Have you met Bombadil? Given the band formed in 2006 and has released 7 albums and 2 EPs, it’s definitely possible. But given our present state of low impact indie self-promotion it’s entirely likely you haven’t. Well, get ready for a sonic treat. One where every instrument aims to create a carefully crafted moment. Where the songs are intellectually engaging, though not in some hipster elitist sort of way but in a thoughtful everyday relatable way (e.g. “Perfect”). Where no instrument break is wasted but each is like a perfectly tended garden of sounds, both colourful and creative. Possible musical comparisons abound, from the quirky musicality of They Might Be Giants and Tally Hall to the wordy yet poetic lyrics of The Shins and the Magnetic Fields. Longtime band member Daniel Michalak once described the band’s influences as ‘Ernest Hemingway, Ronald Dahl, or Shel Silverstein’ as well as ‘science/math and computer programming’. One reviewer called the band, ‘obtuse but melodic indie folk pop with a flair for the fantastic,’ while another suggested Bombadil were like a ‘less drunk Pogues.’ Longtime drummer James Phillips described their sound as simply ‘pop-rock.’ That sounds about right to me.
How to describe discovering Bombadil? How about ‘enchanting’? A lot of that has to do with the bracing originality of the songs. The band’s catalogue ably demonstrates the continuing, seemingly endless creative possibilities left in a 3 minute pop song, whatever genre. And these guys definitely push genre boundaries. The folk veneer is there but can easily give way, depending on where the song goes. “Johnny,” from the band’s 2006 debut EP (also included on their 2008 debut long-player A Buzz A Buzz), illustrates this, vibing folk but quickly coming on like an outtake from Will Finn’s Broadway smash, Falsettoland, while from the same album “Get to Getting On” showcases Bombadil’s signature folk/country sound and their distinctive harmony vocals.
You can dip in anywhere over the band’s next six albums and come up with a treasure. Like “Sad Birthday,” “Kate and Kelsey” and “Matthew” from 2009’s Tarpits and Canyonlands. Check out the exquisite piano turnaround at the 21 second mark of “Matthew” – a killer and unexpected hook. Or the Pogues meets You Won’t aura of the songs on 2011’s All That the Rain Promises, particularly “Laundromat” and the lyrically eccentric “Leather Belt” (with that great banjo). 2013’s Metrics of Affection broadened the sonic palette with the Rogue Wave-ish “Learning to Let Go,” the magisterial “Born at 5:00,” the moving solitary piano balladry of “Have Me,” and the whimsically folky “When We Are Both Cats.” Meanwhile, “One More Ring” sounds like an alternate universe hit with its endearing melodic twists. 2017’s Fences continued the good vibes trend with “Perfect” an aptly named should-be single.
As luck would have it for recent Bombadil converts, a brand new album is out, Beautiful Country, and it may just be their best yet. I love how “Goodwill Socks” starts with an uber folky sound but then quickly adds more instrumental depth and hooky ornamentation. “The Man Who Loves You” is the should-be hit single, with a stirring vocals arrangement and hooky handclaps. And then there’s the lovely duet with Kate Rhudy on the “The Real Thing.”
Did I mention that Bombadil have recorded songs in French (“Framboise” from 2015’s Hold On) and Spanish (“Laurita” from Tarpits and Canyonlands)? Just one more reason to hustle over their Bandcamp page and buy up their whole catalogue.
Throughout my life, Nick Lowe has been poprock constant. No matter what was going on, the arrival of a new Nick album was always an occasion. I probably first heard him as most other people did when “Cruel to be Kind” hit the radio in 1979, and Rockpile’s “Teacher Teacher” cemented my love of his style a year later. And what’s not to like? I had grown up consuming my parents’ record collection – Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, etc. – and Nick was like a new wave synthesis of all those influences! Over the past four decades he’s grown as an artist, shifting his songwriting style and performance, but somehow managed to stay true to these roots. Currently on tour with retro rocking Los Straightjackets, Lowe continues to release great songs.
In what follows I review Lowe’s album career, highlighting the non-hit songs that stand out for me as great overlooked poprock tracks, ones I think are strong on melody and hooks. No doubt other Lowe fans might choose differently but these are the ones that stuck in my head and remain eminently listenable to me, even after countless hearings.
