Guy puts out two killer power pop albums in the late 1990s. Then nothing. Until now. Friends I’m here to tell you that Martin Luther Lennon lives! And it’s like no time has passed at all. His new single “jfkha” is a pretty special little jem of a song. It starts lowkey but verse by verse you can feel the pressure building until a great groovy melodic hell breaks loose in the chorus. This guy sounds like all those super poppy, slightly discordant bands from the nineties, acts like the Eels, Adam Daniel, and, er, Martin Luther Lennon.
It appears that this new musical sighting of MLL 23 years after this last album release may just be the beginning. There’s a GoFundMe page up to help offset the recording costs of this single – let’s hope an oversubscription might lead to more new MML releases. In the meantime, why not reacquaint yourself with those now classic Martin Luther Lennon albums from 1996 and 1999, Music for a World Without Limitations and Escape to Paradox Island respectively. From the former I’m partial to the crashing guitars that kick off “Happy Girl” with its new wave other Lennon-y vibe while “No Waiting” sounds so early Joe Jackson minus the snarl. From the latter I love the piano-driven Ben Folds-ish “Only Love” and the tight power pop delight “I’m a Little Time Bomb.”
The return of Martin Luther Lennon is a wonderful, welcome surprise. Buy this single now. Let’s keep MML coming around.
I count down the days to a new Freedy Johnston record like I used to anticipate releases from the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, XTC, and even Macca back in the 1970s. You kinda know what’s coming – solidly melodic and carefully crafted songs – but the delight is in where he takes it this time. After 24 hours of constantly playing the new album I can reveal that with Back On The Road To You Johnston has done it again. Now at this point scribes usually say things like ‘this is Johnston’s strongest effort in years’ but, hey, the quality of this artist’s work has never really flagged, even if public interest sometimes has. Johnston is like a half buried national treasure, feted by the music mainstream whenever they happen to stumble across a new recording. Stylistically the new LP falls somewhere between Nick Lowe and John Hiatt, with the former’s ear for hooky tunes and the latter’s eye for idiosyncratic narrative detail. But, then again, Johnston’s not really like anyone else. His songs develop in wonderfully unusual ways, his vocals pause in delightfully awkward places. I mean, just listen to how he tucks the ‘living the dream’ line into the pause before launching into the chorus of “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl.” The guy’s got a painter’s precision in detailing his songs.
The record opens on familiar ground with title track “Back on the Road to You.” Is this poppy Americana or just something offered up from Freedy Johnston central casting? Love the electric piano break. One could easily imagine the Everly Brothers ripping through this one. Then there’s “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl,” a song that conjures up terms like ‘instant classic’. The track surely joins the pantheon of Johnston’s most celebrated singles, its construction and execution simply confirmation of his mastery of the popular song form. Another immediate ‘instant replay’ tune is “Madeline’s Eye” with its subtle hooks and alluring steel guitar work. On three songs Johnston brings in some featured vocal accompaniment but the results hardly amount to any kind of star turn. Instead Aimee Mann, Susan Cowsill and Susanna Hoffs apply their impressive vocal talents to deftly serve the tunes, adding subtle harmonies on the countryfied “Darlin’,” the more poprocking “The Power of Love,” and the lilting midtempo ballad “That’s Life” respectively. Things rock up on “Tryin’ to Move On” with its more Dave Edmunds boogie feel. Meanwhile “Somewhere Love” creates a 1970s soft rock ambience, like a stroll along the beach accompanied by a Neal Sedaka song. But the strings that come in at the one and half minute mark elevate the proceedings, adding an exquisite splash of classy sophistication. And the spacey keyboards that define the instrumental break don’t hurt either. “Trick of the Light” has this sunny 1970s summer ballad feel as well. The album closes with the suitably ‘end of a night of drinking’ song “The I Really Miss Ya Blues.” It’s a lovely tune made even more impressive by its inspired organ swells.
