Though they hail from Bowling Green, Kentucky, Cage the Elephant sound like they are right out 1960s London. On their most recent album, 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, they’ve got a dirty late Beatles sound going on with “Cry Baby,” a London blues vibe on “Mess Around,” and even psych up the rock and roll on the absurdly-titled “Portuguese Knife Fight.” But the clear hit single for me on this album is the 1960s Rolling Stones ringer “Cold Cold Cold.” Check out the hyper cool guitar lick opener that draws you in while vocalist Matt Schultz exudes a kind of Jagger-like delivery that is poised and riveting. The fuzzed out lead guitar break is just the icing on this cake.
Cold Cold Cold
All four of Cage the Elephant’s long players have their own delights, something for all kinds of sixties-influenced rock lovers, but my personal faves include “In One Ear” from the self-titled Cage the Elephant, the single “Back Against the Wall,” “Right Before My Eyes” from Thank You Happy Birthday, and “Come a Little Closer” from Melaphobia.
Some people are feeling pretty low. Now seems like a good time to visit the parallel but contemporary universe of Suzanne Vega. I discovered her debut album in the discard pile of the first (and only) commercial radio station I ever worked at in Smithers, British Columbia. It helped me survive that town. There was something poetic and ominous, alienated and soothing about that record. I spent a lot of late nights living within its sonic confines. A poet’s job is to help us cope with a world gone wrong. I think the Vega song for this moment is “When Heroes Go Down” from 1992’s 99.9F. Right now, the hero is not really any person but that sense of hope that people like to have around. It’s a catchy number, despite its message.
There are other people in the Suzanne Vega universe – really anyone with a poetic sense. Leonard Cohen died the other day and some people on Facebook were like ‘what did he ever really do?’ or ‘tea and oranges are just escapism’. I felt sorry for them. Poetry is just politics that is out of phase, deliberately. It directs our attention to things we might not otherwise see, even though they are often right before us. Look Park’s front man Chris Collingwood understands that and excels at character sketches where the protagonist is unaware of just how much they are telling us, i.e. just how unhappy or unfulfilled they are. As one half of the Fountains of Wayne songwriting team, Collingwood honed his craft over a number of records and it shows on his new vehicle’s self titled debut album, particularly on the exquisitely melancholy “Minor is the Lonely Key.”
Another wonderfully unpredictable act are the Franco-American band Freedom Fry, a duo that clearly take themselves only so seriously. Their 2011 debut EP, Let the Games Begin, runs the gamut of influences from electronica to folk pop. Since then they have continued to take a host of musical detours. 2012’s Outlaws maxi-single has them channeling an outlaw vibe, but in two languages. “Bonnie and Clyde” has a lovely strolling quality, a poetically arranged, style-busting ballad that ends all too typically but gets there in an unconventional manner. How wonderful to just go where the muse takes you. Their new single, “Shaky Ground,” is also great, available in three different styles.
Coming back to Leonard Cohen, there is a lot of buzz about his deathbed release, You Want It Darker. Sure, it seems Leonard Cohen great, in that dark poetic sombre singer-songwriter on the edge of death sort of way. But 2014’s Popular Problems ranks as one Cohen’s best for me, both in terms of performance and material. The sardonic “Almost Like the Blues” should put the rest any ‘this guy ain’t political’ rhetoric while “You Got Me Singing” speaks to the power of connection between two people at any age. Musically, “Did I Ever Love You” is my favourite track, mournful and melodic at the same time – it sounds like the end but really it speaks to impact of time spent together.
Let’s end on where we are going. The only way from down is up. Suzanne Vega suggests we may all be the agents of change, though not through obvious means. In “If I Were a Weapon” she eschews the blunt hammer or gun for a needle ‘always pulling on the thread’ that is ‘always making the same point again’. The point is, the stars will align again, and not just in the Suzanne Vega universe.If I Were a Weapon
In this musical universe, digital lucre is one way to show these poets some love. Visit Suzanne Vega, Look Park, Freedom Fry, and Leonard Cohen online to check out their latest (or in Leonard’s case, last) releases and public appearances.
