I just found about NYC’s The Orion Experience and now it seems that life prior to this discovery was perhaps a bit more dull and unexciting than I had realized. Their 2006 debut album Cosmicandy throws a whole lot of uber cool sounds into the hopper – Blondie era-disco riffs, Chumbawumba-esque anthemic group singing, some Grouplove loose rock n’ roll – and a consistent, clever political and social commentary. It’s all good. Really good. But my hands-down fave on the record is the ELO meets New Pornographers rave up “The Cult of Dionysus.” The song is a rush of hooky adrenaline, constantly shifting its attack, from stripped back guitars to dueling vocals to a full-on wall-of-sound assault. Then there’s the understated bridge, where everything drops out to acoustic guitars and sweet sweet vocals that slowly build back up to a driving climax. It’s an instant repeat-play kind of tune. The band have a few equally good albums sprinkled over the past 15 years, a pleasant solo EP from group leader Orion Simprini, and some appealing brand new material coming out right now. But you’re gonna want to start here, with this song and this album. For poprock fans, it’s a guaranteed good time.
The Orion Experience have plenty of internet real estate but start with Bandcamp – that’s where the music is.
If you need a dose of musical smiles and sunshine, dial up the good times vibe all over the recent Mike Browning releases. A self-admitted musical late bloomer, these recordings are actually brimming with a kind of youthful excitement and joy. Get started with “We’re Hanging Out” which opens Browning’s 2020 debut EP Never Too Late with a splash of that 1960s breezy sunshine pop, one part Buddy Holly, another part Beach Boys. Then “I Can See Nothing But You” combines some lovely jangle with a bit of late 1960s folk rock. “Hide and Seek” is bit more neo-1950s, in that way mid-1960s beach group would do it. Meanwhile “Watching the Lines on the Road” feels so Monkees, leaning particularly toward Nesmith’s influence. Browning followed up this EP with a slick sounding single in early 2021, “Another Bite of the Apple,” a nice poppy number with a great hooky lead guitar break. This is feel good music of the very best kind.
On his most recent release Class Act Browning takes aim at covering hits ranging from the 1960s through to the 1980s, classics like the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again,” the Byrds’ “My Back Pages,” and the Beatles “Norwegian Wood,” What a challenge! But Browning somehow manages to pull it off with solid musicianship and an endearing vocal style. My own personal fave is his somewhat muted take on “Jenny 867-5309” where he manages to capture the song’s energy and excitement while reining its rock excesses. Or there’s the chipper fun cover of The Reflections 1964 hit “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet, or a super take on the obscure regional US hit “The Little Black Egg.” And so on through 12 tracks in total, covering artists as varied as XTC, the Kinks, Bob Dylan, the Spencer Davis Group, and more. Taken together, the feel of this record is like some kind of fabulous party for a multi-generational group to really enjoy. I, for one, would love to hear Browning’s band do these covers live.
With these recordings Mike Browning demonstrates it’s never too late to take up your musical dreams. And he’s now promising us more is on the way. Keep up with Mike at his website, Bandcamp and Facebook pages.
From the 1960s through to the 1980s a lot of young people tried their hand at forming a rock and roll band. Not every act made it. Sometimes they just didn’t have what it takes but more often than not they just couldn’t dedicate their lives to the mission in the obsessed, manic way that is often required to succeed. Here’s how the story typically fizzled out: life intervened, marriage and/or kids happened, and suddenly the landlord/mortgage company demanded a more regular paycheque than rock and roll could provide. Well lately we’ve seen a lot of those deferred rockers making up for lost time, digging out their old recordings, polishing them up and turning them loose in the new, anything-goes internet form of music distribution. And the results are sometimes pretty special. Here we salute just a few of the more notable recent poprock record revivals.
Steve Rosenbaum’s monumental collection Have a Cool Summer! is like a message in a bottle that’s suddenly washed ashore. The album contains 23 songs recorded on his home 4-track between 1979-89 that never saw the light of day at the time. After spinning these tunes a few times all I can say is, what a shame. Get ready for a ‘great lost album’ experience because Rosenbaum’s songs are tight hooky little masterpieces, combining bits of the Raspberries, the Beach Boys and Marshall Crenshaw. Honestly, there are just too many highlights on this record to really sum the total effect. You can drop the needle anywhere and find something delightful. There’s a touch of the Plimsouls on “Tearing Up the Town,” some of that 1965 Beach Boys wistful ennui with “Me Alone,” a slight XTC feel to “72 Days,” and a whole lot of Costello circa Get Happy! in “Candyland” and “Confidential Love.” Then there’s the Marshal Crenshaw vibe on “Turn Out the Light” and “Girl from Seventeen,” neither of which would go amiss on MC’s debut album. I’d also nominate “These Girls Fly By” and “Come On Over” as the obvious should-be hit singles with their rollicking bouncy guitar and strong melodic hooks. Right now Have a Cool Summer! is only available on 8-track, with a digital download included, but come the new year it busts out into new formats. Trust me, it’s worth digging out your old tech for.
