Often I stumble across a new artist with a significant back catalogue of material and it’s hard to know where to start. Obviously the new stuff is their latest headline and priority. But the historian in me can’t help but want to play a little catch up with their musical pasts.
Profiling Hidden Pictures would be a challenge. We go from the acoustic folk/country of the 2008 debut Hidden Pictures (s/t) to a distinct vein of acoustic pop whimsey on so many albums, EPs and one-off singles that follow. And yet the band’s light touch can give way to more ambitious aural outbursts on tunes like “Where Does the Story Go?” “Sister Wife” and the rocking “Girls Like.” Comparisons to FOW abound. You can definitely hear the vocal kinship with Chris Collingwood on “Match Play” from the debut. But 2010 stand-alone single “Whitney Houston” is something different again, very *repeat repeat in its use of synth and razor sharp vocal harmonies. Three more albums followed in quick succession, 2011’s Synchronized Sleeping, 2012’s Rainbow Records, and 2014’s Ottomans, and they too pack a host of surprises. I’d single out at least one from each (in order) as particularly stellar: “It’s My Fantasy (It’s Not Your Fantasy),” “Say Hello to Darkuary” and “Firm Way to Say Goodbye.” But this undersells the proceedings. Each album is its own little cornucopia of inventive poprock songwriting. A great place to get caught up is with the band’s amazing 30 song compilation, The Hidden Pictures Anthology. So many superior cuts here, from the Squeeze-like “Ottomans” to the more hard-hitting FOW-vibing “Stealing the Tapes” to the Magnetic Fields-reminiscent “Endless Summer.” Oops, the latter two don’t actually appear on that collection. Thus you will have to supplement your Anthology with a few one-off song purchases, even if you not a completist. Personally, I wouldn’t pass over 20022 b-side “Only Memories.” It’s a real gem.
On their recently released album S/T or self-titled Marquette Michigan’s Liquid Mike let loose the power pop gods. Previous releases hinted at this development but never with this kind of sustained focus. And that’s saying something because 2021’s Stuntman and 2022’s A Beer Can and a Bouquet are hella-good records. “BLC” open things with grinding guitars and an uber smooth vocal melody riding over everything. The lead guitar carries a bit more of the melodic heft on “God Bless the World” and “Built 4 Nothing Good.” Listening to the album, it’s hard not to name-check the obvious comparators to what’s going on here, people like Matthew Sweet, early Fountains of Wayne, Weezer, etc. I love that nearly everything here clocks in at 2 minutes or less. “American Record” is the obvious single. Stepping back an album, you can’t miss “I’ll Get Back to You” and “God’s Best Substitute” from A Beer Can and a Bouquet. To get a sense of the band’s more punky roots, give the debut LP Stuntman a spin. It’s somewhat more rough-hewn but often pretty melodic smooth too. Check out “The Branch,” “T+T,” and “Big Fish” to get the full effect. “Thrifty Car Rental” doesn’t appear on any album but it should be added to your collection as well.
Frank Bango arrived in the 1990s very much in the thick of a poppy clever songsters generation. The quirky melodic turns and idiosyncratic lyrics of his 1994 debut I Set Myself on Fire Today fit right in with contributions from the likes of Mark Everett in his ‘E’ guise, Peter Case going solo, or Martin Luther Lennon. “Today I Quit the Band Mom” sounds like A Man Called E deep cut while “Get Yourself Buried” and “Lucky Suit” are solid singles material. Four years later Fugitive Girls fattened up the sound and showcased the increasing strength of Bango’s song-writing partnership with lyricist Richy Vesecky. “Candy Bar Killer” has got that languid Marshall Crenshaw pop splendour while “Ape” vibes M.L. Lennon to me. One listen to “Olivia 101” and the constant Costello comparisons from reviewers start to make sense. Don’t miss “Instamatic” btw, it’s got a real Rubber Soul invocation. Bango’s next two albums are excursions into whimsy and more somber reflections, often with a folky edge but never without a few really stand-out tracks like “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” or “The Ugly Version” from 2002’s The Unstudied Sea and “I Saw the Size of the World” from 2008’s The Sweet Songs of Decay. And then Bango dropped a masterpiece, 2013’s Touchy/Feely. The record sounds taut, honed and melodically calibrated to please. There are just so many great tunes here: “Defenseless,” “Too Lazy To Love You, ” “What Kind of Saturday,” “Astronaut I’m Not,” and so on. The record manages to meld an updated Brill Building sound with a charm-schooled Costello lyrical intensity. From there it’s been a long wait for Bango’s brand new The Truth Fox, just out last month. The acoustic guitar moves up front on this release in a “Norwegian Wood” register while the song-writing reminds me of Mike Viola’s distinctive style. This is a record of tender – sometimes brutal – introspection. “I Don’t Know Anyone Here” and “I Never Thought of You That Way” are stark and vulnerable and moving. But the hooks are here too on tracks like “Two Rubies.” Late period Bango shows no sign of letting up on the sonic and lyrical brilliance.
It used to be that records were disposable, here today forgotten tomorrow. But now they string together like a resume that fans can take in all at once or bit by bit, whenever they come across them. Getting all caught up was never so easy.
Image courtesy James Vaughhn Flikr page.