I pick up new music all the time but I don’t always get to writing about it in a very timely manner. Case in point: Chris Church. I ran across a few tracks of his posted to a power pop Facebook group and thought ‘fantastic’! Downloaded a few songs and then … nothing. Well now I’m attending to Chris Church and you should too. Fans of Matthew Sweet, Tommy Keene but also Neil Finn are going to love what Chris is doing. A great place to start would be 2004’s Let the Echo Decide, a real poprock treat. Right out of the gate “You Better Move Now Baby” kicks off with a real Split Enz bassline before building a nice melodic project, element by element, from creative guitar lines to the interesting vocal interplay. For something a bit different, there’s the rollicking “Scrutiny on the Bounty” or the obvious single “Julie, I Probably Shouldn’t” with its delightfully unexpected slide and ringing guitars. Church’s other big release is 2017’s Limitations of the Source Tape – also chock full of memorable tracks like the Marshall Crenshaw-ish “Bell the Cat” or the melodically discordant “Perfecto.”
You Better Move On Now BabyBell the Cat
You can also explore his harder-to-find releases (e.g. early recordings or releases lost in the shuffle of record label failures) on Bandcamp. Personally I love “Right Awhile” from 2001’s Your Own Chosen Speed or the great lost hit single from 2009’s The Heartbreaks You Embrace, “Forever Only Lasts a Little While.” And there’s a host of one-off releases like the hooky “Charleston Girl” and the wonderful “Lost is Lost” with its addictive guitar lines. You can also find some great Big Star and Todd Rundgren covers there!
Lost is Lost
Discovering Chris Church will be a revelation. Really. Check out his stuff on Bandcamp, iTunes and his Facebook page.
Interesting how so many great bands featured two strong songwriters. Lennon/McCartney obviously come to mind, but one could add Difford and Tilbrook from Squeeze or Partridge and Moulding from XTC, among many others. Some of the pairs wrote together, others never did – Lennon and McCartney did both. Two greats that should be added to the list are the Finn brothers, Tim and Neil, late of Split Enz and Crowded House as well as their distinguished solo careers. Both have penned their share of amazing songs in a broadly similar poprock vein, though in recognizably distinct registers. While liking them both, do fans ultimately have a preference for Neil or Tim? There’s too much material to weigh up each Finn in detail. Here’s just a smattering of songs from each that deserve more attention.
Tim Finn’s work easily conjours up descriptors like quirky, iconoclastic, and even eccentric. His songs don’t meet conventional expectations. His voice is a bit other-worldly. Of course, that is part of his charm. Finn the elder channels key 1970s art and glam rock influences yet his work is eminently hummable. His creativity, expressiveness and originality put him in the same category as David Bowie and the Talking Heads for me. An early favourite of mine is “My Mistake” from the second Split Enz album, 1977’s Dizrythmia, with its bouncing rhythm. Tim would write the bulk of the next three Split Enz albums, though the hits were mostly the few songs written by Neil. Still, “Shark Attack,” and “I Hope I Never” from True Colours and “Hard Act to Follow” from Waiata have great hooks. 1982’s Time and Tide was arguably Split Enz’ high point and though Tim scaled back his number of contributions the songs that remain are some of his best work: “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” “Small World,” “Never Ceases To Amaze Me,” and “Haul Away.” Tim’s first solo album, Escapade, has some of my favourites, particularly “Through the Years” with its dare-I-say Neil Finn-ish melodic concision. Since then Tim has released eight solo albums and each one has contained stand out material.
The 1980s saw Tim releasing two more solo albums while early 1990s saw him collaborating with Neil on Crowded House’s third album, Woodface. From the solo work, I love “Don’t Bury My Heart” from 1986’s Big Canoe and “Not Even Close” from 1989’s Neil Finn. Woodface was a marvelous accomplishment, with Tim’s impact obvious in both the songwriting and sonic quality of the record. But it is his new millennium work that really merits closer scrutiny. For instance, 2000’s Say It Is So is bursting with strong material like “Good Together” and “Death of a Popular Song.” Two years later Feeding the Gods cranked up the guitars and gothic back ground vocals to good effect on tracks like “I’ll Never Know.” In 2006 Imaginary Kingdom lightened the mood with pop whimsy like “Couldn’t Be Done” and the amazing should-be hit single, “Still the Song.” 2008’s The Conversation was more subdued, acoustic, contemplative, but still hooky with a bit of swing on tracks like the wonderful, winsome “Forever Thursday.” His most recent solo offerings include 2012’s The View is Worth the Climb (featuring the very poprock “Can’t Be Found”) and his 2018 collaboration with Dorothy Porter on The Fiery Maze.Don’t Bury My HeartGood TogetherI’ll Never KnowStill The SongForever Thursday
If Tim Finn is a bit of an acquired taste, then Neil Finn is the mainstream. As Split Enz became more commercially successful with the release of True Colours in 1980, radio almost invariably played more Neil than Tim. “I Got You,” “One Step Ahead,” “History Never Repeats,” “Message To My Girl” – these were the international hits, all Neil songs. Then Neil went on to form Crowded House and the hits just kept on coming. I love them all but here’s just a few that stand out for particular reasons. Like the crunchy new wave poprock of “Take a Walk” from Split Enz’s Time and Tide or the hooky drive of “I Walk Away From You” from the last Split Enz album and Crowded House’s self-titled debut. Some songs were hits in just some places, like “Distant Sun,” which made the top ten in Canada. Solo, Neil’s singles toned down the ‘power’ in power pop but not at the expense of hooks. Both “She Will Have Her Way” from 1998’s Try Whistling This and “Driving Me Mad” from 2002’s One Nil have a subtle ear worm effect. After a ten year break, Neil reformed Crowded House in 2006 and it was like they’d never stopped playing. Here I’d single out “She Called Up” from 2007’s Time On Earth and “Amsterdam” from 2010’s Intriguer. Neil latest album is a collaboration with his son Liam, 2018’s Lightsleeper.Take A WalkShe Will Have Her WayDriving Me MadShe Called UpAmsterdam
Tim and Neil have also written a lot of songs together, including most of Crowded House’s Woodface and two Finn Brothers albums. From Woodface, “Weather With You” really captures the melding of their two distinct styles of songwriting. The two Finn Brothers’ albums are a study in contrasts, with more acoustic Finn producing singles like “Angel’s Heap” while the rockier Everyone is Here has more uptempo tracks like “All God’s Children.”
