Anyone who lived through the beginning of the 1980s will instantly recognize the keyboard sound that drives The Monroes “What Do All The People Know?” The song kicks off with Springsteen-esque airy piano feel but this quickly shifts to a driving guitar/keyboard combo reminiscent of Greg Kihn, The Fixx and J. Geils Band. I mean, check out the instrumental section at the 2 minutes mark – pure 1980s magic. Released in 1982, the song managed to climb to 59 on the national US charts despite the fact the band’s Japanese label went under shortly after it came out. The group tried to carry on but eventually broke up a few years later. Over the years, the song has been resurrected regularly by fans as a great lost hit. Former band members took notice and in 2013 released a re-produced version of the original song along with some material that didn’t get an airing before. Yet it was only in 2019-20 that a proper relaunch of the group occurred, including a new video for “What Do All The People Know?” There’s an even happier ending: since then The Monroes have released a slew of new songs, proving they were not a just a one hit wonder. For instance, check out “Saturday” for a particularly winning cut.
It’s an exciting time because both Liz Phair and Juliana Hatfield have brand new albums out. These two never fail to deliver solid material full of subtle hooks, performed with a sonic panache defined by groovy guitars and alluring vocals. But don’t just take my word for it. These two are so good that people write songs about them. A lot of people, actually. I came across the phenomenon quite by accident when I was searching to see if either artist had material up on Bandcamp (with music purchases I try to make sure the biggest cut goes to the artist). Surprise, surprise, the results turned up songs about the artists as well as the artists themselves. And some of the tracks are pretty good. So today’s post showcases new songs by Hatfield and Phair as well as songs by people who (obviously) love them!
Juliana Hatfield has been keeping us entertained in recent years with her exquisite, meticulous cover albums dedicated to material by Olivia Newton John and The Police. At first the concept seemed a bit over the top – until you hear them. Hatfield knows how to ride the line on doing covers: you give the audience a bit of what they expect, something familiar, even as you stretch the song into a new shape. It’s the difference between karaoke and a real craft in performing. Still, it’s great to have a new album of originals. Blood is packed full of Hatfield’s usual cool tunes, whip-smart lyrics, striking guitars and compressed vocals, coming off like the Bangles’ new wave neighbour. Keyboards also figure prominently on this record, bouncing against the guitar and keeping the two in tension. You can really hear it on “Gorgon,” my fave track right now. I love the simplicity and swing behind the guitar hooks in the chorus. But it’s there all over the record, from the dynamic opening cut “The Shame of Love” to the early single “Mouthful of Blood.” If you’re a Hatfield fan, get ready to enjoy yourself. Blood’s a pleaser.
Hatfield and Phair make for an interesting pairing. They’re almost exactly the same age, born three months apart in 1967. But productivity-wise, Phair has been a bit more selective about releasing material under her own name, with just 7 albums compared to Hatfield’s 19. Of course, she has released other work as part of Some Girls, Minor Alps, and The I Don’t Care’s. The soon-to-be released Liz Phair album is entitled Soberish and we’ve only got three songs to go on for now. But what a triple play. “Hey Lou” is an imagined conversation between Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Lyrically it is already clever enough, but music-wise the song’s structure is striking and original, a layered melody that really pulls you in. “Spanish Doors” also offers some distinctive layering, this time with juxtaposed vocal melody lines in the chorus that are definitely captivating. “In There” is a more open, vulnerable track, nicely filled in with acoustic piano and some airy synth lines. Can’t wait to hear more.
