2017’s Exposure and Response heralded the arrival of Portland’s Mo Troper. All the punker, outsider ferocity of his previous recordings found themselves melded into shiny perfect poprock here, albeit still coated with a heavy of dose of hipster alienation, particularly on the vocals. As we await a follow up, Mo decided to throw this at us: “Never Dream of Dying,” a pretty stellar, spot-on rogue James Bond theme. Things start out so Bond circa 1970s with full on orchestrated tension before dissolving into a deceptive ballad (you can just see the silhouetted girls with guns float by). But wait, he’s not done, Troper’s got a Macca-worthy Bond bridge and an orchestral big finish! “Never Dream of Dying” is a delightful bit of fun from a guy who has the pop culture chops down.
Check out all of Mo Troper’s fine recordings at his bandcamp page here.
In 1970 Decca put out The World of the Zombies, a compilation that leaned heavily on material from the band’s 1965 English debut, Begin Here, right down to re-using the original cover. My parents bought it and for a time the Zombies were to me as important a part of the 1960s rock and roll cannon as the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. And yet they were different, exuding a stylish, jazz-infused cool all their own, no doubt due to Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals and Rod Argent’s distinctive keyboards. In my youth I could never understand why they didn’t seem the make the lists of the great bands from the 1960s. Nor have they spawned the revival of interest we’ve seen accorded to other historic bands since then, i.e. in terms of biographies, documentaries or tribute albums. Only Seattle’s indie Popllama label mustered up their roster of bands to celebrate The World of the Zombies in 1994, featuring the Posies, the Young Fresh Fellows and the Fastbacks, among others.
Well, that seems to be changing. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced this fall that the band would be inducted in 2019 and regardless of what you think of that questionable institution, I welcome the attention to a band that has for too long been overlooked. To aid in that process this blog post will celebrate the great songs of the Zombies, as covered by more recent poprock artists. Funny thing though, as I set out to find said covers – from the obvious hits like “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season,” to less obvious gems like “I Love You,” “Indication,” “The Way I Feel Inside,” “You Make Me Feel Good,” “Kind of Girl,” etc. – I discovered that the band’s material has not been covered that much. I was a bit shocked actually. So many truly great compositions overlooked while people put out yet another Beatles or Dylan cover. Hopefully this recent attention will right that wrong.
Now on to the covers. Let’s face it, like the Beatles it’s pretty hard to improve on what the Zombies put down on vinyl. But our stable of talent make a valiant effort! Quiet Company are a perfect choice to cover this band – they have the sonic sophistication and creativity in spades, clearly evident in their inspired and inventive cover of “She’s Not There.” Tennis hold closer to the original version of “Tell Her No” but give up something endearing in their understated delivery. The Posies take up “Leave Me Be” and they have the Zombies vibe down, with an appropriate dollop of 1990s discord. By contrast, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs amp up the melodic sweetness of Odyssey and Oracle’s “Care of Cell 44.” Indie darlings Yo La Tengo craft a lovely low key version of “You Make Me Feel Good.” And, of course, the Zombies themselves were inspired cover artist. The very first version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” I ever heard was by the Zombies and it has remained the defining performance for me.
Tennis – Tell Her NoThe Posies – Leave Me BeMatthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs – Care of Cell 44Yo La Tengo – You Make Me Feel Good
Click on the artist names above to find these super covers and support these artists. It’s also a great time to get caught up on your Zombies catalogue. Check out the Zombies website and Facebook page over 2019 to keep up with what should be an international year of the Zombies!
A new week, a brand new batch of just released tunes from some seriously melodic dudes: Sofa City Sweetheart and Wyatt Blair. When I heard what these guys had on offer, they went right to the front of the blogging queue. Why not start the week off right?
I was digging Juan Antonio Lopez’s Elliot Smith-style vocals and the clever hooks in his new single “Stop the Thinking” when the Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass trumpet kicked in and then I was totally sold. His band is Sofa City Sweetheart and the song is a pre-release from his soon-to-be released new album – with this as a teaser, I can hardly wait! Check out the fun video that plays with the HA&TB imagery to good effect.
