Christian Migliorese has been doing a punky poprock thing for at least a decade and half, both with his current outfit The Feels and on prior recordings as The Tattle Tales. But his efforts reach their zenith on his brand new 45, the poptastic “She’s Probably Not Thinking of Me.” From a rather straightforward punk-influenced opening riff the song suddenly opens up at the 20 second mark like a Busby Berkley dance number with marvelous background vocals and magnetic hooks. The whole thing comes off like a wonderfully ragged mid-period Fountains of Wayne number. Somebody tell me there’s a whole album of this stuff on the way because Fall 2020 desperately needs to feel this good for at least 38 minutes (divided amongst ten or so carefully crafted increments). This song is a guaranteed instant-replay single.
The Feels barely mar the pristine surface of the internet with just a Bandcamp page and Facebook site that hasn’t been updated in six years. Maybe we can change that by sending this song flying up the charts.
Mike Viola has a new album coming out in early December but we can’t wait for that. What with a spooky seasonal event nearly upon us, how can we not draw attention to Viola’s wonderfully creepy melodic side. Now I’m taking some liberties here but it seems to me that Viola has a thing for monsters, particularly the biting kind. And he was a Candy Butcher, after all. As such, I’m assembling a few Viola tracks into a completely unsanctioned EP I’m calling Creepster (nicely rhymes with T Rex’s “Jeepster”).
Just look at the evidence. Viola’s new album might bear the angelic-sounding title Godmuffin but the advance single features him as a vampire lurking around California swimming pools and abandoned streets. “Drug Rug” is a slow burn earm-worm, it sneaks up and lashes out with a subtle killer hook in the chorus. Speaking of creepy, another track from the new album is just called “Creeper,” a loving tribute to his late friend Adam Schlesinger. Then there’s “Bitten and Cursed,” a single he put out in 2018. Here the protagonist has a ‘bed like a hearse’ but ‘doesn’t sleep’ because ‘tonight I’m changing’ with ‘blood on my shirt’. Not hard to paint a picture here. Even the b-side, the wonderfully guitar-ringing “It Does a Number on My Brain,” sounds pretty spooky. Then casting back to Viola’s most recent prior album The American Egypt there’s a song about “Bat Girl Panties.” No, I don’t really know what it’s about but it mentions bats and Halloween so it’s in.
I came to Mike Viola’s work through Lurch, his 2007 poprock tour de force. I loved the McCartney-esque turns on “Stawberry Blonde” and especially the hooky “So Much Better.” Since then Viola has embarked on a series of musical adventures that have taken him a bit far from that 1960s melody-drenched sound. However, as the evidence from my rogue Viola EP Creepster demonstrates, the hookster is definitely back in town. Can’t wait for the new album!
Check out Mike Viola at his website and Facebook page. Don’t make him come looking for you.
Drop the needle on The Rockyts debut album and you’d think the basic operating system for this band is The Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There.” They’ve got that early Beatles’ rock and roll rhythm down. But before long the opening cut “All of the Time” has morphed to include a distinctly American take on the Beatles that’s akin to work from the Beau Brummels and the Cyrkle. Throughout its brief 25 minutes, Come and Dance works this trans-Atlantic beat music seam brilliantly.
Forget the Barracudas 1985 album (I Wish It Could Be) 1965 Again, with The Rockyts it is 1965 again. The combination of originals and covers are so authentically mid-1960s in style and performance it hard to believe the band are barely old enough to drive. Lead songwriter Jeremy Abboud’s originals really capture the period, without sounding merely derivative. The new songs are like stumbling over some great lost singles from one of your fave artists. The covers are equally inspired, bringing a new ferocity to some past classics. And there’s a cheekiness here too. I love how the band drop a hint of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” into “I Want To Be With You” (a hooky tune that adds Buddy Holly inflections to a driving Beatles rocking beat) or a flash of “Twist and Shout” during “Come On and Dance.” And then there’s “Break My Heart Again,” a should-be hit single to my ear with its great guitar lines and fab harmony vocals.
It’s interesting to compare The Rockyts’ covers to the originals. Their version of the Gestures 1965 minor hit “Run Run Run” adds a bit more garage grit to the performance while their take on The Sonics “Have Love Will Travel” is smoother and more solid. Personally I think the band’s version of the Dave Clark Five’s “Can’t You See She’s Mine” adds a bit more life to the song. The covers of The Knickerbocker’s “Lies” and The Easybeats “She’s So Fine” both capture the dance fun of the tunes. All the covers are from 1965 but the Dave Clark Five single (which charted in 1964). I can’t wait to see what the band make of 1966!
