My friend at The Best Indie Songs sent me a link to this song, suspecting it would be right up my alley. He was right. The video manages to capture both the look and feeling of the late 1970s tension between pub rock and new wave. And the swing! The song launches out of the gate with a hip-swaying, head bopping set of hooks reminiscent of many of the album cuts from Elvis Costello’s debut, My Aim is True. The guitars are pure late 1970s, sounding just a bit country rock but inching toward the punk side. Vocally, the single sounds like Dylan’s lost new wave album.
“When I Learned Your Name” is the second teaser single from Romano’s soon-to-be released new album, Modern Pressure, and it represents a serious change-up from his previous solo releases – sort of. 2016’s Mosey certainly laid the groundwork for this new direction, steering away from country to a more decidedly poprock sound with tracks like “Valerie Leon” and “Maybe Remember Me.” But taking his musical output as a whole, Romano is a musical chameleon, channeling 1960s traditional country on most of his solo records while covering edgier material on a number of side projects. In terms of his broader artistic vision, he reminds me of the super talented Gregory Pepper, who also combines great songwriting and performance, witty but incisive social commentary, and pretty stunning visual arts chops.
While this song is climbing our charts here at Poprock Record, check out Romano’s scene at his website and Facebook page.
You’re watching some show on Netflix or Crave and you think ‘hey, what is that music in the background, setting the scene, plucking at my emotional heartstrings’? It could easily be the sound of Wiretree. This is a band that has mastered the strummy melodic atmospheric background sound so omnipresent in our binge-watched entertainment. Albums from 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013 mined this field with utter confidence. Powerpopulistput me on to the band and a brief exposure to their catalogue on Bandcamp quickly had me downloading everything. I love “Notion” from Boudin, “Across My Mind” from Luck, “Tonight” from Make Up, and “Marching Band” from Get Up.
Yet there is something qualitatively different about Wiretree’s latest release, Towards the Sky. The album opens innocuously enough with “Let Me In,” a great song in keeping with band’s traditional sound. But then things get crazy, in a good way. “J.F. Sebastian” is a total departure for the band but it works, sounding a bit like The Zolas, particularly on the vocals. Then “Between the Lines” has a nice folk country vibe with a great harmonica solo. “Dive” and “Didn’t Know Your Name” work the indie poprock sound to good effect. “Don’t Let it Go” has a nice retro early 1960s disaster pop sound. This is the sound of a band arriving, in command of its artistic destiny.
I just discovered Richard X. Heyman and initial my reaction was – how have I not managed to hear about this guy before now? His formula is simple: take strong songwriting, apply jangle-filled poprock production, and slather everything with killer Byrdsian harmony vocals. What’s not to love? The readily available albums – Cornerstone, Basic Glee, X – all are worthy additions to your collection. But we are here today to pass some judgment. Heyman asked for it, really. By releasing two versions of his song “Hoosier” how could fans not be expected to take a side on which version they prefer? But the choice is anything but easy.
“Hoosier” is a song of longing for a girl from the hoosier state, Indiana. Written in 1999, it appeared on Heyman’s 2000 album, Heyman, Hoosier and Herman under the title “Hoosier (Girl),” with guest vocals provided by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits fame. Then Heyman released a version with his own vocal on his 2007 release, Actual Sighs. Have a listen to them below to see just where they differ. It’s Heyman’s song so, not surprisingly, he does a great version. The song kicks off with a nice sparkly guitar and organ interplay, with Heyman’s trademark layered background vocals lifting the song to new heights in various places. But, for me, as good as the 2007 version is, it just can’t compete with Noone’s transcendent vocal on the original 2001 release. Though 53 at the time of this recording, Noone had lost none of the magic that made Herman’s Hermits such stars with fans, if not music critics. The music bed is more subdued with Noone – here I prefer the other take – but still, on the whole, the Noone iteration of “Hoosier” just clicks more as a potential hit single.
Both Richard X. Heyman and Peter Noone are worth looking up. Click on the links to become better acquainted with their ongoing musical exploits.
Aimee Mann snuck up on me. I had one record and then another and before I knew it I had them all on some kind of regular rotation. My Columbia House subscription at the time probably bears some responsibility. Why do I like Aimee Mann so much? I don’t know. There’s something comfortable and sutured about the space she creates, like a self-contained sonic mini-universe. And despite the often sad stories and the sad sacks responsible for them, Mann’s work is never obviously melancholic. Instead, she gives musical voice to the emotional ambivalence of our times. Shit’s happening and people are trying to find love and there seem to be no obvious heroic scripts to draw from. When you can’t work that kind of stuff out sometimes you just want to wallow with someone who isn’t forcing you to smile or cry. Mann gets it. Easy answers are not that satisfying. Her albums are filled with characters struggling to cope with not knowing which way to turn. They’re idealistic enough to want to do something, but wise enough to know each choice has a cost.
