Falling somewhere between James Taylor, John Denver and Paul Simon on the singer-songwriter spectrum, central California mountain dweller Brett Dennen aces the acousticy clean, folksy pop song style. But his most recent extended play release sees him stretching into the more retro poprock field with “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.” The track has the feel of a great big song, a classic potential group sing-along with a beat so open even most clap-incapable can get it right. The roll out and beat is very Sonny and Cher circa 1965, with a bright guitar lead line that threads through the song, coming back at regular intervals. I can’t make up my mind whether the track is more Ben Kweller or Dusty Springfield. Vocally and song structure-wise it’s very Ben while the guitar timbre is so Dusty. The acoustic rendering of the tune really brings out the melodic lead guitar line too. I could imagine a faster version that would push the song more into the power pop genre but Dennen’s pace is A-OK too, a nice and easy, in no hurry delight of a single.
Besides easy rocking the guitar troubadour thing, Dennen is also a talented water colour painter. Check out his art, music, and seemingly constant series of online shows from his website and Facebook and Bandcamp pages.
Edgy powerpop guitar god Chris Church hepped me to a new release from Walter Egan. That surprised me a bit as Egan is neither very power poppy nor edgy. But, hey, it’s good to be surprised. The tip sent me down a research rabbit hole of discovery, scouring Egan’s whole back catalogue and the results were delightfully surprising. Like many people, Walter Egan was essentially that one killer single for me, “Magnet and Steel.” When I re-heard it on the 1997 Boogie Nights soundtrack it totally transported me back to 1978 AM radio and that slick but oh-so-addictive California melodic-rock sound of Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon, Egan and others. Kinda made me wonder what else he’d been up to over the years. Well two decades later I’m here to report that Egan was and is much more than a ‘one-hit wonder.’ Over the course to 12 albums or so he’s amassed an impressive collection of memorable tunes.
Let’s start with Egan’s new album Fascination. Man, he’s still got it. The opening bars of “I’m with the Girl” sound so Asylum Records 1977 and once the vocal harmonies kick in it’s like anything Linda Ronstadt or the Everly’s might have put out in the period. Meanwhile “A Fool in Love” bolts out the gate like any should-be hit single will do, the songwriting strong and the arrangement a winner, carried by a relentless guitar hook. Now this record is not some late in life career revival for Egan. Really, he never went away. But his recorded output does seem to be limited to three distinct periods: early career releases from 1977 to 1983, a spate of LPs turned out from 1999 to 2002, and a more recent cache of records from 2011 to the present. The albums try out different styles but never stray far from a California pop meets retro rock and roll formula. And I’m Ok with that.
Egan’s 1977 debut Fundamental Roll was produced by Lindsay Buckingham and it shows, all shiny acoustic guitars, tasty electric guitar lead lines, and exquisite background vocal support from Stevie Nicks, the latter nicely showcased on the majestic “Won’t You Say You Will.” His breakthrough 1978 album Not Shy is so much more than just “Magnet and Steel.” “Hot Summer Nights” has a stop-what-you’re-doing cool opener that builds incredibly, helped by those ghostly background ‘oohs’. The vibe from this track so reminds me of John Stewart’s “Gold” from the same period. 1979’s HiFi was supposed to solidify Egan as a hitmaker but the record seemed to fall between audiences. Personally I love the tentative new wave sprinkled throughout this record, and very apparent on “Like You Do” with its interesting song structure (particularly the twist in the chorus). Record labels would give artists a bit more rope back in the day but the clock was ticking for Egan to get back on the charts. Alas neither 1980s The Last Stroll or 1983’s Wild Exhibitions did the trick – but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Both records had great songs, like “Motel Broken Hearts” on TLS or “Fool Moon Fire” from WE.
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed Egan mostly contributing to other people’s tours and albums. But 1999’s Walternative kicked off a recording comeback, the first of a quick trio of albums that saw Egan charting some new musical territory, like the reggae-infused pop of “There Goes My Girl.” Or the very Fleetwood Mac Rumours acoustic twinge all over “The Loneliest Boy” from 2001’s Mad Dog. 2002’s Apocalypso Now carried on with the acoustic theme on songs like “Time and the Rain” and the beautiful instrumental “Lullaby” but also rocked out with solid hooky singles like “The Reason Why.”
Egan’s most recent recording period emerged in 2011 with Raw Elegant, a record that is largely unavailable. Even Egan’s website admits it’s a rarity! 2014’s Myth America has a great title and artwork (featured above) and songs that might best be cast in the Americana tradition. Egan’s vocal on “Time the Master” has a lovely vulnerable quality that suits the low key melody. By 2017 Egan was back to an acoustic feel on “Old Photographs” from True Songs.