Come On and Dance is a driving slab of mid-1960s Beatlesque excitement. The future of the past is in good hands with these boys. Check out The Rockyts on their website and Facebook.
Taking apart The Go Go’s and exploring their solo work really highlights how much the band is a synthesis of their different and very talented individual musical personalities. No one is free riding here. Everybody is pulling the band’s music in a slightly different direction, which helps explain how they arrive in such a unique space creatively. It’s why The Go Go’s are an amazing band. But solo, each Go Go is pretty damn good too. In this whirlwind take on The Go Go’s going solo, we’ll eschew the hits to focus more on some special deep cuts from the various releases.
Rhythm guitarist and contributing songwriter Jane Weidlin was the first to leave the band and the first to release a solo album, both in 1985. Scanning her solo records it’s clear that Weidlin was the quirky alt and art rock influence on The Go Go’s. Think Sparks, the Talking Heads, Television – that sort of stuff. From her self-titled debut I like her cover of Wire Train’s “I Will Wait For You.” You hear a strong Kate Bush tinge to her vocals. On 1987’s Fur “Give” grabs me, probably because it’s the most Go Go’s-ish of the songs, with guitars more up front than the rest of the album’s more synthy polish. 1990’s Tangled features at least two marvelous deep cuts, the beautiful co-write with Cyndi Lauper and Richard Orange on “Paper Heart” and the wonderful jangly “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (no relation to the folk song). 1998’s Very Best of Jane Weidlin includes a lovely stripped-down version of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Weidlin’s vocal has a brittle intimacy, revealing further nuances of a song she co-wrote with Terry Hall of The Specials.
No one was really too worried about a Belinda Carlisle solo career. Band vocalists are up front and, rightly or wrongly, often seen as the star of any band. Then again, Carlisle was the only member not to contribute much in the way of songwriting. But she hit the ground running in 1986, charting numerous hits over the next decade. Carlisle’s solo career marks her as the most commercial influence on the Go Go’s. From her self-titled debut album I love the Motown-esque “I Never Wanted a Rich Man.” From her monster hit album Heaven on Earth, I’d select “Should I Let You In” with its Go Go’s guitar resonance. Then turning to her many subsequent albums I’d single out Real, a record that reunited her with Caffey as her principal songwriter. That resulted in a slew of great song performances like “Goodbye Day” and “Lay Down Your Arms.”
Lead guitar player Charlotte Caffey wrote the lion’s share of the Go Go’s material, which makes her slight solo releases somewhat surprising. She certainly wasn’t idle, regularly contributing material to Carlisle’s solo albums as well as other performers. Her biggest solo endeavor was as a member of the Graces whose 1989 album is possibly closest thing to a Go Go’s album from one of the band members. The 1989 LP Perfect View has two bona fide should be hits, the title track “Perfect View” and “Lay Down Your Arms.” Personally, I love the guitar rumble and vocal work on “Should I Let You In.” Given all these great contributions, an actual solo album from Caffey would have been most welcome.
Bass player Kathy Valentine’s solo work underlines how she clearly brought an indie and roots-rock influence to the band. Her prior work to the Go Go’s with The Textones certainly illustrates this, particularly on the original version of “Vacation.” Valentine’s two post Go Go’s bands showcase her versatility with The Blue Bonnets “Don’t Pass Me By” exuding the rough charm of Chrissie Hynde’s early Pretenders work while The Delphines has a smoother melodic rock feel on tracks like “Crazy.” Her 2005 solo record Light Years had a nice spartan Go Go’s feel, particularly on songs like the Beatles-y “Getting By.” More recently Valentine has been taking her work in a more experimental direction. In 2016 she put a beat poet swagger into the single “In My Closet” while in 2020 she created a full-on book/music synthesis with the autobiography/album All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir. Check out the hooky cut-and-paste technique animating the chapter 17 song selection “Regular Format.”
Drummer Gina Schock kept busy after the Go Go’s initial break up, playing with other bands (guesting on drums with Norwegian band a-ha, among others). People worry about drummers when a band breaks up because, typically, they’re not the songwriters or the vocal focus of the band. I mean, even Ringo’s career took a dive when the quality material from John, Paul and George dried up post-1975. But Schock impressed a lot people when her new band House of Schock released a pretty polished album in 1987. Give “Middle of Nowhere” a listen and see if you don’t hear elements of The Motels’ sophisticated style here and there. She went on to become a songwriting powerhouse for a wide variety of performers.
