This turn around the dial is all about singles in their glorious yet circumscribed catchiness, ideally maxing out at just a few minutes of focused bliss. Today’s contributors vibe some solid poprock credentials, drawing from the post-1950s pop tradition, all things Beatles, stripped down new wave and various 1980s indie hooks.
Let’s begin with Brad Marino. His work with The Connection is stellar, melodic yet hitting all the rock and roll marks. Not surprisingly, his solo single is piece of poprock magic, oozing a late 1970s compressed new wave sound akin to The Ramones, Rockpile and, more recently, Tommy and the Rockets. Tommy Sistak reaches a bit further back with “You Can’t Change Me,” a track that sounds so British beat group circa 1964. What I love about this song are the clear 1950s influences on the sound and songwriting. Reno native Nick Eng goes straight for a Beatles 65 sound with his single “Reminiscing.” The song is catchy, with great Beatlesque background vocals and Harrison-worthy guitar licks.
Shifting gears into indie mode, it’s been fascinating to see Hurry shed its links with the punky garage sound of some of its earlier material (and Matt Scottoline’s earlier band, Everyone Everywhere) for a more unabashed melodic aura. It was strongly apparent with the hooky “When I’m With You” 2016’s Guided Meditation and is reinforced with “Waiting for You” from their latest Every Little Thought. This is ear worm central. Rounding out this batch is some good old fashioned 1990s-reminscent alienated indie with pop undertones. Hyness hail from Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo and “Choke” might give you some idea of what it’s like to live there. Extra points for succeeding with a Smith’s cover! “Hand in Glove” works here because the guitar work is sufficiently trebly and the vocals are yearning without aping Morrissey. There is something very Tracy Thorn in the delivery.
Hit singles can lead to quality albums which can lead to stadium tours, purchased islands, and conspicuous consumption documented by unreliable tabloids. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Why don’t we just settle for a hit single? Check out Brad Marino, Tommy Sistak, Nick Eng, Hurry and Hyness online to help make that happen.
This turn around the dial offers up some real variety, from melodic indie to spacey jangle to neo-1950s to straight-up heartland poprock.
With a name like The Front Bottoms I just assumed the British vaginal slang meant they were from somewhere in the UK. But New Jersey hasn’t been part of the United Kingdom for hundreds of years so I guess you can’t judge a book by its title. Nor can you judge a band by its past efforts. I’d heard some cuts from this group years ago and it wasn’t particularly my cup of tea with its mostly-talking-rather-than-singing vocal style and attitude-oriented punk esthetic. But something happened on their 2015 release, Back on Top – the band dramatically increased the melodic quotient of their songs while actually singing a bit more, with “Cough it Out” and “Help” (great keyboard opener!) real stand-out tracks. This year’s Going Grey just solidifies this new sound. The hit single for me is clearly the anthemic “Peace Sign.” The song opens with lovely echo-y keyboard and builds from there, from spare verses to crunching choruses that hit you with hooks that make an impact. Even the bridge is worth mentioning – it’s the musical equivalent of edging given the way it holds the melodic tension. Other album highlights include the staccato groove of “Bae” with its surging chorus and the hooky drone of the more musically muscular “Grand Finale.” But really, the whole album hits all the marks of intense listenability.
BaeCough It Out
Music veteran Stephen Smith has been playing in bands and writing music since the early 1980s and his most recent vehicle The Morning Line bears the influence of all that history and experience on their latest record, Smoke. 1960s poprock, some jangle, that slightly muddy 1980s underground sound, with splashes of indie country and folk. “Los Angeles” opens the record with an acoustic guitar and builds a hypnotic pace into something very radio single-worthy. “Anybody Else” unleashes the jangle guitar while “All Mine” sounds very 1960s beat group channeled through 1980s with its great rumbly electric lead guitar. I love the opening to “Polygraph” which builds on a guitar riff in a very 1970s sort of way before segueing into a Graham Parker sound, if Graham was a bit more mellow. “Mailboxes” finishes things with slightly country poprock feel. Smoke is an enjoyable ride – hit play and hit the highway for at least 30 minutes or so.
