Never underestimate the sidemen. Billy Sullivan has played with a host of great acts over the years. From local legends in Detroit, to various bands with other up-and-comers from the 1970s on, to the touring outfits of Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Herman’s Hermits, the Raspberries, and many, many others. Amidst all this activity, Sullivan has managed to squeeze out a few solo albums and a variety of singles, both original material and inspired covers. And they are freakin’ fabulous! Just open your ears to “I Go Crazy” with its mad ear-wormy ringing guitar and melodic hooks at every turn. This is power pop heaven. Or how about the spot-on Byrdsian jangle and harmonies coating “Everywhere I Go”? Magic! Both tracks appear on Sullivan’s woefully and undeservedly ignored 2001 album All American Popster. Yet Sullivan appears undiscouraged, continuing to release an occasional single or tribute album every few years. Personally I love his 2013 single “There’s a Fire” with its wall of guitars and seductive harmony vocals. Or more recently he’s got a killer cover of the Beau Brummels’ minor hit “Don’t Talk to Strangers” that definitely improves on the original.
Go CrazyEverywhere I GoThere’s a FireDon’t Talk to Strangers
In this internet age it’s never too late to make somebody a star. Do your part, click on the link, and complete your Billy Sullivan collection today!
Have you met Bombadil? Given the band formed in 2006 and has released 7 albums and 2 EPs, it’s definitely possible. But given our present state of low impact indie self-promotion it’s entirely likely you haven’t. Well, get ready for a sonic treat. One where every instrument aims to create a carefully crafted moment. Where the songs are intellectually engaging, though not in some hipster elitist sort of way but in a thoughtful everyday relatable way (e.g. “Perfect”). Where no instrument break is wasted but each is like a perfectly tended garden of sounds, both colourful and creative. Possible musical comparisons abound, from the quirky musicality of They Might Be Giants and Tally Hall to the wordy yet poetic lyrics of The Shins and the Magnetic Fields. Longtime band member Daniel Michalak once described the band’s influences as ‘Ernest Hemingway, Ronald Dahl, or Shel Silverstein’ as well as ‘science/math and computer programming’. One reviewer called the band, ‘obtuse but melodic indie folk pop with a flair for the fantastic,’ while another suggested Bombadil were like a ‘less drunk Pogues.’ Longtime drummer James Phillips described their sound as simply ‘pop-rock.’ That sounds about right to me.
How to describe discovering Bombadil? How about ‘enchanting’? A lot of that has to do with the bracing originality of the songs. The band’s catalogue ably demonstrates the continuing, seemingly endless creative possibilities left in a 3 minute pop song, whatever genre. And these guys definitely push genre boundaries. The folk veneer is there but can easily give way, depending on where the song goes. “Johnny,” from the band’s 2006 debut EP (also included on their 2008 debut long-player A Buzz A Buzz), illustrates this, vibing folk but quickly coming on like an outtake from Will Finn’s Broadway smash, Falsettoland, while from the same album “Get to Getting On” showcases Bombadil’s signature folk/country sound and their distinctive harmony vocals.
You can dip in anywhere over the band’s next six albums and come up with a treasure. Like “Sad Birthday,” “Kate and Kelsey” and “Matthew” from 2009’s Tarpits and Canyonlands. Check out the exquisite piano turnaround at the 21 second mark of “Matthew” – a killer and unexpected hook. Or the Pogues meets You Won’t aura of the songs on 2011’s All That the Rain Promises, particularly “Laundromat” and the lyrically eccentric “Leather Belt” (with that great banjo). 2013’s Metrics of Affection broadened the sonic palette with the Rogue Wave-ish “Learning to Let Go,” the magisterial “Born at 5:00,” the moving solitary piano balladry of “Have Me,” and the whimsically folky “When We Are Both Cats.” Meanwhile, “One More Ring” sounds like an alternate universe hit with its endearing melodic twists. 2017’s Fences continued the good vibes trend with “Perfect” an aptly named should-be single.
As luck would have it for recent Bombadil converts, a brand new album is out, Beautiful Country, and it may just be their best yet. I love how “Goodwill Socks” starts with an uber folky sound but then quickly adds more instrumental depth and hooky ornamentation. “The Man Who Loves You” is the should-be hit single, with a stirring vocals arrangement and hooky handclaps. And then there’s the lovely duet with Kate Rhudy on the “The Real Thing.”
Did I mention that Bombadil have recorded songs in French (“Framboise” from 2015’s Hold On) and Spanish (“Laurita” from Tarpits and Canyonlands)? Just one more reason to hustle over their Bandcamp page and buy up their whole catalogue.
