Is that so gay? The queer poprock of The Smiths and Pansy Division

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17 year old meIt was 1982. I was 17, gay as springtime, and loved rock and roll. Musically at that time I would find myself caught between different worlds – there really wasn’t any place to call home. That same year a friend of mine and I snuck into our first gay bar. I thought it was going to be great, to finally be somewhere full of other gay people. But I just couldn’t get past the terrible music. It was all tuneless dance beats, nary a guitar or a melodic hook in sight. I thought of myself as pretty well informed about all kinds of music even then but all night I didn’t recognize a single song. Years later I would come to appreciate why gay popular culture had evolved as it had, why a certain kind of music dominated the scene then. But at the time I experienced it as incredibly alienating. Just another place I didn’t fit in.

In early 1980s, gay was a no go zone for music, a one way trip off the charts and into commercial oblivion. Sure, David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Elton John had dabbled in public bisexuality in the 1970s but when that fad passed it was back to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ for gay musicians trying to have a career in music. There were a few stark exceptions: Pete Townshend’s “And I Moved” and “Rough Boys” from 1980s Empty Glass, Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” from 1982’s Night and Day, and Tom Robinson’s fiercely political “Glad to be Gay,” which I first heard as a solo acoustic performance on the 1980 album The Secret Policeman’s Ball. But these performers were either not gay or not really focused on giving voice to gay experience.

THE_SMITHS_HATFUL+OF+HOLLOWMEAT+IS+MURDERTHE+WORLD+WONT+LISTEN-431594And then came The Smiths. There may have been acts that I liked more at the time but none affected me as profoundly as this Manchester quartet. I found a copy of “What Difference Does it Make” in the discard pile at my radio broadcasting school and it blew my head off. The guitar hook immediately had my full attention but the lyrics were also startling – this was my life in a rock and roll song, something that had never happened before. I immediately set out to find more and picked up the BBC sessions/compilation album Hatful of Hollow. The fall of 1984 was all Smiths, all the time. The songs were so obviously about working class gay experience – “William, It Was Really Nothing,” “This Charming Man,” “Handsome Devil,” etc. – that it was painfully embarrassing to see Morrissey equivocate about his sexuality in later interviews.  British artists in the 1980s seemed divided about taking a stand on gay identity with Morrissey and the Pet Shops Boys avoiding the issue while others like Bronksi Beat wrote powerfully direct songs like “Small Town Boy.” Later Smiths albums were definitely more oblique about sexuality, but it didn’t matter. The early recordings broke through a barrier of rock and roll masculinity, proving to be as exciting as any previous three chord wonder. Others would take note.

PansyMany years later a friend gave me a copy Pansy Division’s Wish I’d Taken Pictures. Now here was the ‘out and proud’ gay rock and roll I had wanted The Smiths to be. Talk about flaunting it – this legendary San Francisco queercore band is hilariously in-your-face about their gay lives. Going back in their catalogue, their 1993 debut Undressed spoke directly, often intimately, about gay sex, gay dating, really anything you could describe as gay experience in both tender and amusing ways. No more Smithian innuendo, just refreshingly frank talk on tracks like “Boyfriend Wanted,” “The Story So Far,” and “Surrender Your Clothing.” Though their sound owes a lot to the California’s pop punk groove of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pansy Division oscillate between a more hardcore guitar attack and an almost Jonathan Richmanesque playfulness in terms of emotional honesty and a more low key poprock sensibility.

PDQuiteContraryWith seven albums of original material there is simply too much to review here but I could easily single out a host of songs from across their catalogue. From the early period I would note the above-mentioned songs from Undressed, “Don’t Be So Sure” and “Kevin” from 1996’s Wish I’d Taken Pictures, and “Sweet Insecurity” and “Used to Turn Me On” from 1998’s Absurd Pop Song Romance. The band branches out stylistically in the new century with some new guitar sounds and song structures. 2003’s Total Entertainment comes on like a rush of adrenaline with a new sonic mix on tracks like “When He Comes Home,” “Not Good Enough for You,” and “First Betrayal,” while 2009’s That’s So Gay pumps the politics quotient on “Some of My Best Friends” and the ‘not taking ourselves too seriously’ factor on “Dirty Young Man” and “Pat Me on the Ass.” 2016’s Quite Contrary album mimics the cover of their Wish I’d Taken Pictures record released twenty years earlier, replacing the strapping lads of the original with the band’s now aging selves, though they still seem to be cavorting and having a good time. The song themes too reflect their present gay circumstances with issues like the ongoing religious attacks on queers in the US in “Blame the Bible” or aging in “(Is This What It’s Like) Getting Old.” Being from Canada, I have to high five Pansy Division’s ode to our great white north, “Manada” which manages to name check a host of Canadian cities and laud out boys, with versions in both English and French! These guys are a class act.