Walter Egan’s a musical survivor. He had a gargantuan hit that movie-makers still reach out for to paint that perfect late 1970s tableau. But he’s a whole lot more than that one song, as his sporadic recording career ably demonstrates. Take a stroll with Egan’s new record or any of the albums featured here and hear it for yourself.
The painting above (which adorns the Myth America album) is actually by Walter Egan. What a beauty!
Steve Robinson and Ed Woltil, two great tastes that go great together. Or separately. Their 2015 duo release Cycles was pretty special, particularly “Love Somebody” and “The Boy From Down the Hill.” Since then they’ve released solo work, like Ed’s fab 2020 album One in My Tree. And sources tell me (thanks Ed!) that a new duo record is in the works. But right now both men have got great solo efforts worthy of a deep thesaurus dive to find the appropriate superlatives.
Robinson’s Swallowing the Sun just gives me a good good feeling, like a snatch of warm sunshine somehow embedded in song. With help from Woltil, XTC’s Dave Gregory and others, the sound ranges from mid-period Beatles to XTC to classic English folky pop. The album kicks off with “Sorry Amsterdam” whose chorus sounds so mid-1970s Wings to me. From there Robinson spends a lot of time working a Beatles/XTC axis, a bit of Revolver on “Wild God” and oh so much Harrison pedal steel guitar throughout “Quiet One,” or a Mummer vibe on “Make You Mine” or Nonesuch for “Smiling Delirious.” Sometimes the two sonic pallets collide, as when Robinson has a “Lady Madonna” piano driving the playful XTC feel of “Mr. Empty Head.” “Needle in the Red” changes things up with a more Neil Finn/Crowded House style. And then there’s the folk side Steve Robinson. “Milk and a Dash” reminds me of just about every mid-1960s English beat group – Herman’s Hermits, Manfred Mann, The Hollies, etc. – whose records usually included some obligatory R&B and classic folk workouts. But they always had a delightfully earnest – very listenable – pop quality to them. ‘Bah, bah, bah …’ indeed! But then “Proud of Our Love” shifts folk genres, mining a sophisticated English folk scene I associate more with the likes of Roy Harper and John Martyn. Ten years is a long time to wait for a Robinson solo album but if Swallowing the Sun is the end product, so be it. Seems you just can’t rush this kind of good thing.
Meanwhile, as well as contributing to Steve’s just released record, Ed’s got his own album to do. In fact, all this year Woltil plans to release a new single every month, culminating in an album drop by year’s end. The project is off to a great start with the endearing slice of retro songwriting captured in “Paper Boat.” This is a kind of stylistic impressionism we might link with Paul McCartney or Billy Joel, though the song itself has an emotional depth I associate more with Randy Newman’s soundtrack work. Truly, a perfect little song given a masterful, under-stated performance.
Get closer to Steve and Ed and spend a little time with these recordings via their respective solo and joint internet properties hyperlinked above.
It’s been a while since we’ve jangled Thursday so to make up for it today’s post features two heavy hitter album releases and a spate of other good things. Secure the good china because the heavy reverb here is definitely gonna make things shake.
In one of the most anticipated albums of the year, The Boys With the Perpetual Nervousness defy the sophomore slump with a drop-dead gorgeous collection of new tunes. If anything, Songs From Another Life is even better than the band’s outstanding debut Dead Calm. The sound is a bit edgier, the feel a bit more urgent. It’s all there on the album opener, “I Don’t Mind” with its muscular jangle hooks and earworm melody. When the sweet sweet instrumental break kicks in at 1:11 it’s like a shot of adrenaline. And then it’s over all too soon! The obvious musical reference points here fall somewhere between the Byrds and Teenage Fanclub, particularly on “Play (On My Mind)” and “How I Really Feel.” But there’s a bit of the duo’s previous incarnations – Dropkick and El Palacio de Linares – lurking here too on tracks like “Rose Tinted Glasses” and “In Between.” And then the band go in totally new directions on songs like “Lethargy” with its hypnotic synth adornments. Personally, I can’t stop hitting replay on “Waking Up in the Sunshine,” the should-be hit single to my ears. If you need something to lift your spirits, something to make your heart soar, then proceed directly to this long player. I may be calling it early but my gut says Songs From Another Life is the feel good album of the year.
