It all started with Tom Petty and some ironing last weekend. As I got reacquainted with Hard Promises it eventually drew me away from the shirts to exploring on the internet how Petty put the album together and, as one thing led to another, I was soon listening to Petty’s efforts in the producer’s chair of Del Shannon’s 1981 comeback album, Drop Down and Get Me. The record turned out a minor hit with his cover of “Sea of Love” as well as inspired covers of the Rolling Stones (“Out of Time”) and the Everly Brothers (“Maybe Tomorrow”). But perhaps more surprising was that the bulk of the album consisted of winning Shannon originals like the title track, “Life Without You” and “Cheap Love” (later covered by Juice Newton). Hard to believe that talent like this had been missing from the Top 40 since 1965 but depression and alcoholism had helped stall Shannon’s career more than once. Despite assembling a dream team to work on a new album as the 1980s drew to close, he succumbed to depression and suicide in February 1990. The album-in-progress did finally emerge in late 1991 and Rock On! showcased Shannon’s extra-ordinary talents to good effect in terms of singing, songwriting and performance. The should-be hit single was the album opener, “Walk Away,” with its strong Travelling Wilburys vibe and signature Shannon soaring falsetto. It’s a chill-inducing gem of a single!
You can’t go far wrong with any Del Shannon release, album or single. Visit delshannon.com for more background or news about new releases.
A toy piano kicks off “Good Call,” the opening track of Gregory Pepper’s new album I Know Why You Cry. The song also features a pretty wicked violin solo. It’s all part of the unpredictable whimsy we’ve come to expect from Guelph, Ontario’s favourite son. But the song also touches on aging, life struggles, and questions of identity, themes that appear throughout the record. I Know Why You Cry is actually a curated selection from Pepper’s mammoth “Song of the Week” exercise from 2017-18, a “long, cheeky, confessional mixtape” says Pepper that produced 52 tracks of sometimes undisciplined, often manic melody. Amid the chaos of delivering a new song each week Pepper also grappled with classic transitional life events like losing a parent, having a baby, and rebuilding a kitchen. Now, almost two years later, Pepper offers up a precisely crafted distillation of the experience. And the results are good. Very good indeed.
The album’s ‘dark’ side opens rather sprightly with “Good Call,” despite a melody and march-like feel that belies its serious themes. “Bottle of Ink” is basic biography. Pepper is also an accomplished graphic artist that uses his bottle of ink to capture things that are ‘funny and sad when life is a drag.’ Then its full on into darkness, with songs exploring worry (“Worrier Spirit”), loss (“Maybe I’ll See You”), identity (“Unsolved Mystery”) and coping (“Bogus Journey”). But darkness Pepper-style is not really a downer at all. The tuba and Monty Norman Bond coda on “Worrier Spirit” cuts the dread down the size pretty effectively. Things do occasionally get somber, as on “Bogus Journey” when Pepper channels Yann Tierson in his Amélie and Goodbye, Lenin! phase. But never for too long. Case in point: the lovely situational sketch drawn out in “Sublime Sun Tattoo” where a shop song query segues into surreal speculation about Enya’s lonely castle and stalkers so obsessed they stab themselves. It takes a certain kind of wonderfully twisted creatively to deliver this stuff.
Flipped over, the album approaches ‘daybreak’ covering themes like pretension, self-examination, parenting, and mortality. Sound like pretty heavy stuff? Yes, but that’s not the Pepper way. He calls out bullshit on “Art Collector” amid squiggle horns, birdsong, car horn shots, and a cloud of uplifting background vocals. Concerns about parenting and the world our kids will inherit are given voice in a trio of songs, a mini-musical of sorts, that vibe Macca’s macabre Maxwell side, with perhaps a bit of 10cc on “Diaper Hill.” On “Bigger Than Jesus” Pepper cuts through his sardonic armor to offer a song that is just lovely in style and sentiment. But it’s back on “Father’s Day” where ‘he doesn’t want much’ … ‘just to hear the voice of God or whatever’s on the iPod.’ “Coda” reviews the album’s songs in a wonderful sort of ‘end-ature’ medley.