Throughout my life, Nick Lowe has been poprock constant. No matter what was going on, the arrival of a new Nick album was always an occasion. I probably first heard him as most other people did when “Cruel to be Kind” hit the radio in 1979, and Rockpile’s “Teacher Teacher” cemented my love of his style a year later. And what’s not to like? I had grown up consuming my parents’ record collection – Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, etc. – and Nick was like a new wave synthesis of all those influences! Over the past four decades he’s grown as an artist, shifting his songwriting style and performance, but somehow managed to stay true to these roots. Currently on tour with retro rocking Los Straightjackets, Lowe continues to release great songs.
In what follows I review Lowe’s album career, highlighting the non-hit songs that stand out for me as great overlooked poprock tracks, ones I think are strong on melody and hooks. No doubt other Lowe fans might choose differently but these are the ones that stuck in my head and remain eminently listenable to me, even after countless hearings.
Discovering Lowe in 1979, I had to play catch up with his earlier career releases. “I Can See Her Face” from Kippington Lodge was Lowe first songwriting credit in 1969 and arguably that band’s best tune. From there Lowe wrote most of Brinsley Schwarz’s material over the course of six official album releases (seven if you include the long unreleased It’s All Over Now) from the early to mid-1970s and he would recycle some of that material later as a solo artist, most famously “Cruel to be Kind” and “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding.” There’s some strong material on those records but “The Ugly Things” (from 1974’s New Favourites, later covered by Elvis Costello) really stands out for me as reaching the Nick Lowe solo-era standards for melody and hooks. Solo material started emerging in 1977 with the EP Bowi and various one-off singles (like the faux Bay City Rollers tributes or the label-ripping “I Love My Label”). Lowe’s first solo album, Pure Pop for Now People (or Jesus of Cool in the UK) contained a host of great songs (“Marie Provost,” “So It Goes,” “I Love the Sound the Breaking Glass”) but I think “Tonight” really captures Lowe’s talent for tuneful, ballady material.Brinsley Schwarz – Ugly ThingsNick Lowe – Tonight
1979’s Labour of Lust would be Lowe’s breakout album, featuring his only American top 20 hit, “Cruel to be Kind.” But the album has real depth songwriting-wise with great rockers like “Switchboard Susan” and tender ballads like “You Make Me.” Personally, I was always drawn to the crashing intensity of “American Squirm” and the pop jauntiness of “Without Love.” Next up was Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure, where only six of the twelve tunes were penned by Lowe and that didn’t include the charting single, “Teacher Teacher.” Of the six, the sparkling jangle of “Now and Always” only slightly edges out “When I Write the Book” as the best Lowe tune on the album. By 1982 Lowe was back to being a solo artist but Nick the Knife failed to produce a charting single. Still, I love acoustic guitar-anchored “My Heart Hurts” and the wistful “Raining Raining.” 1983’s The Abominable Showman (despite its dad-joke worthy title) was a strong album, featuring a great organ-heavy Paul Carrack duet on “Wishing You Were Here.” But for me, “Raging Eyes” was the obvious single, while “Mess Around with Love” (Lowe’s reworking of his earlier Brinsley cut “We Can Mess Around”) was another highlight.
Nick Lowe – Without LoveRockpile – Now and AlwaysNick Lowe – Raining RainingNick Lowe – Raging Eyes
In 1984 Nick was an early adopter of the roots sound on his Nick Lowe and his Cowboy Outfit, a record that also contained a should-be hit single, “Half a Boy and Half a Man.” But I was more drawn to the poprock gems “Love Like a Glove” and “God’s Gift to Women.” 1985’s The Rose of England contained Lowe’s most naked attempt to get back on the charts with his own version “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll),” a song previously popularized by his old pal Dave Edmunds on his 1977 album Get It. It proved to be a very minor hit that tended to overshadow just how strong the album was, particularly it’s folk-poppy title track and the inspired John Hiatt cover, “She Don’t Love Nobody.” Nick’s next two albums witnessed him struggling to find his place in the then contemporary music scene. Both 1988’s Pinker and Prouder than Previous and 1990’s Party of One had plenty to please Lowe fans but no hit singles that might expand that base of support. Still, for hooks, I’d single out “Wishing Well” from the former and “Who was That Man?” and “All Men Are Liars” from the latter.
