On album number 32 The Boy Named If Elvis Costello and his Imposters come rocketing out of gate with a manic ferocity. Opening cut “Farewell, OK” kinda sounds like the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” if Lennon and McCartney had been in the Clash. The message is clear: fans impatient for Costello to return to his This Year’s Model roots, the wait is over. Elvis may be 67 years old but he’s not too old to rock and roll. And lay on all his usual clever lyrical and melodic turns too.
Now when I say this record marks a return to This Year’s Model that’s only part of what’s going on. Drummer Pete Thomas is playing on the original kit from that record and you can definitely hear it at the start of tracks like “Penelope Halfpenny” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” But the songs simply refuse to be limited to influences from just one album. “Penelope Halfpenny” is really the lyrical and melodic cousin of “Veronica” from Costello’s 1989 Warner Brothers debut Spike, though the organ riffs would be right at home on Armed Forces. “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” also balances This Year’s Model drumming with an Armed Forces melodic vibe. At times it’s the sound and combination of instruments that harkens back to a particular time. “Magnificent Hurt” aces the early records formula of distinctive bass and organ runs. “Mistook Me For A Friend” and “The Man You Love To Hate” echo the gripping tension that the Attractions could sustain on a variety of cuts from the first few albums. Then again “My Most Beautiful Mistake” reminds me of the pop soul sound EC worked up on his mid-period release Mighty Like a Rose.
And then there’s the ballads. “Paint the Red Rose Blue” is that exquisitely mannered song style Elvis really got into from Trust onwards that pops up again and again over the rest of his career. I sometimes think he must crank a few of these out every day before breakfast, so effortlessly do they flow across his many releases. You want it darker? Both “Trick Out the Truth” and “Mr. Crescent” are those seemingly nice EC ballads that hint at a deeper menace the longer you keep listening to them. But the highlight on this album for me is “The Difference” with its keyboard dominated chorus. I’ve always had a soft spot for Goodbye Cruel World and the mix of elements here really remind of where Costello landed on that record.
Rock and roll Elvis is back. Though, in fairness, he never really went away. What nostalgic fans often want is a return to Elvis circa 1979, all snarl, pounding drums and relentless organ riffs. Well EC has seldom been keen to simply stand still creatively or retread old ground. He’s constantly pushed the limits of his rock and roll horizons. But on The Boy Named If Costello indulges the yearning for past glory, sprinkling hints of musical yesteryear all over the album. And the result, far from a retread, is a distinctively new Elvis synthesis.
Elvis Costello lives online here, at least some of the time.
The death of the legendary, incomparable Ronnie Spector is a shock. Did a singer ever seem more alive? From her ground-breaking singles with the Ronettes throughout the 1960s to various efforts to jump start her solo career from the 1970s on, Spector gave it her all. And while she never managed to pull off a Tina Turner kind of comeback in her solo phase she did produce some fine singles and albums, particularly those backed by Springsteen’s E Street Band. However, hands down, my favourite post-Ronettes release from Ronnie Spector is her collaboration with Marshall Crenshaw.
Recorded in 1989, Something’s Gonna Happen was only finally released in 2003. The EP is a dynamic blast of everything that made Spector special: gutsy vocals, Ronettes-quality background singing, and a crack musical backing from Crenshaw’s amazing mid-1980s band. And the tunes really work for her too. The EP focuses on material from Crenshaw’s first two albums, two from each and a rare cut that he never released, with the whole thing produced by Crenshaw’s early producer Alan Betrock. From 1983’s Field Day, Spector adds a tenderness to the vocal on “For His Love” and puts her own stamp on “Whenever You’re On My Mind.” But it’s the material from Crenshaw’s self-titled 1982 debut that really allows Spector to shine, adding a new spark to “Favorite Waste of Time” and turning “Something’s Gonna Happen” into a should-be hit single. The unreleased Crenshaw track “Communication” is another highlight, a solid tune that Spector really makes her own. In a better world, the release of this EP would have marked Spector’s triumphant return to the spotlight.
