Colouring outside the lines: Fortitude Valley, Gosh Diggity, Golden Apples, and West Coast Music Club

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Some bands break the mould. They may sound like they’re obeying the rules but in subtle ways they’re careening all over the road. Today’s artists tweak the formulas, game the genres, and do their own thing. All in all, a very good thing.

Forget Fortitude Valley, inner suburb of Brisbane, Australia. Now Fortitude Valley says pop-punk goodness in the form of the Durham UK band’s dynamic self-titled debut album. Band leader Laura Kovic may be channeling a bit of her Ozzie roots (Fortitude Valley is her home town) but the record is more than that, vibing a bit of Weezer, The Beths, even Juliana Hatfield’s smooth pop vocal stylings here and there. You can hear a whole lot of those influences on the dissonant but still hooky opening cut, “Baby, I’m Afraid.” I can’t decide what I like better here, the addictive melody-rich lead guitar work that threads through tracks like “It’s the Hope That Kills You” and “All Hail the Great Destroyer” or the light endearing vocals defining cuts like “What You Wanted” and “I Won’t Survive.” Then there’s songs like “The Right Thing (Part I)” and “Forget About Me” that launch from a punky space but can’t keep their innate poppiness from coming to the surface. In the end, it’s “Wreck” that’s the obvious should-be hit single material with its stunning lead guitar and very Primitives vocal work. The edgy guitar instrumental break just perfectly offsets the song’s winning hooks. On the whole, Fortitude Valley is a highly listenable long-player whether you put it on random or just let it play through.

What is Chicago band Gosh Diggity’s sound anyway? Lofi electronic? Kitchen techno? Bedroom pop? My gut says something like ‘Casio-drenched poprock’ would be a good label – that distinctive keyboard sound is layered in everywhere on their new album Runaway Rocketboy and it is just so cool. Opening cut “Wings” is a representative sample of what this band does: deft keyboard interplay, understated but alluring vocals, and a marquis instrumental focal point, in this case the addictive MGMT keyboard lead line. But then, surprise surprise, the very next tune “Rad Summer” breaks out some manic rhythm guitar, later swamped (of course) by a swirl of hooky keyboards. “Patch 1.0” even works in some classic 1980s video game keyboard sound effects. Yet this record is not just an homage to retro keyboard motifs, there’s some pretty clever music hiding behind the spare sonic landscape. Check out the Kenny Burrell jazzy guitar forms framing “Burnett’s and Diet Coke” or the Everything But the Girl sophistico-pop vibe on “True Crime.” And this is a band that knows how to throw in a head-turning instrumental break, like the 1980s video-game keyboard-freakout on “Lettering” or just the delicate bells adorning “A.B.B.” A needle-drop skate across this record will tell you Gosh Diggity probably hang with some pretty wild musical company on their own time. But with Runaway Rocketboy they’ve got a record that is eccentric, accessible and just plain fun.

Russell Edling’s Cherry was a going concern with a few EPs and a long-player on the musical resume. But too many bands with the Cherry moniker led to a rebrand this time out and – voila! – Cherry has become Golden Apples on the new LP Shadowland. The sound pretty much remains the same, a slow-burn, almost-Americana-at-times indie rock and roll. But what appeals to me here is Edling’s ability to subtly bury sweet melodic hooks in an otherwise indie rock musical landscape. You can hear it in the sweet dirge-like opener, “Theme from Shadowland,” though in so many ways that’s a misdirection. The next track “Garbage” is more in tune with the thrust of the record, a bit more discordant rock and roll with a Kevin Devine kind of acoustic-meets-electric drive. The album features a few atmospheric sketches like “Reggie” or “Jack” but on the whole delivers a raft of tunes –  “Forever Hollow,” “Banana,” “Tamara Lee” – that start with a bit of discord but eventually turn more luminescent, adding harmony vocals and other melodic adornments. “Futureperfect” sounds like a single to me with its rippling, hypnotic lead guitar work maintaining the song’s tension, only to resolve in the hooky chorus. Other songs like “Fun II” and “Wildflowers” are a broody mix, cutting dark musical textures with lighter melodic currents. The overall effect reminds me of Toronto’s Hayden at his melodic moodiest.

Back where the Mersey river flows Kirby’s West Coast Music Club bring together their recent drip released singles and a wide variety of new material on a just-released LP, Take a Deep Breath. Talk about variety! Sometimes the band just rocks out, like on “Human Vulture” and “Girl.” The rocking out gains considerable subtlety on cuts like “Long Goodbye,” which crashes in like the Beatles’ “Rain” but quickly shifts to a more psychedelic Bryds groove. The album’s mellower material accents the poppier side of the band’s songwriting, apparent on the acoustic guitar-based “Life of Lies” or bouncy “Jenny’s Still Got (What it Takes).” Love the subtle Rolling Stones flourishes on the latter. Then “The Jokes on You” rides a driving lead guitar line that anchors the tune while “Thinkin’” has an almost Moody Blues bit of guitar ring to it. Or check out how “Whatever It Takes” puts us into solidly 1970s jangle-folk rock territory. But possibly my fave here is the should-be hit single “Me and a Friend” with its almost Billy Bragg-ish, brash-yet-melodic lead-guitar hooks and endearing vocal intimacy. From the first guitar notes it radiates ‘classic’. Take a Deep Breath is truth in advertizing, a truly breathtaking affair.

Colour choices can be so subjective. Which crayon is the right one? Well, at least the music’s sorted. Post artwork provided by Swizzle Gallery’s Rob Elliott.

