On my journey of poprock discovery I’m constantly running across amazing talents that have been working away for decades that somehow I’ve never heard of. Lately I’ve become sElf conscious. The band is largely the project of its creative force, Matt Mahaffey, a talent so large it keeps spilling out over a wide range of solo work, one-off projects and insta-bands. sElf emerged in the 1990s, one of slew of poppy rock bands that defied categorization. Sometimes sounding like Rooney or Weezer, only to segue without warning into Queen or Fountains of Wayne territory. Record labels were not investing in artists in that decade and I can imagine sElf had more than one label rep throwing up their hands in frustration trying to pitch the band to radio and promoters. But that’s what makes them so great.
sElf’s 1995 debut album Subliminal Plastic Motives aces that dire sounding pop vibe we associate with the likes of Weezer and Rooney, though as you can hear on “Stewardess” Mahaffey adds some distinct melodic motifs of his own to the formula. 1997’s The Half-Baked Serenade carries on in a similar vein, though here I’m drawn to the languidly-paced acoustic outlier “Microchip Girl.” Here is the fun playful side of Mahaffey – think ELO or Bleu – that will only intensify as time goes on. 1999’s Breakfast With Girls was the band’s major label debut and here the Queen influence can really be heard on tracks like “Better Than Aliens.” Though here I find myself drawn to deep cuts like “Uno Song.” In 2000 sElf released Gizmodgery, an album of tunes performed entirely on children’s toy instruments. “Dead Man” is as good as anything coming out from grungy poprock acts in the late 1990s. “Ordinaire” has a manic SciFi feel, again, very Rooney. The cover of The Doobies ‘“What a Fool Believes” is an absolutely brilliant deconstruction of the synth work on the song, stripping back the original’s overwrought production and leaving just the bones of its seductive hooks.
From here navigating sElf and Matt Mahaffey’s career gets a bit hazy. Self-released sElf internet-only albums come and go while Mahaffey’s solo work nowhere appears in one tidy review-able location. Thus I was not prepared for the knock-out, should-be hit single goodness of the one-off 2010 single “Could You Love Me Now?” The craftmanship behind this tune is striking, the way it cradles its delicate melody, adorning it with all manner of subtle instrumentation. The band did return in 2014 with the EP Super Fake Nice sounding like no time had passed. Still doing a slightly discordant poppy rock thing, you can really hear a bit of Brendon Benson on tracks like “Splitting Atoms.”
Apart from sElf Matt Mahaffey has shifted focus to producing music for movies and television like Shrek and Henry Hugglemonster. However, Mahaffey did find time to launch a new duo, The Gherms, who appear to exist only to laud to Brooklyn’s fave funsters They Might Be Giants. Songs About They Might Be Giants is a double-sided single that showcases everything Mahaffey does well: a great concept, larger than life production and big hooks. Meanwhile, his cartoon theme song work for Nicklelodeon is some of the best 30 second poprock you’re gonna hear while spending quality time with toddlers.
You know what I wish? That somebody with access to Mahaffey’s complete body of work would curate a release that bring us all up to speed on this great talent. Between the unreleased and unofficially released sElf work to his many and varied contributions to TV and movies it’s just too hard to bring his genius into focus. And that’s a shame because, in my view, everyone could stand a bit of sElf improvement.
Today’s dial turning is finding guitars aplenty with a decidedly country, sometimes western flavour. But there’s a celebration of sixties garage and girl group sounds too. Get your ear close to the speaker for these made-for-transistor-radio selections.