As the lights dim on the stage, Ronnie Spector is gone. But everybody in listening range knows something happened here. Thankfully we can relive the magic again and again with these great recordings. Visit her website here or check out her recent super holiday EP on bandcamp.
As a member of bands like The Hi-Risers, The Essentials, The Hillbilly Moon Explosion, The Locusts, The Salamanders, and most recently Los Straitjackets, there are clearly many sides to guitar master Greg Townson. But the two sides I want to focus on here are the competing instrumental and vocal foci of his brilliant solo catalogue. Townson’s got six solo albums by my count, three with vocals and three without. They’re all great but each side offers up particular and unique delights. Townson can sing! And he plays a mean guitar. If you’ve been missing some heartfelt jangly-twang guitar and a singer with a Nick Lowe kind of stylistic song range, then nothing less than both sides of Greg Townson will do.
Townson kicked off his solo career with two vocal albums, 2013’s On Your Side and 2016’s My Friend The Night. On both records it’s hard to put your finger on his vocal style. Yes, it’s very Nick Lowe at times and yet it’s also reminiscent of a distinctive 1960s American folk pop vibe you can hear on deep cuts from The Cyrkle or Every Mother’s Son. More recent acts I’d associate Townson with might be Tommy Sistak, The Decibels or Michael Shelley. You can judge for yourself with delightfully breezy cuts like “The Instruments Agree” or the more folkie lounge balladeering of “I’ll Wait for You,” both from On Your Side. My Friend the Night blows this winning formula wide open, expanding the range of styles on offer. “The Opinion Page” is a full on Rockpile-esque workout with an inventive lead guitar instrumental break. “These Shoes of Mine” is a pretty little song marked by a tender vocal and some absolutely killer acoustic guitar playing. From there Townson offers up a Ventures-worthy cover of “Linus and Lucy,” the Nick-in-lounge-mode ballad “Oldest Trick in the Book,” and a time-capsule performance on “You Can’t Stop Time,” a western country-ish tune in that 1950s Capitol records style.
The instrumental side of Townson’s album releases begins in 2017 with Travelin’ Guitar. Everything about this record is right out of 1960s guitar-instrumentals-albums central casting. From obligatory classics of the genre like “Fishin’ Hole,” to inspired yet unusual choices like the “Jaws” theme, to loving covers of vocals classics like “You Send Me,” Townson hits all the marks. But the standout track here for me is actually a digital bonus cut, the inspired cover of The Smith’s “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Amazingly Townson manages to render Morrissey’s anguished vocals via his emotive lead guitar lines with a brilliant aplomb. 2019’s More Travelin’ Guitar faces the challenge of making the familiar new again by reinventing hits like “Venus,” “Day-O” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Just listen to what he does with Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” balancing some expressive lead guitar work against a gently driving rhythm guitar feel, or check out his version of the wartime classic “We’ll Meet Again” where his guitar playing transforms a sad sounding song into something more peppy and joyous.
The vocals are back on 2020’s Just Name It, a collection of tunes that effectively showcase Townson’s low-key Nick Lowe/Buddy Holly-ish vocal demeanor, elevated by his distinctive lead guitar touches. It’s all there on opening cut “My Telescope.” The intro guitar lines are like brush strokes on a painting, the vocals light and sprightly. Or there’s the old rock and roll sound-made-new on tracks like the Dave Edmunds-infused “We Tied One On” or the jazzy cabaret vocal style of “If You’re Not in Love.” My vote for single would be the rhythm-guitar hooky “Square One.” In 2021 Townson switched back to instrumental mode with the creative Off and Running. Taking the idea of an instrumentals album in a new direction, the focus is entirely on hits by women from the 1960s – and what a cavalcade of offbeat hits he’s gathered here. There’s obvious hits (Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” and Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room”) as well as lesser known gems (Lesley Gore’s “Off and Running,” Dusty Springfield’s “Little by Little,” and The Pleasure Seekers’ “What a Way to Die”). Whether taking on obscure numbers like “Action Line” from harpist Dorothy Ashby or a monster chart hit “The Locomotion” by Little Eva Townson manages to add his own special guitar something.
