Melody testing Cheap Trick

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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.

Oh, Candy

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.

If You Want My Love You Got It
I Can’t Take It
Tonight It’s You

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.”

All We Need Is a Dream
Had to Make You Mine
You’re All I Wanna Do

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.”

Hard to Tell
My Obsession
All Those Years Ago
Times of Our Lives
Another World

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.

The wild exciting sound of Marshall Crenshaw

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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.

Around the dial: Tommy Ray, Kiwi jr., Nicholas Altobelli, and The Jack Cades

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Today’s turn around the dial brings some glam rhythm guitar, Dylanesque vocalizing, folky poprock and a 1965 cellar full of noise.

With an opening guitar reminiscent of Greg Kihn or Tommy Tutone and a vocal vibing Phil Seymour, “In Love Again” gets Tommy Ray’s new album Handful of Hits off to an exhilarating start. Follow up “No No No No” seals the deal with a 1980s English guitar band remake of Marc Bolan, kinda like Modern English does glam. Again and the again this record captures that sense of seventies’ fresh punky excitement but with tunes that pack a melodic punch. It’s busting out all over “Loser’s Anthem” with its hooky organ and guitar lines. “If You Need Anything” is a rollicking romp of a dance stomper. Meanwhile “Feel the Pain’ channels that 1970s reinvention of fifties rock and roll to a ‘T’. But my fave tune here is addictive “Runnin’” with its catchy mix of chunky guitar chords and piano shots. This album hits all the classic melodic indie rock marks and then some. Soundtrack your party with this release and let the fun begin.

Cooler Returns is a confident album number 2 from Canadians Kiwi jr. “Tyler” kicks things off, reintroducing the band with a confessional vocal style not unlike Ben Folds. “Undecided Voters” continues to be jangle relevant and just in time for a Canadian federal election. “Maid Marian’s Toast” has a pastoral Dylanesque sound, if he were an eighties indie artist. And that’s just the first three tracks! Stylistically, this is sometimes an album of big choruses – just hear them burst open melodically on  “Highlights of 100” and “Omaha.” Or sometimes it’s more about distinctive rhythm guitar work, as on title track “Cooler Returns” and “Dodger.” And then there’s the occasional departure from the script songwriting-wise, like “Nashville Wedding.” I can hear the girl group double claps in my head in the verses as this one rolls out. It’s the kinda thing my 1980s FM radio stations would put in maximum rotation. I’m also really keen on “Waiting in Line.” Again, such a great roll out beginning to the song with its jangle guitar and plinky piano. You can even get a comic book of the record’s illustrated lyrics designed by Toronto illustrator Dmitry Bondarenko. Those Canucks!

I love the artwork on Nicholas Altobelli’s new album Technicolor Hearts. The purples and blues of the fairground at night give it a captivating allure. Sound-wise Altobelli veers out of his usual, carefully crafted, folkish pop lane, more solidly aiming at a contemporary, almost Hall and Oates poprock sound (which I’m loving). On the other hand, there is a very Darryl Hanlon vibe to what is going on here, with that guy’s ever so melodic mediations on sincerity and experience. The former is present in the title track, with those hypnotic keyboards and Springsteen “I’m On Fire” percussion. The latter is there on “Bless Yer Heart” despite the hard rock chorus and “Midnight Radio.” The record also offers up yet another reworking of last year’s stand-alone single “Ghost,” this time with some funky Kraftwork-worthy keyboards. 2016’s “Exit Polls” also gets a new treatment that tones down the guitar in favour of leaning into the vocal melody a bit more, with good effect. In our ‘what about surprises’ category, check out “Time Will Tell” with its Aimee Mann-ish keyboards. On the whole, I declare Technicolor Hearts a delight, an enjoyable accompaniment to your night out at the fair. And, hey, buy it over on Bandcamp and get five demos of songs from the record and a country version of “Time Will Tell” for no extra charge. That’s like getting a free, extra go-round on the roller coaster at the end of the night.

