We need to start 2018 off on the right foot. Why not chase the blues away with ukulele-fueled songs of love, solidarity, and kittens? Yes, kittens. And snowflakes. And a bit of magic. It may look and sound like a hokey project at first glance but Jeremy Messersmith’s amazing 2017 release, 11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele: A Micro Folk Record for the Twenty First Century, delivers the goods. 10 songs performed in just under 16 minutes with an intense but laid back delivery that oozes authenticity. Some are sweetly charming (like “Everybody Gets a Kitten”) while others are just touchingly sweet (like “Everything is Magical” or “I’m a Snowflake Baby”). In anyone else’s hands these songs would quickly turn to mush but Messersmith manages to wring out every last drop of authentic feeling. It helps that the songwriting is so strong, careening from simple three chord wonders (“Everything is Magical”) to more saucy and complicated pre-WWII era jazz structures (“Love Sweet Love”). There isn’t a bum track on this all too brief album, which fittingly ends with the beautiful, delightful, and inspiring “We Can Make Our Dreams Come True.” Buy it. Play it. Again. I feel better already!
Jeremy Messersmith can be found at his website and Facebook. You can preview the whole album via a series of videos for each song, available at Jeremy’s YouTube page. Warning: repeated listenings to this record will make you want to play them yourself! Luckily, Jeremy offers a free songbook of the record so you can accompany yourself for the low, low price of just your email address.
Canadian Daniel Romano serves up a winning musical hand with the surprising release of not one but two new albums to kick off this new year. The records showcase two strong sides of his eclectic songwriting personality: country-folk and poprock.
Nerveless starts out strong with it’s title track, the spare and roomy arrangement recalling a classic 1970s sound. From there it’s pretty hard to choose highlights – there are just so many great songs here! “Anyone’s Arms” hits all the poprock marks with its great pumping piano and hooky acoustic guitar – very 1970s power pop. “Good Will” and the “Devil’s Handshake” exhibit Romano’s great talent to embed no end of catchy elements to sweeten the basic song hooks. “I’ve Never Tried to Understand” has a lovely grand and sweeping pop song structure. “Bored Enough to Love” starts out like it’s almost going to launch into “I Got You Babe” before turning into a creative pastiche of different styles.
By contrast, Human Touch is a more muted folk and country effort, the title perhaps a nod to some other guy’s paired album release from the early 1990s. The album kicks off with the very subtle built up on “Bring Me to the War.” “An Earthly Stretch of Colour” is a nice folky number with strong acoustic lead lines and slow burning hooks. “Don’t Fool Me” has that aching country ballad sound. But my favourite track is undoubtedly the understated title track, which sounds to me like a great lost 1970s country rock classic.
You might just be asking, what’s in the water up there in Canada? Supremely talented poprock songwriters/performers seem to be in abundance – guys who really know how to deploy a hook like Gregory Pepper, Jeremy Fisher and Daniel Romano – they represent some of the very best the country has to offer. Get over to bandcamp or Romano’s website to check out these new releases in full.
There are a variety of Bears with guitars out there. One has a former guitar player from King Crimson as a member. Another put out an album called Burrito Palace. But this group of Bears is from Cleveland and they peddle something they describe on their Facebook page as “indiepop! Or something else maybe.” They have a sound that is at times DIY and LoFi or even Elephant 6 when they really get excited. Their self-titled debut album Bears arrived in 2006 and the band’s two tonal moods are captured nicely with the moody “How to Live” (check out that crazy haunted movie music organ!) and the more upbeat, boppy “When You’re Away.”
2007 saw the release of two EPs, Shortest Day of the Year and Summer Tour. Here’s a song from each: “You Can Tell” features the band’s signature strummy sound while “Wait and See” has a very Apples in Stereo vibe. The latter song appears again on the band’s 2008 LP Simple Machinery with a lighter, more keyboard heavy arrangement. From the same record, “Your Help” opens with an Amélie-like accordion sound and a vocal that exudes Morrissey on a good day. “Who Knows” came out the same year as a stand alone single and represented a sonic departure for the band with its early Elvis Costello organ burst at the start and various intervals of the song.
