Meet the Blendours!

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This past month it seems like the Blendours are everywhere, featured on a host of podcasts and music blogs. Who are these guys and why is everyone suddenly discovering them? Ok, the latter half of the question escapes me but the first part is easily researched. Iowa’s newest hitmakers are actually old pros on the pop punk scene with releases stretching back to 2011. Meeting the actual band won’t take long – they are essentially songwriter, singer, main (often sole) musician Trevor Treiber, with guests from time to time. Reckoning with their extensive catalogue – 15 or so albums, depending on how you count them – is more daunting. But here you can relax as yours truly has needle-dropped his way through all the albums to curate a special collection of the band’s material. I wouldn’t claim this is a definitive collection but there’s more than enough featured here to meet the Blendours!

The early Blendours’ records embody what commentators have called ‘Ramones-core,’ a sound capturing the urgent yet simple rhythm guitar attack of America’s favourite punk band. Yet there has always been a sweet goofiness to the Blendours output too, enhanced by Treiber’s penchant for harmony vocals.  You can hear the fun ‘I’m not taking this too seriously’ approach on tracks like “Miley and Me,” “Cheapskate” “Comic Shoppe,” and “Fastfood Queen.” But at the same time you can also spot the serious attention to strong structure as the band nails the early 1960s melodrama sound on “Now That’s He’s Gone” and “I Miss You Baby.” There’s more than a little of Gene Pitney’s histrionics on “More Than a Game” or a total American Grafitti vibe to “Trail of Broken Hearts.”

As the albums pile up the songwriting gains melodic depth. There is something very Magnetic Fields about songs like “I Blew It Again” or Edmunds-Lowe/Rockpile-ish on “I’m in Love with Mary-Sue.” Guitar leads start to take on more prominence on tracks like “She’s My Girl” and “A Girl Like You.” Then there’s really creative efforts that stretch the limits of conventional song structures like “99 Lives,” “Cut My Hair” and “Throw My Brain Away” (the latter with a nice Beatlesque twist). Meanwhile, Treiber’s love of doo wop and fifties motifs run throughout his career on songs like “Toddler Stomp” and “Metal Rebel.”

The Blendours more recent albums bring all their many influences together in a dynamic, more polished synthesis. 2016’s In the Living Room is like Beach Boys Party meets Jonathan Sings! in its combination of an easy groove, catchy melodies, and a new lyrical sophistication. Treiber’s pop punkster is giving way to a new millennium reincarnation of Buddy Holly on tracks like “She’s Got Another One” and “Listen to Your Heart.” And then there’s 2019’s Wrong Generation – man, I’m in love with this record! In a way The Blendours come full circle here, returning to mostly acoustic guitar strumming and inspired vocal interplay to carry the day but somehow managing to sound like so much more. The title track is rocking boogie number that reads like Treiber’s musical manifesto. There’s an vocal vulnerability animating “My One and Only” that gives the song so much more impact. This is a band not just goofing off anymore. Meanwhile “Different Kind of Love” nails an early 1960s pop country sound. If you were to buy only one Blendours album, you wouldn’t go wrong with Wrong Generation. It’s the band’s most fully realized piece of creativity. On the other hand, if you prefer punk, the band can still punk out. Check out “What To Say To You” from 2017’s No Respect.

As the band say on their Facebook page, their “sound will make you feel like a teenager cruising the strip before your high school dance.” You can make that your car soundtrack by visiting the Blendours on bandcamp.

Extended Play omnibus

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The rise and fall and rise of the Extended Play or ‘EP’ format is a story of technological innovation and the changing political economy of the music biz. American record companies RCA Victor and Columbia had a kind of techno arms race going on post-WWII, each vying to dominate the format of music delivery. Columbia pitched the 33rpm long-play or ‘LP’ format in 1948 while rival RCA introduced the 45rpm single in 1949 and the EP in 1952. For a while it was a ‘Betamax versus VHS’ or ‘DOS versus Apple’ sort of battle. But eventually the LP and 45 single came to serve distinct but complementary purposes. EPs, on the other hand, thrived for a while as a cheaper alternative to LPs (both Elvis and the Beatles sold millions of them) but eventually faded out by the late 1950s in the US and late 1960s in the UK. EPs got a death sentence reprieve with the rise of the DIY punk and indie scenes in the late seventies and eighties, basically as a more affordable product for non-mainstream acts. Then, more recently, the post millennium download era has heralded a new golden age of the EP as acts increasingly drip-release their music to maintain maximum public interest. So today we celebrate the EP – long may it hold our attention!

