The republic of Mersey

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The Beatles are such a touchstone for the melodic rock and roll genre that it’s not surprising that artists keep going back to the source again and again. At the same time, covering the Beatles is pretty much an impossible task. I mean, how do you improve on anything JPGR did? In one sense, you don’t – they’ll always be the definitive version. The trick is to reinvent their material in an unexpected but still recognizable direction. Today we visit acts taking the Beatles’ material to all sorts of new places while still remaining within the borders of the republic of Mersey.

Staten Island’s Goin’ Places is a pop punk group in the Ramones/Green Day mode, so not exactly the boys we’d expect to find hanging out at Lime Street Station. Yet it actually makes them the perfect outfit to punkify the Beatles’ catalogue. The lion’s share of the 18 cuts featured on their Fingerboard Road draw from the early to mid-period Fabs records. Some of what they put together is genius – all of it is fun. Fun like those Me First and Gimme Gimme’s albums of sixties covers! “I Saw Her Standing There” so works with a wall of punky guitars, the song being halfway there to begin with. Other songs that easily lend themselves to punking up include “She Loves You,” “Eight Days a Week,” and “Ticket to Ride,” the latter really only requiring hitting the lead guitar distortion pedal. Other tunes go punk simply because they were ballads that are now being played a triple speed: e.g. “Yesterday,” Something,” and “Hey Jude.” They sound jarring but remain melodically cool. “Norwegian Wood” and “I Will” get extra marks for inventiveness as the band add new musical interludes to spice things up. “A Day in the Life” is particularly special with its very Green Day treatment. But at other times punk gives way to just a rocking good time. Both “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Help” are simply exuberant rocking love letters to the originals. The Clash may have hated phony Beatlemania but Goin’ Places deliver the real ‘pop-meets-punk’ thing.

Stephen Krilanovich and Donny Newenhouse are the Wind-Up Beatles Chronicles, which they describe on their bandcamp page as a ‘pandemic music project.’ Whatever the impetus, man do these two nail the Beatles’ mid period sound (think Beatles for Sale to Revolver, with a few outliers). Sometimes they sail pretty close to the originals, which makes noting the small differences all that more interesting for Beatlemaniacs. For instance, “She Said She Said” is pretty Beatles note perfect. In other instances, they lean into various elements a bit more than the Fabs. “Wait” has a got an interesting and different guitar sound even while the timing is spot on and so familiar. “What You’re Doing” has got a bit more sparkle on the jangly guitar. “Rain” is probably the most different treatment here: less psychedelic and droney, more Brydsian. At other times the basic difference is simply that these two guys have got different voices than JPGR and no matter how clever the musical backing the overall effect is gonna be unavoidably different. “Paperback Writer” illustrates this well. The music sounds so much like the original single but the voices are pretty different (though pleasantly so). Probably my fave cut here is “I’m Looking Through You.” It’s delivered in a Rubber Soul approved light breeziness and sounds like an alternate take to the original. It’s fair to say that a splendid time is virtually guaranteed for all with this record.  It’s definitely for Beatles fans who ever thought ‘hey, I like to hear those songs done differently but not too differently done.’

In 2013 Canada’s Bullseye Records decided to put out a three volume tribute to the Beatles entitled It Was 50 Years Ago Today: A Tribute to The Beatles. So many great tracks but two particularly stood out for me, The Lolas’ rendition of “Good Morning, Good Morning” and Eytan Mirsky’s take on Harrison’s first song-write “Don’t Bother Me.” The Lolas balance some guitar grind with a lighter take on the vocals than in Lennon’s original. They also straighten out the tempo, less off kilter that what we’re used to. The song gets a bit lost amid the chaos of Sgt. Pepper but here it gets a chance to stand out on its own. As for “Don’t Bother Me,” I’ve always had a soft spot for a tune routinely dismissed by Beatles experts as lightweight and rudimentary in terms of Harrison’s eventual song-writing prowess. Yet I always thought it had an original melodic twist. Eytan Mirsky works the song over, adding distinctive lead guitar tones and some nice call and response vocals. At times he sounds like The Zombies’ lead singer in full-on, white boy blues whine (and that’s a good thing). Sisters Gwendolyn and Lucy Giles of Dog Party offer up a double A sided single of Beatles tunes. Nothing ground shaking in these reworkings of early Beatles’ hits but their harmonies do manage to add to the magic allure of “I Feel Fine,” bending the melody here and there in new and exciting directions, while their vocal take on “All I’ve Got To Do” adds mystery and a bit of mischief to the proceedings.

Now for a project that is more than a bit out there: Fabs songs converted into Avengers exposition. Insane Ian is a comedian that sidelines as a modern day Weird Al, though needle dropping through his voluminous catalogue his ouvre is more about the immediate gag rather than something you might listen to more than once. But his Meet the Avengers album is a musical superhero riff of a different colour. The musicianship is pretty impressive, hitting the Beatles marks where they need to. And the writing is pretty funny too. So “Nowhere Man” becomes “Iron Man,” “Help” transforms into “Hulk,” “Lady Madonna” becomes “Lady Natasha,” and so on. Sometimes the new lyrical detail overwhelms the old tune, as when “Thor’s Big Silver Hammer” leaves “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in a bit of disarray. By contrast “Hawkeye” nails the cadence and lyrical spacing of “Blackbird.” Personal fave: the rocking reworking of “Day Tripper” as “Steve Rogers.” The chorus even shifts melody slightly. As a rule, comedy projects don’t have a long shelf life but Insane Ian’s clever writing, surprisingly good musical performances, and creative artwork give this effort legs. Meet the Avengers might be funny but it’s no joke.