Checking out the Go Go’s solo work really underlines how the band functions as a team, with each member contributing something important to the mix. They’re all musicians, songwriters, singers and kick-ass live rock and roll performers. They made history as the first all-female band writing and playing their own songs. But they’ve remained popular because they’re great by any measure. Can’t wait for the new album!
Hard to believe that the Kinks took “Autumn Almanac” to number 3 in the UK back in the fall of 1967. Going against the grain of the emerging psychedelic scene, the song is so laid back, almost anti-commercial. Ultimately, the single kicked off the band’s grand pastoral-romantic period that followed with albums like The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur and the Decline of the British Empire. But enough about Ray and company. They’re just the inspiration to launch our own autumn singles almanac, a carefully curated collection of 20 songs to lighten up your fall, ease you in to the autumn, and get you hooked on these hooks!
The Ruen Brothers evoke a distinctive atmosphere on their new single “Saving Me, Saving You,” somewhere spooky, perhaps with fog. But when the titanic vocals cut in there’s no hiding. The spotlight is on and something electric is going on. These guys have got style! It’s a haunting 3 minute mélange of guitars and striking songcraft. Prolific popmaster Greg Pope puts the acoustic guitar to the front of the mix on his new album, Wishing on a Dark Star. It really carries this light, carefully crafted pop gem that appears about two thirds of the way through the album, the aptly titled “Jump Back from the Light.” The hooky ‘whoa-oh’s are just gravy. Chicago garage poppers Gal Gun offer up a literal “Premium” single from their soon to be released new album Critical Hit. The song has a strong Weezer vibe, exhibiting that pleasant mixture of dissonant punk qualities laid over an early 1960s song structure. The b-side (“Oh Oh I Love Her So”) is all that, even more so. Tacoma’s Vanilla change our pace completely with a lovely McCartney-esque “Let’s Start Over Again.” John Lennon used call these sort of tunes ‘granny music’ but I love’em. I’m certainly impressed with the band’s command of different song idioms. I don’t know what ‘indie tinged emo’ is but apparently it is Yeah Is What We Have. So, I guess I love indie tinged emo because their new single “I Could Only” is great. The mix of spare guitar work, percussion and sweet vocals is addictive and endearing.
Speaking of sweet, Declan McKenna burst on the scene as an uber talented charismatic teen boy wonder with his hooky protest song “Brazil” back in 2015. Now entering his twenties he’s still working the adorable seam pretty hard with this new album Zeros. He continues to push the boundaries of his songwriting and performance, turning in a memorable take on a Wings-ian pop tune with “Emily,” among many other fab contributions to the new album (like the Bowie-esque “Key to Life on Earth”). Surf indie pop purveyers Fuzzysurf are back with a new record, Sweet Tooth, and it’s more of the same good synthesis of old and new poprock influences that carried their earlier work. “Do You Like Us Now” has a strong 1960s guitar stamp, with a nice cleaned-up garage vibe. Ready for dancing? Definitely. I first heard Chuck Prophet with the Green on Red recordings but then missed his early solo work, checking in finally with the fantastic Night Surfer LP. Since then, I’ve paid closer attention to his releases. Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins is a good as it sounds like it will be. And Prophet’s brand new The Land That Time Forget is another winner. “Best Shirt On” is a lovely well-crafted tune with such subtle hooks and an overall feel of mid-1960s low key lushness. Brooklyn’s fuzz pop band Dead Stars grind out a slow burn melodic treat with “Dreams Don’t Come True” from their recent Never Not Here. This one works turned down low or blasted from the car stereo. The band The Ern Malley Affair are almost as mysterious as the fake poetry scam they take their name from. The internet turns up only out-of-date MySpace pages and nary a mention of the group’s work from back in 2009. But apparently they have new material out now and it carries on with their earlier ‘dirty folk’ sound. Words like ‘jaunty’ and gently ‘spirited’ come to mind listening to the delightful “It’s This.” Love the mellow organ and hooky shuffle.