They might be named for an English insurrectionary leader from the 15th century but you won’t need a history class to appreciate The Jack Cades. I mean, not If you like a jangly, mid-1960s San Francisco-meets-swinging London sound, with just a touch of garage band immediacy and excitement. After two killer albums of strong original material the band return with an EP of covers to wile away the pandemic, cheekily entitled Infectious Covers. All four songs are fabulous, though I wish the band had provided a bit more background on some of the more obscure tracks. The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” is the easy one, while The Dovers breezy, lead guitar line-led 1965 single “What Am I Going To Do” wasn’t too hard to dig up. But “Once Before” and “Go Ahead” left me stumped. Both are super songs, performed with a psychedelic rock feel on the former and a lonely, singer-avec-some gentle jangle on the latter. One thing striking about this band is how they so effectively echo a past era without sounding stuck in it.

Each of today’s artists would love to meet you. Electronically, that is. Check out their websites, Facebook and/or Bandcamp to get the full deets.

Top photo credit: cropped from Nicholas Altobelli’s new album cover for Technicolor Hearts.

Harry versus Hardy Nilsson

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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.

Harry Nilsson – You Can’t Do That

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.

Hardy Nilsson – Popsang
Tommy 16 – Come On, Come On

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.

Life at 45 rpm II

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For The Smiths guitar slinger Johnny Marr the 45 is a “short burst [that] is going to explain where we’re at, right here and right now” from “artists who are taking that three, four minute moment really seriously.” Forget the album as artist statement – for Marr, the single is where an artist can really say something. He also makes an interesting observation about the class dimensions of the form, arguing that in the sixties and seventies (when 45s were at their peak popularity in the UK) their brightly coloured sleeves and concise musical content served as a kind of working class art for the “young women who were working in Woolworths, and young men who were working in shops and warehouses and bus stations.” It’s in that spirit of love for the 45 that we continue with our second post of fab new late-summer singles.

Franco-American duo Freedom Fry just can’t help themselves. They’d barely gotten their French-language album L’Invitation out the door last April when two EPs of covers followed just one month later and now this summer three more original songs have hit their Bandcamp page. Productive much? Not that I’m complaining. There is always something so fresh and positive about a new Freedom Fry record. Like “Colors,” with its saucy keyboard lick opening and buoyant melody. Let this light and breezy single colour your listening time with a hit of audio sunshine. Another bit of fun pressed into 3 minutes or so comes from the Barenaked Ladies new album, Detour de Force. “Bylaw” is a goofy yet still melodious mediation on a topic I’m fairly certain has largely evaded musical attention up to now. But leave it to BNL to make it sing! The rest of the album is pretty catchy too, particularly the topical “New Disaster.” Indie power pop supergroup The Legal Matters are back with their third album, entitled Chapter Three. On the whole, its another reliably hooky installment in their ongoing musical saga but the song that leaps out at me is “Please Make a Sound.” I love the low-key jangle and the lighter-than-air harmony vocals. Stylistically it really stands out from the rest of the album, underlining how these guys can pull off just about anything. Have you been missing that tight, almost chrome-coated seventies rock and roll sound perfected by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds across a series of great albums, both solo and with Rockpile? Well relax, you can get your fix with Geoff Palmers new record, Charts and Graphs. Hey, this shouldn’t be news. Palmer’s been acing the Lowe/Edmunds sound for years with his band The Connection. I’m just letting you know he’s done it again. I’m singling out two tracks as my preferred double A-sided 45, “Tomorrow” and “The Apartment Song.” The former comes off like new wave as if the Beach Boys had gone that route in 1979 (instead of doing that disco album) while the latter is a rollicking, hooky stomper (and, as Ralph points out in the comments, a Tom Petty cover). I’ve been on a bit of Los Lobos bender for the past month, really getting to know their Spanish language recordings (e.g. Del Este de Los Angeles and La Pistola y el Corazon). You don’t need to speak Spanish to understand these records are telling you to kick up your heels! For 2021 the party continues on Native Sons with the band covering a host of their favourite radio hits, songs like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and the Beach Boys “Sail On, Sailor.” But I’m keen on the album’s only original cut, the title track. It’s a lovely Americana slow dance supported with a beautiful horn section that is all about the band themselves and their relationship to their home town.