Austin’s Wiretree deliver another reliable slice of strummy, slightly ominous poprock with their 5 song EP Careless Creatures, perfectly embodied on the opening track “All the Girls” and the EP closer “Lovers Broken.” Some trippy keyboards introduce “Back to the Start,” a rockier tune with a distinctive ‘wall of vocals’ attack.  The keyboards continue to define things on the mellow “Nightlife” and “Out of Control,” both of which remind me of The Zolas and mid-period OMD in their general atmosphere. For a pretty much solo effort, the band’s creative force Kevin Peroni really turns out a dynamic performance here. I raved about David Woodard’s indie EPs I Used to be Cool and Everything in Between for their endearing jangle hookiness. But now Woodard is ready to join the big leagues with his fabulous new EP Grand Scheme of Things. The production quality and songwriting nuances on this release are Top 40 AM radio quality, in the best sense of the term. Just check out the vocal layering effects on the George Harrison-esque “You Don’t Even Know” that elevate the song to new heights. Personally, I think Woodard’s cover of the The Thorns “Among the Living” improves on the original, adding a strong Crosby, Stills and Nash vibe to the proceedings. But the highlights for me on this release are undoubtedly the two hit-single worthy tracks, “Applebees” and the title track. The former has a slow burn take up, reeling you in with its classic story of failed rock and roll ambition and just the right amount of Fountains of Wayne hooky pathos. The latter sails on a delightful low-key jangle wind until – bam – a killer chorus takes the listener into the stratosphere.

I already lauded Esther Rose and her cover of Nick Lowe’s “Blue on Blue” earlier this fall but the EP it appears on deserves more attention. My Favorite Mistakes is a Sheryl Crow song and the title of Rose’s small collection of covers, which includes the Crow tune and songs written by Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and the afore-mentioned Lowe. Rose’s vocal delivery and musical choices take this classic material in new directions. There are times she vibes the lyrical intimacy of Susanne Vega or vulnerability of Joni Mitchell. I have to add a shout out for her new single “Keeps Me Running,” a winning example of those Vega/Mitchell influences. Former Napalm Sunday frontman/songwriter Gerry McGoldrick remade his sound on his 2017 EP The Great Dispossession in a highly melodic and hooky poprock way. Now he’s returned this year with Swelter in Place and, like many artists, he offers a more stripped-down, solo acoustic effort while still maintaining his more recent poppy elan. “My Good Hand” has a great punky folk feel, very Old 97s. “Summer Friends” has that late period Nick Lowe warm swing. Or there’s my fave, “You Can Only Find Me,” a very Springsteen meets Chuck Prophet ode.

Emperor Penguin kicked off 2020 with a much-celebrated new album, Soak Up the Gravy. Other bands might have kicked back at that point, repair to the pub or perhaps get busy in the garden. But that’s not Emperor Penguin’s style apparently. Instead, they’ve kept busy releasing three EPs over this past summer and fall. June’s Taken for a Ride offers a bit of Revolver flavour on “Maserati” and “Hangar 9” or Rubber Soul on “Belgravia Affair,”  while the duet with Lisa Mychols is a pych pop delight, a real should-be hit single. By August the band seemed a bit more introspective on Palaces and Slums, with hooky Fountains of Wayne story songs like “Stay Out of the Sun” and “Blink.” Then there’s the pop lushness of “Hell in a Handcart” or, for contrast, “The Way the Cookie Crumbles” with its ska groove and break-out Squeeze chorus. October delivered Barbed Wire and Brass, a more cerebral rumination on themes like authoritarian leadership (“False Prophet”) and mob justice (“12 Angry Men”). Sonically, the record reminds me of The Beatles in White Album mode while the lyrics are so Elvis Costello or Scandinavia. The Junior League’s Joe Adragna is a master of 1960s musical motifs but on his latest EP Summer of Lies, a collaboration with producer Scott the Hoople, he restricts the focus to a Monkees-meets-country rock mood. “Summer of Flies” combines a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” vocal delivery with a rollicking Monkees pace. Meanwhile “Make Up Your Mind” and “Out on the Side” offer up different sides of the country rock scene, from Brydsian pep to achingly Eagles. The EP is a surprising, refreshing departure from an artist that could hardly be accused of sitting still creatively.

I wrote about The Amplifier Heads earlier this year in themed blog post but didn’t really do justice to what the band has put out, particularly on the EP Oh Golly Gee. At that point I was raving about the delicious “Short Pop Song about a Girl,” a song that seems so familiar and foreign at the same time.  Songwriter Sal Baglio combines familiar elements of popular songcraft but manages to turn them inside out: a bit of rumbly guitar, some accordion, a bouncy 1960s song structure, etc. Terms like ‘ironic detachment’ come to mind, except that Baglio seems entirely sincere. “Late to the Prom” is delivered in a style that seems both so 1950s hopeful and post-millennial indifferent. I love the catchy lead guitar bits sprinkled throughout “Short Pop Song about a Girl” and the “I Should Have Known Better” drive to “Man on the Edge of a Ledge Contemplating a Jump.” Brooklyn’s Fixtures blend a host influences on their new EP Weak Automatic. There’s definitely a strong dollop of a New Order melodic bass and synth, evident on the hooky opener “Five Ft One, Six Ft Ten.” But from there the band keeps us guessing. Things turn a bit Fleet Foxes vocally on “The Great Tequila Flood 2000-2018,” in a good way. “Jay’s Riff” has a Grouplove live party feel while “Sunshine” vibes a jazzy take on the Velvets. And I love the way the guitars seem to relentlessly rush the listener on “New Deal.” This band is stylistically going everywhere at once, and I like it.