Musical chameleon Wyatt Blair has owned the sounds of so many different musical styles on his previous releases, though they’ve mostly focused on the 1980s. This time Blair steps back a few decades to nail the late 1960s California pop sound on his new record, Inspirational Strawberries. Things kick off with “It’s Yesterday,” a song filled with those classic fun 1960s sounds like harpsichord, bicycle bells and a killer organ, and then layered with some ace Cowsills vocals in the chorus. Next up is the obvious should-be hit single, “Gotta Get Away,” an adrenaline rush of Mamas and the Papas meets the Bryrds power sixties hooks. And Blair just keeps hitting the 1960s melodic marks after that, with some spot on, rocked up Hollies vocals on “Who’s to Blame,” a distinct Abbey Road vibe on “A New Tomorrow,” and some great rumbly lead guitar with Beach Boys vocal stylings on “Tenderly.”
Tis the season to think of others and bandcamp makes it easy to give away great music like this to your friends. But, frankly, you’re gonna want to click on Sofa City Sweetheart and Wyatt Blair for yourself too.
The research and development side of this operation is skint. There’s just too much music to explore and not enough time to check all the possible sources of great new music. So sometimes I cheat. When I really want some quality I head over to Don Valentine’s I Don’t Hear a Single to catch up on what he’s found. Don’s plugged into some secret power pop society that funnels him only the finest jangle-inflected, melody-drenched rock and roll. Seriously, aside from the occasional foray into his prog-influenced youth, Don seldom lets me down. Like these two exhibits: Summer Magic and Modern Space – great albums full of should be hit singles.
Summer Magic’s Sharks and Other Dangers combines a late 1970s new wave sensibility with a contemporary power pop sound that could easily be filed next to recent releases like Ruler’s Winning Star Champion or Caddy’s Ten Times Four. It’s all captured on the opening track and obvious single, “Hey.” But the whole record is worth getting to know. Check out the killer B52’s guitar rumble undergirding “Tracing a Bird on Construction Paper,” or the very Beatles Revolver vibe of “Charles de Gaulle,” or the late 1960s sunshine pop sound of “Attraction Corridors,” or the new wave-meets-Beach Boys aura of “A Certain Little Chord.” Another candidate for single would be the hook-riddled “By Your Side,” which somehow manages to make the distinctive sax bleat of the 1980s sound cool again.
Hey!Tracing a Bird on Construction PaperBy Your Side
Meanwhile right in my own Canadian backyard can be found the stupendous Modern Space who manage to blend melodic guitar rock and roll with an addictive dance groove. Reviewers have drawn comparisons with The Vaccines and I would agree but add Vancouver’s Zolas as well as Portugal the Man, particularly on the toe-tapping single “Flip For It” and the relentlessly hooky “Do or Dare.” And then there is the melodic standout, “Ship is Sinking,” a hip-swaying, arm-waving, crowd sing-along, for sure. And for a more traditional rock and roll approach click on “Come and Get It.” Be forewarned, Flip For It is a Saturday night dance party album.Do Or DareShip is Sinking
Don and I would love to see these two act explode into super stardom. Why not help us out? Visit Summer Magic and Modern Space online right now and do your part.
They say the third time around is the charm but, frankly, if you didn’t light up hearing Super 8’s first two records this year, you may be immune to his retro-1960s brand of hooky, summer-infused tune-age. Yes, you heard right, three albums in one year! Bringing back productivity standards not seen since the mid-period Fabs, one play of Hi Lo confirms it isn’t coming at the expense of quality. This installment is another delight! The vibes here vary, sometimes sounding very Arthur-era Kinks or late 1960s country Rolling Stones or even early 1970s Van Morrison. Check out the great laid back late 1960s sunshine pop of the opening track “Mr. Sunshine” or the cool beach groove of “Good Times.” The whole record is very mellow party listenable but with a few very cool surprises, like the brilliant Beck-like deconstruction of Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry” and the spot-on Smiths’ riffing of “If Ignorance if Bliss.”
With all this product, Super 8 must have bills. Get over to bandcamp and buy the whole catalogue. After all, how far off is record number four …
I just saw They Might Be Giants last night here in Toronto and I’m in love again. How can a basically two-man band be so talented? So smart. Seemingly endlessly inspired. Incredibly musically proficient. Funny, political, and wonderful to just listen to ad libbing comedy between songs. It was a show that seemed both spontaneous and perfectly executed, performed by extraordinary guys playing at being easygoing and unpretentious. It took me back to my joy in discovering them with their third album, 1990’s Flood. I just couldn’t believe how interesting and intelligent their songs were. And the hooks were glorious!