The Barenaked Ladies – Bylaw

Is it wrong to like a band’s cast-offs album more than the main release? I mean, don’t misunderstand me, I think Scottish band The Eisenhowers’ third album Judge a Man by the Company He Keeps is a bonny collection of sophisticated tunes. But somehow I’m more drawn to the tracks that didn’t quite make the official album but did get released a few months later on the aptly named Too Much Music. For instance, “Suffer” is lovely lilting poppy tune, a little bit Crowded House, a smattering of Barenaked Ladies. And that’s just the first of many winners that got cut from the main LP but manage to appear here. Dave Strong tries to hide his classic sixties melodic instincts behind a punky veneer but “Little Girl” can’t be denied. This single is a blasting two and half minutes of gloriously amped up poppy fun. B-side “I Would” is pretty cool too. Detroit’s basement pop exemplars The Kickstand Band have been holding out on us. Just one single since 2017 and nary an LP or EP since 2016! Well the wait is over because a double A-sided single is out, “Cube” and “Hey Julianne.” The former is a neat if somewhat ominous low-key number that breaks out melodically briefly – but spectacularly – in the chorus. The latter is a killer should-be hit, in the mould of the band’s amazing synthesis of early 1960s and late 1970s AM radio hits. Those harmonies! Let’s have a new TKB album please. From the northern US to the deep south, The Blips hail from Birmingham Alabama and they deliver that wonderfully messy country rock sound we might associate with Titus Andronicus or the Band. “Inside Out” is the featured single from their self-titled debut LP and I’m loving it. If this style is your thing, I think you will too. Tampa Florida’s The Easy Button have an astonishing collection of 22 tunes out right now for the price for a regular album. The record is Lost On Purpose and it runs the gamut of clever poprock: a bit of Beach Boys, a lot of Fountains of Wayne, and plenty of fun. There are just so many great tunes here but I’ll draw your attention to the playful, generationally-focused “ReRun.” Though I’m more a seventies television guy I know a lot of the name-checked references here.

I came upon Kimon Kirk via a link to a duet he did with Aimee Mann in 2017. So I thought, ok, I’ll bite, let’s check out this guy. There’s wasn’t a lot to find, just a handful of releases since 2009. But what an interesting range of material! Like Mann, there’s a great American songbook feel to some of his stuff, like the cabaret feel to “The Road to No Regret” from 2011’s Songs for Society. Other releases are crazy good guitar poprock like stand alone 2017 single “Powerstroke.” His new record is Altitude and the song I’d single out is “The Girl I Used to Know” which cooks along like a Lindsay Buckingham track with just a tad more enthusiasm in the chorus. Richard Turgeon is back with a seasonally appropriate new EP of cool tunes, Campfire Songs. Once again he mixes a slightly discordant element into otherwise reliably poppy rock tunes. The timely “Goodbye to Summer” has the feel of an uber cool summer single, its cinematic potential fueled by classic sounding guitar embellishments and Turgeon’s own minor key vocal. But I also really like the easygoing rock and roll songbook feel to “Never Good Enough” and “Promised Land.” Chicago’s Kerosene Stars often sound like some 1980s English guitar band (and I like that!) but their new batch of singles seems to mark a new direction for the outfit. Ok, maybe there’s still an English feel to “Where Have You Been?” with its wordy but eloquent lyric delivery, but I like it, and it clips along with a somehow both reserved but still manic tempo. Recently I wrote about Pearl Charles’ eerie 1970s throwback material and that moved someone dropped me a line about Toronto-based Stacey. Wow. Also very 1970s. Like a Tardis time-travel good recreation. Check out “Strange (But I Like It)” from her latest LP Saturn Return. It’s got a minor key feel in places that reminds me of Sniff ‘n’ the Tears “Driver’s Seat” or any mid-period Little River Band. At this point it’s hard to believe that anyone could do anything new with Bob Dylan material, it’s all been covered by so many people and in so many ways. But Australian Emma Swift manages to add a new twist to the Dylan’s classic “Queen Jane Approximately.” With its light jangle and Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac rhythm section feel, the song sounds more like a radio hit than ever. It can be found with a host of other Dylan songs on her just released Blonde on the Tracks album.