In the end, of course, you don’t have to choose or like one more than the other. I love both a lot for different reasons! And they are still creating new material. You can keep up with Tim and Neil at all the usual internet locales.
Ah the glorious single! Sometimes one 45 is enough, but at the best of times it’s the gateway drug to a whole album of super tunes. Multiple plays of Marshall Crenshaw’s hooky masterpiece of a single “Whenever You’re on my Mind” had me ransacking the record bins for his Field Day album in the hopes that more of the same lurked within. Today’s crop of singles might have the same effect.
The Fieros are more than a tribute to a discontinued Pontiac product line. The Dallas-born, now Brooklyn-based band rock out with a melodic twist on the 1960s psychedelic sound on their new single, “Who’s To Say.” Smooth vocals, crunchy guitar and a hooky chorus – it’s the total package. Want more? Check out their solid 2012 self-titled EP for a slightly rougher (but no less appealing) sound on tracks like “Get Back,” “In My Veins” and “Songbird.” Coming off a stupendous triple play of albums in 2018, Super 8 might have been forgiven for resting on his laurels a bit in 2019. But no, he’s back with another great single, appropriately titled “Something New.” The track kicks off with a classic late 1960s rock and roll sound, combining both buzzing and chiming guitars before dropping out here and there for a Donovan-meets-The Kinks acoustic vibe. Missed Super 8’s shining moments from 2018? You can catch up on this new single and the best of his previous releases on a soon-to-be-released compilation album from Subjangle Records.
The Fieros – Who’s To Say?Super 8 – Something New
What I do I know about Carlisle? Only that there was once panic on the streets (according to the Smiths). Now I know it’s produced Sugarspun, a band that knows how to ring a chord and hook a tune with head bobbin’ predictability. The band hit the music pages hard when their 2018 single “Spaceman Dreams” was featured in Clash magazine. Now they’re back with another winner, the shimmery, hook-laden “Never Grow Old.” Plenty of jangle and harmony-loaded choruses for those of us who like that sort of thing. Mike Pace and the Child Actors tap a good time summer feeling on their latest stand-alone, mid-winter single release, “Hot, Hazy and Humid.” The record is three and half minutes of ear candy, full of finely-tuned sonic treats: ghostly, distant piano, 1970s doubled-up guitar parts, synth bits that sound like passing jet liners, and more! Underneath it all is a good, foot-tapping tune. Which brings us to our outlier single from Matthew Logan Vasquez. “Ghostwriters” has an indie poprock vibe not unlike Kevin Devine, which is to say it is nothing like Vasquez’s other bands, Delta Spirit or Middle Brother. It doesn’t even sound like much else on its accompanying album, Light’n Up, which has a more indie Americana feel. Talk about talent to spare! Master of multiple styles, loyal to none.
In the miracle synthetic vortex that was the 1960s the distinct country and western influences that Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers took into rock and roll were mainstreamed into the Anglo-American music scene by acts as diverse as The Beatles, The Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash and CCR. Twang became just another flavor of modern music, though its popularity waxed and waned throughout the 1970s and 1980s before becoming an established genre-proper in the 1990s and beyond. In celebration today, let’s twang it!
One of the most exciting records to land in 2019 is the new release from Nashville-based Andrew Leahey and the Homestead, Airwaves. Already lauded by the likes of Rolling Stone and Billboard magazine, the album has been hailed as an unabashed heartland rock and roll revival a la Tom Petty/Bruce Springsteen. Opening track “Start the Dance” is definitely channeling some early 1980s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers melodic charm while the album’s first single/video “Airwaves” is a full-on celebration of 1980s hit single FM radio. Check out the cool shift to acoustic rhythm guitar at the one minute mark, a striking change-up reminiscent of some of Roy Orbison’s later work. The rest of the album shifts from the pop rock and roll of “Queen and King of Smaller Things” to more lightly country-coated twang of tracks like “Flyover Country.” I love the line in the former about how ‘the country’s run by rich men’s sons that don’t look like anyone we’ve seen around here’. And then there’s the more gentle organ/pedal steel roll out on “Remember This” with its clever name-checking wordplay. And in case you missed the band’s 2016 release, Skyline in Central Time, consider it required homework (that you will enjoy).