Lover of all things 1970s Nick Frater takes us in a decidedly different direction with his Mersey-influenced outing, focusing on The Rutles rather than the Fabs directly. The point of his Nick Frater Presents The Rebutles: Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry The Solo Years, Vol​.​1 effort was to imagine what The Rutles might have sounded like if they’d broken up like the Beatles and then gone on to release (send-up) solo singles. The whole thing is pretty meta but, as with all things Frater, ultimately pretty clever, highly accomplished, and very listenable. The songs go from a late Beatles rooftop motif (“Struck in a Rut”) to early solo sort-of Fabs (“Baby I’m Amazing”) to mock Bond (“You Only Live Once”) to later solo Fabs recycled nostalgia (“When We Were Eighteen”) to morbid pastiche reunions (“The Last Laugh”). You’ve got to be pretty far down the Beatles/Rutles rabbit hole to get all the jokes and references but the beauty of Frater’s work is you can just enjoy the songs for what they are: pretty decent songs, well played. The fact that Frater can toss projects like this in as a free insert with his more serious album releases is a testament to his prodigious talent.

The republic of Mersey is a groovy place, surely the ultimate green and pleasant land. You don’t need a passport to go there. All you need is love, an open mind, and a thirst for the evolving musical influence of the Beatles.

This is a modern world: Waaves, Big Nothing, Semprini, and Said the Whale

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This site is pretty retro mostly. We work the 1960s-through-1980s melodic rock side of the street and we’re happy with that. But every now and then we get into something a bit more contemporary. Like post 2000. Today’s post embraces the modern hooky taste-makers that cross our radar because, after all, melody is timeless.

Waaves is one of those bands with a legendary reputation rooted in a certain kind of ‘tude,’ generally a post-punk indie snarl. But with Hideaway the band drops the pretence of cool indifference to openly seduce us with catchy tunes and inventive musical arrangements. Album opener “Thru Hell” vibes a bit of The Vaccines for me. Then “Hideaway” delivers on the band brand of pop punk, delivered oh-so smooth. But with “Help Is On The Way” things branch out. The big vocal hooks, the up-front rhythm guitar remind me of Vancouver’s The Zolas. In fact, I hear a bit of that band on the mid-tempo pleaser “Planting a Garden,” though punched up here and there. “Sinking Feeling” is the showcase single and it shows, with a killer roll-out featuring  cool competing guitar lines. The song itself has a mesmerizing effect, a hypnotic tension created between the drumming and rumbly versus jangle guitar counterpoint. The country influences are probably the most surprising addition to the mix here. “The Blame” is great rollicking country pop number, perhaps my fave cut on the album. There’s a subtle John Lennon/Beatles melodic intensity at work in here somewhere. “Marine Life” is another track with just a bit of a country veneer pulling focus from the overall punk feel. I’m also partial to “Honeycomb,” a nice, bit spacey, mid-tempo pop rock number. Overall Hideaway banishes the genre tags that have dominated Waaves’ career to just let the music speak.

The gorgeous cover of Big Nothing’s new album Dog Hours deserves vinyl proportions to really be appreciated. The pastoral cover painting also gives clear visual clues to what’s inside, a veritable wrestling match with melancholia, with sadness pulling at the edges of all the sonic sketches included here. If sometimes it feels good to feel bad, get ready to feel very good indeed. The album begins with “Always On My Mind” setting the scene with its shoe-gazey, Teenage Fanclub sombre sensibility. This one sounds like the radio-ready single release. “A Lot of Finding Out” follows with something a bit more up-tempo, a straight-up indie rock number with a touch of country going on. Liz Parsons takes over vocals on “Still Sorta Healing” giving the band a very different sound, almost The Carnations-like. But with “Don’t Tell Me” the album’s basic mood gets established. Building off an acoustic guitar base, the song has a 1980s crossover country/indie sound in REM mode. “Curiosity” uses subdued piano and guitar flourishes to create a low-key backdrop, only to lift us up with harmony vocals in the chorus. Even the rippling lead guitar lines buffeting title track “Dog Hours” can’t obscure the downbeat feel of the song. “Make Believe” is a bit more cheery, a bit of that crossover country/indie vibe laden with killer lead guitar lines. “Back the Way” also works its hooky lead guitar line into every available space in the song. “Accents” has jumpy acoustic guitars driving the song, sounding very very 1980s English guitar band. And then the album ends with its basic ennui intact using an acoustic guitar-picking colouring to define “What I Wanna Say.” Dog Hours is an album for a wistful walk at twilight or sound-tracking some late-night lamp-lit apartment. By combining melancholy with melody, it’s ultimately a feel good record.

Semprini is one of those brand new bands of old guys that I just love. Veterans of numerous 90s grunge and indie bands they’ve now come out with self-titled debut album that sounds as fresh as anything their younger selves might have put together. The flavour of the first few songs is very Bob Mould in his immediate post-Sugar phase. Listen to “Words You Say” and “Puts Hands in Last” along with “Eastbound” a bit further into the album and you might come away with singular view of what the band is doing. But there’s some striking variety on this album. “Soft Focus” has a very new wave Byrds feel and “Understand Anything” continues in the same vein, with a slight country tweak. “The Front Door” adds an Americana dimension to what is going on while “Best Of You” sets it hooky guitar breaks against an almost Band-like piano background. “Wish We Had Kissed” sounds like the single with its jangle guitar and earwormy constant invocation of the title line. And then the record ends with another surprise, “When the Lights Go Out,” a lovely, almost meditative tune where the bass guitar line really hooks you in, only to build to a bit of structured chaos in the latter half. Give Semprini a listen to hear some old dogs doing new tricks.