Continuing in Dylanesque vein, Brisbane Australia’s Full Power Happy Hour give us a fresh dose of melodious folky-country guitar noodling on “Old Mind of Mind.” The song is the opening cut on their self-titled debut long-player and it combines keen guitar work with an inspired vocal. Heading back to the UK 65MPH anchor their sound with a striking mix of acoustic and electric guitars and tunes that mine a new neo-folk rock sound that I associate with acts like The Fronteers. “Cruel World” is just one of a host of peppy, winning singles the band has put out over the past few months. Rounding things out on this singles extravaganza, a deep cut from the latest album by Toronto band Harkness. The songs on The Occasion run a gamut of styles, featuring unusual instrumental choices and some complicated vocal arrangements. Personally I’m taken with “Tornado” and its solid mid-1980s Brit band mix of moody guitars and vocals.

Well, there it is, another colossal mix of singles, all mini musical manifestos from a wide array of acts. Think of them as ever so brief introductions to people with much more to say. Click the hyperlinks to continue the conversation.

Life at 45 rpm I

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If there is someone who understands the power of the 45 rpm single, it’s Smiths’ guitar man Johnny Marr. In an interview with Clash magazine in 2019 he was quoted saying “the seven inch single for me has always held a mystical position because it’s such a brilliant format.” Why? In a word: impact.  For Marr, the single format forces artists to “pack the message, the hooks and everything into a shorter space.” Citing examples like The Beatles “Paperback Writer” or even his own “Panic” Marr argues that with a single “you get pulled into a world for three and a half minutes, exploring art or philosophy …” But, he adds, “it also has to be wildly entertaining.” Here at Poprock Record we couldn’t agree more. In the first of two posts, we explore the magic and concision of some recent glorious 45s.

We get things started with a solid ‘hitting the road’ tune, Dan Israel’s latest single “The Hang of It.” The song has a 1970s FM radio feel with his reliably Dylanesque vocals, Harrisonian pedal steel and party jam band vibe. The lyrics are so of our time: “I’m getting out of the house, I been crazy as a loon, I’ve been quiet as a mouse …” Here here brother. Next we step on the pop punk pedal with Edmonton’s Real Sickies. These guys are graduates of the Ramones school of rock, blasting power chords but always with an accessible melody line threaded in somewhere. “Communications Breakdown” is from their latest long-player, Love is for Lovers, and it’s a breakneck party tune, a surefire get-them-dancing number. The Skullers front man Jack Skuller has returned with a new solo EP, the more somber My Disappearing Act. It has the carefully curated guitar sounds we might associate with his past work but, on the whole, the project is more introspective than his full band work. All five songs here are winners but I’m drawn to “Antibodies (Buy You Time),” with its timely sentiments and a subtle hookiness that reminds me of early Josh Rouse. Slipping down-under for a moment, Adelaide Australia’s Teenage Joans describe their sunny guitar-heavy tunes as juice-box pop punk, a fresh take on the punk-meets-pop genre. Their new EP is Taste of Me and it is definitely a strong sampler of what this duo of teen gals can do. The first single “Something About Being Sixteen” has been getting plenty of attention but personally I think opening cut “Ice Cream” really showcases the breadth of their talent. The punk feel takes a back seat to seductively layered background vocals, droning hooky guitars, and melody accentuated by a lead vocal that reminds me just a bit of The Sundays at times. Another band exuding a strong punky vibe is Friends of Cesar Romero. But punky more in sentiment than sound. The ‘band’ is really just one guy, North Cheyenne/Lakota garage rocker J. Waylon Miller, but you’d never know it from his voluminous bandcamp collection of singles, EPs and albums. Some tracks are driving, noisy sixties garage rock verging on punk. Others draw from the melodic side of the 1960s, more like carefully crafted musical sketches. “Summer Boyfriend” is the Miller’s latest single and it’s a real treat, combining an urgent propulsive energy with melodic hooks worthy of any Mighty Lemon Drops song. B-side “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” is pretty special too, with a hypnotic drone and catchy guitar line in the chorus. I can’t wait to dig into FCR’s back catalogue.

