30 Days 30 Songs, Aimee Mann, Anchors Aweigh, Beloved Songs, Can't You Tell, Ex Cons, Gentle Hen, I Don't Know Anyone Else But, James, Michael Penn, Suzanne Vega, The Bells on the Boats of the Bay, We of Me
Time for another trip around the dial with acts that offer something old, something new, or something completely different.
More Suzanne Vega? This is super new, from her most recently released album, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers. Based initially on a project for art school, Vega developed it into a play featuring herself. On the whole, the record has a stylized cabaret feel, but for one track which really harkens back to a more familiar Vega sound, the single “We of Me.” For fans of her distinctive folk pop sound, this song will not disappoint: ringing acoustic guitars, a poetic cadence and a hook that stays in your head.
Michael Penn launched into the charts in 1989 with his debut album March, largely on the strength of a break out single – “No Myth” – which got to 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. But three albums later it was pretty clear that his chart success was a bit of a blip, despite turning out consistently strong material. Still, in 2005, after a five year break, he released the stunning Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, an amazing concept album chock full of striking would-be hit singles: “Walter Reed,” “On Automatic,” “A Bad Sign,” and many others. Still, no chart love. So he walked away, shifting his considerable creative talents to television and movie soundtracks. I rue the day somebody lunched him into this decision. Luckily, the occasional single still emerges from time to time, like “Anchors Aweigh” from volume three of his soundtrack work of the HBO show Girls. Deceptively simple sounding, resting on a basic acoustic guitar backing track, Penn adds impressive depth and hooks with his vocals and the occasional instrumental flourish. Girls
Speaking of Penn, his spouse has had a very different response to chart indifference. Sure, Aimee Mann has done some soundtrack work too, most notably Magnolia in 1999. But she’s also kept up her solo work and a host of other creative partnerships. Mann is unique in not only consistently writing great songs, but she has developed her own distinctive songwriting style, something that few performers – the Beatles, Elton John, Elvis Costello – have really managed to do. “Can’t You Tell” is an original song Mann created for the anti-Trump political project, 30 Days, 30 Songs, narrated from the perspective of Trump himself, basically saying ‘come on folks, you know I don’t really want this job, it’s just my ego at work here …’ The song is not a charity knock off – that is not the way Mann does things. Instead, “Can’t You Tell” is a solid single, the mark of Mann’s talent that she can just give away such strong material for a one-off project like this.Can’t You Tell
Gentle Hen is the brainchild of Henning Ohlenbusch, seemingly the hardest working man in show business this side of Northhampton, Massachusetts. He is one of those guys who is part of half a dozen bands and collaborates with a half dozen more, while still getting out some solo stuff on the sly. The Bells on the Boats of the Bay is the debut album from his old band but now under a new name and everything seems to falling into place: fabulous design on the artwork, stellar songwriting, and a great sound. There are a whole lotta influences going on here: chiming guitars, Ben Vaughn-esque vocal stylings on some numbers, and hooks, hooks, hooks. “I Don’t Know Anyone Else But” is a strong single featuring a late 1960s British poprock guitar line opening out to lilting melody that shifts tempo to great effect in the chorus.
Some bands do variety in terms of song styles but others just sound like totally different groups. Ex Cons fall into the latter category. Some of their more recent work has a cool indie vibe going – definitely check up “Black Soap” and “Pretty Shitty” – but if we go way back to 2012 they were working a decidedly different seam of the poprock scene. “James” reminds me of Nick Lowe’s immediate post-Rockpile work on albums like Nick the Knife and The Abominable Showman. Definitely hooks galore!
I haven’t seen the books but I suspect that Suzanne Vega, Michael Penn, Aimee Mann, Gentle Hen and Ex Cons would not be adverse to a visit with your credit card number, in exchange for music or concert tickets. After all, ’tis the season.