Overall, the songs about Hatfield and Phair are pretty indie DIY. But not Bad Bad Hat’s “Liz Phair.” Wow, this is one slick, spot-on Phair-ish number. The song is professionally produced, with interesting guitar and keyboard work, and pretty Liz-like vocals. The rest of this trio’s EP Wide Right is highly listenable, with a sound that departs from the Phair mould. Jimmy Murn and the Heymakers go all fan boy on “Dear Liz Phair” but the earnestness is cut with some great Weezer-ish vocal ‘ooh oohs,’ crunchy guitars and funky organ fills. Picturebox’s fuzzed out “Juliana Hatfield One” is a poppy number riding a Nick Lowe kind of melodic hook. “Juliana Hatfield Two” is the same again but de-fuzzed, which brings out the cheese on the synth and adds extra preciousness to the vocals. 24 Hours Blues Cycle’s “Juliana Hatfield Type” is a bit of a departure, kicking off in an Americana folk vein but the supporting background vocals are very Juliana. And then there’s the very professional Swiss band Lovebugs who manage to name-check both our featured artists and many more women in rock in their somewhat datedly-titled but peppy “Girls in Rock.”
Imagine what it must be like running across a song written about you. Must be kinda cool. Or maybe it’s a bit creepy? I’m not really in a position to judge from personal experience. Ultimately, as with all things musical, the bottom line for me is the quality of the tune. A lot can be forgiven if the thing is hummable. Hatfield and Phair never let us down on that front.
Bob of the Pops, Chris Catalyst, Daisy House, David Woodard, Frank Brown, Girlatones, Hayley and the Crushers, Hearts Apart, Henry Chadwick, Johnathan Pushkar, Los Straightjackets, Major Murphy, Nova Waves, Robyn Gibson, Ryan Allen and his Extra Arms, Silver Torches, Talk Show Host, The Coral, The Embryos, The Fratellis, The Lousy Pop Group, Travel Lanes
Spring always comes a bit later than I reckon it should in my part of the geographical woods. But it is definitely here – at last – and that can only mean one thing: dance party. Even if I’m only dancing with myself I can still restock the singles bar with a load of exciting new singles!
The Fratellis have always been a bit off-the-beaten indie rock and roll track, utilizing uncommon, sometimes old-timey song structures. Their new album is no exception. Just one listen to title track “Half Drunk Under a Full Moon” had me hooked with its cinematic airy piano opening and striking lyrical imagery. I’m imagining my own b-side to that single would be “Lay Your Body Down,” a lovely throwback, could-be sing-a-long. Henry Chadwick is back with a new single “Tomorrow is Today,” a sleek modern slice of poprock. The song is so nicely put together, an effortless swirl of alternating sonic blasts of textured guitar and vocals, reminding me a bit of Ben Kweller and Mark Everett. A nice surprise arrived a few weeks back with a new single from Daisy House, a band on indefinite hiatus since 2018. “Last Wave Home” is what the band does best, evoking the magic of that mid-1960s California sun, sand and surf with a Beach Boys’ feel for melody and harmonies. The Go Go’s will be joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and rightly so, as their influence is unmistakable across a wide range of music and genders. I mean, check out Go Go’s vibe all over Hayley and Crushers rockin’ single, “Kiss Me So I Can.” The guitars are so Jane and Charlotte while the vocals really ace a Belinda delivery. And it’s a great tune as well. Major Murphy move in a new, darker direction with the title track on their new record Access. The song has an ominous undercurrent that is both hypnotic and catchy. The vocal harmonies that dominated their last album are back but put to slightly different harmonic purposes. The end result is captivating and unnerving, in a good way.
I’ve been remiss in getting something written about Girlatones. “One Chord Too Many” came out about a year ago but my philosophy is that it’s never too late to sing a single’s praises. The song is very guitar pop, a bit of Belle and Sebastion meets the Byrds. My choice for b-side would be the fantastic 1960s-emoting “2 Young 2 Forget,” written in a style reminiscent of all those songs the Rolling Stones gave away (e.g. “Too Much in Love”). The lead guitar is so spot on 1966 jangle! Seattle’s Silver Torches sneak up on us with “Love Someone,” a song that ambles along until it suddenly blasts off in the chorus, fattening up the vocals and the sense of emotional release. Very movie montage-ish, cue hero overcoming whatever is holding them back. Travel Lanes’ Frank Brown put out a nice little EP a few months back entitled This One’s For You. Low-key, unassuming, the songs are just delightful small group sketches. I’m particularly partial to the rollicking, jaunty “Summer,” with a vocal delivery that reminds me of Dan Israel. Robyn Gibson’s amazing Bob of the Pops cover albums series has worked its way up to volume 5 with no loss of momentum or quality. Basically, Gibson takes both classic and forgotten singles of 1960s and 1970s yesteryear and reworks them into a slightly different 1960s register from their original. For instance, his cover of Marmalade’s 1971 song “Cousin Norman” moves away from the country rock feel of the original, putting it into a late 1960s beat group style. The result is a fresh take that gives the song swing and puts the melody more up front. This next group initially caught my eye for their name. The Lousy Pop Group is just so disarming, beating crabby reviewers to the punch. But the LGP are not lousy at all. “When I’m With You” is a great piece of lofi jangle, combining a Smiths-ian songwriting feel with a more low-key vocal and guitar delivery.