The stars have aligned on Back On The Road To You. The album looks good with its smartly designed cover and what’s inside is a typical demonstration of Freedy Johnston’s considerable skills as a songwriter and performer. Buy this album and see this performer live. He may just be one of the last greats of this genre.
On today’s post having a bit of double vision is a good thing. We’ve got two new bands with new releases you’ll definitely want take in more than once.
Mysterious Belgian outfit Cmon Cmon are apparently a reunited trio from decades back. But just what their back story is doesn’t get much exposure in recent interviews or their website. They apparently have an new EP and album in the works too but right now all we’ve got is a single single, “The Summers We Missed.” The song definitely leaves me wanting me more. It’s got that smooth pop sheen I associate with Family of Year, Propeller, or Daisy. New York New York’s Movie Movie are working a New Jersey rock and roll side of the street circa 1979. It’s a jangle-infused melange, built on a base of uber cool organ with touches of Americana here and there. “Bright Lights” works that formula to perfection, throwing in some fabulous Turtles-esque ‘bah bah bah’s in the latter half of the song. “No Long Goodbyes” is another strong track, adding some tasty pedal steel guitar to the mix. In fact, the whole Now Playing EP is solid, chock full of winning tunes played rock and roll party style. Fans of River-era Springsteen, late seventies/early 1980s Tom Petty, and even Greg Kihn should take note.
Cmon Cmon and Movie Movie are just getting started started. And they’re good good.
Mike Viola is a mountain of talent. Singer, songwriter, performer, producer – he can do it all. And sometimes he does do everything – for himself and for others. Indeed, I seem to have left ‘collaborator’ off of the list. When Viola turns his hand to helping others the results a very Viola, in the most good way possible. Today we focus on just three examples of his production/song-writing oeuvre focusing on work he’s done with Kelly Jones, Mandy Moore and Lori McKenna. We could cover more, many more. But these three are pretty special examples of the ‘Viola’ effect.
I first discovered Kelly Jones via her collaboration with Teddy Thompson on 2016’s Little Windows, particularly the magical opening cut “I Never Knew You Loved Me Too.” By contrast, I only ran across her 2008 SheBang! album this past year (that’s ten years of special album goodness I’m never gonna get back). You can really see Mike’s ‘all in’ approach to project management on this record. He’s the producer, a good deal of the band (contributing guitar, bass, keyboards and backing vocals), and co-writes seven of the ten songs on the record. And what songs they are! “There Goes My Baby” kicks things off in full 1983 Tracy Ullman mode. “Same Songs” has solo-era Viola guitar all over it. “Fire Escape” has those signature Viola melodic hooks. And “The Girl With the Silver Lining” is just Go Go’s fun. Meanwhile Jones proves she not just a singer of sad country songs. Her energetic stand-out vocals balance perfectly with Mike’s power poprock production and performance. SheBang! got accolades from all the critics and deservedly so.
A year later Viola was back in the studio, this time with former teen pop princess Mandy Moore. The resulting album, Amanda Leigh, was more varied stylistically than the Jones record, with forays into country, pop, and what might best be described as ‘alternative’ American songbook. The Viola impact here was more subtle, perhaps stronger in the instrumentation than any song-writing stamp (despite co-writing nearly everything on the record). Opening cut “Merrimack River” is duet with Viola and does sound like something from one of his solo albums. “Love to Love Me Back” weaves classic Viola guitar sounds into a more country vein. But the unmistakeable mark of Viola is all over the should-have-been monster hit single, “I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week.” Man, this one is a killer, practically a master class in how to write and produce an ear worm radio-ready single. The record helped solidify Moore as serious, mature artist, though curiously it’s rather hard to find these days. Things obviously went well as Moore brought Viola back to produce her 2022 release In Real Life.