The ‘extended play’ record began as a competitive technological gambit in a giant corporate game of musical chess, then revived and repurposed itself to serve an indie-DIY music esthetic, and has now emerged as a preferred form of packaging for music in the download/streaming era. It’s more than a sample and not quite a meal. Click on the hyperlinks above and let our artists know whether the EP is really meeting your needs.

The splendiferous Nick Frater

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Nick Frater certainly keeps himself busy. In the summer he launched an ambitious video and audio project 59 Vignettes, an endeavor that reminded me of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy in its effort to recalibrate fiction along emerging cinematic lines. Few of the contributions here exceed one minute and the accompany videos highlight the fragmentary, impressionistic feel of the pieces. There are a few more fully formedl song sketches on the record, tracks like “Number Name Unknown” and “In Another Song.” Some vibe McCartney on “Pay You Next Time” or even the Rolling Stones on “Fading Stones.” Other efforts are more experimental, like “Chiff Intermission” and “The Pelican Song (Wow and Flutter version).” Then there’s some fairly straightforward poprock numbers, like “Under Hogarth Skies.” But, given what came later, 59 Vignettes was clearly just a bit of fun, a diversion before Frater dropped his 2020 album proper.

On his more conventional record release for 2020 Fast & Loose, Frater lets his 1970s pop sensibility fly in grand style. The opening title track is practically a love letter to those 1970s TV themes. Then he kicks in with “Let’s Hear it for Love,” an anthem for our times that draws from a decidedly early 1980s ABBA vibe. Shifting gears, I love how the organ shots on “Luna” propels that song along. From there Frater showcases his talent for 1970s motifs with a bit of McCartney on “Cocaine Girls, some ELO on “So Now We’re Here” (with that great organ solo), and a spot-on 1970s pop feel to “California Waits.” But there are a few surprises, like the older ballroom sound on songs like “Endless Summertime Blues” and “That Ship Has Sailed.”

It’s always a splendid outing with Nick Frater. From the design, to the production, to the solid songwriting the results are routinely both eye and ear-catching, stylish and substantive. Mosey over the Frater-ville and you won’t miss a thing.

Cover me! The Vogues “Five O’Clock World”

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If ever a song begged to soundtrack a visual montage it’s “Five O’Clock World.” With its striking guitar work, competing counter-melodic vocal lines, and its lyrical celebration of the end of work, it’s an attention grabber. Arrangement-wise, the song has the structured classiness of the Drifters’ “On Broadway” or anything by the Mamas and Papas. The band behind the song were The Vogues, primarily a vocal group from Turtle Creek, Pennsylvaia who had a handful of chart hits between 1965 and 1970. The killer instrumental backing on the single comes via a kind of Nashville version of L.A.’s Wrecking Crew, featuring guitarist Chip Young (who played on Elvis and Dolly Parton records, among others). The opening guitar lick is so of-the-period and I love how the vocals create a percussive effect in this song, balanced against some soaring melodic hooks. The song and The Vogues’ performance exude the very essence of poprock.

The Vogues – Five O’Clock World

Surprisingly for a track with this much tuneful charisma, 1960s covers are hard to find. It was common in the period for copycat versions to ride the success of a hit but perhaps “Five O’Clock World” was seen as too distinctive to reinterpret. The only contemporary versions I could find were by vanity records stalwart Dora Hall (b-siding her lounge version of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t Get No Satisfaction”) and an instrumental from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s David McCallum, both released in 1966. McCallum’s take is eccentrically listenable, Hall’s not so much. Fast forward to the 1980s and Ballistic Kisses slather enough synth on the song to make Gary Numan proud. By contrast, Hal Ketchum countryfies things in a most refined way in his 1991 cover. The Proclaimers put their own distinctive vocal stamp on the song with its appearance on their celebrated 2003 comeback album, Born Innocent.

David McCallum
Ballistic Kisses
Hal Ketchum
The Proclaimers

Now there are more straight-up rock and roll treatments of “Five O’Clock World” out there. Like the delightful, rollicking work out from Robert Crenshaw. Stepping out from behind drum kit in brother Marshall’s band, Crenshaw offers up a rootsy take with swing and some nice piano breaks. Bowling for Soup crank the amps and add some pop punk sensibility to the tune. Finally, Victoria, BC’s Scrunt Brothers indie things up in fine style with loud guitars and an X or Blaster-style vocal.

Robert Crenshaw
Bowling for Soup

Great songs manage to shine through on just about any cover. In the case of “Five O’Clock World” just turn it on and watch everything around you become just a little bit more cinematic. No wonder Drew Carey decided to use the full 2 minutes and 10 second original single to open the first few seasons of his show.

Should be a hit single: Shane Tutmarc “Goodbye Love”

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Shane Tutmarc has spent more than two decades releasing records with bands like Dolour, Solar Twin, Shane Tutmarc and the Traveling Mercies, and as a solo artist. So there’s a lot of material to potentially focus on. Here I’ll shine some light on a track from his criminally overlooked 2014 release Borrowed Trouble, an album he describes as leaning on a Memphis soul style. The record is a perfect distillation of his Seattle-meets-Nashville sound with highlights like the McCartney-esque “Can I Count on You?” and the punchy horns of “Fair Warning.” But my fave track on the album is the lurching, organ drenched “Goodbye Love.” Let this one sink in. It starts off inauspiciously, with nice acoustic guitar, organ and your basic slow, scotch-addled vocal. But then chorus sneaks up and hooks you like the best 1970-74 era Lennon single. And each time it comes around that chorus exerts just a bit more magnetic melodic pull. It’s a sound that vibes a bit of Wilco, the Replacements, and Nick Lowe in his more recent ‘mature’ phase, particularly the fabulous organ work.