Discovering Lowe in 1979, I had to play catch up with his earlier career releases. “I Can See Her Face” from Kippington Lodge was Lowe first songwriting credit in 1969 and arguably that band’s best tune. From there Lowe wrote most of Brinsley Schwarz’s material over the course of six official album releases (seven if you include the long unreleased It’s All Over Now) from the early to mid-1970s and he would recycle some of that material later as a solo artist, most famously “Cruel to be Kind” and “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding.” There’s some strong material on those records but “The Ugly Things” (from 1974’s New Favourites, later covered by Elvis Costello) really stands out for me as reaching the Nick Lowe solo-era standards for melody and hooks. Solo material started emerging in 1977 with the EP Bowi and various one-off singles (like the faux Bay City Rollers tributes or the label-ripping “I Love My Label”). Lowe’s first solo album, Pure Pop for Now People (or Jesus of Cool in the UK) contained a host of great songs (“Marie Provost,” “So It Goes,” “I Love the Sound the Breaking Glass”) but I think “Tonight” really captures Lowe’s talent for tuneful, ballady material.
Brinsley Schwarz – Ugly ThingsNick Lowe – Tonight
1979’s Labour of Lust would be Lowe’s breakout album, featuring his only American top 20 hit, “Cruel to be Kind.” But the album has real depth songwriting-wise with great rockers like “Switchboard Susan” and tender ballads like “You Make Me.” Personally, I was always drawn to the crashing intensity of “American Squirm” and the pop jauntiness of “Without Love.” Next up was Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure, where only six of the twelve tunes were penned by Lowe and that didn’t include the charting single, “Teacher Teacher.” Of the six, the sparkling jangle of “Now and Always” only slightly edges out “When I Write the Book” as the best Lowe tune on the album. By 1982 Lowe was back to being a solo artist but Nick the Knife failed to produce a charting single. Still, I love acoustic guitar-anchored “My Heart Hurts” and the wistful “Raining Raining.” 1983’s The Abominable Showman (despite its dad-joke worthy title) was a strong album, featuring a great organ-heavy Paul Carrack duet on “Wishing You Were Here.” But for me, “Raging Eyes” was the obvious single, while “Mess Around with Love” (Lowe’s reworking of his earlier Brinsley cut “We Can Mess Around”) was another highlight.
Nick Lowe – Without LoveRockpile – Now and AlwaysNick Lowe – Raining RainingNick Lowe – Raging Eyes
In 1984 Nick was an early adopter of the roots sound on his Nick Lowe and his Cowboy Outfit, a record that also contained a should-be hit single, “Half a Boy and Half a Man.” But I was more drawn to the poprock gems “Love Like a Glove” and “God’s Gift to Women.” 1985’s The Rose of England contained Lowe’s most naked attempt to get back on the charts with his own version “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll),” a song previously popularized by his old pal Dave Edmunds on his 1977 album Get It. It proved to be a very minor hit that tended to overshadow just how strong the album was, particularly it’s folk-poppy title track and the inspired John Hiatt cover, “She Don’t Love Nobody.” Nick’s next two albums witnessed him struggling to find his place in the then contemporary music scene. Both 1988’s Pinker and Prouder than Previous and 1990’s Party of One had plenty to please Lowe fans but no hit singles that might expand that base of support. Still, for hooks, I’d single out “Wishing Well” from the former and “Who was That Man?” and “All Men Are Liars” from the latter.
Nick Lowe – Love Like a GloveNick Lowe – She Don’t Love NobodyNick Lowe – Wishing WellNick Lowe – All Men Are Liars
In 1992 Lowe took another stab at joining a band, this time Little Village with John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner. With such an all-star line-up, excitement about the project was palpable, but the response to their sole album was lukewarm. Personally, I think Lowe’s turn on vocals is one of the record’s highlights on “Take Another Look.” Then Lowe shifted gears again, taking his albums into darker, more serious moods, with the release of The Impossible Bird (1994), Dig My Mood (1998), and The Convincer (2001). Here Lowe deliberately sought to reinvent himself as more introspective, mature artist, and the overwhelming critical response has been that he succeeded. Still, every album has a few more poppy numbers, like the uptempo “I Live on a Battlefield” or the more subtle earwormy “Indian Queens.” At My Age (2007) and That Old Magic (2011) lightened the mood somewhat, with the latter producing a particularly impressive range of material with songs like “Sensitive Man” and “Somebody Cares for Me.”
