. The band’s three piece format forced a kind of instrumental austerity on their sound. It was stripped down and straight up rock and roll, with little ornamentation. For the most part “Away From the Numbers” fit this mold, until it enters the chorus and an almost Springsteen-esque turn of melody emerges, later complimented by some ghostly but catchy background ‘oohs’. Follow up long-player This is the Modern World cemented the band’s reputation as the reincarnation of all things early Who and mod. But “I Need You (For Someone)” stands out for its distinctive harmony vocals, reminiscent of the Beatles Rubber Soul period, while “Tonight at Noon” has lead guitar work that is much more George Harrison than Pete Townshend, backed by Beatlesque harmonies. All Mod Cons, despite the title, broke with the type-casting the band had jammed itself into with previous releases, opening up the songwriting and performances to greater variety. You can hear it on ‘It’s Too Bad” where the guitars are toned down from slashing to shimmering in their attack, with some very “Hard Day’s Night” tones here and there.

Away from the Numbers
I Need You (For Someone)
Tonight at Noon
It’s Too Bad

By 1979 the band had shrugged off the punk sensibility to embrace more of the new wave feel of that year on Setting Sons. Just listen to the lead guitar work on “Thick as Thieves” to hear a new melodic complexity. The Canadian edition of the album contained the beautiful, sonically lush “Butterfly Collector” with its great hooky chorus. 1980s Sound Affects offers up a lot of melodic treats (“That’s Entertainment” obviously), though “Monday” is something special with its somewhat dark melodic feel, original bass lines and jangly lead guitar. In addition to regular albums the band released a host of one-off singles and the occasional EP. “Tales from the River Bank” and “Liza Radley” both appeared on the Absolute Beginners EP in 1981 and demonstrated a new breadth of songwriting, both neo-psychedelic for the former and bit of pop folk on the latter. In retrospect, 1982’s The Gift plays like a concept album, with a thematic story running through the songs. But “Town Called Malice” ended up completely over-defining a record that actually contained multiple styles. Personally I’m drawn to “Carnation” with its McCartney-ish confessional quality.

Thick as Thieves
The Butterfly Collector
Monday
Tales from the River Bank
Liza Radley
Carnation

In the end, it’s clear The Jam could offer up ace melodies crammed into tightly packed, cleverly arranged songs, if they chose to. That they didn’t always do that reflected Paul Weller’s broad tastes, musical restlessness and the band’s mod-rocking DNA. I might have preferred more hooks but who am I to place limits on the artist?

Please note: the contents of this post are completely subjective and unscientific. Individual reader melody testing results will undoubtedly vary.

Singling out the stars: Star Collector and Cheap Star

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Given the ubiquity of Big Star in the power pop universe, it’s no surprise to find ‘star’ worked into all sorts of guitar slashing, melody-infused musical projects. Today’s exemplars are bit different though. Both acts are not afraid to step away from the type casting on occasion, adding a different layer of poprock sophistication to their tunes. Vancouver’s Star Collector are veterans of many Who-like chord-ringing anthems and their recent Game Day is no exception, with plenty to please fans of the Who/Jam/Weller nexus. But I’m drawn to an outlier on the record, the subtle acoustic ear worm that is “Hook, Line and Singer.” The vocals remind me of The The’s Matt Johnston while the overall vibe of the song is reminiscent of John Power’s 1990s band Cast or a low key Oasis. Tripping over to Europe, Cheap Star offer up a very different mix of melody-rich influences, drawing on Teenage Fanclub, the Posies, Matthew Sweet and many others. I loved the Nada Surf wash all over “Flower Girl” with its smooth vocals and slight hint of menace in the melody when I reviewed it last fall. Now I’m grooving on the band’s great hooky new song “Wish I Could See,” another pre-release single from the upcoming album of the same name.

You won’t need a sextant or telescope to find these stars. Just open your ears at their respective Bandcamp pages and let the music do its work.

Let’s get rich! With Rich McCulley, Rich Arithmetic, and Rich Mattson and the North Stars

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This is no get rich quick infomercial, just the straight goods about some boys trying to make an honest living. With music. Today we showcase three Riches that have some fine singles and long players that will definitely pay dividends, if great hooks and solid melodies are your currency.

