Journeymen poprock: Michael Shelley, Astro Chicken and David Burdick

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Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 1.22.38 PMThere are philosophers who will tell you that when it comes to living the good life, the journey is the real destination. But most professional musicians usually dream of actually arriving somewhere, like maybe the top of charts. Still, despite the fact that relatively few make the Top 40 (let alone number one), there are some acts that just keep soldiering on. Like today’s trio of journeymen poprockers – all continue to put out great music even though stratospheric fame has proven illusive. All the more reason to fly their flag right now!

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 1.28.18 PMImagine stumbling across someone with an album catalogue like all those great indie rock and rollers – Elvis Costello, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Don Dixon, etc. – delivered with a Nick Lowe or T-Bone Burnette production-style. Well, imagine no more! Michael Shelley is here and he’s got six albums or so, just brimming with melodies and sweet melancholia. I discovered Shelley as the producer of Juniper’s recent hip record and just a bit of digging revealed his own killer catalogue. If I had to boil down his sound it would be easy to slot him into the Rockpile diaspora, with its retro rock and roll, pub rock country and new wave elements. Sure, it would be obvious to compare him to Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw, but think a bit further afield in this crowd, like the country pop sound of Carlene Carter’s Musical Shapes album or the poppy soul of Paul Carrack’s Suburban Voodoo (both produced by Nick Lowe). Nor can Shelley be limited to just this sub-genre, as his amazing collaboration with former Teenage Fanclub drummer Francis Macdonald in Cheeky Monkey makes clear. Contemporary comparisons of the Shelley sound might bring to mind Edward O’Connell and Richard X. Heyman.

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 1.29.41 PMShelley’s 1997 debut Half Empty nails down the formula with a moody indie vibe on “Don’t” (love the great rumbly guitar and organ – sounds so classic 1960s), strong melodic interventions with “Think With Your Heart,” “Rollercoaster” (particularly the chorus!), and “Mary,” while “Tonight Could be the Night” has a lovely Ben Vaughn simplicity. The follow-up, 1998’s Too Many Movies widens the stylistic scope, adding surfer fun (“Surfer Joan”), Beach Boy harmonies (“The Pill”), country rock (“Lisa Marie” and “She’s Not You”) and solid indie pop with “Jigsaw Girl” and “Summer, I Pissed You Away” (the latter echoing a real Marti Jones feel on the songwriting front). I love the hooks carrying “Too Many Movies” while “You Were Made to Break My Heart” sounds like the kind of obscure tunes that Nick Lowe finds to slip into his records and make sound like great lost classics. There’s even a cool song about brushing your teeth – “That’s Where the Plaque Is” – and that’s not easy to pull off! Keyboards come more to the fore on 2001’s I Blame You with the solid single “Mix Tape,” the McCartney-esque jauntiness of “Face in My Pocket,” and the Robbie Fulks playfulness of “Let’s Fall in Hate.”

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 1.30.34 PMI think my favourite release from Michael Shelley is undoubtedly 2005’s Goodbye Cheater. The album veers between solid retro country and hook-laden poprock without losing its own sense of purpose. “Hurry Up and Fall in Love” and “A Little Bit Blue” mine the Buck Owens/Dwight Yoakum vein of electric guitar-picking country while the cover of the Roger Miller/George Jones song “That’s The Way I Feel” and the instrumental “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” actually have a more western feel. On the poprock side there’s the early Elvis Costello vibe to “We Invented Love,” “Move Along,” and “Goodbye Cheater.” Or there’s the Bacharach pop swing of “Suddenly Free” and the Monkees-meets-Simon and Garfunkel elan of “Out.” There’s even a winning instrumental in “Goofball.” 2012’s Leftovers offers up a winning collection of cover tunes and unreleased and live material – check out the great covers of Bobby Fuller, NRBQ, and Teenage Fanclub as well as quality demos of “Don’t” and “Goofball.” Shelly’s most recent release is the 2015 collection of instrumentals entitled Jimmy’s Corners (check out “Ahmed’s Best” and “Back of the Country Squire”). Surely fifteen years after his last album of conventional songs, we are due for some new Shelley material? The answer is yes.

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 1.33.00 PMAstro Chicken is the moniker that Barney Miller (no, not that guy) has used for the past 25 years for both solo and group efforts, the latter with John Laprade and brother Mike Miller. His story is textbook late 1990s rock and roll: multiple labels, missing the curve of what’s (momentarily) hot, then solo releases, breaks, and now some new tunes. Gotta admire the stamina! 1997’s debut release was the Disposable EP and right away you can practically see the Elvis Costello fingerprints all over the should-be single, “So Can I.” 1998’s Sugarwater takes things in a new direction with “Waste” sounding very Odds, “Honeymoon” acing the Beatles background vocals with a killer, insistent “Getting Better” guitar chime, while “Nothing Around for Me” is faintly Crowded House. 2001’s Almost Anywhere takes yet another turn, this time leaning a bit country in a Blue Rodeo or Jayhawks sort of way, which you can really hear on “Blame Yourself” once it gets going.