I Know Why You Cry is Gregory Pepper’s most fully realized and mature work, beautifully crafted, alternatively hilarious and touching, evidence of an artist in full control of his muse. And that is saying something given his impressive back catalogue. This record is heading straight for the ‘best of’ lists. My advice? Get on over to bandcamp and help make this guy a star.
There may be bad news on the doorstep but our musical headlines are nothing but blue skies ahead! Today’s news breakers include a brand new long-player, a recent album release, as well as an overlooked gem from years past.
Atlanta’s Mattiel has a rough rock and roll sound with just a touch of indie country, particularly on the vocals. It’s hard to put your finger on what this sound is like, exactly, with shades of Neko Case, Patsy Cline, Liverpool’s Zuzu, and even Ike Reilly on “Food for Thought.” Mattiel’s most recent record is 2019’s Satis Factory and it definitely exceeds that standard and more. Love the recurring riff that carries “Populonia” forward while “Blisters” has an endearing early 1960s pop country vibe. Other highlights for me include the sprightly “Keep the Change” and “Millionaire” with a backing like a Velvet Underground deep cut. There’s a bit of beat poet, performance artist, and rock and roll badass all rolled into one with Mattiel. This record is an event you’re gonna want to say you were in on the ground floor for.
Something Better is the brand new debut album from New York’s Loose Buttons and it rocks in that NYC sort of way (think of bands like Public Access TV). The guitar attack all over this record is dynamite, lifting the material to even greater heights. Some come on strong, like “Something Better” and “Home Movies (Let Down Lately)” while others mellow the pace. I love how languidly the hook rolls out on curiously addictive “Strangers in a Nightclub.” The guitars-up-front style here is contrasted with strongly melodic vocal parts, delivered with a slight dissonance but always bending back toward hooks, particularly in the chorus (an approach that really reminds me of Asylums sound on “Joy in a Small Wage”). And then there’s the obvious single, “I Don’t Really Know,” with its engaging guitar line that lures you into the song and then keeps you there with its shimmering poprock chorus. Just eight tracks but all good – a definite full LP purchase.
I loved Darwin Deez’s 2015 release Double Down, littered as it was with killer tunes like “Last Cigarette” and “Kill Your Attitude.” I even got to see him in fantastically small club that fall for a super live show. So how did I miss his 2018 release 10 Songs That Happened When You Left Me With My Stupid Heart? Clearly my super fan designation is going to lapse. The good news is that 10 Songs is another challenging yet worthwhile poprock platter from one of most interesting dudes working the scene. Deez makes his listeners work for the hook that always lurks somewhere in his tunes. Take “Anna-Maria” with its cold grey dissonant verse opening the song only to subtly break out the million dollar hook in the chorus. Or the contrast is even more stark on the old worldy, partly acapella “The World’s Best Kisser.” And then there’s the sweet, jazzy “Daddy Always” that wraps things up. In terms of clever words and smooth performance, this guy is the Steely Dan of poppy rock and roll.
Looking for a new fave 1960s-influenced band? Your search ends here. Today’s post is all about the beauty of Austin, Texas retro poprock should-be hit-makers The Ugly Beats. Often referred to as ‘garage rock,’ the band definitely has one foot in the car port but a dip into any one of their five LPs shows they have are so much more to offer.
Take the band’s most recent 2019 release, Stars Align. Sure, track three, “Count to Ten” is arguably garage-y, but it’s the tidiest one on the block. Meanwhile tracks one (“All In”) and four (“Heidi”) are vibing R.E.M. big time. The rest of album ranges across various sixties influences, from the Monkees-ish “In Her Orbit” to the early Kinks guitar squawk kicking off “She Come Alive.” What I love about this band is that the influences are obvious but never overbearing. “What Was One” combines an indie-fied British dollybird vocal with alternating jangle and power chord guitar – brilliant! And seldom have I heard a band use an organ to such good effect – check out the pulsating Farfisa in “Boy You’re in Love.” Meanwhile, few solely garage outfits can produce the nuanced Rubber Soul acoustic/electric guitar blend backing on “One Down.”