It has been fascinating to watch the trajectory of Mann’s career. Three albums with her band ‘Til Tuesday channeled a lot of 1980s bombast, with a few gems along the way like “Will She Just Fall Down” (which sounds the most like the post-‘Til Tuesday Mann sound). But with 1993’s Whatever Mann declared her creative independence, establishing the rudiments of the style she would continue to develop the rest of her career. You can tell a little about her from the people she has chosen to work with, co-writing songs with Elvis Costello, Jules Shear, and Jon Brion, and inviting the likes of Squeeze’s Glen Tilbrook and the Shin’s James Mercer to add vocals to various tracks. But ultimately comparisons fail because Mann is a category of her own. In terms of stylistic confidence and delivery, she reminds me most of Joni Mitchell. She is post-genre.
Trying to single out a few songs to feature from Mann’s many albums is painful, there are just so many good tracks. Whatever kicks off with everything Mann has become celebrated for in “I Should Have Known”: a wall of guitar, a solid melodic hook that comes out of left field, great background vocals. But “I Know There’s a Word” showcases the more tender, acoustic side that is never absent from any Mann release. Two years later I’m with Stupid appears to repeat the formula but with a few twists. Opening track “Long Shot” is a bit punchier while the obvious single “That’s Just What You Are” is pulled in a different direction by the distinctive vocal contributions of Squeeze’s lead singer. Though again, the quiet acoustic “You’re with Stupid Now” is a slow burner of a killer tune. Mann came out with Bachelor No. 2 in 2000, which featured songs that had appeared in the film Magnolia. Rightly praised for its strong material, I’m particularly partial to “Red Vines,” “Driving Sideways,” and “Susan.”
I lost track of Aimee Mann for a few years. You know, I got busy, she got busy. 2002’s Lost in Space passed me by, though now I love “This is How it Goes” and “Invisible Ink.” I did catch the brilliant Forgotten Arm when it came out in 2005. It makes sense that a story-telling songwriter like Mann would want a bigger canvas, a whole album that develops an over-arching story. You can’t pick and choose your 99 cent choices here, you have to buy the whole thing to really get it, but I do tend to hit repeat on “Video,” “Little Bombs,” and the achingly beautiful “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart.” I missed both 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers and 2012’s Charmer when they came out. Ok, there are more attentive Aimee Mann fans than me. But I’ve made up for lost time – both these records are fabulous. @#%&*! Smilers adds a wonderful array of keyboard sounds on the uptempo “Freeway,” and the more swinging “Borrowing Time,” while “Little Tornado” is breathtaking with its starkly simple arrangement of guitar, echo-y piano, and whistling. Charmer takes the keyboard exploration to new heights on so many strong tracks, but I really like the title track, “Crazytown,” and “Red Flag Diver.”
Which brings us to the present and Mann’s stunning new album, Mental Illness. With Whatever I thought Mann had put the bar pretty high but looking back over her career I think she has gotten better and better with every release. Mental Illness has the hooks, the careful attention to arrangement that characterizes all of Mann’s output, and an impressive range of instrumental quirks. The two singles, “Goose Snow Cone” and “Patient Zero” showcase this beautifully, particularly the spooky ‘oohs’ that introduce us to the latter song. Is the record a departure from Mann’s past work? In one sense, not really. Acoustic guitar anchors most of her work and every album usually features more than a few solely acoustic numbers. What is different here is the balance, with “Simple Fix” the only track that employs a more full band sound. Aside from the singles, right now I’m also really enjoying “Rollercoasters” and the more piano-based ballad “Poor Judge.”
Aimee Mann is currently on tour with the hilarious Jonathan Coulton opening her shows and playing in her backing band (he played on Mental Illness as well) so hustle on over the Mann’s website to find when she will be in your town.
Nova Scotia’s David Myles is so nice it hurts. The sweetness of his songs will melt the heart of the toughest cynic. He has an amazing knack for composing songs that sound like standards, even when he casts them in a variety of contemporary styles. But boiled down, his songs are great singer/songwriter material. Yet Myles is nothing if not contemporary, taking advantage of multiple possible audiences by combining great songcraft with acoustica, dance beats, and even rap. For singer/songwriter, check out his early material, like “Turn Time Off” or the achingly beautiful “I Will Love You.” For a more contemporary sound, listen to “One in a Million” or “So Blind” featuring rapper Classified. More recently, Myles has added dance beats to “It Don’t Matter” but really his songs can all be reduced to more rudimentary arrangements, like 2017’s “I Wouldn’t Dance.”
David Myles is like Edam and Gouda from Holland, he won’t bite. Visit him on his webpage and Facebook page.