Viola had less involvement with folk artist Lori McKenna’s 2013 record Massachusetts, other than co-writing and playing on a single track, the gorgeous “Love Can Put It Back Together.” The song has a classic Viola melodic arc, with sweeping highs and lows delivered in an intimate, almost 1970s soft rock sort of way. Listening to this song, I get now why Viola has participated in so many 1970s tribute albums. There’s a faint echo of the period in his work, suitably powered up for the 1990s and beyond.
You get it, I like Mike. If you can’t get enough Mike Viola you can live vicariously through the artists he collaborates with. Either these ones or the many, many other projects he’s worked on.
Two women named O. There’s a bit of a Tristan overlap between them on occasion but otherwise they’re doing their own thing and their things involve clever, sometimes moving lyrics and ever so subtle hooks. Get ready to file these new album acquisitions under ‘O.’
From the opening bars of Jenny O’s “God Knows Why” you know you are about to be immersed in something pretty cool. The subtle shuffle that drives the song along becomes utterly seductive with the added hook in the chorus. Check that constant undercurrent of synth holding everything together or the floating, competing, overlapping vocals in the bridge. What a tune! And that’s just the opener of Jenny O’s stunning 2020 album New Truth. From there the album shifts and shimmers through a rich variety of sonic hues. “I Don’t Want To Live Alone Anymore” sounds like Rilo Kiley fed through a Jon Brion filter. “Colour Love” has got a bit of Tristan meets Lana Del Rey. “What About That Day” has a country-folk Susan Jacks feel that appears to draw songwriting inspiration from Bill Withers in the chorus. “Not My Guy” stars off sounding like an early 1960s Crystals reinvention before breaking out into Go Go’s/Bangles territory in the chorus. I can hear echoes of Mary Lou Lord on the sprightly “Even If I Tried” and the folksy charm of Jane Siberry on “Seek Peace.” New Truth is an album of immense variety but one where the differences are cast more as subtle shading rather than distinct genre changes, leaving Jennifer Ognibene’s own unique contributions intact. Personal fave: “A Different Kind of Life.” Hard to beat to the finely structured melodic arc embedded here, even if it only runs about a minute long.
What is Amy Oelsner doing with her Amy O project? Is it freak folk? Highly-caffeinated singer songwriter? Rogue pop? Listening through her 2019 release Shell is like turning the pages of mixed up photo album, events and people and moods shift unpredictably. But oh so delightfully. “Shell” ushers us into Oelsner’s unique pop maelstrom, with hooks bouncing off curious instruments while the lyrics and delivery are reminiscent of Suzanne Vega. Then “Synethesia” has a spartan bounce, with alluring, occasional snatches of banjo, stripped-back lead guitar, and contrasting crunchy electric guitar chords. “Good Routines” starts all folky mellow but then picks up some nice chunky electric guitar chords and a load of smooth vocal melody lines. Comparisons come to mind as the songs go by: maybe Mo Kenny on “Planet Blue,” a bit of Tristan on “Zero,” and you can hear some of what Tamar Berk has been doing lately on “Loose Cassettes.” Then there’s work that sounds like nothing else, like the art-rock musical-ish “Shrinking” or the carefully crafted pop bliss of “Blueberries.” But my fave cut on the album is definitely “Later On.” Love the build on this track, the precise placement of various instrumental riffs, and the Vega and Jane Siberry feel to the vocals. Shell is great ride, musically adventurous and with lyrics that are oh so well written.
It looks like the O’s have it. Talent that is. And there’s even more new O material on the way. Visit Jenny O and Amy O online to further fill out the ‘O’ section of your music library.
Chicago’s Sunshine Boys are going out on a high note with their brand new two song EP 2×3. Yes, they are calling it quits after playing and recording together for six years and here’s the heartbreaking thing, this double shot of songs is probably their peak performance (and that is saying something). The song-writing and playing here is simply masterful. “Underwater” is a gorgeous tune, lifted by great melodic guitar lead lines and wonderful overlapping vocal parts. There’s a very Crowded House or Neil Finn solo feel to the song. “The Beginning” maintains a different kind of harmonic tension, reminding me of some of the material on Marshall Crenshaw’s mid-period albums (e.g. Mary Jean and Nine Others). Both tracks conjure up a very distinct kind of atmosphere, reflective, sometimes a bit tense, but ultimately positive. And check out the cool cover artwork by Caroline Murphy.