Oslo Norway’s Beachheads brought out a killer self-titled debut album in 2017. Mixing elements of Weezer with Oasis and Husker Du the album is explosion of guitars and earwormy tunes. But somehow I managed to not write about them. I don’t know what happened as I bought the album and remember thinking it was pretty amazing. Well, suffice to say, check it out. It’s a no brainer purchase. And you can add their brand new single to your shopping as well. “Jupiter” has a slightly more sweet melodic flavour, reminding me a little of the melodies I recall from Et Tu Bruce’s early work. Boston’s Kid Gulliver offer up a stylized old school new wave single with “Stupid Little Girl” from their latest EP Gimme Some Go! The vocals are so reminiscent of a load of early 1980s indie girl groups and girl-led bands. Speaking of old school, the Automatics have something in their DNA that allows them to effortlessly synthesize a host of 1960s influences. It’s there in how the vocals meld with the guitars on their great new single, “Black Velvet Elvis.” This is a should-be hit single. I hear just a hint of Freedy Johnston in the vocals, particularly in the chorus. Santa Monica’s The Popravinas continue to develop their unique blend of poppy Americana on their new single “Do the Creep.” It comes in advance of their new LP Goons West and breaks new ground songwriting-wise for the band, with its sleek guitar lines and rather dark moody aura and lyrics. Pitchfork called Quivers’ “Gutters of Love” an ‘instant anthem,’ the sound of 1980s bedsit indie college rock. I’d have to agree. As the opener to the band’s new album Golden Doubt it’s a marvelous ‘welcome home’ for fans and a hearty ‘hey, hello’ to new listeners. The light jangle, alternating vocals, group singing and soaring choruses are very Grouplove or The Smittens on a particularly tidy day. You’ll come for this single but stay for the rest, for sure.

The Italian rock scene is holding its own these days. We reviewed Vicenza’s Hearts Apart’s recent single “Waste Time” and now the rest of its accompanying EP is out, Number One to No One. The five songs alternate between punk pop and more straight up rock and roll. I’m digging the rollicking “It’s All the Same” with its cheeky guitar licks and hint of Americana in the chorus. Though “Lonely Days” is a pretty close runner up with a vibe reminiscent of The Vaccines. London’s The Speedways have delivered a neat little EP entitled Borrowed and Blue, featuring covers tunes from bands as diverse as Hanoi Rocks, ABBA and Kirsty MacColl. But the track that knocked me over was the cover of Billy Ocean’s 1976 single “Love Really Hurts Without You.” The band really crank the Motown feel, driving the hooks home like The Jam might do. The other covers here are equally inspired, a very fun collection. One look at The Sheepdogs website and you know these guys are heavily into the 1970s. Their music is clearly inspired by the poppy boogie rock of that decade. Being from Canada, they remind me of bands like The Stampeders or even mid-period Chilliwack. Their latest single is “Keep On Loving You” from their No Simple Thing EP and it’s pure AM radio 1974. Its got the swing, its got pumping piano action, its got those guitars with chorus effects that go on for days. Mostly its got that countryfied vocal sound that bands as disparate as the Doobies, the Eagles, and Band went in for in the mid-seventies. Remember Sports are the band formerly known as just Sports. They’re also the band formerly known for ‘basement rock’ but their new LP Like a Stone has come upstairs. The sophistication of the album has drawn comparisons to Sleater Kinney and Rilo Kiley. There’s plenty of variety here but I’ve fastened myself onto the almost Buddy Holly punk title track, “Like a Stone.” There’s an edge to the song that belies but somehow intensifies it melodic content. I’m also partial to the very Rilo “Out Loud” and the country-ish “Odds Are.” Spain is a land full of power pop lovers. One day I plan to go there to see some kick ass Spanish power pop band. Perhaps like Madrid’s Macarrones. The band’s latest album is emblazoned with XX across its low-key cover. But inside is a blistering collection guitar-slashing, very danceable tunes. I’m just going to focus on one that has a bit of a new wave groove and some sweet background vocals, “Más Que Una Idea.”