Brighton UK’s Fur sound like an early 1960s British beat group offering up their versions of 1950s classics. The song structures are pure 1950s. “If You Know That I’m Lonely” could easily be mistaken for the sort of material the bubbled all over American radio circa 1958-9 while “Not Enough” mimics that airy ballad style honed to perfection by a legion of boy and girl singers at the cusp of the 1960s. “Trying” updates things somewhat with its fat sibilant lead guitar sound – this one is a bit more pastiche with its modern and classic touches. Would love to see the record collections that influenced this outfit! I love the sound they have created. It is somehow simultaneously both contemporary and wonderfully dated. Can’t wait to check out a whole album by this bunch.
We raved around Gordy Garris’ 2015 release The Pulse for its songs and understated delivery. Garris always seems to squeeze a hook out of his songs with the most bare delivery. Well his most recent album builds on his previous efforts as he becomes a first class songsmith. Never Give Up opens with “Let Me In,” which sounds like Garris going for the hit single with its slow build and smooth background vocals. This one starts sparse (in classic Garris style) but develops a slicker and more commercial sound, but in a good way. And from here there are so many highlights it’s hard to choose amongst them. “Good Times” starts with a great acoustic guitar hook and then gets its swing on with a catchy tune. “All That I Want” showcases how Garris uses a great vocal delivery to bring out the hooks in his songs. “Stole My Heart” sounds very Joe Jackson circa Body and Soul, minus the acerbic delivery. Other highlights for me include “Move Me,” “Remember Me,” “Out of My Mind,” and the ballad “Believe Me.” So, yes, basically the whole album. It’s that good.
Wrapping up this twist of the dial is the poppy Americana jangle of Mike Daly and the Planets. This is another performer in for the long haul. Mike Daly’s been making music and records in a host of bands for decades. It shows on this remarkable debut from his new outfit. Just check out the Beatlesque opening tempo of “Never Too Late” and its seamless shift into a great new wave vibe. Or the Costello feel of “No Simple Task” with its swinging melody. But the album’s highlight is undoubtedly the majestic “Salvation,” a song that manages to be both moving and insanely catchy at the same time. And to show where Daley comes from, check out these tracks from his former band, Every Damn Day. I love the banjo that kicks in half way through “Theme From an Imaginary Sitcom” and the full-on Costello-cum-Beatles homage in “It’s All About Tonite.” These are lost gems!
Never Too LateSalvationNo Simple TaskTheme from an Imaginary SitcomIt’s All About Tonight
This particular turn of the dial takes us all over the musical map, sometimes to the very edge of poprock country. From indie folk-rock to proto-mod to alt country and then some, we have a lot of ground to cover.
On their 2012 debut album The River and the Road were a pleasant folk rock band, hailing from Canada’s major west coast city. But with Headlights, their 2015 release, some kind of transformation occurred. More electric, certainly, though the album also featured a number of strong acoustic numbers. No, something changed in their musical demeanor, kinda like they’d hit the musical gym, bulking up their sound and impact. Case in point – “Mistakes” rips open with a muscular electric lead line that keeps searing into the tune, aided by the full band dropping in at the 8 second mark. This is not really poprock. It’s got more of an edgy indie vibe but still there is something very hooky about the band’s guitar work. “I’m Broke” swings with a strong alt country melody, roughed up just a bit by the band’s more rocking sound. By contrast, “Strange Disease” reverberates with a drone-like banjo backing. And this is just a few highlights – really, the whole album is great. You may think you know what you’re getting with a band like The River and the Road (i.e. four on the floor Americana) but the record keeps pushing its own boundaries.I’m BrokeStrange Disease
When the name of your band is a reference to a 1976 song by another band, which is in turn a reference to a line from a 1965 movie, you’re deep into a very self referential world defined by its own measure of cool. Seattle’s Shake Some Action have been at it a decade now and they sound like a band whose sound has been forged in the fire of 1960s poprock, the late 1970s mod revival a la The Jam, with a healthy dollop of 1980s jangle pop. Their brand new album, Crash Through or Crash, is a sonic treat, all shimmery guitars and hooky reverb-drenched vocals. The opening cut, “Waiting for the Sun,” is a strong single, masterfully arranged to hit all the marks, from the hypnotic lead line to the seductive ‘ahhs’ that announce the chorus. I couldn’t help recalling all those great Mighty Lemondrops records, just for the sheer joy captured here. “Whose Side Are You On” is another tremendous song while “Starting Again” utilizes the Rickenbacker electric 12-string to great effect.