The two sides of Greg Townson

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As a member of bands like The Hi-Risers, The Essentials, The Hillbilly Moon Explosion, The Locusts, The Salamanders, and most recently Los Straitjackets, there are clearly many sides to guitar master Greg Townson. But the two sides I want to focus on here are the competing instrumental and vocal foci of his brilliant solo catalogue. Townson’s got six solo albums by my count, three with vocals and three without. They’re all great but each side offers up particular and unique delights. Townson can sing! And he plays a mean guitar. If you’ve been missing some heartfelt jangly-twang guitar and a singer with a Nick Lowe kind of stylistic song range, then nothing less than both sides of Greg Townson will do.

Townson kicked off his solo career with two vocal albums, 2013’s On Your Side and 2016’s My Friend The Night. On both records it’s hard to put your finger on his vocal style. Yes, it’s very Nick Lowe at times and yet it’s also reminiscent of a distinctive 1960s American folk pop vibe you can hear on deep cuts from The Cyrkle or Every Mother’s Son. More recent acts I’d associate Townson with might be Tommy Sistak, The Decibels or Michael Shelley. You can judge for yourself with delightfully breezy cuts like “The Instruments Agree” or the more folkie lounge balladeering of “I’ll Wait for You,” both from On Your Side. My Friend the Night blows this winning formula wide open, expanding the range of styles on offer. “The Opinion Page” is a full on Rockpile-esque workout with an inventive lead guitar instrumental break. “These Shoes of Mine” is a pretty little song marked by a tender vocal and some absolutely killer acoustic guitar playing. From there Townson offers up a Ventures-worthy cover of “Linus and Lucy,” the Nick-in-lounge-mode ballad “Oldest Trick in the Book,” and a time-capsule performance on “You Can’t Stop Time,” a western country-ish tune in that 1950s Capitol records style.

The Instruments Agree

The instrumental side of Townson’s album releases begins in 2017 with Travelin’ Guitar. Everything about this record is right out of 1960s guitar-instrumentals-albums central casting. From obligatory classics of the genre like “Fishin’ Hole,” to inspired yet unusual choices like the “Jaws” theme, to loving covers of vocals classics like “You Send Me,” Townson hits all the marks. But the standout track here for me is actually a digital bonus cut, the inspired cover of The Smith’s “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Amazingly Townson manages to render Morrissey’s anguished vocals via his emotive lead guitar lines with a brilliant aplomb. 2019’s More Travelin’ Guitar faces the challenge of making the familiar new again by reinventing hits like “Venus,” “Day-O” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Just listen to what he does with Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” balancing some expressive lead guitar work against a gently driving rhythm guitar feel, or check out his version of the wartime classic “We’ll Meet Again” where his guitar playing transforms a sad sounding song into something more peppy and joyous.

The vocals are back on 2020’s Just Name It, a collection of tunes that effectively showcase Townson’s low-key Nick Lowe/Buddy Holly-ish vocal demeanor, elevated by his distinctive lead guitar touches. It’s all there on opening cut “My Telescope.” The intro guitar lines are like brush strokes on a painting, the vocals light and sprightly. Or there’s the old rock and roll sound-made-new on tracks like the Dave Edmunds-infused “We Tied One On” or the jazzy cabaret vocal style of “If You’re Not in Love.” My vote for single would be the rhythm-guitar hooky “Square One.” In 2021 Townson switched back to instrumental mode with the creative Off and Running. Taking the idea of an instrumentals album in a new direction, the focus is entirely on hits by women from the 1960s – and what a cavalcade of offbeat hits he’s gathered here. There’s obvious hits (Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” and Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room”) as well as lesser known gems (Lesley Gore’s “Off and Running,” Dusty Springfield’s “Little by Little,” and The Pleasure Seekers’ “What a Way to Die”). Whether taking on obscure numbers like “Action Line” from harpist Dorothy Ashby or a monster chart hit “The Locomotion” by Little Eva Townson manages to add his own special guitar something.

Do you need a musical pick me up? The two sides of Greg Townson will put a smile on your face and kick in your step (onto the dance floor). Catch up on his catalogue on Bandcamp and keep up with his antics on Facebook.

Photo by Fank De Blase, originally featured in Rochester City News

I get mail: Andrew Stonehome, The Orange Goodness, Not a Moment Too Soon, and more

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The autumn mailbag has brought a host of good things to my attention. There’s a bit of folk, straight up AM radio pop, some Americana and a solid blast of power pop. Let’s get sorting!

Andrew Stonehome’s self-titled debut album sounds like a loving homage to the soft rock sounds of the 1970s, whether leaning on the piano, acoustic guitar or some heavenly background vocals to set the scene. But occasionally he rocks out a bit more and the result is a pretty sweet poprock single in “Heartbreaker.” There’s something very Gilbert O’Sullivan meets the Bay City Rollers about this tune, with just a touch of glam. The song’s got swing and a strong sing-along quality. I can totally see the movie montage this tune is sound-tracking.

The Orange Goodness describe their sound as ‘groove-infused alt/indie music from Minneapolis’. There is definitely a hyper-kinetic and playful quality to the tunes on their new EP Flying Under the Radar of Chaos. The overall feel reminds me of The Happy Fits, with nod here and there to Queen or even Sparks. The track that has me hitting replay right now is “Settle Up Settle Down.” It’s a bit more subdued, but only compared to the rest of the EP. The vocals and instrumentation are in a kind of fine tension I haven’t heard since Nick Gilder was on the charts. The guitar work here is inventive and a bit hypnotic. Opening cut “Trust It’s Love” also demands attention with its unrelenting hooky percussive punch.

