Better Living Through Compression, Cliff Hillis, Dream Good, Jonathan Rundman, Look Up, Lost Songs, Make Love Not War, Many Happy Returns, Public Library, Reservoir, Song Machine
The songcrafter is an artist within the art form, a creator with a particular aptitude for inhabiting any style. They can and do write across genres. And they typically produce a lot of stuff. Here we focus on just two brilliant songcrafters.
Jonathan Rundman is a totally original artist. He comes from a place few of us can readily identify with – growing up in a remote rural Finish-American religious community – and it gives him a unique way of seeing rest of us. His music is infused with a kind of topical spirituality, an assumption of our ultimate interconnectedness, but it is so subtly in the mix that it doesn’t grate the way so much Christian popular music does. This is evident in songs like “Daniel and Peter and Thomas” which is just a great poprock song or even in the more obviously churchy “This is my Commandment,” which pulls off the Christian insight but not at the expense of the song.
Over a 25 year recording career Rundman has crafted an enormous body of work. His Bandcamp page has 24 different entries and one gets the sense from the write ups that this just scratches the surface of his total recorded output. So where to start? His latest release might be good: Reservoir is a 22 song compilation spanning his whole career and it is chock full of cleverly crafted poprock and Americana songs. A definite highlight is “Librarian” originally from his 2004 release, Public Library. Nice electric 12 string opener gives way an acoustic-based strummy sound which breaks out into a very dreamy chorus – a perfectly crafted single. Or an older compilation from 2007, 20 songs from the 20th Century, would also be a good jumping off point. Here the range goes from the rootsy “Front Show at the Fashion Show” to the Beatlesque “Read the Signs” to the observational poprock of Fountains of Wayne on “Grace is Crying her Eyes Out.”
Or there is Lost Songs, yet another compilation, this time bringing together a host of songs from various out-of-print Rundman albums. “I’ve Got a Problem” breaks open with a more conventional rock and roll sound but quickly resolves into something more poppy with some nice fattened up vocals. Meanwhile “Johnny Horton” pays tribute to the great country artist in a style reminiscent of Peter Case. Another Rundman compilation brings together songs he’s recorded over the years with his cousin Bruce Rundman. Here songs range from the lovely folkie “Omaha” to the more poprock “Nancy Drew.” I have two more songs I’m totally loving from JR: “Second Shelf Down” from his 2015 release Look Up, a wonderfully crafted single, and the tantalizingly brief and Fountains of Wayne-ish “Minneapolis” from 2000’s Sound Theology. It should be obvious by now, you can start just about anywhere with Rundman and come up with some pretty great tunes.
When I first discovered power pop blogs on the internet one artist seemed to be featured everywhere: Cliff Hillis. They just couldn’t get enough of him. There didn’t seem to be enough superlatives to capture what he was doing. I had to check this guy out. And then I heard “Keep the Blue Skies” from 2012’s Dream Good. Now I was choked up with superlatives! The song is a calculated pop masterpiece: the roll out is perfection, the guitars and piano come in as if under some conductor’s direction, but then the vocal kicks in and the hooks multiply – poprock bliss. The lead guitar work is pure Marshall Crenshaw in his prime. The whole record is great, particularly “Sing it Once Again” and “Start Again.”
In catching up with his catalogue there are just so many highlights. 2001’s Be Seeing You kicked off his solo career, featuring a slew of great songs, particularly the hooky “Me and You.” Sadly, the record is not widely available. 2004’s Better Living Through Compression mixed up the sound, with poppy tracks like “Home,” the more surging rocking of “Go Go Go,” and the languid pop of “All These Memories.” The Long Now from 2008 sounds a bit more power pop, very Matthew Sweet at times, on songs like “She Sees” and “Like an Island” but at other points the record exudes a 1970s soft rock vibe, as on “Follow You Anywhere.”
Go Go Go
Since 2014 Hillis has focused on releasing EPs rather than albums and in more rapid succession than his previous releases. 2014’s Song Machine opens with the lovely strummy ”Dashboard,” a subtle bit of dark pop that builds ever so slowly. The EP also contains the alt-country tinged “Tonight,” a song I could easily hear the Jayhawks covering. 2016’s Love Not War opens with its title track and it is a brilliantly arranged pop confection, with wonderfully distinctive choices on the instrumentation. I also love the piano and country-folk pacing on “Don’t Drown the Wind” and the late 1970s polished pop sound of “A Boy Downtown.”
All of which brings us to Hillis’ latest EP, the just released Many Happy Returns. In many ways, it marks a distillation of all his many interests and influences: 1980s poprock (“Many Happy Returns”), 1970s soft rock (“Superfluous”), a bit of 1990s indie rock (“Time an Evangelist”), and 1960s Beatles (“Hey Pretty Face”). Again there is just so much that is good here, it’s hard to single something out. But pressed, I would choose the amazing “Never in a Million Years,”: a solid poprock gem with a great hooky guitar opening and some nice organ. And all this just scratches the surface of Hillis’ output – check out his Soundcloud page for a host of demos, unreleased original material, and covers.
Songcrafters are marked by their ability to write in many different styles, to work up a song in a chameleon-like way to inhabit different sub-genres of music. Both Jonathan Rundman and Cliff Hillis fit this bill effortlessly. Start exploring their impressive catalogues online now.