So long Sunshine Boys, it’s been good to know you.
You can check out these tunes and Sunshine Boys’ fabulous back catalogue at their Bandcamp page or just drop them a line at their website or Facebook.
Roaming somewhere in Michigan is a band with killer jangle instincts, a dash of #c86 DIY creativity, and influences ranging across decades of popular music. Over the past year The Photocopies have released 32 songs, mostly in two to three song increments, and the results have been a consistently wild and fun ride. Their story begins June 2021 with the release of the band’s first double A-sided single, “Good Riddance” and “Kind of Old,” both vibing a more garage version of The Primitives. A month later the single combo Mozzers things up in the lyrics on “Just Shut Your Mouth” while “Autocorrect” offers up a nice 1960s rough beach feel. The September trio of songs is another resplendent sixties love letter, made obvious with material like “Sha La La La La La La La La (Sha La La La La La)” and “Radio City.” But a few months later December witnessed more than just a change of season. “It’s Not Complicated” showcases a more distinctive guitar sound while the melodic heft of the tune is reminiscent of The Cure. 2021 closed out on a dour but still rocking note with “Better Than Nothing, I Suppose,” performed, again, in a very Primitives register to my ears.
Into the new year the style of the releases changed again, this time fattening the jangle and offering a more sophisticated melody on “I Don’t Want You to Want Me.” March continued with innovation: the Triple B-side release had the Pansy Division-like “Something More” and the Buzzcocks-ish “Pop Quiz,” the latter featuring manic, hilarious lyrics. April’s offering stretched to four songs but the standout track for me was “Inside Out Upside Down” with its 1960s go-go-dancing good-time atmosphere. The short instrumental “Glass Elevator” was also a delightfully camp inclusion. May’s release contained a few surprises, like “The Not Knowing” which seemed reminiscent of New Order if they’d dialled down the synth. June boasted another winning trio of strong songs, though “(Wishing I Had) Tickets to St. Etienne” is the obvious should-be hit single. After full year of surprises this month witnessed the band deliver their first official extended play release Between You and Me and I’m liking where year 2 is going. There’s the mellow jangle of “Somebody’s Fool” and the rollicking neo-early 1960s romps “Vexed” and “Anywhere Without You.”
You won’t need to worry about spilt printer ink with The Photocopies. Just hit the multiple copies button and enjoy the performance.
This is not a post about The Rutles song “Cheese and Onions,” a satiric take on the Beatles psychedelic period. I like the Rutles project but that track is not one of Neil Innis’s more listenable send-ups IMHO. No, this post has its origins in my accidental discovery of the Danish band Cheese. I love finding out-of-the-way acts, oddities, and overlooked gems. Cheese definitely fits that bill. But I was stumped trying to figure out how to feature them. Then it hit me – what goes with cheese? Onions. And after a little look-see over at Bandcamp, wouldn’t you know it, I found two poppy rock bands named for onions! Do you see the lengths I go to bring quality to this site? Ladies and germs, I present Cheese and Onions (and The Onions).