God how I’ve missed Ben Kweller. The guy’s got a way with sneaky earworm tunes that get in your head and you find yourself humming them for days. He’s been pretty skint about new material over the past half decade (his last album was 2014’s Go Fly a Kite) but 2019 saw the release of a few new singles and now a new LP Circuit Boredom seems imminent. If “American Cigarettes” is anything to go by, it’s going to be a very good time. The song’s got his signature cool low-key swagger, bolstered by some nice but oh-so-subtle melodic shots in the chorus. Feel the sway of gentle jangle propelling The Embryos “I Wanna Be Your Sam” from their recent EP SCV3. They sound like The Church or The La’s in very mellow mood and that is totally cool. Sydney, Australia’s The On and Ons so nail the 1966 poprock sound – again – this time on a tight little EP called Menacing Smile. “Don’t Want to Talk About It” particularly exudes a strong Mickey Dolenz/Mike Nesmith vibe. Now if you want a rush of poppy guitar goodness, The Lolas always deliver. “The Wrecking Yard” glides along with a melodic ease aided by lightly ringing guitars and nice harmony vocals. Bodyheat produced a fab self-titled debut EP back in 2015 that contained some really winning tunes like “Talk It Over” and “Poor Girl.” Now a new EP is forthcoming and Indoor Music gets a promising start with a single like “Phonographic Memory,” which reminds a little of The Silencers and a host of other great 1980s indie guitar bands.
Finally some Canadian content. Montreal’s Elephant Stone are the working the psychedelic seam of the sixities revival sound on their fab recent album Hollow, showcased nicely on that album’s first single “Hollow World.” But personally I’m digging their stand-alone election-era single, “American Dream,” with its muted jangle, harmonica and healthy caution about all things U.S.A. in 2020. ‘Gee, Ma, I want to go back to Ontario’ indeed. While they self-describe themselves as farkle wiki pop, when I hit play on Phoenix’s Diners all I heard was capital-F fun. From the light glam guitar to the cheesy fun fair organ, “Big Times” won’t fail to put a great big grin on your face with its Apples in Stereo-like cheekiness. I bought Irene Para’s “I Won’t Back Down” as a cool take on Tom Petty but quickly switched allegiance to the b-side, a Para composition called “Own Sweet Time.” There’s something slightly majestic in how this song builds throughout. A real earworm. Signals Midwest member Maxwell Stern’s solo album Impossible Sum is out and making the charts. Just a taste of single “Water Tower” suggests deservedly so. Here Stern’s punky inclinations (more in evidence on Signals Midwest material) are smoothed out by driving acoustic guitars, reverby lead lines, and punchy yet sweet vocals. And now we end with a bit of a happy ending. I say bit cuz it involves just a quarter of one of the most tragic bands in rock and roll history, Badfinger. Lone survivor Joey Molland has outlived his compatriots to collect his share of the royalties and make what should be a triumphant return to niche poprock love. “Rainy Day Man” is the advance single from Molland’s upcoming album Be True to Yourself and it hits all those Beatles, ELO and Badfinger marks we rightly expect it would. A lovely little slice of expert popcraft.
Almanacs are big things, you can’t necessarily get through them in one sitting. Don’t worry, these 20 original should-be hits from our 20 original should-be stars will be here for your continued consumption throughout the fall season.
Today’s breaking musical stories are all destined for 2020’s parade of ‘best of’ lists come January next. They’re that good. Not just a few strong tunes but full album experiences. Break out the bank card because you are going to want to explore the full story behind these headlines over and over again.
Despite releasing an EP in 2016 and an album in 2018, New Jersey’s The Happy Fits appear to be asking listeners to take sides with their new record, the aptly named What Could Be Better. The previous releases were great but there’s no denying that this new record has the mark a band suddenly in complete control of their muse. All their quirky musical elements really come to together here, from the masterful vocal arrangements to the inventive songwriting to the surprising, delightful incorporation of a cello into rock and roll. Comparisons to marquee acts like the Violent Femmes and the Killers bear fruit on “Go Dumb,” the blood-rushing spare rocker that opens the album, as well as “Hold Me Down.” But I also hear less well-known indie darlings like Everything Everything, particularly in the vocal attack on these cuts. But then things change. Both “No Instructions” and the title track have a poppy melodic wonder I associate with Dutch group Sunday Sun. “Moving” sounds so early 1960s girl group songwriting-wise but twists things with a distinctive interplay on the vocals, adding depth with a splash of cello here and there. And “The Garden” stops things cold with another transition, this time to a kind of Fleet Foxes folk fragility. What Could Be Better is a slice of pure musical excitement. It somehow manages to be relentless and refreshing at the same time. A must have.