Another jangle band that never fails to impress and delight are The Vapour Trails. Their brand new EP Underneath Tomorrow is no exception. These guys hit all the 1960s marks but always throw in a host of original twists. Sure “Tommy’s Tune” sounds so Byrds but there’s a bit of CSN&Y there too. Title track “Underneath Tomorrow” has lovely jangle and great background vocals, with some inventive instrumental interludes. And there’s “That’ll Do It” with its killer Monkees-reminiscent, lead-line opener and addictive pumping organ drawing you in. Man, what hooks! But it’s not just the great retro feel of the album, the songwriting is up to the band’s reliably strong standards. Check out their turn in a more Beatles direction with “Autumn and Spring” or a British 1960s blues vibe on while “Strange.” The only real limit to the EP is that everything ends far too soon.
There’s something so beach dreamy about Stephen’s Shore, you can practically feel the sea breeze coming off the title track from their new EP Brisbane Radio. At just 12 minutes long the release is perhaps more like a maxi-single but, hey, I’d argue it’s a short time well spent. The lovely lilting lead jangle guitar carries us through “Up To No Good” and the mostly instrumental “Midvert.” Meanwhile “Skogen” sounds more like what we might expect from a new album. It’s a song with a bit more complexity and a melody that captures the darker vibe of late 1960s folk rock. Compared to the band’s earlier work, 2016’s crisp and hooky Ocean Blue, this new material sounds more organic and less in a hurry, though no less melodic and endearing.
Last up on our jangle-heavy feature, two singles that showcase the breadth of the genre. First, Will Courtney teams up with two members of the Ugly Beats, Joe Emery and Daniel Wilcox, to take on the Byrds’ classic “Here Without You.” The original is pretty hard to improve on so the boys wisely decide to take it in a slightly new direction, distorting its traditional jangle and countrying up the vocal delivery. The result is a refreshing, exciting reset to an old fave. By contrast, like Tom Petty and Greg Kihn before them, Boston’s Modern Day Idols demonstrate how jangle can be woven into the very core of modern poprock. MDI have a great song with “Not the Only One” from their recent self-titled album but the jangle lead guitar just adds that extra dimension of bliss. I’m liking their whole LP – it’s all eminently listenable – but this particular song just won’t vacate my short term memory.
In these dark times jangle is the musical light glinting from the far reaches of our ‘isolate in place’ tunnel. Click on the hyperlinks to hear more.
The Beatles’ first live appearance on BBC radio occurred on Brian Matthews’ Saturday Club January 26, 1963. Today we create our own version of the club, chock full of more recent Merseybeats from bands both far and near the Lime Street Station.
The Poppermosthail from Glasgow, Scotland and their releases are very 1963-64 era fab four fantastic. Ok, the ‘they’ here is actually just him, one guy, Joe Kane, but what a beautiful noise this guy manages to pull off playing and singing everything. The feel is the breezy pop perhaps a bit more associated with some of the songs The Beatles gave away in their early days, to groups like The Fourmost, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and Peter and Gordon. The band’s debut single “Can’t Take That Away” has a definite “Bad to Me” swing while its b-side is the Beatles brand of American R&B reinvention. The pop carries over on the just released EP A Piece of the Poppermost with “Laziest Fella in the Realm” and “In and Out” while “Get It Down” nails an “I’ll Follow the Sun” vibe. But the EP does rock out a bit with the opening cut “Well I Will,” in a very gear 1964 sort of way, of course.
The Unswept are originally from Sheffield but now reside in Chicago and their brand of Merseyfied poprock leans heavily on Harrisonian jangle. His distinctive Rickenbacker sound is all over the fun cover of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Cynical Girl” that appears on their brand new EP Power Pop for All the People. Well, sort of brand new – three of the four songs were previously available on their self-titled 2014 release. But hey, who doesn’t want to hear a jangly romp through The Rutles “I Must Be In Love” and Nick Lowe’s “So It Goes” again? I definitely do. And add to the mix another magical Liverpool contribution, the La’s “I Can’t Sleep,” and you’ve really got something special. The La’s don’t get covered much because, frankly, their songs are hard to do. But The Unswept ace the energy, vocal interplay, and dynamic guitar work the track demands. If this EP doesn’t send you packing to pick up a copy of their recent EP of original stuff, The Codependent, then it’s time to make a hearing appointment.