Jonathan Coulton is an American musical treasure. His ouvre could be cast somewhere between the goofy bombast of Weird Al Yankovic or Jim Stafford and the more subtle, sardonic touch of Randy Newman or Lyle Lovett. Still, Coulton’s ability to write great tunes means that his work is not merely a series of punch lines. His material is often funny, sometimes in an in-your-face style, but as often as not the humour is delivered in a throw-away line that you might miss if you’re not paying attention. The point is, you might tune in for the jokey title but you hit repeat because the hooks and melodies won’t get out of your head.
A lot has been written about Coulton and his connection to geek culture or how he has eschewed conventional models in the music business and yet still succeeded. The latter is particularly interesting given the challenges that musicians are facing today in making a living doing music. Coulton basically releases all his music himself, sans record company contract, and works the geek scene with careful attention to his fan base via social media and themed boat cruises. Somehow he is making money, but check out Clive Thompson’s New York Times piece on Coulton’s relationship with his fans to see just how much around the clock effort is involved in making this approach to the music business work. Still, Coulton inspires intense dedication: most of the videos featured here were created by his fans!
Still, what caught my ear about Coulton was the music, first and foremost. Variously described as folky or geeky, and there is certainly that, a great deal of his material also draws from the classic poprock sounds of the 1970s and 1980s. There is more than a bit of new wave in his amusing ode to that Swedish furniture maker in “Ikea” or the monster horror theatre-like “Creepy Doll.” 2010’s “The Princess Who Saved Herself” has great XTC-ish guitar line that segues into a poppy tune with a great sentiment (now also a children’s book!). “Code Monkey” sounds like the Cookie Monster to me, all grown up and suddenly crippled by introvert tendencies. Coulton manages to capture both the humour and tenderness of the hopeless computer geek in love with a gal who is out of his league. “Tom Cruise Crazy” has a Lyle Lovett impishness, while “Pizza Day” honours that great elementary school tradition with absurd solemnity. Meanwhile “Chiron Beta Prime” gives the holidays a proper dose of menacing robot oversight.
I could go on because there are just so many great Coulton tunes, though coming to grips with them as a whole poses some challenges. Coulton is not simply unconventional in self-releasing his music, his material often comes out in dribs and drabs, featured in video games or podcasts, etc. He has, essentially, three major releases as albums, 2003’s Smoking Monkey, the four volume Thing a Week album that features songs written for his 2006 project where he wrote and released a song a week for a year, and his 2011 masterpiece, Artificial Heart. The latter album is probably his most realized vision thematically, yet still full of his usual humour and pathos. Personal faves include the rocking “Nemeses” with the Long Winters’ John Roderick and the atypically sombre “Nobody Loves You Like Me.”
Who doesn’t like a variety pack? Six different choices for your ever changing musical tastes. First up: Birmingham, Alabama’s Act of Congress slather their ‘newgrass’ sound all over the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” and make it work. This is not an easy song to cover as it has such a signature Beatles’ vocal and musical sound but the band honours just enough of the original arrangement to make their own contributions really stand out. For instance, they nail the ‘paperback writer’ chorus harmony but then bend it in a new direction. The whole performance is solid, with banjo and fiddle somehow matching the rock swing of the original. So many covers of the Beatles rightly elicit a ‘why bother’ response but this one makes the cut.Paperback Writer
“Computer Crimes” by L.A.’s Right the Stars sounds like a bit of bubbly musical champagne to me. The opening guitar riff burbles along, the drum machine sound sets the pace, while the vocals have an effervescent quality. A nice melodic stroll unencumbered by lyrical complexity. The song oozes ‘just have fun’. By contrast, the Mystery Jets’ “Bubblegum” has a warmer sound, more acoustic, but with a killer 1980s organ riff that rings in just at the end of every verse. The chorus has a wonderful ‘sing along with me’ yearning.Computer Crimes
Melvista is the latest EP from Melbourne’s Wesley Fuller and it is a fantastic homage to and reinvention of 1960s and 1970s poprock. The EP is replete with familiar sounds from those great eras but put in the service of contemporary tunes. Great Gary Glitter drums on “Change Your Mind,” killer girl group drum fills and hooks on “Runaway Renee,” while “The Dancer” seems to be channeling a Katy Perry meets 1970s Suzi Quatro match up. But the clear highlight of the EP is its title track. “Melvista” has that slow, oh-so-cool new wave build up in the verses that melts effortlessly into its hooky chorus – this is hit single ear candy.