Vancouver’s Said the Whale are really saying something with their seventh long-player, Dandelion. Like ‘we’re ready to be big stars’ with this winning collection of killer tunes. The confidence in the execution of these songs rings out on tracks like “The Ocean” and “Sweetheart.” There’s no filler here. Every inch of album space is an opportunity to demonstrate all the amazing things this group can do. Just listen to how the band shift effortlessly from the extremely danceable “Honey Lungs” to the somber instrumental piano ballad “February 15.” The record is really a kaleidoscope of shifting musical motifs. There’s the earnest, relentless poppiness of “99 to the Moon,” a head-bopping Portugal the Man-esque turn on “Return to Me,” and the touching, stark ballad effort with “Dandelion.” The voice-over and sound effects on “Everything She Touches is Gold to Me” give a cinematic launch to a tune that is both subtly alluring in the verses and wonderfully  bombastic at the chorus. Meanwhile, “Show Me Everything” sounds like it’s going to be a big vocal ballad before twisting in the chorus to something more melodically sinister – brilliant! Dandelion is an album bursting with sonic surprises and melodic goodness from a band clearly ready for the big time.

Just because something’s modern doesn’t mean it has to leave old men shouting ‘get off my lawn’ in its wake. It can be relatable. Today’s acts know how wrap good old fashioned hooks in the most modern of fancy paper.

Should be a hit single: Bob Segarini “Please Please Please”

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Stardom in Canada is not like being big in Japan. One gets a sense that the latter is kinda like Beatlemania but in a language you don’t understand. But people are still going crazy. In Canada, everybody’s too mellow to get too excited. So why Bob Segarini thought moving to Canada was the right choice for his stalled musical career is a head scratcher. After slogging it out with a host of bands in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s he ended up in Toronto in 1977 to kick off a solo career. And it worked out for him, sort of. While Americans remained indifferent his records got play on Canadian radio, sparking a few minor hits.

Growing up in 1970s Canada the Segarini song I recall getting maximum rotation on the radio was “Goodbye LA” with its Booker T and MGs organ opener and relentless vamping style. And as a Canadian, a song about giving the heave ho to an American cultural capital seemed just about the right sentiment. But I can’t say it was my favourite cut from the album of the same name. That distinction belongs to the exquisite, should-have-been hit single “Please Please Please.” It’s a cover from Ducks Deluxe but with a lovely Merseybeat guitar wash over everything that brings out the tune’s hints of 1950s and early 1960s song stylings. How about that pumping piano instrumental break? Or the Hard Day’s Night guitar touches at the end? I can just hit replay again and again.

Segarini’s got a few other cool tunes too, tracks like “Gotta Have Pop,” “Hideaway” and “Living in the Movies” from 1978’s Gotta Have Pop as well as the aforementioned numbers from 1979’s Goodbye LA. Basically, if you like Moon Martin or Walter Egan, Segarini’s got more of that good stuff for you. Segarini’s solo work can be found on Bandcamp while his often hilarious, sometimes serious late-in-life musings can be enjoyed at his blog Don’t Believe a Word I Say.

Cinematic powerpop: Super (2010)

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James Gunn’s soundtrack for Marvel’s Guardians of Galaxy got almost as much commentary as the film itself. The hooky selection of tunes probably had a lot of powerpop connoisseurs attributing the choices to some nameless musical supervisor. But a scan of Gunn’s movie resume suggests he doesn’t leave such decisions to just anybody. In fact, you get a feel for Gunn’s powerpop instincts with the choice of Tsar’s “Calling All Destroyers,” which he featured prominently in an earlier vehicle, his 2010 black comedy Super. While the movie got mixed reviews the soundtrack deserves a definite thumbs up, at least when it comes to hitting the powerpop marks. I’m not saying every song in the film fits the genre but with tracks from Tsar, Eric Carmen, Cheap Trick and The Nomads there’s clearly some kind of theme to the whole thing. I mean, just check out how Gunn uses “Calling All Destroyers” to open the movie with its animated title sequence. Talk about setting the scene – this is pure fun!

Another nod to the powerpop canon on the Super soundtrack is the inclusion of Eric Carmen. You don’t get much closer to the genre’s royalty than his early 1970s band The Raspberries, even if his solo career is largely defined by easy listening and power ballads. “It Hurts Too Much” is an exception, a welcome throwback to The Raspberries big hooks and Spector-ish production. Seeing Cheap Trick here also set off the powerpop alarms big time. “If You Want My Love” is from the band’s 1982 album One On One and it’s dripping with a late period Beatles vibe. Another track fitting the genre is the pop punky “I Do” from the mysterious Lo Def Dollz.