“Goodbye Love” is also featured on a brand new collection, a ‘should have been greatest hits’ album of sorts entitled Written and Produced by Shane Tutmarc. The record features work from across the breadth of his long career and from all his different musical vehicles. So many great songs here! Personally, I can’t get enough of the uplifting, anthemic “Brave New World.” Think of this record as a perfect Tutmarc starter pack.

I love finding a record by a new artist and then discovering there’s a whole back-catalogue world yet to explore. Get into Shane Tutmarc’s musical orbit at his website and bandcamp. Or you can order physical copies of his efforts from Kook Kat Musik.

Songs about the U.S. Electoral College

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Forget Schoohouse Rock! Today’s tunes are gonna school you on America’s Electoral College. What it is, who does what, and why it should be abolished. That’s right dear reader, we here at Poprock Record take a side – for democracy. As the bands below point out, the US Electoral College is an anachronistic relic of the nation’s pre-democratic founding. But hey, if politics is not your thing don’t worry, we’ve still got hooks galore. Or you could always do what most people do with popular music: ignore the words.

To get you up to speed on the relevant deets about our topic let’s check in with America’s smartest, bifocaled poprock outfit, Brooklyn’s They Might Be Giants. Their brand new single is a timely exposition on all things Electoral College entitled “Who Are the Electors?” Seriously, the song is a practically a wiki entry on who ‘electors’ are, how they are chosen, and the rationale for choosing a president this way. Of course, they do slip in a mild critique here and there with lines like ‘it’s up to them, not up to us’ and ‘we’re only the voters, they are the electors.’ Overall the track is both effectively educational and eminently hummable. Only these guys could put so much factual content into a song while sacrificing nothing on the melodic front.

From there, things get a lot more blatantly critical. ‘Song a Day’ phenomenon Jonathan Mann has been creating new tunes daily since 2009 so it was statistically predictable that one would eventually touch on American political institutions. Shortly after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 he released “Abolish the Electoral College,” his ode to all that is wrong with it and what might be done to put it right. That’s correct, he’s not just complaining. Mann manages to sing about something called the ‘national popular vote interstate compact’ in some detail. Frankly, the guy should get some kind of award for making that proposal sound both musically and intellectually attractive. Meanwhile Bethlehem Columbus band Deb offer up clear criticisms of how the Electoral College violates basic democratic values like voter equality by privileging land and locale. Musically the track comes off like a shoegaze Bruce Springsteen with its soothing earnest drone and relatable content.

Jonathan Mann – Abolish the Electoral College

Perhaps not surprisingly, punkers give the Electoral College the best drubbing, coming out with both guns blazing. Chicago band Double Feature offer up a bevy of politically critical tunes on their 2019 release, American Dream Not Found. So many great titles here like “Alt-Wrong,” “You Can’t Silence the Scientists,” and “I’m Still Waiting for the Trickle Down.” But right now our attention lands on “I Dropped Out of the Electoral College,” a delightfully raucous blast of righteous punky indignation, with some great melodic diversions. Alternatively Roosterhead is a punk band from Los Angeles with a more experimental bent, but the politics is still front and centre on their 2018 release Virtual Democracy. With songs like “Dark Money,” “Kleptocracy Now,” “If Millennials Actually Voted,” and “A Swing State” there’s little doubt where they stand. However our featured song is entitled, predictably, “Electoral College,” a challenging melodic noise piece that nicely rhymes ‘college’ with ‘abolish.’

Rounding things out on this political institutions tunes session are a few somewhat unrelated songs. First up is a band called Electoral College. The only track of theirs I can find is called “Bladerunner” and it has nothing to say about politics. In fact, I can’t say much about them at all as they are pretty much invisible on ye old interweb. But the song’s got a cool, loose indie vibe, with just a touch of punk. Now, to wrap things up, let’s return to the endlessly topical Jonathan Mann. On his September 2020 release “Donald Trump is Gonna Steal the Election” he pretty much predicts most of what the Trump team would get up to shortly thereafter i.e. purging voter rolls, acts of voter suppression, endlessly and baselessly contesting the results, etc. Don’t let the song’s infectious upbeat tone fool you, it’s all a load of very bad news.

Electoral College – Bladerunner
Jonathan Mann – Donald Trump is Gonna Steal the Election

Well, now you know. The Electoral College is so bad that people even write songs about it. Will these tunes spark the institutional revolution America so desperately needs? Highly unlikely. But they do make suffering with it just a little bit better.

