Belfast calling: Pretty Cartel and Jet Black Tulips

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I suspect I’m going to get some stick from Pretty Cartel because they’re not actually from Belfast but nearby Lisburn, 8 miles away. Still, I imagine when the good people of Lisburn want to go out on the town they spend some time in the much bigger metropolis of Belfast. Then there’s the fact that Jet Black Tulips, who are from Belfast, have received support from Pretty Cartel getting started so the music scenes clearly overlap. And let’s face it, ‘Lisburn and Belfast calling’ as a post title would be just too much of mouthful. But enough excuses: this is about the music and these two bands could be from anywhere that loves Britpop, the Who, and jangly guitars.

The first record I could find by Pretty Cartel was 2013’s Tales from the Working Class. So far, so good just on the title alone. The EP features a range of styles from folky ballads to more Oasis-in-a-mellow-mood numbers. But the star track is undoubtedly the rambunctious and rollicking “She’s The One.” This song and another single released separately the same year, “Night on the Town,” take things in a more Cast or Real People direction. Then there’s an apparent break until 2019 when it seems two albums come out, Top Hat Ballroom and Subbuteo Balls and Rock Stars. Overall the former is a bit more rocking but “El Diablo” has a some nice minor chords hooks and subtle change ups over the course of the song. The latter recycles two tunes from their debut EP but the album sound is still coherent, though more jangly and atmospheric than prior efforts “Streets” sound like early U2, before they went all rawk star. “Days Gone Bye” plays like a Britpop anthem. “Willow Tree” is wonderfully low-key Oasis. “Night Out on the Town” turns up the jangle guitar and increases the pace to good effect. Then in 2020 the band blew the doors off their sound with “Sunkist Sun,” a song so perfectly put together it can’t help but be an instant-replay single experience. A whole album of tunes exuding this level of confidence and skill can’t come out fast enough.

Night on the Town
El Diablo
Days Gone By
Sunkist Sun

Newcomers Jet Black Tulips have only released two songs. But what tunes! 2020’s “Oh Yea!” is a driving guitar number that reminds me a bit of the Hoodoo Gurus with its straight-up vocal style and relentless rhythm guitar backing. Brand new single “Never Gonna Be” fattens up the rhythm guitar sound and adds jangly lead guitar lines for some pure Britpop bliss. This is another repeat-play number. These boys are on the right track, as far as I’m concerned. We can only hope there’s a pandemic-induced backlog of new material just waiting to come out.

Oh Yea!
Never Gonna Be

Northern Ireland is changing and Pretty Cartel and Jet Black Tulips are definitely a part of the new excitement. With bands like these Belfast, I’ll be right there!

Instrumentally yours

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There aren’t enough superlatives in the thesaurus to really capture how great Grady Martin was. He played all those super rumbly rockabilly riffs that elevated songs by Johnny Horton, Pasty Cline, Marty Robbins, and many others. It is rumoured that he played the anchor lead line on Roy Orbison’s monster hit “Oh Pretty Woman.” You can hear a sampling of those riffs in the compilation video below. Sadly, Martin never released a solo album of instrumentals that really did justice to his genius for guitar technique. His 1965 album Instrumentally Yours (from which we’ve copped our post title) buries his guitar work under a cheesy torrent of strings. So as a tribute to this great performer we’re featuring a bevy of melody-rich, guitar-based instrumentals on today’s post.

Tuscon’s The Resonars are not known as an instrumentals band but they offer up a nice acoustic guitar ramble on their 2008 album That Evil Drone. “Yes Grosvenor” sounds more like something you might hear on a Bruce Cockburn album than the Ventures but it’s bright and sprightly, kicking off with a “Norwegian Wood “feel before heading in a more studied folk direction. Denmark’s Tremelo Beer Gut shift things to a more smoky night club scene and max out the rumble on their guitars with “Shabby Moscow Tremelo” from their 1999 album The Inebriated Sounds of … They make shabby the new cool. Next door in the Netherlands Bruut and Anton Goudsmit hit the surf with the aptly named LP Go Surfing. The sound is very Ventures but with a jazzy tinge, particularly on their swinging rendition of “Music to Watch Girls By.” Located in LA but named for an eastern European car, Trabants fall somewhere between Ennio Morricone and Herb Alpert on the spaghetti western guitar spectrum. Their 2018 release Nel Cuore Di Una Terra Selvaggia (In the Heart of a Wild Land) conjures desert landscapes and mad dashes toward moving trains on “Theme for Savage Land.”  Seriously, this recording must be haunted by The Man With No Name. Bellingham Washington might not seem like surf territory but Rich Arithmetic will change your mind with his languid, one-off surf single “Saving Sunset (Last Surf the Day).” The song plays up all the usual surf guitar motifs but also drifts into surprisingly melodic directions. Get your wet suit ready.