Settle Up Settle Down

The man in the one-man-band Not a Moment Too Soon is a political scientist. The writer of this blog is a political scientist. Coincidence? Well I’m here to say we are not some kind of secret brotherhood – NMTS got into this post entirely on his poprock merit. But, hey, I can’t deny his day job certainly caught my attention. I mean, with song titles like “Helmut Kohl and Mitterand,” “The Second Amendment and All That Jazz,” and “Love, Market and Morality” my two great interests (music and politics) are clearly in attendance here. As NMTS’s Pierre Englebert confesses in his liner notes, “I can’t help it, being a political scientist.’ Now if you’re not into politics, don’t worry, because Englebert knows his way around a tune, cast in a variety of styles. Over the course of three albums released since the beginning of 2020 he’s consistently turned out some lovely hooks. The latest is Wait, What?, an album that is constantly shifting between silly and serious, from the tender to the tendentious. Stand out tracks for me include the loping hook monster “In the Zoom Breakout Room” and the extremely brief but still delightful “Long Story Short.” “Virgin No More” is also a striking piano ballad instrumental. There are clearly many influences behind the album but the nods to Queen are clear and I’d add the Alan Parsons Projects at times. From previous releases, check out the ELO-ish “Self-Pity Party” and the sweet “When Carson Palmer Lived With Us” from Well.

Vancouver’s Johnny Payne seems to have something big coming down the pike. After a few years helming indie rockers The Shilohs through a few fine albums he’s taken the last few years a bit slower, offering up only the occasional single or uber cool video. His 2019 single “All Messed Up” was a delightful slice of 1970s pop R&B. I could practically hear the girly choruses coming. Or how about that fun video with his headless Margarita Machine band for “Man in the Mist”? But now the teasing is over. A new album King of Cups is just about here and, from the drip release singles, it promises to be pretty special. First up “Calle Easy” (or ‘easy street’ en Espanol) is classy bit of curio pop, like Fantasy Island meets those 1950s Hawaiian movie ballads. But it is “Someday” with its restrained 1970s melodrama – on piano of course – that says ‘ hello there’ should-be hit single. It’s like John Lennon and Eric Carmen got together to bang out a hit. Can’t wait to hear what else is in store on this long-player.

On From the Marrow Jon Arthur Schmidt steps away from the more directly spiritual themes pursued on prior works for a more open-ended exploration of what it means to be connected with the broader universe. The approach is a folkie pop songwriting style akin to a mellow acoustic guitar wielding Kenny Loggins or Dan Fogelberg. You can definitely hear it on “Daylight (Never Left)” with its lovely strings adding to the delicate tension created by the acoustic guitar and the more piano-based “Beautiful World.” By contrast “Library Land” captures that sense of fun and wonder that honours its theme. But the perfectly painted miniature on this album is undoubtedly the exquisite “Lovesong Lullaby,” a track deserving many cover versions. Particularly at bedtime, for this album’s listeners’ children everywhere. 

Beautiful World
Lovesong Lullaby

Anyone familiar with Scott Warren from his intimate Americana duo work in Wounded Bird might find the vibe on his solo album Shadow Bands more than a little jarring. There are fuzzed out electric guitars and a Marc Bolan glam shuffle all over this album. Of course, his previous two solo albums gave fair warning, Warren’s a rock and roll boy. “Press Reset” opens the album and sets the tone with a Beatles via Dukes of Stratosphere appreciation of psych rock. “Left Out on the Joke” is more poppy and glam in that T Rex sort of way. “Bury it Down” hides a delicate melody behind some big guitars and carefully modulated vocal. The record also takes a more mellow turn on a few cuts, sounding mildly Beck-ish on “Regret” and “In the Devil” or McCartney-esque on “Mountainside” and “See Feel.” “She Walked Away From It All” reminds me all those psych folk ballads that rocker bands like Led Zeppelin to Jethro Tull pursued in the early 1970s. And then there’s “Chemical Trails” which sounds a bit like Oasis, if the boys had been just a bit better socially adjusted.

I love getting surprises in the mail and I have to say most writers I hear from pay attention to our brief, which is essentially melody plus guitars. Click on the linked names to find out even more about these (thankfully) shameless self-promoters.

Spotlight single: Phil Dutra “It’s Not Enough (Falling For Your Love)”

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Phil Dutra’s got an ear for the poprock everyman, appealing to all ages and various style partisans. His songs could easily slip into heavy rotation on any 1980s Top 40 radio station. Truly catchy retro pop indeed. Of course, I imagine Dutra’s work taking off in a different time because there have been eras when the charts have managed to find a place for all tastes, usually on the basis of the triumph of melody and solid songwriting over technique and fads. Dutra belongs to this venerable tradition. His latest “It’s Not Enough (Falling For Your Love)” oozes ‘classic song’ from every pore. From the early 1980s jangly guitar work to the juxtaposition of subdued verses and soaring choruses, Dutra gives new life to a recognizable formula. All that’s missing is the top-down convertible, a highway, and a car stereo blasting this tune. Trust me on this one, everyone could use a bit more of Phil Dutra in their lives. Cuz classic never really gets old.

Phil’s got a website and a Bandcamp page. Drop by, he’s a friendly guy.

November spawned a single

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In between competing Canadian and American Thanksgivings is most of November, a month where nothing much really happens. What better time to shine a little light on some new singles? No time, my friends. Get ready to taste test twenty or so new tunes in between bites of leftover turkey.