Paleo poprock: The Tearaways, The Empty Hearts, and Dave Rave and the Governors

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I love the 1960s-meets-1980s synthesis embedded in the work of The Romantics, J. Geils, the Cars, the Go Go’s and so many others. Today’s feature artists are cut from the same cloth. I’ve dubbed them ‘paleo’ poprock because they effortlessly channel the essential melodic and rhythmic elements of the style. Listen closely and you’ll hear the very DNA of poprock.

The Tearaways are a jaw-droppingly good band. They emote an early to mid-1960s vibe, featuring their own distinctive brand of Beach Boys-style harmonies and Merseybeat jangle. And the songs! It seems like every one is loaded full of hooks. You can check out a fairly detailed review of the band corpus on an earlier post on this site. Their more recent efforts are a bit harder to nail down. Mention of a spring 2019 full album release entitled We Grew Up on AM Radio appeared on the band’s Facebook page but the record itself is hard to track down. Instead, I could find only about half an album of singles available in the usual locations. But, hey, I’ll take that. “Sweet Sounds of Summer” certainly covers the nostalgic AM radio theme, segueing to a full blown side trip into The Archies “Sugar Sugar.” “Manchester Girl” gives us a delightful blast of Mersey-ness on a tune that would easily fit on any Paul Collins record. But my fave from their latest batch of singles is “I’ll See You Again,” a solid rush of shimmery poprock goodness.  A new album can’t come fast enough.

The Tearaways – Sweet Sounds of Summer
The Tearaways – Manchester Girl
The Tearaways – I’ll See You Again

With The Empty Hearts it’s hard not to feel that rush of excitement that accompanied all the best new wave bands. It was a time when a ringing guitar seemed to able to kickstart what had become a moribund rock and roll scene band to life. And with former members of The Cars, Blondie, The Romantics and the Chesterfield Kings in the band, I mean, how could the group go wrong? Their self-titled debut deservedly received accolades from all quarters, including yours truly. Now back with The Second Album, it’s accolade time again. Early release single “Coat Tailor” kicks the album into high gear with Romantics-style up-front guitar and hooks. Ringo Starr stops in long enough to add touch of Beatles-rhythm to the delightfully jangle-heavy “Remember Days Like These.” From there the record offers up a wide range of familiar mid-to-late 1960s and early 1980s sounds, like a great J. Geils soul vamp on “Well, Look At You,” or the Cars vibe on “Come and Try It,” or the Kinks-ian feel to “The Haunting of the Tin Soldier” or what sounds like a great lost Romantics single, “If I Could Change Your Mind.” The whole record is a breezy, fun party album from players who’ve mastered the hooky rock and roll oeuvre.

Dave Rave has had an incredible career, as a member of legendary Canadian punk/new wave bands like The Shakers and Teenage Head, and then in more straight up rock and roll outfits like The Dave Rave Group and Dave Rave Conspiracy. Over the last decade he’s put out a raft of great records as a solo artist and with his Minnesota backing band The Governors (you can get caught up on these releases here). Now Dave Rave and Governors have a new double album out, January and June, with 18 cuts that cover off everything from sixties garage rock to melodic jangle. The record takes on an impressive range of styles yet still sounds coherent. There’s a sixties garage vibe to “Nowhere to Rumble” and “Leaving Doors Open,” a Stonesy slow grind to “Trangression” and Ray Davies flavour to “Medusa Without Snakes,” and a sixties psychedelia to “Summer is Gone” and banjo folky feel to “My Little Town.” I love the lively bass work on “You’re Worry” and 1979 ska sound and killer organ fill on “Pull the Trigger.” But the undeniable choice for a double A-sided single here should the combo of the light and jaunty, earwormy “I Don’t Think So” with the classic FM rock radio-sounding “Walking Down the Boulevard” with its distinctive rumbly and jangly guitar lead lines. January and June is another no-nonsense rock and roll release from Dave, chock full of delightful surprises and reliable hooks.

A great band is one that just gels on stage or in the studio. They so know the rock and roll motifs they can reliably work off each in sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising ways. The Tearaways, The Empty Hearts, and Dave Rave and the Governors are such veterans, paleo-poprockers that turn out great tunes with apparent ease. Get your dose of their rock and roll via the conveniently provided hyperlinks.

Nick Lowe’s Abominable Showmen Revue

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Nick Lowe definitely likes having a crew to hang with. His many solo records often feature the same names popping up again and again, some from former bands like Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile, or just people he’s picked up along the way like Paul Carrack and Bill Kirchen. Now if only we could bring them all together in a huge Nick Lowe ‘abominable showmen’ revue …  What a show that would be! Well, given the present pandemic state-of-the-world and myriad contractual conflicts and obligations that such an undertaking might bring up, my dream show seems unlikely. But nothing is stopping us from showcasing all that talent right here.

We kick off the show with Nick, of course. He’s got a fantastic new single, a cover of Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters’ 1963 tune, “A Quiet Place.” It’s another example of Nick’s amazing ability to breathe new life into rare oldies, backed once again by his recent stellar backers, Los Straightjackets. Compared to the original, Nick takes the song out of its original Sam Cooke-soul register, pushing a more Arthur Alexander country-soul feel. It’s a delightfully mellow and melodic rendition, highlighting Lowe’s masterly of the ‘roll’ side of rock and roll.