Productivity slowed up after 2008. Aside from a holiday EP, fans had to wait for 2012’s Greater Lakes but it was worth it for the soaring and peppy “Wash My Hands” alone. In fact, the whole record had a stronger punch to the songs and arrangements. 2014’s double A-sided single “Friends/Choosing Your Words” is the last release from Bears, though more recent recordings from spin off projects are now emerging (see the Kalaika project here). “Choosing Your Words” has a lovely loping rhythm which seems to coda this band’s efforts in style.
One gets a sense from the self-effacing tone of the band’s self-penned history on their website that they had no illusions about becoming some kind of superstar success story. But I just discovered them via that great iTunes ‘listeners also bought’ feature so if we times that by 10,000 other random discoveries who knows? Check out the full complement of recordings and contact info for Bears on their Bandcamp, Facebook and band website.
I landed a copy of Adam Daniel’s 1999 debut Blue Pop sometime around 2008. From the opening strains of “Breaking Up” I was hooked. Reviewers at the time gushed about the brilliance of the record, comparing it to work by Marshall Crenshaw and Tommy Keene. Daniel’s genius was to overlay the discordant vibe of the 1990s onto some pretty classic poprock. The album has so many highlights it’s a shame to focus on just this or that song … but I will. “Battle Song” is a rock solid single, with hooks and tempo changes that give it first-class ear-worm status. “Cured” reminds me a bit of the bouncy guitar pop of Mary Lou Lord. “Her Shake” kicks off with the tear-away electric guitar fun of a Fountains of Wayne single before resolving into a more uptempo Elliot Smith feel. “Said Don’t Go” is one of those subtle, melodic deep cuts each listener thinks is the special song only they have noticed. “Guess I Got a Girl” updates some neo-1950s motifs for the 1990s to create some pretty hooky magic. Meanwhile the various acoustic guitar numbers (“You Wrecked Me,” “Lovebug”) demonstrate the songwriting strength on this album. Sure the distinctive production and instrumentation makes this record sound pretty special but it wouldn’t go far without strong material. The album ends on a strong note with “Say Goodbye,” a slower tempo number that has a languid beauty, a slow hooky groove.
Somehow I lost my copy of Blue Pop in one of my many epic computer memory fails of the new millennium. I’d been listening to it a lot in the car but now, wiped from the hard drive, I couldn’t recall the name of the artist or the album title or even a single song. But from all music I lost, I somehow knew this was one I was really missing. When I chanced upon “Battle Song” on the internet recently, it all came flooding back. It’s great to be reunited with Adam Daniel!
Daniel has had a sporadic output since Blue Pop but the magic is still there in various releases, all of which can be perused on his Bandcamp, Facebook or personal website pages.
My two-volume Oxford dictionary on historical principles informs me that an ‘overlord’ is not just any feudal ruler but a guy pretty far up on the Middle Ages food chain. The uber lord, if you will. But then the online urban dictionary claims its just a bit of modern slang for “one who excels greatly over their peers in any particular task.” I think either one could work for Overlord, the highly literate poprock band from Brooklyn, NY. Their new single is “Up for Anything” and it’s brilliant. A straight up, one minute and 18 seconds of manicured pop songcraft, no filler. But to really appreciate what Overlord has to offer, we’ve got to go back – way back – to the 1990s and track the evolution of a slightly noisy, fuzzed out garage outfit to the finely crafted poprock connoisseurs they’ve become.
The band’s discography is like a picture slowly coming into focus. The first albums and EPs are somewhat discordant, vibing a kind of DIY punk ‘tude. But everything becomes more clear and pristine over time. The turning point is 2001’s The Wonderful World of Chemistry. Both “Populist Anthem,” with its blurry take on late 1960s California pop, and “Meet the Situation Artist,” featuring nice strummy electric guitar and washed out vocals, up the melodic anti for the group. But it is the brilliant “The 70th Love Song (Class of 1993 Reunion Theme)” that gestures toward the wit and intelligence to come on future releases. Beyond the stylized vocal effects, the song features some killer lyrics. It takes a certain perspective on things to contrast “some boys’ lips are made for smiles” with “some boys’ lips are made for sutures.”