Attention to Rich McCulley on this blog has been a long time coming. Across seven LPs and a handful of stand-alone singles McCulley has carved out a distinct brand of Americana-infused poprock containing rock, country and indie flourishes. “All I Can Do” from his 2000 debut After the Moment has Past is a lovely lilting roots pop tune, with some striking slide guitar. Two years later he got a rocking backing band together for “Unwound,” a Costello-ish uptempo number from If Faith Doesn’t Matter (check out “Bend For No One” from the same album for a solid jangle entry). McCulley stayed in the poprock zone for his next few releases – you can hear it on the Odds-like “Forget It All Again” from 2007’s Cerro Gordo and the power pop “Falling Apart” from 2010’s Starting All Over Again. Things get a little bit country into Rich’s second decade of recording, as you can hear on 2013’s The Grand Design and 2017’s Out Along the Edges. I love the George Harrison-like lead guitar work on “The Most Beautiful Thing” and that killer organ. Or check out the rootsy acoustic guitar adorning the should-be hit single, “Hey Trouble,” a song reminds me a bit of Ron Sexsmith with its sophisticated hooks and unexpected melodic turns. Or just go for the more straight ahead country feel on the 2016 stand-alone single “Summer Storm.” McCulley’s most recent release, his 2020 single “Your Heart Said,” continues to meld country and rock and roll influences, combining sweet pedal steel guitar with just a touch of Tom Petty in the tune. And all this just skates across the surface of McCulley’s great catalogue. Seriously, drop the needle anywhere on his records and get ready to enjoy some high quality tuneage from a journeyman songwriter/performer.

Despite vibing just about every great artist from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s Rich Arithmetic’s Shifting Gears is undeniably a highly original piece of work. His ability to combine so many influences in interesting and unpredictable ways makes this album a constant source of surprise and delight. Album opener “In Our Time” alternates between touches of XTC and 1967 era Beatles, with a slightly baroque feel. “Do You Remember” has a bit of 10cc and the non-psychedelic Pink Floyd about it. “One Thing,” featuring Maura Kennedy on vocals, alternatively reminds me of Crowded House and the Go Go’s with its moody, atmospheric verses and punchy hooky choruses. There’s an effortless quality to the shifts between styles and influences, from the sultry pop jazz of “A Girl’s Reply” (featuring Diane Leigh’s alluring vocals) or the neo-1950s vamp “Haley” (again, so 10cc here), to the early Yardbirds feel of “She Moves Me” and the uptempo Alan Parsons Project sound on “Always.” And plenty more Beatles nods, like the Fab’s brand of pop psychedelia on “Waiting for the Isaac” or the Penny Lane-ish “He’s a Good Man” or that unmistakably Beatlesy descending chord progression in “Book of Lamentations.” And then there’s the quietly epic quality of “Before the First Slice (Wedding For The Disenchanted)” with its very Joe Jackson piano style. While Shifting Gears has a lot of moving parts, it still comes together as a coherent and highly entertaining musical statement. My recommendation – definitely add some Arithmetic to your current playlist.

Skylights is album number 5 for Rich Mattson and the North Stars and it carries on the band’s tradition of badlands rock and roll, a style that exudes authenticity with its gritty, sometimes edgy, stripped-down sound. “Death Valley” opens the album and sets the tone for what’s coming: the song has a striking, eerie aura, with a bit of menace in the vocals that are nicely offset by the restrained instrumental backing. Vocals are really one of the most distinctive elements on this record, with Rich Mattson and Germaine Gemberling trading lead duties and working up some amazing harmonies. Though the results vary, from the almost jazzy quality of “Against the Wall” to the alt country of “Short Lived.” Influences abound, from the John Prine feel on “Iowa” (and “Short Lived” frankly) to the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” electric guitar sound on “How Can It Be.” And there are a few poppy rock numbers like “Processing” and “In Flight.” I love the guitar shots driving the latter tune and its eerie harmony vocals. When Skylights end with “King by Now,” a lovely plaintive ballad, it’s like the curtain has come down on a great show and you can’t wait for the encore. In this case the record is over but you could just move on to check out the band’s solid back catalogue.

Money can’t buy you love. But if great music makes you happy, we’ve got you covered. Get Rich quick by clicking on the hyperlinks above and visiting these artists’ musical e-venues.