This party could use a bit more no-holds-barred rocking out so to that end we turn now to Italy, of course. Seriously, there’s some superior gritty but melodic rock and roll coming out of that country lately and Hearts Apart embody that. “Waste Time” is driven by its rough and ready rhythm guitar work and some nice call and response vocals. The rest of their almost released EP, Number One to No One, is more of the good same. My local punk popsters, Toronto’s Talk Show Host, never fail to please. The new record is the stylishly designed Mid-Century Modern and the two advance singles back me up. “Blood in the Sand” dials down the punk in favour of flooring the pop pedal, with plenty of catchy ‘oh ohs’ to fuel some audience sing-along-ing. Chris Catalyst has some great crashing guitars contrasting his polished vocal harmonies on “Divide and Rule” from his latest LP Kaleidoscopes. Something very Revolver going on here, filtered through a 1980s British power pop filter. I love the flexibility of Chicago’s The Embryos. One minute they’re vibing the Bryds and Teenage Fanclub, the next they’ve got a Church-meets-The La’s thing going. With their new stand-alone single, “Rattlesnakes,” they seem to be defining their own unique synthesis of all these influences. The song also has some killer organ fills and lead guitar lines. Ryan Allen and his Extra Arms reliably churn out highly-listenable full-band rock and roll. But his most recent EP Digital Hiss includes a hypnotic, largely acoustic-guitar driven ditty “Can You Take My Thoughts Away.” The song uses an economy of words and instrumentation but still manages to deliver an Elliott Smith level of performative punch. The song has a tension that seems poised to break out of its low key shell at any moment, even though it holds its powder.
Nova Waves are an interesting band for a host of reasons. They live in three different countries, and thus must send tapes around the world so each member can add their own something to the mix. The results vary, from revivalist 1960s rock to carefully crafted indie pop. “Radio Sound” is from their new album Going the Distance and captures this range, with an Apples in Stereo pristine pop sound, punctuated with 1969 Beatles ‘la’s la’s’ and guitar embellishments. The Coral also have a new album, Coral Island. I can’t decide my initial fave song, split between the obvious single “Change Your Mind” and the should-be sleeper hit “Vacancy” with its crazy good organ. There’s something very laid back 1970s California country rock mixed with The Zombies keyboard work all over this album. Johnathan Pushkar loves the Beatles and that influence is all over his new record Compositions. Yet with this outing he also moves more decisively into Fountains of Wayne territory with at least half the songs, particularly “Gonna Be Alright” where his phrasing and song structure is very Chris Collingwood. Another guy vibing a bit of FOW is David Woodard on this recent EP Butterfly Effect. It’s there on the opening to “the last word” but Woodard quickly takes the song in his own direction. The track has a low key hook so subtlely placed that its only on repeated listenings that it really gets into your head. Now, to wrap up, we’ll skip the vocals. A good instrumentals band makes it look so easy. You just replace the vocal melody with some twangy guitar right? But the magic is all in how you do that, the choice of guitar tone and timbre, how you lean into the melody line, the phrasing, etc. Nashville’s Los Straightjackets are the current masters of this genre and they showcase their considerable chops on an infectious reworking of The Hollies “Bus Stop.” Hard to add anything new to either the song or the original version but LS manage to cast some new light on the song’s melodic nuances. Magic stuff, for sure.