Nick Lowe – Love Like a GloveNick Lowe – She Don’t Love NobodyNick Lowe – Wishing WellNick Lowe – All Men Are Liars
In 1992 Lowe took another stab at joining a band, this time Little Village with John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner. With such an all-star line-up, excitement about the project was palpable, but the response to their sole album was lukewarm. Personally, I think Lowe’s turn on vocals is one of the record’s highlights on “Take Another Look.” Then Lowe shifted gears again, taking his albums into darker, more serious moods, with the release of The Impossible Bird (1994), Dig My Mood (1998), and The Convincer (2001). Here Lowe deliberately sought to reinvent himself as more introspective, mature artist, and the overwhelming critical response has been that he succeeded. Still, every album has a few more poppy numbers, like the uptempo “I Live on a Battlefield” or the more subtle earwormy “Indian Queens.” At My Age (2007) and That Old Magic (2011) lightened the mood somewhat, with the latter producing a particularly impressive range of material with songs like “Sensitive Man” and “Somebody Cares for Me.”
Little Village – Take Another LookNick Lowe – I Live on a BattlefieldNick Lowe – Indian QueensNick Lowe – Sensitive Man
While clearly slowing down on releases, Lowe continues to record, most recently releasing EPs with backing from Los Straighjackets on Tokyo Bay (2018) and Love Starvation (2019), both representing a return to Lowe’s more rollicking rock and roll sound. But check out “Blue on Blue” to see how he still has a few surprises.
Nick Lowe and Los Straightjackets – Blue on Blue
Nick Lowe truly is a legend of poprock and one of my favourite artists. He is the bar that I judge what great poprock sounds like. I can still go back and listen to any of his albums, enjoying them as if for the first time. Check out Nick’s website and Facebook page to keep up with his continuing exploits. You can also read all about Nick in Will Birch’s great new biography, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe. Click on his name to find out more.
Was there ever a band with a more tragic story of fabulous talent meets destructive perfectionism and bad luck? If I were holding a contest, The La’s would certainly be in the running for the top prize. Main songwriter and singer Lee Mavers was apparently legendary in his inability to live with any of the recorded versions of his songs. He insisted on rerecording them with new producers again and again until his record company finally gave up and released his band’s self-titled debut album without his approval. Amongst fans, The La’s is an album that proves the band was more than a one-hit wonder. But for everyone else, if they’ve ever heard the group, it’s probably via their most played hit, “There She Goes.”
And what a song it is! From the hooky guitar lead line that lures you in, to the rhythmic acoustic guitar that anchors the song, to the hair raising vocal harmonies, the song really is poprock perfection. Personally, I prefer the original 1988 release of the song, produced by Bob Andrews, a slightly less sibilant version than the one worked over by Steve Lillywhite for inclusion on the band’s debut album in 1990. But they’re both great. Here’s the original and a Lillywhite produced acoustic version.
The La’s – “There She Goes” (1988)The La’s – “There She Goes” (Acoustic)
Commentators as disparate as New Music Express, Rolling Stone, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Oasis all think the song is pretty much perfect. So it’s not surprising it’s attracted some cover versions (though not as many as I would have expected). The earliest I can find is from The Boo Radleys, featured in the Mike Myers 1993 film, So I Married an Axe Murderer (the soundtrack strangely also featured the La’s original). Despite a rather bizarre orchestral take on the opening hook, the Boo’s deliver an great poprock version, with slightly more rocked up guitar lead lines and instrumental breaks. Columbia University’s acapella singing group The Kingsmen (definitely not the “Louie Louie” group) show you can’t keep a good song down, even when guitars seem pretty essential to the tune. Their version sans instruments from 1995 is strangely alluring. The last of the nineties versions is from Christian rock band, Sixpence None the Richer, who offer up a lush, aching take on the song that is still pretty close to the original.
The Boo RadleysThe KingsmenSixpence None the Richer
Things get more creative in the new millennium. First up, Japanese indie band Beat Crusaders offer up a brilliant techno remake that holds on to the essential elements while breaking the mould. Then The Wombats indie things up with their live-sounding version from 2009, adding some great banjo and vocal spontaneity. YouTube cover sensation ortoPilotgets around to covering the song on Volume 13 of his Covers Album series, sounding much like the original in an acoustically stripped down state. Last up, low key poprocker Salim Nourallah offers a softer introspective interpretation of song from his 2017 album of covers, A Break in the Battle, with help from Chris Holt and Paul Averitt.
Beat CrusadersThe WombatsortoPilotSalim Nourallah with Chris Holt and Paul Averitt
Great treatments of the song here but my prediction? We have yet to see the real flood of covers coming for this tune. “There She Goes” is such a perfect distillation of the basic elements of poprock songcraft in its combination of lyrical, melodic and instrumental hooks that it will prove irresistible to future bands. In fact, I think we have yet to see the definitive treatment (other than the original, of course). For instance, I would love to see an adrenaline-fueled jangle treatment from the guys who put together That Thing You Do or Fountains of Wayne or Marshall Crenshaw, to name just a few. Final treat: watch this interview and performance (of “Timeless Melody”) with Mavers and John Powers on Canadian Much Music from 1991 – they really were a killer live act!