Brutt and Anton Goudsmit – Music to Watch Girls By

Chicagoan Joel Paterson looks more like a 1950s accountant than a guitar god. But man can he make that instrument sing! In 2019 and 2020 he brought out two albums of Beatles instrumentals Let It Be Guitar and Let It Be Acoustic Guitar that breathe new life into your fab faves. Both records are highly listenable, covering a broad range of the Beatles canon. But here I’ll just focus your attention on Paterson’s delightful treatment of “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” with its super-enriched Bakersfield sound. In 2021 the endlessly talented Graham Gouldman decided to bring out an album of instrumentals as a benefit to raise money for musicians hurt by the pandemic lockdown and break in touring. No Words Today is lovely collection of delicately rendered covers, except for one new original tune “Resonator Rock.” The guitar here almost sounds like a banjo and the slide guitar adds to the downhome southern feel. The Babalooneys hail from Quebec City, Quebec but you don’t need to parlez Francais to catch the drift on their mostly instrumental EP The Babalooneys Are Here! “Bikini Drag” combines killer surf riffs with that sense of 1950s drag race menace. Floridian Kurt Lanham has a light guitar touch on his instrumental covers, sketching out the bare elements of the melody line with an artful grace. Listen to how he transforms the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” damping down the exuberance to better feature jauntiness of the melody. We wrap things up in party mode with Toronto’s incredible surf guitar demons The Surfragettes. Their new album Roller Fink is a feel good trip around the roller track, with inspired covers (e.g. Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the Beatles “She Loves You”) and strong originals. To help you ease on your skates I’ve chosen “Warm Up,” a track that oozes the melodious warmth and confidence of rock solid instrumentals bands like Los Straightjackets.

Kurt Lanham – I Want to Hold Your Hand

My favourite lead guitar players know how to ‘serve the song’ with their playing. For them, it’s more about melody than some ferocious onslaught of notes. Grady Martin influenced generations of players without ever really taking the spotlight for himself. In that he was, indeed, instrumentally yours.

Get off at Dunbar! John Sally Ride and Elvis Eno

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He doesn’t do it all alone but he is the creative force behind his many projects, handling song-writing, lead vocals, rhythm guitar and sometimes much more. So when you go looking for John Sally Ride or Elvis Eno or his solo records you’re basically getting off at the John Dunbar stop. Fall 2021 saw the release of two different Dunbar projects practically simultaneously and they both deserve a closer look.

The third John Sally Ride LP title Now Is Not a Great Time surely must quality for the ‘understatement much’ award. The album’s opening number “The Nicest Things” captures the uncertainly of our times, where a rush of poppy rock can’t quite obscure the singer’s mixed feelings. This theme continues with “Putting It Off” but in a more dance-able XTC mode. Then “I Never Knew (Where I Stood With You)” builds off a solid Motown groove. So far the record the record departs from prior efforts, branching out stylistically. For instance, “Far From Eaten Out” sounds very Jam-like to me, with less snarl in the vocals. But there’s a lot here that sounds familiar too. I’ve commented previously on the Squeeze vibe in so much of the JSR material, both in songwriting and a strong Glenn Tilbrook feel to the vocal work. Tell me you don’t hear some Glenn or that Difford and Tilbrook songwriting magic on “Now Is Not a Great Time,” “My Persistence Vs Your Resistance,” “You Let Her Break Your Heart Again,” and “Is It Over Already?” Frankly I’d be delighted to hear material like this on some new Squeeze project. But the obvious winner for should-be hit single here is “She Doesn’t Do Nostalgia” with its hooky lead guitar lines, dynamic vocal phrasing and judicious dollop of jangle. Despite the socially timely title Now Is Not a Great Time brims with promise and good feeling. The John Sally Ride take us on another reliably melodious trip through 11 winning cuts.

On A Startling Realization of the Obvious Dunbar takes up a musical alter ego in Elvis Eno to rage against our current political era of lies and calculated disinformation. The political engagement is subtle and often muted, though apparent on tracks like “Your Startling Realization of the Obvious,” “The One Who Won” and “Believe the Liars.” Stylistically, the album bears the marks of late 1960s British pop psychedelia funneled through a 1980s poprock sensibility we might associate with XTC, particularly on tracks like “Getting to Know the Back of My Hand” and “Your End of the Bargain.” Working a different seam, there’s a definite Todd Rundgren elan to “Believe the Liars.”  But hovering over everything is the spectre of Elvis Costello. “The Last Time I Saw You/See You” and “We’re Shaped by What Did Not Work” sounds very EC in experimental mode e.g. Brodsky Quartet. Meanwhile “More Than a Little While” has an Andy Partridge quirkiness in his Dukes of Stratosphere guise. Then “The Ballad of Russ Ballard” takes us back into Squeeze story-song territory. The album is a coherent, enjoyable exploration of another – yet still familiar – side to Dunbar’s musical personality.