Little Village – Take Another LookNick Lowe – I Live on a BattlefieldNick Lowe – Indian QueensNick Lowe – Sensitive Man
While clearly slowing down on releases, Lowe continues to record, most recently releasing EPs with backing from Los Straighjackets on Tokyo Bay (2018) and Love Starvation (2019), both representing a return to Lowe’s more rollicking rock and roll sound. But check out “Blue on Blue” to see how he still has a few surprises.
Nick Lowe and Los Straightjackets – Blue on Blue
Nick Lowe truly is a legend of poprock and one of my favourite artists. He is the bar that I judge what great poprock sounds like. I can still go back and listen to any of his albums, enjoying them as if for the first time. Check out Nick’s website and Facebook page to keep up with his continuing exploits. You can also read all about Nick in Will Birch’s great new biography, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe. Click on his name to find out more.
Hopefully the hits keep on coming with this September batch of recent single releases from these great artists. Jangle, 1960s rock and roll vocals, crunchy electric guitar lead lines and harmonies – it’s all here!
Jim Basnight is a rock and roll survivor, pounding it out for three decades in the Pacific Northwest, sometimes with The Moberly’s, sometimes just solo. Now he’s back with a new record, Not Changing, and it confirms his rock and roll bona fides. The backing band has the easy grace of a 1970-era low key Rolling Stones appearance while Jim vibes just a bit of Mick all over the record, but with particularly good effect on the winning “Best Lover in the World.” Some things really are best left unchanged. Dutch band Johan put out four albums of solid hooky jangle throughout the oughts but broke up in 2009. Somehow I missed their 2018 reunion album Pull Up and it’s killer single, “About Time,” but they’ve remained pretty unchanged too (and that’s a good thing). Reviewers float comparisons like the Byrds, Beatles and Crowded House but I hear a strong early to mid-period REM-y vibe vocals-wise and in the songwriting style.Jim Basnight – “Best Lover in the World”Johan – “About Time”
Heading down under, I loved the Beach Boys atmosphere of Bryan Estepa’s “Western Tale” from his 2006 release, All the Bells and Whistles. His new record departs from that formula, offering up a more rocky poprock record with Sometimes I Just Don’t Know. I’m fashioning a double A-sided single out of his official single “I’m Not Ready for This” and album track “Another Kind of Madness.” Both songs hit it out of the park in terms of loading the hooks and harmonies into three minute blasts of sonic goodness. Check out the masterful way Estepa effortlessly echoes the vocal melody line with electric guitar on “Another Kind of Madness.” Another strong release comes from Detroit native and Frontier Ruckus frontman Matthew Milia with his solo debut, Alone at St. Hugo’s. This release is another bastard child of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul with its acoustic guitar base and lush background vocals, as well as a nice dose of jangle on various cuts. There are so many great songs here (like the jangle heavy “Attention Students” or the winsome “Alive at the Same Time”). But “Abruptly Old and Caffeinated” caught my ear as the deserving single with its gently flowing Fountains of Wayne sunny disposition and clever wordplay.
Rounding out this season-changing bevy of singles is something new from The Stan Laurels. Hot on the heels of last year’s accolade-magnet of an album, Maybe, TSL’s John Lathrop returns with a new single that continues to push his musical boundaries. “Lost and Found” alternates between crunchy electric guitar lead line work and sweet sounding vocal harmonies to good effect and bodes well for Maybe’s follow up album.
We loved Brett Newski’s 2018 album Life Upside Down here at Poprock Record, particularly punchy, addictive tracks like “Ride” and “The Afternoons.” But there’s more to Newski, like his fantastic 2016 LP Land Air Sea Garage. Love the jaunty melody of “Stranger” or the great mix of vocals on “Bending Spoons & Skipping Prayers.” But the killer cut here is undoubtedly the should-be hit single “Garage.” From its opening guitar ring to those hooky ‘da da da da’s the song motors along in a solid poprock groove, repeatedly building the tension back to a great chorus release, with what sounds like some nice French horn near the end (but who knows, it could be keyboards!). The quality on this and his other recordings suggests this is guy just getting started creativity-wise. Can’t wait for a new record!