Do you need a musical pick me up? The two sides of Greg Townson will put a smile on your face and kick in your step (onto the dance floor). Catch up on his catalogue on Bandcamp and keep up with his antics on Facebook.
Sometimes my life feels like one long exercise in reconnaissance. Like discovering Jesse Malin this last week. The guy’s been at it since the 1980s in various bands and as a respected solo artist since 2002 but he’s a brand new artist to me. And I’m finding him a pretty exciting find. So let’s get introduced to the fine art of Jesse Malin with a song from each of his eight albums of original material.
With titles like “Queen of the Underworld,” “Wendy,” and “Almost Grown” it’s not hard to nail the influences all over Malin’s 2002 debut album, The Fine Art of Self Destruction. It’s Springsteen for sure, but there’s all those other great Americana songwriters too, people like Warren Zevon and Tom Petty, maybe a bit of The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg. The record is chock full of should-be hits to my ears but I think “Riding on the Subway” has a special chemistry going on in the chorus. 2004’s The Heat opens dramatically with some strikingly sibilant guitar work on “Mona Lisa,” a slow-burn ear-worm that showcases Malin’s talent for clever turns of phrase. From 2007’s Glitter in the Gutter it was toss up between the obvious single and album opener “Don’t Let Them Take You Down” and deep cut “NY Nights.” But I went with the latter with its more subtle, almost pensive feeling of urgency in the chorus. By 2010 Malin had a band of sorts cobbled together for Love It To Life, dubbed The St. Mark’s Social, and it makes a difference to the sound. “St. Mark’s Sunset” rocks on with a gleeful abandon that sounds both a little bit Pogues and a little bit Titus Andronicus.
Five years later Malin was back doing the solo thing, releasing two albums of new material in one year. New York Before the War sure sounds like a hit record, with Tom Petty-ish should-be chart climbers like “Addicted” and more earthy Springsteen-esque numbers like “Oh Sheena.” Outsiders has a bit more of a rave up quality and here I’m loving “San Francisco” with its languid pace and breathtaking juxtaposition of instrumental sounds. Lucinda Williams produced 2019’s Sunset Kids and it’s another winner. My personal fave is “Chemical Heart” with its killer organ backing. Malin’s latest is lovely double album, 2021’s Sad and Beautiful World, featuring an exquisite cover of Tom Petty’s “Crawling Back to You” amid a wide range of styles on his own material. Actually, there’s a lot of Petty influence on tracks like “Dance on my Grave” and “Lost Forever.” But my fave on the record is the sprightly, Graham Parker-ish “State of the Art.”
Malin seems to be just getting bigger and bigger, with positive reviews in Rolling Stone and all the usual music industry press. But there’s still time to say you knew him when. Get in on the ground floor of his fan base with a visit to his website and Bandcamp pages.
I remember my first Tom Petty song so clearly. I was working the dish-pit in a spaghetti restaurant when “Don’t Do Me Like That” came on the local FM radio station. What a song! Those distinctive guitar/piano shots were the musical equivalent of crack cocaine. I was never gonna get free of that. Then I heard “Refugee,” “Even the Losers,” and “Here Comes My Girl” and knew Petty and I were going to spend a lot of time together. Over the years I didn’t react to each Petty record quite as strongly but every release had something to love. That made his sudden unexpected passing in 2017 hard to take as the guy clearly had more to give. Four years later Petty’s impact on multiple generations of musicians and fans has only become more apparent. I mean, people write songs about the guy! And some of them are pretty good.
