This startling new direction from Vancouver’s The Top Boost has a bit of the Beatles For Sale era country-style Beatles, The International Submarine Band and Buck Owen’s distinctive lead guitar player Don Rich. The band has always had a special new wave jangle going but this single suggests they won’t be contained in any neat genre boxes. “Tell Me That You’re Mine” takes off with a rollicking pace that doesn’t let up, riding some easygoing country hooks and nice pedal steel guitar. B-side “Early Morning Days” is no slouch either, offering up a slower, more measured dollop of shimmering guitars and heavenly harmonies. These guys are definitely going places. Just where I’m not sure but with records like these I’m happy to be surprised.
With records that are all hot off the digital presses, this is definitely a timely episode of breaking news. And the anticipation is high for these five artists because they regularly hit it out of the poprock park. Have they done it again? Spoiler – get ready for some jangling good times.
Scottish jangle stalwarts The Vapour Trails wrap their new album Golden Sunshine in sixties pop psychedelia and the results are out of this world. The opening title track rides that fine line between melodic tripping and more free-form musical extemporization. The sound is a new sonic frontier for the band, melding sixties influences with 1980s reinventions of those themes from bands like The Stone Roses and even mid-period Grapes of Wrath. This carries on with “Dr. Barnes” which offers up a hooky sitar-like rumination on the traditional psychedelic sound. But the band doesn’t push the theme too far, returning to more familiar jangle pop on “Lonely Man” and “Why Wonder Why?” Then there’s the magnificent “Behind You” with its stunning “Day Tripper” like lead line. Nobody throws down 1965 lead guitar work quite like this band – I mean, just wait for the sprightly lead guitar instrumental break – heaven! This song alone is worth the price of admission. Other ear candy moments include acoustic guitar-driven “This May Be the Time,” with its distinctive drum feel and lovely harmonies, and beautiful, understated “Seabird.” With The Vapour Trails you might come for the jangle but you’ll stay because they offer so much more. This is a band that has yet to reach its musical summit and I’m loving the ride.
You only need to hear about ten seconds of the guitar hook kicking off album opener “Upper Hand” to know you are in for something special with Nick Piunti and the Complicated Men’s new record. Piunti’s been at this a long time and he knows where he fits into the power pop pantheon so Downtime delivers the taut melodic rockers we’ve come to expect. Needle-dropping this record, I sometimes hear the Beatles or early period Bryan Adams, Mike Viola, or the under-appreciated Odds. But really this record has a timeless, classic poprock sound all its own. All the songs on this release are pretty strong but click on “Bright Light” for a masterclass in melody-drenched rock and roll, featuring some heavenly background vocals. As for the rest, well how do you pick out highlights when everything is so good? You won’t go wrong with the Bryan Adam-ish “Every High” and “Never Belong to Me” while “Contract” has a great blast of guitar driving it along and a very Odds-like chorus. My personal fave is the Squeeze-meets-Tom Petty “Gonna Be Good” with its hypnotic occasional keyboard backdrop. And just to show he can slow things down, “Good Intentions” offers up a lovely acoustic guitar and piano number. All the hip indie bloggers are talking up Downtime. Don’t be left out.
With a career like Bill Lloyd’s you might expect him to kick back and take it easy. He’s played with so many cool artists, put out a great body of work as one-half of Foster and Lloyd, and has countless killer solo albums to his name. But Lloyd’s got more music to share and the message from his new Don’t Kill the Messenger is definitely positive. Why? It’s the songwriting. Lloyd keeps churning out listenable tunes, delivered in his comfortable poprock style. Put your ear next to “I’ll Take It From Here,” particularly when Lloyd leans on ‘Amanda’ in the chorus, and tell you me you haven’t caught something you can’t get out of your head. Similar hooks can be found in songs like “Not This Time ‘Round” and “Sorry, But I’ve Got to Take This.” I did do a double-take on a few tracks, mistaking them for cuts from some new Marshall Crenshaw album (like “Don’t Kill the Messenger,” “Undone,” and “The Girls of Sylvan Park”). At other times, the songs reminded me a little of Ben Vaughn (“I’ve Had Enough of Your Love”) or some good old pub rock (e.g. “Kake’ n’ 8 it” and “You Got Me”). And Lloyd cooked up a few surprises, like the Talking Heads-ish “Etch-A-Sketch” and the breezy, instant standard “Kiss of the Summer Wind.” So you don’t need to hesitate over this album. Paraphrasing Merle Travis, a record from Bill Lloyd is like money in the bank – guaranteed!