This year Brooklyn’s joy released their 20thalbum of original material with I Like Fun. And it is just freakin’ fabulous. The guys keep churning it out year after year but the quality does not take a hit. “Let’s Get This Over With” kicks things into gear with a jaunty uptempo melody and driving piano, “While I Left My Body” has a great droney hook, “All the Time” is just straight up pop goodness, and things just carry on in a very TMBG set of veins after that. I love the deft jazzy piano base undergirding “Mrs. Bluebeard” or the Beach Boysy sound of “This Microphone” or the more straightforward poprock vibe of “Last Wave.” But special attention must go to “The Bright Side,” the obvious single to me, with its super hooks. The band got the album out early this year but hardly let up on their amazing productivity, mounting a world tour and releasing even more brand new material on their special Dial-a-Song Direct website. Check out the video for their latest melodic zinger: “The Communists Have the Music.”
Go directly to They Might Be Giants’ website to find out about their fanclub, the Dial-a-song promotion, or when their amazing live show will be near your town!
When the Extra Arms promo people sent me a heads up bout their new album, Headacher, I thought, ya, I like that Ryan Allen dude. But when they sent me a follow up not long after I thought whoa, pushy much? But they were right to push me. Headacher is a fabulous record from beginning to end. Joining the ranks other great muscular pop rock albums released this year from the likes of Ruler, Tiny Little Houses and Odd Robot, the band behind the music is both more and less than its previous incarnation. Formerly Ryan Allen and his Extra Arms, obviously the front man’s name has been lopped off. But more than previously, Extra Arms is more than just Allen’s backing band, with each of the four members now contributing more creatively. The result is kinda like a more rowdy version of Fountains of Wayne, or perhaps Squeeze after a few too many rounds ‘down the pub’. Here the guitars may be a bit more cranked but that unerring melodic sensibility permeates everything.
It’s all there with the opening title track, “Headacher”: surging crunchy guitars, great hooks, and killer FOW vocal technique. This winning formula infuses most of the rest of the material, with particular force on stand out tracks like “Done to Death,” “Why I Run,” “Old Heads” and “You Make the Life You Want.” There is some variety here with less crunchy, more mellow tracks like “Under Surveillance” and “Honey Brown.” And then the album’s closing number, “The Last One,” offers a real departure, a winsome acoustic number.
If you’re looking for pumped up hooks, get a hold of Extra Arms Headacher at their bandcamp site. I don’t want to be pushy or anything, but it’s just that good.
I was running down my usual jogging route when Freedy Johnston’s “Anyone” came on the playlist from his 2001 release, Right Between the Promises. I was struck by the enduring freshness of a formula Johnston has consistently utilized since his breakthrough albums, 1992’s Can You Fly and 1994’s Perfect World, particularly on what probably amounts to his most famous quartet of songs: “Tearing Down This Place,” “The Lucky One,” “Bad Reputation,” and “This Perfect World.” Combining Nick Lowe pop hooks with the lyrical ennui of Leonard Cohen, he’s everybody’s favourite melodic sad sack. Yet like so many gifted troubadours (Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, John Hiatt, etc.) his initial brush with stardom appeared to stall with the new millennium. But you can’t blame that on the music. Albums of new material in 2001, 2010 and 2015 were as good as anything he’d ever released – maybe better!
Right Between the Promises makes the case with such killer, single-oriented cuts as “Broken Mirror” and “Anyone,” or the more American songbook feel of “Radio for Heartache” and “Save Yourself, City Girl.” It was a long nine years for a follow up but 2010’s Rain on the City was worth it, chock full of strong material like the toe-tapping “It’s Gonna Come Back to You” or the more western rock and roll feel of “Living Too Close to Rio Grande.” There’s some truly classic Freedy songwriting here on tracks like “Don’t Fall in Love with a Pretty Girl,” “Venus is her Name,” and “The Other Side of Love.” Five years later he was back with another fabulous album, Neon Repairman. Opening cut “Baby, Baby Come Home” is on par with any of Johnston’s great songs for it’s aching lyric content and subtle hooks while the rest of album showcases his unique observational talents on tracks like “TV in My Arms,” “By the Broke Streetlight,” and “Sentimental Heart.”
Broken MirrorIt’s Gonna Come Back to YouLiving Too Close to the Rio GrandeBaby, Baby Come Home
I, for one, would appreciate more regular installments of Freedy Johnston. Maybe it’s a money thing? Duh. Let’s get the tapes rolling on a new record by buying up all the old ones. Look here to get started.