Me at 23 2In the end, the question remains: is it really that important whether a band is gay or not? Yes and no. As I’ve grown older, more comfortable and confident about who I am, I don’t necessarily need to be surrounded by reflections of myself. I love all kinds of music regardless of sexuality or any other kinds of identity markings. But when we are young it is terribly important to see ourselves in popular culture. To be invisible in the world is to be invisible to ourselves. To have our hopes and dreams, heartaches and disappointments given expression in culture is to be part of the broader world. Indeed, to identify across our differences requires first that those differences be articulated. Perhaps it is easier for a rock and roll gay boy today. I hope so, though we should never underestimate how hard it is to be different. Despite the gains in social tolerance, western societies remain profoundly conformist in a host of ways.

Nobody really needs to help The Smiths sell any new product. As one wag noted, for a band critical of rampant consumerism, they have proven to be very adept at packaging and repackaging their material in the most stylish and collectible way. On the other hand, I suspect Pansy Division are probably not in a position to buy an island any time soon. So do visit the boys, share a laugh, and of course spend some money.

Photos of 17 and 24 year old Dennis Pilon by David Curnick and Michael Willmore.

Breaking news: Dan Rico, The Primitives, Richard Turgeon, and Cait Brennan

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My musical cup runneth over. There always seems to be a surplus of great music to write about and only so many dedicated blog hours to get it all in. So straight to business. This instalment of breaking news sees the return of some old favourites and the discovery of some amazing new talents.

Rico NKDan Rico is back with Nobody Knows, proving with this dynamic 11 minute EP that he is much more than a one album wonder. The familiar elements are all there – the neo-1970s pastiche of glam and 1950s rock and roll – with a few new twists. Opening track “Love in Vain” gets the party started with its insistent boogie beat but Rico blows the doors off with a killer hook at the 40 second mark that will have you hitting rewind almost immediately. “Nobody Knows” captures that border line 1970s punk-cum-garage rock sound with a nice guitar line. Rounding out the EP is “Rock-a-bye” with its hints of pop psychedelia and the mild melodrama of “Roxy Goddamn.”

Primites NTCoventry’s The Primitives also have a new EP out, New Thrills, and from the opening riff of “I’ll Trust the Wind” you know you’re about to get just what you came for: catchy melodies, ringing guitars, and Tracy Tracy’s cool but understated pop vocals. All four tracks are the high quality 1960s-inspired poprock fare you’ve come to expect from this combo but check out the distinctive echo-y guitar sound and hooks on “Same Stuff” and lead guitarist Paul Court’s nice vocal turn on the chirpy “Oh Honey Sweet.” I could write and write about how great this band is but, really, it’s all there in the recordings. Just hit play.

RT.pngOn the new discovery front, Richard Turgeon is a modern everyman: successful purveyor of image and communication skills, music business ‘how to’ book writer, novelist, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter, as well as suburban husband and father. He put together his latest record, Between the Spaces, literally between the spaces of his busy work and home life, ‘mostly on nights and weekends’ as he says on his website. The album kicks off with the very fun “Bigfoot’s an Alien” but really gets into gear for me with pristine poprock of “Bad Seed,” a driving number that reminds me of Matthew Sweet. “I Don’t Need You” opens with a great guitar hook and has a super sing-a-long chorus. The whole album is pretty solid, full of well-crafted tunes but, if pressed, I find myself most partial to the above-mentioned selections as well as “Watch Me Now” and “Frostbites.”