There is nothing precious about Rozwell Kid’s art. The West Virginia band specialize in the sort of ironic, sometimes goofy, sometimes smurky odes to nerdy dudes and their pathetic attempts to be cool. Thus their 2017 release, Precious Art, dials the irony up to eleven on a super collection of slightly off-kilter, buzzed-out guitar tunes. There are highlights galore. “Wendy’s Trash Can” sounds like Weezer meets Fountains of Wayne. “Mad TV” emotes a bit of Bad Books and some of Ken Devine’s solo material to me. “Michael Keaton” channels Weezer and tells a great story. And so on.
Toronto’s First Base are mining the same theme as Tommy and the Rockets and all the other bands whose origin story ultimately links back to the cartoon pop punk of the Ramones. Their bandcamp page has a host of strong singles stretching back to 2008 that are great garage punky romps. But their latest release – “Not That Bad” – represents something new. Sonically, lyrically, melodically, the sound is richer and the song more polished than earlier work. Imagine Teenage Fanclub with a late 1970s lead guitar player. This teaser isn’t even officially out yet. The new album is also called Not That Bad and I can’t wait to hear what the whole record accomplishes.
Heyrocco’s “Yeah” kicks off in a fairly standard rocking vein but then pushes the melody pedal at the 22 second mark in a way that really hooks me. The chorus says jump up and down and shake your head with 40 other people crowding the front of the stage. Melody is not Heyrocco’s main thing but when they make it a priority, they do it right. I usually find one tune I really love on their releases. On 2015’s Teenage Movie Soundtrack it was the great swinging slow rocker “First Song” with its Bernard Sumner vocal. “Yeah” is my fave from the band’s 2016 EP Waiting on Cool. Every now and then I hear just a bit of Sugar Ray in this band, which, personally, I think is a very good thing. Also, check out the fantastic demo version of “First Song” below, from the band’s 2013 Greatest Hits of the 1990s.Yeah
I was blasting through the Forty Nineteens new album, Good Fortune, thinking ‘ya, this is nice’ but it wasn’t grabbing me the way a new release needs to if I’m going give the replay button some exercise. Then I hit the very last song and completely changed my mind. “Two Pillows” is single-worthy magic. Great tune, killer arrangement, wonderful performance – I could go on. Laid on a bed of electric piano, the song has a poprock country feel, sharpened by a searing yet melodic guitar solo and great vocals. It made me go back and re-evaluate the whole album.
This turn around the dial provides a blast of Americana in various forms, with just a dash of melodic British 1960s-influenced psych-rock.
Matt Whipkey’s Best New Music may just be. His 2017 release is a solid album, sprinkled liberally with melodic rock influences that range from 1970s to the 1990s. The most likely single, “Aliens,” kicks off with a killer Byrds-influenced guitar introduction, but then shifts to a nice country-infused lilting number a la Wilco in hit mode. “Danielle” is another song with a great roll-out introduction, this time exuding a more Springsteen vibe. “Amy You Are Everything” has a familiar diminished chord progression that attentive listeners will recognize from so many songs (for example, Lennon’s “Happy Xmas”) but melodically pulls on the more pop elements of Springsteen’s 1980s work, with some nice jangly lead guitar. And there are many more highlights. Whipkey has an enormous back catalogue which you can purchase from Bandcamp right now super cheap (though you should pay more – he’s worth it).