The legend of the Sorrows failed second album is right out rock and roll cinema’s central casting. The band’s debut Teenage Heartbreak had wowed fans and critics alike with its muscular power pop sound and sweet sweet melodic hooks. It was like The Plimsouls had joined the revived Searchers. Then early The Who producer Shel Talmy joined up to oversee the band’s second record. What could go wrong? Apparently, everything. When Love Too Late came out in 1981 it was like the original band had been mugged by some AM corporate rock ringers. Talmy had ignored the band’s production ideas and style of playing, indeed replacing most of them with session players on various tracks. End result? The band badmouthed the final product and then broke up. Fast forward forty years and the group has finally managed to reclaim legal control over their songs and performances. But instead of just remixing and tweaking the existing album they’ve produced an almost entirely new recording. Love Too Late, the real album is a shocker. You’d swear it’s the band in their early 1980s heyday, they sound that good. The songs were always great but now they lean into their early 1980s style, with “Love Too Late” matching the manic sound and energy of their then-contemporary rivals The Plimsouls, “Crying” offering a bit of Madness ska, and “Rita” conjuring up memories of the Paul Collins Beat. The Beatles influence is definitely present on “Breaking My Heart” and “It’s Not Love Anymore while the band’s own distinctive dreamy pop instincts define the lovely opening cut “Christabelle” and “So Much Love.” The cover of the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting For You” is pretty special too. My own choice for single would the exquisitely hooky “What I Used to Know.” Love Too Late, the real album is a revelation, both a time capsule resurrection and contemporary renewal of a truly great band. You’re definitely gonna want this.
Another historic missed opportunity is the collected recorded works from Bruce Moody. Forever Fresh! features 23 cuts from tracks recorded between 1979 and 1986 that either fall into the Nick Lowe bubblegum style he perfected in mid-to-late 1970s or a Phil Seymour power pop register. A few of the songs here did see a contemporary release (on the 1982 EP Fresh Out!) while others were drip released on EPs much later in 2016 (Still Fresh!) and 2018 (Get Fresh!). Forever Fresh! doubles that past output and brings these mostly studio-quality AM radio-friendly poprock tunes all together in one attractively designed and modestly priced package. And the songs! Moody knows how to throw a solid hook into any kind of tune. “This Is It” opens the collection perfectly, a song seemingly caught between a 1970s bubblegum pop and early 1980s new wave vibe. Then “At the Rock Club” is so Nick Lowe circa Jesus of Cool. “Above Suspicion” moves more decidedly into 1980s territory, with shades of Squeeze’s kitchen sink narrative style. And so on – so many great tunes here. Personally, I love the Searchers-ish melodic simplicity on tracks like “Simple Love,” “Right to Know,” “The Closer I Get to You” and “You Do.” Then there’s the occasional departure from Moody’s relentlessly upbeat tone, like the somewhat ominous melodic turns that appear in the verses to “Find Ourselves” (though the chorus quickly auto-corrects back to punchy positivity). Or check out how Moody builds the jangle-delicious “Gotta Move Away,” with its creative juxtaposition of attack and subtle Beach Boys influences (both in terms of song structure and low-key humour). Both charts and listeners lost out when these songs didn’t get released back in early 1980s. And yet Moody is on to something with his collection title – there really is something ‘forever fresh’ about these concise blasts of innocent poppy goodness.
Here’s another Hollywood happy ending sort of musical story. A band records some tunes but before anything can come of them they break up. Twenty years later a recording engineer at the studio stumbles across the recordings and voila! here is Doublepluspop’s should-have-been 2002 debut album Too Loud, Too Fast, Too Much magically resurrected. Definitely better late than never. The record is equal parts Matthew Sweet/Fountains of Wayne in terms of influences, with tasty guitar hooks and sophisticated melodies galore. Opening cut “Stumbling Back” really sets the tone with a buzzing wall of guitars and a classic FOW guitar solo. “The Dark Inside” has a very Matthew Sweet vocal and some guitar hooks reminiscent of Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room.” Things continue in this vein with more ear wormy tracks like “My Verona,” “Here’s to the Losers” and particularly “Everyone” with its cool vocal harmonies. There are few deviations from the basic script, like “If I Wasn’t In Love,” with its faint echoes of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” popping up here and there, and the rollicking good time feel of “What a Wonderful Time.” The juiced up cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” also really works. I’m just gonna say it, Doublepluspop are definitely doubleplusgood.
In today’s virtual world there is no yesterday, no past, no gone-for-good. It seems everything can be revived if there’s an audience to give it life. Today’s acts definitely deserve a turn on the poprock record revival circuit. Click on the links above to help make their misspent youth pay in the here and now.
Cheap Trick are one of those legendary bands I’m supposed to really like. But, as often as not, their material seems either too screaming-guitar-solo rawk or histrionic power ballad for my tastes. When they do turn on the Beatlesque hooks and harmonies, however, the band are unstoppable. The essential winning formula appears on early hits like “I Want You To Want Me,” “Surrender,” “Dream Police” and pretty much all of their best-selling 1979 album Dream Police. But from there Cheap Trick seemed to lose their artistic footing, struggling over the course of their next 15 albums to match differing production styles with their reliably good songwriting. Despite sometimes uneven results, I think every Cheap Trick album has a least a few worthy poprock singles lurking inside. Today we melody test the 19 album catalogue of Cheap Trick to find those melodic gems.