Career-wise, it’s clear that Nick’s a joiner. He’d just got a look in on the pop psychedelia of Kippington Lodge and wrote their only decent single of original material, “I Can See Her Face,” before the band morphed into Brinsley Schwarz. Fairly quickly, Lowe became their main singer and songwriter. But listen to their cover of The Hollies “Now’s the Time” from 1974’s New Favourites of Brinsely Schwarz to hear him working closely on the vocals with Ian Gomm, the band’s other main singer/songwriter (who famously cowrote Nick’s biggest solo hit, “Cruel to be Kind”). Nick’s next band was Rockpile, a group that recorded either one or six albums, depending on how you count them. Basically, contractual difficulties meant that most ‘Rockpile’ albums were credited to either Lowe or Dave Edmunds as solo artists with only 1980’s Seconds of Pleasure an official release. From the 1976 Edmunds release Get It Nick and Dave nail an updated 1960s-meets-new wave sound on “Here Comes the Weekend,” a song they co-wrote. Nick’s last stab at joining a group involved John Hiatt and Ry Cooder in the ill-fated Little Village project. The high hopes for a band with this combined talent failed to materialize, record-sales-wise. Too bad – Nick’s “Take Another Look” definitely showcases the band’s considerable talents.

Kippington Lodge – I Can See Her Face
Brinsley Schwarz – Now’s The Time
Little Village – Take Another Look

Outside of joining bands, Nick loves duets and guest appearances. He’s played on countless records by other people and they’ve returned the favour. He produced, performed on, and co-wrote a number of songs for Paul Carrack’s super solo album, Suburban Voodoo and Paul appeared in Nick’s backing band throughout most of the 1980s. I love their duet on “Wish You Were Here” from Nick’s 1983 record The Abominable Showman. Another artist Nick has spent a lot of time with over the years is Elvis Costello, producing his first five albums and one more later on. The two do a lovely cover of The Shirelles/Beatles song “Baby It’s You.” Old Brinsley Schwarz friends like guitar player Martin Belmont also reappear on Nick’s solo records. In return, Nick does the vocals on a somewhat different version of “A Man in Love” (a song from Nick’s 2007 At My Age record) on Belmont’s 2009 album, The Guest List. And then there’s people like Bill Kirchen, former member of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and early Americana performer. His collaborations with Nick stretch from the 1970s to the present. “Shelly’s Winter Love” is a trio performance featuring Kirchen, Lowe and Carrack on vocals. The title sounds like classic Nick wordplay but it’s actually a cover of a Merle Haggard song from 1971.

Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello – Baby It’s You
Martin Belmont and Nick Lowe – A Man in Love
Bill Kirchen, Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack – Shelly’s Winter Love

Our show will need opening acts, of course, and here’s a chance to showcase artists that may not have worked with Nick officially but have either joined him live or delivered great covers of his songs. Two Nick Lowe tribute albums give us some direction here. Christie McWilson and Rick Shea offer up a lovely country-fied performance of “Never Been in Love” from 2005’s Lowe Profile: A Tribute to Nick Lowe while Ron Sexsmith puts his distinctive stamp on “Where’s My Everything” from the 2012 collection, Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe. Of course, if we’re aiming big, we could try to get Wilco to show with their 2011 take on Nick’s “I Love My Label.” More recently Esther Rose offers up an inspired reworking of one of Nick’s more recent songs, “Blue on Blue” from his 2019 EP Love Starvation/Trombone. Of course, if such an event as this could be pulled off the most appropriate opening act would be Los Straightjackets. Their 2017 album of guitar instrumental versions of choice cuts from Lowe’s catalogue, (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding, is outa-sight.

Christie McWilson and Rick Shea – Never Been in Love
Ron Sexsmith – Where’s My Everything
Esther Rose – Blue on Blue
Los Straightjackets – (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding

I got to see Nick Lowe live in each of the past three decades, on the Impossible Bird tour, playing solo with Geraint Watkins, and more recently with Los Straightjackets, and every time was special. My ‘abominable showmen’ review is unlikely to ever ‘tread the boards’ as Nick might say, but I’ll always have the records and the memories of those great shows. In the meantime, visit the above mentioned artists and don’t forget to drop in on Nick too.

Around the dial II: Blank Pages, mylittlebrother, Geoff Palmer and Lucy Ellis, El Goodo, and Freddie Dilevi

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The musical deluge continues on this second installment of Around the Dial as we continue to pick up melodic-hooky signals from around the globe.

I’m glad robots are back in style, like the guy staring back from the cover from the Blank Pages new record Is This Real. Fun and menace in one attractive metal face! Now while I was looking the cover over I was thinking ‘who put this XTC album on?’ I mean, wow, the Andy Partridge vocal echo all over this platter is remarkable. But not exclusive. The build-up in “Before and After” has a nice late-period Police vibe, juxtaposing an interesting vocal interplay over a spare musical backdrop. “Your Generation,” the seemingly muted answer song to Townshend and company, has a more Joe Jackson vocal style. Meanwhile “Robots Will Not Win” reminds me of the manic fun approach of The Tubes. But “Fall Away” and “Waiting in Line” are sonically like XTC love letters. Of course, they work because the songwriting is strong. And then there’s lovely outliers like the sunny poprock gem “Hang Up.” Is This Real is a crisp, fresh, musically adventurous outing worth indulging in.