Ever since they hit the scene Cupid’s Carnival have reliably serviced the mid-period Beatlemaniacs. These guys really know how to throw out a slightly psychedelic, harmony-vocaled set of hooks. As we wait for a follow up album to 2020’s Colour Blind, the boys have got a fab new single “You’re So Cool” and it’s the injection of Mersey poprock you need right now. Our last featured act on this rogue episode of Saturday Club are The Meatles, from their Beat the Meatles release. Now, I thought it was just National Lampoon that went in for these sort of gags but apparently there’s a New Zealand Beatles cover band that has a predictably over-the-top lewd take on the idea. That’s not what we’re featuring here. What we’ve got is uber talented Gary Ritchie’s strictly classy 2000 tribute to the Fabs, twenty-two lovingly crafted note-perfect covers of the early to mid-period Beatles catalogue. Personally, I think Ritchie adds some distinctive elements to “Little Child,” “I’ll Cry Instead,” and “I’ll Get You.” But the whole record is a dance party booster. Get it on the turntable and then get it on!
The Beatles are not coming back but their influence keeps returning in new releases, showing up in both predictable and innovative ways. Make sure to tune in to these acts at your local e-music retailer.
I stumbled across Mancunian James Holt doing a fun cover of Crowded House’s “Weather With You” with himself playing every instrument simultaneously in the video. This led to a bit of research and the discovery of this gem, released in early 2020. “Mystery Girl” is a mélange of alternating musical shots: pumping piano, organ, and harpsichord (among other instruments) amid the delightful swirl of the main and background vocals. There’s something a bit 10cc here, definitely Neil Finn-worthy, even Gilbert O’Sullivan-ish. On the whole, the song is a masterful bit of production disguised as a breezy pop confection, Holt so effortlessly hits all the melodic and instrumental marks. This surely marks the beginning of something good.
The guitar harmonics intro to Kirsty MacColl’s original version of “They Don’t Know” is just so perfect, conjuring both the Phil Spector and British girl singer traditions. But ultimately it’s the strength of the songwriting that makes this song a classic and eminently coverable. As one internet commentator quipped, the track is ‘bombproof.’ After listening to a couple dozen versions I’d have to agree. Still, MacColl’s version remains definitive for me.
MacColl’s 1979 original was her recording debut and an immediate hit with British radio. But distribution problems with Stiff Records prevented the single from making the official charts. In fact, most fans would have to wait for MacColl’s 1995 album Galore to get their hands on it. In the interim comedian Tracey Ullman took the song to number 2 in the UK and number 8 in the US in 1983. Ullman cranked the sixties references in the tune to the max, turning it into an enjoyable bit of retro kitch. But as subsequent covers have made clear, “They Don’t Know” is not limited to a 1960s girl group register.
There are plenty of choices when it comes to covers of this song so my picks are obviously selective. Early covers by Gigolo Aunts and the Young Fresh Fellows are fine but not as pop rocky as I would prefer. Subterfuge’s 1988 low-key jangle-heavy version strips things back a little, letting the song’s bones show through. Leslie Carter’s 2001 take leans on the piano for the ornamentation and some strong girl group background vocals. The song’s popularity can also measured by the number of foreign language versions – of which there are many. Moneybrother’s 2006 Swedish version speeds up the tempo and gives the proceedings an aura of Springsteen at his most power pop. Belgians Nailpin sing in English but sharpen things up with a very poppy, slightly punk-infused version that bends the basic melody in interesting ways.
More recently indie versions of “They Don’t Know” have been piling up as MacColl’s songwriting skills and performance have gained greater appreciation and prominence. Big indie names like Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs added the song to Volume 3 of their Under the Covers series but, as far as duo versions go, I think I prefer Geoff Palmer and Lucy Ellis‘ version from their recent Your Face is Weird collaboration. Michael Carpenter gave the track a wonderful 1960s beat group treatment while Robyn Gibson lovingly recast the song as a great lost Peter and Gordon out-take on his critically acclaimed Volume One in his Bop of the Pops series.
Many artists have messed with the tempo and feel of the song, with both arresting and exciting results. Feather and Down slow things down with their spare, mostly acoustic performance, an effort that only amplifies the song’s aching melodic beauty. Lydia Loveless takes things in rebel country direction, Karen Basset goes garage rock, while both Boys Forever and So Cow work the DIY indie rock vibe in different ways. My most recent fave cover is from Men of the North Country with their great horns, trebly guitar and video with Kirsty hovering in the background.
Kirsty MacColl’s catalogue is full of great tunes, well worth exploring. But if she’d only written this one song she’d be in the karmic black for sure. More covers in the future are a certainty.
I do remember skating to the AM radio tunes of the 1970s. Even though we were just going round and round in circles there was something about the Steve Miller Band or Cars accompaniment that made it seem cool rather than just cold. So as temperatures continue to dip this winter it’s time to playlist a modern version of the skating party with only the coolest of new singles.