Populist AnthemThe 70th Love Song (Class of 1993 Reunion Theme)
These early tendencies are much in evidence on 2006’s Ticker Symbols. The deadpan drollery is there on “The Very Next Person to the Hold My Hand Can Have Me” and “When You Were Crazy” but things also get more melodically serious on the “We’ll Never Get Away” with its Brydsian and Beatles’ Revolver era élan. Meanwhile “The Song that Saved the World” sounds like a milder XTC take on the pretensions of ‘let’s give the planet a big hug’ musicians. Five years later In Soviet Russia, My Heart Breaks For You serves up another great batch of songs, particularly “Oh, My Mechanical Heart!” “Keep it from the Baby,” “Nothing is Wrong.” There is something very Hollies or even late 1960s Moody Blues in the broad sonic palette here, especially the vocals. The band’s mastery of form is even more obvious four years later on their note-perfect homage/send up of the mopey one on “I Want to Die with You Morrissey.”The Very Next Person to Hold My Hand Can Have MeWe’ll Never Get AwayThe Song That Saved the World
All this leads us to 2016’s The Well Tempered Overlord, the band’s undeniable masterpiece. The wit is cutting, the umbrage exquisite. This is deeply intelligent and catchy music, intellectually riffing on indie culture and beyond. Think of all those smart and clever bands – The Smiths, Magnetic Fields, They Might Be Giants, XTC – and this record adds a new member to the club. There really isn’t a weak cut on the album but I’m specifically loving the hooks on “You’re Gonna Love This One” or the great lead guitar and vocals on “It’s a Travesty,” the alternating tempo of “Incredibly Human” and the rollicking rush of “Posthumous Honors,” with its great line about ‘my whole life was a bad idea.’ And for those who came only for the sardonic wit you’ve still got “Give Up Your Dreams” and “My Absence Will Go Unnoticed.”
In 2006 I heard Ben Kweller’s “I Gotta Move” and I was hooked. His self-titled album released the same year only confirmed my initial strong reaction. The record was replete with should-be hits like “Run,” the magical “Sundress” and, of course, “I Gotta Move.” It’s a record where Kweller manages to bridge the guitar/piano divide that often divides poprock performers. Melding both instruments into the mix, he balances an aching pop sensibility with a familiar rock and roll sound. And all the songs are framed around strong hooks. Other strong tracks include “Thirteen,” “Nothing Happened,” and “I Don’t Know Why.” But why choose? There really aren’t any weak tracks here.RunSundressI Gotta Move
As an album, Ben Kweller spoiled me. I couldn’t wait for Kweller’s next record. Sure, I did a bit of digging, checked out his ‘sugar metal’ band Radish, as well as earlier solo recordings like the Ben Folds-ish “Falling” from 2002’s Sha Sha. But none really matched the mastery, both in terms of songwriting and production, of Ben Kweller in my view. When 2009’s Changing Horses arrived I must admit my first reaction was a bit of disappointment, as the album represented a fairly dramatic change of direction, away from the melodic poprock of earlier material toward an alt country vibe. While it has grown on me, I welcomed 2012’s Go Fly a Kite as a kind of musical course correction. The record opens with a trio of killer tunes, from the rockier “Mean to Me” with its Cars-like atmosphere, to the hooky “Out the Door,” to “Jealous Girl” with its distinctive piano and great ‘whoa ohs’. There is a country feel to some of the songs here too like “Full Circle” and “You Can Count on Me” but across all the material is a strong focus on melody. As a whole, Go Fly a Kite doesn’t hit a false note, with consistently strong songwriting and production.Mean to MeOut the DoorJealous Girl
But that was 2012. Since then, nothing, other than a holiday single and some movie work. Where is Ben Kweller? From a boy wonder who regularly churned out new material we have heard little in over half a decade. After a bit of searching I did come across a recent video session between Kweller and fans where he said he was working on a new album and had 50 songs to draw from. Well I’ve been missing Ben Kweller – it can’t come fast enough.
Ben’s work is available (mostly, some Radish and early EPs are hard to find) in the usual places. As for his new record, all we can do is regularly check out his website and Facebook pages and hope for updates.