I know I’ve been banging on about Swedish melodic rockers Mom all summer but, come on people, this is what the game is all about: jangly guitars, slightly distorted vocals and hooks coming more regularly than the 4:50 to Paddington. Now the band’s new album Pleasure Island is officially out and it’s a delight from start to finish. Looking for a fresh take on the early Cars-era of new wave? This record is your put-it-on replay date. The LP kicks off strong with the single-worthy “I Want You To Feel What I Feel.” Other should-be hit singles for me would include both “Suzie (Use Me)” and “Better Than You.” The album features some nice jangle on cuts like “Talk to Me,” “Ordinary Girl” and “Don’t Leave With My Heart,” a bit more of a rocky feel on “Cry No More Tears,” and offers up a distinctive organ solo on “Tonight.” There’s even a bit of a Cheap Trick-meets-Suzie Quatro feel on “High Demand.” Pleasure Island is a clearly defined musical destination you are going to want to visit regularly.
Another Well Wishers record is always a welcome bit of news. On this 11th outing for the band, Shelf Life is nothing but melodic goodness. “We Grow Up” kicks things off with the familiar, signature Well Wishers wall-of-guitar sound, overlaid with those perfectly compressed AM radio vocals. I love the opening guitar build-up that introduces the song. There’s something very Matthew Sweet going on here and not just the should-be hit single aura. Then “My Desire” shows just how to put the ‘power’ in power pop with big crunchy guitar chords swathed in harmony vocals. “Secrets and Lies” alters the pacing, toning things down just a bit with an XTC-like poppy feel and just a hint of jangle. In different ways both “Father of the Bride” and “All the Same” channel a Fountains of Wayne style to me. Other tracks manage to salt in a few subtle retro influences: an addictive CCR-sounding lick grinding through “Who Cries,” a bit of Eagles’ acoustic rhythm anchoring “Holidays Await,” and a Beach Boys-taking-a-run-at-power pop moment on “Lonely Song.” My ears are still ringing, in a good way.
In 2004 Eugene Edwards lit up the indie music scene with his stupendous debut album My Favorite Revolution. It was a staggeringly good collection of poprock tunes, channeling everyone from Tom Petty to Elvis Costello. It seemed like the start of something big. Then … nothing. Edwards joined Dwight Yoakam’s touring band in 2012 and can be seen all over twitter plugging Fender guitars as recently as last week. Albums of new material? Not so much. That is until A Week of Sundays quietly showed up on various music platforms last summer. And by quiet I mean ziltch promotion, nada, nothing. Even Edward’s Facebook and twitter pages contain no mention of the record at all! A crazy way to run a career but hey, I can say this, the product is solid. It’s fun from the opening riffs and party feel of “Good Old Days” and the straight-up rockier sound of “Did You Kiss the Missus.” There’s also a few exquisite slow dance moments on tracks like “The Best Man” and “Lo and Behold.” Influence-wise I hear a lot Squeeze on this record from “Irregular Heartbeat” to “Who’s Gonna Hate You When You Go.” “Person of Interest” takes off with a classic Chuck Berry opener but then segues to a sound reminiscent of Squeeze’s Argy Bargy. “There’s No Secret” is a rocking vamp but with some tasty melodic hooks buried in the tune. Edwards even offers up two versions of the title track, the latter with a decidedly ska feel. Tell your friends, Eugene Edwards is back and ready to be noticed.
Brooklyn’s SLD sound like a blast of the very best seventies poprock. They are channeling a bit of ELO, Klattu, Badfinger, and especially mid-period Wings over their new very long-player Lost. You can practically hear the sunshine and taste the California ice teas on “He’s Got You Now,” the killer opening cut. Both “Right Place Wrong Life” and “Fly Away” have that recognizable mellow 1970s McCartney touch. “No Way” even manages to rehabilitate a bit of disco guitar and space keyboards for good effect. Vocally I hear Glenn Tilbrook on a host of cuts, specifically “Don’t Want to Get Over You” and “Midnight Eyes.” Meanwhile, an ELO ambience haunts “12 to 5,” “Lost” and “Last Night.” I love the anthemic hooky changes on “Only the Sky” and the mild Oasis vibe “You’re Not Me.” It’s rare for a band that nails such a stylized period sound to somehow still escape a retro tag but SLD do it, largely on the basis of some strong songwriting and damn fine performances.
On Paper AirplaneMarshall Holland manages to be retro and topical at the same time. The album is suffused with a strong 1970s sensibility, clearly evident on songs like “Look into My Eyes” and the title track. But the record is not merely retro. The album’s opening cut “Our Fate” takes up contemporary concerns about policing with just the right balance of urgency and restraint. “When the Rain Comes” then shifts the mood completely with the aid of jaunty late 1960s keyboard shots. “A Hand Holds a Bird” puts the acoustic guitar up front, mellowing the listener out in a very Simon and Garfunkel sort of way. Three cuts in and Holland has punched up three distinct moods without jarring anyone. What holds everything together is the album’s over-riding style, a synthesis of a rather cheery Elliott Smith with an up-tempo Sufjan Stevens, captured wonderfully on “Waiting for that Peace & Love.” I love the breezy summer feel on “Don’t Do It” and the sweet variety of guitar sounds blanketing “I’m Checking Out.” Back to politics, “Whatcha Gonna Do” is the most melodic put down of Trump anyone’s ever produced. And despite all this variety, the album plays like a smooth listen. Paper Airplane is like a visit with an old friend, comfortably familiar but full of surprises.
