In commenting on the as-yet-to-be released new long-player from Dazy, a fan described the band as “the best noise pop I’ve come across.” The description is an apt summation of the Richmond, Virginia group’s early vibe, nicely captured on the 2021 compilation Maximumblastsuperloud: The First 24 Songs. There’s a punkish ferocity to these early tunes, like Jesus and Mary Chain on speed. But the new album Out of Body is something else. I’m hearing more straight up power pop and even a turn to a more crafted, subdued melodic pop, particularly on the fabulous single “Rollercoaster Ride.” The song kicks off slow-ish, luring you in with a swing like Sugar Ray or Weezer in pop melody mode, before kicking the hooks into high gear. And what a ride it is. The chorus delivers the good time rush we might associate with arriving at the midway, primed for a great time. The single’s b-side “Peel” is pretty special too, working a Beatles/Oasis melodic grind of guitars plus sweet vocal work.
Get in on the ground floor with this band. Their exhilarating, shifting synthesis of poprock is only just starting to gel.
Photo: fragment from Hazy single graphic for “Rollercoaster Ride/Peel.”
Some artists are meticulous. Their albums often sound free and easy but that belies the hard work that has gone into them. Today’s featured acts are those kind of inspired craftmen, carving pretty pretty tunes out of the basic raw material of the popular song.
Nick Frater is serious about old stuff. His music is replete with references to musical styles from the 1970s, lovingly taped on vintage recording equipment from the era. But his recent long-player Aerodrome Motel doesn’t so much harken back to yesteryear as remodel those familiar sounds for a new age. I mean, sure, I could say that “The Pleasure is Mine” flows like a Squeeze Cool for Cats era character sketch. But it doesn’t just conjure the glory of Deptford’s favourite sons. These songs stand on their own. Take “Love Heist,” a killer bit of buoyant pop songwriting that I would suggest is merely elevated by some Supertramp-worthy keyboards fills. Or I could say I hear a bit of Jellyfish in “Stuck in My Ways” or 10cc in “Aerodrome Motel” or Fountains of Wayne in “American Expressways.” But that’s just a rough way of saying ‘if you like those acts, you’ll love this’. Lining up the should-be hit singles, I’d vote for “Rough and Tumble” with its great horns and programmed keyboard runs. Or there’s the Beatlesy (with just a touch of ELO) “Dear Modern Times.” What a gorgeous tune! The spacious piano opener and striking vocal arc that kick off the song are utterly captivating. I also like the darling “Dancing with Gertrude” and the stand out yet simple guitar lead line defining “No Hard Feelings.” By the time we get to “White Courtesy Phone” we’re ready for this last-dance, shuffle-the-patrons-out-the-door song. Frater’s put together a game changer here. While some prior albums have sounded like lovingly crafted period pieces, Aerodrome Motel is more a timeless distillation of the past with songs that sound good whether it’s yesterday, today or tomorrow.
With I’ll Remember the Laughter singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and music scribe to the stars Ken Sharp offers us a record of delicious indulgence, a collection of 50 songs! The package is like a chocolate box with no bottom. As a clever curator of 1970s-era styles Sharp basically brings your favourite acts from that decade back to life to record one more should-be classic. The range of pop genres here is incredible: beach tunes, Philly soul, glam rock, baroque pop, and more. Album opener “Maybe Next Summer” sets the scene, crossing the transom from the sixties to early seventies with a strong Beach Boys vibe. From there it is a very rapid ride over a wide variety of stylistic riffs. You may note elements of late-period Lennon-esque Beatles on “Nobody Told Me the World Was Round,” some Philly pop soul on “Philly Get Back,” a Paul Simon session with Big Star on “She Will Be” and a McCartney “Let Me Roll It” grind to the guitar on “Shut Out the Lights.” The record also has a few inspired covers, like the two recovered Rick Springfield gems “Comic Book Heroes” and “I’m Your Superman.” There’s too much here for me to cover every song – let me single out some of my faves. As much as I too recall fondly all the 70s song motifs on this album I’m more drawn to the jangly, almost new wave cuts. Like the sharp glam feel of “It Pays to be a Rock and Roll Star” or the hooky guitar lead line heavy “Somewhere South of San Diego.” I love how the rhythm guitar rings out on “Maybe You’re Right.” “No More Silver Lining” has an almost Blue Oyster Cult or Moody Blues hint of menace in the melody as well as some tasty guitar work. “Between the Lines” is just perfect poprock circa 1979 with winning guitar runs plus soaring, melodic vocals. This is the hit for me. Then there’s the lighter, more acoustic “Down in Monterey.” Lovely, hypnotic, pop folk. What we have here is really a ‘make your own album’ affair, one where listeners could selectively assemble their own seventies mini-album. Or they could just hit play and party for days.