Gregory Pepper is no stranger to Poprock Record. We’ve lauded his early work (“Gregory Pepper is not a problem”), tested the audience reaction to his many changing moods (“The Pepper challenge: Classic Greg versus New Greg”), and included his tunes on themed blog posts (“Celebrity poprock: What’s in a name?“). We’ve even shamelessly name-dropped him and his talents when we’re featuring other artists. But now we can offer you more, much more – a veritable ticket to Pepperland! Now you can see inside the creative process of this superlatively talented artist by joining his Song of the Week Club on Patreon or Bandcamp. Every Friday Pepper posts a new song and the website features Pepper sharing insights into his creative process, answering fan queries, and trading quips with the creative people who’ve signed up to support him.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’ve seen these sort of crazy K-tel-esque offers before and they just seem too good to be true. Oh, it all starts off nice but after a few weeks of genuinely new material the whole operation degenerates into live album outtakes and crude demo tapes. But hey, would I steer you wrong? As your poprock curator I’ve already sampled the goods and I can assure you everything has an address on quality street. The Song of the Week Club got its start July 4 with the anthemically timely “Going Back to the U.S.A.” Since then he’s produced 14 wholly new poprock gems. By special permission from the head Pepper himself, I can showcase some of this new material here to whet your appetite.
Only 14 songs into his 52 song odyssey and already the wide range of material presents too much choice. But the four songs below I think give you a sense of what Gregory Pepper is doing. The songs capture his musical dexterity, sublime lyrical creativity, and sense of fun. “Sublime Sun Tattoo” has a late 1950s, early 1960s melodrama pop sound, with a lyric devoted to exploring Enya’s possibly castle-fed loneliness. “Worrier Spirit” has very Elvis Costello melodic subtones circa Punch the Clock to my ears. I love the way the guitars charge out of the gate, only to drop out with the vocals, the great pulsing organ, and the theramin/Quinn Martin Productions sound that appears at the three-quarter mark, capped by a cool James Bond chord ending. It’s the little details that make these such melodic masterpieces! “Give Yourself a Hand” has a great swinging feel with sweetened vocals that add just a touch of light to the desperate drabness so typical of a bachelor party trip to the strip joint. “Two Speeds” showcases Pepper’s mastery of different stylistic eras, with some nice Merseybeat touches, particularly the guitar riff and the overall song structure. I gotta stop here or I’ll give away the store.Sublime Sun TattooWorrier SpiritGive Yourself a HandTwo Speeds
And the price? Just $4 a month for a new tune every Friday. That is some crazy bargain. Of course, you can always offer to pay more. Hustle over to the Patreon or Bandcamp sites and sign up today – you won’t regret it.
When rock critics got wind of a new supergroup forming in early 2009 that would combine talent from the Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, Cheap Trick and Hanson they were giddy with anticipation. But when Tinted Windows’ self-titled debut dropped in April, the gloves suddenly came off. Pitchfork called the record “hopelessly dated and irrelevant,” declaring “the whole of Tinted Windows is so much less than the sum of its considerable parts…” The review ended thus: “If there are dollar bins in the future, that’s where you’ll find this failed debut.” Ouch. Others were just as scathing. PopMatters complained that “Tinted Windows, tragically, is everything that a pop-rock disc shouldn’t be: bland, boring, and completely forgettable.” The reviewer thought the record was a “terrible, hookless affair,” perhaps “the worst album to be released in 2009 thus far.” There were more balanced reviews but they too were often hemmed in with backhanded compliments. The A.V. Club described the album as “wonderfully shallow,” Spin thought it “safe and bouncy enough for Jo Bros fans and Stacy’s mom alike,” while Rolling Stone preferred FOW more clever lyrics but allowed that “these likable tunes usually hit their modest marks.” Not exactly ringing endorsements.