Cheese actually go way back, to a host of post-high school performances and recordings as another band (The Hue) dating back to the early 1990s. They became Cheese (sometimes The Cheese) in 1996 and proceeded to put out a number of rough recordings over the next two decades. The story of these efforts is recounted on their website, with serious doses of self-deprecation sprinkled throughout. But things change with the three most recent albums released from 2017 on. These sound more tight, more professional. 2017’s Sofa, So Good has an acoustic vibe on a lot of the tunes, sometimes in a White Album vein, sometimes more 1970s FM rock-radio mellow (particularly with their distinctive harmony vocals). “Well Well Well” is the stand out track for me, though “Broken Home” is a pretty good too. 2018’s The Best Irish Band continues with the harmony vocals and acoustic guitars but ups the tempo a bit, even heading in a Moodies 1970s poprock direction with “Day of the War.” “Julian” is a tight McCartney-esque acoustic guitar closer on that album. Then the band decided to be even more Danish for 2019’s Metaforisk Mercedes (translation: Metaphorical Mercedes) by actually singing in Danish. Interestingly, the album is their most polished effort to date and their strongest collection of tunes. Here I really like the soft hooky “Det’ Mit,” though the more acoustic guitar heavy “Godmorgenmanden” comes in a close second.
Boys who come from west Yorkshire to study music in Salford (near Manchester) inevitably form bands, like Onions. Early releases in 2007 and 2008 definitely showed promise but it was with the release of 2012’s Pleasure Blast that things really took off. Songs range from an Everything Everything meets Futureheads vibe on “Or an IE Or AY” and “Belle Vue Fair” to the simple, classic jazzy American songbook demeanor of “Those Wide Eyes.” But the star of this album for me is “Quip of the Tongue.” What a blast! It combines a punky looseness, surfy background vocals, and a relentless hook in the verses, all delivered amid a Sparks/B52s kind of party cacophony. 2015’s Shame of the Nation leans on the early 1960s girl group influences with a Roddy Frame feel to the vocals. Highlights for me include “Here Comes the Rage” and “Boring” but my fave is the bouncy Elephant 6-ish “Deary Me.” Sadly that was the last Onions record as they broke up shortly after its release. Totally different onions band, Columbia, Missouri’s The Onions have got one long-player I can find, 2015’s He Kissed Me and I Knew. The record is a wonderful update on that early to mid 1960s melodic rock-and-roll sound associated with acts ranging from the Everly Brothers to the Bee Gees and the songs are mostly covers from the same era. The band do a nice job of freshening up the sound on Jan and Dean’s “Easy as 1,2,3,” the Bee Gees’ “Kitty Can” and even Roger Miller’s “Swiss Maid.” But check out the energy on their cover of the Magnetic Field’s “Saddest Story Ever Told” – wow. Lovingly rendered, with sparkling guitars and a strong vocal arrangement.
You probably didn’t know there were bands named Cheese or Onions (or The Onions). Now you do.
I suspect I’m going to get some stick from Pretty Cartel because they’re not actually from Belfast but nearby Lisburn, 8 miles away. Still, I imagine when the good people of Lisburn want to go out on the town they spend some time in the much bigger metropolis of Belfast. Then there’s the fact that Jet Black Tulips, who are from Belfast, have received support from Pretty Cartel getting started so the music scenes clearly overlap. And let’s face it, ‘Lisburn and Belfast calling’ as a post title would be just too much of mouthful. But enough excuses: this is about the music and these two bands could be from anywhere that loves Britpop, the Who, and jangly guitars.
The first record I could find by Pretty Cartel was 2013’s Tales from the Working Class. So far, so good just on the title alone. The EP features a range of styles from folky ballads to more Oasis-in-a-mellow-mood numbers. But the star track is undoubtedly the rambunctious and rollicking “She’s The One.” This song and another single released separately the same year, “Night on the Town,” take things in a more Cast or Real People direction. Then there’s an apparent break until 2019 when it seems two albums come out, Top Hat Ballroom and Subbuteo Balls and Rock Stars. Overall the former is a bit more rocking but “El Diablo” has a some nice minor chords hooks and subtle change ups over the course of the song. The latter recycles two tunes from their debut EP but the album sound is still coherent, though more jangly and atmospheric than prior efforts “Streets” sound like early U2, before they went all rawk star. “Days Gone Bye” plays like a Britpop anthem. “Willow Tree” is wonderfully low-key Oasis. “Night Out on the Town” turns up the jangle guitar and increases the pace to good effect. Then in 2020 the band blew the doors off their sound with “Sunkist Sun,” a song so perfectly put together it can’t help but be an instant-replay single experience. A whole album of tunes exuding this level of confidence and skill can’t come out fast enough.