There’s something very Bowie about Ward White. His delicate yet forceful delivery defies easy categorization. His new album, The Tender Age, is full of sophisticated tunes but I’m drawn to the more rootsy, almost pub rock “Don’t Let’s Die at the Stop Light.” The organ and lead guitar work are fabulous and the chorus takes a surprising melodic turn. The new Grip Weeds record Dig is a cover album tour-de-force. The band blast through an inspired collection of sixties psych rock classics and then some. But their treatment of The Byrds “Lady Friend” is epic, taking the song to new heights by amping the psych content and nailing the vocal arrangement (adding some Turtles’ ba ba ba’s to good effect). And don’t skimp on getting the deluxe double-album version because disc two has some real killers, like the wild cover of The Monkees “For Pete’s Sake” and the banjo-licious take on the Nightcrawlers’ “Little Black Egg.”  Another band working the sixties side of the street pretty hard is The On and Ons and they ace that garage-y yet poppy rock and roll sound with guitars that practically leap from the speakers. The new album is Back for More and you will be, guaranteed. But as a taster, check out “Your Kind of World.” What a fab hooky guitar lead line opener! And the rest is a pretty winning Bryds-meets-Beatles “Rain” era single. The minute I spotted that Tommy Scifres had played with Aaron Lee Tasjan I had a feeling his record would be pretty cool. And it is. The LP is Last Legs, a lovely collection of melody central tuneage, like the mellifluous “Thought You Knew” with its spacey vocals and trippy guitar. Like some very early 1970s Steve Miller Band. But I’m liking “What’s at the Bottom of Your Heart” even more with its retro 1950s swing. How many bands can take two decades off from recording and come back like they’d just slipped out to the store for a pack of smokes? Clearly The Connells can. Steadman’s Wake is their new album and it is a fantastic mélange of Americana and Tom Petty poprock. The whole album is a keeper but I’m presently grooving on “Fading In (Hardly)” with its Billy Bragg song-framing and shiver-inducing, gut-punch of a chorus. Get those lighters ready.

The Grip Weeds – Lady Friend

There’s something old and something new about Sydney, Australia band The Hard Ons’ new album, I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken. Going on 40 years as a musical outfit (with a few times outs) obviously the band is something old. But The Hard Ons 2021 have a brand new lead vocalist, former You Am I singer Tim Rogers, and pretty punchy poprock sound, apparent on the driving “Hold Tight.” Love the band name, love the album title. Boston’s Scrimshanders get labelled with tags like alt country but I don’t get it from listening to “SXMS,” featured on their latest long-player Songs That Never Were. Just check out that rough chord-slashing guitar work and those John Doe vocals. This is rock and  roll baby. Ok, maybe tracks like “Restless Heart” have a bit of country in them, but, again, I hear more of the Jersey shore in those twin engine organ and guitar blasts. I totally loved Nashville band *repeat repeat’s 2019 album Glazed with its unique blend of contemporary and retro sounds. Since then they’ve been teasing us with a succession of tasty singles, practically a new album’s worth. The latest is “Trippin’ (I Know I Will)” and it is wonderfully otherworldly with hooky, winsome lead guitar work that frames a lovely little pop song. Chicago’s The Cut-Outs describe their sound as punk-powerpop-rock and roll. Ya, that about captures it, though not on every song. Take “Ordinary Man” from their latest collection Let’s Go! – it’s a late 1960s rocker all the way. Of course, there definitely a heavy dollop of poppy punk ambiance defining the album’s opening cut “Tuesday Night.” I love the manic clapping and the Dave Rave-like vocals. Washington D.C.’s The Buzz have got that spare 1979 guitar sound all over their most recent record Cut Loose! There are so many great songs here but overall I’m really grooving on “Stuck in the Cloud,” a bona fide should-be hit single. There are a load of subtle melodic change ups in this song, with the band regularly altering their attack and deftly layering interesting musical dynamics behind a glam era vocal.

Orlando Florida’s The BellTowers psych their jangle pretty thoroughly throughout Magnetic, both Reel One and Reel Two. The double EP is a whole lot of intensely sibilant guitar work. My recommendation is, start with “Erase Any Doubts.” The guitar is everywhere, hypnotically drawing you in, keeping you focused on it like a great montage sequence from any season one episode of The Monkees. Look I’m not saying it’s an Australia thing but I can’t help but hear a kind of punk rock Paul Kelly vibe embedded in Suburban Urchin’s “4000 Miles Away” from their Born in the Suburbs release. The cut charges along with such fist-waving intensity, you know this would be a dance hall stomper. Milan, Italy’s Radio Days just keep dropping exquisite singles. This time they draw from the British beat group era circa 1965 for the background sonic pallete. There’s an early Mersey feel to the guitar lead line kicking off “Walking Alone” but then the song branches out into a more timeless power pop sound. Buzzard Buzzard Buffalo are a mysterious band that leave a light footprint on the ole interweb. They hail from Manchester Tennessee but sound like they hang in that more famous version of the town. “Love Song for You” is a quirky, endearing bit of lofi pop. It’s a song that comes on in the background and before you know it you’re turning up the volume and hitting repeat. I’ve loved St. Paul Minnesota’s The Persian Leaps for a long time. I own two of their albums, an EP, and handful of singles. So how come I’ve never managed to write about them? Epic coverage fail! Well, let me make up for lost time – get the band’s newest release, Drone Etiquette: it’s great. I mean, check out how that banging guitar opener to “When This Gets Out” is cast against vocals that are so melodically refined, offset by some polite piano shots. Then for something different, there’s “The Company She Keeps” which has such a fab Andy Partridge/XTC chime.