So Can IWasteBlame Yourself

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 1.34.10 PMFrom there, the drive to chart success stalled for a bit, with Miller releasing just two essentially solo albums between 2005 and 2018, still under the Astro Chicken label. But the solo work really provides an insight into the breadth of Miller’s songwriting. 2005’s Sweet Truth is alternatively hilarious and introspective, all the while harbouring a lightly stoked sense of outrage. Anchored by acoustic guitar and a Graham Parker vocal delivery, the record offers acerbic commentary on death (“My Funeral is Gonna Be Packed”) and popular culture (“F You American Idol”), sometimes vibing Fountains of Wayne (“Soak Up the Night”) or E from the Eels (see ‘Funeral …’) or an Imperial Bedroom era EC (“I Am Not Blue About You”). 2018’s National Detective Agency Miller describes as album of leftover Astro Chicken demos, tarted up for release, along with a few new tunes. A lot here is stripped down Americana, like the Wilco-ish “Try” and the pretty acoustic guitar number, “Change Your Mind.” “Lock It Up” also has a nice hooky, easygoing swing. Which brings us the present: with Mike and John back with the group, the band’s brand new 2020 EP is Black Balloon. Check out the title track, a nice rocking tune with a solid Tom Petty feel to it.

F You American IdolI’m Not Blue About YouChange Your MindBlack Balloon

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 1.37.57 PMTulsa native David Burdick is the real rock and roll deal. The way he tells is, life has been one long series of joining and quitting and joining band after band, playing across the southern American Midwest, putting out the occasional 45 while recording an enormous number of home demos. From grade 5 on he’s played with The Jeeps, The Jetsons, The Jacks, The Insects, Color of Time, Sins Tailor, The Rickebackers, The Stand, and many more. His bands have opened for the likes of The Motels, The Cramps, The Fleshtones, The Lords of the New Church, the reunited Byrds, Charlie Sexton, and, yes, many more. Long before artists started to do ‘song a week’ gimmicks Burdick challenged himself to record a song a day and then proceeded to do so for sixty days! All of this is to say that Burdick’s career and recordings particularly have been unconventional by mainstream standards – no nice neat release of single, then album, then greatest hits. More like an explosion of bits from all over his career, some professionally recorded, others home demo’d on whatever equipment was to hand. The results are often raw, truly garage rock, like they were recorded in real garage somewhere. And like good 1960s garage rock, they’re exciting, both his originals and many, many covers of rock and roll classics.

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 1.39.05 PMYou can get a good sense of David Burdick from his 2016 release Under the Influence, which contains songs recorded throughout his decades-long career. As far as I can tell, “Letters” first came out in 1983 and it’s a masterpiece of a single, with fantastic lead line guitar hooks and poppy vocals. This should have been a monster hit! “I Can’t Sit Still” captures that late 1970s new wave reinvention of 1960s poprock, “Let’s Go for a Ride” has a great Lou Reed-tude, while “Independence Day” is a departure with its early 1980s The Fixx atmosphere. If you go digging, Burdick has a collection called Relapse with more great tunes, like the jangle-laden “Sister,” “Look at it Rain” with its hypnotic guitar riff, and the hilarious “Redneck Zombies.” A lot of Burdick’s various band recordings are pretty rough but the Sins Tailor songs were clearly professionally done. Personally, I love the ringing Brydsian jangle on “Morning Calling.” If you want to mainline rock and roll authenticity, hook yourself up with Burdick’s work.

SisterLook At It RainSins Taylor – Morning Calling

Journeymen put in the time because … they have to. Something drives them to play, record, and put the music out there. The least we can do is to check out what Michael Shelley, Astro Chicken and David Burdick been up to. After all, while they’re clearly not in it for the money, but they undoubtedly could use some.

Cut Worms then and now

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When Cut Worms’ 2018 album Hollow Ground came out I was a total convert. I loved the throwback 1960s polished poprock sound of “How Can It Be” and “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” with its shades of The Cyrkle and Paul Simon melodic hookiness. But somehow I overlooked his prior 2017 EP release Alien Sunset. Now that he has a few new singles out, it seems an ideal time to revisit the musical pleasures of Cut Worms, then and now.

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 2.50.03 PMA skip through the six songs that comprise Alien Sunset, one might be tempted to cast it as a mini-Hollow Ground, minus a bit of the polish. There is some overlap, with reworked versions of “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” and “Like Going Down Sideways.” But the EP has distinct charms of its own, like its lovably ragged indie quality and a kind of insurgent pop urgency to the tunes (particularly apparent on the title track). Or the way that the stripped down “Like Going Down Sideways” sounds like a melody-pumped take on Leonard Cohen. Some of Cut Worms’ country balladeering roots show up more here on cuts like “A Curious Man.” And I particularly like the original “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” which sounds a bit folkier or roots-era Everly Brothers.

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 2.49.42 PMFast forward to 2020 and Cut Worms is extending his songwriting range, stretching out the development of the tunes into an early 1970s country rock mode. His new single, “Unnatural Disasters” takes it time delivering the hooks, first creating a solid backdrop of a laidback Bacharach-style country theme. But this subtle tune pays repeated listens. B-side “Baby Come On” is a winner too, though perhaps more direct in its melodic payoffs. There’s something so familiar about the song’s cadence, its arrangement, but the final product is still somehow fresh and timeless. Can’t wait to see how these new songs will factor into a new Cut Worms album.

