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.
Interesting how so many great bands featured two strong songwriters. Lennon/McCartney obviously come to mind, but one could add Difford and Tilbrook from Squeeze or Partridge and Moulding from XTC, among many others. Some of the pairs wrote together, others never did – Lennon and McCartney did both. Two greats that should be added to the list are the Finn brothers, Tim and Neil, late of Split Enz and Crowded House as well as their distinguished solo careers. Both have penned their share of amazing songs in a broadly similar poprock vein, though in recognizably distinct registers. While liking them both, do fans ultimately have a preference for Neil or Tim? There’s too much material to weigh up each Finn in detail. Here’s just a smattering of songs from each that deserve more attention.
Tim Finn’s work easily conjours up descriptors like quirky, iconoclastic, and even eccentric. His songs don’t meet conventional expectations. His voice is a bit other-worldly. Of course, that is part of his charm. Finn the elder channels key 1970s art and glam rock influences yet his work is eminently hummable. His creativity, expressiveness and originality put him in the same category as David Bowie and the Talking Heads for me. An early favourite of mine is “My Mistake” from the second Split Enz album, 1977’s Dizrythmia, with its bouncing rhythm. Tim would write the bulk of the next three Split Enz albums, though the hits were mostly the few songs written by Neil. Still, “Shark Attack,” and “I Hope I Never” from True Colours and “Hard Act to Follow” from Waiata have great hooks. 1982’s Time and Tide was arguably Split Enz’ high point and though Tim scaled back his number of contributions the songs that remain are some of his best work: “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” “Small World,” “Never Ceases To Amaze Me,” and “Haul Away.” Tim’s first solo album, Escapade, has some of my favourites, particularly “Through the Years” with its dare-I-say Neil Finn-ish melodic concision. Since then Tim has released eight solo albums and each one has contained stand out material.
The 1980s saw Tim releasing two more solo albums while early 1990s saw him collaborating with Neil on Crowded House’s third album, Woodface. From the solo work, I love “Don’t Bury My Heart” from 1986’s Big Canoe and “Not Even Close” from 1989’s Neil Finn. Woodface was a marvelous accomplishment, with Tim’s impact obvious in both the songwriting and sonic quality of the record. But it is his new millennium work that really merits closer scrutiny. For instance, 2000’s Say It Is So is bursting with strong material like “Good Together” and “Death of a Popular Song.” Two years later Feeding the Gods cranked up the guitars and gothic back ground vocals to good effect on tracks like “I’ll Never Know.” In 2006 Imaginary Kingdom lightened the mood with pop whimsy like “Couldn’t Be Done” and the amazing should-be hit single, “Still the Song.” 2008’s The Conversation was more subdued, acoustic, contemplative, but still hooky with a bit of swing on tracks like the wonderful, winsome “Forever Thursday.” His most recent solo offerings include 2012’s The View is Worth the Climb (featuring the very poprock “Can’t Be Found”) and his 2018 collaboration with Dorothy Porter on The Fiery Maze.Don’t Bury My HeartGood TogetherI’ll Never KnowStill The SongForever Thursday
If Tim Finn is a bit of an acquired taste, then Neil Finn is the mainstream. As Split Enz became more commercially successful with the release of True Colours in 1980, radio almost invariably played more Neil than Tim. “I Got You,” “One Step Ahead,” “History Never Repeats,” “Message To My Girl” – these were the international hits, all Neil songs. Then Neil went on to form Crowded House and the hits just kept on coming. I love them all but here’s just a few that stand out for particular reasons. Like the crunchy new wave poprock of “Take a Walk” from Split Enz’s Time and Tide or the hooky drive of “I Walk Away From You” from the last Split Enz album and Crowded House’s self-titled debut. Some songs were hits in just some places, like “Distant Sun,” which made the top ten in Canada. Solo, Neil’s singles toned down the ‘power’ in power pop but not at the expense of hooks. Both “She Will Have Her Way” from 1998’s Try Whistling This and “Driving Me Mad” from 2002’s One Nil have a subtle ear worm effect. After a ten year break, Neil reformed Crowded House in 2006 and it was like they’d never stopped playing. Here I’d single out “She Called Up” from 2007’s Time On Earth and “Amsterdam” from 2010’s Intriguer. Neil latest album is a collaboration with his son Liam, 2018’s Lightsleeper.Take A WalkShe Will Have Her WayDriving Me MadShe Called UpAmsterdam
Tim and Neil have also written a lot of songs together, including most of Crowded House’s Woodface and two Finn Brothers albums. From Woodface, “Weather With You” really captures the melding of their two distinct styles of songwriting. The two Finn Brothers’ albums are a study in contrasts, with more acoustic Finn producing singles like “Angel’s Heap” while the rockier Everyone is Here has more uptempo tracks like “All God’s Children.”