The Volebeats are twang that originates from Detroit, part of the late 1980s alt-country scene. Eight albums later, the band carries on, though a lot of their material is hard to find. For instance, their most recent self-titled album is not available on Canadian iTunes! A shame as the record has some killer cuts, like “Walk There,” a track that could stack up with anything from The Jayhawks or Rank and File. Going back, “One I Love” has that great western poprock sound I associate with the BoDeans and some early R.E.M. Another gravely overlooked band working the twang scene in the early 1990s was The Blue Shadows. The group was built around the songwriting and vocal harmony talents of Jeffrey Hatcher and Billy Cowsill (of The Cowsills fame). Despite releasing two incredible records, 1993’s On the Floor of Heaven and 1995’s Luck to Me, the band couldn’t get a break, being too traditionally country for both Nashville and rock and roll radio. What a loss! “Deliver Me” showcases the songwriting and singing talent of the group. They did great covers too – check out their take on Arthur Alexander’s classic “Soldier of Love,” a version I think I like better than treatments from the Beatles and Marshall Crenshaw (and I like those ones a lot!). Rounding out our twang tribute are The Secret Sisters, a duo who combine harmonies and hooks in particularly exquisite way. “Black and Blue” from their 2014 album Put Your Needle Down is a perfect modern take on an early 1960s song styling, complete with rumbly guitar and a swinging melody. Hard not to hum along with this! Meanwhile “He’s Fine” from their 2017 LP You Don’t Own Me Anymore has a more traditional twang feel.The Volebeats – Walk ThereThe Blue Shadows – Soldier of LoveThe Secret Sisters – Black and Blue
It’s a mix of styles on this turn around the dial as we travel from Thailand to California up to Seattle and over to Little Rock, Arkansas. But it is worth the trip!
While the band may hail from Nashville, Escondido clearly embody the southwest vibe of the California town that is their namesake. From the rumbly Morricone guitars to the occasional splash of Tijuana Brass horns, the songs all have that indie-country crossover charm of First Aid Kit, Neko Case and even Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. The songwriting is particularly strong on the band’s most recent longplayer, Warning Bells. “Bullet” has a great electric guitar opener and nicely shifts between languid country to a swinging chorus. “Crush On Her” takes up the tempo, adding a mid-1970s Fleetwood Mac ambience to the mix. “Roam” cranks up the horns but with the pedal steel and paired vocals it ends up sounding like a great lost Nancy Sinatra single. But the album’s highlight is undoubtedly the low key but moving “You’re Not Like Anyone Else.” This one is destined for countless cover versions and it deserves the attention. If you like Warning Bells, check out Escondido’s back catalogue – it’s pretty special too.
Effluxion, the new album from Seattle’s Telekinesis, builds on a distinctive indie poprock sound honed on four previous releases, with an extra shot of 1960s swagger on tracks like “Like Nothing” with its killer ‘whoa-oh’s and the hooky “Running Like a River.” “Suburban Streetlight Drunk” hits the keyboards heavy with a vocal that is oh so Shins, in a very good way. At other times, like on the track “A Place in the Sun,” the similarities in vibe with Ruler, another great Seattle poprock outfit, seem pronounced. Overall, this is a super album, one that develops while continuing to deliver on the great songwriting promise showcased on 2009’s self titled Telekinesis!, particularly the flawless pop craft of a song like “All of a Sudden.” Effluxion is a solid repeat-play release.
Secret Friend is the musical project of Thailand-based producer Steven Fox, one where he brings together a host of musical friends to help him perform his songs. His latest effort has Roger Manning Jr. (formerly of Jellyfish) and Linus of Hollywood playing with vocals by Christopher Given Harris. The resulting single – “Power” – is a fabulous slab of ELO-inspired pop goodness. From the crunching guitar and keyboard stab opening to the candy-coated, silky smoothness of vocals, you know this is going to be something good. And it is, recalling a distinctly 1980s poprock radio golden age of hooky singles.
From Little Rock, Arkansas comes Mondello with Hello, All You Happy People, an album that is the product of a twenty-year odyssey of songwriting and procrastination. The record has a melodic, sometimes discordant, DIY poprock charm. Though some tracks do have a polished sheen, like the obvious single, “Not For Lack of Trying” and the hooky “Heather Martin.” Vocally Mondello sounds like a rockier Tim Finn at times, as on “You Do You” and “Not About to Let You Know.” Other highlights for me include the indie poppy flavour of “Around in Circles,” the slightly harsher hooks on “Stack of Bibles,” and the breezy throwback groove defining “Don’t Say Anything About My Baby” (not the Cookies song!). Better late than never on this release, an LP of solid material and fun graphics/artwork.