New Jersey’s The Mylars hail from that state’s Union City and named their debut album after the local record store, Melody Records. It makes sense because the record is an updated homage to that great period of American poprock, circa 1978-83. The band even offers up an inspired cover of the Cars’ “Let’s Go,” just in case you didn’t catch on. It all comes together on the debut single and video, “Forever Done,” with its wall of surging guitars and hooky, sibilant vocals. The single has a great AM radio-friendly rock and roll sound c. early 1980s, though without sounding derivative. In fact, the whole album is eminently listenable and would undoubtedly sound great live. There’s no protection from this kind of ear worm, thankfully.
Austin’s Quiet Company have always provided more adult fare at the poprock table, adding just a bit more depth and complexity to the three minute problems that conventional singles typically handle. Though lately they’re becoming a bit darker and noticeably less quiet. 2017 witnessed the band release two EPs rather than a more conventional album, each offering up a harsher sound and seemingly harsher view of human relationships and the world they exist in. It’s Not Attractive and It Changes Nothing came out in April and its opening track “Celebrity Teeth Poacher” sounded deceptively typical of Quiet Company, at least at first. Nice acoustic guitar and melodic vocals open the song but things turn a bit more discordant in the chorus. “On Single Moms” is a nice pop single, with some great horns appearing here and there. By August Your Husband, the Ghost arrived, featuring more complex, harsh textures and messages. Melody is still there, particularly on the epic “We Should Go to Counseling,” but the listener has to work a little harder to feel the hooks. This is a band going somewhere, though they’re honest enough to admit they don’t really know where.
Crossing the pond with our final spin of the dial, The Keepers mine that particular vein of British poprock that stretches from late 1960s psychedelia through a variety of 1980s and 1990s indie sounds. Their new single “Here Comes Spring” is a delightful mélange of 1960s organ and fuzzed out guitars, a decidedly more slick and radio-friendly sound than their more garage rock sounding (though no less delightful) debut album, 2015’s No Exit. How this fits into a new album is not clear yet but the single is very promising. While waiting for more new releases, check out the band’s catchy remake of the Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” on Soundcloud.
New releases require new fans to really take off. It’s an age old equation in popular music. So start clicking through the links provided to Matt Whipkey, The Mylars, Quiet Company, and The Keepers to help turn this new music into a hit song or two.
As we move around the dial on this post we cover a wide range of sound, from retro stylings, to melodic pop, to guitar hooks, to a cool hipster vibe.
Laurie Raveis and Dennis Kole are Raveis Kole, a late-blooming, retro-sounding blast of 1960s cool. Title track “Electric Blue Dandelion” really captures it all with its pronounced musical swagger, rapturous ‘ahhs’ on the background vocals, and very Janis-bluesy lead vocals. But note their fun side – Chris Isaak’s smouldering “Wicked Game” lightens up considerably in their rhumba-inspired make-over.Electric Blue DandelionWicked Game
Moving into more clear poprock territory, The Hangabouts deliver a great duet with Molly Felder on “Sinking Feeling,” a song that exudes shades of Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze or Aimee Mann. Check out the nice Strawberry Fields Forever organ solo about half way through. This song and the very Fountains of Wayne “Evelyn Wood” are featured on the band’s latest release, Kits and Cats and Saxon Wives.
From the opening strains of “Slow it Goes” I knew I’d found some kind of lost super-group. Turns out the band Eyelids is comprised of current and former members of such indie stalwarts as the Decembrists, Guided by Voices and Drive-By Truckers. So, talent to spare, obviously. Just listen to the super cool, hooky guitar work that opens “Camelot” or “Don’t (Please) Come Around.” But while the hooks may grab you, the songs stick in your head because they’re really well-written tunes, expertly played. Their latest LP is Or.
Our final turn of the dial takes us to New York City’s EZTV, a band that brings the dawn of country rock into the indie hipster mainstream on albums like 2015’s Calling Out and their most recent High in Place. These guys have clearly spent some time with their International Submarine Band and Byrds records. But rather than going the homage route, they’ve taken the influences in new directions, overlaying new harmonic dimensions onto the basic late 1960s sound, particularly vocally. Two illustrative examples, one from each album, make the case. “That’s Where You Belong” is closest to influences like the Byrds while “Reasons to Run” breaks with tradition more clearly.