The back catalogue of Sydney, Australia’s The Forresters has inspired comparisons to The Jayhawks, Teenage Fanclub and Big Star. But frankly, in my view, they’ve got a distinct sound all their own – apparent all over their recent long-player Something To Give. The intro guitar work defining opening cut “On My Way” puts the challenge up front, a bit sombre but uplifting at the same time, later enhanced by some great organ, ‘ooh’ing background vocals and a Harrisonian bit of lead guitar work. Familiar ground but a different synthesis than its source material. Meanwhile “Are You Ready” is a delightful rush of country Byrds meets Big Star. “Tightrope” moves in a different direction again, this time channeling some serious Matthew Sweet-like hooks. Pedal steel plus jangle? Yes please! That’s what you get with “Back In My Arms.” I love how the band throw ‘woo hoo’ background vocals over a whole load of material, framing the chord slashing “Pretty Little Thing” or the more languid rocking “Falling Star” or amid the horns and searing guitar solos of “Get To You.” No surprise, the band ace their cover of Big Star’s lovely “Thirteen.” But the slow burn fave for me here is “Fall Back In” with its harder edge guitar sound and touch of melodic ennui. Having said that, you won’t go wrong giving Something To Give a full-album spin. It’s a no-regrets kind of commitment.
Allan Kaplon’s got a deep gravelly voice you might associate with those mid-1960s trucker songs from the likes of Red Sovine. But he manages to apply it to a variety of unpredictable styles on his thoroughly enjoyable recent record, Notes on a Napkin. Case in point: album opener “One Big Parade” is a brilliant Harry Nilsson-ish kind of late 1960s message song, one where Kaplon’s baritone adds gravity to an otherwise upbeat tune. Indeed, Kaplon’s voice should be seen as a crucial and unique instrumental contribution here, adding a depth of feeling to pop folkie material like “Keep You You” and “Every Single Day,” sort of like Jim Croce or Leonard Cohen once did. The record’s got country going on too, from the Hoyt Axton/Glen Campbell 1970s cross-over country feel of “Painted in a Bad Light” to the more late 1960s country-rock mix on “Wonder Where the Angels Are” and “Slow Down Cowboy,” the latter vibing The Band and Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” respectively. But Kaplon gets his rock on too. “Flesh and Blood” has the cheeky swing I associate with Dire Straits’ first three albums, with a similarly understated yet precise vocal approach. Title track “Notes on a Napkin” even has a bit of a Yardbirds meets Bond aura with its tuneful menace. But the star track here is undoubtedly “Restless Ones” with its killer, slow-build earwormy hooks. The verses advance with a Highwaymen’s sense of balladeering anticipation, only to blast off in the chorus. Notes on a Napkin will surprise you, it’s a wonderfully eclectic marriage of strong song-writing peppered with inspired vocal performances.
What kind of cool time travel has brought us Bisbee, Arizona’s The Exbats? As their Bandcamp presser suggests, the group are like some kind of “dystopian garage rock … Shangri-Las” or a “pre-Velvet Underground doo-wop wannabe Lou Reed.” Their most recent LP is Now Where Were We and it is one serious love letter to Phil Spector, the Wrecking Crew and the 1960s California pop sound, though shot through with a punk DIY sensibility. “Coolsville” is oh so Mamas and Papas. “Best Most Least Worst” really does sound like a garage rock take on the Shangri Las. “Practice On Me” moves things in a more dirty-country cowpunk direction. “Best Kiss” is like an R-rated Top of Pops hit single circa 1965. The band can also do mellow. Songs like “One Foot in the Light” and “Like a Song” have a slower, more manicured pop feel akin to Sonny and Cher or Nancy Sinatra. There’s also a pop psych thing going on here on tunes like “Ghost in the Record Store.” I like how they meld different styles – check out the way “Hey New Zealand” combines a bit of The Zombies with the Mamas and Papas. I could go on. Each track vibes on a different flavour of the sixties like some sonic Pot of Gold chocolate box. Very tasty indeed. The debut album from Melbourne, Australia’s The High HeavenFairytales of the Heartland casts a Cormac McCarthy-like western spell refracted through a Sergio Leone cinematic filter. And that would be deliberate. These guys clearly love all those Clint movies and their distinctive Ennio Morricone soundtracks – and it shows. But they don’t just throw some spaghetti over any old songs, these tunes are right out of Americana central casting. Opening cut “Wanted Man” is on point, both in musical style and lyrical content. Immediately we’re thrust into the action, our protagonist drawing us into his dilemmas against a solid western-country sonic setting. “Dead Dollar Bill” ups the rock quotient in the country rock balance, with nice Morricone embellishments. “The Evening Redness in the West” adds some rollicking, saloon-worth piano and western-appropriate whistling. But the twin price of admission here can be found in “The Desert” and “Nowhere Bound,” the former a kick-up-yer-heels should-be hit single, the latter a lovely folk/country ballad. The record’s denouement is captured in the ominous sounding title track “Fairytales of the Heartland,” providing an unsettling end to an album that has alternated between glorious send-up and utter sincerity. Despite this, both here and on the band’s subsequent EP Outlaws, Vol. 1: A Few Tales More, the main feeling is a joyous sense of fun in the proceedings. These guys are having a blast so guess what? We are too.