Richard Turgeon kicks off his new album Sea Change with some ominous chords ringing out over “Never Leaving California,” perfectly capturing the enduring sense of dread that defines out times. The song’s chilling POV is the rumination of a mythical Charles Manson follower, drawn into the myth and mayhem of a particular moment of time for the Golden State. From there Turgeon grinds out his distinctive Matthew Sweet-meets-grunge sound on winning, timely tracks like “Still Not Ready to Die” and “Running for Your Life.” Sea Change confirms Turgeon as a veritable hook machine as the songs here are all just brimming with catchy melodies. I mean, check out the ear worm choruses of “Car Crash” and “Cull the Herd” for a quick confirmation. And then there’s the real treat, the bliss-inducing, obvious should-be hit single “Higher” – power pop perfection! This record also features a few nice departures from the usual, like the Weezer-vibing “Jolene,” the low-key dreamy “Sunset,” and the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-like vocalizing on the “The Journey,” with its cool sparse finger-picking opener. This record just confirms why Turgeon keeps showing up on so many ‘best of’ lists each year.
On Even TimeEd Ryan returns to his roots, re-recording some tunes from previous bands The Rudies and Jupiter Jets, as well some new material. Having noted that, opening and title track “Even Time” marks a bit of a departure for the normally guitar-oriented Ryan with a reliance on keyboards to anchor the tune that adds just a bit of dramatic tension. There’s also some refreshing naked acoustic guitar here on “I’ve Got the Smile” and the rollicking “I Want to Go.” But worry not, power pop Ed is here full force on should-be singles like “Say What You Will” and “Let It Out,” with some catchy neo-1950s background vocals elevating “Never Lied to You.” “Here and Now” kicks off with a blast of Springsteen-like energy before settling into a solid rocker. I really like the nice change of pace with the piano-based “Everywhere,” a delightful tune with shades of Styx in places (and that’s not a bad thing, in this case). Ryan then wraps things up with a return to tradition on “Make It Through the Night,” a track that really captures the classic power pop sound of late 1970s sound, complete with punchy chorus. All in all, Even Time marks a welcome return to the studio for this music veteran.
When last we left our hero he had just released a smash new album, I Know Why You Cry, to critical blogger acclaim and, no doubt, impending worldwide domination. But before he could launch a tour that surely would have left audiences swooning and American late night talk shows clamouring for appearances, COVID 19 hit. Unperturbed, work at his Camp Pepper headquarters continued, preparing the release of The Complete “Dad Year” Recordings (2017-2018) and now a new treat, Under a Heather Moon. I’ve gotten to the point where I count down the days to a new Pepper release, a ritual previously reserved for the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, Nick Lowe, Fountains of Wayne and early 1980s Paul McCartney. Under a Heather Moon does not disappoint. It is a delightful slice of everything that is magical about Gregory Pepper: clever wordplay, subtle melodies, with just a touch of sardonic social commentary. But don’t blink – you might miss this record. The album’s seven tunes collectively barely clock in at five and a half minutes! The bandcamp edition includes three bonus tunes that stretch things out to almost a quarter hour. But hey, I’m not complaining. Short they may be but the tracks are undeniably little gems.