As we travel around the dial today we explore bands that are established but not necessarily wildly successful along with others that are just getting started.
I stumbled across Ginger Wildeheart quite recently and quickly found myself wondering how I hadn’t heard of him before. This guy oozes talent. Whatever style he turns to, he masters. Whatever hook he is crafting, he nails it. He has so many bands and recordings, it is going to take me some time just get through them all. So today we’ll just feature this recent bit of ear candy, his 2016 single “If You Find Yourself in London Town.” Deceptively sweet sounding, the single is peppered with a hint of menace, kinda like a Mike Leigh film. Ok, I can’t resist, I have to include one more great tune, this time from one of Ginger’s many side projects, Hey! Hello!, a concentrated piece of rock pop entitled “Swimwear.”
I loved Sunday Sun from the first time I heard the opening refrains of their Beatlesque “Beating Low” from the 2012 EP Iii. The combination of carefully constructed vocal harmonies over jangly guitars was a formula that couldn’t lose for me. Their most recent long player Live Out Loud accents the pop over the rock effectively rebalancing their sound away from their earlier work. Would I have preferred some more prominent Rickenbacker guitar lines here and there? Sure. But the band write such catchy and clever songs and the vocals are so impressive, what you have here is still pretty awesome. “When We Kiss” is relentless in its hooky delivery, “Can’t Stop” has a great swing, “Marry You” is a lovely acoustic number just in time for the wedding season, and “Oh Let Me Love You” could easily be a super Hall and Oates single.
When We KissMarry YouOh Let Me Love You
From the opening of Umm’s “Black Summer” you wouldn’t think they would get past the censors on this blog. But just wait for the vocals. This duo enjoy an eerie symbiosis vocally that is enthralling (and the cool organ runs don’t hurt either). Couple Chris Senseney and Stefanie Drootin had a band called Big Harp that had a nice folky/synthy thing going (check out “Golden Age” below for a taste) but in a recent interview noted they were grooving a lot on the Everly Brothers’ harmonies and knew they needed a new vehicle to take up this direction. The result is Umm, a kind of Everly Brothers on acid, though they also remind me of a lot of other great duos out now, many that we’ve reviewed here like the amazing Jack and Eliza or The Kickstand Band. Check out their super video for “Oh Yes No” featuring Creative Commons film footage from “Westinghouse Traveler’s Choice 66” from the Prelinger Archives.
Mystery be thy name, Spirit Kid. There is not a lot to find about this act other than their many great recordings. Spirit Kid is the name of the band and their first album from 2010, which features two strong tracks in “My Imagination” and “Assumed by You.” “Wrong Kind of Money” from the same year is pretty good too. 2011 saw a strong EP with Happiness where the band sound really gels into an Apples in Stereo groove. Is Happening came out in 2014 with “Playing Cupid” and “Heart Attack” but then there is a break until this year’s “To My Romeo.” Easy going and poppy, with just a hint of T Rex and the British glam sound. Love the cover art on the most recent single as well – very fun!
Long Dream is the most recent album from Title Tracks, a band with dreamy sound, vocals that remind me of The Smithereens at times, with some very cool guitar lead lines. “I Don’t Need to Know” bolts out of the pen in a very Bob Mould style, with some cool breakout lead guitar. “Empty Heavens” has a more languid strummy feel with the treble significantly upped on the lead guitar. “Peaceful Uses” has a nice instrumental roll out before settling into a catchy indie poprock vibe. Given how solid this record is, I look forward to mining their back catalogue more carefully.
The accent today is on fresh and contemporary versions of poprock that nonetheless draw on all the classic elements: sparkly guitars, upfront melody, and close harmonies, with the occasional cool synth thrown in for good measure.