When it comes to melody-packed music, it’s no desert out there. Come in out of the sun and crowd up to the bar with any of these fine artists. You’ll definitely slake your thirst for some quality tune-age.
I’m not much of a Valentine’s Day guy. It’s all too gushy and sweet and more than a bit forced. But I’m not ashamed to admit I’m totally smitten with Trevor Blendour’s new long player, the holiday appropriately-titled Falling in Love. Take Buddy Holly, tweak it with those early 1960s American pop vocal motifs, add a bit of millennial indie sheen, and you’ve got a completely addictive collection of earwormy tunes, each clocking in at just 2-3minutes max. Appearing as The Blendours on previous albums the sound was bit more punky but in this new guise as a solo artist Trevor Treiber (now aka Blendour) simply embraces his love all things 1950s/early 1960s. And the results are a magical mix of retro lead guitar runs, swooping overlapping vocal lines, and melodic hooks galore.
For the most part the formula here is alternative-universe American Graffiti. In the movie the leftover 1950s themes bleed into the early 1960s, as cultural referents are wont to do, and that’s the broad landscape hovering in the background of this record. Sometimes it’s a straight up fifties time trip, as on “A Paradise,” a track that hybridizes classic Elvis and Buddy Holly vocal phrasing and song styles. It’s there again on album opener “Don’t Mean Maybe” with a combo of rockabilly and doo wop elements. With “Falling in Love” the frame of reference shifts a bit to all those early 1960s teen idols. There there’s the post-Holly Crickets reeling and rocking sound all over “Carly Please.” Another classic early sixties style can be found on “Win Back That Girl,” this time the tragic feel reminiscent of ‘disaster’ rock. Things move a bit more into the mid-1960s on “Tough Guy” with its Beach Boys falsetto vocals and “Rena” which has a Beatles “Things We Said Today” rhythm guitar swing. Not that everything here is retro. Treiber’s pop punk instincts come more to the fore on tracks like “Lost The Girl,” “Gloria” and “Another Guy,” though with the rough edges smoothed out a bit. “Cold Heart” sounds very 1979 rock and roll revival in a Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds sort of way. But for me, Blendour saves the best for last with the should-be hit single “Him Instead of Me.” This track reminds me of the way the Beatles put a bit of rock and roll muscle into all the fifties rock and girl group covers they sprinkled throughout their first few albums.
Unlike romantic love a great record will never let you down. This year, make a date with Trevor Blendour’s Falling in Love for Valentine’s Day. It’s cheaper than a dinner out, has a timeless quality that will never age, and is guaranteed to greet you with buoyant enthusiasm every time you turn it on.
With the re-release of Marshall Crenshaw’s fantastic 1999 album #447 fans can dig into an LP full of undervalued gems like “Television Light,” “T.M.D.” and “Right There in Front of Me.” The new re-issue also includes Crenshaw’s most recent new recording, a double A-sided single of “Santa Fe” and “Will of the Wind.” Just listen to the smooth hookyness and ace guitar playing on the latter tune. Damn, Marshall has still got it!