Get your supply of Cut Worms from bandcamp or right from the source or from the usual e-music distributors.

Canadian content: Daniel Romano and Girlongirl

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Screen Shot 2020-07-01 at 10.08.29 AMCanadian content or ‘Cancon’ rules place a quota on radio programming in Canada requiring that a certain percentage of the music played must be from Canadian artists. While decried by market libertarians, there’s a reason the Canadian music scene exploded in the 1970s – the rule worked. Before its introduction, worthy Canadian acts could not get onto playlists, crowded out by high profile American and British artists. For Canadians, success in Canada would only follow making it in the United States, a path successfully taken by group like the Guess Who but few others. But from the 1970s on, thanks to Cancon, a host of homegrown acts could make a living just being stars in Canada. This Canada Day (yes, international audience, today is Canada’s national holiday), let’s focus on just two great Canadian acts made possible (at least in part) by the legacy of Cancon.

Welland, Ontario’s Daniel Romano is an irrepressible musical force, unrestrained by genre boundaries or conventional marketing strategies. Country, metal, new wave, prog rock – different musical styles are just a blank canvas for Romano to work out his songwriting and performance magic. Seriously, is there anything this guy can’t do? I got turned on to his talent with his killer swinging single, “When I Learned Your Name” from 2017’s Modern Pressure. I just had to keep hitting replay. Then his 2018 double album drop of Nerveless and Human Touch turned my head. Man, I thought, can he crank out the songs. Well 2020 has seen Romano surpass even his previous over-achieving bar, releasing seven albums so far! And with no compromise on quality. I’m going to highlight tracks from just a few of them but, really, you won’t go wrong with anything stamped Daniel Romano.

From Visions of the Higher Dream I’m digging “Where I Take My Rest” which has a nice, almost brittle 1979 sort of sound, with a great punchy change-up in the chorus. Super Pollen has a winning title track, a great barreling-forward poprock song, carried on a bed of blistering but still melodic electric guitars. But perhaps the most adventurous mix comes on Dandelion, a more mellow rock and roll rumination with touches of country and super smooth background vocals. There something so Canadian about this recording, with hints of the more radio-friendly Bruce Cockburn here and there guitar-wise. Check out the distinctive horn shots on the hit single hooky “If You Don’t or If You Do,” or the catchy rhythm acoustic guitar guiding “Silent Spring,” or the new wave keyboard on “Ain’t That Enough for You.”

Toronto’s Girlongirl describe themselves as “jangle pop smothered in grunge” and that is confirmed with “Take,” the opening track of their most recent album. I like it, but the band really get down to business in my view with track 2, the obvious single “Girls,” throwing out an irresistible guitar hook to anchor the song. This is a band with a tight, distinctive sound, typified by the dreamy rumble guitar behind “Nen” and “Burn Me” and strong vocals. Another should-be hit single is “Marathon” which alternates between ethereal jangle and grunge guitar, making the shift on the transition from verses and chorus. You can tell from the performances here that Girlongirl would be a kick ass live band. Someday we’ll get to find out …

We’re not the flag-waving, love-it-or-leave-it types up here in the great white north. Canada Day often passes with little more than a BBQ and some cranking of the backyard tunes. This time, add Daniel Romano and Girlongirl to your Cancon-inspired holiday playlist. Cancon or no, they’re most deserving.

Spotlight single: The Top Boost “Tell Me That You’re Mine”

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Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 4.37.34 PMThis startling new direction from Vancouver’s The Top Boost has a bit of the Beatles For Sale era country-style Beatles, The International Submarine Band and Buck Owen’s distinctive lead guitar player Don Rich. The band has always had a special new wave jangle going but this single suggests they won’t be contained in any neat genre boxes. “Tell Me That You’re Mine” takes off with a rollicking pace that doesn’t let up, riding some easygoing country hooks and nice pedal steel guitar. B-side “Early Morning Days” is no slouch either, offering up a slower, more measured dollop of shimmering guitars and heavenly harmonies. These guys are definitely going places. Just where I’m not sure but with records like these I’m happy to be surprised.

You can get caught up on all The Top Boost you need at bandcamp, Facebook and their band website.

Breaking news: The Vapour Trails, Nick Piunti and the Complicated Men, Bill Lloyd, Richard Turgeon and Ed Ryan

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Screen Shot 2020-06-22 at 3.21.25 PMWith records that are all hot off the digital presses, this is definitely a timely episode of breaking news. And the anticipation is high for these five artists because they regularly hit it out of the poprock park. Have they done it again? Spoiler – get ready for some jangling good times.