March Music Express

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Pick up this fantasy compilation I’ve entitled March Music Express and here’s what you get: twenty should-hits, all original artists, and melody for days. It’s a collection that rocks when it wants to, throws in some jangle to make your heart sing, and even goes mellow when the moment calls for it. I’m telling you, K-Tel never treated you this good. March Music Express has all the hooks and none of the groove cramming. Just hit play and let it ride!

Let’s start side one with some sophisticated pop. Dolour offer up a very smooth ambience on “Televangelist,” a keyboard-heavy single wrapped in breathy background vocals with some swing in the beat. There’s something I find so captivating about Brian Bringelson’s vocal treatment on “Losing Train of Thought” from his recent album, Desperate Days. Shades of Gerry Rafferty and Paul Kelly covering a long lost 1970s AM radio pop song. Brooklyn’s The Suns kick off “When You’re Not Around” sounding like some wayward Mersey cover band though the song quickly develops its own distinctive feel. The Mersey vibe’s still there, but now its cast in a more 1968 mold. The song is from the band’s recent EP Big Break, a brief excursion into the 1960s-infused rocky pop numbers. I love the urgency established early in William M. Michael breakneck, rollicking “Miles Away” from his EP Modern Sounds in Pop Music. The feel is very 1980s western Rank and File or True West. Detroit’s Dave Caruso creates such pretty pop songs on his recent album Radiophonic Supersonic, reminding me of 10cc mixed with more than a little Macca. “The Drop” perfectly captures his careful attention to song arrangements, juxtaposing some crunchy rhythm guitar with low key sweet vocals.

Oslo, Norway’s Death By Unga Bunga offer a striking a mix of influences, a bit of metal ‘tude, a dash of 1970s glam, and lurking behind their in-your-face guitars is usually an ear-worm quality set of hooks. Take their new release Heavy Male Insecurity. The first singles – “Egocentric” and “Faster Than Light” – are slow burn hook machines. But I find myself drawn to album deep cut “Trouble” with its subtle, alluring chorus. Looking for something completely original? Scotland’s Pictish Trail has an endearing, inventive indie sound that is something else. Just check all the elements at work on “Bad Algebra,” from the ping pong speaker effect on the opening guitar, to the softly understated vocals, to the explosive outbreak in the chorus. And the guy’s website is pretty hilarious too. Tampa Bay’s The Easy Button claim a musical lineage to Weezer but I hear more Fountains of Wayne on their new single, “Waiting Room.” Great edgy lead guitar here, tempered by some pretty smooth vocals. With a name like Cult Stars from Mars you know you’re in for some fun. I was totally grooving on the band’s fab recent cover of the Springsteen-written, Manfred Mann hit “Blinded by the Light” when I stumbled on “Can’t Wait to See You.” What a song! The performance kicks off like some mid-1980s pop hair band (and I’m liking that a bit more than I should) when suddenly the track transforms into a slice of poprock heaven. Something very Cheap Trick going on here, at their most melodic. Tamar Berk’s new album explores the restless dreams of youth but as a politics guy I was immediately drawn to the song “Socrates and Me.” It’s a cool bit of understated guitar pop, kinda like a new wave Suzanne Vega.

For side two, let’s hit southern Europe. Italy has got a pretty impressive underground rock and roll scene, with an accent on Ramones-inspired acts. Milan’s Radio Days up the melodic quotient on a straight rocking sound with “I Got Love” from last year’s EP of the same name. Crashing chords with soaring harmony vocals equals one appealing single. Another band mining a classic rock and roll sound are The Rubs. The new single “I Want You” kicks off oh so Stonesy but into the main body of the tune there’s a bit more Steve Miller Band attention to melody. Love the space synth! Tim Izzard wrote me about his Bowie-influenced album, Starlight Rendezvous, and boy has this guy got Ziggy nailed. But I found myself drawn more to the less Bowie-fied numbers, like the wonderfully hooky “Breaking Me Down.” The main riff is sensational, effectively threaded throughout the song and nicely offset with some pumping piano. Portland punk-noise meisters White Fang tune up the acoustic guitars on their new album Don’t Want to Hear It. The party dude sentiment is still there (on tracks like “Drunk with my Friends”) but check out the easygoing feel of “Never Give Up.” The song opens with a relentless hook that comes back again and again, effectively haunting the song. Then the track shifts to an acoustic guitar heavy sound that reminds me of Eels or Guster. Overall, it’s a concentrated dose of poprock goodness, a delightful departure from these party rockers. Melbourne, Australia’s Farewell Horizontal offer up a dreamy, reverb-drenched testament to the times we are in with “I Never Know What Time It Is.” I love the musical ornamentation here, from the jangle and psych lead guitar, to the subtle, atmospheric keyboard touches, to the soothing harmony vocals. And that’s not the only highlight from their new record, An Argument with an Idiot – definitely worth checking out.