Revisiting Crenshaw’s work from the 1990s got me wondering just why others have not mined his catalogue for covers in the way we’ve seen people do with other comparable acts from his era. I mean, Nick Lowe has got FOUR separate tribute albums and an LP of Los Straightjackets’ instrumental versions. Where’s the Crenshaw love? So far, it seems mostly focused on his early work and by early I mean his pre-major label singles and the self-titled debut album. So in honour of the deluxe re-release of #447 I decided to work up my own tribute album by gathering together what covers I could find, avoiding the really obvious ones (sorry Bette!) in favour of less well known versions. It’s basically a ‘taking liberties’ version of that first album I’ve dubbed Reinventing Marshall Crenshaw.
We kick things off with sometime Beach Boy pinch-hitter Jeffrey Foskett. He’s just the guy with the vocal chops to cover “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time.” The results are a slightly tighter updating of Marshall’s own great take on the tune. Ronnie Spector sings the hell out Marshall’s perfect paean to the early 1960s girl group groove “Something’s Gonna Happen.” And she would, wouldn’t she? Sweden’s Mom takes the opening cut from Marshall’s debut in a new direction, amping up the guitar slashes and bass guitar lines on “There She Goes Again.” Musically it’s very Cars at times. Next up we head to Argentina for Gatos Pandilleros‘ spirited version of “Someday Someway.” It’s got a charming stripped-down feel that lets the song’s joy shine through. Red Hot take “The Usual Thing” into a more rockabilly and country direction vocally while retaining Marshall’s distinctive guitar aura. The Unswept step on the jangle pedal for their reworking of “Cynical Girl” and it works, adding something special to a song already pretty dear to the hearts of Crenshaw fans. Though ultimately featured on Field Day, demos of “Whenever You’re on my Mind” also come from the same period as the debut album. Thus I think we can sneak it into this tribute. As it is my fave MC tune I’ve got two covers. One is a wonderfully shambolic DIY take from Michael Fiore that comes off like a deep cut from a Replacements live album. The other is a more spartan guitar pop treatment from The Kavanaghs. Both manage to coax the magic out of this irrepressible classic.
There are other covers of Marshall’s songs. Sometimes they come from co-writers like Don Dixon and Bill DeMain, or from big name acts like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, or country artists like Lou Ann Barton and Kelly Willis. But come on people, this hardly scratches the surface of Crenshaw’s amazing catalogue! We are long overdue for an MC tribute album, one that draws from the full breadth of his impressive recorded output. Let’s see someone take the lead on this project … now.
You can order your new, refurbished and expanded copy of #447online and keep up with the latest Marshall news here.
Here at Poprock Record we’re not always about sweet vocal harmonies and earworm melody-drenched material. Sometimes we rock out. Really. And the proof is right here in this post as we host a hooky rock and roll party night. So dim the lights and get that two-four of 50 chilling in the fridge. It’s time to cut loose.
Sweden’s got a reputation as some kind of social democratic paradise where blond people are excruciating polite to each other. But Dream Boogie exists to let you know they can get messy. I love the ramshackle, loose party vibe to the performances on their sole release to date, Sorry to Disappoint All Music Lovers. Kinda like Titus Adronicus meets The Replacements, with a touch of 1964 Beatles guitar. Opening cut “Pirlo,” a paean to the Italian soccer coach, really sets the scene with a driving beat, retro guitars, whistles and group singing vocals. “At the Heart of Seoul” adds a bit of rambling, countryfied Merseybeat to the proceedings. Then there’s a dab of “The Batman Theme” kicking off “A Boy Can Dream,” punkish doo-wop on “Good Boys Don’t Stop the Music,” and a Stonesy psych feel to “A Letter to the King.” There’s also jangle to spare all over this record, on “Surf Green,” “Shanghai Nights,” and “Where I Turn.” “Television Will Not be Revolutionized” cleverly inverts Gil Scott Heron’s classic message, stylistically moving into Springsteen territory circa The River. My personal fave on this record is “Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?” It’s got the vibe of a Spector-era girl group classic on some sort of punk revival circuit. “Bullets” rounds out the LP and conjures up a seething, sweaty mass jumping up and down in unison. This is a party band par excellence. Live in concert I’m pretty sure they don’t disappoint.
