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Hidden in plain sight, these gems almost escaped my notice from this year past. How I missed some I don’t know. I mean, Kasim Sulton’s not some unknown artist and he’s so in my 1980s poprock wheelhouse. Well let’s buff these up and see how they shine.

If you’re not already a fan you probably still know Kasim Sulton as the lead singer of Utopia’s sole top 40 single “Set Me Free.” Besides handling bass playing and lead singing for Utopia on nine albums he’s released a number of solo records and acted as sideman to the stars countless times in the studio and on stage. So what’s another album from this accomplished guy? Something special, that’s what. Kasim Sulton 2021 may just be the best record of his career. The songs are so good and they’re delivered in that candy smooth 1980s poprock style I love, think Hall and Oates, Greg Kihn, Huey Lewis, and Utopia (of course). Things kick off in style with “More Love,” a very Utopia-slick bit of poppy single-ing, with just a touch of that smart Steely Dan yacht rock feel. “Unsung” is a buoyant, tongue-in-cheek take-down on Sulton’s own perennial sideman career. “Blame Somebody Else” sounds like another should-be hit to me, with plenty of that 1980s big chorus bombast. Sulton reaches back to offer up some Beatles-inspired material on “To Her” and “Her Love is Sunshine” while “Sweetest Fascination” reminds me of Hall and Oates’s “Your Imagination” from Private Eyes. Then he slows things down on the touching, hooky ballad “What It Means to be Alone.” Man, this guy can still sing! I’m also very partial to “Fastcar.” This is AM rock and roll radio from its guitars aplenty, melodic heyday. What a delight when an old pro shows he still has a few surprises left, really delivering here on both the songs and performance.

Blame Somebody Else

What a backstory on Georgia’s Sky Diving Penguins. That’s the ‘back in the USSR ‘Georgia, not the US southern state. Formed against a backdrop of crumbling Soviet influence and an influx of western popular music, band leader Gia Iashvili stitched together bits of influence from bootleg Beatles records, Nirvana, Beck and Elliott Smith into a formidable sound on the band’s early 2001 EP Outspoken. Then nothing – until now. Louder Than War or Eclectic Music Lover can fill you in on the how and why of this unhappy state of affairs, I’m just going to skip right to the happy ending late 2021 release of the band’s self-titled Sky Diving Penguins long-player. The spectre of the late period Beatles is the most obvious influence haunting this record. But it’s often tempered with something else. Opening track “I Don’t Want, I Don’t Care” sounds like the single, its Beatles cues reminding me of Brenda Benson’s solo work. “Serotonin” takes its Beatles vibe in a more rock direction, combining sixties psych motifs with a grunge feel. The rippling acoustic guitar propelling “This is Breaking Me Apart” sounds a bit John Martyn meets the Moody Blues. “All Goes Back in the Box in the End” has a very English acoustic pop feel circa 1970 e.g. Brinsley Schwarz. For me, “Run Boy” is another contender for should-be hit single, with an appeal for fans of Eels or Beck in their more geared-down poppy moods. And this is just today’s impressions, tomorrow the list of faves could change. Altogether Sky Diving Penguins really delivers on the early promise of this band and then some.

Saskatchewan meets New Zealand on Plastic Bouquet, a collaboration between Canadians Kacy and Clayton and Kiwi Marlon Williams. Both acts have already established their cred on separate previous releases but working together it’s like there’s an electric current running through the whole proceedings. The album genre is retro folk/country, think Neko Case in country mode. Like Case, it’s got that 1960s rumble and twang but the aching emotional heft of the package is so of the now. Influences abound, some Patsy Cline torch country on “I Wonder Why” and “Last Burning Ember,” more folk country Ian and Sylvia on title track “Plastic Bouquet” and “I’m Going to Break It.” Sometimes the songs break the country mold, like the album’s opening track “Isn’t It.” It’s a track that really establishes the distinctive sound of this trio, reminiscent of the country side of The Poppy Family. Or there’s “I’m Unfamiliar” with its more rocky organ and electric guitar shots defining the song. “Light of Love” sounds like late 1960s pop country, the kind that appeared in all those sixties period movie montages. Or there’s just the straight up country and western vibe of “Arahura” and “Old Fashioned Man.” On the whole, Plastic Bouquet is a remarkable synthesis of these individual talents. If you’ve got heartache on your mind, Kacy and Clayton and Marlon Williams have set it to music on this LP.

On their third album Worthing UK’s Moonlight Parade turn up the jangle on What If? Just one listen to their magisterial opening cut “Amsterdam” and I’m primed to believe the band’s presser that this is indeed their “strongest work to date.” The guitar line echoes like it’s being performed in some old English cathedral while the song’s atmosphere is very Echo and the Bunnymen and The Verve. Should-be hit single, definitely. From there the album just goes from strength to strength, leaning in to the jangle on “The Way I Feel” and “Brother,” the latter oozing a Smithsian influence in the structure and execution. “Hanging Around” reminds me of The Coral’s crisp remake of 1960s guitar poprock. “Awkward” sounds like it came right out of the Modern English songbook. And then there’s the surprising shift to the Donovan psychedelic swing and fuzz guitar defining “No Way of Knowing.” Album closer “You Know Me Better” has a drone-y, dream-like quality, like Lloyd Cole in more introspective moments. What If? sounds like a lot of us are feeling right now, uncertain, hurting, looking for a bit of hope.

Give these hidden gems a few listens and I’m sure you’ll agree they’re certainly worth treasuring. And, as an added bonus, the gem shop hotlinks are always open for a leisurely perusal of the product and purchases. Gem photo courtesy Orbital Joe.