Twenty new should-be hits for your spring dancing playlist. Shake your tailfeather on over these bands’ internet locales and get better acquainted with they’ve got on offer beyond these great songs.
Gather round people and hear today’s topical troubadour Jonny Polonski give voice to what we’re all feeling right now. On his new single “People Are Lonely, Horny, Angry and Depressed” the man sings it like it is, namely that everybody is tired, randy, cranky and feeling blue. Of course, it rhymes when he says it. And the music is like a shot of Elvis Costello meets the Eels. So just listen to him and you can skip my blathering. You’ll be glad you did because Polonksi is a legendary talent. Though somewhat reclusive and mercurial in his recording and record releasing habits, just about everything he’s put out has been critically acclaimed. And deservedly so. You can dip in just about anywhere in his catalogue and find a real gem. To me, this one-off, clearly pandemic inspired single is no exception.
In 1979 I was 14 years old, barreling into a world of music my parents didn’t know anything about. New wave clicked with me in part of because it recycled the sixties sound I’d grown up with listening to my parents’ record collection. But there was something stripped down and edgy to it that appealed to me as well. Today’s artists so nail the musical aura of that time it’s like déjà vu for me. The good kind.
Norway’s fave one-man band Caddy has released an album that is like finding some great lost band’s record in the second hand shop. Put this thing on headphones and you’ll swear it’s gotta be a legit new wave era release. The guitar that opens the record is just so late 1970s. The song is “Walking on the Roof,” a cover of a Sgt. Arms track from 1982 and the treatment is pretty close to the original, except where it flares out on occasion with a muscular intensity reminiscent of The Tubes in Completion Backwards Principle mode. The concept for the album was simple, scour obscure new wave records circa 1979-83 for fabulous but historically ignored deep cuts. And then re-interpret them, but drawing from the same era’s sonic palette. Detours and Dead Ends Vol. 1 is the result and it’s a faultless collection, faithful to the era’s dynamic range without sounding derivative. Yet at the same time, the songs here sound fresh and contemporary. It’s in the guitar amp choices and vocal styles. Exhibit A: “Heart of Stone” with its driving guitar and oh-so early 1980s vocals. “Call Your Name” is a real tour de force, unleashing guitars and hooks that remind me of Blue Oyster Cult doing AM radio hit singles. “Cost of Love” is a quintessential 1980s take on the 1960s beat group song. And it just doesn’t stop, the whole record just goes from strength to strength. Check out the unrelenting take on The Freshies “No Money” with oh-so-nice vocals and crashing guitars. Really, there’s more than a little magic in this LP. Volume 2? Yes please.
Paul Kelly’s been running with that Scottish indie music mafia connected to Teenage Fanclub and BMX Bandits for some time. But his own project – The Martial Arts – has legs too. Though they’ve only released one full album, 2006’s Your Sinclair, the band have delivered a smattering of singles and EPs over the years. They’ve even got a Christmas EP. What I can’t figure out is how I’ve only managed to hear about them now. That first record is a dynamite collection of tunes, clearly vibing a 1970s poprock sound that mixes a bubblegum hookyness with a dash of new wave’s guitar crispness. “Don’t Want to Talk” is the killer single here, a clear should-be hit. Pair that with “Summer Tweed” and “Finale” and tell me if you don’t hear something like a Scottish version of The Shins. There’s a bit of James Mercer in both the vocals and the songwriting styles. Fast forward to 2015 and the title track from I Used to Be EP is working in some very ABBA keyboards and even, dare I say, Bay City Rollers melodic turns. And the video is priceless! Now the band are back with new EP, Getting Stranger by the Month, and all these amazing musical elements remain. Seriously “Guilt by Association” sounds straight from the Benny and Bjorn songwriting workshop. Or there’s “Bethany” with its dreamy Shins feel. A new album is rumoured to be in the works and I can’t wait.
Apparently new wave never gets old. There’s something fresh and exciting in the style that keeps music makers coming back for more (inspiration). So why not relive the past in the present with these recordings from Caddy (from Kook Kat here) and The Martial Arts today.