Brennan-Third-OV-217.jpgOur last breaking new discovery is Cait Brennan. New to me, it appears, because there is a hell of lot written about her first record and unusual career path on the ole internet (thanks to I Don’t Hear a Single for the tip). And the hype is dead on – Brennan is a major talent in both the singing and songwriting department. “Underworld” from her debut album, Debutante, demonstrates this perfectly: the song oozes classic, soon-to-be-covered-by-Rod-Stewart-and-Tony-Bennett kinda good. Her new record is equally impressive, though perhaps more in the poprock vein this time around, much to the delight of this particular blog. “He Knows Too Much” is a wonderful single, from its breathy opening vocal line, to its clever lyrics, to the drop dead perfect musical arrangement. Brennan’s vocals – both the lead and backing – nail all the hooks, while being just faintly reminiscent of Neil Finn’s vocal timbre and phrasing. Another highlight is the sardonic “Benedict Cumberbach” with its Beatlesque roll out and Split Enz-like manic chorus. But this is just scratching the surface of what is here. This record is sure to be on a lot of ‘Best of 2017’ lists come year’s end. He Knows Too MuchUnderworld

Social media is standing ready to log your visits, likes, and credit card numbers so visit Dan Rico, The Primitives, Richard Turgeon, and Cait Brennan before you become distracted by something else.

Girls with record collections: Eytan Mirsky and Fernando Perdomo

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turntable-2157292_1920What is it with guys and record collections? While I think things have changed a bit recently, coming of age in the 1980s the record store and music obsessions were predominantly male preserves. Nobody captured it better than Nick Hornby in the first chapter of High Fidelity, which opens with the male protagonist deciding for the umpteenth time to reorganize his record collection, this time in the order he purchased them. I remember looking up from the book thinking ‘somebody’s been watching me …’

FP GWRC rockSo here are two songs that capture the traditional range of views about women and record collections. In one, the singer is delighted to find a girl with a serious record collection, noting she “blew me away, with her 45s, they’re all alphabetized …” But in the other, the narrator “did a quick inspection and found [her] ELO” and dumps her, directing her to “take your record collection and go.” In either case, the serious female record collector is either a surprise or unthinkable. Yet both songwriters are clearly mocking this sort of narrow thinking.  Get readyEytan Mirsky has a large body of hilarious, self-mocking poprock. One album features a pathetic looking Mirsky slouching in a chair as some girlfriend’s luggage is heading for the door – the album title? Was it Something I Said? On his song “Record Collection” (from Get Ready for Eytan!)  the shallowness of his male narrator deciding to dump the girl he’s moved in with over some supposed musical indiscretions is both mocked and yet somehow also sadly believable. Meanwhile, producer extraordinaire Fernando Perdomo offers up two distinctly different versions of his charming “Girl with a Record Collection,” one leaning on a jangle poprock sound while the other exploits a more poppy arrangement.

Eytan Mirsky and Fernando Perdomo both have enormous back catalogues of music on Bandcamp just waiting to be perused in a leisurely fashion, preferably with a martini or a beer to encourage impulse buying.

Resurrection shuffle: The Emperors of Wyoming and The Empty Hearts

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HotelIn the early 1980s I went to see Gerry and the Pacemakers play at the International Plaza Hotel in North Vancouver. It was a small room but Gerry was larger than life and clearly a few decades older than his replacement Pacemakers. He belted out his early 1960s hits and closed the show with a version of then chart-topping Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello.” Gerry was a great showman but I left feeling a bit sad. Was this the unavoidable fate of every one-time hit maker? Recycling their past night after night? The good news is, no. Some artists manage to find new inspiration and keep on producing exciting new music.

EWA while back we featured the criminally overlooked Fire Town, a band who put out two great albums of country-tinged poprock in the late 1980s before its members went off to super fame (Butch Vig and Doug Erikson to Garbage) or out of music altogether (Phil Davis). In 2012 Vig and Davis, along with a few other old friends from their musical pasts, reunited to form The Emperors of Wyoming, a kind of revival of the Fire Town project, minus some of the shimmering guitars and with a bit more of a gritty western sound. The results are fantastic. “Bittersweet Sound of Goodbye” opens the record with pretty much the formula of what is to come: acoustic guitar anchoring the sound, nice lead guitar flourishes, and an achingly sad tenor to the vocals. Next up is the album’s marquee single, “Avalanche Girl,” a pretty solid slab poprock songwriting. Everything about this song rolls out flawlessly: strong hooks, great vocals and a host of nice guitar motifs tucked in here and there. The whole record is pretty solid, though I’d single out “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” for its humour and super banjo.I Don’t Know Why I Love You