Wildings compilation album Hello My Name Is … is described as ‘folk pop’ but there are more than a few departures from that script on this fabulously diverse collection of his tunes from the past decade. Like “Swipe Right.” A bit of 1960s pop psychedelia, a dab of XTC, even a hint of The Vaccines, it’s a delightful dose of manicured indie poprock. And the other 19 songs are worth checking out too. On their prior records The Mergers sounded like they’d got lost on Merseyside around 1964 and somehow just resurfaced with their setlist intact. But the band is actually from Germany and with their new record Three Apples in an Orange Grove they are striking out for new musical territory as well. They’ve expanded their sound for a broader neo-psychedelia meets Britpop, kinda like Love meets Oasis. You can really hear that hybrid on “Seekin’ for the Light” but I’m more drawn to guitar hook anchoring “Right as Rain.” We wrap up this instalment of Life at 45 rpm with a pair of teen brothers from Ohio who have got their jangle down. As The Laughing Chimes their debut record In This Town is proof these guys know their way around those early REM and Smiths records. The jangle is off the charts and the songwriting is strong. My current fave is “Back to My House.” I love the ways it builds with plinky piano, reverbed-up guitar and vocals that remind me of early Grapes of Wrath.

The Mergers – Right as Rain

Well there you have it, a whole lot of 45s to take in – and there’s more on the way. Needle drop your way through these selections and click on the hyperlinked names of the ones that grab you to learn more.

The top photo is actually of a collection of paintings by Morgan Howell. He paints very large versions of classic rock and roll 45s. You can check out the range of his work here.

Should be a hit single: The Mavericks “Touch a Lonely Heart”

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I discovered The Mavericks via their 2003 self-titled album, The Mavericks. I was blown away by the songwriting: “I Want to Know,” “Shine Your Light,” “Would You Believe,” and many more. But I also fell in love with lead singer Raul Malo’s fabulous diversity of singing styles, sometimes echoing the clipped diction of Buck Owens or the emotional intensity of Roy Orbison or the country blues sadness of Patsy Cline. The band themselves play a lively mix of Tex-Mex country/rockabilly with flashes of Cuban and Cajun influences. This particular album emerges at an interesting juncture in their career, coming out three years after their initial break up and nine years before they would unite again. The song I’m focusing on here, “Touch a Lonely Heart,” is also from this period, actually appearing as the b-side to the first single from The Mavericks album, “I Want to Know.” I can’t believe something this good could be left off the album! Just listen to the initial roll out of the tune with its snappy electric lead guitar line, “Help Me Rhonda” pumping fairground organ, and irresistible melodic hook. Then Malo’s vocal slides in with a candy-coated smoothness that is utterly seductive. The sonic elements of the song seems so immediately familiar but this is no derivative sound alike tune. Instead The Mavericks wield the constituent elements with the mastery of a band that has played a thousand nights together. This is textbook should-be hit single songwriting and performance.

Touch a Lonely Heart

If you like what you hear here, you’re going to love the rest of the band’s catalogue. You can catch up on their early period hits with the cheekily-titled Super Colossal Smash Hits of the 90’s: The Best of The Mavericks from 1999 or dip in to any of their post-2013 albums and not go far wrong. Their most recent album is 2020’s fab Spanish-language En Espanol. You can read all about The Mavericks, their recordings and tour news on the band’s website here.

From John to the Travoltas

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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 Travoltas in 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.

The world of Kurt Hagardorn

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If ever there was a man who deserves a Decca records World of … collection it’s Kurt Hagardorn. As a veteran of two bands, two solo albums, a load of session work as a guitarist-for-hire, and, more recently, a slew of one-off, independently released singles, his musical resume may be a bit hard to follow. But it is definitely worth poring over for the fine print. Hagardorn clearly loves all sorts of music, from country rock to singer/songwriter folk to jangly poprock. His choice of cover tunes alone runs an impressive gamut of styles, with songs from Richard Thompson, Kirsty MacColl, Randy Newman, Tom Petty, Ray Davies and Colin Hay. All that is something deserving of some serious curation. So, in that spirit, let me present the completely unofficial, rogue Decca records release, The World of Kurt Hagardorn.