Taking things to the rockier side, Wolverhampton UK’s Yak have that smoldering Rolling Stones sexy élan thing going that all British rock and roll revival bands are doing these days. Their new single “Semi-Automatic” launches in early with a strong rock lurch that never gives up, but the organ polish applied just after the verses hooks the listener into a broader melodic atmosphere. Turn this up loud and order up a mosh pit for superior enjoyment.
Philadelphia’s Purling Hiss – you have to love the delightfully childish moniker – have made a journey from a kind of noise rock, a deliberately fuzzy and unclear sound, to one of increasing clarity. “Follow You Around” from 2016’s High Bias is a great single, framed around a super catchy guitar hook and background ‘bop bop’ vocals. The song reminds me of latter day Bob Mould material. The development of band’s sound can really be heard from 2013’s Water on Mars and 2014’s Weirdon, particularly on “Mary Bumble Bee,” “Learning Slowly” and “Where’s Sweetboy.” Again, loud is good here.
This one seemed like a no brainer for this blog. Cartoon Spirits’ “Pop Rocks” could well be our theme song, except in this case it refers the exploding mouth candy. Oh well. There’s no taking away from what is still a great poprock single. Love the understated guitar and Michael Faherty’s solid everyman vocals. In fact, you won’t go far wrong with the whole EP. Crustacean is a focused 4 song batch of various classic sounding poprock influences. I definitely hear the Cheap Trick on “Remake the Stalls” while “Back to that Cult” is very Squeezy, without either being derivative. And “Common Law” name-checks Toronto, so what more needs to be said?
The Cartoon Spirits hail from craft beer capital Portland, Oregon and claim as their mission to revive the power pop tradition in the Pacific Northwest. This is a good start. Check out their progress on their Facebook page.
Beside finding our selections filed under the same letter, they also share some great fuzzed out guitar and non-standard female vocals. Traditional rock and roll is a viciously gendered game, with women slotted into supporting roles (“who wants to play the tambourine?”) or as the vocalist-cum-sex symbol. But that has been changing over the past two decades. These three acts mark how far we have come.
Best Coast have a great noise going on with their recordings, a steady drone that sounds like freshly-squeezed early sixties beach rock combined with a dollop of late sixties fuzzed out psychedelic guitar. Bethany Cosentino’s vocals often go someplace deep and moving, reminding me of Neko Case. There are so many great possible choices to feature from this band but I think “How They Want Me to Be” is such a lovely homage to late 1950s angst rock: simple in structure, striking in execution, particularly the vocal arrangement. I got to see them open for the Go Go’s summer tour in 2016 and though it seemed like a strange match up at first, their live version of the more recent single “California Nights” was nothing short of magical.How They Want Me to Be
Beverly have a guitar crunch that won’t quit on the splendidly retro-fifties “Honey Do.” The vocals seem understated at first but blossom into some great harmonies in the chorus. While this song garnered the most attention for the group, the whole 2014 debut album Careers is a shimmery rock and roll treat. 2016 marked a shift in sound and focus on The Blue Swell, with both guitars and vocals sounding a bit lighter and more poppy, but still hooky. “Victoria” captures this new direction nicely.
Black Honey offer a more theatrical bent with vocalist Izzy Baxter channeling a host of 1960s mannered female singers on “Spinning Wheel” with its Morricone western guitar riffs and ballad-style delivery. But the new “Hello Today” has Baxter going for a more straight out rock and roll sound, combining sixties and seventies influences. The song chugs along with catchy riffs and great vocals, superbly given visual expression in the band’s first video.
This is a triple bill I would love to see! Catch up with Best Coast, Beverly and Black Honey, their recordings and tour schedules, on their smartly designed web spaces.