The irony of Mt. Misery’s single “The Dreaming Days Are Over” is just how dream-like the roll out to the tune is. The song sounds like a skip through a spring garden, all pleasant acoustic guitar and keyboard embellishments, carried forward in a distinctive folk pop style. It’s been ten years since Irene Peña’s fabulous debut album Nothing To Do With You came out, with just an EP and a handful of singles released since then. But what killer singles! Like last year’s shimmering “Ridiculous,” a track on par with anything from Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair. Such a great crisp guitar sound counterbalanced with a candy-coated vocal shine. Somehow I missed Purling Hiss’ 2019 EP, Interstellar Blue, and that’s a shame because “Useful Information” is song that screams classic 1960s rock and roll. The driving guitar hook is so 1968. And yet the song has a very subtle melody snaking throughout the song. Another band known for noise and screaming guitars that has turned over a more melodic leaf of late is Terry Malts. “Distracted” lays a folkie vocal harmony over a bed of grinding guitars in an effective hooky counterpoint. Last up, The Menzingers’ reworking of their 2019 Hello Exile went from punky to four on the floor folk with 2020’s From Exile. From what I can hear “America Pt. 2” is a slight reworking of the “America, You’re Freaking Me Out” that appears on the album. It’s topical and has got a winning sing-along chorus.

With any great compilation album, someone else has done all the work. All you have to do is let the music play. Though hitting the hyperlinked artist names and checking out their musical wares wouldn’t hurt.

Around the dial: Nuevos Hobbies, The Lodger, The Stan Laurels, and Mason Summit

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March brings the promise of a bit more musical sun on our blog horizon. Today’s post gathers new tunes from Madrid, west Yorkshire, Austin and L.A., all featuring big and bold hooks. Get set for some audio sunshine!

Last December I was all over Nuevos Hobbies’ single “No puedo esperar” and the song ultimately made my should-be hit singles list for 2020. Now the accompanying album is out and it is just as exciting. Monstruso, or Monsters, is a dynamite collection of jangle-infused melodic should-be hits. The title track ambles along with the breezy, carefree abandon of sixties acts like The Cykle or eighties pop groups like The Housemartins. I don’t want to generalize but there’s something distinctive about Spanish poprock acts, a particularly smooth vocal style that you hear on “Sentado en la esquina de tu cama.” Of course, at other times the album vibes Teenage Fanclub pretty strongly, as on “El viento.” On the whole, the record has a strong consistency, with a few departures like “De mayor” with its more jaunty feel and stand out guitar work. And then there’s my vote for the follow up single, the stunning “Cara limpia.” The lead guitar hook just sings! As an album, Monstruso is a monstrously delightful experience, maxing out on pleasant melodies and enough trebly guitars for everyone.

After taking a decade off West Yorkshire’s The Lodger are back with Cul-De-Sac of Love. Time has not dulled the melodic songwriting skill and performance driving this band. The record is a jam packed with intriguing tunes that combine both dissonant and complementary elements. Take the first single, “Dual Lives.” This song and “I’m Over This (Get Over It)” rehabilitate the disco rhythm guitar feel, subordinating it to a different kind of dance song. And yet these two songs are bit of an outlier for me, a departure from the more joyous poppy feel of much else that appears here. Personally I would have led the single releases with “Wasting My Time With You,” a track with a killer hypnotic lead line that reels you in and keeps you there. It might just be me, but there is something so English about the pop sheen all over this record, like the piano-led melody carrying the Paul Weller-ish “Perfect Fit” or the more New Order/Pet Shop Boys-ish “Stop That Girl.” And then there’s the interesting rhythm guitar and inventive chorus hooks on the title track, capped with an addictive droning guitar break and a glorious wall-of-sound finish. I could go on calling out each song’s unique merits but you get the picture. For me, faves include “I Don’t Want to Be It,” the country-ish “My Poor Mind,” and the timeless, manicured English pop sound on “Former Life,” a style that Robyn Gibson has perfected on his Bob of the Pops releases. Suffice to say, Cul-De-Sac of Love is a winning return for The Lodger, well deserving of 37 minutes of your time.