Scottish jangle stalwarts The Vapour Trails wrap their new album Golden Sunshine in sixties pop psychedelia and the results are out of this world. The opening title track rides that fine line between melodic tripping and more free-form musical extemporization. The sound is a new sonic frontier for the band, melding sixties influences with 1980s reinventions of those themes from bands like The Stone Roses and even mid-period Grapes of Wrath. This carries on with “Dr. Barnes” which offers up a hooky sitar-like rumination on the traditional psychedelic sound. But the band doesn’t push the theme too far, returning to more familiar jangle pop on “Lonely Man” and “Why Wonder Why?” Then there’s the magnificent “Behind You” with its stunning “Day Tripper” like lead line. Nobody throws down 1965 lead guitar work quite like this band – I mean, just wait for the sprightly lead guitar instrumental break – heaven! This song alone is worth the price of admission. Other ear candy moments include acoustic guitar-driven “This May Be the Time,” with its distinctive drum feel and lovely harmonies, and beautiful, understated “Seabird.” With The Vapour Trails you might come for the jangle but you’ll stay because they offer so much more. This is a band that has yet to reach its musical summit and I’m loving the ride.

You only need to hear about ten seconds of the guitar hook kicking off album opener “Upper Hand” to know you are in for something special with Nick Piunti and the Complicated Men’s new record. Piunti’s been at this a long time and he knows where he fits into the power pop pantheon so Downtime delivers the taut melodic rockers we’ve come to expect. Needle-dropping this record, I sometimes hear the Beatles or early period Bryan Adams, Mike Viola, or the under-appreciated Odds. But really this record has a timeless, classic poprock sound all its own. All the songs on this release are pretty strong but click on “Bright Light” for a masterclass in melody-drenched rock and roll, featuring some heavenly background vocals. As for the rest, well how do you pick out highlights when everything is so good? You won’t go wrong with the Bryan Adam-ish “Every High” and “Never Belong to Me” while “Contract” has a great blast of guitar driving it along and a very Odds-like chorus. My personal fave is the Squeeze-meets-Tom Petty “Gonna Be Good” with its hypnotic occasional keyboard backdrop. And just to show he can slow things down, “Good Intentions” offers up a lovely acoustic guitar and piano number. All the hip indie bloggers are talking up Downtime. Don’t be left out.

With a career like Bill Lloyds you might expect him to kick back and take it easy. He’s played with so many cool artists, put out a great body of work as one-half of Foster and Lloyd, and has countless killer solo albums to his name. But Lloyd’s got more music to share and the message from his new Don’t Kill the Messenger is definitely positive. Why? It’s the songwriting. Lloyd keeps churning out listenable tunes, delivered in his comfortable poprock style. Put your ear next to “I’ll Take It From Here,” particularly when Lloyd leans on ‘Amanda’ in the chorus, and tell you me you haven’t caught something you can’t get out of your head. Similar hooks can be found in songs like “Not This Time ‘Round” and “Sorry, But I’ve Got to Take This.” I did do a double-take on a few tracks, mistaking them for cuts from some new Marshall Crenshaw album (like “Don’t Kill the Messenger,” “Undone,” and “The Girls of Sylvan Park”). At other times, the songs reminded me a little of Ben Vaughn (“I’ve Had Enough of Your Love”) or some good old pub rock (e.g. “Kake’ n’ 8 it” and “You Got Me”). And Lloyd cooked up a few surprises, like the Talking Heads-ish “Etch-A-Sketch” and the breezy, instant standard “Kiss of the Summer Wind.” So you don’t need to hesitate over this album. Paraphrasing Merle Travis, a record from Bill Lloyd is like money in the bank – guaranteed!

Richard Turgeon kicks off his new album Sea Change with some ominous chords ringing out over “Never Leaving California,” perfectly capturing the enduring sense of dread that defines out times. The song’s chilling POV is the rumination of a mythical Charles Manson follower, drawn into the myth and mayhem of a particular moment of time for the Golden State. From there Turgeon grinds out his distinctive Matthew Sweet-meets-grunge sound on winning, timely tracks like “Still Not Ready to Die” and  “Running for Your Life.” Sea Change confirms Turgeon as a veritable hook machine as the songs here are all just brimming with catchy melodies. I mean, check out the ear worm choruses of “Car Crash” and “Cull the Herd” for a quick confirmation. And then there’s the real treat, the bliss-inducing, obvious should-be hit single “Higher” – power pop perfection! This record also features a few nice departures from the usual, like the Weezer-vibing “Jolene,” the low-key dreamy “Sunset,” and the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-like vocalizing on the “The Journey,” with its cool sparse finger-picking opener. This record just confirms why Turgeon keeps showing up on so many ‘best of’ lists each year.

On Even Time Ed Ryan returns to his roots, re-recording some tunes from previous bands The Rudies and Jupiter Jets, as well some new material. Having noted that, opening and title track “Even Time” marks a bit of a departure for the normally guitar-oriented Ryan with a reliance on keyboards to anchor the tune that adds just a bit of dramatic tension. There’s also some refreshing naked acoustic guitar here on “I’ve Got the Smile” and the rollicking “I Want to Go.” But worry not, power pop Ed is here full force on should-be singles like “Say What You Will” and “Let It Out,” with some catchy neo-1950s background vocals elevating “Never Lied to You.” “Here and Now” kicks off with a blast of Springsteen-like energy before settling into a solid rocker. I really like the nice change of pace with the piano-based “Everywhere,” a delightful tune with shades of Styx in places (and that’s not a bad thing, in this case). Ryan then wraps things up with  a return to tradition on “Make It Through the Night,” a track that really captures the classic power pop sound of late 1970s sound, complete with punchy chorus. All in all, Even Time marks a welcome return to the studio for this music veteran.