I’ll admit I initially stopped at Växjö, Sweden musician Fredrik Solfors’s site because his band name was so intriguing: School Book Depository. And what’s not to like about a guy with a ‘Bob’ song on every album? Album number three is now out, Bob and the Eastern Beacon of Hope, collecting a host of drip pre-released singles and then some. I’m loving the gentle hooky charm of “Killer in the Mountains,” a carefully crafted bit of poprock portraiture. There are so many delightful details here, from the Owl City meets Good Old War vocals to a captivating musical arrangement. With “Lipstick Queens” Rocket Bureau bolt out of the singles gate with a track that sounds like a mix of some mad off-off-Broadway show and a new wave revival album. They claim to be Wisconsin’s ‘basement-rock and roll-one man-studio band’ but to my ears they are ready to take the stage. The song is from the album Middle Angst, and its got a lot more 1970s guitars and hooky tunes for you. For a while it seemed like the name Andy Bopp was everywhere. “Bopp’s a genius,” they’d say. “Bopp’s got a killer album,” proclaimed the reviews. Who is this guy, said I? Well after a stroll through his latest LP AB, I caught a bad case of ‘reviewer meets genius.’ Everything you’ve heard is true. Just test drive “Uncommon Disaster,” it’s a thing of sonic beauty. It kicks off with some 1966 Beatles rock guitar chords before resolving into a new wave era Kinks kind of number, with some outta-sight background vocals and a bridge to die for. Tacoma Washington’s Vanilla are curio poprock all stars, no genre can stump them. Their most recent collection Sideshow makes my case, with a bit of alt country, old timey pop, XTC-infused new wave and more. But “I Shall Be Re-released” is the standout here for me. Listen closely for those subtle vocal shifts in melody and harmonies, the almost buried retro lead guitar. It’s both familiar and different at the same time. As the world shut down these past few years music collective Orbis Max decided to get some socially distanced jamming going, the results emerging now on The Covid Collaborations 2020-21. There’s a rotating cavalcade of indie starts included here – Danny Wilkerson, Lanny Flowers, Ed Ryan, etc. – as well as great cuts just featuring the essential members of the band. Like “You Sold Tomorrow” with some super ‘woo hoos’ and pumping piano and a Harrisonian sheen to it all.

Track 21 in this monster collection of November tunes is something very Autumn, Chicago indie production legend Andy Reed’s lofi treatment of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I’ve always had a soft spot for Simon’s acoustic-y soft rock numbers but Reed manages to strip the MOR production values out of the original to give the track some added indie allure. The heavenly background vocals are still there, even if the church organ isn’t. Altogether a fresh take on a deep cut classic.

While no alternative artists were forced to dance awkwardly through a background desert motif, here’s hoping that our November singles mediation has spawned some listening pleasure. Click those hyper-linked artist names to signal yes.

Around the dial: Eggs on Mars, pseudonym, The Embryos, and Pet Symmetry

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Radio play used to be the main arbiter of who went where on the charts. While some people would spin the dial constantly in the car searching for the perfect tune, I tended to stick to one station, loyal to Raccoon Carney’s afternoon drive show on LG73. I like to think that the Raccoon would dig some of these brand new should be hits. I like to think that …

They’re the Kansas City band that’s not from Kansas. And that’s not the limit to the confusion as Eggs on Mars actually sound more like they’re from Glasgow than Missouri. Here I’m alluding to the band’s sonic affinity with such lofi jangle wonders like U.S. Highball and Dropkick. So, Glasgow Scotland, not Glasgow Kentucky. It’s all there on the opening cut and obvious single, “Fingers and Lips,” with its engaging rhythm guitar work, re-invented Brydsian vocals, and inspired lead guitar solos. Brighter Now contains seven songs but running at just 16 minutes it’s more like an EP than a full-on long-player. But what a delightful seven-pack! Most of the songs have an uplifting feel, driven by some creative lead guitar adornments on tracks like “More” and “All That I See” and some subtle yet catchy 1960s organ work on “Hand Tools.” The guitar on some tracks even gives off a slight Smiths-ian feel, e.g. “Oil Spill Rainbow.”  Things do mellow on tracks like “Feels Like Always” but, on the whole, Brighter Now is a chipper, aptly-named collection.

San Francisco band pseudonym come by their psychedelia honestly, given that town’s 1960s musical heritage. But the purple haze on this record is cut with a serious dose of dream pop and the combo is both luxurious and captivating. Case in point, title track “Before the Monsters.” Just check out the amazing bass line on this song, how it just keeps reeling you in long enough to land a load of guitar hooks, a seductive vocal melody, and some exquisite horn shots. I feel like there’s a bit of The Primitives on this song and the next, the more minimalist “Anonymous Sources.” Despite the overall psych pop vibe, there’s plenty of variety on this record. Sometimes thing go enjoyably shoe-gazey, like on “As You Well Know” and “Stare Down.” But at other points a punchy poprock sound comes to the fore (as on “Photograph”) or even a more urgently rocky demeanor (e.g. “Tell Me”). My personal fave is “Astronaut” with its rollicking bass and lead guitar interplay threading through the song supporting a very Lolas-style vocal and tune. “Maybe” is another winner, alternating a low-key build up in the verses with a strong chorus. And so on. Before the Monsters is eleven quality psych-pop tunes. It’s a trip man, and you can enjoy it without leaving the house.

After teasing us earlier this year with their killer Britpop-reminiscent “Rattlesnakes” Chicago’s The Embryos now return with a full album of surprises on National Absurdatory. Oh there’s plenty here that rings familiar, from the Byrdsian country rock of “You Can Be a Mystery” to the distinctive jangle of “Rolling Wheels.” But there’s also a live rock and roll party vibe on a host of tunes that conjure of a very rooftop Let It Be vibe. Here’s I’m thinking of “Spend Tonight” particularly. Or check out the Philly soul undercurrent carrying album opener “Morning Birds.” Love those strings and cloud-light background vocals. The soul train continues on “Someone to Hold Me.” Of course, The Church influences get a look in on the country-ish “Catching Fire” and “Twisted in my Game.” There’s even folk rock here on “Smoldering Remains” with just a touch of 10cc in the chorus. With so much variety, National Absurdatory has captured a band that can seemingly take on any style with no loss of substance.