Pepper has a McCartney-esque facility with different musical styles, ranging from music hall (“Smile”) to musicals (“Mayor’s Tomb”) to heel-clicking danceable poprock (“Do Sports”). “Whoa Dude, Whoa” has a deliciously ominous vibe, like the soundtrack to mid-1960s secret agent movie. Then he gets his wist on with lovely piano pieces like “(Isolation)” and “Finite Thing” (though the latter has a nice blow up half way through). “Recluse Abandon” really showcases Pepper as a master melodian, squeezing hooks into the tightest song spaces. The bonus tracks allow things to stretch out a bit. Particularly noteworthy is an extensively reworked version of “Funny, Eh” (originally from the Dad Year recordings), this time a little less manic and bit more ornate (in a good way).
Why not enjoy a (brief) respite from whatever you’re avoiding or stressing over right now with this new mini-album from Gregory Pepper and his Problems? And don’t forget, it’s available in extended form on bandcamp. It’s delightful. It’s even delovely.
I can get wild. Sometimes. Ok, let’s face it, any genre boundary-crossing I’m doing still involves a lot hookyness, even if there’s some guitar distortion, yelly vocals, or an amp cranked past 11. Cases in point – today’s featured acts. They’ve got dialed up guitars and discordant singing or some cool stylistic weirdness going for them. And it works!
San Diego’s premier postmodern pop band is TV Girl. With three EPs and four albums released since 2010, this is a group that knows how to get wonderfully weird and stay there. I’m impressed with their ability to pastiche up and over a host of influences, riffing on great hooks (sometimes) borrowed with ease from multiple pop culture sources. Take the oh-so-soul sounding familiarity of “Benny and the Jetts” or the winter skating-rink party ambience of “Baby You Were There.” It’s a winning formula on these early EPs: TV Girl build original pop songs from bits and pieces of old time sixties and seventies sampled hits, like the blast of Todd Rungdren’s “Hello It’s Me” that kicks off and then haunts their own “If You Want It.” You can really hear the Burroughs cut up production style all over the first TV Girls longplayer, The Wild, The Innocent, The TV Shuffle released in 2012. Check out the brilliant melding of early 1960s girl singer Linda Scott’s classic “I Told Every Little Star” into the band’s original song, “Misery,” or the threading of the Beatles’ version of Arthur Alexander’s “Anna” throughout “On the Fence.”
By the release of 2014’s French Exit the band’s songwriting really comes on stream with catchy numbers like “Pantyhose,” “Birds Don’t Sing,” and “Angela.” Since then TV Girl have explored more dance and hip hop grooves on 2014’s Who Really Cares and 2018’s Maddie Acid’s Purple Hearts Club Band and some chilly dream pop on Death of a Party Girl from later that same year. But personally I’m really digging the just released 2020 collection of outtakes from French Exit, dubbed The Night in Question. Think The Shortwave Set with a dash of Simple Kid and Tally Hall and you’re in the ballpark.
Boston’s Wakes evokes the holy spirit of rock and roll with spooky sounding guitars and somber world-weary vocals. But embedded in most tunes is that subtle melody-ness I associate with Buddy Holly and Bruce Springsteen. It jumps out in the jaunty guitar lines carrying “Headlines” from Wakes 2014’s album Feral Youth. The overlay of crackling, haunting vocals just seals the deal. Actually, the guitars on this album keep things shifting back and forth from an edgy rock and roll dance party to a car-driving radio-relay-tower passing ambience. From there Wakes dials down the productivity, offering just a covers EP and final mini-album in 2017 before calling a halt to music altogether. The swan song collection of unreleased stuff is gold, ranging from an industrial 1950s vibe to sweet fairground attractions to stark acoustic folk-iness. Entitled Ends, it kicks off with “I Don’t Want to See You Anymore,” an off-kilter bit of Eddie Cochrane-infused psycho-billy brought to life by a furious, driving guitar hook. I also love the stroll-down-the-fairway vibe on “Year After Year,” guided by a mellifluous Del Shannon organ. One can only hope that Wakes’ Tim Oxton’s design/art career goes gangbusters and he can return to a bit of music on the side.
I’m not afraid of a bit of avant garde, genre-blending indie music, as long as a load of hooks are buried somewhere in the mix. That’s what you get with TV Girl and Wakes. Take a walk on their wild side right now.