The_Empty_Hearts_LP_CoverThe Empty Hearts draw more broadly for their resurrected super-group, including former members of Blondie, the Cars, the Romantics and the Chesterfield Kings. Former Romantics lead singer Wally Palmar gives the group a distinctive vocal stamp, aided by new wave producer Ed Stasium’s crisp production. “I Don’t Want Your Love” is a fun sing-a-long shouter, one of a number of rock and roll workouts on the record, while “(I See) No Way Out” sounds like a great lost Romantics single. But the musical highlight for me is the stunning “Fill an Empty Heart,” a killer tune arranged to hit all the poprock marks – love the organ (courtesy the Faces’ Ian MacLagan) and oh-so-new wave guitars. The album has many highlights but check out “Perfect World” and the country-ish “I Found You Again.”Fill an Empty HeartI Found You Again

I don’t claim to understand the magic that allows musically creative people to write great songs and make dynamite records. But it’s inspiring to see artists maintain the mojo throughout their careers. Maybe these guys are just getting started? After all, Leonard Cohen kept batting them out of the park creatively right up to his lunch date with the Grim Reaper. You can find out more about The Emperors of Wyoming and The Empty Hearts online. Don’t be afraid to show them some love – that never gets old.

Precocious poprock: Matt Jaffe and Max Bouratoglou

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Vox 2Rock and roll has always been a young man’s game but just how young? When the Beatles hit it big in 1963 John, Paul, George and Ringo were 23, 21, 20 and 23 respectively. This week’s duo first made the live music scene when they were barely in their teens. Ok, novelty aside, the real test is the music and these two prove you don’t need quite so many trips around the sun to produce some killer poprock.

Matt JaffeMatt Jaffe picked up the guitar at ten and hit his first open mike at 11. At 14 the Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison offered to record some demos with him. His first publicly available material starts to emerge when he is 16, with his first EP out while he is still 19. His band are the Distractions, a play on one of his favourite influences, Elvis Costello and his Attractions. I’m pretty sure Jaffe’s electric guitar is the same as EC’s: a Fender Jazz Master. The not-so-raw talent is obvious from the earliest recordings like “No Place to Go” and “Armistice Day” and on unreleased recordings like “Plastic Tears.” But his first official EP, Blast Off, seals the deal with its effortless mix of rootsy rock and roll like “Write a Song About Me” and “Blast Off” as well as more poprock numbers like “Holding On” and “Stoned on Easter.” “Holding On” particularly has all the right hooky moves, sounding like a slightly off-kilter Marshall Crenshaw single. In 2016 he released another strong single with “Overboard” and followed that this year with his first long player, California’s Burning, which tipped things back toward his more rootsy roots. Check out the swinging “Love is Just a Drug.”

MaxWunderkind number two seems even more ambitious. 16 year old Max Bouratoglou has just released a new album, the very polished sounding Idle Intuition, produced by Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. But hey, it’s his third album. Max recorded his first record, Mid-Teen Crisis, when he was just 14 in the summer between the 8th and 9th grade. The songs on this first record all start sounding a bit raw but when they kick into the chorus – bang – it’s there, something smooth and hooky. “How to Say” does this with great vocal harmonies in the chorus and some really cool 1960s organ and electric guitar. Clearly, somebody has been raiding the grandparents’ record collection!  A year later he released Average Euphonies which upped the production values and the songwriting sophistication on tracks like “Things Have Changed” and “Diamond Pearl,” the latter channeling the 1960s poprock sound of the Monkees and a surprising (and very cool) trumpet solo. On the new album, I’m partial to “Time Flies” and the hypnotic “Drum,” with its super rumbly electric guitar.

How to SayTime FliesDrum

I know what you’re thinking: these guys are young, I’ve got lots of time to check them out. Well just remember what happened to those Buddy Holly fans on the March dates of the Winter Dance Party. Visit Matt Jaffe and Max Bouratoglou online, buy their records, go to their concerts.