Berwanger’s Exorcism Rock is not what I expected it to be. From the title to the cover art I was expecting some kind of strip joint boogie rock or a 1980s hair band. But this album is whole heap of melodic fun. The range of material is simply amazing, from the Tom Petty-inflected “Booty Shake” to the breathy Vaccines-style vocal on “Black Sun” to the killer poprock riff driving “Slutty Skin.” As one might expect from a veteran of two successful bands (The Anniversary; The Only Children), band leader Josh Berwanger has really got his songwriting chops down. I also like the slow but melodic “Guess You Weren’t Wrong.” Check out Berwanger’s older material as well. The 2015 EP Demonios has a more downhome rock and roll feel, while 2013’s Strange Stains focuses more on the pop side with super tracks like “Bullets of Change,” “Mary,” and “Everybody Knows.”
So you live in Norway and decide to name your band Sweden – that’s not going to be confusing … Another great guitar band that relies on mixing up the guitar sound over songs with solid hooks. “Hey C’mon” from 2012’s Under the Sycamore Tree kicks off with a catchy acoustic guitar riff before exploding into a full on band treatment. “Barefoot Summer” from 2013’s Sixes and Sevens shifts back and forth between what an old rock and roll friend of mine once called ‘gunga’ rock (because the guitar makes that gunga gunga sound over and over) and tasty melodic solo bits. “American Kiss” is another strong cut from this album. Then most recently 2016’s Oh, Dusty has a slew of strong tracks. “Just a Kid” kicks off with a sound reminiscent of Hall and Oates ace single, “You Make My Dreams” but then goes in a totally different direction. “Stockholm” is a pretty solid single while “Hanging Around” is prime poprock craft.Hey C’monBarefoot Summer
Everything you read about SWMRS focuses on their punk sentiments and crazy stage shows. Certainly they look the part in their many online videos, i.e. young, male, and scruffy. But I don’t hear that listening to their 2016 release, Drive North. Instead these guys have a smooth and polished sound, apparent on tunes like “Turn Up” with its solid acoustic guitar and bass anchoring the song, and “Figuring it Out.” I also really like “Lose It,” a masterpiece of understated poprock. Check out this clever line – it just rolls out effortlessly with the music: “Why you’d have to have such a damn fine taste in music? Yeh, if all my favorite songs make me think of you I’m going lose it.” The band is on tour but curiously seem to be avoiding any effort to actually drive north – no Canadian dates have been announced.Turn UpLose It
Speaking of Canada, its version of Vancouver has a huge crop of great bands making the rounds these days, like The Zolas. It is interesting to hear the subtle change in this band’s sound over the course of a number of albums. 2009’s Tic Toc Tic puts the piano upfront in a recognizable poprock combo sound on tracks like “The Great Collapse” and “These Days.” But melody and hooks come to the fore with 2012’s extremely catchy Ancient Mars. Both the title track and “Knot in my Heart” seriously up the spooky melody quotient while “Escape Artist” is brilliant both lyrically and melodically. “Strange Girl” is bit more rocking but with an eerie, haunting melody in the chorus. 2016 brings more change as the band puts its synthesizer front and centre to good effect on its most recent album, particularly the killer title track, “Swooner.”
Got some great tips for this week’s Around the Dial from a super poprock site – Sweet Sweet Music Blog – that combines band interviews with their music videos. But don’t take my word for it. Be sure to visit SSMB as well as Berwanger, Sweden, SWMRS, and The Zolas online and find out for yourself.
We start big on this installment of Around the dial with Kevin Devine’s fantastic new album Instigator. Devine has a lot of material under his belt – eight albums not including this one – but his latest is by far his strongest, most accomplished piece of work. Others might be more partial to different periods in his career but for me it all comes together here: politics, unrelenting hooks, and more tender insights. The cover alone, of some 10 year old’s Christmas party wrestling match, is a major highlight. From the moment the chugging guitar opens up “No Why” the album never misses a beat. “Magic Magnet” is power pop heaven. “Daydrunk” is a sweet guitar drenched ode. “No One Says You Have To” is a lovely acoustic ballad. The title track “Instigator” says hit single to me, one part Fountains of Wayne, another part Weezer. But I save the most love for the touching, introspective “I Was Alive Back Then.” Imagine if Paul Simon sounded genuinely alienated and had gone through some serious angry periods – it might sound a bit like this. An outstanding performance of a song that leaves the singer bare.