In preparing this special release, I’ve mined Hagardorn’s bandcamp page, which features three albums and many, many stand-alone singles. His two official solo albums consist of Ten Singles and Leaves, released in 2007 and 2009 respectively. But a third album of sorts appears under the title Back in the 90’s, featuring a few songs from his band Gumption and other tracks I assume he put together in that decade. There’s also the relatively new EP Exile in Babylon released earlier this year. And then if we take in the amazing volume of stand-alone single releases from 2018 to 2020 (more than three dozen by my count) they could easily amount to another solo album. In other words, more than enough musical fodder for a comprehensive overview compilation!

Side one of our record kicks off with tunes from Hagardorn’s first solo album, Ten Singles. “Last Time Rewind” has a great long intro, creating a dynamic tension that is one part Rolling Stones, multiple parts all sorts of 1980s indie bands. It reminds us that beneath all the style hopping Hagardorn is basically a 1960s rocker. “You Are My Girl” has a lovely Byrdsian country jangle while “Rock Scissors Paper” comes at the country influence more from a Rockpile/Brinsley Schwarz pub rock angle. Next we draw from solo album #2. On Leaves you can feel a qualitative change to a country-inflected indie sound recently make popular by acts like Lord Huron, among others. “9 Broadway” has a somber intimacy, intensified by Hagardorn’s striking vocal and pedal steel/organ work. Elsewhere the record features a latent late-period Beatles vibe on tracks like “Tail Lights” and “Heartbeat,” though the sound is also very contemporary – think recent releases from Matthew Milia and Nicholas Altobelli. Side one concludes with “Leaves,” a song that sounds like a Elliott Smith contribution to the Amélie soundtrack.

On side two we reach back to Hagardorn’s earlier 1990s work, starting with Gumption’s “The Way,” a rollicking guitar chord slasher in a Guadalcanal Diary or Green on Red vein. But here I also like the up-front chord basher “Lemonhead” with its sweet vocal harmonies and surprising melodic twists. From there we select a few choice releases from the cavalcade of singles that have come out between 2018 and 2021. “Seven Six Seven” has a nice, almost new wave acoustic swing. “Everything and Nothing” has a bigger sound, with a slight uneasiness lurking around the edges of the melody. “Waited So Long” kicks off with a strong jangle base, offset by Hagardorn’s wavering, vulnerable vocal. The recent Exile in Babylon EP represents another stylistic departure for Hagardorn, with songs embodying an almost Sparks-like playfulness. But here I’m drawn to the big chords, subtle synth lead line and ELO-style hooks of “Tractor Beam.” And to end our album, something from Hagardorn’s collection of more spare, delicate slow songs. So many good choices here but the Randy Newman-esque simple beauty of “Metronomic Heart” really captures this artist’s emotional range and depth.

While The World of Kurt Hagardorn is an imaginary album, the accomplishments are real and readily available. Get thee to the Kurt Hagardorn bandcamp page now to make your own individual selections.

Cover Me! The Beach Boys “Girl Don’t Tell Me”

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This just might be my favourite Beach Boys song. When it was released in late 1965 it represented a departure from the band’s prior neo-1950s surf rock for more Beatles melodic territory, particularly its jangle guitar and Carl Wilson’s lone vocals, sans the usual group back up. Brian Wilson would later cite the Fabs’ “Ticket to Ride” as particularly influential here. I didn’t hear the song until my Dad came home with Endless Summer in 1974 but immediately it stood out for me from the rest of the band’s early period hits on the collection. Brian Wilson’s usual subject matter – teen drama – remained the same but the song’s structure and subtle hooks were nothing like the other 19 songs. It’s a tune I can play and play and still want more. Curiously, covers of the song were few until more recent times, no doubt reflecting the increasing critical appreciation of the band and their legacy that has occurred over time.