I’m a notorious needle-dropper. I skip through albums like some people click through the ‘recently added’ section on Netflix. But every now and then an album grabs me and I find myself listening all the way through, taking more from each song with every listen, or sometimes just transfixed by the order of the tunes themselves. When I run across material like that it’s time to repair to the listening room and give the albums in question some serious attention. Today’s listening room selections are new releases from Mike Pace and Child Actors and Aaron Lee Tasjan.
Forget what you’ve heard from this performer – get ready for something new. With sound like a distilled retro 1980s poprock playlist, the energy on Mike Pace and the Child Actors’ new release Smooth Sailing is seemingly irrepressible, akin to Bleachers’ great debut Strange Desire in its ability to take sonic elements from decades past and make them into something new. This is well illustrated on the opening track, “Everyone Out of the Car” which squeezes just about every ounce of 1983-era indie into one propulsive number, or “Senior Statesman” which injects a little melodic 1980s Springsteen into the mix. This album has highlights galore. “Blaster” kicks off with hit single written all over it and never lets up. “Disconnected Heart” captures the tender acoustic Big Star sound while “Troubleshooting” swings like Joni Mitchell at full volume. Back catalogue honourable mention – don’t miss out on Mike Pace’s previous band, Oxford Collapse, particularly the infectious “In Your Volcano.” Actually, you can’t far wrong with anything stamped ‘Mike Pace’ somewhere.
Aaron Lee Tasjan makes it look so easy. His songs lope along, seemingly straightforward, and then – bang – some ever so simple change up reels you in. Karma for Cheap has a classic easygoing rock and roll combo sound, a bit of Beatles’ Abbey Road guitar here, some classic early 1980s poprock background vocals there. But it all comes down the songwriting. As I listened to the record I kept saying, ‘damn, this is best song!’ Until the next one came along. “If Not Now When” kicks things off with a great stretched guitar sound and pumping piano, “The Truth is So Hard to Believe” sounds like a great lost outtake from The White Album, while “The Rest is Yet to Come” has a super poppy blues feel. But nothing really prepares you for the subtle brilliance of “Heart Slows Down,” the obvious single. Oh, it starts ordinarily enough. But at the 35 second mark something starts happening that leads right to the killer chorus and before you know it you’ve hit replay five times. Those great back up vocals! So simple, so seductive. Then “End of the Day” (which could easily be mistaken for a Tom Petty single) does it again with an innocuous start that hits the fast lane in the chorus as the background vocals and driving lead guitar line combine into radio-friendly, hit single bliss. But Tasjan’s not done with us yet. On “Strange Shadows” he is the spot on reincarnation of Roy Orbison while “Set You Free” lets loose some fine jangle guitar and solid stadium-size poprock hooks. There are other songs I haven’t mentioned but I don’t want to seem obsessed.
There are songs that immediately bring a smile to your face, put a skip in your step, and have you hitting the replay button again and again. They channel a happy place that takes you out of wherever you are or makes the place you are just a bit more multi-chromatic. Los Angeles’ Sure Sure has this down pat with their goose-bump inducing single “Giants.” It starts sparse with some hooky acoustic guitar strumming and builds with what sound like toy piano keyboards, crystalline harmony vocals, and a great shuffling rhythm. It’s a wind blowing in your hair, strolling down the beach boardwalk, you’re starring in the video moment! And then there’s the fresh and cheeky breeziness of Liverpool’s Zuzu. From her breakout single “Get Off” the gal who lathers her singing with a healthy dollop of Scouse accent has exuded total fun. An EP of solid tunes – Made on Earth by Humans– emerged last summer, including two versions of the exquisite “Beauty Queen.” The song features a mother’s advice to her daughter to just ‘stay inside and you’ll be fine’ because ‘you’ve no chance, you can’t sing and you can’t dance.’ Zuzu sings ‘no way,’ not surprisingly and let’s loose a killer catchy chorus at the song’s 40 second mark. Personally, I prefer the acoustic version where the shift between verse and chorus is more dramatic and hooky.
Zuzu – Beauty Queen (acoustic)
Sure Sure and Zuzu – I didn’t connect on the repetition thing going on here till just now – need adoring fans, like you. Go go or gogo over to their internet real estate now and register some support.