I get mail: Fire Chief Charlie, Tiny Animals, The Popravinas, Picnic Tool, and V Sparks

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lettersI wonder sometimes if the mail person has mistaken my address for Quality Street because the submissions arriving in the Poprock Record mailbag have been pretty spectacular. This week’s selections run the gamut of cabaret pop, textured top 40, straight up party rock and roll, and punky riffsters.

FCCThe tuneful Adam Merrin (we featured him here) sent a note about Fire Chief Charlie, a band whose latest record, Chances Are, he produced and played on. This submission is definitely a border case, a bit more art rock than poprock. And yet I find their latest single “Let’s Be Happy” so intriguing. The male vocals remind me of Roxy Music era Bryan Ferry, the guitar lines are languid and suggestive, while the pacing is almost plodding until it suddenly changes up. Repeated listening creates a hypnotic effect, bringing out the song’s subtle hooks. The single’s B-side, “There Goes My Ol’ Unbearable Heart,” is also a nice number, strummy with just a slight hint of country twang and a dreamy (but short) guitar solo.

TA albumThe new record from Tiny Animals comes a long six years after their last long player. To make up for lost time, they have crafted a full blown concept album, Such Stuff That Dreams Are Made On, that takes us through a night of dreaming and the bleary, sometimes nonsensical imagery that accompanies sleep (or the lack thereof). As with previous Tiny Animals albums, the sound is crisp and finely textured, often built up layer by sonic layer. The songs are sequenced seamlessly without break but some contributions are more single-ready (some more experimental) than others. I would send radio “She’s Gonna Find Out” with its quirky and catchy opener, the hooky “Stalker” which features some great vocal effects, the strolling-on-a-sunny-day “Wait, Wait, Wait,” and the band’s own choice for first release and video, “Up, Up, and Away.” And in something totally unrelated to this release, check out the band’s hilarious medley of 1980s sitcom theme songs!She’s Gonna Find OutUp, Up, and Away

PRThe Popravinas have a easygoing, melodic rock n’ roll sound – they perform like they’ve been playing together forever. Their sound combines both acoustic and electric guitars, punchy lead lines, AM transistored vocals, a bit of California country rock at times, and a general party vibe. The whole album is enjoyable but “Santa Monica Moon,” “Wow,” and “Top of the Heartache” are stand out tracks for me. Still, if I had pick something for a single I think I’d go with “Alone Ain’t So Bad” with its slightly stronger edge of rock and roll insurgency, nice vocal arrangement, and just a bit of banjo. Hit play and let the beer flow.

PTWe torque up the rock quotient with selections from Picnic Tool’s tart and saucy EP Einstein. The title track is a talky, rumbly rock workout full of hilarious asides, while “Chinese Heart” has a more spare sound, held together by a strong, hooky lead guitar line. By comparison “I Love the Truth” sounds more conventional if only because it features actual singing along with some nice harmonica breaks, built on a great neo-1950s music bed. Things wrap up with the fun “… About Gurls,” a crisp new wavey number full of super riffs. And then, it’s over. Even for an EP Einstein ends all too soon.

V SparksDramatic, almost Queen-like in its changes and intensity, V Sparks grabs you and doesn’t let go on its New Sensation EP. While the record has a number of strong songs, I remain most captivated by “Death of a Star.” From the opening keyboards, the song twists and turns so often you may feel it has lost its way. But when it hits the chorus you’re in a melodic sweet spot that you just don’t want to end. A remarkable effort that makes you wonder where this band will go next.

Fire Chief Charlie, Tiny Animals, The Popravinas, Picnic Tool and V Sparks are sending me mail but really they’d like to hear from you. Make at least one of them your favourite new band today.

Should be a hit single: Daniel Romano “When I Learned Your Name”

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banner-daniel-romanoMy friend at The Best Indie Songs sent me a link to this song, suspecting it would be right up my alley. He was right. The video manages to capture both the look and feeling of the late 1970s tension between pub rock and new wave. And the swing! The song launches out of the gate with a hip-swaying, head bopping set of hooks reminiscent of many of the album cuts from Elvis Costello’s debut, My Aim is True. The guitars are pure late 1970s, sounding just a bit country rock but inching toward the punk side. Vocally, the single sounds like Dylan’s lost new wave album.