Austin Texas’ Leatherbag add just a dollop of Petty song-style to their “Tom Petty Summer” from 2009’s Tomorrow/Everything I Once Knew album. Ok, it’s there vocally and the guitar lead lines too. You can also enjoy a nice acoustic treatment of the song too from the band’s 2012 Rarities collection. Morgantown Virginia’s Weedhawks dial down their political commentary just a bit to honour TP on “I Miss Tom Petty” from their 2019 release Build a Wall Around Washington. On this tribute, it’s the message that is all about Petty rather than the treatment, which owes more to a country-fied Lou Reed and the Velvets. That the Hanging Stars would ace the Petty sound is really no surprise. The band ooze a Brydsian folk rock meets jangle confidence on all their recordings. So their “Tom Petty” from 2020’s New Kind of Sky is a treat, mixing 12 string electric guitar with some pretty pedal steel work over a solid piece of songwriting. The Satin Cowboy and the Seven Deadly Sins conjure up a bit of Wildflowers with their “Song for Tom Petty,” a lovely tune that hurts bad for Tom and all that we are missing with his death. A more upbeat take on the same sentiment can be found on Dolour’s dynamic 2021 release, Televangelist. His “The Day Tom Petty Died” honours Petty’s sonic legacy in a more rip-roaring melodic sort of way.
He may be gone but today’s songs demonstrate that Tom Petty is very much alive in the music we love. In line with today’s troubadours, I say, long live TP and his influence.
If you need a dose of musical smiles and sunshine, dial up the good times vibe all over the recent Mike Browning releases. A self-admitted musical late bloomer, these recordings are actually brimming with a kind of youthful excitement and joy. Get started with “We’re Hanging Out” which opens Browning’s 2020 debut EP Never Too Late with a splash of that 1960s breezy sunshine pop, one part Buddy Holly, another part Beach Boys. Then “I Can See Nothing But You” combines some lovely jangle with a bit of late 1960s folk rock. “Hide and Seek” is bit more neo-1950s, in that way mid-1960s beach group would do it. Meanwhile “Watching the Lines on the Road” feels so Monkees, leaning particularly toward Nesmith’s influence. Browning followed up this EP with a slick sounding single in early 2021, “Another Bite of the Apple,” a nice poppy number with a great hooky lead guitar break. This is feel good music of the very best kind.
On his most recent release Class Act Browning takes aim at covering hits ranging from the 1960s through to the 1980s, classics like the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again,” the Byrds’ “My Back Pages,” and the Beatles “Norwegian Wood,” What a challenge! But Browning somehow manages to pull it off with solid musicianship and an endearing vocal style. My own personal fave is his somewhat muted take on “Jenny 867-5309” where he manages to capture the song’s energy and excitement while reining its rock excesses. Or there’s the chipper fun cover of The Reflections 1964 hit “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet, or a super take on the obscure regional US hit “The Little Black Egg.” And so on through 12 tracks in total, covering artists as varied as XTC, the Kinks, Bob Dylan, the Spencer Davis Group, and more. Taken together, the feel of this record is like some kind of fabulous party for a multi-generational group to really enjoy. I, for one, would love to hear Browning’s band do these covers live.
With these recordings Mike Browning demonstrates it’s never too late to take up your musical dreams. And he’s now promising us more is on the way. Keep up with Mike at his website, Bandcamp and Facebook pages.
Cheap Trick are one of those legendary bands I’m supposed to really like. But, as often as not, their material seems either too screaming-guitar-solo rawk or histrionic power ballad for my tastes. When they do turn on the Beatlesque hooks and harmonies, however, the band are unstoppable. The essential winning formula appears on early hits like “I Want You To Want Me,” “Surrender,” “Dream Police” and pretty much all of their best-selling 1979 album Dream Police. But from there Cheap Trick seemed to lose their artistic footing, struggling over the course of their next 15 albums to match differing production styles with their reliably good songwriting. Despite sometimes uneven results, I think every Cheap Trick album has a least a few worthy poprock singles lurking inside. Today we melody test the 19 album catalogue of Cheap Trick to find those melodic gems.