Eric Carmen – It Hurts Too Much
Cheap Trick – If You Want My Love

From there the soundtrack goes in a number of mostly complimentary directions. A surprising number of Swedish artists make the cut. Moneybrother offer up some pop reggae on “God Knows My Name ‘11” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” in a style reminiscent of The Specials. The Ark offer a more 1980s pop dance number with “Let Your Body Decide.” Last on the Nordic front is The Nomads doing punk honour to The Standells “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White.” Then Gunn adds in back-to-back country and hip hop selections with cuts from Terra Naomi and Acevalone, just to throw in some grit. Tyler Bates provides seven of the seventeen tracks on the soundtrack, mostly incidental music, except for the striking “Two Perfect Moments” which is a song proper.

The Nomads – Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White
Tyler Bates – Two Perfect Moments

The music on the Super soundtrack really works with the movie, effectively framing Rainn Wilson and his girl sidekick’s wonderfully demented performances as heroes/anti-heroes. The critics may have been divided but I thought the movie rocked, blowing up the superhero genre and defying easy identification with its themes or characters. Of course, the inspired soundtrack just made it that much better. To my eyes and ears, Super really is super.

The world of Say Hi

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In my resurrected Decca/London records ‘World of …’ series I dip into the entire oeuvre of an artist to bring you a sampling from each of their many recordings. Today’s focus in on Seattle mellow-core artist Say Hi. What we’ve got here is basically a one man band effort, created and performed by Eric Elbogen. The records are deceptively stark, stripped-down affairs, with striking keyboard and guitar tones while literally littered with witty lyrical cleverisms. Warning: these are not often straightforward tunes. Elbogen makes you work to get the meaning and the hooks. But patience is rewarded with some subtle turns of phrase and melody.

2002’s debut Discosadness comprises the basic formula you’re pretty much going to find on the subsequent 11 Say Hi releases: carefully curated sounds and social observations, packaged in attractively minimalist arty design. From this first record, I was taken with “Laundry,” given its lovely whispery Velvet Underground vocal and guitar shuffle. It seemed a perfect way to kick off side one of our World of Say Hi faux release. From 2004’s Number and Mumbles I’ve gone with “A Hit in Sweden” for its electric guitar shots and breathy Momus-like vocals. 2005’s Ferocious Mopes has a vocal vibe that is a bit more Bernard Sumner to my ears, particularly “Recurring Motifs in Historical Flirtings.” On 2006’s Impeccable Blahs I just love the keyboard lead line snaking through “Not As Goth As They Say We Are,” the song is so Casio-licious! There’s more of the intriguing keyboard work, but in overdrive, on “Back Before We Were Brittle” from 2008’s The Wishes and the Glitch. It has got a Bleachers kind of sonic intensity. 2009’s Oohs and Aahs even offers up a hit single of sorts with “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh,” which was also featured in the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love. Though, I have to say, “One, Two … One” and “The Stars Just Blink For Us” from the same album sounds pretty radio friendly too.

Kicking off side 2 of our World of Say Hi imagined album, the pretty precision of “All the Pretty Ones” from 2011’s Um Uh Oh. I love the ever-so-careful arrangement of instruments, how they sound organized just to better let each one enter and exit the song without being bumped or overshadowed. However if you prefer an acoustic country strummer, “Trees Are A Swayin’” is a departure for this artist and delightfully so. 2013’s Free Samples is largely a collection of instrumentals, animating all the classic flavours of ice cream. Yes, of course, that is what a banana split would sound like, wouldn’t it? Personally, I love the 1970s electric keyboard vibe on “Chocolate.” Keyboards figure prominently on “Love Love Love,” my selection from 2014’s Endless Wonder. Love is back in the spotlight on “Lover’s Lane (Smitten With Doom)” from 2015’s Bleeders Digest with its ELO drum intro and Robert Smith-like intimacy on the vocals. Elbogen digs into his pop bag of tricks on 2018’s Caterpillar Centipede, particularly on the album ending “Dreaming the Day Away,” an alt radio should-be hit single to me. Then it’s back to his syth roots on 2020’s Diamonds and Dohnuts. There were times this record took me back to my Yaz and Erasure days. But again I hear a bit Bleachers in the overlapping mix of keyboards and earnest vocals on tracks like “Grey as a Ghost.” And the hooks, of course.

The World of Say Hi is a fictitious album but the music and the talent are real. Check out the catalogue and put together your own mix from all this inventive, musical-ennui master.

March singles spectacular

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As a month, March just feels so in between. Lacking any real ‘big event’ or holiday it can seem like we’re all just doing time waiting for spring to start. What we need is something big, something spectacular. So I’m offering a roundup of recent melody-drenched singles to help get you through.

San Francisco’s Richard Turgeon kicked off 2022 with a new career highlight, the infectious stand-alone single “Better With You.” Need a shot of feel good guitar oriented power pop? Turgeon adds a lot of Matthew Sweetener to this track but to my ears the mix is just right. The king of Dad rock is unstoppable! Shifting gears, French outfit Persica 3 takes us in a more ethereal direction with their dreamy “Water Lily,” the most straight-up radio friendly contribution on their new LP Tangerine. The song is like a museum of sonic trappings from years gone by, a bit 1980s keyboard ambience, some lilting 1970s acoustic guitar, and vocals that would be at home in any roomy medieval church. With Commotion Pop Garden Radio have released a tribute album to Creedence Clearwater Revival that pulls together 26 indie artists to remake the band’s canon. It’s a gutsy endeavor because trying to cover John Fogerty often begs the question, why bother? It is gonna be hard to top the master. All the bands make a stellar effort but the contributions from Popdudes and Yorktown Lads really stand out for me. Popdudes key up the jangle guitar and fatten the vocals on “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” in a way that really suits the song, adding something new to this classic. Yorktown Lads hilariously add an early Beatles rocking veneer to “Green River.” The mix could have been just a joke but the band ace melding the disparate styles with such a smoking dexterity you can’t help but be blown away. Michael Goodman’s musical project Goodman is reliably good. Every few years another album comes down the pike full of hooky poprock sketches, drawing from classic 1970s and 1980s indie motifs. His new album is How Close Are You to the Ground? and the whole thing is strong but the obvious candidate for should-be hit single is the punchy “Au Pair.” Goodman mixes up all the various elements with a creative genius: engaging guitar, hooky vocal lines, a staccato seductive lurch to the rhythm.