Still in Chicago, Pet Symmetry don their Future Suits for their latest release, a creative riffing on pop punk tradition and more straight up FOW-infused poprock. Forget Robert Palmer, “Simply Irresponsible” kicks things off with a performance right out of the punk-influenced rock and roll playbook. More again on “Objective Objectives.” But things start to change with the more sonically sophisticated “Cat and Mouse” with its alternation of rhythm guitar shots and hooky lead guitar work. This is pop punk perfection with a melodic sensibility akin to a latter day Green Day. And then things get even more interesting. “Pet Sympathy” has a latin flavor and some knock out background singing. With “2021: A Personal Space Odyssey” the band really start to lean on some impressive melodic counterpoint in the background vocals. It’s there again in “Portland to Portland,” a song that strikes a more FOW feel, songwriting-wise. “Bootlicker” changes things up again with its easygoing, almost languid pacing and subtle hooks. “Awesome Kingdom” ends things on pretty solid poprock footing with a Sugar Ray swing and ambience. On Future Suits, first impressions of this band can be deceiving. So get the full album, just to be sure. Actual Future Suits apparel sold separately.

If the Raccoon were here no doubt it would be time for news and weather by now. As we cut to other programming, don’t waste time on commercials, check out these fine artists directly and cut out the middle man.

Spotlight single: Miniature Tigers “Anything Else”

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I fell hard for Miniature Tigers’ 2016 single “Crying in the Sunshine.” It had such an original mix of dreamy vocals, percussive keyboard impact, and deliciously sly melodic hooks. For a long time I just kept hitting repeat again and again. So I don’t know how I missed the band’s 2019 release Vampires in the Daylight. It’s another delightful collection of synthy, indie dream pop, one part of Family of Year, another part Sitcom Neighbor. Highlights for me include title track “Vampires in the Daylight,” “Better Than Ezra” and “Manic Upswings.” But my fave is undoubtedly the slow-burn jangly ear-worm “Anything Else.’ Kicking off with a catchy fingerpicking allure not unlike Magnetic Fields’ “Acoustic Guitar,” the song slowly builds intensity in an almost meditative fashion. And it’s not just the obvious, superior hooks that make this song work, it’s the varied choices for subtle instrumental ornamentation dotted here and there. Halfway through I was convinced the track was perfect montage music for that part in the movie where the protagonist is broken and not sure if they make any heroic recovery. Either way, whether the hero lives or thrives, the listener gets to be a winner. I say, hit play on this dreamy wonder and get carried away.

As we drift, Miniature Tigers are drip releasing new singles and working on a brand new album. Get ready to dream big time. Updates can be found on the band’s Facebook page.

Hits for All Hallow’s Eve

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Welcome to Poprock Record’s first-ever hook-filled Halloween special post! I mean, why should some 2000+ year old’s birthday get all the holiday music attention? To rectify that unhappy state of affairs we’ve assembled a guitar-wielding crew of scary monsters and super freaks to haunt your All Hallow’s Eve with some seasonally appropriate tune-age. Get ready to mash!

Normally I’d say Detroit’s Kickstand Band offer up heavenly vocal harmonies but this time they’re drawing from their darker angels for a Halloween Special double-sided single. “Under a Bad Sign” sets the tone for our horror-accented musical proceedings with its eerie, otherworldly ambience. It’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place in a Russ Meyer film circa Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Then we get right into substance of fright night with Freedom Fry’s wonderfully eccentric “Monster,” complete with distant church bells and a xylophone right out of B-movie sound-effects central-casting. Did you know things get scary in Edmonton? They do, if The Lad Mags’ “Dig My Grave” is anything to go by. It’s a 45 where festive moaning and groaning gives way to a groovy go go dance beat that will have you snapping your fingers and shaking your groove thing. Nashville’s fave pop punkers Vista Blue go all out for this holiday with a new EP New Nightmares that celebrates all that slasher movie mayhem. The four contributions are maximum fun but just a bit more maximum-er for me is “Where Do You Want to Sleep?” with its Beach Boys-meets-The Ramones vibe. Ok, these next two numbers come completely out of left field. Drew Beskin’s double-barreled contribution to the season is the swinging poppy “Lisa Simpson Fangs” backed with the more mellow “Horror Movie Plot.” The two sides blow hot and cold, one boppy and catchy, the other languid and serene. Former My Chemical Romance lead singer Gerard Way strips things back to their hooky essentials on “Baby You’re a Haunted House.” Besides providing our ever-so-appropriate mast graphic, his ‘skeleton’ crew really deliver the goods with a great noisy – yet still melodic – wonder.