For digital access, click on the artist names above. For compact disc or vinyl, visit Futureman/Big Stir records for The Vapour Trails and Kool Kat Musik for Nick Piunti, Bill Lloyd, and Richard Turgeon. With so much news breaking, it’s hard to keep up with all the new releases. That’s what we’re here for. These releases are all Poprock Record Grade A-approved long-players. Imbibe with confidence.

Lockdown at Camp Pepper

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Screen Shot 2020-06-19 at 4.03.48 PMWhen last we left our hero he had just released a smash new album, I Know Why You Cry, to critical blogger acclaim and, no doubt, impending worldwide domination. But before he could launch a tour that surely would have left audiences swooning and American late night talk shows clamouring for appearances, COVID 19 hit. Unperturbed, work at his Camp Pepper headquarters continued, preparing the release of The Complete “Dad Year” Recordings (2017-2018) and now a new treat, Under a Heather Moon. I’ve gotten to the point where I count down the days to a new Pepper release, a ritual previously reserved for the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, Nick Lowe, Fountains of Wayne and early 1980s Paul McCartney. Under a Heather Moon does not disappoint. It is a delightful slice of everything that is magical about Gregory Pepper: clever wordplay, subtle melodies, with just a touch of sardonic social commentary. But don’t blink – you might miss this record. The album’s seven tunes collectively barely clock in at five and a half minutes! The bandcamp edition includes three bonus tunes that stretch things out to almost a quarter hour. But hey, I’m not complaining. Short they may be but the tracks are undeniably little gems.

Screen Shot 2020-06-19 at 4.04.42 PMPepper has a McCartney-esque facility with different musical styles, ranging from music hall (“Smile”) to musicals (“Mayor’s Tomb”) to heel-clicking danceable poprock (“Do Sports”). “Whoa Dude, Whoa” has a deliciously ominous vibe, like the soundtrack to mid-1960s secret agent movie. Then he gets his wist on with lovely piano pieces like “(Isolation)” and “Finite Thing” (though the latter has a nice blow up half way through). “Recluse Abandon” really showcases Pepper as a master melodian, squeezing hooks into the tightest song spaces. The bonus tracks allow things to stretch out a bit. Particularly noteworthy is an extensively reworked version of “Funny, Eh” (originally from the Dad Year recordings), this time a little less manic and bit more ornate (in a good way).

Why not enjoy a (brief) respite from whatever you’re avoiding or stressing over right now with this new mini-album from Gregory Pepper and his Problems? And don’t forget, it’s available in extended form on bandcamp. It’s delightful. It’s even delovely.

And now for something completely different: Wakes and TV Girl

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Screen Shot 2020-06-17 at 7.41.54 PMI can get wild. Sometimes. Ok, let’s face it, any genre boundary-crossing I’m doing still involves a lot hookyness, even if there’s some guitar distortion, yelly vocals, or an amp cranked past 11. Cases in point –  today’s featured acts. They’ve got dialed up guitars and discordant singing or some cool stylistic weirdness going for them. And it works!

San Diego’s premier postmodern pop band is TV Girl. With three EPs and four albums released since 2010, this is a group that knows how to get wonderfully weird and stay there. I’m impressed with their ability to pastiche up and over a host of influences, riffing on great hooks (sometimes) borrowed with ease from multiple pop culture sources. Take the oh-so-soul sounding familiarity of “Benny and the Jetts” or the winter skating-rink party ambience of “Baby You Were There.” It’s a winning formula on these early EPs: TV Girl build original pop songs from bits and pieces of old time sixties and seventies sampled hits, like the blast of Todd Rungdren’s “Hello It’s Me” that kicks off and then haunts their own “If You Want It.” You can really hear the Burroughs cut up production style all over the first TV Girls longplayer, The Wild, The Innocent, The TV Shuffle released in 2012. Check out the brilliant melding of early 1960s girl singer Linda Scott’s classic “I Told Every Little Star” into the band’s original song, “Misery,” or the threading of the Beatles’ version of Arthur Alexander’s “Anna” throughout “On the Fence.”

By the release of 2014’s French Exit the band’s songwriting really comes on stream with catchy numbers like “Pantyhose,” “Birds Don’t Sing,” and “Angela.” Since then TV Girl have explored more dance and hip hop grooves on 2014’s Who Really Cares and 2018’s Maddie Acid’s Purple Hearts Club Band and some chilly dream pop on Death of a Party Girl from later that same year. But personally I’m really digging the just released 2020 collection of outtakes from French Exit, dubbed The Night in Question. Think The Shortwave Set with a dash of Simple Kid and Tally Hall and you’re in the ballpark.