Morrissey takes a lot of stick and for the most part deservedly so. His off-the-cuff comments about British identity, immigration and multiculturalism have gotten him in hot water with fans and critics alike. At root, his views are one part working class contrariness, one part auto-didact sloppiness. He comes out looking good defending animal rights, lambasting heartless Conservatives, and criticizing foreign wars, but can’t seem to get his default working class politics sorted, sometimes directing it to odious English nationalist outfits like UKIP and For Britain. It’s why pop stars make poor politicians – people consume music apolitically most of the time and the stars are seldom able to be accountable for their occasional outbursts. Expecting different is shopping for disappointment.
What Morrissey does well is channel alienation, that inarticulate and lumpy feeling of exclusion, at times with palpable dread but sometimes with a peppy spring in his step. His now long solo career is arguably so built on misery that its become mundane, truly the essential Morrissey cliché. But occasional flashes of brilliance still emerge. Like “Spent the Day in Bed” from his 2017 album Low in High School. Here Morrissey combines sympathy for the ‘enslaved workers’ with a critique of media sensationalism, less in a ‘fake news’ sort of claim than an old school left media criticism of the social control functions of modern media. As Morrissey opines:
“Stop watching the news
Because the news contrives to frighten you
To make you feel small and alone
To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own.”
But ultimately “Spent the Day in Bed” works as a tune or not at all. And here some reliable Morrissey hooks emerge to give it staying power. From the skipping electric piano riff that opens the song to the earworm shift that occurs in the chorus the song is a winner, with a nice spacey bridge thrown in for good measure.
I loved The Smiths but can offer up only a lukewarm ‘like’ for the solo Morrissey canon and persona. Musically Morrissey has often exceeded my expectations as a solo artist, lyrically he stalled. But that doesn’t mean he can’t craft a great single from time to time.
Before Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and The Jam, my fave angry young man of the new wave era was Joe Jackson. Look Sharp! and I’m the Man, his first two albums from 1978 and 1979, were flawless poprock. “Is She Really Going Out With Him” was a masterpiece of his spare approach to instrumentation and arrangement. Though Jackson was primarily a pianist, these records were guitar-strong, but not in an endless 1970s guitar solo sort of way. Instead Jackson put the rhythm guitar back in charge, just as the Beatles and other sixties melodic bands had done. I segued into Jackson’s more keyboard-based work in the 1980s without missing a beat, drawn in by the distinctive emotional depth of Jackson’s work compared to the other angry young men. While Costello and Parker told you about their pain, Jackson somehow let you feel it. As a young gay man in 1982, his “Real Men,” a song tackling the contradictions of gay identity, really hit home with me. And it was pretty brave to put out the song in such a homophobic time. As a result, Night and Day (1982) and Body and Soul (1984) dominated my turntable throughout the mid-1980s. I even got to see him on the Body and Soul and Big World tours when he came to Vancouver.
But with Big World (1986) I started to drift from Joe Jackson’s orbit. I just didn’t connect with his subsequent recordings in the same way. Years passed before I realized I’d completely lost of track of his career. Sure, I dipped in now and then to see what was out but didn’t really give his new recordings a proper listen. And in retrospect, that was a mistake because every Joe Jackson record has more than a few pretty good poprock tracks, barring the classical (1987’s Will Power) and jazz (2012’s The Duke) releases which clearly had a different purpose. As I think his early hits period is pretty well known, this post will focus mostly on the post-1985 releases. I say ‘mostly’ because I can’t help offering up a few deep cut choices from the earlier recordings. There’s “Pretty Girls” and “Pretty Boys” from Look Sharp! and Beat Crazy, respectively. I always thought “On Your Radio” from I’m the Man was an overlooked should-be hit single. All of Jumpin’ Jive is pretty special but Jackson’s killer cover of Louis Armstrong’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” rocks! Night and Day put the piano up front in Jackson work, to stay, and his keyboard virtuosity shines on “Cancer.” Body and Soul is known for its unusual and delightful combination of salsa with jazz on most cuts but personally I love the cinematic feel of “The Verdict,” it’s ability to swoop down from big horns to more tender quiet moments. Speaking of movies, Jackson’s made some great contributions, particularly on Mike’s Murder and Pretty in Pink.