I’m not going to dwell on the early ‘we’re gonna be stars’ period of the band. Rock writers have already penned countless columns noting their musical split personality, sometimes arena-noisy rawk gods, other times commercially slick Beatlesque hitmakers. The noisy rock roots defined their 1977 self-titled debut, with a few exceptions like “Oh Candy.” Less than year later In Color repeated the same formula, but with a few slick AM radio-ready exceptions, like the original version of “I Want You To Want Me” and “Southern Girls.” 1978’s Heaven Tonight saw the influence of new wave come to fore with the band’s first truly amazing single, “Surrender.” 1979’s Dream Police cemented their reputation as one of new wave’s most creative rock-oriented acts with the innovative title track and the more Beatlesque “Voices.” The band’s trajectory seemed to be following a classic rock and roll script, with every album improving on the last both creatively and commercially.
But something jarred loose on the way into the 1980s. The confidence of Dream Police seemed to give way to a fourteen year era of uncertainty about just who the band were and what they needed to do to succeed commercially and artistically. It wasn’t for lack of high profile collaborators. The next eight albums would see the band working with the likes of George Martin, Roy Thomas Baker, Todd Rundgren, Jack Douglas, Ritchie Zito and Ted Templeman. But the hits and previous rave critical reviews all but dried up. 1980’s All Shook Up failed to produce many standout tracks, other than “Stop This Game.” 1982’s One on One dialed up the rock vibe but the killer cut is undoubtedly the Beatlesy “If You Want My Love You Got It.” 1983’s Next Position Please was a much more melodic album overall, though critics complained that producer Todd Rundgren had the band sounding a lot like Utopia, particularly on “I Can’t Take It.” There are worse problems a band could have. Then the band reunited with Jack Douglas (producer of their debut album) for 1985’s Standing on the Edge and the results were brilliant. The songs and performances were back to Dream Police levels of confidence with highlights like “This Time Around” and the killer “Tonight It’s You,” a track that ranks with any of their best singles.
And then the wheels came off the comeback bus. 1986’s The Doctor stalled the band’s revival. Critics slammed the album’s cheesy drum and keyboard sound but the real problem was the songwriting, with only “Kiss Me Red” catching my attention. Under pressure from their record company to turn out some hits, 1988’s Lap of Luxury bears all the marks of a corporate ‘album by committee’. The band were forced to work with outside songwriters and the production style was essentially a slick FM kind of bombast rock. The gambit worked: the record ended up second in total sales for the group behind Dream Police and a power ballad single, “The Flame,” did go to number one. But the best songs in my view are still the ones written by the band, e.g. “Let’s Go,” “Never Had a Lot To Lose,” and my fave “All We Need is a Dream.” Producer Ritchie Vito returned for 1990s Busted but the formula failed to work a second time. Instead, the standout track here is the throwback sixties-influenced “Had to Make You Mine.” Working with Van Halen producer Ted Templeman brought back the rawk on 1994’s Woke Up With a Monster but a few melodic surprises make an appearance, like “You’re All I Wanna Do” and “Never Run Out of Love For You.”
By mid-1990s Cheap Trick were without a major label deal for the first time in their career. This allowed the band to retake control of their musical direction, once again writing and producing most of their albums and releasing them on smaller, more independent labels. The results have generally been applauded by fans and critics alike. 1997’s Cheap Trick marked a creative reset, with stripped back poppy rock and roll numbers like “Hard to Tell” and the sixties-ish “Carnival Game.” Seven years later 2003’s Special One was less rawk than previous efforts but still strong songwriting-wise – case in point, “My Obsession.” 2006’s Rockford was another solid effort, with the single-worthy “All Those Years Ago” and the fab Bill Lloyd co-write “Dream the Night Away.” In 2009 the band delivered another melody-heavy package with The Latest. This one is particularly Beatles stamped – check out “Times of Our Lives.” Another seven years would pass before Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello in 2016 but the record has many highlights like “No Direction Home” and “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” (with its slight Bond theme undercurrent). One year later the band would return to their rawk default with We’re All Alright! but more melodic tunes appeared as well with “Floating Down” and “She’s Alright.” And then earlier this year album #19 arrived with In Another World, a collection that almost seems to showcase the band’s stylistic range across their whole career, including quite a few hooky numbers. My faves include “The Summer Looks Good on You,” “Another World,” and the more mellow “I’ll See You Again.”