Lee Mavers’ retirement plan is pretty much riding on this song so don’t be skint. Check out the various La’s releases and click on the artist names above to explore their broader music catalogues.
Right out of the gate U.S. Highball join the renaissance of great Scottish jangle poprock with their debut, the aptly named Great Record. The 14 songs included here immediately draw comparisons with the best of Teenage Fanclub, Dropkick, and The Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising as Calvin Halliday and James Hindle have long played together in the delightfully whimsical group, The Pooches. Yet U.S. Highball is not merely a rebranding of their previous efforts, but a logical development of those influences. Great Record leans more heavily on a Brydsian jangle and a complex use of the duo’s voices on songs that alternate effortlessly between hooky popcraft and hints of highland folk. Case in point – these twin influences meld beautifully on “Summer Boy” with its distinctive jangle lead line opener. Or another candidate for lead single might be “My Frankenstein” with its swinging chorus. Then again, I love the mid-period Simon and Garfunkel vibe of “Old Place.” But then hear how the duo change things up with the rock-pop groove on “Where’d the Century Go?” Overall, you can get a clear sense of what U.S. Highball is doing by checking out how the band bookend the album. They open and close the record with their distinctive folk poprock sound on “Kelvinhall” and “Old Dumbarton Road,” leaning a bit more on the folk side of the equation.
Great Record is 28 minutes of jangle-folkish poprock good times. And don’t miss their 2018 EP Think Again, which contains three more highly listenable tunes. Just click on the Bandcamp link above to complete your collection.
Bruce Springsteen’s new LP Western Stars finds the Boss back in top form, in control of his muse, throwing off hooks shrouded in poprock adornments from the past fifty years. The album has strings, horns, Bacharach and David orchestrations, Born to Run sparkly piano, and Nebraska-era acoustic guitar appegiations. And the songs! Not since Tunnel of Love has Bruce produced such a coherent set of songs, such a thematically clear statement of where he’s at. There’s hope, love, loss and regret – the usual, in other words. But the balance of themes and performance captured here in on par with some of his very best work.
Western Stars is Springsteen’s cinematic soundtrack of a neoliberal America. Where Born to Run captured the insecurity of a boom-time working class that might just lose anyway, Western Stars bookends Darkness at the Edge of Town, Springsteen’s prescient, dark rumination about the beginning of the end of the economic good times for working people at the close of the 1970s. But with Western Stars, the damage is now done, and his various protagonists are just trying to hang on. Or simply hang on to their regret. And they’re still drifting. Songs like “The Wayfarer,” “Western Stars,” and “Chasin’ Wild Horses” all evoke that Springsteen-esque ramble, mixing steel guitar and a judicious dollop of strings. But the thread of possible redemption formerly dominant in Springsteen’s earlier work is much weaker here. With it’s Louisiana Cajun pep “Sleepy Joe’s Café” is the one backward glance at the good times. But compared to the dour mood animating the derelict and overgrown “Moonlight Motel” it can’t help but sound a bit forced.
Somewhere North of NashvilleStones
And then there’s the loss. Because no one does wistful regret like the Boss. The mournful “Somewhere North of Nashville” captures the pain of letting ambition get in the way of love, only to end up with neither. “Stones” is a slow-paced, country dirge-like rumination about betrayal. And then there’s the magisterial “There Goes My Miracle,” a song whose vocal soars with Roy Orbison-like beauty and sorrow. At his best, Springsteen gives feeling to that sense of failure that accompanies a late recognition of life’s poor choices. Still, the record is not completely devoid of hope. The acoustic “Hitch Hikin’” captures the joy of travel and discovery, while the horn and piano-heavy “Tucson Train” celebrates the joy of an imminent romantic reunion.
There Goes My MiracleHitch Hikin’
On this album, as with most of his previous releases, Springsteen provides no easy answers. His work is a series of life sketches, highlighting a nearly invisible working class experience. It exists as a curio for some, a desperate reflection for others. In the end, “Hello Sunshine” has the Boss admitting he may have had a thing for the lonely town, the blues, and the empty road. But now he simply asks for a bit of sunshine. And we’re left wondering if he’ll get it. Or, by extension, whether we’ll get it.