Seems you can’t limit this guy to just one project. And given what appears here why would we? Don’t wait to ‘ring the bell’ – this is your stop, for John Dunbar.

Cover Me! Tommy Tutone “867-5309 Jenny”

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In the realm of perfect poprock songs there are few rivals for Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309.” The opening lead guitar hook reels you in, the slashing guitar chords send you straight to the dance floor, that dynamic bridge takes it all up a notch … It’s a song that literally never hits a wrong note. Its secret is the tension it manages to create at every turn, with multiple guitar lines and vocals pulling in different directions – then resolving – then pulling apart again. In terms of performance the guitar work is simple and straightforward but oh so addictive while the vocals are heartland rock and roll at its best. Undoubtedly this song ranks in my top 20 all-time great poprock singles. Indeed, it’s so good it unfairly cast everything else the band ever did in shadow. They were even reduced to reworking it into a Christmas song 28 years later.

Given the songs obvious strengths, the lack of cover versions in the first two decades after it was released might seem surprising. But then again, maybe not. Frankly, I imagine it was hard for bands to think how the song might be done differently, so iconic were the song’s signature riffs and arrangement. Early on, only punk and heavy metal bands dared to mess with it, with results that predictably tended to quash the tune’s hooks and more subtle melodic charms. As more conventional rock and roll covers emerged in the new millennium they didn’t stray far from the original Tutone formula, perhaps changing up the instrumentation or vocals only slightly. Case in point: Mark Allen and Company. This 2007 version is pretty Tutone, limiting its innovations to the vocal delivery, power chord and the lead guitar tones. It’s credited Mark Allen & Company & Tommy Tutone but what went down here is hard to get any info on. On 2008’s Rollerball Candy The Chevelles stretch the song’s lead guitar line intro and amp up the bar chords but swap the Americana vocals for a more new wave sound. In the same year The Outliers decided to slow the tune down, adding a special allure to the vocals and giving the melody a more Johnny Rivers feel. Or, for something more different, Pamploma Spain’s Innerve switch to a more acoustic but still rocking sound on their 2011 version.

Mark Allen and Company
The Chevelles
The Outliers

It would take the dawning of a new century to shake off established practice when it came Jenny. Just ahead of the curve a cappella group Amazin’ Blue offered up a rich cacophony of voices to populate the song. They’re not alone – I found five other a cappella versions – but their take is definitely the most dynamic. Lisa Breslin gave the song an understated, hushed performance but felt the need to point out she was not into women, she just liked the tune. Really? Where’s the mystery? Contrast this with Mark Weigle’s brave remake “867-5309 Jimmy” from 2003. Yes, he’s singing about a guy and he’s not bothered, and he takes creative chances with the arrangement that really pay off: an acoustic guitar lead line, some inventive rhythm guitar work, and some hilarious spoken-word telephone messages. Weigle’s album Different and the Same has some other surprises too, like a cover of Pete Townshend’s sexuality-ambiguous “And I Moved” from Empty Glass and a rewrite of the Jackson Five’s “ABC” as a critique of a controversial AIDS drug in “AZT.” And then there’s the banjolicious romp that appears on the Pickin’ On Series 2008’s collection Pickin’ and Singin’ the Biggest Hits of the 1980’s, Volume 1. Seriously, solid banjo propulsion and a fiddle solo break is clearly what this song needed all along.

Mark Weigle
Pickin’ On

As we turn to more recent covers the range goes from the exquisite and carefully crafted to inspired DIY love. Kurt Lanham is amazing musician and his mostly acoustic guitar instrumental version is a form of audio art, the arrangement is so precise and delicate, vibing a bit of Kenny Burrell guitar tone and low key Latin feel. By contrast, what Flopsweat lacks in musical precision he makes up for in DIY enthusiasm and intensity, his vocals and guitar work exude such love for the tune the listener can’t help but be drawn in, captivated. But my most favourite recent version is Mike Browning‘s from his 2021 album Class Act. Clear, sharp, haunting in parts, Browning strips things down to essentials, reminding us again just why we love this song so much.

Kurt Lanham

Well there you have it, eleven creative covers of a certified poprock classic. And yet I can’t help but feel there’s plenty room on the “867-5309 Jenny” cover-train for more. Personally, I’d love to hear the likes of Tim Finn, Pictish Trail, The Martial Arts, Richard Turgeon, and host of other artists I’ve featured on this blog take a crack at this tune. Perhaps there’ll be a part two?

Top graphic courtesy Kurt Lanham’s 45 design for his single “867-5309 Jenny.”

Around the dial: Lund Brothers, Grant Lindberg, The Orion Experience, and Scoopski

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I was tuning in to my own late night dial when I ran across this crew of creative tune-sters. No anesthetized feelings here. Just some of the melodic magic they deliver regularly.