I can’t say I love all of Cheap Trick’s albums but with every release there’s always been something to like. This melody test just proves that no matter how lost the band gets you can always find a good hook somewhere on any album. And some more than others! Who knows what surprises album #20 will bring. Don’t miss out – keep up with Cheap Trick news at their website and Facebook locations.
It was indeed a ‘wild’ and ‘exciting’ sound when I first heard it back in 1983. I’d stumbled across a ‘DJ-only’ pressing of “Whenever You’re On My Mind” and I was hooked, that Steve Lillywhite, reverb-drenched guitar line forever ingrained on my consciousness. From there I would double back to discover his amazing 1982 self-titled debut and go forward buying every real time release from 1985’s Downtown on. And unlike much of the studio-centric music of the period, Crenshaw’s accessible brand of new wave-tinged rock and roll was made to be enjoyed as much live on stage as on vinyl.
All of the above is just a roundabout way of saying that The Wild Exciting Sounds of Marshall Crenshaw: Live In The 20th and 21st Century will surely be a welcome addition to any Crenshaw fan’s collection. With 26 tracks, the collection is basically what we used to call a double album. One half focuses heavily on Crenshaw’s first two albums and his crack band from the period are in fine form. 12 of the 16 tracks here cover tunes from his debut and follow up album, the self-titled Marshall Crenshaw and Field Day, with two Elvis covers, an Al Green cover, and MC’s early Shake Records single “Something’s Gonna Happen.” The second batch of songs represent a Crenshaw-curated selection of tunes from the rest of his catalogue, with nearly every album getting a look in barring Downtown and What’s in the Bag? (Ok, I’ll admit it, I was bummed to see no Downtown tracks included here but, in fairness, they do appear on both of Crenshaw’s other live album releases). As with all things Crenshaw, the album design is stylish and cool while the song performances give us new insight into their versatility and melodic depth. There’s no doubt in my mind, fans are going to want to get wild with this set.
Buy this record from Marshall’s Bandcamp page to make sure he gets the maximum on your money appreciation and check out his website and Facebook for tour and music news.
Two musical acts separated by a single differentiating letter – there must be some connection? But no, Swedish band Hardy Nilsson are not some Harry Nilsson cover band. Nor do they seem influenced by the commercially successful American friend of the Beatles, originator of a kind of baroque pop and the mash-up song. Hardy Nilsson actually take their name from a Swedish championship hockey player and coach. I guess everything in music doesn’t revolve around an Anglo-American axis after all. Well now that we’ve brought them together we might as well dig into what they do a bit.
A lot has been written about Harry Nilsson. He wrote hits for himself (“Me and My Arrow,” “Spaceman”) and others (“One” for Three Dog Night, “Cuddly Toy” for the Monkees), made other people’s songs big hits (Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” Badfinger’s “Without You”), and managed to be a big star in the early 1970s without ever touring or playing live much at all, a feat very much against the grain of the times. But eventually his music career appeared to be eclipsed by his more outrageous public behaviour, particularly repeated drunken outings with John Lennon. By the mid-1970s his records had stopped selling and after 1980 he never released another one in his lifetime. To get a sense of his playful inventiveness and what would become his trend-setting production techniques, check out his revisionist take on the Beatles “You Can’t Do That” from his 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show. Nilsson slows the song down and then proceeds to invent the ‘mash-up’ form, incorporating snippet references to 18 other Beatles songs into the track. He also recorded a version in Italian.