Forget Athens or Manchester as your fave hip music city. Rochester, New York is the place to be! The local indie music mafia includes such great bands as The Chesterfield Kings, The Demos, The Hi-Risers, and The Squires of the Subterrain, among many others. Like Trevor Lake. Locals have already seen this guy in a host of bands from Dangerbyrd to The Televisionaires to a revived Hi-Risers. But it’s Lake’s solo work that’s got our attention here, specifically his swinging melody-pleasing long-player Bunker Stew. Past solo work from Lake has stretched from the full on rockabilly revivalism of Laughin’ and Jokin’to stripped down punk from Danny’s Favorites. But Bunker Stew falls into the sweet spot between neo-1950s and early 1960s melodic rock and roll. Some of what appears here is straight up Johnny Horton rockabilly-influenced, like “Big City Girls” and “Big Footed Dan,” or Merseybeat and/or surf rock themes on “Do What You Wanna Do” and “Go, Go Ferrari.” But other tracks synthesize those retro motifs into something like the new wave poprock that emerged in the late 1970s. Album opener “There She Goes” sounds like a track Marshall Crenshaw would have demo’d back in 1979 for Alan Betrock’s Shake Records. “Never Thought I’d See the Day,” “I Wanna Know Her,” and “Many Roads to Follow” also have the stamp of that era. “Heaven On Earth” reminds me of the country bop style on that great Capitol records compilation Hillbilly Music … Thank God, Vol. 1. Wanna add a bit of swing to your party? Definitely serve up some Bunker Stew.
Chicago’s Superkick may fall on the heavy side of my usual thing. But our rocking party night can surely handle a bit of mosh pit once we get going. Initially I was taken with the cover of their 2020 debut Like This / Like That. It certainly screams ‘party just about out of control’. But soon it was the melodic undercurrent lurking beneath the grinding guitars that grabbed my attention. The album pulls together a host of previously released singles like the surging opening cut “Project 21,” “Uncomfortable,” and the band’s more mellow collaboration with Laura Jean Anderson “Sure Thing.” Title Track “Like This / Like That” and “Jock Jam ‘97” fall somewhere between SWMRS and The Front Bottoms style-wise for me, with the wall of guitars and melodic vocal lines. And then there’s departures like “Rumble Seat” that dial back the guitars a bit, letting the poppy melody ride a bit higher in the mix. Clocking in at just 20 minutes long, the album is really more of an EP. Then again, the band does play pretty fast.
Speaking of EPs, the hardest working band plying the sixties-meets-punk side of the street are back with a new collection of four killer tunes. The Friends of Cesar Romero once again really deliver with In the Cold Cruel Eyes of a Million Stars. It’s a great title and the cover is pure 1960s fashion model chic, the kind The Smiths adorned all their singles with. But it’s what inside the EP jacket that counts and here they don’t disappoint. “Athena Crystal” echoes that classic 1960s garage pop rock and roll sound that came on strong again in the late 1970s. “Life of a Sun Queen” owns its late 1960s psych rock sound with a vengeance. “The Moment Playboy” is relentless in hitting its poppy rock marks. “Plastic Moon Love Arrest” has more of Gene Pitney angst to it, if he’d been backed by an actual rock and roll band. I don’t know where band leader J. Waylon Miller gets all his inspiration from but, please, please, don’t let it stop.
Rocking the night away? Sure, we’re up for it. Especially with the crew from this post in attendance. Better line up a ride home for later. Much later. The turntable is just getting warmed up.