Imagine being a band rejected by a major label for sounding ‘too Beatles.” What?! But that was Geffen’s excuse for not signing The Lund Bros. after initially financing some recordings in 1990s. Well the late Beatles influences remain despite the years, plastered all over their newest recording Across State Lines. The album puts acoustic guitar and blood harmonies at the forefront of the songs, while still delivering the band’s distinctive ‘heavy pop’ sound. This combo is most striking on the lovely and haunting “The Front Lines.” Or check out how “Living is Easy” opens with stripped down acoustic guitar and vocals only to break out a bigger sound in the chorus and instrumental break. “Love U” delivers some solo Lennonesque twists in the song structure and melody while “Killin’ Me” is more Lennon in White Album mode. The songs sometimes feel very Ten Years After with their combination of live sounding vocals and acoustic guitar intros and interludes e.g. “Harder They Fall” and “Red, Blue and Gold.” There’s a country rock vibe on “Want Your Money” and it’s also got a hit-it-out-the-park chorus. Turning to should-be hits, the two obvious singles for me are “Bender” and “Flyin’,” the latter combining some Cars-like guitar shots and a Beatles-worthy chorus. Across State Lines marks a triumphant return for The Lund Bros. Definitely worth that trip to the border.

By the looks of things over Bandcamp Grant Lindberg has released an awful lot of music over the past two decades. Where have I been all his career? I’m just joining the Lindberg train with his most recent long-player Function Over Form but man, it seems as good a place as anywhere to start. There’s quality melodic rock and roll right off the start with opening cut “Things Have Been Strange.” It’s got a touch of that droning power pop vibe I associate with Jeff Shelton’s Well Wishers. Or there’s a bit of Weezer in “Your First Mistake,” a Chris Collingwood in Look Park mode vibe on “Nothing I Can Do,” and echoes of Cheap Trick all over “Shame On You.” But then I also love how Lindberg lightens things up with the lilting acoustic-guitar heavy “Your Heart is my Light” and “The Words” (even if the latter has something of an ominous atmosphere). “She’s a Mystery” opens with a great 1970s melodic guitar blast before settling on 1990s hooky grunge vibe. “Things We Do” is bit pop gungy too. But the clear should-be hit for me is “Always Been A Lie” with its lovely swinging melodic chorus and early FOW sound. Here’s a music veteran whose sound is still post-teenage fresh and exciting. Function Over Form definitely deserves some of your precious new music time.

Seems I’d just finished raving about The Orion Experience last fall only to overlook the release of their latest album Fever Dream. Well there’s no stale dating this release because the sounds are all timeless. Warning: this record is much more pop than rock, but it’s still great. Things open with “All Dolled Up,” a dance-y number vibing bits of Bony M, Blondie, and Queen. Then “Digital Affection” reminds me of ELO’s disco interventions circa 1978. “Night Eyes” keeps the disco party going, this time with a smooth Abba feel. “Cosmicandy Girl” is all pop while “Honeysuckle Kisses” combines both rock and dance elements. But the track I can’t stop hitting replay on is “I Can Read Your Mind.” I love the song’s swing and the percussion is so toe-tapping good. Fever Dream is a feel-good party platter, with melodies and grooves to help you sing and dance the night away.

On See You Soon Philadephia PA’s Scoopski harken back to an era of fun 1990s poppy rock tunes, flavoured with a bit of a Weezer or FOW discordant edge. The band’s original take on these themes can be heard on album opener “Living in Key” which combines kicking-up-your-heels pop-country verses with more rocky choruses and instrumental interludes. Need a state song update? “Pennsylvania” brings on the state love with Weezer keyboards and some They Might Be Giants lyrical twists. The Weezer influences carry on into “Hoodie Weather” which nails a very Cuomo vocal delivery. “While We Wait” and “See You Soon” are just great AM radio poprock songs. But the really striking tunes here are “Contrarian” and “Elon Send Me to Mars.” Both are carefully crafted, finely textured sonic treats, with lyrics that really do sing. I love the lead guitar and other-worldly keyboards that launch “Elon Send Me to Mars” as well as the chunky power chords that carry the tune. The chorus hook seals it, helped by the hilarious, over-the-top lyrics. See You Soon is a solid highly listenable 44 minutes of tune-age. And there’s a back catalogue for those that want more.

Yes, radio was a sound salvation. Now we gotta do it for ourselves. Pretend this post is your radio selection for the evening. And the best part, you don’t even have to leave to house to rush to the e-record store after.

May Day Reveille

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May Day is an annual wake up call for the working class, a day celebrated in more than 160 countries around the world. What better way to get on-message than through music? Today’s post honours May Day aka International Workers’ Day with songs about class, identity, and solidarity. It’s definitely time to work out which side you are on.