After all his previous experimentation and stylistic wandering, Big World was a return to poprock form for Jackson. Well, sort of. In another bid to do something different, he recorded the whole album live before a shushed audience! Here the standout track for me is undoubtedly “Forty Years,” a moving commentary on the uncertainty that preceded the end of the Cold War. The shifting geopolitical winds of the era animated 1989’s Blaze of Glory on tracks like “Evil Empire” but Jackson’s fascination with the emptiness of fame defined the title track and the peppy “Down to London.” 1991’s Laughter and Lust developed this further, taking aim at the shallowness of consumer-driven popular culture on “Hit Single” and “It’s All Too Much.”
Then, in a surprise move for an artist who’d always condemned nostalgia, Jackson decided to revisit his past glories with Night and Day II in 2000 and a reunion of his early band on Volume 4 in 2003. But true to form Jackson used both as platforms for more reinvention. N&DII was darker and more collaborative that the original (including duets with Susann Deyhim and Marianne Faithful, among others), with elements of techno added to the mix. Personally I like the light and airy “Stranger Than You.” Volume 4 is the band from Jackson’s first three albums but the sound is filtered a bit through all his subsequent influences. Love the dissonant jazzy feel of “Chrome” and jangle elements all over “Still Alive.”
Five years later Jackson returned with the very Night and Day-ish Rain in 2008. Songs like “Invisible Man” and “Rush Across the Road” really sound like a continuation of that project while “Too Tough” pops a killer hook out of its chorus like proverbial beautiful girl out of a birthday cake. Fans then had to wait seven years for Jackson’s next poprock project, 2015’s Fast Forward, his ode to great cities like New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and New Orleans. Here I’m partial to the expansive, horn-filled “Ode to Joy.” 2019’s Fool seemed like even more familiar territory with lots of piano-led tunes and biting commentary. “32 Kisses” immediately grabbed me as classic Jackson.
I deeply admired the combo of hooky songwriting and sardonic commentary that typified Jackson’s early career. His inability to sit still creatively or tolerate fake sentiment and rampant commercialism was just icing on an already attractive cake. Now I can see he kept playing to those strength later on. Of particular interest to me (given my day job teaching politics) is how Jackson has consistently put his politics front and centre, unlike say Graham Parker and Elvis Costello where it tends to be a bit more oblique. And while I haven’t always agreed with Jackson’s positions (particularly defending smoking) his attention to matters of class and working class identity mark him out as a truly original and principled artist. I’m delighted to be reunited with his work.
Ah love. The autumn rustle of leaves amid crisp sunny days brings a new tableau for songwriters to paint love into the picture. Or out of it, as the case may be. Today’s post covers it all: from easy loving to yearning feelings to distinct varieties of heartbreak. Let’s get the loving started!
Canadian crooner David Myles is no slouch on guitar and he puts his smooth vocals and wiley acoustic playing together in a wonderfully Jim Croce-easygoing manner on “Loving You Is Easy.” It’s from his lovely new album Leave Tonight. Myles really excels at these laid back love songs so break out the candlelight if you’re going to spin this disc tonight. I love how Ride member Andy Bell’s new solo single starts abruptly, like you’ve tried to drop the needle in between vinyl cuts and not quite got the start. “Love Comes in Waves” is lovely rush of Bryds-influenced dream pop, accent on a spacey feel. Myles and Bell have clearly got the love and aren’t afraid to let you know about it.
Meanwhile, others are still looking for love. The Amplifier Headscomposed a nice “Short Pop Song About a Girl” that features spot-on 1960s lead guitar work and a winsome vocal style. There’s some serious wooing going on here. George McFall sets the scene a bit differently, coming on with more of an industrial tinge to start. But “The Boyfriend” delivers a great big head-exploding hook in the chorus that will have you hitting repeat to get just a little bit more of it. When he’s not leading the Lunar Laugh, Jared Lekites is apparently pining for love that’s not coming his way. His new EP Looking for Diamond X is a winning handful of loser laments, delivered in a most melodious way. “Unrequited Love Song” pretty much speaks for itself.