More good news: if you like the latest record, you’re going to love the band’s back catalogue. The 2005 debut Bring On the Beats established the group’s strong garage rock cred with some pretty sweet 1960s touches, particularly on tracks like “I’ll Walk Away” and “I’ll Make You Happy.” Think of what The Molochs have been doing recently and you’ve got the groove. 2007’s Take a Stand broadened the sound, upping the melody quotient (“Million Dollar Man”) and even throwing in a ballad (“Get in Line”). Of course, there’s more great 1960s garage numbers and few really unique departures, like vocal harmony-laden “Last Stop” with its great Rickenbacker guitar accents and organ shots.
2010’s Motor! put the organ even more front and centre on tracks like the Plimsouls-ish “Things I Need to Know” and “Through You.” While featuring the fabulous garage juggernaut instrumental “Motor,” most of the album sees the band flexing their musical chops across a number of styles. A bit of the Bakersfield sound on “Harm’s Way,” Blue Rodeo country tinges on “You’ll Forget Me,” some Merseybeat on “Please Don’t Go,” and classic mid-1960s American poprock with “Funny Girl.” 2014’s Brand New Day is more of the good same, from the manic garage intensity of “Up on the Sun” to the groovy jangle on “All of the Things.”
You just know from these records that The Ugly Beats would be an amazing live experience. Help fund that tour trip to your town by stocking up on their party-approved LPs from Get Hip Records (a label with a pretty impressive roster of other 1960s and punk-inspired bands!).
Marshall Crenshaw has long been my fave solo artist. Why MC? Maybe it was the glasses – he looked kinda smart and rock and roll. But what first caught my attention was the 1000 watt hook lighting up Field Day’s first single, “Whenever You’re on My Mind.” Has anyone recorded a more perfect seven seconds of poprock intro? I don’t think so. But then I’ve always been a sucker for a stunning lead guitar line – stuff like the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper” or the Church’s “Unguarded Moment” and Big Country’s “In a Big Country.” But it’s more than just hooks that makes Crenshaw a poprock legend, there’s something about his songs that can always toggle the joy and an involuntary smile from me. And it’s all there with his combination of 1950s Buddy Holly and Everly’s roots, Beatlesque melodies and a 1980s new wave/indie delivery.
With ten albums, six EPs, and a host of one-off singles, compilation contributions and covers there’s plenty of Crenshaw to choose from. What follows is just my whirlwind and idiosyncratic take on a pretty fabulous and inventive career. Now to begin, let’s be clear that MC’s first two albums, the self-titled Marshall Crenshaw and Field Day, are pretty much poprock perfection. I shouldn’t single anything out – these records are nonstop ear candy. I’ll say this much, you can dance to “She Can’t Dance” while “One Day With You” is a masterclass in melodic songcraft. Funny, though I first heard MC via Field Day’s initial single, I didn’t pick up the album until years later. Problem was, as an older release (by one year when I first heard it!) the damn record never went on sale at my local retailer.
The first Crenshaw album I really got into in real time (i.e. when it was released) was Downtown and it remains my favourite, mostly for sentimental reasons. I bought it and played it non-stop in my first one-room apartment in Vancouver’s West End. It was both a declaration of adult independence and – thematically, with its retro 1960s Warner Brothers vibe – a strong link to my parents’ record collection. The album rocks on tracks like “Right Now,” “Little Wild One,” “Terrifying Love,” and “(We’re Gonna) Shake Up Their Minds” while Everly-ing the hell out of “Vague Memory” and “Lesson Number One.”