I seem to recall Canadian poprock iconoclast Gregory Pepper saying something about two minute songs. For him, anything more was surplus to requirements. But stitching together a meaningful short song is harder than it looks. Fools tend to rush in to verses and a chorus and run out of song before they know it. Today we feature two masters of the exquisitely short song, Stephen Merritt’s Magnetic Fields and Philadelphia indie pop combo 2nd Grade.
Like many people, I fell in love with Merritt’s work after just a few listens of 1999’s sprawling, three CD set, 69 Love Songs. The humour, the pathos and, most importantly, the hooks kept me hitting replay again and again. Since then he’s gone in a number of directions with his work (e.g. the rockier Distortion) but regularly delivers solid songwriting, often in abundance. Case in point, his recent 50 Song Memoir witnessed Merritt handling all the vocals on a project that documented each of his 50 years with a separate tune. Now MF are back with a brand new album and Quickies sees Merritt re-assembling the full band, complete with his usual collection of vocalists. The songs are short, definitely sharp and often shocking. I mean, only Merritt could craft a catchy number about “The Biggest Tits in History” or “The Day the Politicians Died” but both tracks really work, with smart lyrics and eminently hummable tunes. A song about bathroom sex? Got that covered on “Bathroom Quickie.” Merritt’s songwriting sometimes comes off like a stream of consciousness riff on his lifetime encounter with popular culture, like on “Kraftwerk in a Blackout.” And nothing is sacred, as is clear on “I’ve Got a Date with Jesus” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Beelzebub.” With 28 songs, I can’t go into everything on this record but like a deluxe box of Quality Street chocolates, there’s plenty to like here and a lot to savor. If you’ve liked past Magnetic Field efforts, you won’t be disappointed.
2nd Grade offer up what we might call a ‘two-four’ of songs here in Canada on their latest long player, Hit to Hit: 24 tracks, most clocking in at 2 minutes or less. As a songwriting strategy, it really works here. The material is snappy, fresh, vibing a bit of Apples in Stereo or recent Mo Troper. Ranging over the selections, the band are lyrically playful on songs like “Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” and “When You Were My Sharona,” punk things up “W2” and “Trigger Finger,” or just offer up straight ahead poprock on “Shooting From the Hip” (with a touch of mid-period Fleetwood Mac here) and “Sunkist.” Tempo shifts include more low key folkie material like “Something I’ll Have to Remember” or the nicely Elliott Smith-paced “Maybe I.” My personal faves are probably the mildly urgent “Over and Over” and the seasonal smash, should be hit “Summer of Your Dreams.” But hey, with so many choices why settle on a strict ranking just yet? I’d recommend hitting random play and see what moves you. There’s a lot of serious goodness here to discover.
Short songs, long albums – variety! That’s what you’ll be getting with these offerings. It’s a nice twist on the usual thing. So check out Magnetic Fields and 2nd Grade’s latest magnum opi, live with them a bit, and see if you don’t just want to listen to them a bit more.
In the 1970s and most of the 1980s, I grew up in Vancouver, Canada’s largest city on the country’s west coast. I still love the town’s abundance of Edwardian architecture, kooky downtown neighbourhoods, and even its long stretches of gray, rainy weather. But it wasn’t until I moved away that I realized just how isolated it was from the rest of urban North America. Many was the time that major music acts would skip Vancouver on their tours – it just wasn’t economical for a lot of bands to make the trek so far from touring circuits based out of Los Angeles or Chicago or New York City. Yet this geographic reality, combined with Canadian content laws introduced in the 1970s to help Canadian music get on the radio, contributed to a pretty cool music scene.