And then there’s heartbreak town. Sweden’s Mom have a new album called Pleasure Island but the song titles suggest that love may not appear on the street map. There’s “I Want You to Feel What I Feel,” “Hurt By You,” “Waste My Time,” and “Suzie (Use Me).” Sounds more like I’m-All-Out-Of-Love Island. But hey, I’m not saying the songs aren’t great – they are!. Check out the fab guitar and early Cars-vibe on “Don’t Leave With My Heart.” Lastly, Mike Daly and the Planets finally give falling out of love its due with a song of its own, the aptly-named “Falling Out of Love Song.” I mean, why should falling in love get all the songs? Love the Elvis Costello wordplay and sound on this track.
If love is in the air, forget the mask – it’s not going to protect you. Whether it’s coming or going or just being ignored, today’s artists demonstrate you can always set it to music. Hey, why not get a little love going on your own, a little money love for these artists? Hit the hyperlinks to do your part.
While there is little in the post-Beatles era that is not somehow touched by their influence, some bands wear that influence a bit more obviously than others. Today’s crew are veritable Beatlemaniacs, long suffering and uninterested in any cure. At times, they almost are The Beatles, they come so close to the masters in song structure and/or performance. Yet they all add some magic of their own, some original element that elevates their efforts beyond mere imitation. Get ready for some old and new Beatlers!
One of the earliest post-Beatles bands working the Mersey side of street was Liverpool Echo. Their self-titled 1973 album was a refreshing reworking of the 1964 Beatles sound for the seventies with strong songwriting from Martin Briley (later of “Salt in my Tears” fame) and Brian Engel. Countless songs start out like a Beatles’ classic, only to veer into something else, e.g. “You Know It Feels Alright” kicks off with a “Love Me Do” harmonica, or “Don’t You Know I’ve Been Lying” sounds very “I Call Your Name” at the start. But the record sports more than a few really original cuts, like “Gone, Gone, Gone” and the hooky “Girl on a Train.” Former hard rockers The Szutershave a broader take on The Beatles’ sonic legacy on their new album Sugar, filtering their efforts through a Todd Rungdren/Utopia Deface the Music set of influences (particularly on “If You Only Knew”) or a Cheap Trick (on “She’s Coming Home With Me”) or even early Squeeze (“Good Thing”). But “I Don’t Wanna Cry” and “Two We Will Always Be” nail The Beatles circa ’64.
With Putting the L in WooltonesRob Clarke and the Wooltonesmove a bit beyond their usual Mersey predilections to explore some other 1960s sounds. But there’s still one classic moptop number with “It’s Only You,” a lovely track that could easily live in the Beatles For Sale universe. And then there are actual cover bands, though few stand out like Apple Jam. As one commentator once said, “Apple Jam are possibly the most arcane Beatles tribute band in the world.” Why? Because they only record the songs The Beatles never officially recorded. Their 2009 Off the Beatle Track album reworks 15 early Lennon-McCartney tunes (and one Harrison song), their 2018 Off the White Album takes up all those songs that didn’t make the White Album cut, while other singles and EPs give a Beatles treatment to various solo material from the fabs. The results are pretty spectacular. Imagine all those songs the Beatles gave away in the 1963-4 period but now informed by the polished sound they gave on their official releases. “I’m In Love” and “From a Window” get upgraded to an obvious should-have-been Beatles release. “Goodbye” as performed here seems to merit inclusion on the White Album. And their Beatles 1964-style interpretation of McCartney’s “On the Wings of a Nightingale” is pretty special. The band’s most recent single is a version of Harrison’s unreleased “Window Window” from the Let It Be-era.
Unlike our other Beatle-vibing bands Cupid’s Carnival solidly occupy the mid-period Beatles zone, stretching perhaps from Help! to Yellow Submarine. They load their songs with uber cool Beatles references but the songwriting stands on its own. Their recent 2020 release Colour Blind kicks off strong with “Working All Day,” acing those familiar Beatles harmonies. The hooky “I Got It Wrong” and “Happiness” are Beatles poprock bliss! “Clapham Junction – Platform 9” uses a “Strawberry Fields” mellotron to good effect. And the record includes their masterful should-be hit “She Don’t Care” from their 2018 EP Clapham Junction. Detroit’s The Singles are all over the Meet the Beatles sound on their 2003 debut Better Than Before. The title track is simultaneously pure 1964 and yet timeless in execution, absolute dance party killer. “She’s Got a Hold” works that special Beatles jangle into a lovely melodic number with great harmonies. Since then the band has released a number of solid poprocking albums, albeit ones that beat the Beatles drum a bit more lightly.
55 years ago “Help!” was heading for number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Today we’re still living in the shadow of that influence. Help keep the flame alive by clicking the hyperlinked band names above.