Newski’s has a host of quirky and original one-off single releases and albums recorded in foreign countries on his bandcamp page. Peruse and purchase please.
Some definite hot properties in this newscast with new releases from Poprock Record faves Richard Turgeon, The Rallies, Dan Israel and Aaron Lee Tasjan!
Richard Turgeon just keeps on getting better and better. His debut (In Between Spaces) and sophomore (Lost Angeles) albums were solid slabs of 1990s-inflected poprock, layered with hooks and slathered with a grungy alienated demeanor. Now he’s back with Go Deep and this time he’s upped the melodic quotient. This is the record Matthew Sweet should be putting out! There’s plenty of solid hooks, a bit of crunch, and those slightly dark melodic twists that sink deep in your sonic consciousness and stay there. It’s all there in the great opening track, “The One Who Got Away,” with its driving guitar and lovely background vocals. Or “Next to Me” with its strong guitar lead line hook. Then Turgeon shakes things up with an early Police ska rhythm guitar anchoring “Beware of God” accompanied by some REM-worthy background/foreground vocal interplay. The REM comparisons continue with “Loneliness,” a spot-on could-be outtake from Document. Two different versions of “Lost and Found” both capture the aching beauty at heart of the song. And then Turgeon shows his songwriting depth and range with the country/folk tune, the winsome “Cowboy Life.” Ultimately Go Deep is a great album experience, worthy of repeated listenings.
Seattle Washington’s The Rallies are back with their sophomore LP Upside Down and it’s a reverb-charged dose of sunny hooks and bittersweet sentiment. If you enjoyed their harmony-drenched debut Serve you’re going to love this new record. The solid acoustic guitar rhythm backing is still there. The distinctive mix of harmony background vocals combined with lead singer Steve Davis’ heart-tugging delivery remains front and centre. But the songs have a bit more muscle this time out. Somebody stepped on the jangle pedal because its ringing tone threads its way throughout the album, from the single-worthy opener “All Over Town” to the soaring closer “You’re the One.” The album opens on an extremely strong note. Really, in a properly poprock world “All Over the Town” would be zooming up the charts with its Beatles-esque background vocals, hypnotic guitar hooks, and earwormy melody. Overall, the influences alternate on this album, from the Tom Petty-ish “Brand New” and “Up To You” to the more Crowded House vibe of “It’s OK” and “Alive.” The hooky lead line opener to “If You Do” comes off like a lost cut from the That Thing You Do soundtrack. And I also love the lilting, more slow-paced melodic charm of “In Everything.” But make no mistake, the band have their own distinctive sound and style, as in evidence on the moving “All of Us,” a song that highlights this group’s overall uplifting positivity. 2017’s Serve landed on a host of ‘best of ‘ album lists and I predict Upside Down will heading to the same places for 2019.
Minnesota’s Dan Israel is like the money in the bank, turning out reliably great poprock records year in and out. This time he’s back with the timely-titled Social Media Anxiety Disorder and it is another winning collection of poprock ruminations on life and surviving the modern world. The album opens with “Be My Girl,” the obvious single with its endearing horn section, hooky bass guitar work, and hit single aura. But the whole record is quality stuff, alternating between Dylanesque observations and a Cat Stevens kind of confident delivery. Check out the hooky wordy attack of “Another Day” or the Tom Petty-ish country demeanor of “Tired.” Or how about the “Strawberry Fields Forever” organ quality adding something to the already winning “125” – killer! Personally, I’m smitten with the intimate acoustic revelations of “Still I’m Lost” and the almost church-like gospel hints embedded in “Out of My Hands” and “Out of My Hands Reprised.” Dan Israel is leading the singer/songwriter poprock revival, one you should be signing on to.
Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Karma for Cheap was my number 1 album for 2018. I just couldn’t get enough of it. The songwriting was exquisite, the musical performances – amazing. Now Tasjan has returned with a stripped down version of the album, Karma for Cheap: Reincarnated, and it’s a revelation. It’s like Karma unplugged, and stripped bare the songs really stand up. In this re-ordered version of the album, former album closer “Songbird” is now the opener and in its more naked form it exudes all the acoustic majesty of McCartney’s “Blackbird” or “Mother Nature’s Son.” And so it is true for all the other songs. These more spare recordings reveal new depths in songs like “Strange Shadows” and “End of the Day.” Reincarnated does make one major change in the set list of Karma for Cheap, swapping out the Orbison-esque “Dream Dreamer” for the delighful “My Whole Life is Over (All Over Again).” Tasjan’s a major talent, as revealed by his ability here to bring even more new life to some pretty great material.
With autumn just around the corner, time to twist the dial on some hooky new tunes from this crew!
I loved the acoustic swing + harmony vocal-stylings of Cape Cartel’s breakout single, “More.” The rest of 2018’s Close Talker was a bit harder to nail down but still great, mixing styles with the effortlessness of a latter day NRBQ. So a new single from the Montreal band had me on the edge of my seat – and I can report I am not disappointed. “The Matador” is the first of five singles that will comprise the band’s new EP Vitamins and it’s a flowing rush of melodic hooks and charming vocal harmonies. I love the bowl-you-over tempo of the song, bolting right out of the gate, and the carefully crafted arrangement. This certainly bodes well for the rest of the EP, which arrives late September.
The multi-talented Joe Adragna pretty much is The Junior League. He writes the songs, he plays nearly all the instruments, he produces the records. I imagine he answers the phones too. Well, clearly he’s an effective multi-tasker because Adventureland, the band’s latest long player, is a thrilling theme park of re-invented garage rock. Opening cut “Heavy” sets the tone for this outing with a 1980s indie grind that successfully reinvents the more rough and ready 1960s rock and roll sound. It says, effectively, this record is going to be a more muscular rocking affair (with a few notable exceptions) than past Junior League outings. Check out the REM-ish cover of Scott McCaughey’s “Have Faith in Yourself” – the song is anchored by a hypnotic synth that sounds like it’s on loan from the MGMT equipment room. “Everybody Wants to Play” and “Town in a Box” would not go amiss on a renewed Nuggets compilation brand. “No More” and “Adventureland at Night” are like love letters to that great crunchy 1960s rock sound. But the album does hold a few contrasts, like “Falling in Love” which sounds like it’s going kick into The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” before going its own distinctive melodic way, or “Delete and Repeat” which adds a bit of Beach Boys to the broader garage motif. I don’t often have call to recommend this but Adventureland begs to be PLAYED LOUD.
Milwaukee’s Fuzzysurf have an interesting mix of influences covering their musical sleeves: Beach tremelo’d surf guitar, Beatles hooks and harmonies, and large dollop of self-effacing humour. The new album is Fuzzy & the Surfs and it both conjures past glory while moving in a new direction. In terms of past glory, “Problems” has a swinging early 1960s pop sound, “Please Please Me Do” lovingly riffs the Fabs, while “Denny” and “When I Fell I Love With You” work the melodrama side of that decade. And the band’s early surf focus appears on tracks like “Vomit” and “Sign of the Times.” All this is great but when the new direction kicks in, the effect is breathtaking. The ear-wormy “Don’t Worry Baby” has hit single written all over it, vibing Guster at their poppy best. “Enemies” reels off seemingly effortless jangly guitar lines in support of a wonderful neo-1950s tune. Or check out “Alone” with its beguiling background vocals and spare guitar work. I love where these guys are going – hookville.
There’s an early 1980s rock sound that balances melody with a certain no nonsense rock and roll sensibility. Ex Hex have dialed that up for their latest LP It’s Real. The album’s opener “Tough Enough” would not sound out of place on an early Pat Benatar album, “Rainbow Shiner” evokes Billy Squier’s guitar flashes, while “Good Times” has a punky Go Go’s vibe. The whole album is like a time trip back to an era (really, the transition from the 1970s into the 1980s) when some spare rhythm guitar work could set the tone and pace of the tunes, showcased nicely on the slower tempo “Want it to be True.” The songwriting here is strong and cast in a very consistent style, with a few departures like the more poppy “Cosmic Cave” and the Beatlesque/Go Go’s “Talk to Me.” Want to bolster your next 1980s theme party with some fresh material? Ex Hex have got your record here.