Call me cynical, but original Tryin’ to fit into a world that’s so digital Came to let you know I left the pigeon hole Now I gotta find an edge, won’t let it go Jake Bugg, “All I Need”
Poor Jake Bugg. It seems whatever choice he makes upsets somebody. His most recent long-player Saturday Night, Sunday Morning got some rave reviews as well as its share of detractors. But more than any other Bugg album, barring his self-titled debut, the record exudes a coherent style, a commitment to pursue a more contemporary sound come what may, combining classic Bugg vocals and guitar with dance beats and a radio-friendly sheen. I can certainly imagine a dance-mix of “Rabbit Hole” or “Lost” thumping out of some poorly lit night club. But as with most things Bugg, the songs have a substance that lend themselves to varying treatments. Compare the album version of “All I Need” to the ‘Mahogany Sessions’ version to really appreciate the jazzy elements in the guitar and piano riffs.
I really enjoy both versions of the song and the fact that Bugg is trying to have his genre cake and eat it too, operating as he is under the pull of different factions of his audience. Basically he’s got a younger contemporary group with broad tastes (like Bugg himself) and an older group that would prefer he just re-issue a remake of his debut album again and again. And I get it (as a member of the older group, at least age-wise), his first record was not just another album, it was an experience. It spoke to a generation of young people who felt left behind economically and broader group of working class people regardless of age who had seldom heard their working class experience reflected in popular culture. To see an ocean of fans at various festivals in the 2012-14 period belt out his lyrics was both shiver-inducing and very moving. The temptation to simply redo his debut must have been strong. But as Bugg said shortly after making it big, he was no longer living the life that had inspired the songs on the first album. It’s hard to sing about the travails of the working class when you’re jetting around the world and modelling for Burberry. Now, in fairness, when you’re brought up in the working class it stays with you, even if you change class positions. But it often means you’re not this or that. And that’s what we see on Bugg’s post debut albums, the struggle to please his fans and find his own voice amidst the trappings of fame. Albums 2, 3 and 4 try to juggle these competing demands with varying levels of success.
This is where Saturday Night, Sunday Morning marks a significant departure. Stylistically it commits to what it’s doing. Set aside your bias for roots/folkie Jake Bugg and listen to this record on its own terms and it’s a winner. Put your headphones on to appreciate the guitar magic Bugg is working on “Kiss Like a Sun” and the chorus that has a wonderful dreamy quality. The album has a number of indie rock tracks like “Screaming” and “Lonely Hours” that feature Bugg’s signature electric guitar and a great setting for his more rock and roll vocals. “About Last Night” sounds like the should-be radio hit. “Lost” rides that fine line between club and pop hit, with a hypnotic combination of hooky bass lines and piano riffs. “Scene” was the song that initially caught my attention on this album. I like Bugg’s phrasing on the song and the production effects. A slow burn bit of ear candy. “Maybe It’s Today” has an early 1960s stroll-on-the-boardwalk feel, a bit of Spector, a bit of Springsteen, while “Downtown” is the lovely kind of piano ballad Bugg excels at. Hey there’s even a roots/folkie contribution with the acoustic guitar throwback “Hold Tight.”
The lyrics to “All I Need” album are the first words you hear on this album and they lay out Jake Bugg’s dilemma pretty clearly. With Saturday Night, Sunday Morning he tries to leave behind the pigeon hole both fans and critics would put him in. And he does – sort of. You see Bugg is sneaky bloke and in addition to this album he’s also released rootsy/folky versions of a number of the album songs. Best of both worlds? You bet. Check out the wicked stripped-down versions of “Kiss Like the Sun” and “Lost.” Or there’s the hypnotic acoustic-dance mix of the non-album single with CamelPhat, “Be Someone.”
I feel like the search is over. The Jake Bugg that appears on this album sounds like he knows who he is and what he’s doing. Hopefully everyone else will catch on.
Winter has hit us hard here in the Great White North. Correction: it’s hit us harder in the parts that usually don’t get sub-zero temps and dumps of snow that won’t leave e.g. Toronto. Nothing to do but hunker down and check out the singles scene. This mix has got a wide variety of poppy rocky sounds, most pretty new, some left behind from 2021, and a few surprises too.