Bruce is everywhere. So check out Western Stars, give it a few listens, live with it for a bit, and see if you don’t agree it’s one of the best things he’s delivered in a long while.
The great white north is less so on its national holiday, which falls on the sunny side of the calendar. Though I’d steer clear of a dip in any our Great Lakes, which remain icicle cold through most of the summer. Instead, I’d recommend feeling the national spirit with some highly melodious and hooky Canadian content from western Canada’s Northern Pikes. Thirty-five years after their founding and 16 years since their last record, the band is back with a new album, Forest of Love, and a song made for the country’s muted brand of nationalism, “Canada Boy.” The record is as good as anything on their back catalogue – which is to say it’s great! But there is a welcome twist to the overall sound with the addition of the Grapes of Wrath vocalist/songwriter Kevin Kane, particularly evident on the fabulous “Canada Boy,” a song that really marries the two bands’ complementary styles.
The Northern Pikes – Canada Boy
Show your love of country the musical way and check out the band’s website and Facebook page.
Dallas must be some kind of music town – so many cool bands! And here’s another one: Omicrom J Trauma. With media comparisons to Cheap Trick, Sloan, and The Posies, they definitely sound worth investigating. So far they’ve released just one EP, You Should Have Thought About That, but it’s a killer. “Good Conversations” opens things up with some solid guitar crunch but the swing of the tune is wonderfully eccentric, vibing a bit of 1970s jazz pop a la Steely Dan at times. Then “Leave You Alone” establishes the band’s poprock bona fides, accent on rock, with a snappy lead line and more crunchy rhythm guitar – this is the obvious hit single. “Luna” buzzes on with a summertime feel good dance groove. And so on. This is a band about to take off and it promises to be a wildly entertaining ride. Can’t wait to see them live!
Click on the link above to give Dallas’ newest hitmakers some money love at Bandcamp or any of the usual music dispensing locales.
The world is in the midst of a full blown cultural tsunami that is Game of Thrones. The hit HBO fantasy series has escaped the bounds of normal viewership to become a must-see show for anybody that hopes to relate to their fellow human beings. The talk shows can’t stop talking about GOT, Facebook bulges with GOT memes, and YouTube is rife with GOT send ups. As the battles of Westeros draw to their final chilly end, it’s a challenge to remain aloof or immune from the phenomena or potential plot spoilers. But I think this musical contribution to the mega-event that is GOT hits the right spot. Los Straightjackets, everybody’s favourite Mexican-wrestler-dressed instrumentals band, has joined the fray lathering their own inimitable guitar stylings over the normally strings-heavy Game of Thrones theme. It’s magic! Los Straightjackets have been busy backing up Nick Lowe over the past year (following the release of the band’s tribute album of Lowe tunes) but somehow managed to record a new EP entitled Channel Surfing, featuring this new song and three others. Twangy guitar – it was just what Westeros was missing!
The latest adventures of Los Straightjackets come more quickly than any GOT season. Check them out on Facebook and their webpage.
I pick up new music all the time but I don’t always get to writing about it in a very timely manner. Case in point: Chris Church. I ran across a few tracks of his posted to a power pop Facebook group and thought ‘fantastic’! Downloaded a few songs and then … nothing. Well now I’m attending to Chris Church and you should too. Fans of Matthew Sweet, Tommy Keene but also Neil Finn are going to love what Chris is doing. A great place to start would be 2004’s Let the Echo Decide, a real poprock treat. Right out of the gate “You Better Move Now Baby” kicks off with a real Split Enz bassline before building a nice melodic project, element by element, from creative guitar lines to the interesting vocal interplay. For something a bit different, there’s the rollicking “Scrutiny on the Bounty” or the obvious single “Julie, I Probably Shouldn’t” with its delightfully unexpected slide and ringing guitars. Church’s other big release is 2017’s Limitations of the Source Tape – also chock full of memorable tracks like the Marshall Crenshaw-ish “Bell the Cat” or the melodically discordant “Perfecto.”
You Better Move On Now BabyBell the Cat
You can also explore his harder-to-find releases (e.g. early recordings or releases lost in the shuffle of record label failures) on Bandcamp. Personally I love “Right Awhile” from 2001’s Your Own Chosen Speed or the great lost hit single from 2009’s The Heartbreaks You Embrace, “Forever Only Lasts a Little While.” And there’s a host of one-off releases like the hooky “Charleston Girl” and the wonderful “Lost is Lost” with its addictive guitar lines. You can also find some great Big Star and Todd Rundgren covers there!
Lost is Lost
Discovering Chris Church will be a revelation. Really. Check out his stuff on Bandcamp, iTunes and his Facebook page.