In the end, of course, you don’t have to choose or like one more than the other. I love both a lot for different reasons! And they are still creating new material. You can keep up with Tim and Neil at all the usual internet locales.
How many bands can boast 22 albums of original material, 11 live albums, and 14 compilations? Ok, maybe the Rolling Stones. But NRBQ’s legacy is all the more surprising in that they have held a band together despite pretty limited commercial success. Founded in 1966, the group has run through 16 members over the decades, though Terry Adams, Al Anderson, Joey Spampinato and Tom Ardolino clocked the most time. And that helps explain the consistently high quality of their recordings. While the Stones pretty much ran out of creative steam post-Tattoo You, NRBQ continued to recombine their distinctive band of country and jazz-tinged poprock influences into winning tunes. Not familiar with their canon? Relax. There’s a hit single-worthy winner on every album, usually more than one!
You Can’t Hide
The band’s 1969 major label debut was simply titled NRBQ and therein lay the quirky, melodic, deceptively simple, intensely musical formula they have refined ever since. Half covers, half original material, only “You Can’t Hide” sounded vaguely rock and roll in a conventional sense. Then came an album with Carl Perkins (1970’s Boppin’ the Blues) and their first label drop. 1972’s Scraps saw the band bounce back, showcasing their mastery of old-timey poprock on tracks like “Only You.” Then came 1977’s All Hopped Up and NRBQ had musically and creatively arrived. From the Beach Boys-like background vocals animating “Riding In My Car” to the CCR-ish “Help Me Somebody” to the sweet harmony soaked “Still in School” to the Byrdsian “That’s Alright” the band anticipated the sixties-reviving new wave scene that was to come. The next few years witnessed a slew of should-be hits emerge like “I Want You Bad” from 1978’s At Yankee Stadium and “Me And The Boys” from 1980s Tiddly Winks, the latter also featuring the Everly-ish “Beverly,” the Beatlesque “That I Get Back Home,” and a great updated cover of their own “You Can’t Hide.” 1983’s Grooves in Orbit had the hooky rocker “A Girl Like That” while 1985 saw the band record a sweet album with Skeeter Davis (She Sings, They Play).
Riding In My CarI Want You BadThat I Get Back Home
Despite strong albums, almost constant touring, and the occasional major label release, NRBQ has remained a band seemingly on the verge of success without ever quite breaking through. Even a tour with R.E.M. and the Virgin-released Wild Weekend in 1989 couldn’t put them over the top. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of solid material. Personally I love “Boy’s Life” and “If I Don’t Have You” from Wild Weekend, the rumbly guitar anchoring “A Little Bit Of Bad” from 1994’s Message from the Mess Age, the jazzy overtones on “Ain’t No Horse” from 1999’s NRBQ (The Yellow Album), the vocal harmonies on “Love Is Waiting” from 2002’s Atsa My Band, and the eccentric mélange of styles on “Call of the Wild” from 2004’s Dummy. The band went on hiatus after Dummy but resurfaced in 2011 and 2014 with strong albums that rivalled some of their best work. From 2011’s Keep This Love Goin’ I’d single out the swinging title cut, along with “I’m Satisfied, “Here I Am” and “The Animal Life.” 2014’s Brass Tracks is frankly, pretty amazing: a rich trove of fresh, solid songwriting and great playing. Check out “It’ll Be Alright,” I’d Like to Know,” “Can’t Wait to Kiss You” and “Love This Love We Got.”
If I Don’t Have YouA Little Bit of BadKeep This Love Goin‘It’ll Be Alright
Before the internet put band bios at our fingertips we used to have buy music compendiums from the likes of New Music Express, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and the Trouser Press. I’d seen mention of NRBQ in most from my late teens but only really just discovered them recently. I can’t believe what I’ve been missing! If I had a poprock hall of fame NRBQ would be charter members. Get caught up with them at their website and Facebook page.
Weezer can’t seem to catch a break from the critics. They’re releasing too many albums, they complain. The records are too commercial, they say. Blah, blah, etc. I just can’t see it. This is a band with a distinctive delivery no matter the genre, trying out new directions, while continuing to write great songs. Here’s the proof – I can find a fabulous deep cut on every single Weezer long player.
Let’s start with the just released Weezer (Black Album). I think I like this one almost as much as Weezer (Blue Album) in terms of songwriting and general listenability. So many great songs here but, excluding hit singles, my fave deep cut is “Too Many Thoughts In My Head” with its soaring hook in the chorus. The Weezer (Teal Album) has taken a lot of flak for delivering a load of cover songs that mimic the originals a bit too well and I have to admit I do wish they had Weezer-ized all those hits more. But that’s why I love their version of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Rivers is no Annie Lennox so his vocal gives the track an unmistakable Weezer vibe. 2017’s Pacific Daydream has the band feeling the beach love but also contains my absolute fave Weezer deep cut, “Any Friend of Diane’s.” Ear worm central! The song is like Weezer channeling a bit Sugar Ray. 2016’s Weezer (White Album) also mines the beach theme on various songs, though the campfire acoustic resonance of “Endless Bummer” is held in check by anti-summer sentiment. From 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End I’ve chosen the power poppy “I’ve Had It Up To Here.”