Like every other Beatlemaniac, I was thrilled to see the band put out some new songs in the 1990s. But somehow I just couldn’t get past the poor quality of John’s vocals on the two singles. Enter Francis Lung with his beautiful and Beatles-faithful rendering of “Real Love,” a version that offers us a more balanced treatment of the song. Now we can really hear how good it is. Sometimes there’s a band doing something that generally is not your thing but then there’s a deep cut that totally grabs you. Well that is Connecticut’s punky, sometime-screamers Anxious for me. Their uptempo material on Little Green House is fine but it was their out-of-character acoustic guitar ballad “Wayne” that really got into my head with its mellow backing and captivating vocal interplay. And looking at album’s cute cover design, it’s really the only song that you’d predict would be there. Let’s say you release an album of new tunes in the October, so what do you do in the new year? If you’re Ricky Rochelle you release a stand-alone single that branches out with a whole new style. 2021’s So Far So Good featured songs that straddled the pop punk and indie rock and roll sound but his new single “In a Dream With You” is something else again. Personally I like where he’s going. The song is a bit more light and buoyant than the previous efforts, with a dreamy hook in the chorus. Minneapolis subs for Memphis when The Cactus Blossoms come to town. Their new album is One Day and it delivers on what fans loved about their debut album Easy Way, an unerring feel for that Everly Brothers/Roy Orbison mode of playing and singing. The new record does branch out a bit into more contemporary song styles (e.g. “Everybody”) but tune in to “Hey Baby” to get your fix of the old magic. Another band living the 1960s musical dream to perfection is New York’s Jeremy and the Harlequins. On their new single “It Won’t Be Love” they reinvent the early 1960s tragic rock song style, adding some Springsteen-ish rocking muscle to proceedings.

A straightforward blast of poprocky goodness can be found The Summer Holiday’s “What Happens When You Lose.”  I hear a bit of the New Pornographers in the song’s poppy twists and turns. The band’s creative force Michael Collins is working on material for new album, according to I Don’t Hear a Single. So there’s that to look forward to. The Hoodoo Gurus are back after eleven years with a new album and winning, timely single, “Carry On.” Though written back in 2005, the song manages to give voice to healthcare workers struggling to keep going amidst this seemingly never-ending pandemic. The song has everything you’d expect from the HGs, big guitars, in-your-face vocals and solid rock and roll hooks. Another band with a big sound is Cardiff’s Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard. Their new album Backhand Deals is chock full of a 1970s sense of poprock abandon, all driving keyboards and different vocals playing off each other. But it’s “Break Right In” that will really knock you over. The lyrics are eccentric and the mood is a shot of seventies 10cc meets Queen in full-on pop mode. Seems it was just yesterday that The Orange Peels re-released their 1997 debut Square to serious reviewer accolades (it was 2019, actually). But the band is not living in the past. Their most recent album is Celebrate the Moments of Your Life and it’s full of perky song sketches, like “Indigo Hill” and “Human.”  I hear a real Shins vibe on the former but the latter reminds me of The Pixes, particularly the keyboard work. Former Figgs and NRBQ member Pete Donnelly moves in a more decidedly poprock direction his new EP Anthem of the Time. You can really hear it on the title track, a song that has some definite Beatlesque turns and benefits from a relentless dose of jangly lead guitar work.

The Summer Holiday – What Happens When You Lose

Norway’s Armchair Oracles must be working up to a new album, what with the slew of singles they’ve released over the past three years. “Addicted to the Ride” is the latest and this time out I’m hearing a very Gerry Rafferty gloss on the vocals (and that’s a good thing!) while the tune is very Macca in mid-period Wings flight. Surge and the Swell is an Americana project from Minnesota’s Aaron Cabbage, working with the Honeydogs’ Adam Levy. I think you can really Levy’s impact on “Gravity Boots” with the electric guitar licks really adding some poppy hooks to the song. It just shows how a creative songwriter and producer can work together to blur genre boundaries, with good effect. I really got into Sarah Shook and the Disarmers on their 2017 Sidelong album, a wonderfully ramshackle bit of what Rolling Stone dubbed ‘agitated honky tonk.’ But that didn’t prepare me for their new single “I Got This.” The song defies genre. The playing reminds me of Darwin Deez in its economical roominess while the vocal is full of surprises. Gone is the surly country twang, replaced by a more direct delivery in the verses and disarming falsetto in the chorus. Altogether a delightful surprise. Another genre crosser is Oliver Tree. He describes his new album Cowboy Tears as ‘cowboy emo’ but on the earwormy single “Things We Used to Do” I get a more Front Bottoms or Grouplove vibe. This one will seduce you slowly, its shuffle beat and acoustic guitar anchor lulling you into hitting replay multiple times. One of the many delights of 2019 was the debut effort from Glasgow’s U.S. Highball. Great Record was indeed a great record. So the teaser release of a single from their upcoming new record A Parkhead Cross of the Mind is most welcome. “Double Dare” sounds a bit different off the start but once it gets going it’s not too different. There’s the jangle, there’s the poppy melody, there’s the distinctive vocal harmonies we’ve come to rely on from this duo. There’s even a cool keyboard solo halfway through.