Hit play on these albums and it’s easy to believe to world is a more pretty place than it may appear. Sometimes hearing is believing.
As fall settles in the headline news is full regal passings and rightwing populist posturing. Definitely time to check in with the poprock desk.
New Jersey’s The Happy Fits are back with their third album Under the Shade of Green and it is pretty amazing. If you could bottle up the intensity and explosive joy of youth it might sound like this. The band still seem like the late night love child of the Violent Femmes and the Killers to me but perhaps with a more consistent sonic palate this time around. The album kicks off dance-party style with a trio of stompers: “Around and Around,” “Dance Alone” and “Changes.” If you’ve seen any pictures of their concerts then you know ‘party’ is operative word. The band and the audience are serious about having fun and these songs deliver. There’s more of the same on the rest of the album but as we sojourn into the deep cuts you really start to appreciate the instrumental tension that binds these players into a singular musical force, how the cello and guitar and drums (with an occasional dose of keyboards) hold together and stretch apart as if by elastic. Check out the fantastic keyboard and cello interplay on “Little One” and “Another Try,” how they drive up the intensity of melody. Or there’s just the breathtaking 10cc-like melody that breaks out of the chorus of “Cold Turkey.” Hints of other influences are peppered throughout – the subtle dab of ABBA lurking in “Sweet Things” or the Cure-like kick off to “Place in the World.” Album closer “Do Your Worst” really showcases the band’s incredible musical tightrope act, contrasting opposing sounds like dramatic shades of colour, green or otherwise. Seriously, you could recapture a bit of your youth just by purchasing this LP.
Since the release of his pristine pop album Natural Beauty in 2020 Mo Troper appears to have been pedalling back to the rougher parts of his musical youth. 2021’s Dilettante wasn’t afraid to let its sound get a bit blare-y at times, an effective counterpoint to the reliably hooky melodies. Now his new MTV takes things even further, messing with tape speeds and offering up an indie-garage-like mix. The effect is like a cheesecloth-covered dream-return to one’s old apartment: it’s gonna be one part nostalgia and mega parts pure invention. As always, the tunes here are brilliant, testimony to Troper’s mastery of the pop song form. “Waste Away,” “Play Dumb” and “Under My Skin” are all Brill Building/Lennon-McCartney good. But their performance is curiously and sometimes challengingly brittle and cutting. Here Troper appears to be pushing against the grain of ‘authentic’ neo-1960s music that characterizes much melodic rock and roll of late. I love that sort of thing but Troper eschews laurel-resting and good on him for not sitting still. Ironically he goes forward by reaching back to a sound reminiscent of his own earlier band Your Rival, sort of. This time around there’s a greater diversity in sound and style, from the shoe-gazey Beatlesque aura of “Across the USA” to the transistor radio at full blast “I’m the King of Rock and Roll” to sunshine pop on “No More Happy Songs.” Though personally I’d buy the whole record just to get the exquisite should-be hit single “I Fall Into Her Arms.” That lead guitar line – so simple but so wow.