I’m not going to dwell on the early ‘we’re gonna be stars’ period of the band. Rock writers have already penned countless columns noting their musical split personality, sometimes arena-noisy rawk gods, other times commercially slick Beatlesque hitmakers. The noisy rock roots defined their 1977 self-titled debut, with a few exceptions like “Oh Candy.” Less than year later In Color repeated the same formula, but with a few slick AM radio-ready exceptions, like the original version of “I Want You To Want Me” and “Southern Girls.” 1978’s Heaven Tonight saw the influence of new wave come to fore with the band’s first truly amazing single, “Surrender.” 1979’s Dream Police cemented their reputation as one of new wave’s most creative rock-oriented acts with the innovative title track and the more Beatlesque “Voices.” The band’s trajectory seemed to be following a classic rock and roll script, with every album improving on the last both creatively and commercially.
But something jarred loose on the way into the 1980s. The confidence of Dream Police seemed to give way to a fourteen year era of uncertainty about just who the band were and what they needed to do to succeed commercially and artistically. It wasn’t for lack of high profile collaborators. The next eight albums would see the band working with the likes of George Martin, Roy Thomas Baker, Todd Rundgren, Jack Douglas, Ritchie Zito and Ted Templeman. But the hits and previous rave critical reviews all but dried up. 1980’s All Shook Up failed to produce many standout tracks, other than “Stop This Game.” 1982’s One on One dialed up the rock vibe but the killer cut is undoubtedly the Beatlesy “If You Want My Love You Got It.” 1983’s Next Position Please was a much more melodic album overall, though critics complained that producer Todd Rundgren had the band sounding a lot like Utopia, particularly on “I Can’t Take It.” There are worse problems a band could have. Then the band reunited with Jack Douglas (producer of their debut album) for 1985’s Standing on the Edge and the results were brilliant. The songs and performances were back to Dream Police levels of confidence with highlights like “This Time Around” and the killer “Tonight It’s You,” a track that ranks with any of their best singles.
And then the wheels came off the comeback bus. 1986’s The Doctor stalled the band’s revival. Critics slammed the album’s cheesy drum and keyboard sound but the real problem was the songwriting, with only “Kiss Me Red” catching my attention. Under pressure from their record company to turn out some hits, 1988’s Lap of Luxury bears all the marks of a corporate ‘album by committee’. The band were forced to work with outside songwriters and the production style was essentially a slick FM kind of bombast rock. The gambit worked: the record ended up second in total sales for the group behind Dream Police and a power ballad single, “The Flame,” did go to number one. But the best songs in my view are still the ones written by the band, e.g. “Let’s Go,” “Never Had a Lot To Lose,” and my fave “All We Need is a Dream.” Producer Ritchie Vito returned for 1990s Busted but the formula failed to work a second time. Instead, the standout track here is the throwback sixties-influenced “Had to Make You Mine.” Working with Van Halen producer Ted Templeman brought back the rawk on 1994’s Woke Up With a Monster but a few melodic surprises make an appearance, like “You’re All I Wanna Do” and “Never Run Out of Love For You.”
By mid-1990s Cheap Trick were without a major label deal for the first time in their career. This allowed the band to retake control of their musical direction, once again writing and producing most of their albums and releasing them on smaller, more independent labels. The results have generally been applauded by fans and critics alike. 1997’s Cheap Trick marked a creative reset, with stripped back poppy rock and roll numbers like “Hard to Tell” and the sixties-ish “Carnival Game.” Seven years later 2003’s Special One was less rawk than previous efforts but still strong songwriting-wise – case in point, “My Obsession.” 2006’s Rockford was another solid effort, with the single-worthy “All Those Years Ago” and the fab Bill Lloyd co-write “Dream the Night Away.” In 2009 the band delivered another melody-heavy package with The Latest. This one is particularly Beatles stamped – check out “Times of Our Lives.” Another seven years would pass before Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello in 2016 but the record has many highlights like “No Direction Home” and “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” (with its slight Bond theme undercurrent). One year later the band would return to their rawk default with We’re All Alright! but more melodic tunes appeared as well with “Floating Down” and “She’s Alright.” And then earlier this year album #19 arrived with In Another World, a collection that almost seems to showcase the band’s stylistic range across their whole career, including quite a few hooky numbers. My faves include “The Summer Looks Good on You,” “Another World,” and the more mellow “I’ll See You Again.”
I can’t say I love all of Cheap Trick’s albums but with every release there’s always been something to like. This melody test just proves that no matter how lost the band gets you can always find a good hook somewhere on any album. And some more than others! Who knows what surprises album #20 will bring. Don’t miss out – keep up with Cheap Trick news at their website and Facebook locations.