From then on I’ve pretty much picked up every EC release as soon as they hit the shelves and never been disappointed. If you’re just starting out, here would be my picks from each to get you into the groove. From 1987’s Mary Jean & 9 Others I’d drop the needle on “Mary Jean” and “Calling Out for Love at Crying Time.” You really get a sense of Crenshaw’s mastery of the hooky lead line here. 1989’s Good Evening is hard to make choices over given its exquisite, dynamic mix of originals and covers. Personally I love “Someplace Love Can’t Find Me,” “She Hates to Go Home,” and “On the Run” but really I feel like I’m choosing which limb to hack off because every song here is pretty special. In 1991 MC left Warners for MCA with Life’s Too Short. In interviews for the record Crenshaw talked about the work he put into extending his guitar technique and it showed on should-be hit singles like “Delilah,” “Fantastic Planet of Love,” and “Don’t Disappear Now.”
On the RunDelilah
And then Crenshaw left the major label scene altogether for the relative freedom of more independent releases, first with Razor and Tie and then with his own 429 Records. Since then he’s moved in some new directions musically but always offered up some melodic poprock gems, like “What Do You Dream Of?” and “Starless Summer Sky” from 1996’s Miracle of Science, or “Television Light” and “Right There in Front of Me” from 1999’s #447. In the new millennium there’s been “A Few Thousand Days Ago” from 2003’s What’s in the Bag? and “Long Hard Road” from 2009’s Jaggedland. #395 is MC’s EP collection from 2015, a kind of quasi-album at 14 tracks, and it sees Crenshaw back in excellent form with “Moving Now,” “Front Page News,” and a killer Bobby Fuller cover “Never to be Forgotten.”
What Do You Dream Of?Right There in Front of MeFront Page News
While the flow of Marshall Crenshaw new material may have slowed in recent years there’s no lack of quality re-issues coming on stream. Intervention Records put out a fabulous redesigned Field Day a few years back, complete with a rare 12” US remix EP, while Crenshaw himself is just in the process of re-releasing his post major label work, tweaking the production on certain cuts and adding out-takes and b-sides, starting with the fabulous Miracle of Science. Hustle on over to marshallcrenshaw.comto keep up with the latest news.
Just to prove my MC cred, here’s snap from my past featuring my unique bachelor apartment decor! Ok, this is actually my second apartment (circa 1987) but if you look up in the far right corner, you’ll see the Billboard magazine ad/poster for MC’s debut LP that appears above on the wall! Photo credit: James Koester.
Time for our first 2020 spin around the dial now that our vision has cleared and there’s nothing but blue skies from now on …
First up, a brand new 2020 album from London’s Emperor Penguin. Just one look at the cover says we’re in for fun! Soak Up the Gravy hits all the indie poprock marks from decades past. From the wily XTC-like veneer of “Go Guitargonauts!”to the poppy Dylan elements in “You’ll Be the Death of Me” to the mid-period Squeeze waft of “Memoria Magdalena” to the Sgt. Pepper vibe animating “Burning Man.” Other songs like “What’s Come Over Me” and “Public Information” simply burst with delightful melodies. “Speedwell Blue,” the duet with the fabulous Lisa Mychols, is well, just, gravy! Definitely a full album experience.
Every year I overlook some masterpiece or two, like The Jellybricks’ 2019 release, Some Kind of Lucky. The band has that classic rock and roll combo sound, two guitars, bass, and drums, working over material with solid hooks. Sometimes the guitar drone and vocal harmonies remind me of Rooney or The Odds, particularly on tracks like “Faith” and “D.O.A.” Presently I’m hitting repeat pretty hard on the obvious should-be hit singles, “Brooklyn” and “Can’t Get Over You.” I love the call and response between the main and background vocals on the latter track! Also, don’t miss out on the band’s winning mellow moments with the title track that rounds out the album.
Detroit’s The Hangabouts have a new single out: “Who Wants Cilla.” It’s great but personally I’m more tuned into the B-side, “Mrs. Green” which exudes a Beatles for Sale or early Monkees vibe. From past releases, particularly 2017’s Kits and Cats and Saxon Wives, we know that band is reliably poprocky so this single bodes well for a whole new album hopefully sometime soon.