Now that we’re in the mood, it’s time to turn to the creatures of the night, the real stars of this holiday. They’re probably coming to your door right now, eager for candy, itching to unleash some tricks. Ken Sharp welcomes a “Hellcat” to the usual menagerie of Halloween’s ghoulish guest stars. Ok, maybe his use is more metaphoric than literal but I couldn’t help adding it to the playlist with its captivating bubblegum-glam shuffle sound and Sharp’s beguiling vocals. The Embrooks welcome one of the evening’s usual suspects, a 1960s garage-psych “Human Living Vampire.” Think Christopher Lee as the mod, mod prince of darkness put in charge of the Hi-Fi. Boston’s Amplifier Heads have got a thing about ghosts, with three different songs titled for those otherworldly apparitions. “Ghost Song” from Music for Abandoned Amusement Parks invokes October’s chill and a night so still over a hooky “Needles and Pins” ish set of chords. LA’s Allah-Las have got that spooky desert vibe going strong with their killer instrumental “No Werewolf” from 2014’s Worship the Sun. This is definitely music to not ‘open that door’ or ‘go down into the basement’ to. Glaswegians U.S. Highball do a jangle makeover on a classic holiday monster with “My Frankenstein” and you won’t recognize the results. Can you say well-adjusted much? This time the brutish creation is a happy go lucky tune that will have you humming with contented delight. Pop iconoclasts Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin round out the cast of scary characters with “All Hail Dracula.” It’s a pro-vampire kind of take on demon/non-demon relationships, delivered with a slew of cool indie hooks.

And now for something not quite completely different, one of our fave poprockers has expanded into filmmaking. If you’re looking for something seasonally appropriate in terms of scary things to watch, check out the original popmonster Greg Pope’s new movie, There’s Something in the Lake. He did the music (duh!) but also wrote and directed it. It’s scary how talented that guy is. You can watch the short film it was based on and rent the full feature here.

Hey, thanks for making this Hallo-scene, our inaugural celebration of the candy-laden dark holiday. Now it wouldn’t be complete without a closing anthem of sorts and Tampa’s The Easy Button have conveniently supplied one, a ringing chordy number appropriately titled “Happy Halloscene.”  Click on the band hyperlinks to complete your Halloween hits collection or just check out these bands’ many other musical treats on offer.

Welcome back: David Brookings, Mo Troper, Lolas, and Nick Frater

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Today’s featured artists have done the rounds on this blog many times. At some point I stumbled across them and I’ve kept stumbling over each new release since then. They’re just that reliable. So get ready to take a fall with me, all over again.

David Brookings is a nice guy’s nice guy. And he makes smoking good records, with or without his Average Lookings band. On Mania at the Talent Show Brookings strikes a minor key on many of the songs, exploring a more 1970s melodic soft rock vibe than previous, more rocking releases. The album kicks off with the acoustic guitar up front in the mix on the first three tracks, interposed between an eerie synth and timely pandemic-reflecting lyrics on “Hard Times,” buoying up the beat during “Keep It Real,” and casting a bright counterpoint to the otherwise somber feel of “Driving to Ojai.” The end of the 1970s witnessed the singer/songwriter folk thing shapeshift into a more hooky soft rock direction – think Al Stewart or Gerry Rafferty – and tracks like “One of Us Is Crazy (the Other One is Me)” and “Mystery of Time” take me there. Brookings throws a few surprises into the mix as well. There’s a great neo-1950s influence vamped up on “Women of L.A.” or more subtly felt in “Words Come Back to Haunt You.” Or there’s the more Hall and Oates feel lurking in the background to “Killshot.” He certainly nails the cover of Tom Petty’s “Magnolia” and does so without giving in to just doing a Petty impersonation (which is hard to avoid – the song is sooo Petty). But the undeniable show stopper for me here is the manic bubblegum fun that is “Mania at the Talent Show.” Perhaps a bit of Brookings autobiography? As the story unfolds it is hard not to see a miniature DB as the star of song’s show. And check out those blistering rock and roll solos!

Mania at the Talent Show

If Mo Troper’s 2020 Natural Beauty was a perfectionist’s carefully-crafted poprock record then his new long-player Dilettante is a return to a rougher DIY/punky sensibility. But with Troper’s instincts for melody and hooks still intact. And at 28 tracks the record is a sprawling double album of White Album breadth, depth and eccentricity. First, the could-be hits. As the production style here is akin to a rehearsal-level Nick Lowe ‘basher’ approach (i.e. turn on tape, make beautiful noise) the finished product is not really AM radio friendly. But there are songs here that could top any playlist if 1977 punk had only triumphed over disco. “The Expendables Ride Again” is classic hooky Mo Troper. “Better Than Nothing” is all driving guitars floating under a divine Matthew Sweet melody. Another slow burn hooky winner is “My Master’s Voice,” aided by some lovely jangly guitar. Or there’s “Armpit” exuding a FOW sense of desperation and euphoria over a supremely catchy tune. Some of the tracks here seem little more than idea sketches but they still manage to flash serious brilliance, from the psych Beatles instrumental album opener “Total Eurphoria” to a Rubber Soul rehearsal session-like feel on “New King” and “Blake and Lanny.” Clocking in at less than a minute, both “Skyscraper Sized Bong” and “A Girl Like Andy” sound incomplete but I still love’em. Beyond the obvious hooks, Dilettante also features songs brimming with complexity.  Give “American Dad,” “Velvet Scholars Line” and “Winged Commander” more than a cursory spin to uncover some rather unusual twists of melody. Personally, I think “Tears on my Dockers” is the star of this album, with a sound and structure of any bona fide classic of the 1960s-derived power pop genre. There’s also examples of Troper’s penchant for a McCartney-esque sweet simplicity on “Caleb” and “I Would Dance With You.” The album also includes Troper’s previously-released, aptly-named “The Perfect Song.” One listen to Dilettante and you’ll know the LP was misnamed – Virtuoso would have been closer to the mark.