Surge and the Swell – Gravity Boots
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – I Got This
Oliver Tree – Things We Used to Do


Let’s wrap up this 21 song March spectacular with Tamar Berk’s new single “Your Permission.” Berk was one of the breakout indie stars of 2021 with her smart, stylish debut album The Restless Dreams of Youth and particularly the single “Socrates and Me.” But let the reinvention process begin because with “Your Permission” she offers up a striking change of direction, shifting from a guitar to keyboards focus to create a gorgeous pop setting for this tune. The song itself channels the sophisticated song-writing and performance of a Suzanne Vega or Aimee Mann. A new album can’t arrive fast enough.

Whew, what a cavalcade of should-be stars! With these tunes you can cast aside your winter doldrums and put a bit of spring in your step. Even if there’s still snow left to shovel.

Post photo courtesy Swizzle Gallery.

Return engagement: Eytan Mirsky and Love, Burns

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There’s nothing better than a return engagement with a favourite artist. This double bill features performers who routinely win the ‘never let me down’ award from me and today is no exception. If they’re your thing, get ready for maximum enjoyment.

He’s the lord of deadpan cool. He’s Ben Vaughn meets Chuck Prophet. He’s Eytan Mirsky and he’s back with a fabulous new LP, Lord, Have Mirsky. The ten new tunes here resurrect familiar Mirsky personas: loveable loser, overconfident pleaser, half-serious life sage. “I Don’t Wanna Brag” opens the show with a kind of MexTex slow dance, Mirsky’s lyrics perfectly floating over the spartan guitar and organ accompaniment. No one does this sort of overconfident desperation quite like Eytan. Female trouble, as usual, defines the album, informing the pleading (“Halfhearted”), the complaints (“What Took You So Long”), and the emotional conflict (“You’re Getting It On Me”) that populate the songs. Clever wordplay? It’s back on “Smart to be Stupid,” a track that is kin to the pithy song stylings of John Hiatt and Richard Thompson. But Mirsky can also be serious, as in evidence on the somber soul vamp “It’s All Right to Be Alone.” The song is so obviously, eminently cover-able, it should be heading for a status Nick Lowe once described as an ‘earner.’ Overall, I’d say the album is perhaps a bit more laid back that previous efforts, pushing back the stylistic frontiers from prior new wave and 1980s indie vibes to a more post-pub rock 1970s feel. That’s illustrated nicely on the gently swinging “The Waiting is the Easiest Part.” Then “Don’t Be Afraid” breaks out the pedal steel guitar to good effect while “Watching from the Balcony” takes things in a more Rockpile direction. The verdict? Lord, Have Mirsky delivers what we need right now: some wry wit, a bit of earnest self-reflection, and melodies that will make you smile.

With the release of It Should Have Been Tomorrow Pale Lights leading man Phil Sutton is finally ready to prime time his new project Love, Burns. Some tracks here were rusticly previewed on 2020’s Fiftieth and Marlborough but now it’s like somebody turned on the lights, they’ve been given a fine new shape and sonic sparkle. “Dear Claire” opens the record with a giddy intensity, the combo of organ and electric guitar seemingly relentless in their aural assault. From the instrumental break the vibe is so Lord Huron while vocally I can’t help but hear a bit of Lloyd Cole or Roddy Frame. “Gate and the Ghost” and “Stormy Waters” are jangle heavy numbers cut with some seductive organ work. “It’s a Shame” takes a turn into an early, jazzy Everything but the Girl direction while both “In a Long Time” and “Oh, My Beloved” have a pastoral 1960s folk rock vibe. “Wired Eyes” is the unrivaled choice for hit single in this collection, combining the sixties pop psychedelia of The Strawberry Alarm Clock with the indie cool of The Velvet Underground. Country gets a look in on “Come in the Spring” and “Drive Down to D.C.” And then everything wraps up with the glorious Bond-esque “Something Good,” a rumbly guitar workout that should inspire a whole new generation of go go dancers.

You better snap up the tickets if Eytan Mirsky and Love, Burns do a return engagement in your town. These new albums are a preview of what you might see. Things are looking very good indeed.

sElf conscious

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On my journey of poprock discovery I’m constantly running across amazing talents that have been working away for decades that somehow I’ve never heard of. Lately I’ve become sElf conscious. The band is largely the project of its creative force, Matt Mahaffey, a talent so large it keeps spilling out over a wide range of solo work, one-off projects and insta-bands. sElf emerged in the 1990s, one of slew of poppy rock bands that defied categorization. Sometimes sounding like Rooney or Weezer, only to segue without warning into Queen or Fountains of Wayne territory. Record labels were not investing in artists in that decade and I can imagine sElf had more than one label rep throwing up their hands in frustration trying to pitch the band to radio and promoters. But that’s what makes them so great.