For a moment I thought Jim Basnight’s “Rebel Kind” was a cover of Dino, Desi and Billy’s 1960s hit but turns out it’s much more cool than that. The song was originally by the criminally under-appreciated Vancouver band The Modernettes. Basnight honours the tune with a Replacement’s indie vibe that really connects. This is just one of 21 highlights from his recent covers album, Jokers, Idols and Misfits (check out the fabulous “This Is Where I Belong” for another surefire winner). Ok, sometimes new singles are just new to me, like Kamino’s “Where Do You Want Me?” iTunes unreliably informed me it was a 2020 release but the song actually came out in 1999 on the band’s debut EP Donut. Frankly, it sounds so fresh and contemporary it could be brand new. The song has an analog feel to the instrumentation and a clever melodic dissonance the reminds me of Fountain of Wayne’s best work. Would love to see this group take up where they left off. Weezer have a brand new album out (OK Human) and as with all their releases I can find at least one absolutely fab single-worthy cut. This time out it’s “Here Comes the Rain” with its dramatic piano hooks and earworm after effects. From the ‘who doesn’t need some low key jangle?’ file The Umbrella Puzzles have a nice little EP built around the striking guitar work on the single, “Slips Through the Cracks.” It’s an amble along little ditty with a surprisingly rich tone on the solo lead guitar that is something special. I’d have bought Gavin Bowles’ This Year’s Modern for the cover alone, he so aces mimicking This Year’s Model right down to the shady brown hue on the backdrop. The title track is an interesting vamp with some Steve Nieve organ and 1940s background vocals. For a very Costello vibe in sound and songwriting check out “Boy From an Unknown Planet” from the same record.
I raved about The Feels “She’s Probably Not Thinking of Me” as the prototypically perfect poprock single, from the guitar hooks to the melody-echoing background vocals to the overall sound. So it won’t surprise readers that I’m loving the band’s recent new song, “Is Everything Alright?” It’s got a bit of Bleu or Adam Daniel about it and it’s making me itch for a whole album. Jenny are a straight up pop punk outfit that blast through “Rose City” at an enjoyable clip. They know what their audience wants and they deliver with just the right amount of guitar distortion and melodic undercurrent. Lucy and the Rats offer up an updated early 1960s girl group sound, elevating the rock and roll feel on “On Fire.” The guitar sound and plinky keyboards meld so wonderfully with the group vocals. I think the best descriptor for The Outta Sites is neo-1960s. The band has got the sixties chops but aren’t afraid to mix in stuff from other eras. You can hear it on the title track of their recent album Beautiful You, a delightful bouncy mid-sixties-style song combined with a fab late seventies syth lead line. The band’s skill here really reminds me of The Smithereens, particularly on tracks like “This Time.” Now for a departure, I’ve got some neo-folk/gospel with Thee Holy Brothers. The sound is very Bombadil in escaping the bounds of conventional folk, evident on “My Name is Sparkle,” and the album cover is so Brothers Four 1962. I’m not a god guy but I like what these guys are doing all over this record.
I got message from Monogroove to check out their catalogue and I’m glad I did. “The Looking Glass” combines a Beatles Abbey Road vibe with some unerring 1970s pop hooks. A winsome bit of airy melodic goodness. You don’t have to take a ferry across the Mersey to get caught up with the Wirral’s West Coast Music Club, I’ve got their new single right here. “Thinkin’” mines the rock face these guys excel at: jangly, slightly distorted, melodically dissonant tunes, this time with a hint of Crosby, Stills, and Nash on the vocals. I love The Veras not just because they’ve taken my dear grandmother’s name but because their song is on a kind of permanent repeat right now. “Paper Cup Telephone” has a main structure so familiar to listeners who lived through the glam-drenched 1970s but the build up to it is so interesting. Those heavenly background vocals! Such out of this world guitars! And that organ. More please. Our skate ends with something a bit more subdued from Michael Penn. Anything new from this guy is to be treasured since he abandoned us for scoring movies. “A Revival” obviously speaks to the present moment in American politics, with Penn reassuring listeners that change is gonna come. It’s a stark, subtle, yet reassuring testament, with his usual knack for the aching, low-ball hook that keeps coming back to you long after the song has faded out.
The zamboni’s waiting to get on the ice, the ushers are screaming for the kids to exit the rink, and songs continue to rattle around in our heads as we twist our skates off. Funny how music can make the most mundane things seem special.