Boston’s Wakes evokes the holy spirit of rock and roll with spooky sounding guitars and somber world-weary vocals. But embedded in most tunes is that subtle melody-ness I associate with Buddy Holly and Bruce Springsteen. It jumps out in the jaunty guitar lines carrying “Headlines” from Wakes 2014’s album Feral Youth. The overlay of crackling, haunting vocals just seals the deal. Actually, the guitars on this album keep things shifting back and forth from an edgy rock and roll dance party to a car-driving radio-relay-tower passing ambience. From there Wakes dials down the productivity, offering just a covers EP and final mini-album in 2017 before calling a halt to music altogether. The swan song collection of unreleased stuff is gold, ranging from an industrial 1950s vibe to sweet fairground attractions to stark acoustic folk-iness. Entitled Ends, it kicks off with “I Don’t Want to See You Anymore,” an off-kilter bit of Eddie Cochrane-infused psycho-billy brought to life by a furious, driving guitar hook. I also love the stroll-down-the-fairway vibe on “Year After Year,” guided by a mellifluous Del Shannon organ. One can only hope that Wakes’ Tim Oxton’s design/art career goes gangbusters and he can return to a bit of music on the side.

I’m not afraid of a bit of avant garde, genre-blending indie music, as long as a load of hooks are buried somewhere in the mix. That’s what you get with TV Girl and Wakes. Take a walk on their wild side right now.

Short sharp shocks: The Magnetic Fields and 2nd Grade

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Screen Shot 2020-06-11 at 5.07.42 PMI seem to recall Canadian poprock iconoclast Gregory Pepper saying something about two minute songs. For him, anything more was surplus to requirements. But stitching together a meaningful short song is harder than it looks. Fools tend to rush in to verses and a chorus and run out of song before they know it. Today we feature two masters of the exquisitely short song, Stephen Merritt’s Magnetic Fields and Philadelphia indie pop combo 2nd Grade.

Like many people, I fell in love with Merritt’s work after just a few listens of 1999’s sprawling, three CD set, 69 Love Songs. The humour, the pathos and, most importantly, the hooks kept me hitting replay again and again. Since then he’s gone in a number of directions with his work (e.g. the rockier Distortion) but regularly delivers solid songwriting, often in abundance. Case in point, his recent 50 Song Memoir witnessed Merritt handling all the vocals on a project that documented each of his 50 years with a separate tune. Now MF are back with a brand new album and Quickies sees Merritt re-assembling the full band, complete with his usual collection of vocalists. The songs are short,  definitely sharp and often shocking. I mean, only Merritt could craft a catchy number about “The Biggest Tits in History” or “The Day the Politicians Died” but both tracks really work, with smart lyrics and eminently hummable tunes. A song about bathroom sex? Got that covered on “Bathroom Quickie.” Merritt’s songwriting sometimes comes off like a stream of consciousness riff on his lifetime encounter with popular culture, like on “Kraftwerk in a Blackout.” And nothing is sacred, as is clear on “I’ve Got a Date with Jesus” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Beelzebub.” With 28 songs, I can’t go into everything on this record but like a deluxe box of Quality Street chocolates, there’s plenty to like here and a lot to savor. If you’ve liked past Magnetic Field efforts, you won’t be disappointed.

2nd Grade offer up what we might call a ‘two-four’ of songs here in Canada on their latest long player, Hit to Hit: 24 tracks, most clocking in at 2 minutes or less. As a songwriting strategy, it really works here. The material is snappy, fresh, vibing a bit of Apples in Stereo or recent Mo Troper. Ranging over the selections, the band are lyrically playful on songs like “Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” and “When You Were My Sharona,” punk things up “W2” and “Trigger Finger,” or just offer up straight ahead poprock on “Shooting From the Hip” (with a touch of mid-period Fleetwood Mac here) and “Sunkist.” Tempo shifts include more low key folkie material like “Something I’ll Have to Remember” or the nicely Elliott Smith-paced “Maybe I.” My personal faves are probably the mildly urgent “Over and Over” and the seasonal smash, should be hit “Summer of Your Dreams.” But hey, with so many choices why settle on a strict ranking just yet? I’d recommend hitting random play and see what moves you. There’s a lot of serious goodness here to discover.

Short songs, long albums – variety!  That’s what you’ll be getting with these offerings. It’s a nice twist on the usual thing. So check out Magnetic Fields and 2nd Grade’s latest magnum opi, live with them a bit, and see if you don’t just want to listen to them a bit more.

Misspent youth: Westcoast edition

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Screen Shot 2020-06-02 at 1.29.44 PMIn the 1970s and most of the 1980s, I grew up in Vancouver, Canada’s largest city on the country’s west coast. I still love the town’s abundance of Edwardian architecture, kooky downtown neighbourhoods, and even its long stretches of gray, rainy weather. But it wasn’t until I moved away that I realized just how isolated it was from the rest of urban North America. Many was the time that major music acts would skip Vancouver on their tours – it just wasn’t economical for a lot of bands to make the trek so far from touring circuits based out of Los Angeles or Chicago or New York City. Yet this geographic reality, combined with Canadian content laws introduced in the 1970s to help Canadian music get on the radio, contributed to a pretty cool music scene.