Another Lolas album, another slice of poprock perfection. On All Rise, bandleader and songwriter Tim Boykin delivers the goods with 13 glorious gems that run both hot and cold, sometimes amping up the power pop, sometimes soothing us with delicate acoustic guitar flourishes. Album opener “Never To Be Mine” is a perfect distillation of the classic Lolas vibe with its out-of-the-gate rhythm guitar attack and seductively sweet vocal melody. Then “Storm the Heavens” tweaks the formula by adding a way cool instrumental break that features some distinctive sounding lead guitar and keyboards. I love the guitar hook opening “My Thoughts Have Been Replaced” and how it melds perfectly with Boykin’s Lennon in psychedelia mode vocals. The album shifts gears on “I Can Hear Your Beard Through the Phone” and “You and Me Will Always Be” by putting an acoustic guitar at the front of the mix and slowing the tempo. Clearly, Boykin’s not just a chord basher. Another shift can be found with the jaunty “Louise Michel” and easygoing pop of “General Assembly,” the latter feeling very Wings circa Venus and Mars. But I’ll save my poprock hero worship for “Pain in My Heart.” Everything about this should-be hit single works, from the catchy guitar work to the eminently hummable melody. It reminds me a bit of Screen Test’s superior single “Notes From Trevor” and a lot of great work from The Smithereens. Do yourself a favour, Lolas All Rise is a full album treat you really owe yourself. Now.

One can imagine Croydon’s Nick Frater rolling his trolly down the aisles of an imaginary 1970s rock supermarket looking for ideas after just one listen to his fabulous new record, Earworms. The ten tracks here are like a love letter to that oft-maligned decade of music. Because beyond the flash of disco, the fug of prog rock, and the full-on aural assault of punk, the 1970s were really much more about pop music. Think of the superstar chart dominance and stratospheric sales of the acts like the Carpenters or ABBA. Yet, at the same time, hooky melodies were also central to the success of more rock and roll outfits like ELO, 10cc and Queen. Opening cut “It’s All Rumours” gives the game away with its distorted glam guitar and Leo Sayer falsetto vocals in the chorus. Frater’s thrown down the gauntlet, he’s going seventies and doesn’t care who knows it. “Buggin’ Out” initially sounds kinda Abbey Road, particularly the guitar work, but then shifts into that 1970s neo-fifties aura that everybody was doing then, with a flash of Buddy Holly’s “Raining in my Heart” buried deep in the song. “What’s With Your Heavy Heart” is one of my faves on this LP with its gently rollicking Wings-ian feel. From there the album goes very English, vibing 1970s UK pop acts like 10cc on “Not Born Again,” Gilbert O’ Sullivan on “Lucky Strike” and even Queen on “How to Survive Somebody.”  Things veer near yacht rock with a dab of Carpenters on “Star Crossed” while I could hear ABBA easily covering “The Unbroken.” Aside from the faithful rendering of the 1970s sonic palette, Frater also manages to capture the histrionic over-the-top lyrics of the time, for instance, on “Who Says I Need a Plan At All.” If you’ve been longing for simpler musical times sans the sticky polyester, get Earworms. Your ears will thank you.

Nothing says welcome like a wad of cash. Slip on over to the web locations of these artists and get friendly with their latest releases.

Banner photo: Fred Herzog

The fine art of Jesse Malin

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Sometimes my life feels like one long exercise in reconnaissance. Like discovering Jesse Malin this last week. The guy’s been at it since the 1980s in various bands and as a respected solo artist since 2002 but he’s a brand new artist to me. And I’m finding him a pretty exciting find. So let’s get introduced to the fine art of Jesse Malin with a song from each of his eight albums of original material.

With titles like “Queen of the Underworld,” “Wendy,” and “Almost Grown” it’s not hard to nail the influences all over Malin’s 2002 debut album, The Fine Art of Self Destruction. It’s Springsteen for sure, but there’s all those other great Americana songwriters too, people like Warren Zevon and Tom Petty, maybe a bit of The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg. The record is chock full of should-be hits to my ears but I think “Riding on the Subway” has a special chemistry going on in the chorus. 2004’s The Heat opens dramatically with some strikingly sibilant guitar work on “Mona Lisa,” a slow-burn ear-worm that showcases Malin’s talent for clever turns of phrase. From 2007’s Glitter in the Gutter it was toss up between the obvious single and album opener “Don’t Let Them Take You Down” and deep cut “NY Nights.” But I went with the latter with its more subtle, almost pensive feeling of urgency in the chorus. By 2010 Malin had a band of sorts cobbled together for Love It To Life, dubbed The St. Mark’s Social, and it makes a difference to the sound. “St. Mark’s Sunset” rocks on with a gleeful abandon that sounds both a little bit Pogues and a little bit Titus Andronicus.

St. Mark’s Sunset

Five years later Malin was back doing the solo thing, releasing two albums of new material in one year. New York Before the War sure sounds like a hit record, with Tom Petty-ish should-be chart climbers like “Addicted” and more earthy Springsteen-esque numbers like “Oh Sheena.” Outsiders has a bit more of a rave up quality and here I’m loving “San Francisco” with its languid pace and breathtaking juxtaposition of instrumental sounds. Lucinda Williams produced 2019’s Sunset Kids and it’s another winner. My personal fave is “Chemical Heart” with its killer organ backing. Malin’s latest is lovely double album, 2021’s Sad and Beautiful World, featuring an exquisite cover of Tom Petty’s “Crawling Back to You” amid a wide range of styles on his own material. Actually, there’s a lot of Petty influence on tracks like “Dance on my Grave” and “Lost Forever.” But my fave on the record is the sprightly, Graham Parker-ish “State of the Art.”

Malin seems to be just getting bigger and bigger, with positive reviews in Rolling Stone and all the usual music industry press. But there’s still time to say you knew him when. Get in on the ground floor of his fan base with a visit to his website and Bandcamp pages.