In this era of streaming and individual song downloads, we are told the album is dead. Or is it? Somebody clearly forgot to inform today’s featured artists. Gear up for a post full of five star quality LPs.
Richie Mayer’s experience shows on The Inn of Temporary Happiness. With a career stretching back to the late 1970s new wave scene, his new album effortlessly mixes influences from more than a half century of popular music. The record opens with the obvious single, “Dangerous Rhythm,” and it’s a winner. I love how it builds out of just voice and acoustic guitar, adding more instruments and taking unexpected melodic turns. There’s something a bit Colin Moulding in the chorus, a dash of ELO or Alan Parsons Project with the background vocals, and a heavy dollop of late Beatles guitar work in the solos. But don’t get comfortable because Mayer changes things up stylistically from track to track. There’s some folk rock (“The Inn of Temporary Happiness”), country-ish (“The Hall of Blame” ) and even music hall numbers (“How Can I Leave When I’m Already Gone”). But mostly there’s just great songwriting, in the way great 1970s and 1980s singles used to sound. The Beatles and Beach Boys figure prominently amongst the influences here, particularly “Love Will Find a Way” and “Warmth of the Sun,” though there’s a bit of a 10cc vibe on the former while the latter oozes some Hall and Oates Philly soul. “This is the Day” even has hints of Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” particularly from the keyboards. I could go on – there’s not a weak track anywhere on the LP. Definitely check out the should-be single “She’s Taking It Too Well” (so many Beatle-istic touches here!) and the lovely acoustic guitar instrumental “Kat’s Guitar.” Spend some time with this record: your happiness will not be temporary.
The pandemic interrupted the recording of a new Decibels album so Brent Seavers filled the time making YouTube videos of himself covering a bevy of poprock classics (check out his fantastic cover of Marshall Crenshaw’s “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time” below) and recording a solo album. BS Stands for Brent Seavers sounds like The Decibels, not surprising, but also not like them too. The solo gig has allowed Seavers to drift a bit forward in time, from mid-1960s right up into the new millennium indie poprock scene. Obviously there some very Decibels material here, like “Out in the Rain,” “Clean Reflection,” and the jangle-heavy “All the Better.” The band’s sixties-meets-the-1980s vibe is also there on the Smithereens-ish “Flatline” and the muscled-up California pop hue all over “Running Me Down.” But I’m going to go out on a limb here to suggest the band haunting this record might actually be They Might Be Giants. That Brooklyn duo’s jocular sense of musical whimsey lurks on “Unlike Superman,” “Me and My Melancholy Face,” and most obviously on the fun sing-along “I Wrote a Song.” Seavers even sounds a bit like TMBG’s John Linnell vocally on the album opener, “Play.” On the other hand, should-be hit single “More Than a Friend” is Seaver’s own distinctive brand of melodic rocking out, with strong harmonies, and killer earworm chorus. This is another total album enjoyment collection.
I’ve been listening Rob Fetters’ new album Ship Shake on repeat for the last two weeks or so. The more I hear it, the more I like it. It’s the kind of record that grows on you, as more and more of its musical and lyrical subtleties reveal themselves. Part of the appeal is its hefty dose of positivity. “Turn This Ship Around” is an amazing slice of hooky, indie Americana but it’s also the message we need right now. Or “Not the End” highlights the little things we can do day to day to make the world just a little bit better, set to a carefree summer car-radio soundtrack. Not that all the message here is light. Fetters delves into issues of sexuality, abuse, loss and forgiveness with such a direct sincerity it’s disarming. Themes like these can get a bit preachy but he pulls it off. Ultimately Ship Shake is an album about what really matters in life: people, relationships, and what we’ve learned from our own experience. For instance, on the widely misinterpreted track “Nobody Now” Fetters sounds like he is complaining about the loss of fame and its trappings but what he’s really doing is moving beyond it. In the end, it’s the combination of this emotional depth with great tunes that will bring you back for more. Songs like “Can’t Take It Back” really capture this, showcasing Fetters’ hooky melodies and Tom Petty meets Warren Zevon vocal delivery. And let me say, the guitar playing on this record is pretty extraordinary. From the riff that kicks off the opening track, you know you are in presence of guitar god, but one that can temper technique with melody. This record is a must hear.