sElf’s 1995 debut album Subliminal Plastic Motives aces that dire sounding pop vibe we associate with the likes of Weezer and Rooney, though as you can hear on “Stewardess” Mahaffey adds some distinct melodic motifs of his own to the formula. 1997’s The Half-Baked Serenade carries on in a similar vein, though here I’m drawn to the languidly-paced acoustic outlier “Microchip Girl.” Here is the fun playful side of Mahaffey – think ELO or Bleu – that will only intensify as time goes on. 1999’s Breakfast With Girls was the band’s major label debut and here the Queen influence can really be heard on tracks like “Better Than Aliens.” Though here I find myself drawn to deep cuts like “Uno Song.” In 2000 sElf released Gizmodgery, an album of tunes performed entirely on children’s toy instruments. “Dead Man” is as good as anything coming out from grungy poprock acts in the late 1990s. “Ordinaire” has a manic SciFi feel, again, very Rooney. The cover of The Doobies ‘“What a Fool Believes” is an absolutely brilliant deconstruction of the synth work on the song, stripping back the original’s overwrought production and leaving just the bones of its seductive hooks.

Microchip Girl
Uno Song
Dead Man
What a Fool Believes

From here navigating sElf and Matt Mahaffey’s career gets a bit hazy. Self-released sElf internet-only albums come and go while Mahaffey’s solo work nowhere appears in one tidy review-able location. Thus I was not prepared for the knock-out, should-be hit single goodness of the one-off 2010 single “Could You Love Me Now?” The craftmanship behind this tune is striking, the way it cradles its delicate melody, adorning it with all manner of subtle instrumentation. The band did return in 2014 with the EP Super Fake Nice sounding like no time had passed. Still doing a slightly discordant poppy rock thing, you can really hear a bit of Brendon Benson on tracks like “Splitting Atoms.”

Could You Love Me Now?
Splitting Atoms

Apart from sElf  Matt Mahaffey has shifted focus to producing music for movies and television like Shrek and Henry Hugglemonster. However, Mahaffey did find time to launch a new duo, The Gherms, who appear to exist only to laud to Brooklyn’s fave funsters They Might Be Giants. Songs About They Might Be Giants is a double-sided single that showcases everything Mahaffey does well: a great concept, larger than life production and big hooks. Meanwhile, his cartoon theme song work for Nicklelodeon is some of the best 30 second poprock you’re gonna hear while spending quality time with toddlers.

The Gherms – Acquired Taste
Matt Mahaffey – Henry Hugglemonster Main Theme

You know what I wish? That somebody with access to Mahaffey’s complete body of work would curate a release that bring us all up to speed on this great talent. Between the unreleased and unofficially released sElf work to his many and varied contributions to TV and movies it’s just too hard to bring his genius into focus. And that’s a shame because, in my view, everyone could stand a bit of sElf improvement.

Around the dial: The Forresters, Allan Kaplon, The Exbats, and The High Heaven

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Today’s dial turning is finding guitars aplenty with a decidedly country, sometimes western flavour. But there’s a celebration of sixties garage and girl group sounds too. Get your ear close to the speaker for these made-for-transistor-radio selections.

The back catalogue of Sydney, Australia’s The Forresters has inspired comparisons to The Jayhawks, Teenage Fanclub and Big Star. But frankly, in my view, they’ve got a distinct sound all their own – apparent all over their recent long-player Something To Give. The intro guitar work defining opening cut “On My Way” puts the challenge up front, a bit sombre but uplifting at the same time, later enhanced by some great organ, ‘ooh’ing background vocals and a Harrisonian bit of lead guitar work. Familiar ground but a different synthesis than its source material. Meanwhile “Are You Ready” is a delightful rush of country Byrds meets Big Star. “Tightrope” moves in a different direction again, this time channeling some serious Matthew Sweet-like hooks. Pedal steel plus jangle? Yes please! That’s what you get with “Back In My Arms.” I love how the band throw ‘woo hoo’ background vocals over a whole load of material, framing the chord slashing “Pretty Little Thing” or the more languid rocking “Falling Star” or amid the horns and searing guitar solos of “Get To You.”  No surprise, the band ace their cover of Big Star’s lovely “Thirteen.” But the slow burn fave for me here is “Fall Back In” with its harder edge guitar sound and touch of melodic ennui. Having said that, you won’t go wrong giving Something To Give a full-album spin. It’s a no-regrets kind of commitment.

Allan Kaplon’s got a deep gravelly voice you might associate with those mid-1960s trucker songs from the likes of Red Sovine. But he manages to apply it to a variety of unpredictable styles on his thoroughly enjoyable recent record, Notes on a Napkin. Case in point: album opener “One Big Parade” is a brilliant Harry Nilsson-ish kind of late 1960s message song, one where Kaplon’s baritone adds gravity to an otherwise upbeat tune. Indeed, Kaplon’s voice should be seen as a crucial and unique instrumental contribution here, adding a depth of feeling to pop folkie material like “Keep You You” and “Every Single Day,” sort of like Jim Croce or Leonard Cohen once did. The record’s got country going on too, from the Hoyt Axton/Glen Campbell 1970s cross-over country feel of “Painted in a Bad Light” to the more late 1960s country-rock mix on “Wonder Where the Angels Are” and “Slow Down Cowboy,” the latter vibing The Band and Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” respectively. But Kaplon gets his rock on too. “Flesh and Blood” has the cheeky swing I associate with Dire Straits’ first three albums, with a similarly understated yet precise vocal approach. Title track “Notes on a Napkin” even has a bit of a Yardbirds meets Bond aura with its tuneful menace. But the star track here is undoubtedly “Restless Ones” with its killer, slow-build earwormy hooks. The verses advance with a Highwaymen’s sense of balladeering anticipation, only to blast off in the chorus. Notes on a Napkin will surprise you, it’s a wonderfully eclectic marriage of strong song-writing peppered with inspired vocal performances.