The hippie vibe lives on as a kind of lifestyle esthetic and Brett Dennen could be its poster child. The influences here are all over the map: a bit of Van Morrison, just about any 1970s confessional singer songwriter, a dash of reggae at times. However on his fifth album, 2013’s Smoke and Mirrors, Dennen upped the pop quotient with tracks like the catchy “Out of My Head” and infinitely pleasant “Sweet Persuasion.” His most recent album Por Favor strips things back a bit without losing the hooky focus, particularly on tracks like “Bonfire.”Sweet PersuasionBonfire
The Springsteen is definitely there in Brian Fallon’s solo album Painkillers but the influence is more atmospheric than direct. I love the guitar sounds on this record. The title track opens with a great rumbly electric that gives way to lush acoustic strumming while later “Among Other Foolish Things” features a distinctive opening guitar riff that repeats throughout the song. “Nobody Wins” typifies the easygoing rock and roll sound of the album, laid back but with subtle hooks. If this record is anything to go by, Fallon is really just getting started.Among Other Foolish ThingsNobody Wins
And now for something completely different. Rich Ajlouny and the Tractor Beams are a bit off the beaten poprock path, but only just. There is something definitely Beatlesque in Ajlouny’s slightly discordant vocals, reminiscent of “Nowhere Man.” You can really hear it on “Around the Town” from Ajlouny’s 2013 solo release but it is there in spades on the more recent Love is the Stronger Force, particularly “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.” There is also something very art rock about this band’s material and performance, as if some elements have been deliberately left out of focus. Other highlights include “Give Her a Kiss” with its super harmonica break and “When Plans Go South.” I also like the wonderfully quirky “Going Back to Work” with its stark admission that the protagonist is ‘going back to work after being such a jerk.’
Time for another trip around the dial with acts that offer something old, something new, or something completely different.
More Suzanne Vega? This is super new, from her most recently released album, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers. Based initially on a project for art school, Vega developed it into a play featuring herself. On the whole, the record has a stylized cabaret feel, but for one track which really harkens back to a more familiar Vega sound, the single “We of Me.” For fans of her distinctive folk pop sound, this song will not disappoint: ringing acoustic guitars, a poetic cadence and a hook that stays in your head.
Michael Penn launched into the charts in 1989 with his debut album March, largely on the strength of a break out single – “No Myth” – which got to 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. But three albums later it was pretty clear that his chart success was a bit of a blip, despite turning out consistently strong material. Still, in 2005, after a five year break, he released the stunning Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, an amazing concept album chock full of striking would-be hit singles: “Walter Reed,” “On Automatic,” “A Bad Sign,” and many others. Still, no chart love. So he walked away, shifting his considerable creative talents to television and movie soundtracks. I rue the day somebody lunched him into this decision. Luckily, the occasional single still emerges from time to time, like “Anchors Aweigh” from volume three of his soundtrack work of the HBO show Girls. Deceptively simple sounding, resting on a basic acoustic guitar backing track, Penn adds impressive depth and hooks with his vocals and the occasional instrumental flourish.Girls
Speaking of Penn, his spouse has had a very different response to chart indifference. Sure, Aimee Mann has done some soundtrack work too, most notably Magnolia in 1999. But she’s also kept up her solo work and a host of other creative partnerships. Mann is unique in not only consistently writing great songs, but she has developed her own distinctive songwriting style, something that few performers – the Beatles, Elton John, Elvis Costello – have really managed to do. “Can’t You Tell” is an original song Mann created for the anti-Trump political project, 30 Days, 30 Songs, narrated from the perspective of Trump himself, basically saying ‘come on folks, you know I don’t really want this job, it’s just my ego at work here …’ The song is not a charity knock off – that is not the way Mann does things. Instead, “Can’t You Tell” is a solid single, the mark of Mann’s talent that she can just give away such strong material for a one-off project like this.Can’t You Tell
Gentle Hen is the brainchild of Henning Ohlenbusch, seemingly the hardest working man in show business this side of Northhampton, Massachusetts. He is one of those guys who is part of half a dozen bands and collaborates with a half dozen more, while still getting out some solo stuff on the sly. The Bells on the Boats of the Bay is the debut album from his old band but now under a new name and everything seems to falling into place: fabulous design on the artwork, stellar songwriting, and a great sound. There are a whole lotta influences going on here: chiming guitars, Ben Vaughn-esque vocal stylings on some numbers, and hooks, hooks, hooks. “I Don’t Know Anyone Else But” is a strong single featuring a late 1960s British poprock guitar line opening out to lilting melody that shifts tempo to great effect in the chorus.