Today Poprock Record celebrates International Workers’ Day or May Day as is it more generally known. With music, of course. But this is not just another May Day for me, it is the first without my mentor, Ph.D. dissertation supervisor, and friend, Leo Panitch, who passed away last fall from the combined effects of COVID 19 and cancer. Leo was a giant on the political left, a longtime editor of the influential Socialist Register whose research, writing and impact on working class politics continues to be felt in social movements, political parties and amongst critical academics around the world. I don’t know that Leo would necessarily approve of all the musical selections included here today (frankly, he was more of a 1960s cool jazz cat) but I’m certain he’d sign off on the sentiments they express.
Darren Hayman gets things started with a song appropriately entitled “May Day 1894.” The track comes from his 2015 album Chants for Socialists, a project that sets to music a book of poetry of the same name from 19th century English socialist William Morris. The results are a gorgeously fuzzy poprock single, with striking guitar work and a lingering pastoral melody. In keeping with its socialist ethos, the album is available on a ‘pay what you can’ basis. Australia’s The Basics live up to their name, putting forward the most basic question relevant to socialists, namely “What Ever Happened to the Working Class?” The song and its album were a response to the blasé and dismissive attitude of that country’s rightwing government to working people but the song offers no easy answers. Brooklyn’s The Defibulators take a more humorous approach in “The Working Class” yet still give voice to that sense of dislocation many working class people feel about themselves and their life chances.
Not that there’s necessarily a lack of ideas out there. Music fans looking for a bit of programmatic direction can turn to Stoke-on-Trent’s Milky Wimpshake to lay it all out with admirable melodic clarity. Their most recent album is Confessions of an English Marxist, containing such should-be classics as “Capitalism is a Perversion,” “I Don’t Want to Work” and “No War (But the Class War).” The sound here sometimes reminds me Scotland’s Spook School, when it isn’t full on 1977 angry punk. For an American contribution, Austin Texas has The Capitalist Kids betraying Milton Friedman’s ethos over the course of four LPs on tracks like the highly sarcastic “Socialist Nightmare” and the more illuminating “Socialism isn’t a Dirty Word,” delivered with a nineties poppy punk sneer.
Now I know Leo would approve of Ginger Wildheart’s “Benn,” a rare cut from his Ginger’s Christmas Sack featuring clips of longtime English Labour MP Tony Benn speaking over Ginger’s driving musical accompaniment. Though, to tell the truth, I could just listen to Benn sans the music (no offence Ginger!) for hours. With songs like “Otherwise Occupied on Wall Street” and “The Servants Quarters” Jimmy Haber seems to attuned to the struggles of the oppressed. That comes out loud and clear in his melody-drenched, rocking anthem “We Should Start a Revolution.” Jimmy, I second your emotion.
Wrapping up our poprock tribute to May Day, we must turn to the most perfect purveyors of what might best be dubbed ‘agit-pop,’ Chumbawamba. On their 2008 album The Boy Bands Have Won they articulate the appropriate relationship between music and social struggles, noting in the opening cut “When an Old Man Dies” that ‘you should never try to freeze music, to try to maintain a song in that form, to say this is exactly how it was, is a silly way of looking at things’. In other words, music must always change to respond to the needs of the moment, to the struggles we face now. The band so perfectly capture the uncertainty and possibility with the lyrics of the album’s final song, “What We Want”:
We know what we want
We know what we’ve got
But what do we need?
What do we need?
[voice-over] ‘What’s happened to the music is that it’s changing. It’s changing to suit people’s needs now.’
Exactly. Music will always be a part of the struggle for social justice but it must be music that the people who will make change happen (the working class, in all its diversity) can relate to. I’m sure Leo would approve. Today’s post is dedicated to him. Though I march without him this May Day and for all those to come, I’ll keep something about him close to me with these songs.