The Beach Boys

“Girl Don’t Tell Me” appeared in December 1965 on the Beach Boys’ eighth long player Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) and as the b-side to the “Barbara Ann” single. But Brian Wilson had written the song back in February and the composition had been shopped to various artists. 13 year old Keith Green would actually release the first version in October 1965, his vocal range suiting the teen angst of the song. Green’s career as a teen star was ultimately cut short by the rise of Donny Osmond but he later surfaced as a highly successful Christian rock artist. Teen pop idols Dino, Desi and Billy recorded a version of the song in 1966 but couldn’t quite hit the ‘I’s in the “I’m the guy who left you …” line. A much better version was put together the same year by Tony Rivers and the Castaways, a Brian Epstein managed group that had the Rolling Stones’ Andrew Loog Oldham produce their release. And then … nothing. Covers of the song evaporated as critical interest in the Beach Boys’ early material declined and the band’s commercial and creative drive stalled in the 1970s (other than as a featured act on the emerging ‘oldies’ circuit).

Keith Green
Tony Rivers and the Castaways

Covers of “Girl Don’t Tell Me” only really start to appear in the 1990s and beyond as the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson in particular start to gain traction as important, critical influences on late twentieth century popular music. An early adopter was Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens who included a cover on the band’s debut EP Girls About Town as far back as 1980. That band drive the lead line home throughout the song, making it a killer hook. But things really take off in the 1990s with covers from Gumball (1992), Heartworms (1995), Fuzzy (1996), and the Sparkle Jets (1998). The first two bands perform the song with a grunge and rock demeanor while the latter two are more into the indie and jangle scenes.

Heartworms
Fuzzy

In the new millennium bands started to take refreshing new liberties with the song, like Truly’s Beach Boys-meets-The Who rendition that appeared on their rarities collection Twilight Curtains in 2000. Other reinventions include Ken Sharp’s baroque interpretation (2000), the blistering punky version from the Hot Pockets (2002), Amy Miles’ fantastic 1970s throwback (2005), and Joe Jistsu’s Weezer-ish treatment (2007).

Truly
Hot Pockets
Amy Miles

Since then bands have increasingly experimented with the song’s structure and traditional instrumentation. Check out Oceanics radically retooled version (2012) for a take you won’t recognize until the lyrics kick in. The Lunar Laugh’s Jared Letkis (with Laura Biagini) gives a performance that is pure ear candy, adorned with all sorts of catchy instrumental choices and unique harmony vocals. Mudwerks has a wonderfully different interpretation of the song, with neat keyboard echo effects and distinctive guitars. Meanwhile Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Fossil Cliffs offer up a very satisfying psych rock workout.

Oceanics

As our new decade begins, interest in “Girl Don’t Tell Me” continues unabated. 2020 alone offered up three more inspired covers. Stephen Bates loves all things beach and summer and his take on the song has a refreshing, slightly punk/DIY feel. Chicago’s Gal Gun uses just an acoustic guitar to offset his stark, intimate vocal. Kevin Robertson lets loose the jangle on a cover that appeared with all the other songs from Summer Days (and Summer Nights) put together by the should-be famous TM Collective. The most recent cover comes from another tribute collection, the Jem Records Celebrates Brian Wilson album. This time the Anderson Council put an inventive pop psychedelia stamp on the tune, with fabulous results.

Anderson Council

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the many non-English covers of the song as they too show remarkable ingenuity and talent. Italy’s Nomadi put out “La mia libertà” (translation: “My Freedom”) in 1966, switching out the traditional guitar lead line for what sounds like a cello. And it works spendidly. The Hik put out a less engaging Dutch version in the same period. Next up, Sweden, with Gyllene Tider’s great “Ge Mej Inte Det Där” (translation: “Do Not Give Me That”) in 1981. More recently Argentina has gotten into the act with Fleko’s 2016 Spanish language version, which has some far out spacey guitar adornments and fierce vocals.

Nomadi
Gyllene Tider

Well here I am, 23 versions of the song later and I’m still ready for more! Sometimes a song is just so good you can’t break its hold on you, regardless of how it is played or how often you hear it. So I say, bring it on cover bands! I’m ready for even more of Brian Wilson’s deceptively simple, addictive earworm.