From the cover art to the general tone of the recording, The Stan LaurelsThere is No Light Without Dark is definitely a step into the shadows, a departure for John Lathrop given his usual sunny disposition. There was a bit of advance notice with last summer’s advance single “Lost and Found,” with its combination of somber melody and crunchy lead guitar flourishes. The song’s strong Pugwash vibe is even more apparent cast amongst all these new tunes. Opening cut “Florida Man” sounds like the b-side to the prior single, a bit achingly sad and strikingly tuneful. Other songs have amazing structural architecture, almost Alan Parsonian in their twist and turns, like the bewitching “Of Love, Wine, and Song.” My personal fave is the strummy beautiful “Red Handed Puppet,” a track that matches the mellow tenderness of the lighter side of Fountains of Wayne. Or check out the strong echoes of The Smiths in “On Paper” or The Beatles/ELO influences on “Mo Collins.” The play with light and dark all over this record is a testament to Lathrop’s cinematic approach to creativity, you feel and see the sound as much as hear it. And what I’m seeing is good. Very good.

This was an artist and album I somehow overlooked in 2020. I don’t know how because one listen to Mason Summit’s Negative Space and you know you’re on to something special. The record opens so inauspiciously with some acoustic guitar kicking off “Doomed from the Start” but by the time you’ve hit that brilliant but oh-so-subtle hook in the chorus, a shift worthy of Mark Everett or even an early Elvis Costello, it’s apparent the track is a minor masterpiece. From there Summit juxtaposes a few rockers with some beautiful, acoustic guitar driven tunes. On the rock side, I could have sworn I was listening to Eugene Edwards as “Confidant’ was playing. Both the songwriting style and performance seemed so in sync with Edward’s brilliant LP My Favorite Revolution. And then, just as suddenly, “Asterisk” thrust me into a full blown Elliot Smith experience, with perhaps some backing from Aimee Mann. The acoustic guitar numbers have a spooky, roomy feel, like the ambient “How Does It End?” and beautiful “More to Fear.” Variety? Sure. How about a killer take on a 1960s Bond-esque instrumental? “Point Doom” delivers that. Or perhaps a more Squeeze take on songwriting with the title track, “Negative Space.” Don’t let the title fool you: Negative Space is definitely something positive.

No static at all, not on today’s post. Nuevos Hobbies, The Lodger, The Stan Laurels, and Mason Summit are coming through clean and ready to (pop) rock.

Spotlight single: Brett Dennen “Here’s Looking at You, Kid”

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Falling somewhere between James Taylor, John Denver and Paul Simon on the singer-songwriter spectrum, central California mountain dweller Brett Dennen aces the acousticy clean, folksy pop song style. But his most recent extended play release sees him stretching into the more retro poprock field with “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.” The track has the feel of a great big song, a classic potential group sing-along with a beat so open even most clap-incapable can get it right. The roll out and beat is very Sonny and Cher circa 1965, with a bright guitar lead line that threads through the song, coming back at regular intervals. I can’t make up my mind whether the track is more Ben Kweller or Dusty Springfield. Vocally and song structure-wise it’s very Ben while the guitar timbre is so Dusty. The acoustic rendering of the tune really brings out the melodic lead guitar line too. I could imagine a faster version that would push the song more into the power pop genre but Dennen’s pace is A-OK too, a nice and easy, in no hurry delight of a single.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid
Here’s Looking at You, Kid (acoustic)

Besides easy rocking the guitar troubadour thing, Dennen is also a talented water colour painter. Check out his art, music, and seemingly constant series of online shows from his website and Facebook and Bandcamp pages.