Swedish band Hardy Nilsson put out three albums in the 1990s, all very pleasant Teenage Fanclubby poprock outings. Shortly after starting one band the same members started another, Tommy 16, with a similar musical MO, though perhaps with a touch of Badfinger thrown in. The big difference between the two was a swap on lead singing duties and a shift from Swedish to English lyrics. Fans of both bands still debate which had the best shot at success and should have been the main focus of the musicians and record companies involved. A good illustration of what both produced can be found in the singles singled out below. Hardy Nilsson’s “Popsang” was a minor hit for them while “Come On Come On” was a single for Tommy 16 that got included on a number of 1990s compilations of Swedish acts.
Harry Nilsson died not long after Hardy Nilsson put out their first album. It would have been cool if he’d heard about them, even if he wasn’t their inspiration. Could have made a great double bill.
In 1978 John Travolta was everywhere: TV, movies, lunchboxes and on the radio. His success was due, in part, to his ability to traverse the shifting sands of 1970s masculinity. Visually he exuded a stereotypical Italian-American manliness. But his seventies successes had him engaged in (what were considered to be at the time) some pretty questionable manly pursuits, namely dancing, wearing a lot of stretch nylon outfits, and singing a slew of soft rock love songs. The lack of any real rock and roll connection to the Travolta phenomenon is, in retrospect, a bit surprising. No, the cartoonish Grease soundtrack doesn’t count. Luckily others have made the links. So let’s just skip over John’s musical contributions and go right to two great bands that take up the Travolta name and make it rock.
We begin with Salim Nourallah. Over the years I’ve bought a few of his albums but somehow neglected to write about them. This Travolta theme gives me a good excuse to do some backtracking. As a solo artist, Nourallah’s work consists of finely crafted tunes, peppered with subtle melodies and an overweaning aura of melancholy. Oh, he brightens up on occasion. Like with the light upbeat track entitled “Travolta” from his 2012 album Hit Parade. Nourallah had actually formed a band called The Travoltasin 2011 and brought out an album under that name in 2012 (later re-released with more songs in 2017). The record is uneven but only from a band point of view, sometimes sounding indistinguishable from Nourallah’s solo stuff, at other moments sounding more than just Nourallah plus four other guys. Opening cut “I Can’t Say No” and “If You Could be the Star” make the most out of the band setting, with the latter cut reminiscent of early Eels records. “Work of Art” and “Crying Shame” are classic Nourallah sophisticated poprock. And there’s some fun covers of some pretty obscure stuff, like Gene McDaniel’s “Tower of Strength” and Jonathan Richman’s “I was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar.” Altogether the whole record is an enjoyable outing from a guy with a producer’s eye for sonic detail and the artful placement of a killer hook.
The band most associated with our Hollywood star’s name are the Dutch outfit, Travoltas (sans the ‘the’). Oft described as a Beach Boys/Ramones hybrid, you can hear the punky synthesis all over the band’s dozen or so albums. Sometimes they really honour the Beach Boys vibe, as on the first few bars of the 2000 single “You Got What I Need” before the punk kicks in. Other times they riff on both the Beach Boys’ album artwork and sound, with 2003’s Travoltas’ Party looking and feeling like the original that inspired it. It’s a sound that is popular with a host of bands, for instance neighbour Denmark’s Tommy and the Rockets, but there is something distinctive about what Travoltas do with it. More recent releases have stretched the band’s formula in exciting new directions, like the 2020 poppy single “Find You There.” Now they’re returned with a new EP, Back to the City, and it moves the needle more to the pop side of pop punk, particularly on the hooky title cut. Meanwhile, opening track “Escape the Pressure” still leans on some adrenaline pumping guitar assault but the harmony vocals bring the melodic elements more the front. “Start Again” also starts guitar-noisy but here again the vocal style soften the edges in a most melodic way. And there there’s “Nightcrawler” which combines theatric vocals with an early 1980s over-the-top melodic drama. Back to the City signals that Travoltas have not finished their musical evolution just yet.
The difference between John and our various Travoltas is one of spectacle versus substance. John may have looked the rock and roll part but he never really delivered on it. As an entertainment icon and emblem of the late 1970s particularly John Travolta has given us enough. We can safely leave the rock and roll to these bands that bear his name.