Let’s get rich! With Rich McCulley, Rich Arithmetic, and Rich Mattson and the North Stars

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This is no get rich quick infomercial, just the straight goods about some boys trying to make an honest living. With music. Today we showcase three Riches that have some fine singles and long players that will definitely pay dividends, if great hooks and solid melodies are your currency.

Attention to Rich McCulley on this blog has been a long time coming. Across seven LPs and a handful of stand-alone singles McCulley has carved out a distinct brand of Americana-infused poprock containing rock, country and indie flourishes. “All I Can Do” from his 2000 debut After the Moment has Past is a lovely lilting roots pop tune, with some striking slide guitar. Two years later he got a rocking backing band together for “Unwound,” a Costello-ish uptempo number from If Faith Doesn’t Matter (check out “Bend For No One” from the same album for a solid jangle entry). McCulley stayed in the poprock zone for his next few releases – you can hear it on the Odds-like “Forget It All Again” from 2007’s Cerro Gordo and the power pop “Falling Apart” from 2010’s Starting All Over Again. Things get a little bit country into Rich’s second decade of recording, as you can hear on 2013’s The Grand Design and 2017’s Out Along the Edges. I love the George Harrison-like lead guitar work on “The Most Beautiful Thing” and that killer organ. Or check out the rootsy acoustic guitar adorning the should-be hit single, “Hey Trouble,” a song reminds me a bit of Ron Sexsmith with its sophisticated hooks and unexpected melodic turns. Or just go for the more straight ahead country feel on the 2016 stand-alone single “Summer Storm.” McCulley’s most recent release, his 2020 single “Your Heart Said,” continues to meld country and rock and roll influences, combining sweet pedal steel guitar with just a touch of Tom Petty in the tune. And all this just skates across the surface of McCulley’s great catalogue. Seriously, drop the needle anywhere on his records and get ready to enjoy some high quality tuneage from a journeyman songwriter/performer.

Despite vibing just about every great artist from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s Rich Arithmetic’s Shifting Gears is undeniably a highly original piece of work. His ability to combine so many influences in interesting and unpredictable ways makes this album a constant source of surprise and delight. Album opener “In Our Time” alternates between touches of XTC and 1967 era Beatles, with a slightly baroque feel. “Do You Remember” has a bit of 10cc and the non-psychedelic Pink Floyd about it. “One Thing,” featuring Maura Kennedy on vocals, alternatively reminds me of Crowded House and the Go Go’s with its moody, atmospheric verses and punchy hooky choruses. There’s an effortless quality to the shifts between styles and influences, from the sultry pop jazz of “A Girl’s Reply” (featuring Diane Leigh’s alluring vocals) or the neo-1950s vamp “Haley” (again, so 10cc here), to the early Yardbirds feel of “She Moves Me” and the uptempo Alan Parsons Project sound on “Always.” And plenty more Beatles nods, like the Fab’s brand of pop psychedelia on “Waiting for the Isaac” or the Penny Lane-ish “He’s a Good Man” or that unmistakably Beatlesy descending chord progression in “Book of Lamentations.” And then there’s the quietly epic quality of “Before the First Slice (Wedding For The Disenchanted)” with its very Joe Jackson piano style. While Shifting Gears has a lot of moving parts, it still comes together as a coherent and highly entertaining musical statement. My recommendation – definitely add some Arithmetic to your current playlist.

Skylights is album number 5 for Rich Mattson and the North Stars and it carries on the band’s tradition of badlands rock and roll, a style that exudes authenticity with its gritty, sometimes edgy, stripped-down sound. “Death Valley” opens the album and sets the tone for what’s coming: the song has a striking, eerie aura, with a bit of menace in the vocals that are nicely offset by the restrained instrumental backing. Vocals are really one of the most distinctive elements on this record, with Rich Mattson and Germaine Gemberling trading lead duties and working up some amazing harmonies. Though the results vary, from the almost jazzy quality of “Against the Wall” to the alt country of “Short Lived.” Influences abound, from the John Prine feel on “Iowa” (and “Short Lived” frankly) to the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” electric guitar sound on “How Can It Be.” And there are a few poppy rock numbers like “Processing” and “In Flight.” I love the guitar shots driving the latter tune and its eerie harmony vocals. When Skylights end with “King by Now,” a lovely plaintive ballad, it’s like the curtain has come down on a great show and you can’t wait for the encore. In this case the record is over but you could just move on to check out the band’s solid back catalogue.