Another stroll with Walter Egan

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Edgy powerpop guitar god Chris Church hepped me to a new release from Walter Egan. That surprised me a bit as Egan is neither very power poppy nor edgy. But, hey, it’s good to be surprised. The tip sent me down a research rabbit hole of discovery, scouring Egan’s whole back catalogue and the results were delightfully surprising. Like many people, Walter Egan was essentially that one killer single for me, “Magnet and Steel.” When I re-heard it on the 1997 Boogie Nights soundtrack it totally transported me back to 1978 AM radio and that slick but oh-so-addictive California melodic-rock sound of Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon, Egan and others. Kinda made me wonder what else he’d been up to over the years. Well two decades later I’m here to report that Egan was and is much more than a ‘one-hit wonder.’ Over the course to 12 albums or so he’s amassed an impressive collection of memorable tunes.

Let’s start with Egan’s new album Fascination. Man, he’s still got it. The opening bars of “I’m with the Girl” sound so Asylum Records 1977 and once the vocal harmonies kick in it’s like anything Linda Ronstadt or the Everly’s might have put out in the period. Meanwhile “A Fool in Love” bolts out the gate like any should-be hit single will do, the songwriting strong and the arrangement a winner, carried by a relentless guitar hook. Now this record is not some late in life career revival for Egan. Really, he never went away. But his recorded output does seem to be limited to three distinct periods: early career releases from 1977 to 1983, a spate of LPs turned out from 1999 to 2002, and a more recent cache of records from 2011 to the present. The albums try out different styles but never stray far from a California pop meets retro rock and roll formula. And I’m Ok with that.

I’m with the Girl
A Fool in Love

Egan’s 1977 debut Fundamental Roll was produced by Lindsay Buckingham and it shows, all shiny acoustic guitars, tasty electric guitar lead lines, and exquisite background vocal support from Stevie Nicks, the latter nicely showcased on the majestic “Won’t You Say You Will.” His breakthrough 1978 album Not Shy is so much more than just “Magnet and Steel.” “Hot Summer Nights” has a stop-what-you’re-doing cool opener that builds incredibly, helped by those ghostly background ‘oohs’. The vibe from this track so reminds me of John Stewart’s “Gold” from the same period. 1979’s HiFi was supposed to solidify Egan as a hitmaker but the record seemed to fall between audiences. Personally I love the tentative new wave sprinkled throughout this record, and very apparent on “Like You Do” with its interesting song structure (particularly the twist in the chorus). Record labels would give artists a bit more rope back in the day but the clock was ticking for Egan to get back on the charts. Alas neither 1980s The Last Stroll or 1983’s Wild Exhibitions did the trick – but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Both records had great songs, like “Motel Broken Hearts” on TLS or “Fool Moon Fire” from WE.

Won’t You Say You Will
Hot Summer Nights
Like You Do
Motel Broken Hearts
Fool Moon Fire

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed Egan mostly contributing to other people’s tours and albums. But 1999’s Walternative kicked off a recording comeback, the first of a quick trio of albums that saw Egan charting some new musical territory, like the reggae-infused pop of “There Goes My Girl.” Or the very Fleetwood Mac Rumours acoustic twinge all over “The Loneliest Boy” from 2001’s Mad Dog. 2002’s Apocalypso Now carried on with the acoustic theme on songs like “Time and the Rain” and the beautiful instrumental “Lullaby” but also rocked out with solid hooky singles like “The Reason Why.”

There Goes My Girl
The Loneliest Boy
The Reason Why

Egan’s most recent recording period emerged in 2011 with Raw Elegant, a record that is largely unavailable. Even Egan’s website admits it’s a rarity! 2014’s Myth America has a great title and artwork (featured above) and songs that might best be cast in the Americana tradition. Egan’s vocal on “Time the Master” has a lovely vulnerable quality that suits the low key melody. By 2017 Egan was back to an acoustic feel on “Old Photographs” from True Songs.

Time the Master
Old Photographs

Walter Egan’s a musical survivor. He had a gargantuan hit that movie-makers still reach out for to paint that perfect late 1970s tableau. But he’s a whole lot more than that one song, as his sporadic recording career ably demonstrates. Take a stroll with Egan’s new record or any of the albums featured here and hear it for yourself.

The painting above (which adorns the Myth America album) is actually by Walter Egan. What a beauty!