There are philosophers who will tell you that when it comes to living the good life, the journey is the real destination. But most professional musicians usually dream of actually arriving somewhere, like maybe the top of charts. Still, despite the fact that relatively few make the Top 40 (let alone number one), there are some acts that just keep soldiering on. Like today’s trio of journeymen poprockers – all continue to put out great music even though stratospheric fame has proven illusive. All the more reason to fly their flag right now!
Imagine stumbling across someone with an album catalogue like all those great indie rock and rollers – Elvis Costello, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Don Dixon, etc. – delivered with a Nick Lowe or T-Bone Burnette production-style. Well, imagine no more! Michael Shelley is here and he’s got six albums or so, just brimming with melodies and sweet melancholia. I discovered Shelley as the producer of Juniper’s recent hip record and just a bit of digging revealed his own killer catalogue. If I had to boil down his sound it would be easy to slot him into the Rockpile diaspora, with its retro rock and roll, pub rock country and new wave elements. Sure, it would be obvious to compare him to Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw, but think a bit further afield in this crowd, like the country pop sound of Carlene Carter’s Musical Shapes album or the poppy soul of Paul Carrack’s Suburban Voodoo (both produced by Nick Lowe). Nor can Shelley be limited to just this sub-genre, as his amazing collaboration with former Teenage Fanclub drummer Francis Macdonald in Cheeky Monkey makes clear. Contemporary comparisons of the Shelley sound might bring to mind Edward O’Connell and Richard X. Heyman.
Shelley’s 1997 debut Half Empty nails down the formula with a moody indie vibe on “Don’t” (love the great rumbly guitar and organ – sounds so classic 1960s), strong melodic interventions with “Think With Your Heart,” “Rollercoaster” (particularly the chorus!), and “Mary,” while “Tonight Could be the Night” has a lovely Ben Vaughn simplicity. The follow-up, 1998’s Too Many Movies widens the stylistic scope, adding surfer fun (“Surfer Joan”), Beach Boy harmonies (“The Pill”), country rock (“Lisa Marie” and “She’s Not You”) and solid indie pop with “Jigsaw Girl” and “Summer, I Pissed You Away” (the latter echoing a real Marti Jones feel on the songwriting front). I love the hooks carrying “Too Many Movies” while “You Were Made to Break My Heart” sounds like the kind of obscure tunes that Nick Lowe finds to slip into his records and make sound like great lost classics. There’s even a cool song about brushing your teeth – “That’s Where the Plaque Is” – and that’s not easy to pull off! Keyboards come more to the fore on 2001’s I Blame You with the solid single “Mix Tape,” the McCartney-esque jauntiness of “Face in My Pocket,” and the Robbie Fulks playfulness of “Let’s Fall in Hate.”
I think my favourite release from Michael Shelley is undoubtedly 2005’s Goodbye Cheater. The album veers between solid retro country and hook-laden poprock without losing its own sense of purpose. “Hurry Up and Fall in Love” and “A Little Bit Blue” mine the Buck Owens/Dwight Yoakum vein of electric guitar-picking country while the cover of the Roger Miller/George Jones song “That’s The Way I Feel” and the instrumental “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” actually have a more western feel. On the poprock side there’s the early Elvis Costello vibe to “We Invented Love,” “Move Along,” and “Goodbye Cheater.” Or there’s the Bacharach pop swing of “Suddenly Free” and the Monkees-meets-Simon and Garfunkel elan of “Out.” There’s even a winning instrumental in “Goofball.” 2012’s Leftovers offers up a winning collection of cover tunes and unreleased and live material – check out the great covers of Bobby Fuller, NRBQ, and Teenage Fanclub as well as quality demos of “Don’t” and “Goofball.” Shelly’s most recent release is the 2015 collection of instrumentals entitled Jimmy’s Corners (check out “Ahmed’s Best” and “Back of the Country Squire”). Surely fifteen years after his last album of conventional songs, we are due for some new Shelley material? The answer is yes.