New York City’s Jeremy and the Harlequins put out a killer album in 2019, Remember This, a solid slab of Americana rock and roll in the Fallon, Mellencamp and Springsteen mold. But the standout song for our purposes is “American Gold,” a highly listenable hooky tune with lyrics that slay the American dream with a clarity seldom matched in popular music:

Brothers and sisters if you wanna be saved
Listen close to a story about how the streets get paved
Not by men selling greatness or hope
But on the backs of the working class folks
Well they sell you a dream that you don’t really need
Cut you up by colour or creed
Then they’ll give somebody to blame
It’s the same old story but they change the name

There’s a lot of talk about outlaw country but the usual examples are anything but. Most just mix dominant ideology with a few y’alls and call it a day. And then there’s Will Hoge. His 2018 album My American Dream takes aim at Republican politicians, the NRA and the conservative undercurrent to the country music establishment. Given how the latter dominate that scene, Hoge is clearly the real outlaw here. On “Stupid Kids” he rages in favour of kids making a difference, with a Steve Earle snarl and a driving Blue Oyster cult guitar riff:

Oh stupid kids don’t listen to what the old folks say
You’re the only ones that are ever gonna make things change
Keep your feet marching
Raise up your voice don’t quit
Keep doin’ what you’re doin’
Keep being stupid kids

But the coup de grace lyric comes in the bridge when Hoge sings:

Turn your music up
Sing to your own damn song
You know you got it right
When all the old white men don’t sing along

Crossing the pond This Circus Life take a break from their usual smooth poprock sound for something more Beautiful South or Chumbawumba (in a mellow mood) on “Where Are the Working Classes?” From 2021’s The Vast and Endless Sea, the tune calls into question the superficial and mostly unattainable middle class aspirations of the post Thatcher era in the UK, reminiscent of critiques from the likes of filmmaker Mike Leigh in his movie High Hopes. As Charlie Mear sings “Didn’t we see them pulling the wool down over our eyes?” Indeed. Another UK band that reliably banged on and on about class were McCarthy. I can’t believe I didn’t notice this band during their heyday circa 1987-88. They were essentially a twee version of The Smiths but with super-sized politics. For these guys, everything was political. Lyricist Malcolm Eden is like that guy at the party that won’t stop droning on about capitalism. My kind of guy obviously. There are so many possible songs to choose from here but “In the Dark Times” remains relevant and has some nice Johnny Marr-like guitar work. Wrapping things up this May Day we have the ever relevant Billy Bragg. His recent album The Million Things That Never Happened is another Americana folk tour-de-force, both sing-a-long good and highly topical. On “Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free” Bragg shreds the libertarian right, pointing out the glaring flaws in their unrealistic utopian plans that should be the obvious to everyone.

McCarthy – In the Dark Times

So listen for the bugles’ call this May Day. Whether your reveille be “The International” or “This Land is Your Land” the sentiments are basically the same. As my grandmother used to say, ‘working people gotta stick together!’

Top image is Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s 1901 painting The Fourth Estate.

Should-be stars: Superchunk, The Minders, Beachhead, and Cheap Star

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Today’s acts are indie for sure but their output is so consistently solid they seem like should-be stars to me. Particularly with these new releases. Think REM before Green or U2 before Joshua Tree. Hit play on these new albums and see if you don’t agree.

Superchunk is one of those bands that always seemed to be on the periphery of my musical consciousness. Liked by all the right people, running with all the right musical crowds. But a bit too punky or indie rawk for my tastes. But their new album Wild Loneliness is something else. From the opening track’s Verve-esque string section “City of the Dead” the record had my full attention. Album number 12 sees the band let the songs breathe a bit more than usual, loading them up with acoustic guitars and a pacing that’s not in any hurry. It’s apparent on “Endless Summer,” a single-ish number that is both highly listenable and a kind of environmental anthem. Or there’s the perky “On the Floor” with its piano-heavy arrangement and some background vocals help from REM’s Mike Mills. We can draw out comparisons, hearing a bit of U2 Joshua Tree on “Set It Aside,” or echoes of that Bacharach-like string section that Springsteen coated his 2019 Western Stars album with on “This Night,” or even a bit of Josh Rouse on “Wild Loneliness,” but really it’s all Superchunk. My personal fave and vote for should-be hit single is “Connection.” It starts off pretty Tom Petty-pensive before breaking out into a lush but lightly-jangled Byrdsian chorus. Man, those ‘ooh ooh ooh’s’ are chill-inducing! 33 years in and Superchunk have released their most accessible album. An adult-party, play-it-all-night sort of thing.