With Pressed and Ironed indie music veterans Tom Curless and Chip Saam establish their new act Crossword Smiles as the best lost 1980s band the new millennium has to offer. But we’re not talking simple retro here. The duo have cooked up a sound full of alluring cognitive dissonance. Steely Dan and Crowded House? On the same record? Yes. Things sound familiar but the genius is in the synthesis. Take the title track “Parallel Lines.” It’s got some jazzy Steely Dan, a dash of John Lennon psychedelic keyboard, a distinctly early Joe Jackson lurch, and vocal harmonies that are late sixties country rock. I wouldn’t believe it would work if I didn’t find myself hitting repeat repeatedly. On the rest of the album the influences abound like a cavalcade of poprock stars. There’s shades of Difford and Tilbrook on “This Little Town,” particularly in the chorus. Man, the violin and viola really work here. You can discern a bit of post-Rockpile Nick Lowe on “Where’s the Sense in That,” some Crowded House vibe on “October Leaves,” and a Grapes of Wrath Treehouse feel to “Walk Softly.” Not everything reminds me of yesterday’s heroes. “Feet on the Ground” could be Jeff Shelton’s Well Wishers, just mellowing out. Saving the best for the last the album rounds things out with three should-be hits: “Girl with a Penchant for Yellow” has a wonderful Tim Finn weirdness, “Second Guesser” is a lush jangle-infused delight, while “Take It On the Chin” combines snappy rhythm guitar work with an addictive wash of overlapping vocals lines. To really get the total effect you’ll want to set your player on repeat for this album. I think you’ll find that Pressed and Ironed allows you to love the past in the present tense.
You might not know it but Phil Thornalley probably got your attention a long time ago. Over the decades he’s played with and written hits for a host of stars, all the while keeping to the shadows himself. Recently he braved the spotlight under the guise of his fabulous retro 1970s-styled vehicle Astral Drive. Now he’s back, this time just as himself with his first solo album Now That I Have Your Attention. The record is a sonic love letter to a slightly different register of 1970s styles than before, emoting a whole lot of ELO, the Travelling Willburys and Tom Petty. “Heaven in a Hash Pipe” leans into the early 1970s ELO strings-plus-1950s vamp formula. By contrast, “One Night in America” seems to draw more from the Time/Balance of Power period. Then there’s “Fast Car,” the early release single. What a homage to ELO’s New World Record era! And while these tunes sound oh so familiar they’re not merely sound-alikes. Thornalley clearly knows how to write winning hooks all on his own. “Hellbent on Compromise” and “High on Your Supply” evoke the Travelling Willburys, the latter even sounding a bit Dylan early on. Those missing Tom Petty (and who isn’t?) will be floored by “Big Plans” and “Stand By Love.” Both sound like lost classics from the Wildflowers sessions. Is your fun meter running low? Give your attention to this long overdue solo outing from Phil Thornalley and let the good times roll.
That’s your poprock news headlines for now. Film at 11.
I count down the days to a new Freedy Johnston record like I used to anticipate releases from the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, XTC, and even Macca back in the 1970s. You kinda know what’s coming – solidly melodic and carefully crafted songs – but the delight is in where he takes it this time. After 24 hours of constantly playing the new album I can reveal that with Back On The Road To You Johnston has done it again. Now at this point scribes usually say things like ‘this is Johnston’s strongest effort in years’ but, hey, the quality of this artist’s work has never really flagged, even if public interest sometimes has. Johnston is like a half buried national treasure, feted by the music mainstream whenever they happen to stumble across a new recording. Stylistically the new LP falls somewhere between Nick Lowe and John Hiatt, with the former’s ear for hooky tunes and the latter’s eye for idiosyncratic narrative detail. But, then again, Johnston’s not really like anyone else. His songs develop in wonderfully unusual ways, his vocals pause in delightfully awkward places. I mean, just listen to how he tucks the ‘living the dream’ line into the pause before launching into the chorus of “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl.” The guy’s got a painter’s precision in detailing his songs.