West Midlands’ jangle purveyors The Proctors offer up a killer B-side with “You Me and the Sea.” The guitar just drips with reverby jangle goodness and the vocals are breathy and ethereal in that 1990s English guitar band sort of way. And that’s a pretty groovy synth keyboard riff tucked in there too. Did I mention it’s on pink vinyl? Snuck in at the very end of 2021 was the release of The Boolevards’ new album PoPtastic. It’s a garage take on British Invasion guitar pop, wonderfully exemplified on “Master of Lies.” And many more of the 14 tunes on this LP. With a musical resume like Jason Narducy (Superchunk, Bob Mould Band) the polish and hooks on his recent Split Singlealbum Amplificado should come as no surprise. The single “(Nothing You Can Do) To End This Love” is poprock perfection, charging in from the start only to take off melodically in the chorus. The melding of guitars and vocals reminds me of the always reliable mix from bands like the Well Wishers. Faster Than Lightwield a wicked, straightforward brand of melody infused rock and roll. Their one-off single “Blacker” is a fist-pumping, highway-driving song loaded with tasty lead guitar licks. To mark what would have been David Bowie’s 75th birthday, Automatic Shoes decided to put out nice little tribute EP called Rising. I love what this guy does production-wise, the acoustic guitars are so crisp, the vocals are so 1970s-intimate in the best Bowie/Marc Bolan style. The cover of “Andy Warhol” from Bowie’s 1971 Hunky Dory gets a more stripped down treatment here, which really allows the delicacy of the tune to surface.
Brighton UK’s Bloody Norah are bloody marvelous. From their Instagram page they self-describe as “your dad’s favourite rock band” with “[m]elodies tastier than your mom’s spaghetti and harmonies sweeter than your uncle’s crème brûlée.” This is not just presser bluster. “Shooting Star” is a delightful sixties-themed poprock confection, complete with addictive lead guitar lines and splendid harmony vocals. B-side “Joy” is a winner too, with its Abbey Road Beatles wavery guitar and minor key poignancy. More please! Brett Newski has just released the original version of “Dirt” recorded makeshift-style while living in Vietnam a decade or so ago. The song appeared on his 2014 album American Folksong Armageddon but this older version has a very different feel, rougher obviously, less slick, but also channeling a serious level of late 1960s Donovan. Retro but somehow also very contemporary at the same time. Stourbridge anyone? Yes, I had to look it up, a town in the West Midlands, UK – Birmingham is the most recognizable town to outsiders. Well that’s where you’ll find jangle masters Amoeba Teen. They’re putting together a new album and this month’s teaser single was, appropriately enough, entitled “January.” The song has the band shifting a bit into a country lane filled with the likes of The Byrds and Teenage Fanclub, on occasion. Airy, pedal steel-filled melodic goodness here. Seattle’s Green Pajamas have to be the best kept secret in indie rock and roll. Since 1984 the band has released something like 35 albums or so of original material! You can catch up on the first 15 years of singles on the compilation Indian Winter. But why just love the oldies? The band have got a brand new single that is so 1980s indie retro fabulous. “I Love the Way You Smile at Me” is a lovely midtempo pleaser, with catchy guitar licks and bits of pop psychedelia thrown in here and there. Heading over to the Dutch province of Limberg, we catch up with easygoing funsters Afterpartees whose mega-single The Bunn pays tribute to the band’s fave beer hangout. However, I’m more partial to the sub B-side offering “I Don’t Want the World to Stop.” The track has got a great loping rhythm and a steely lead guitar line that won’t give up while the hint of desperation in the vocals is strangely endearing.