With their Elephant Six and Apples in Stereo connections it’s a wonder I’m only just a recent convert to the indie pop glory that is The Minders. I had run across their fabulous 1998 album Hooray for Tuesday and was digging that when I noticed they had a new record out, Psychedelic Blacktop. Shifting focus to the new record was a bit jarring as the sound is different. Sure, those crazy keyboard lines are still there but the vocal and guitar attack lean more toward folk rock than their previous more baroque and jaunty guitar pop, at least early on. “Home” opens things up and sets the scene with a Donovan-esque poppy folk number, loaded with great organ. Then “Let’s Go Driving” starts off sounding a bit like the Lovin’ Spoonful meets Jonathan Richman, but those ‘sha la la la la’s shift things into a more Turtles direction. Again, great organ solo. “It’s All the Same” sees the band slipping back towards their more baroque pop roots, definitely jaunty. “You Call to Me” offers up a very folk country vibe, like Ian and Sylvia circa 1966. I’m also really liking the outlier track, “Listen! The Bugle Calls,” which has an ominous Magnetic Fields 1960s revival sound. And so on. If I were you, I’d get comfy: with 13 tracks, there’s plenty of audio tarmac to tear up on Psychedelic Blacktop. Even the album closer “These Days” leaves me wanting more. It’s defined by great rhythm guitar hooks and madcap feel, particularly in seemingly unrelated coda.

Entitling their second album simply Beachheads II suggests this is not where these Norwegian poppy rockers decided to invest their creative energies. No, Beachheads put their effort into the songs. This outing still has the guitars-up-front style that caught everyone’s attention last time out but added in is a greater focus on the vocals, namely some sweet sweet harmonies. You can hear it all over the strong pre-release single “Jupiter.”  Much of the album does carry on from their earlier work, like opening cut “Break It Off,” “1000 Hurts,” and “Oh Joy.” But you can also hear a concerted effort to change things up songwriting and performance-wise.  “Change” is pitched a bit slower than their usual manic pace, with an anthemic chorus and some arresting, melodic guitar lead lines. “Down South” and “Shine” are also both departures, sometimes jaunty, sometimes smooth melodic pop. There are darker numbers here too, like the ominous “Nothing.” Or check out the striking turn the band pulls off in “Death of Nation,” breaking out from a drone-y verse into a seductive melodic chorus. This is band that knows what we like but is keen to surprise us too.

Cheap Star’s recent album Wish I Could See is not just a product of should-be stars. The performers read like a roll call of indie power pop royalty with members of The Posies, Fountains of Wayne, The Raconteurs, Jellyfish, Nada Surf and others pitching in. Bona fide indie superstar artist/producer Mitch Easter even drops by with a guitar solo. The results are spectacular, an enticing, guitar-laden slice of power pop. Tracks like “Flower Girl” and “Wish I Could See” remind me of Nada Surf while “Lifetime” and “Move Away” strike a more Michael Penn chord. There’s a lighter touch on “You Don’t Want to Change” and “Slow Down” where the acoustic guitar sets the pace, the latter with an additional country Byrds flavour. Or listen to how the band combine Rubber Soul era guitars with an Echo and Bunnymen vibe on “What’s It Like.” For should-be hit singles, there are so many choices. “Flower Girl” obviously but I’d also cast a vote for “Holding On” with its great lead guitar roll-out kicking off and then anchoring the tune. It’s got a very Matthew Sweet melody and feel. Altogether Wish I Could See has got the sound of a classic vinyl era power pop record (the physical product can be found at Kool Kat Musik), one you’ll want to add to your collection.

The should-be stars are out tonight. Don’t miss their sparkle and shine.

Top photo: Trevor Dobson “Star trails over an abandoned farmhouse – Boddington, Western Australia”

Spotlight single: The Kik “Ik Sta Klaar Voor Jou”

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Rarely does a television theme song become an earworm for a good reason. But The Rembrandts “I’ll Be There For You” theme-song for Friends never seemed to get old, despite opening the show every week for 10 seasons. Listening to it now it is a curious mix of old and what were then contemporary 1990s sounds. I mean, at the time the guitars sounded retro but from today’s vantage point they sound much less so. That’s where Dutch band The Kik come in with a cover version that dials up the Merseybeat and makes a number of other subtle changes to the performance of the song that gives it a more authentic retro 1960s vibe. Of course, the biggest change here is language – the band perform the song in Dutch. It sounds great and hey, it’s not like English speakers don’t know what the song is about after all these years. Beyond the language changes, the guitars immediately stand out as more jangly, the organ work is more to the fore in the mix, and the band omit the distinctive handclapping that defined the The Rembrandts’ version. Maybe it’s just me but these changes free the song from its limited use in the series, sounding more like a song proper rather than abridged snippet featured in the show. Even the seldom heard bridge shines.

“Ik Sta Klaar Voor Jou” appeared on The Kik’s album of cover tunes from 2017 entitled Hertaalt! (translation: Repeats!) which featured songs from the Beatles, Oasis, REM, The Kinks and more, all sung in Dutch. You can check out all the covers at their bandcamp page as well as some great new releases too.

Spring singles countdown

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This is a countdown to both warmer temps and hotter tunes: our spring singles countdown! I find my incoming new singles pile never really shrinks but that’s not really a problem is it? So here goes with another 21 songs just pining for your attention.