How does a band take a host of ordinary sounding musical elements and combine them to make something so striking and original? Cumbria’s Mylittlebrother work this trick on their just released Howl. Check out “Goldmine” – it’s just guitars, drums et al, no fancy special effects or wild solos. But it has some crazy alluring quality, drawing you in with its hypnotic ‘oh oh oh oh’s. Actually, that’s it, the distinct value-added here are the various vocal adornments to some solid tunes. Take “Play Hard.” It kicks off with an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western vocal before settling in to a sturdy yet subtle poprock gem. I can’t help but hear a bit of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson or even a mellow Futureheads vibe at work here. By contrast, “Howl” strongly reminded me of Hayden’s endearing alienation or the perky upbeat feel to “Responsibility” obviously bears comparison with the Beautiful South. The band even manages to wrestle the group singing sound away from the bombast of Styx and Boston to use for subtle melodic purposes, like on chorus of “Chicago.” Overall Howl works because it takes up a host of influences from the 1970s but manages to synthesize them into something new.

Geoff Palmer and Lucy Ellis are literally ‘having a party’ of sorts all over their new collaboration, Your Face is Weird, a wonderful mix of sprightly originals and inspired covers. Just click on “SWIM” and feel that swinging, grin-inducing, melodic charm wash all over you. Not surprisingly, given Geoff’s work with The Connection, the whole record has a winning Rockpile-esque sheen, but there’s something more here. Working with Lucy Ellis has brought to light another side of Geoff’s already sophisticated musical personality, as apparent on their tremendous cover of John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves.” Sometimes the songs are just hooky delights, like “In a Town This Size” and “Together.” At other times, the cover choices seem impossibly hard to improve upon (Kirsty MacColl/Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know”; Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party”; Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) but the duo still manage to make them highly enjoyable. Surely “Crash of the Music,” with its punky poprock feel, suggests there a lot more mileage in this project. Sign me up for more!

With Zombie, El Goodo nail the sunny pop sound of the late 1960s even more so than normal. Basically, there less psych, more California pop sheen this time around. The album begins with “Things Turn Around,” a Beatles-inflected homage to their namesakes, Big Star. From there it’s straight back to 1966 with “Home,” a very Monkees excursion with Brydsian touches.  I’ve always thought that The Zombies and The Turtles were musical cousins of sorts with their delicate, carefully-crafted tunes and El Goodo seem to re-create that with “I Can’t Leave” and “The Grey Tower.” Late 1960s country-rock gets a look in with “Forever Casting Shadows” and the International Submarine Band-ish “You Let Me Down.”  For a bit of fun the band even throw in a spot of bubblegum with the Ohio Express-meets-Abba track “Fi’n Flin” and a hip take on a Benny Hill sort of theme, “Sound Good To Me, Man.”  The record ends strongly with the Beatlesque “If the Coast is Clear,” nicking lines from “And Your Bird Can Sing” and a vibe right off Let It Be. El Goodo’s Welsh village must have had an amazing record shop because Zombie is a fantastic sixties-infused album.

Freddie Dilevi is the band, Pablo Velázquez is the stentorian voice and co-songwriter of the band’s tunes, and Teenager’s Heartbreak is their knockout 2018 full album debut that is now getting a worldwide release via eclectic punk label Rum Bar Records. Imagine if Elvis headed to the garage instead of Las Vegas in the early seventies. From the title track you can hear this band’s effortless melding of 1950s song styles with a strong punk/new wave sensibility, carried off with Velázquez’s mesmerizing vocals. The new wave element is to the front on “Die Tonight” and “Dangerous Game” while “Half a Chance” and “We’re Alive” so punks up the fifties. And check out the Sergio Leone feel all over “Johnny Remember Me.” Now to give this project a bit of a refresh for 2020, the band re-recorded 5 selections from the album in a stripped-down form as an EP, Acoustic Heartbreaks. And it works too – lovely, lilting, acoustic guitar versions of the originals, with a different but still pleasing vocal intimacy.

2020 may suck for a lot reasons but recorded music is an undeniable winner of all this pandemic spare time. Get to know Blank Pages, mylittlebrother, Geoff Palmer and Lucy Ellis, El Goodo, and Freddie Dilevi via these conveniently supplied hyperlinks.

Around the dial I: Supercrush, Blitzen Trapper, Foxycontin, Bad Moves, and The Adam Brown

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So much music, so many stations to tune into! In this first of two back-to-back installments of Around the Dial there’s hooky guitars and keyboards to spare.