So many would-be hits have ended up in the equivalent of a rock and roll wasteland: the cut-out bargain bin, unheard and/or underappreciated. What if those great tracks could be resurrected in a different time to more appreciative ears? Today’s time capsule top five gathers up a number of strong singles that deserve another crack at the hit parade.
The Dogs were a French punky new wave band, particularly active recording-wise from the late 1970s to late 1980s. Like Elvis Costello, they evolved from pub rock into something harder, taking punk’s influence to sharpen their basic rough-edged rock and roll sound on albums one and two before attempting a more commercial breakthrough on a record number three, Too Much Class for the Neighbourhood. By contrast, their fourth album, 1983’s Legendary Lovers, represented a return to some of their earlier rough edges, ably demonstrated on the fantastic single, “Never Come Back.” This is an uber cool sound – check out the ringing guitars and the heavily French-accented English pronunciation. By all accounts The Dogs were a legendary live band, something that really seems obvious from the evident and palpable excitement oozing from this recording.Never Come Back
The number of bands whose albums got lost in the various record label merger and acquisitions that took place throughout the 1990s would include The Sighs. Originally signed to Charisma/Virgin, their 1992 debut What Goes On failed to excite EMI, the new owners, who let it stall with lacklustre promotion. The band’s second album four years later also failed to take off. And that is shame. Just listen to “Make You Cry” with its jangly opening and incredibly catchy chorus, the latter featuring a stunning harmony vocal. When I first heard the band hit the “he’ll make you cry” line it literally stopped me in my tracks. This should have been a break out hit single.Make You Cry
Even’s “Seconds” is an amazing 1960s-inspired single from their 2001 album A Different High. Well, actually, it wasn’t the official single, but this scribe thinks it should have been. The hypnotic hooky lead line, the super Beatles’ Rubber Soul-era vocals, the overall chimey-ness of the sound – surely this says hit material. Perhaps things could have turned out different for Even, an Australian outfit perennially at the top of the critics’ lists but not the charts, if this had been the official 45 shipped to radio? I know, probably not. But it remains at the top of the Poprock Record charts. Actually, a great deal of Even’s catalogue is in high rotation around here. This tune is just the tip of a great songcraft iceberg. You really can’t go wrong with any of their six albums and three EPs.Seconds
The sibling two-thirds of Greenberry Woods split off to form Splitsville in the late 1990s, eventually releasing five albums between 1997 and 2003. For a band with that much material, they leave a surprisingly light imprint on the ole internet. Influences abound on their music – Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, as well as all the usual 1960s suspects (e.g. Beatles, Beach Boys, etc.). “I Wish I’d Never Met You” is from their last album, Incorporated, and it is definitely channeling a bittersweet Teenage Fanclub feel both musically and lyrically.I Wish I’d Never Met You
A quick listen of “Waterfall” from San Francisco’s The Fresh and Onlys might have you scratching your head at descriptions of their sound as garage rock. Garage pop maybe. Sure the vocals hover with that distinctly sixties garage rock ambience but the guitars are wonderfully melodic, both the rumbly one that anchors the versus and the more buoyant one that anticipates and rides through the chorus. Aptly named, “Waterfall” it’s a song that rushes over you in a most pleasant way.
Gregory Pepper is a poprock songwriter and performer extraordinaire. He specializes in writing short, punchy, hook-filled masterpieces on bizarre and/or hilarious topics.
The Pepper challenge is a taste test to determine whether you prefer Greg Classic or New Greg. Compare Pepper’s two different versions of his recent tune “This Town” to see what we mean. The song’s lyrics continue to develop some of his longstanding themes: a comic fascination with the macabre, the dead, and a dated horror movie sense of panic. But the two treatments of the song couldn’t be more different. The Greg Classic version from his recent EP Ghost is clearly sweeter with a predictable edge, naughty but still nice to curl up with on a hot summer day or crisp winter night. But the New Greg version from the just released Black Metal Demo Tape album has its charms too. Uber cool in a mascara-wearing, post teenage goth sort of way. Greg Classic will have you humming in the shower. New Greg might make you want to write depressing poetry and hang out in ill-lit, dilapidated buildings. Both are acceptable motifs for today’s hook-obsessed hipsters.
Is there really a need to choose? No. But it’s fun making you go through the motions. Anything that draws potential fan interest to the multi-talented Gregory Pepper means our job here at Poprock Record is done.
Gregory Pepper is based in Guelph, Ontario (which might explain a lot). Check out his video of the Greg Classic version of “This Town” which recuts scenes from the Breakfast Club into a synched up, dance-a-thon. And don’t forget to visit Camp Pepper, where you can peruse his artistic and musical endeavours in a pleasant, web-based environment.