Some bands do variety in terms of song styles but others just sound like totally different groups. Ex Cons fall into the latter category. Some of their more recent work has a cool indie vibe going – definitely check up “Black Soap” and “Pretty Shitty” – but if we go way back to 2012 they were working a decidedly different seam of the poprock scene. “James” reminds me of Nick Lowe’s immediate post-Rockpile work on albums like Nick the Knife and The Abominable Showman. Definitely hooks galore!
Twins were a first for me. Their publicist sent me a blurb and link to their latest release in advance of its drop date, asking me to have a listen. I’m glad I did. Hailing from the bustling burb of Waterloo Iowa, Twins have a great pockrock feel, channeling a super new wave vibe on their first album, 2014’s Tomboys on Parade, particularly on “Tomboy.” By 2016 their Kiss of Life EP had a sweet melodic 1960s pop single in “This Time.” But their new album Square America takes all these various influences and kicks it up a notch on such great songs as “Breakin’ Up” and “Take That Gurl.”
Power Pop Square turned me on to Vancouver’s The Top Boost and not long after Powerpopaholic wrote about them in glowing terms. The hype is genuine – this band has got something special going on, combining classic mid-1960s guitars with spacey 1980s vocals. “What if She Loves You” is a classic sounding single, with chiming guitars and great vocals.
A casual and inattentive listen might have you thinking that Chris Staples is just another LoFi drifter, with a few more hooks to offer. But there is some serious genius going on in his multiple releases over the past decade. Staples spent a number of years rocking out with bands like TwoThirtyEight and Grand Canyon before embarking on his present, more mellow solo career. What I love about Staples’ work is the casual poetry of his arrangements. His songs are deceptively simple in conception and execution.
“Relatively Permanent” from his most recent Golden Age combines a distinctive electric guitar line, acoustic guitar, haunting background vocals, and Staples own dry folky vocal delivery. “Cindy, Diana, Janet and Wanda” from the 2015 EP Cheap Shades demonstrates Staples’ talent for imaginative lyrics that gel with his music in a way that appears completely free of artifice. The guitar lick opening is so casually addictive, the distant harmonica so evocative, that when the lyrics come in they are surprisingly and similarly melodic. The lyrics really are brilliant for their ordinary complexity: “How could I forget Diana, she moved here from Gary, Indiana” or “She left me for a married professor, extra credit for letting him undress her.” “Dark Side of the Moon” from 2014’s American Soft has a lovely swinging acoustic guitar base and a sweet love sentiment. “Cincinnatti” from his 2011 EP Faces sees Staples shifting from a great swinging electric guitar line to lyrics that match the swing. And there is much more discover this Pensacola, Florida native on sites like Bandcamp.
Michael Goodman, who goes by just Goodman on his recordings, is one of those amazingly talented young men. Bandcamp features some pretty impressive and catchy demos from the 13-year-old version of Goodman, talent that only blossomed in later years. Things really start to come together on Goodman’s 2012’s release, What We Want, with the infectious single “Night Person” and the great title track. 2014’s Isn’t it Sad has many highlights but “Blue Eyed Girl” stands out for its killer chorus. Since then there has been a succession of quality singles like 2015’s “Telegram Girl” and 2016’s “Shallow.” Goodman has all the poprock chops, a solid foundation in 1950s and 1960s song structures, but funneled through late twentieth century sensibility.
Twins, The Top Boost, Chris Staples and Goodman exist in this digital world of MP3s but also have a real corporeal existence – and that requires dollars on the barrelhead, or whatever passes for currency in your neck of the world. Pay them a visit, pay them some cash …