You don’t get a much more perfect poprock song than The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.” Crunchy guitar offset by a perfect vocal melody, backed by killer background vocals and harmonies at key points. Curiously then, the song has been both covered and not that covered since its 1965 release. A quick spin through the web-o-sphere reveals countless live versions by big name acts like Pearl Jam, pub rob darlings Eddie and Hot Rods, glammers The Glitter Band, and many many others. But studio versions don’t hit the major leagues as much. In fact, they’re far surpassed by punk and indie treatments. Personally, I find the punk ones tend to lose the sweetness of the melody by leaning on the song’s ennui. I get it – they love the rave up ‘I hate the world!’ potential. But in this post we’re going to hew to the hooky side of things.
American bands seemed to groove to The Who the earliest in the 1960s, with a decided garage and psychedelic bias (e.g. The Count Five covering two Who songs on their debut in 1966). El Paso’s The Legend cranked up a winning cover with some very groovy organ in 1968. Meanwhile Miami’s The Last Words offered a distinctive interpretation of the song in the same year, altering the melody of the chorus. Sweden gets into the act with the Lasse Lindbom Band’s 1979 more straight up poprock version. Then things take an indie/punk turn with France’s Les Calamités in 1984 but this version still manages to capture the song’s essential (and necessary) vulnerability. The last version from this early period is Pete Townshend’s own demo of the song, recorded in sixties but only released on his Another Scoop album in 1987.
The LegendThe Last WordsLasse Lindbom BandLes CalamitésPete Townshend
The new millennium has seen various acts cranking up power pop elements of the song. The normally very punky The Queers even out their sound to accent the song’s hooks. Not surprisingly, with Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs it’s all super sweet background vocals and harmonies while tempering the more combustible sonic aspects of the tune. Possibly my fave cover comes from the reliably hooky The Lolas, featured on the 2004 Who tribute album Who’s Not Forgotten. And then for something completely different, there’s Joe Goldmark’s kooky but charming country instrumental version with John McFee on pedal steel.
The QueersMatthew Sweet and Susanna HoffsThe LolasJoe Goldmark
More recently a new flurry of covers have emerged, demonstrating how this hit just keeps on coming. Both The Connection and Keith Klingensmith and the TM Collective offered up sleek candy-coated versions in 2013 while The Ravenonettes turned all shoe gaze with their cover in 2015. Just this last year Jean Caffeine put a bit of edge into her otherwise melodic treatment of the song while The Decibels hit the jangle pedal pretty hard in a more rocking rendition.
A great song is one that you can hear over and over and somehow never tire of. Not surprisingly, such tunes draw other acts to want to cover them. “The Kids Are Alright” is one of them and as you can hear above, it’s actually pretty hard to mess it up.
Poor Myrtle. She’s only got Muzak® to keep her company through the long shift at work. If only she had access to this great new list of must-have LPs from 2019, helpfully assembled by Poprock Record, she might actually close that Henderson account and get off early. The lesson? You can take an oldies fixation too far. You don’t have to live in the past to love that retro sound. This year’s best-of round up of LPs from 2019 is definitive proof that everything old can be new again!
Just a word of caution – there’s no science to the list and rankings below. Here are just 25 albums and 10 EPs that caught my ear this past year and kept me coming back for more. There was something about each, their combination of elements (songwriting, instrumentation, performance), that I thought really worked as a coherent whole. And that’s saying something in our world of social media distractions and a renewed music biz focus primarily on singles.