The record opens on familiar ground with title track “Back on the Road to You.” Is this poppy Americana or just something offered up from Freedy Johnston central casting? Love the electric piano break. One could easily imagine the Everly Brothers ripping through this one. Then there’s “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl,” a song that conjures up terms like ‘instant classic’. The track surely joins the pantheon of Johnston’s most celebrated singles, its construction and execution simply confirmation of his mastery of the popular song form. Another immediate ‘instant replay’ tune is “Madeline’s Eye” with its subtle hooks and alluring steel guitar work. On three songs Johnston brings in some featured vocal accompaniment but the results hardly amount to any kind of star turn. Instead Aimee Mann, Susan Cowsill and Susanna Hoffs apply their impressive vocal talents to deftly serve the tunes, adding subtle harmonies on the countryfied “Darlin’,” the more poprocking “The Power of Love,” and the lilting midtempo ballad “That’s Life” respectively. Things rock up on “Tryin’ to Move On” with its more Dave Edmunds boogie feel. Meanwhile “Somewhere Love” creates a 1970s soft rock ambience, like a stroll along the beach accompanied by a Neal Sedaka song. But the strings that come in at the one and half minute mark elevate the proceedings, adding an exquisite splash of classy sophistication. And the spacey keyboards that define the instrumental break don’t hurt either. “Trick of the Light” has this sunny 1970s summer ballad feel as well. The album closes with the suitably ‘end of a night of drinking’ song “The I Really Miss Ya Blues.” It’s a lovely tune made even more impressive by its inspired organ swells.
The stars have aligned on Back On The Road To You. The album looks good with its smartly designed cover and what’s inside is a typical demonstration of Freedy Johnston’s considerable skills as a songwriter and performer. Buy this album and see this performer live. He may just be one of the last greats of this genre.
In my neck of the woods it’s back to school time for just about everybody. Now if this were a movie there’d have to be a transition-to-school montage and event-appropriate music to mark the occasion. To that end we turn to Spain’s superior power pop record label Elefant to provide talent in sync with our theme. And boy do they deliver.
Legend has it that Elefant signed Cardiff’s The School after playing just four live shows in 2008. Since then the band have taken a go-it-slow approach to releasing material, putting out just 3 albums since 2010 and spate of stand-alone singles and EPs. What hasn’t changed over time is their loyalty to an early 1960s girl group-meets-English dolly bird sound, with the occasional nod to more upbeat Mod dance numbers. You can hear this variety on their debut album Loveless Unbeliever with tracks like “Valentine,” “Hoping and Praying,” and “Is It True.” Yet the vibe is not merely a retro revival. Tracks like “All I Want To Do” have got the updated 1960s aura that Tracey Ullman managed to capture in the 1980s while “Can You Feel It” has the energenic imprint of The Primitives. Still, if I’ve got to single out just one tune, I love the stylistic melange going that is “The One Who Left Me” with its great horns, Zombies-like breathiness and unpredictable melodic turns. Keyboards come to the fore on the band’s follow-up Reading Too Much into Things Like Everything in 2012. But the early 1960s sonic teenage melodrama remained the same on cuts like “Stop That Boy!,” “That Boy is Mine,” and “Some Day My Heart Will Beat Again.” Though this time out I prefer the more rocking numbers like “Why Do You Have to Break My Heart Again?” and the Farfisa-drenched “Never Thought I’d See the Day.” The band’s final album Wasting Away and Wondering from 2015 sees things heading into Holland/Dozier/Holland territory with “Love Is Anywhere You Find It” and reaching Dusty Springfield-levels of heartbreak on “Don’t Worry Baby (I Don’t Love You Anymore).” But the standout should-be hit single here is undoubtedly the propulsive and ear-wormy “All I Want From You Is Everything.” Oh, don’t miss “When He Kisses Me” from the Never Thought I’d See the Day EP – this is some skip-along, can’t stop smiling fun.
What would school be without pushy parents? Less toxic, sure. But the band Pushy Parents just want to make sure we get the melodic message they’re putting out. Coming together as a kind of one-off super group in 2011 Elefant managed to get them to put out one EP, the enigmatically titled Secret Secret. The quartet of songs assembled here are like a chocolate box selection, lusciously different but clearly by the same maker. Both “Secret Secret” and “Hold Me Tight or Let Me Go” sounds like something you think you know but they go unexpected places (e.g. check out the inventive bridge in the latter). The band’s presser links “He’s My Saturday” to Nancy Sinatra stylistically but what I hear is totally Lesley Gore in its bumptious melodic swing. Then there’s “Dear John” which sounds at times like an understated Pet Shop Boys, at others like a deep cut from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode Once More, With Feeling. What a gem this one-night-only performance turned out to be.
The fun is just starting for kids, parents and teachers. Let’s enjoy it before the inevitable crying begins.