Some of the earliest westcoast acts I remember hearing were the Poppy Family and Chilliwack. Terry Jacks would achieve uber fame with his international hit cover of the Brel/Mckuen classic “Seasons in the Sun” in 1974 but I much prefer his earlier Poppy Family recordings with then wife Susan Jacks. The band’s biggest hit was the title track to their 1969 debut, Which Way You Going Billy?, and it is a great song, but check out the smoking cool organ and melodic hooks that animate “Where Evil Grows” from the follow up record, Poppy Seeds. This is an absolutely perfect sonic confection! Chilliwack were a Vancouver music institution, releasing countless hit records in Canada throughout the 1970s and early 1980s under the guidance of creative leader, Bill Henderson. A lot of people only know the band for their biggest U.S. hit, “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) from 1981 but they had 19 chart entries in Canada from 1970 to 1983. Personally, I’ve always loved “There’s Something I Like About That” from the band’s 1974 album Riding High (which contained the distinctive hit single, “Crazy Talk”). The album is transitional, with the band shifting from hippie folk and long-hair rock to a more catchy, rock and roll singles sound, and it shows on this song with its shifts between a seductive shuffle in the verses and the belt out fun chorus.

As the 1970s gave way to the eighties new wave and punk hit Vancouver hard, without entirely shaking loose the locale’s hippie and dude rock and roll vibes. Such musical contradictions were all over Prism, a band initially put together by soon-to-be-superstar producer Bruce Fairbairn and Bryan Adams songwriting partner Jim Vallance. The band produced a spate of great singles like “Flying,” “See Forever Eyes,” “Armageddon,” and “Young and Restless” but my fave remains the Lindsay Mitchell/Bryan Adams-penned “Cover Girl.” The Payola$ were more straight-up new wave-influenced and the band always seemed a bit too cool for the local scene. Despite that, they couldn’t find their footing chart-wise, with their early albums a bit too indie for the mainstream (e.g. 1982’s No Stranger to Danger) while later bids for commercial success failed to grab radio play and alienated longtime fans (e.g. 1985’s Here’s the World For Ya). Personally, I think 1983’s Hammer on the Drum hit the sweet spot artistically and it should have been the break out hit with jaunty tracks like  “I’ll Find Another (Who Can Do It Right)” and the touching “Where Is This Love.” The record did produce a #8 Canadian hit duet with Carole Pope, the upbeat “Never Said I Love You.”

Something happened in the mid-1980s with the consolidation of a broad, non-mainstream indie music scene, largely supported by college radio and small music venues. Suddenly it seemed that not everyone was going the stadium rock route or topping the AM radio charts, and that was Ok. The most exciting local band working this seam for me were the Grapes of Wrath. Technically a Kelowna band, they set up shop in Vancouver in 1984 and released their debut a year later. September Bowl of Green blew me away. I worshipped these guys. They were like our local R.E.M. They had jangly guitars and great songs and I couldn’t stop playing their first single “Misunderstanding.” Their second release was the Tom Cochrane-produced Treehouse and it was a masterpiece. Really, their whole catalogue (six albums, one EP) is pretty solid, including an incredible comeback record in 2013. Another band proudly wearing the indie banner were 54-40. They’ve released 14 albums since 1984 and, despite a lack of hit singles, they’ve sold a lot of albums in Canada and maintained pretty high standards throughout. I don’t get it – tracks like “One Gun,” “Miss You” “One Day in Your Life,” and “Casual Viewin’” all sound like radio hits to me. But if I had to cut my 54-40 collection to just one song it would be the enigmatic, hypnotic, addictive “Baby Ran.”

I left Vancouver permanently in 1996 and leaving town was hard but, ultimately, good for me. The world is a big place and seeing a bit more of it put my home town into better perspective. I could see how small and contained it was, provincial in many ways. But I could also appreciate how much it accomplished – a pretty vibrant music scene – despite its geographic isolation. So, in honour all of things westcoast, click on the band names to get caught up with these great acts! And if you’re looking for a primer on Vancouver’s music scene from an era prior to this one, the Vancouver Record Collector’s Association have a four volume history of the best local acts covering the 1950s and 1960s, with exhaustive liner notes written by local rock expert Michael Willmore (check out Willmore’s wacky but informative TV show, Rockinitis).

The banner photo is an incredible diorama of a typical Vancouver street block by a fellow I only know as dancecommander. You can read his write up here and see more pics here.

I get mail: Sanglorians, You’re Among Friends, R.E. Seraphin, The Pozers and more!

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Screen Shot 2020-05-28 at 4.53.01 PMWhen I say I get mail, I mean messages, email, notifications, etc. And that’s a good thing given what I’m hearing about the challenges moving music through the conventional mail services right now. Rain, sleet, snow, hail? Clearly they’re easy-peasy compared to Covid 19. Well the pandemic will not get in the way of today’s delivery of loud guitars, bedroom pop, finely crafted songscapes, and much more.