The Stranglers were one of those bands I was vaguely aware of in my youth but I was too distracted by the melodic heft of The Jam and Squeeze to take notice of their more subtle charms. In fact it was only in the past few years I heard the band’s exquisite “Golden Brown” from their 1981 album Le Folie. Fast forward to last year and the band’s 18th album Dark Matters is full of winning tunes. The tribute to late longtime band member Dave Greenfield “And If You See Dave …” is touching while “The Last Men on the Moon” has a hooky futuristic vibe a la 1980s Moodies meets Blue Oyster Cult. Another band doing the coming-back-strong thing are The Lovetones. After a decade gone they returned in 2020 with Myriad and the must hear song for me is “Rescue.” Ok, this is not a breaking single but it should have been, it’s got that magical mid-1960s sparkle tune-wise. Tamar Berk is building up to something pretty extraordinary, if her drip drip of confident pre-album singles is anything to go by. “Tragic Endings” opens with alluring simplicity, just a single electric guitar and Berk’s clear voice, before adding layer after layer of sonic hooks. The song is masterful arrangement of push and pull melodic effects and the vibe is like Pat Benatar meets Blondie, with a touch of Laurie Anderson thrown in. The upcoming album is Start at the End but you’re gonna want in at the beginning. Ottawa’s Robby Millar turns up the 1970s bubblegum/glam guitars on “All We’ve Got” with a chorus that is very The Cure. It’s a creative combination that is oh so obvious once you hear it. Incipient spring brings a new double A sided single from Nashville artists *repeat repeat and they certainly paint a picture, “Soft” a dreamy, shoe-gazey float along the water, “Hmm Feels Like” a punchier Kevin Devine-ish acoustic bit of hooky shuffle.

The Stranglers – The Last Men on the Moon
Robby Millar – All We’ve Got

Houston’s enigmatic poprocker K. Campbell layers his recent single “Breaking Glass” with an intoxicatingly compressed sound, like a classic 45 blasting from a transistor radio. But listen a little more closely to hear all the subtle shifts in sonic texture that elevate the tune. Another textured mini-masterpiece comes from L.A.’s A. Michael Collins. “In Other Climes” initially sounds like it’s a member of the Bryds family tree with its jangly guitars and harmony vocals. But it quickly turns into something more contemporary, not unlike the retro reinventions from the likes of Richard X. Heyman. Bryan Adams albums typically alternate between effing-eh truck-driving stadium-rawk and more radio-friendly poprock earworms. Album 15 So Happy It Hurts delivers on both but I’m drawn more to the latter, which just happen to be all the songs he wrote here with his traditional hit-songwriting partner Jim Vallance. “I’ve Been Looking For You” is textbook poprock goodness: so simple, nothing ground-breaking here, but man does Adams know how to put it together. Now for something a bit different, Classic Pat takes on Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s In Love With the Boy” stripping out all its ‘easy listening’ country elan and replacing that with a fabulous 1980s Canadian indie vibe e.g. The Northern Pikes or The Grapes of Wrath. The song is just one of many commercial country make-overs appearing on a worthwhile album split with Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard entitled Country Buffet. Austin duo Hovvdy wowed critics with their self-described ‘pillow core’ album True Love last fall. Now they’re back with a new single “Everything.” The acoustic guitar sets the tone and hook for the song, building from a stark and spare backdrop only to drop in a bit banjo on its way to veritable wall of sound as the tune builds. It is somehow both a bit manic and oh-so-smooth at the same time.

Bryan Adams – I’ve Been Looking For You

Everything about Isle-of-Eigg dweller Johnny Lynch is original. His recordings as Pictish Trail defy easy categorization. Me, I’m drawn to the melody central cuts, which really comprise only some small part of his musical vision. As Guardian writer Jude Rogers reveals, his latest album Island Family is an oblique love letter to his island home and community. My choice for your listening pleasure is “Melody Something” but the rest of the album is worth some dedicated listening. Lincoln UK’s The Rills are something a bit different again, offering up a lot of story detail on “Skint Eastwood.” The verses have a driving, almost relentless attack but when the chorus kicks in, wow, it’s like melodic crack. Staten Island’s Goin’ Places have shifted the intensity of their punk delivery over their twenty years together, edging slightly into more pop punk territory on their most recent album, Save the World. It’s a strong album but personally I’m digging the Mersey-ish “Recover.” Sure, there’s a still a strong punky feel to the proceedings but the boys add some very melodic guitar lines and sweet background vocals. Veteran protest songster Billy Bragg came out with a new album The Million Things That Never Happened last fall and it had more than a few of his signature hooky folk rock numbers. The highlight for me was album closer “Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained” with its rollicking tempo and razor sharp social commentary. Kelowna’s Stephen Schijns has a curious new single that combines an eerie Gordon Lightfoot-reminiscent vocal with a chugging yet propulsive bit of poprock performance, and a tasty bit of 1970s guitar solo. It really works.