What kind of cool time travel has brought us Bisbee, Arizona’s The Exbats? As their Bandcamp presser suggests, the group are like some kind of “dystopian garage rock … Shangri-Las” or a “pre-Velvet Underground doo-wop wannabe Lou Reed.” Their most recent LP is Now Where Were We and it is one serious love letter to Phil Spector, the Wrecking Crew and the 1960s California pop sound, though shot through with a punk DIY sensibility. “Coolsville” is oh so Mamas and Papas. “Best Most Least Worst” really does sound like a garage rock take on the Shangri Las. “Practice On Me” moves things in a more dirty-country cowpunk direction. “Best Kiss” is like an R-rated Top of Pops hit single circa 1965. The band can also do mellow. Songs like “One Foot in the Light” and “Like a Song” have a slower, more manicured pop feel akin to Sonny and Cher or Nancy Sinatra. There’s also a pop psych thing going on here on tunes like “Ghost in the Record Store.” I like how they meld different styles – check out the way “Hey New Zealand” combines a bit of The Zombies with the Mamas and Papas. I could go on. Each track vibes on a different flavour of the sixties like some sonic Pot of Gold chocolate box. Very tasty indeed.
The debut album from Melbourne, Australia’s The High Heaven Fairytales of the Heartland casts a Cormac McCarthy-like western spell refracted through a Sergio Leone cinematic filter. And that would be deliberate. These guys clearly love all those Clint movies and their distinctive Ennio Morricone soundtracks – and it shows. But they don’t just throw some spaghetti over any old songs, these tunes are right out of Americana central casting. Opening cut “Wanted Man” is on point, both in musical style and lyrical content. Immediately we’re thrust into the action, our protagonist drawing us into his dilemmas against a solid western-country sonic setting. “Dead Dollar Bill” ups the rock quotient in the country rock balance, with nice Morricone embellishments. “The Evening Redness in the West” adds some rollicking, saloon-worth piano and western-appropriate whistling. But the twin price of admission here can be found in “The Desert” and “Nowhere Bound,” the former a kick-up-yer-heels should-be hit single, the latter a lovely folk/country ballad. The record’s denouement is captured in the ominous sounding title track “Fairytales of the Heartland,” providing an unsettling end to an album that has alternated between glorious send-up and utter sincerity. Despite this, both here and on the band’s subsequent EP Outlaws, Vol. 1: A Few Tales More, the main feeling is a joyous sense of fun in the proceedings. These guys are having a blast so guess what? We are too.

When it comes to melody-packed music, it’s no desert out there. Come in out of the sun and crowd up to the bar with any of these fine artists. You’ll definitely slake your thirst for some quality tune-age.

Falling in Love with Trevor Blendour

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I’m not much of a Valentine’s Day guy. It’s all too gushy and sweet and more than a bit forced. But I’m not ashamed to admit I’m totally smitten with Trevor Blendour’s new long player, the holiday appropriately-titled Falling in Love. Take Buddy Holly, tweak it with those early 1960s American pop vocal motifs, add a bit of millennial indie sheen, and you’ve got a completely addictive collection of earwormy tunes, each clocking in at just 2-3minutes max. Appearing as The Blendours on previous albums the sound was bit more punky but in this new guise as a solo artist Trevor Treiber (now aka Blendour) simply embraces his love all things 1950s/early 1960s. And the results are a magical mix of retro lead guitar runs, swooping overlapping vocal lines, and melodic hooks galore.

For the most part the formula here is alternative-universe American Graffiti. In the movie the leftover 1950s themes bleed into the early 1960s, as cultural referents are wont to do, and that’s the broad landscape hovering in the background of this record. Sometimes it’s a straight up fifties time trip, as on “A Paradise,” a track that hybridizes classic Elvis and Buddy Holly vocal phrasing and song styles. It’s there again on album opener “Don’t Mean Maybe” with a combo of rockabilly and doo wop elements. With “Falling in Love” the frame of reference shifts a bit to all those early 1960s teen idols. There there’s the post-Holly Crickets reeling and rocking sound all over “Carly Please.” Another classic early sixties style can be found on “Win Back That Girl,” this time the tragic feel reminiscent of ‘disaster’ rock. Things move a bit more into the mid-1960s on “Tough Guy” with its Beach Boys falsetto vocals and “Rena” which has a Beatles “Things We Said Today” rhythm guitar swing. Not that everything here is retro. Treiber’s pop punk instincts come more to the fore on tracks like “Lost The Girl,” “Gloria” and “Another Guy,” though with the rough edges smoothed out a bit. “Cold Heart” sounds very 1979 rock and roll revival in a Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds sort of way. But for me, Blendour saves the best for last with the should-be hit single “Him Instead of Me.” This track reminds me of the way the Beatles put a bit of rock and roll muscle into all the fifties rock and girl group covers they sprinkled throughout their first few albums.

Unlike romantic love a great record will never let you down. This year, make a date with Trevor Blendour’s Falling in Love for Valentine’s Day. It’s cheaper than a dinner out, has a timeless quality that will never age, and is guaranteed to greet you with buoyant enthusiasm every time you turn it on.