Some of the earliest westcoast acts I remember hearing were the Poppy Family and Chilliwack. Terry Jacks would achieve uber fame with his international hit cover of the Brel/Mckuen classic “Seasons in the Sun” in 1974 but I much prefer his earlier Poppy Family recordings with then wife Susan Jacks. The band’s biggest hit was the title track to their 1969 debut, Which Way You Going Billy?, and it is a great song, but check out the smoking cool organ and melodic hooks that animate “Where Evil Grows” from the follow up record, Poppy Seeds. This is an absolutely perfect sonic confection! Chilliwack were a Vancouver music institution, releasing countless hit records in Canada throughout the 1970s and early 1980s under the guidance of creative leader, Bill Henderson. A lot of people only know the band for their biggest U.S. hit, “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) from 1981 but they had 19 chart entries in Canada from 1970 to 1983. Personally, I’ve always loved “There’s Something I Like About That” from the band’s 1974 album Riding High (which contained the distinctive hit single, “Crazy Talk”). The album is transitional, with the band shifting from hippie folk and long-hair rock to a more catchy, rock and roll singles sound, and it shows on this song with its shifts between a seductive shuffle in the verses and the belt out fun chorus.
As the 1970s gave way to the eighties new wave and punk hit Vancouver hard, without entirely shaking loose the locale’s hippie and dude rock and roll vibes. Such musical contradictions were all over Prism, a band initially put together by soon-to-be-superstar producer Bruce Fairbairn and Bryan Adams songwriting partner Jim Vallance. The band produced a spate of great singles like “Flying,” “See Forever Eyes,” “Armageddon,” and “Young and Restless” but my fave remains the Lindsay Mitchell/Bryan Adams-penned “Cover Girl.” The Payola$ were more straight-up new wave-influenced and the band always seemed a bit too cool for the local scene. Despite that, they couldn’t find their footing chart-wise, with their early albums a bit too indie for the mainstream (e.g. 1982’s No Stranger to Danger) while later bids for commercial success failed to grab radio play and alienated longtime fans (e.g. 1985’s Here’s the World For Ya). Personally, I think 1983’s Hammer on the Drum hit the sweet spot artistically and it should have been the break out hit with jaunty tracks like “I’ll Find Another (Who Can Do It Right)” and the touching “Where Is This Love.” The record did produce a #8 Canadian hit duet with Carole Pope, the upbeat “Never Said I Love You.”
Something happened in the mid-1980s with the consolidation of a broad, non-mainstream indie music scene, largely supported by college radio and small music venues. Suddenly it seemed that not everyone was going the stadium rock route or topping the AM radio charts, and that was Ok. The most exciting local band working this seam for me were the Grapes of Wrath. Technically a Kelowna band, they set up shop in Vancouver in 1984 and released their debut a year later. September Bowl of Green blew me away. I worshipped these guys. They were like our local R.E.M. They had jangly guitars and great songs and I couldn’t stop playing their first single “Misunderstanding.” Their second release was the Tom Cochrane-produced Treehouse and it was a masterpiece. Really, their whole catalogue (six albums, one EP) is pretty solid, including an incredible comeback record in 2013. Another band proudly wearing the indie banner were 54-40. They’ve released 14 albums since 1984 and, despite a lack of hit singles, they’ve sold a lot of albums in Canada and maintained pretty high standards throughout. I don’t get it – tracks like “One Gun,” “Miss You” “One Day in Your Life,” and “Casual Viewin’” all sound like radio hits to me. But if I had to cut my 54-40 collection to just one song it would be the enigmatic, hypnotic, addictive “Baby Ran.”
I left Vancouver permanently in 1996 and leaving town was hard but, ultimately, good for me. The world is a big place and seeing a bit more of it put my home town into better perspective. I could see how small and contained it was, provincial in many ways. But I could also appreciate how much it accomplished – a pretty vibrant music scene – despite its geographic isolation. So, in honour all of things westcoast, click on the band names to get caught up with these great acts! And if you’re looking for a primer on Vancouver’s music scene from an era prior to this one, the Vancouver Record Collector’s Association have a four volume history of the best local acts covering the 1950s and 1960s, with exhaustive liner notes written by local rock expert Michael Willmore (check out Willmore’s wacky but informative TV show, Rockinitis).
The banner photo is an incredible diorama of a typical Vancouver street block by a fellow I only know as dancecommander. You can read his write up here and see more pics here.