So let’s begin with Poprock Record’s 25 must-have LPs for 2019:
I really like the variety covered in this list. There’s everything from jangle (4, 11, 15, 25) and country (12) and Dylanesque stylings (21), to keyboard contemporary (8) and acerbic social commentary (10, 23) and straight-up Beatlesque poprock (17, 19). And there’s a lot of sweetness, like Mondello’s impressive 20 year labour of love (18). My number one album, Bombadil’s Beautiful Country, embodies this commitment to diversity. It’s got an overall indie-folk vibe but the songwriting and playing are so sophisticated that somehow the label fails to capture all of what’s going on. Believe me, it’s a 37 minute journey through a myriad of lyrical and musical delights. Close behind at #2 Matthew Milia’s Alone at St. Hugo represents an amazing synthesis of melodic rock influences, from the Beatles (obviously) to the more mellow Fountains of Wayne moments. It’s an tone setter – put it on and drift away! At #3 was #1. Confused? #1 was the name of the debut album from the power pop veterans behind The Brothers Steve and it did not disappoint. The record is like a veritable hit machine. I can only imagine that this was what it was like to get your hands on a new Beatles record in the 1960s: immediately engaging, inventive yet relatable, and with nary a bum track. And I could go on about every entry on this list … but instead just click on the links to go my original posts about the bands and you can judge them for yourself.
Next up, Poprock Record’s10 must-have EPs from 2019:
The revival of the EP is very much in the spirit of the times as performers try to woo listeners to fork over for music in an era of YouTube shuffles and streaming. Personally, I’m usually left feeling that most are just bloated maxi-singles or Readers Digest condensed albums. But these ten show just how punchy an EP can be! Content-wise, I’ll just say this about my number 1 choice: wow. Dave Molter got his musical start in the 1960s (as evident on the record!) but waited until his 70s to put out Foolish Heart. What you get are five gems polished to poprock perfection: hooks, harmonies, the whole deal.
One last thing: a special mention for Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Karma for Cheap: Reincarnated. The original record was my number 1 album for 2018 and this reinvention beautifully reimagines all those great tunes in often stark and stripped down ways. If you liked the original, you’re gonna love the remake.
Clicking on this late 1990s track from northern California’s The Orange Peels you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re hearing a great New Pornographers single or maybe a late 1970s new wave reunion of the Mamas and Papas, if they’d become a rock band (and somehow brought a key member back from the dead). The guitar on this track is so striking, fresh and in-your-face resonant without being jarring, while the vocals are candy smooth but never syrup. Clocking at just a minute and 49 seconds it’s all over way too soon but that’s OK, it’s just the opening track of a pretty cool album of similarly fab songs. And now would be the time to add The Orange Peels 1997 debut album, Square3, to your collection as it has just been remastered and plumped up with 27 bonus tracks. Come back 1997! All is forgiven.
Visit The Orange Peels online to find out more about their past and more recent releases and re-releases.
2019 had plenty of jangle, hooks, harmonies and melody to spare. From an initial list of over 200 songs I’ve managed to whittle my should-be hit single list to just 50 chart toppers for this year. Man, it was hard. Because I only post music I like this whole exercise is a bit like choosing your favourite child. Well, IMHO, the 50 songs featured here all have a strong earwormy quality to them. But let me know if you agree or disagree! Hit the links below to find each artist as featured in my original blog post this past year.
So, without further ado (drum roll please!), here is Poprock Record’s should-be hit singles for 2019:
As you can see, the list is a bit all over the map. There’s hints of country and folk and a lot of rock and roll. Because I’m working a broad poprock vein (as opposed to a more narrow power pop) my list crosses lines that other melodic rock blogs might not. That means the pop folky Bombadil and Fruitbats can sidle up to the more edgy melodic punk of Ezra Furman or country rock of The Cerny Brothers. But most of the entries fall neatly into my definition of ‘poprock’ – as in, melodic rock and roll characterized by plenty of hooks and harmony vocals. It’s all there in my number one song from The Golden Seals “Something Isn’t Happening” with its swinging acoustic guitar base, various hooky lead guitar lines, and catchy vocal melody. Or you can hear it in the addictive guitar drone driving Juliana Hatfield’s great single, “Sugar.” Same goes for The Well Wishers’ fantastic poprock reinvention of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 sound on “Feeling Fine.” And I could just go on dropping superlatives on every entry on this list. Instead, click on the links and check out my original posts about all these artist.
All these artists have instruments to keep in tune and studio time to pay for, not to mention all the time they take away from paying work to write the songs and practice performing them – all in aid of getting this exciting music out there for us to enjoy. Help them thrive by getting out to see them live and buying their music.