Terms like ‘emo’ get thrown around in discussions of Pittsburg’s Short Fictions but I’m not even sure what it really means anymore. Sure, their 2019 album Fates Worth Than Death had a pretty serious undercurrent but also some pretty funny song titles like “I Don’t Want to Wait Out the Apocalypse With Anyone But You” and “Nothingness Lies Coiled at the Heart of Being (It’s Such a Good Feeling).” Besides “Really Like You” sounds pretty chipper. Ok, lyrically, very emo. Well they’re back with a new single, the very Front Bottoms vibing “Don’t Start a Band.” Can a new album be far off? Dubbed ‘America’s least known supergroup’ The Split Squadcombine the talents of former members of The Fleshtones, The Plimsouls, Blondie and Cherry Twister. That experience is all over their new LP Another Cinderella, particularly the title track, which is an onslaught of hooky guitar pop. Dave Molter is another kind of music veteran, the poster boy late bloomer who only released his acclaimed debut EP Foolish Heart in 2019, despite a music career stretching back to sixties. Now his first full LP is about the released and the teaser title track is out now, “Approaching the End of Usable Life.” I’m liking where it suggests the album will be going, some good old fashioned meat and potatoes rock and roll in a Huey Lewis vein. Self-described ‘modern vintage rock band’ The Undecideds are a couple of teens stranded in the here and now, far from the 1980s where they obviously belong. Their understated but still rocking take on Tom Petty and Heartbreakers’ “Even the Losers” has got an authentic feel to it, a thrill all its own. I’m no fence-sitter here – these guys are great. Speedways main man Matt Speedway slipped an EP out at the end of 2021. On Only Trouble Is Gee Whiz he turns the amp down from 11 and dials the Speedways frenetic pace back a bit to showcase his pop side a bit more. Opening cut “She’s Got a Melted Heart and a Frozen Mind” is a mini-masterpiece from the Elliott Smith or Replacements low-key hooks department. The riff snaking throughout the song is pure magic.
I’m liking everything about Ryan Allen’s new EP I’m Not Mean. I like the cover. I like the guitar sounds. I like the range of styles he crams into a release with just four tunes. These tunes are bit more poppy in execution in a 1960s British Invasion mold. Give all four a listen but if pressed for time go right to “Cut Your Teeth” which has a bit of 1990s Britpop going for it too. Another band that seldom lets me down is Freedom Fry. They have a Paul Simon knack of putting a little melodic twist into the simplest of songs to lodge in your head. “You Know the Way” is the first of a new ‘sing along’ series they’ve cooked up. The electric piano line is a sublime delight. Tim Izzard’s campaign to bring glam back into the poprock mainstream continues with a new EP, 21st Century Expose. Once again a decided 1970s Bowie/Bolan inspiration is in evidence but turned to totally contemporary concerns on opening cut “Empty My Head.” The track is a timely rumination on the often oppressive impact of social media, linking back to concerns and lyrics from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” And it’s a catchy little number too. Indie music blogger Eclectic Music Lover put me on to Belfast band Unquiet Nights, specifically “In Spite of It All.” The track has a hypnotic quality, a bit Pink Floyd, a bit U2. Very nice fluid guitar work throughout. The song is the one new contribution to a greatest hits collection they’ve just released, First Ten 2012-2022. You can pick up one album and you’re all caught up! Kelowna BC indie rocker Stephen Schijns (pronounced ‘Skines’) so captures our collective desire to escape cold snaps and Covid with a surf-licious homage to sunny climes and rumbly guitar work on “Trans-Pacific Beach Bum.” And he works in some Dad-joke worthy turns of phrase. This would definitely go with rum, some coconut-flavoured mixer and a sun lamp.
We wrap things up with a folkie turn, though screened through a late 1970s commercial folk filter. Recall those smooth, folkie singer-songwriter singles from the likes of Al Stewart, Gerry Rafferty, and Dan Fogleberg and you get a sense of where we’re going. “Either Way” is the opening track of Steve Noonan’s new album Dreamland and it kicks things off with striking effect. In this song it’s the rhythm guitar that really establishes the hook, offset by an almost staccato delivery on the vocals. This stuff was a staple of early 1980s AM radio and for good reason, it has a very broad possible appeal.
This cold snap’s not going anywhere just yet so grab your sweater and pull up to your Mp3 player to review these super cool singles. The hyperlinked names take you to the artists, their music, or some kind of internet real estate you can hang out on.
The header art above is a fragment from Rob Elliott’s Pandemic Diarypage 38.