We start big on this installment of Around the dial with Kevin Devine’s fantastic new album Instigator. Devine has a lot of material under his belt – eight albums not including this one – but his latest is by far his strongest, most accomplished piece of work. Others might be more partial to different periods in his career but for me it all comes together here: politics, unrelenting hooks, and more tender insights. The cover alone, of some 10 year old’s Christmas party wrestling match, is a major highlight. From the moment the chugging guitar opens up “No Why” the album never misses a beat. “Magic Magnet” is power pop heaven. “Daydrunk” is a sweet guitar drenched ode. “No One Says You Have To” is a lovely acoustic ballad. The title track “Instigator” says hit single to me, one part Fountains of Wayne, another part Weezer. But I save the most love for the touching, introspective “I Was Alive Back Then.” Imagine if Paul Simon sounded genuinely alienated and had gone through some serious angry periods – it might sound a bit like this. An outstanding performance of a song that leaves the singer bare.
The hippie vibe lives on as a kind of lifestyle esthetic and Brett Dennen could be its poster child. The influences here are all over the map: a bit of Van Morrison, just about any 1970s confessional singer songwriter, a dash of reggae at times. However on his fifth album, 2013’s Smoke and Mirrors, Dennen upped the pop quotient with tracks like the catchy “Out of My Head” and infinitely pleasant “Sweet Persuasion.” His most recent album Por Favor strips things back a bit without losing the hooky focus, particularly on tracks like “Bonfire.” Sweet PersuasionBonfire
The Springsteen is definitely there in Brian Fallon’s solo album Painkillers but the influence is more atmospheric than direct. I love the guitar sounds on this record. The title track opens with a great rumbly electric that gives way to lush acoustic strumming while later “Among Other Foolish Things” features a distinctive opening guitar riff that repeats throughout the song. “Nobody Wins” typifies the easygoing rock and roll sound of the album, laid back but with subtle hooks. If this record is anything to go by, Fallon is really just getting started.Among Other Foolish ThingsNobody Wins
And now for something completely different. Rich Ajlouny and the Tractor Beams are a bit off the beaten poprock path, but only just. There is something definitely Beatlesque in Ajlouny’s slightly discordant vocals, reminiscent of “Nowhere Man.” You can really hear it on “Around the Town” from Ajlouny’s 2013 solo release but it is there in spades on the more recent Love is the Stronger Force, particularly “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.” There is also something very art rock about this band’s material and performance, as if some elements have been deliberately left out of focus. Other highlights include “Give Her a Kiss” with its super harmonica break and “When Plans Go South.” I also like the wonderfully quirky “Going Back to Work” with its stark admission that the protagonist is ‘going back to work after being such a jerk.’