It may be a brand new year but we’ve still got a load of records from last year that really deserve more time in the spotlight. Damn all those other blog ‘best of’ lists! I’m playing catch up again … Alas, today’s breaking news may or may not be all that breaking to everybody but they’re definitely worth a listen.
You’ll find Novelty Island in the ‘McCartney circa 1968-73’ chapter of your Beatles encyclopedia. Band leader Tom McConnell has clearly deconstructed everything from Paul’s White Album contributions to the entirety of Band on the Run and the influences abound on How Are You Coping With This Century? The results are both highly pleasing and not derivative in the least, in part due to McConnell’s ace song-writing. “This Bird” kicks things off with a light acoustic guitar touch, only to build and soar melodically in the chorus. Then “Cowboy on a Bicycle” grabs you with its addictive banjo riffs and male girly group vocals. What’s going on here? McConnell keeps you guessing. “Michael Afternoon” is equal parts crunchy electric guitar chords and an almost baroque vocal approach. “Ladybird” is all whispery, McCartney-like whimsy wrapped in a delightful acoustic ballad. Only with “Jangleheart” does a more conventional band sound finally make an appearance, vibing Big Star in a big way. “Blank Wine” is also a bit of a departure, more of a Todd Rundgren workout. But all things come back to McCartney elsewhere (in a good way) with a particularly Wingsian finish on “Yes.” Man, he nails those vocals!
Sweet Nobody should get the award for most apropos album title of the past two years with We’re Trying Our Best. No kidding. And like the rest of us the record is all over the map in terms of mood and emotional self-regulation, ranging from free-wheeling, surf-tinged rocking abandon to low-key, melody-infused ennui. The record opens with “Not a Good Judge,” a track effusing the uneasiness of our times, delivered with an almost Suzanne Vega degree of emotional distance. “Why Don’t You Break My Heart” is the should-be hit single for me here with its great big chorus and rolling shots of jangle. “Five Star Diary” comes on a bit stronger so don’t even try resist the wall of sparkly guitar. This is like the Primitives in low gear with a chorus that also reminds of Kirsty MacColl. “Million Yard Stare” is defined by a mesmerizing electric guitar lead line opener that then threads its way throughout the song. Meanwhile “Other Humans” teems with restrained passion. Like a great country song, it sounds like it is about to break wide open at any moment. I could hear Neko Case doing this number or the fab country jangle bonus cut “Disturbance.” For a bit of dark-tinged surf rock see “Little Ghost.” On the other hand, there’s a definite Sundays or Cardigans feel to “If I Should Die Tonight.” On reflection, forget the ‘trying our best’ schtick, this is a band is not just trying, they’re doing.
I love E minor rock and roll. Often dubbed the ‘sad chord,’ all the greats used it (e.g. the Yardbirds, Big Star, REM, etc.) and it’s all over Suburban HiFi’s late 2021 release Superimposition. First cut “In Her Reverie” delicately juxtaposes its various musical elements: intoxicating acoustic lead guitar work, striking electric guitar shots, and chilling FOW-worthy vocals. Then the opening guitar lick of “The Year in Pictures” knocked me back into 1979, the song so captures the brilliant, brittle intensity of the sound at that time. “Space Between Us” also exudes a late 1970s feel but the keyboards and drums are more characteristic of the disco/pop crossover AM radio hits of the era. Yet if I had to boil it all down, the material here mostly reminds me of all those hooky mid-tempo tunes cranked out by Fountains of Wayne in the late 1990s. I mean, check out “Beamed In.” If that’s not Chris Collingwood handling the vocals it’s a pretty fair imitation. Or there’s “Fight on our Wedding Night,” a track that both sounds FOW and has the observational chops of Collingwood lyrics at their dire best. On the other hand, “Vinyl on the Radio” sometimes sounds very Elvis Costello, sometimes somewhat Walter Egan. And there’s melodic outliers, like the wonderfully weird “Potemkin Honey” with its great interplay between bass and organ and the main melody. Seems to me Superimposition is the kind of interruption we could all use more of.
I’m definitely late The Shivas party, only coming in on album number 7, the new Feels So Good // Feels So Bad. From what I’ve read they were a hot teenage mess of rocking riffs and punky ‘tude when they started out fifteen years ago. What I hear now is a mature band balancing the rock with more tender tunes, firmly in control of their unique sound. Opening cut “Feels So Good” is an intense, gripping, almost dirge-like psych rock workout. “Undone” adds a strong melodic undercurrent to the rocking riffs, aided by some cool organ. Then comes the first obvious should-be hit single, the alluring midtempo number “Tell Me That You Love Me.” The feel is a very 1966 British dolly bird belter of a tune. Dusty Springfield anyone? Or, for a more American take, I could hear The Ronettes making this their own. Riffs remain central on tracks like “If I Could Choose” and “For the Kids.” But the latter is also marked by some ghostly, almost Fleet Foxes vocals, which also pop up on “You Wanna Be My Man” and “Sometimes.” Then there’s the tender American Graffiti-revisited sound worked into songs like “Don’t Go” and “Please Don’t Go.” Contrast them with “My Baby Don’t,” a solid rocking down the highway tune, and you get a sense of the impressive breadth of accomplishment here.
Well there’s all the news that fits, for now. You’ve got the headlines, now it’s up over to you to follow up on the stories. Thanks to Koolshooters for the cool mast photo.