Any Friend of Diane’sEndless BummerI’ve Had It Up To Here
2010 witnessed the band release two albums, Hurley and Death to False Metal, the latter a collection of unreleased leftover material from previous albums. From the former release, “Ruling Me” has a sneaky hook that slams home in the chorus with a rush of glorious melody while “Odd Couple” from DTFM chugs along with more subtle charms. 2009’s Raditude tempted me to go with “I’m Your Daddy” with its straight up pop hooks but the quasi-pop psychedelic “Love Is The Answer” ultimately won out with its fascinating Indian interlude and 1960s-worthy sing along chorus. From 2008’s Weezer (Red Album) I love the Brian Bell vocal and songwriting chops on “Thought I Knew.” The songs on 2005’s Make Believe were a bit overshadowed by the monster hit, “Beverly Hills,” but I think “The Damage In Your Heart” ranks with any of the best Weezer tunes. 2002’s Maladroit notched up the heaviness in Weezer’s sound but a sweet melody manages to define “Slave,” particularly in the chorus. My choice from 2001’s Weezer (Green Album) is technically not a deep cut. Well, actually, it was the album’s third single. But “Photograph” has such great woo hoos that I had to include it. From the band’s second album, 1996’s Pinkerton, I cheated a little and went for a cut from the deluxe edition, the exquisite “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly.”
Ruling MeOdd CoupleLove Is The AnswerThought I KnewThe Damage In Your HeartSlavePhotographYou Gave Me Your Love Softly
Which brings us back to the killer debut album, 1994’s Weezer, later known as Weezer (Blue Album). Here there’s an embarrassment of deep cut riches but, in the end, I settled on the irresistibly tuneful “In The Garage.” And there you have it, practically a Weezer deep cuts greatest hits or maybe Weezer (Camouflage Album).
In The Garage
Ah Weezer, you never let me down. I may not have loved everything but there’s always been something to love. Oh, is that another new album on the horizon? Keep track of Weezer at their website and Facebook page.
The buzz about the new Raconteurs record is all over the music press so we’re starting to see Brendan Benson’s name increasingly bandied about. To be honest though, I really much prefer Brendan’s solo flights. Don’t get me wrong, his work with the band is great, particularly the hook-laden “Steady As She Goes.” But there is something about his solo work that gets straight to the melodic point for me. Exhibit A: “Tiny Spark,” from his stellar 2002 LP Lapalco. The striking keyboard opener draws you in to a lurching, driving poprock gem. Benson combines just the right amount of repetition and novelty to keep the listener on edge, in a good way. This was my first exposure to his work and I was blown away. On the bus from Toronto to my job in Peterborough in 2006 I wore out the repeat button on my iPod mini. Then I discovered the whole album was a keeper, with uptempo songs like “Good To Me,” “You’re Quiet” and “What” all candidates for potential follow up singles, while the more low key numbers like “Metarie” and “Jet Lag” showcased his Lennon-esque songwriting depth. No doubt co-writing nearly half the album (including “Tiny Spark”) with the super talented, melody maestro Jason Faulkner didn’t hurt.
Imagine my delight to discover a previous and subsequent release at the same time! One Mississippi kicked things off in 1996 and all the essential elements of Benson’s songwriting and performance genius were in evidence: strong material, crisp production and plenty of hooks. But it was the 2005 follow-up to Lapalco to turned me into a confirmed Benson-ite. Alternative to Love is flawless poprock record, full of earwormy, should-be hits like “Spit It Out” and “Warm Hands Cold Heart.” Both songs have siren-like seductive musical hooks that I associate with the very best of AM hit-making. “Spit It Out” has a fantastic charging rhythm guitar while “Warm Hands Cold Heart” relies on a hypnotic, atmospheric keyboard line to pull you in and keep you listening. The rest of album is solid, alternating tempo and attack, with many striking a Beatlesque acoustic vibe. Since then Benson’s been busy with The Raconteurs and a host of other projects with just a few, sporadic solo projects slipped in. But they contain some special moments too, like “Eyes on the Horizon” from 2009’s My Old, Familiar Friend, the title track from 2012’s What Kind of World, and “A Whole Lot Better” from 2013’s You Were Right.
Brendan Benson is a testament to poprock’s continuing health as a broad church genre. You can find him on Facebook, bandcamp and the usual digital music retailers.