North Carolina’s Tracy Shedd ambles onto centre stage with her single “Going Somewhere,” its laid back feel gaining more urgency in the chorus. Definitely a bit of car-driving, windows-open on a summer day sort of music. The Telmos “What She Knows” actually first appeared on the band’s 2019 EP How Quick It Goes Away but it has now been re-released by Aldora Britain Records. It definitely deserves a second chance, given its sunny 1960s pop psychedelic feel. Kinda like The Zombies jamming with The Hollies. Back into the pop punk field, Boston’s Invisible Rays pump out what sounds like a somewhat more socially adjusted Weezer on “Landline.” This one is jump-up-and-down dance good. Another late find for me is smiles “Gone For Good.” This 2019 release oozes Teenage Fanclub, Big Star and Matthew Sweet vibes. Turn it up loud and get lost in the melodic haze. Chicago’s Kerosene Stars continue their English 1980s band revival kick with “Purpose of Friend,” a song that sounds like something from Manchester 1988. A bit confessional folkie, a bit swing poprock.

We’ll wrap things up with a double blast from prolific Cambridgeshire indie artist 65MPH. The recent singles “Real Life” and “Don’t Walk Away” cap a series of releases from this guy, so an album proper cannot be far off (can it?). I love the rough and ready vibe on these songs, reminding me of work from the likes of The Jam and Cast.

Twenty-one singles crammed into one post is like finding a variety box of quality chocolates on your Easter egg hunt. There’s definitely going to be some you really like. Time to start indulging.

I’m just gonna Glenn Case the joint

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Who is Glenn Case and how does he manage to put out so much music? His bandcamp page features 30 albums, the oldest going back to 2004 but 25 have come out just since 2015! Wow. I mean, even with my completist tendencies I tend to shrink from tackling such a challenge. Even he admits it might be problem. “I probably release too many albums,” he quips in his bandcamp bio. This whole ‘checking out the Glenn Case catalogue’ thing started for me when I searched ‘Andy Partridge’ looking for songs that paid tribute to everyone’s fave grumpy melody-meister – and Case’s song popped up. Not only did Case nail Partridge’s singing and song-writing style but the accompanying album had a load of other cool tunes.

I could tell you that I listened intently to all 30 albums and the few EPs and then carefully curated the tunes that appear below but let’s face it, I just cased the joint. I needle dropped my way through the bandcamp material looking for the most immediate ear-grabbing hooky stuff and this is what you get. Now, I do think these selected cuts are pretty special. Case is a musical chameleon, throwing a bit of everything at the listener depending on his mood: poprock, jazz pop, country, fake metal, even some hip hop. His vocal and song-writing styles makes his material distinctive, even as it vibes a bit of Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne, Look Park), Jaret Reddick (Bowling for Soup) or Kasim Sulton (Utopia) sometimes. There’s even a hint of Macca here and there. I’ll start you with “Prime Time” from 2008’s So, Be Yourself EP. It’s a tight acoustic guitar-based poppy number that showcases Case’s clever lyrics and smart delivery. Then we can head to “The End of It” from another EP from that year, Waterfall of Consciousness. This one fills out the sound a bit more, vibing XTC, particularly in the hooky chorus. But it’s 2013’s Throw Money album where Case’s talent really raises its wattage with brilliant songs like “Glutton,” “Georgia’s Hand” and the masterful collaboration with The Odds’ Craig Northey, “Pencil Me In.” The latter’s got should-be hit single written all over it.

The flurry of material from 2015 on sees Case drawing inspiration from his many loves and obsessions: his wife, gaming, popular culture and the corporate control of music. He can be alternatively endearing and hilarious. I love “The Woman I Love” from his lovingly crafted 2015 tribute Songs for my Wonderful Wife. 2016’s The One That Ended His Career has so many great tunes, like songs from the ‘more listenable than you might think it would be given its title’ category e.g. “D&D at the Public Library,” or the addictively hooky “Don’t Go To …” and the ‘it’s so funny it hurts’ tune “I’m the President of the Sony Entertainment Corp. Ltd.” As we move forward time-wise songwriting craft and ingenuity come to the fore on tracks like “Rare” (from 2019’s Fighter #6), “High and Higher” (from 2020’s A Year of Mondays), and “Our Plans Are On Hold” (from 2021’s Kiss Me Again). Then 2022 happens and what does Glen Case do? He releases a whole album of songs about soup. It sounds like a gag but hey Case makes it work. The first single “Everybody Loves Chowder” is a winner with a delivery that really reminds me of Timmy Sean.

Whoa, I’ve given you a whole lotta Case to take in. And it’s only a start. Check out his bandcamp and Facebook pages for yourself. He seems like an approachable guy.