Astro Chicken is the moniker that Barney Miller (no, not that guy) has used for the past 25 years for both solo and group efforts, the latter with John Laprade and brother Mike Miller. His story is textbook late 1990s rock and roll: multiple labels, missing the curve of what’s (momentarily) hot, then solo releases, breaks, and now some new tunes. Gotta admire the stamina! 1997’s debut release was the Disposable EP and right away you can practically see the Elvis Costello fingerprints all over the should-be single, “So Can I.” 1998’s Sugarwater takes things in a new direction with “Waste” sounding very Odds, “Honeymoon” acing the Beatles background vocals with a killer, insistent “Getting Better” guitar chime, while “Nothing Around for Me” is faintly Crowded House. 2001’s Almost Anywhere takes yet another turn, this time leaning a bit country in a Blue Rodeo or Jayhawks sort of way, which you can really hear on “Blame Yourself” once it gets going.
So Can IWasteBlame Yourself
From there, the drive to chart success stalled for a bit, with Miller releasing just two essentially solo albums between 2005 and 2018, still under the Astro Chicken label. But the solo work really provides an insight into the breadth of Miller’s songwriting. 2005’s Sweet Truth is alternatively hilarious and introspective, all the while harbouring a lightly stoked sense of outrage. Anchored by acoustic guitar and a Graham Parker vocal delivery, the record offers acerbic commentary on death (“My Funeral is Gonna Be Packed”) and popular culture (“F You American Idol”), sometimes vibing Fountains of Wayne (“Soak Up the Night”) or E from the Eels (see ‘Funeral …’) or an Imperial Bedroom era EC (“I Am Not Blue About You”). 2018’s National Detective Agency Miller describes as album of leftover Astro Chicken demos, tarted up for release, along with a few new tunes. A lot here is stripped down Americana, like the Wilco-ish “Try” and the pretty acoustic guitar number, “Change Your Mind.” “Lock It Up” also has a nice hooky, easygoing swing. Which brings us the present: with Mike and John back with the group, the band’s brand new 2020 EP is Black Balloon. Check out the title track, a nice rocking tune with a solid Tom Petty feel to it.
F You American IdolI’m Not Blue About YouChange Your MindBlack Balloon
Tulsa native David Burdick is the real rock and roll deal. The way he tells is, life has been one long series of joining and quitting and joining band after band, playing across the southern American Midwest, putting out the occasional 45 while recording an enormous number of home demos. From grade 5 on he’s played with The Jeeps, The Jetsons, The Jacks, The Insects, Color of Time, Sins Tailor, The Rickebackers, The Stand, and many more. His bands have opened for the likes of The Motels, The Cramps, The Fleshtones, The Lords of the New Church, the reunited Byrds, Charlie Sexton, and, yes, many more. Long before artists started to do ‘song a week’ gimmicks Burdick challenged himself to record a song a day and then proceeded to do so for sixty days! All of this is to say that Burdick’s career and recordings particularly have been unconventional by mainstream standards – no nice neat release of single, then album, then greatest hits. More like an explosion of bits from all over his career, some professionally recorded, others home demo’d on whatever equipment was to hand. The results are often raw, truly garage rock, like they were recorded in real garage somewhere. And like good 1960s garage rock, they’re exciting, both his originals and many, many covers of rock and roll classics.
You can get a good sense of David Burdick from his 2016 release Under the Influence, which contains songs recorded throughout his decades-long career. As far as I can tell, “Letters” first came out in 1983 and it’s a masterpiece of a single, with fantastic lead line guitar hooks and poppy vocals. This should have been a monster hit! “I Can’t Sit Still” captures that late 1970s new wave reinvention of 1960s poprock, “Let’s Go for a Ride” has a great Lou Reed-tude, while “Independence Day” is a departure with its early 1980s The Fixx atmosphere. If you go digging, Burdick has a collection called Relapse with more great tunes, like the jangle-laden “Sister,” “Look at it Rain” with its hypnotic guitar riff, and the hilarious “Redneck Zombies.” A lot of Burdick’s various band recordings are pretty rough but the Sins Tailor songs were clearly professionally done. Personally, I love the ringing Brydsian jangle on “Morning Calling.” If you want to mainline rock and roll authenticity, hook yourself up with Burdick’s work.
SisterLook At It RainSins Taylor – Morning Calling
Journeymen put in the time because … they have to. Something drives them to play, record, and put the music out there. The least we can do is to check out what Michael Shelley, Astro Chicken and David Burdick been up to. After all, while they’re clearly not in it for the money, but they undoubtedly could use some.