If Matthew Sweet had joined a grunge band it might have sounded like Supercrush. It’s there in the sometimes unwieldy but always hooky guitar lines and breathy vocals on tracks like “Be Kind to Me,” “Get It Right” and “Have You Called Him By My Name.” Then there’s the should-be hit single “On the Telephone,” a song that pushes its hooks relentlessly. This is an earworm no doctor’s gonna cure. For contrast, there’s the shoe-gazey, Swervedriver-ish sheen of “I Didn’t Know We Were Saying Goodbye,” the hypnotic guitar riff-propelled “Parallel Lines,” or the hint of pedal steel on the almost country “Fair Weather Fool.” What stands out on this album is that no matter what kind of grinding guitars show up on any given track, a strong sense of melody carries the day. “I Can’t Stop (Loving You)” is a perfect illustration, sounding like a hopped-up Teenage Fanclub writing a Beatles tune. The album wraps up with what sounds like a great lost Big Star single, the wistful, acoustic guitar-driven “When I’m Gone.” SODO Pop is Supercrush’s first proper full album release (as opposed to just a collection of singles) and it’s a stunning, highly listenable introduction to the band’s considerable talents.

Sticking to America’s Pacific Northwest we head down the I-5 highway from Seattle to Portland to check out Blitzen Trapper’s fabulous latest album, Holy Smokes Future Jokes. Ten albums in and the eclectic band continue to fox expectations and easy labeling. Sure there’s the folky, country-ish vibe they’re known for on tracks like “Dead Billie Jean” and “Sons and Unwed Mothers” (the latter sounding like a wrong-side-of-the-tracks Paul Simon). But then things turn in directions that defy easy categorization. Both “Masonic Temple Microdose #1” and “Bardo’s Light (Ouija Oujia) have solid poprock feel, with a subtle depth reminiscent of the best work from Mark Oliver Everett’s Eels. Then the title track has that easy going laidback confidence that reminds me Aaron Lee Tasjan’s recent country-tinged rock and roll while “Magical Thinking” sounds like an indie reinvention of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Then there’s songs that sound like 1970s AM radio should-be hits like “Hazy Morning” and the swinging “Don’t Let Me Run.” This record will undoubtedly be an end-of-year indie chart topper.

Philadelphia’s Foxycontin sound like they were inadvertently dropped from the Stiff records roster circa 1978. You can hear it on the title track “This Time You’re On Your Own” where it’s clear the band has somehow nicked Steve Nieve’s organ from Elvis Costello’s early records. What a killer single! While described in most reviews as pop punk I just hear a straight-up no-frills rock and roll sound like the kind desperately trying to escape the commercial bombast of the 1970s. Sometimes the band comes on like an edgier Romantics on tracks like  “Alive in Interesting Time” or an American Graham Parker on “It’s Starting to Show.” At other moments they are the ultimate kick-ass party band, tossing off a host of great covers ranging from Nick Lowe’s fun stomper “Heart of the City” to the more obscure Brian Seymour song “Junk Passion.” And there’s stuff like “The Whole World Knows I’ll Never Get Over It Now” which exhibits the steely passion of an Ike Reilly cut. You ready to party? If you’re looking dance-ready fun, you won’t go wrong with This Time You’re On Your Own.

When I read that Bad Moves had opened for Scotland’s Spook School it all made sense: the in-your-face-politics, the dynamic mix of styles, the achingly open emotional themes. This is band with something to say. “Local Radio” kicks things off, gearing up like a cross between Grouplove and the New Pornographers. “Night Terrors” is all over the place in a wonderful way, sometimes vibing Spook School with a bit of B52s or sounding like New Pornographer’s Neko Case. Then there’s the almost-anthemic single and video “Party With the Kids Who Wanna Party With You,” a perfect pop song distillation of political anger and social coping. The record is called Untenable, as in the state of things generally is not acceptable.  The band’s particular talent is wrapping this unstinting stand in accessible, inventive hooky 2-3 minute increments. Like “Toward Crescent Park.” The song’s got an opening guitar hook that reaches out and won’t let go. “Muster” has a Weezer-like pop intimacy with a punky Merseybeat break in the middle. I love the slow groove on tracks like “Settle Into It” and the more chipper clip defining “Same Bad Friends.” Then the record ends with another great should-be hit single, the swinging ‘ooh-oohing’ “End of Time.” As one reviewer put it, Bad Moves offers nothing but good moves here. I agree!

Montreal’s The Adam Brown absolutely nail the 1982 guitar/synth hybrid thing that was going on with “Indie Rock Has-Beens,” the opening track of their new long-player What We’ll Never Know. At the same time, I hear just a hint of Queen and The Vaccines. And that pretty much captures the dynamic animating The Adam Brown, a band that can effortlessly flash some influence without ever surrendering their own distinctive sound. I mean “Disco Mossman” had me thinking there’s something so White Album John Lennon going on here, perhaps with a generous dollop of Kraftwerk. But still, it is its own thing too. On the other hand, “Get Up” sounds like a new wave Bruce Springsteen to me, or “The Law Was Love” feels like all an out 1960s jam. Aside from the influence markers, what elevates this album is the songwriting craft. These are just some seriously hummable tunes. “Hummin’ Around,” “I Will Let You Run” and “Its Emotion” could all be heat-seeking hit singles, to my ears. What We’ll Never Know is the kind of record you’ll have on repeat a few times before realizing it’s run its course … and you’ll listen to it again.

Lockdown has meant little live music but a lot of great record releases! Click on Supercrush, Blitzen Trapper, Foxycontin, Bad Moves, and The Adam Brown to hear more.