Eclectic Music Lover nailed it when he described You’re Among Friends as “funky, blues-infused folk rock” channeling “Steely Dan, The Grateful Dead and even a bit of Elvis Costello.” I might add a bit of chooglin’ CCR on a few tracks. From their new record Start Making Sense I love the jazzy swing on “Waiting for Life to Start Making Sense,” definitely a bit of early Costello-vibing here, and the groove anchoring “Once the Toothpaste is Out of the Tube.”

Robby Miller’s debut EP is a nice slice AM radio-friendly poprock songcraft. With a vocal delivery falling somewhere between Al Stewart and Fountains of Wayne’s Chris Collingwood, the songs shift between sweet and light melody and a bit guitar crunch, particularly apparent on “Freya” and “Take a Smile.”

Former Talkies frontman R.E. Seraphin is being written up all over the power pop blogosphere and deservedly so for his uber cool solo debut, Tiny Shapes. The record is a wonderful distillation of power pop rock and roll influences, slightly notched down from genre’s regular amp setting of 11 via a warm DIY performance. Opener “Today Will be Kind” is like a road map for the whole album: great song, hooky lead guitar lines, hushed alluring vocals. The formula really delivers again on “Bend” and “I’d Rather be your Enemy.” Then “Fortuna” changes it up, offering an early 1980s atmospheric poprock vibe. Everybody was doing this kind of spare, spooky guitar thing back then and it really works on this song. I also love the discordant jangle of “Streetlight” and lead guitar line hooks all over “Safe to Say.” This album is more than a collection songs, it’s an album that’s got its own distinctive and oh-so-pleasant aura going on.

Dallas power pop veterans The Pozers have been rocking out for more than 25 years, eliciting comparisons to Cheap Trick and the Beatles with their combo of airy background vocals, melodic guitar runs and impressive stylistic range. 2019’s Crybaby Bridge showcases all those elements in fine form. Check out the light Beatlesesque rompiness of “The Only Girl” while “Nonstop” has a bit more Revolver-era crunch with just a dab of understated organ in the mix. Meanwhile “Telling My Secrets” updates things with a bit of Oasis-ish panache. Believe the hype – the Pozers are the total poprock package.

Described as power pop meets prog rock, Sanglorians definitely ignore guitar town’s city limits on their first record in seven years, Odalisque. The sheer inventiveness on this record is breathtaking and, after just a few listens, quickly endearing. Some tracks come on like AM radio hit singles. “Miriam” kicks things off with a faint breeze of Weezer, “Down to Affection” is a melodic wild ride worthy of a Fun album deep cut, while “Come Back to What You Are” sounds like a great lost ELO single. But other parts of the album are a bit more experimental. Wait out the 60 second instrumental prelude to “Clearer” and you’re rewarded with a sweet, hypnotic, XTC-like melody. Throw in a few choice covers (Beatles, Magnetic Fields) and at least one more candidate for a great big hit single (“In Bruges”) and it’s pretty clear Sanglorians are back with a hooky vengeance.

What would happen if you could take the sneer out of Steely Dan? You might end up with something like Essex’s The 1957 Tail Fin Fiasco. These guys have definitely got the Steely Dan cool swing down but somehow sound less jaded and blasé than the original. Actually, I hear a lot of 10cc on the band’s new album The Harvard Tango, particularly some of the vocal textures on tracks like “Bros. Fairchild & Marylebone” and the boogie strut on “Dirk is not a Bogey.” On the whole, there is pleasant, rollicking 1970s piano-based rock and roll feel to this album, like Elton John with a bit more glam (exhibit A: title track “The Harvard Tango”). But personally, I like the outliers on the record, like the acoustic guitar, harmony vocal-driven “A Yard of Place” and the sensational, jaunty “Monogamy Pews.” For clever cheekiness, the boys remind of London’s Scandinavia.

Wilson & The Catholics is the new side project of Tennis Club frontman Wilson Hernandez. Fans of TC’s fantastic low-key psych-pop album Pink from 2019 may find the stripped-down sound of WLC a bit underwhelming but the melodic payoffs are still here. Dreamy, atmospheric, drawing from that early 1960s style of disaster rock (‘Look out! Look out! Look out!’) on tracks like “Strawberry Hill” and “Commercial Alley” or just a breezy poppiness on “MD 2020” and “Super Bowl ’97.” Bedroom pop suitable for those times when you really need to hide from your roommates.

Hitting the bottom of the mailbag, I got word from the Suncharms’ Marcus Palmer about a fabulous new collection from Indonesia-based Shiny Happy Records and it’s a winning tip. Shiny Happy Fanzine 4 – Please Rain Fall Compilation is jam-packed with 19 tracks of shimmering low-key jangle goodness. There are so many highlight here but I’ll just twig you to Tullycraft’s hilarious “We Couldn’t Dance to Billy Joel,” Well Whale’s “She’s a Punk,” and, of course, The Suncharms’ own stellar contribution “3 Billion Heartbeats.”

Things are so easy today, you don’t even need to write a cheque to send away for new music by mail. You can have it all now, without leaving your exclusive listening lounge! Click on the artist names to get closer to some new music immediately.