75489-modern-pressure“When I Learned Your Name” is the second teaser single from Romano’s soon-to-be released new album, Modern Pressure, and it represents a serious change-up from his previous solo releases – sort of. 2016’s Mosey certainly laid the groundwork for this new direction, steering away from country to a more decidedly poprock sound with tracks like “Valerie Leon” and “Maybe Remember Me.” But taking his musical output as a whole, Romano is a musical chameleon, channeling 1960s traditional country on most of his solo records while covering edgier material on a number of side projects. In terms of his broader artistic vision, he reminds me of the super talented Gregory Pepper, who also combines great songwriting and performance, witty but incisive social commentary, and pretty stunning visual arts chops.

While this song is climbing our charts here at Poprock Record, check out Romano’s scene at his website and Facebook page.

Soundtrack of your life: Wiretree

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WT MUYou’re watching some show on Netflix or Crave and you think ‘hey, what is that music in the background, setting the scene, plucking at my emotional heartstrings’? It could easily be the sound of Wiretree. This is a band that has mastered the strummy melodic atmospheric background sound so omnipresent in our binge-watched entertainment. Albums from 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013 mined this field with utter confidence. Powerpopulist put me on to the band and a brief exposure to their catalogue on Bandcamp quickly had me downloading everything.  I love “Notion” from Boudin, “Across My Mind” from Luck, “Tonight” from Make Up, and “Marching Band” from Get Up.

WT TTSYet there is something qualitatively different about Wiretree’s latest release, Towards the Sky. The album opens innocuously enough with “Let Me In,” a great song in keeping with band’s traditional sound. But then things get crazy, in a good way. “J.F. Sebastian” is a total departure for the band but it works, sounding a bit like The Zolas, particularly on the vocals. Then “Between the Lines” has a nice folk country vibe with a great harmonica solo. “Dive” and “Didn’t Know Your Name” work the indie poprock sound to good effect. “Don’t Let it Go” has a nice retro early 1960s disaster pop sound. This is the sound of a band arriving, in command of its artistic destiny.

Get in on the ground floor of loving Wiretree by visiting their website, Facebook page, and Bandcamp releases.

Poprock comparison shopping: Richard X. Heyman and Peter Noone

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HeymanI just discovered Richard X. Heyman and initial my reaction was – how have I not managed to hear about this guy before now?  His formula is simple: take strong songwriting, apply jangle-filled poprock production, and slather everything with killer Byrdsian harmony vocals. What’s not to love? The readily available albums – Cornerstone, Basic Glee, X – all are worthy additions to your collection. But we are here today to pass some judgment. Heyman asked for it, really. By releasing two versions of his song “Hoosier” how could fans not be expected to take a side on which version they prefer? But the choice is anything but easy.

Hossiers“Hoosier” is a song of longing for a girl from the hoosier state, Indiana. Written in 1999, it appeared on Heyman’s 2000 album, Heyman, Hoosier and Herman under the title “Hoosier (Girl),” with guest vocals provided by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits fame. Then Heyman released a version with his own vocal on his 2007 release, Actual Sighs. Have a listen to them below to see just where they differ. It’s Heyman’s song so, not surprisingly, he does a great version. The song kicks off with a nice sparkly guitar and organ interplay, with Heyman’s trademark layered background vocals lifting the song to new heights in various places. But, for me, as good as the 2007 version is, it just can’t compete with Noone’s transcendent vocal on the original 2001 release. Though 53 at the time of this recording, Noone had lost none of the magic that made Herman’s Hermits such stars with fans, if not music critics. The music bed is more subdued with Noone – here I prefer the other take – but still, on the whole, the Noone iteration of “Hoosier” just clicks more as a potential hit single.Hoosier (Girl)

Both Richard X. Heyman and Peter Noone are worth looking up. Click on the links to become better acquainted with their ongoing musical exploits.

Aimee Mann of the year!

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aimee_mannAimee Mann snuck up on me. I had one record and then another and before I knew it I had them all on some kind of regular rotation. My Columbia House subscription at the time probably bears some responsibility.  Why do I like Aimee Mann so much? I don’t know. There’s something comfortable and sutured about the space she creates, like a self-contained sonic mini-universe. And despite the often sad stories and the sad sacks responsible for them, Mann’s work is never obviously melancholic. Instead, she gives musical voice to the emotional ambivalence of our times. Shit’s happening and people are trying to find love and there seem to be no obvious heroic scripts to draw from. When you can’t work that kind of stuff out sometimes you just want to wallow with someone who isn’t forcing you to smile or cry.  Mann gets it.  Easy answers are not that satisfying. Her albums are filled with characters struggling to cope with not knowing which way to turn. They’re idealistic enough to want to do something, but wise enough to know each choice has a cost.