I heard about these reviews at the time but only landed a copy of the record a few months ago. Imagine my surprise to discover that Tinted Windows is an amazing debut album. Forget all the rock critic super-group nonsense. Tinted Windows are a straight-up, guitar-driven poprock group, delivering a new century take on that stripped down late 70s/early 1980s melodic rock and roll sound, with all the usual nods to the Cars, the Knack, Big Star and the Cheap Trick. Adam Schlesinger writes most the songs and you can definitely hear the Fountains of Wayne influence on tracks like “Dead Serious” with its super hooky chorus or “Can’t Get a Read on You.” But as he noted in interviews, he deliberately toned down the signature FOW wordplay for a more direct lyrical style. You can really hear this on the debut single, “Kind of Girl,” with its solid thumping poprock groove. Other members of the group contribute a few songs: James Iha gets a nice slow Cheap Trick grind going with “Back with You” while lead singer Taylor Hanson’s “Nothing to Me” has some nice Beatlesque guitar changes. But the album’s hit single should have been “Without Love,” which opens with a killer hook that just won’t let up – hands down, best song on record. The Hanson/Schlesinger composition “Take Me Back” is another strong contender for a single with some very catchy hooks in the chorus.Without LoveTake Me Back
In separate interviews as recent as 2014 both Hanson and Iha claimed that Tinted Windows would be back with another record one day. Perhaps this time music critics will judge what the band actually delivers instead of what they thought the band should be. In the meantime, buy Tinted Windows wherever it can be found.
Propeller blasted into 2016 with their terrific Ramones-inflected romp, “Turn On the Radio.” Now they ‘re back with another slab of hooky 1960s and New Wave inspired tunes on their just released Don’t Ever Let This Let You Down. The record kicks off with album’s clear hit single, “Summer Arrives.” A great atmospheric opening (that reminds me of Porter Block) gives way to a yearning and sweet melodic ode to the beach season that wouldn’t be out of place on any mid-period Teenage Fanclub album. Another really catchy number is “We’re Better Than Nothing” with its alluring lead guitar work. “Little Unsteady” has the ‘ahhs’ and jangly lead guitar lines of a great Primitives or Sugar deep album cut. “Girl I Know” has a wonderful confessional Replacements quality. Meanwhile “Days Collide” is like someone took an Everly Brothers’ track and ran it through a garage rock filter, the basic magic is there but tweaked with some raw guitar amplifier voltage. The basic point I’m making here should be clear – this whole record is a solid poprock workout, one that bears repeated listening.
Propeller are waiting for some enormous fan adulation and that starts with pressing this hyperlink which will take you to their internet real estate. Let’s get this uncontrollable fame thing started.
If you spend some time on Chris Lund’s website you might not feel so cheerful. The Lund Bros. story is all too common in the annals of rock and roll. Freakishly talented fellows slog away for decades, producing six albums of solid material, only to remain a regionally known quantity, mainly in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. But if you listen to the albums, you can’t help but be positive – this is simply marvelous stuff. From the early mix of influences on 1994’s Loving Cup, to the rejected demos for Geffen that would comprise the early-Beatles-sounding 1998 release Loser, you know you’re hearing a rising talent.I’ll Be ThereTold You So
That potential is definitely realized on the more slick and professionally produced International Pop Overthrow, released in 2002. Tracks like “Cain and Abel” sound a bit Matthew Sweet to me while the amazing “Power Lines” echoes the Britpop sound of The Real People or Cast. But really the whole album is strong on Beatles’ influence, particularly in the middle period Revolver era. Cain & AbelPower Lines
Failing to sign with a major label in the new millenium, the band took up an interesting strategy with their next two records: both were self-released double albums. 2004’s Tangents rocks out and here the two Lund brothers’ early love of Led Zeppelin shows up, though some poprock does shine through on tracks like “Wrong.” 2008’s Songbook IV mines the power pop sound a bit more consistently, as evident on cuts like “Can’t Read You,” “Listen,” and many others. But, as an aside, check out guitarist Chris Lund’s amazing guitar chops on the solo for “Such a Ride.”ListenSuch a RideWrong
Seven years passed before the Lund Bros. returned with 2015’s Sanguine, a title meaning literally ‘cheerful amid difficult circumstances.’ Apt much? But if the band was discouraged, it doesn’t show on the recordings, which are stellar, particularly the nice cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What.” The obvious single is the perfectly paced “Blue,” which opens with some nice acoustic guitar and then builds to a great, vocal harmony-drenched chorus. Another nice tune with a pretty amazing guitar solo is “Ballad of a Former Martyr.” The lead guitar line ripples out at the 1:15 mark with some pretty beautiful runs.BlueBallad of a Former Martyr
Nearly all the Lund Bros. material is readily available on iTunes or you can connect with the band on Facebook or Chris Lund’s exhaustively detailed website. And you really should.