Newcomers Jet Black Tulips have only released two songs. But what tunes! 2020’s “Oh Yea!” is a driving guitar number that reminds me a bit of the Hoodoo Gurus with its straight-up vocal style and relentless rhythm guitar backing. Brand new single “Never Gonna Be” fattens up the rhythm guitar sound and adds jangly lead guitar lines for some pure Britpop bliss. This is another repeat-play number. These boys are on the right track, as far as I’m concerned. We can only hope there’s a pandemic-induced backlog of new material just waiting to come out.
Northern Ireland is changing and Pretty Cartel and Jet Black Tulips are definitely a part of the new excitement. With bands like these Belfast, I’ll be right there!
He doesn’t do it all alone but he is the creative force behind his many projects, handling song-writing, lead vocals, rhythm guitar and sometimes much more. So when you go looking for John Sally Ride or Elvis Eno or his solo records you’re basically getting off at the John Dunbar stop. Fall 2021 saw the release of two different Dunbar projects practically simultaneously and they both deserve a closer look.
The third John Sally Ride LP title Now Is Not a Great Time surely must quality for the ‘understatement much’ award. The album’s opening number “The Nicest Things” captures the uncertainly of our times, where a rush of poppy rock can’t quite obscure the singer’s mixed feelings. This theme continues with “Putting It Off” but in a more dance-able XTC mode. Then “I Never Knew (Where I Stood With You)” builds off a solid Motown groove. So far the record the record departs from prior efforts, branching out stylistically. For instance, “Far From Eaten Out” sounds very Jam-like to me, with less snarl in the vocals. But there’s a lot here that sounds familiar too. I’ve commented previously on the Squeeze vibe in so much of the JSR material, both in songwriting and a strong Glenn Tilbrook feel to the vocal work. Tell me you don’t hear some Glenn or that Difford and Tilbrook songwriting magic on “Now Is Not a Great Time,” “My Persistence Vs Your Resistance,” “You Let Her Break Your Heart Again,” and “Is It Over Already?” Frankly I’d be delighted to hear material like this on some new Squeeze project. But the obvious winner for should-be hit single here is “She Doesn’t Do Nostalgia” with its hooky lead guitar lines, dynamic vocal phrasing and judicious dollop of jangle. Despite the socially timely title Now Is Not a Great Time brims with promise and good feeling. The John Sally Ride take us on another reliably melodious trip through 11 winning cuts.
On A Startling Realization of the Obvious Dunbar takes up a musical alter ego in Elvis Eno to rage against our current political era of lies and calculated disinformation. The political engagement is subtle and often muted, though apparent on tracks like “Your Startling Realization of the Obvious,” “The One Who Won” and “Believe the Liars.” Stylistically, the album bears the marks of late 1960s British pop psychedelia funneled through a 1980s poprock sensibility we might associate with XTC, particularly on tracks like “Getting to Know the Back of My Hand” and “Your End of the Bargain.” Working a different seam, there’s a definite Todd Rundgren elan to “Believe the Liars.” But hovering over everything is the spectre of Elvis Costello. “The Last Time I Saw You/See You” and “We’re Shaped by What Did Not Work” sounds very EC in experimental mode e.g. Brodsky Quartet. Meanwhile “More Than a Little While” has an Andy Partridge quirkiness in his Dukes of Stratosphere guise. Then “The Ballad of Russ Ballard” takes us back into Squeeze story-song territory. The album is a coherent, enjoyable exploration of another – yet still familiar – side to Dunbar’s musical personality.
Seems you can’t limit this guy to just one project. And given what appears here why would we? Don’t wait to ‘ring the bell’ – this is your stop, for John Dunbar.