Aimee_Mann_-_WhateverIt has been fascinating to watch the trajectory of Mann’s career. Three albums with her band ‘Til Tuesday channeled a lot of 1980s bombast, with a few gems along the way like “Will She Just Fall Down” (which sounds the most like the post-‘Til Tuesday Mann sound). But with 1993’s Whatever Mann declared her creative independence, establishing the rudiments of the style she would continue to develop the rest of her career. You can tell a little about her from the people she has chosen to work with, co-writing songs with Elvis Costello, Jules Shear, and Jon Brion, and inviting the likes of Squeeze’s Glen Tilbrook and the Shin’s James Mercer to add vocals to various tracks.  But ultimately comparisons fail because Mann is a category of her own. In terms of stylistic confidence and delivery, she reminds me most of Joni Mitchell. She is post-genre.

aimee-mann-im-with-stupid-800pxTrying to single out a few songs to feature from Mann’s many albums is painful, there are just so many good tracks.  Whatever kicks off with everything Mann has become celebrated for in “I Should Have Known”: a wall of guitar, a solid melodic hook that comes out of left field, great background vocals. But “I Know There’s a Word” showcases the more tender, acoustic side that is never absent from any Mann release.  Two years later I’m with Stupid appears to repeat the formula but with a few twists.  Opening track “Long Shot” is a bit punchier while the obvious single “That’s Just What You Are” is pulled in a different direction by the distinctive vocal contributions of Squeeze’s lead singer. Though again, the quiet acoustic “You’re with Stupid Now” is a slow burner of a killer tune. Mann came out with Bachelor No. 2 in 2000, which featured songs that had appeared in the film Magnolia. Rightly praised for its strong material, I’m particularly partial to “Red Vines,” “Driving Sideways,” and “Susan.”

Forgotten_armsI lost track of Aimee Mann for a few years. You know, I got busy, she got busy. 2002’s Lost in Space passed me by, though now I love “This is How it Goes” and “Invisible Ink.” I did catch the brilliant Forgotten Arm when it came out in 2005. It makes sense that a story-telling songwriter like Mann would want a bigger canvas, a whole album that develops an over-arching story. You can’t pick and choose your 99 cent choices here, you have to buy the whole thing to really get it, but I do tend to hit repeat on “Video,” “Little Bombs,” and the achingly beautiful “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart.” I missed both 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers and 2012’s Charmer when they came out. Ok, there are more attentive Aimee Mann fans than me. But I’ve made up for lost time – both these records are fabulous. @#%&*! Smilers adds a wonderful array of keyboard sounds on the uptempo “Freeway,” and the more swinging “Borrowing Time,” while “Little Tornado” is breathtaking with its starkly simple arrangement of guitar, echo-y piano, and whistling.  Charmer takes the keyboard exploration to new heights on so many strong tracks, but I really like the title track, “Crazytown,” and “Red Flag Diver.”

MIWhich brings us to the present and Mann’s stunning new album, Mental Illness. With Whatever I thought Mann had put the bar pretty high but looking back over her career I think she has gotten better and better with every release. Mental Illness has the hooks, the careful attention to arrangement that characterizes all of Mann’s output, and an impressive range of instrumental quirks. The two singles, “Goose Snow Cone” and “Patient Zero” showcase this beautifully, particularly the spooky ‘oohs’ that introduce us to the latter song. Is the record a departure from Mann’s past work? In one sense, not really. Acoustic guitar anchors most of her work and every album usually features more than a few solely acoustic numbers. What is different here is the balance, with “Simple Fix” the only track that employs a more full band sound. Aside from the singles, right now I’m also really enjoying “Rollercoasters” and the more piano-based ballad “Poor Judge.”

Aimee Mann is currently on tour with the hilarious Jonathan Coulton opening her shows and playing in her backing band (he played on Mental Illness as well) so hustle on over the Mann’s website to find when she will be in your town.