Money can’t buy you love. But if great music makes you happy, we’ve got you covered. Get Rich quick by clicking on the hyperlinks above and visiting these artists’ musical e-venues.

March Music Express

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Pick up this fantasy compilation I’ve entitled March Music Express and here’s what you get: twenty should-hits, all original artists, and melody for days. It’s a collection that rocks when it wants to, throws in some jangle to make your heart sing, and even goes mellow when the moment calls for it. I’m telling you, K-Tel never treated you this good. March Music Express has all the hooks and none of the groove cramming. Just hit play and let it ride!

Let’s start side one with some sophisticated pop. Dolour offer up a very smooth ambience on “Televangelist,” a keyboard-heavy single wrapped in breathy background vocals with some swing in the beat. There’s something I find so captivating about Brian Bringelson’s vocal treatment on “Losing Train of Thought” from his recent album, Desperate Days. Shades of Gerry Rafferty and Paul Kelly covering a long lost 1970s AM radio pop song. Brooklyn’s The Suns kick off “When You’re Not Around” sounding like some wayward Mersey cover band though the song quickly develops its own distinctive feel. The Mersey vibe’s still there, but now its cast in a more 1968 mold. The song is from the band’s recent EP Big Break, a brief excursion into the 1960s-infused rocky pop numbers. I love the urgency established early in William M. Michael breakneck, rollicking “Miles Away” from his EP Modern Sounds in Pop Music. The feel is very 1980s western Rank and File or True West. Detroit’s Dave Caruso creates such pretty pop songs on his recent album Radiophonic Supersonic, reminding me of 10cc mixed with more than a little Macca. “The Drop” perfectly captures his careful attention to song arrangements, juxtaposing some crunchy rhythm guitar with low key sweet vocals.

Oslo, Norway’s Death By Unga Bunga offer a striking a mix of influences, a bit of metal ‘tude, a dash of 1970s glam, and lurking behind their in-your-face guitars is usually an ear-worm quality set of hooks. Take their new release Heavy Male Insecurity. The first singles – “Egocentric” and “Faster Than Light” – are slow burn hook machines. But I find myself drawn to album deep cut “Trouble” with its subtle, alluring chorus. Looking for something completely original? Scotland’s Pictish Trail has an endearing, inventive indie sound that is something else. Just check all the elements at work on “Bad Algebra,” from the ping pong speaker effect on the opening guitar, to the softly understated vocals, to the explosive outbreak in the chorus. And the guy’s website is pretty hilarious too. Tampa Bay’s The Easy Button claim a musical lineage to Weezer but I hear more Fountains of Wayne on their new single, “Waiting Room.” Great edgy lead guitar here, tempered by some pretty smooth vocals. With a name like Cult Stars from Mars you know you’re in for some fun. I was totally grooving on the band’s fab recent cover of the Springsteen-written, Manfred Mann hit “Blinded by the Light” when I stumbled on “Can’t Wait to See You.” What a song! The performance kicks off like some mid-1980s pop hair band (and I’m liking that a bit more than I should) when suddenly the track transforms into a slice of poprock heaven. Something very Cheap Trick going on here, at their most melodic. Tamar Berk’s new album explores the restless dreams of youth but as a politics guy I was immediately drawn to the song “Socrates and Me.” It’s a cool bit of understated guitar pop, kinda like a new wave Suzanne Vega.

For side two, let’s hit southern Europe. Italy has got a pretty impressive underground rock and roll scene, with an accent on Ramones-inspired acts. Milan’s Radio Days up the melodic quotient on a straight rocking sound with “I Got Love” from last year’s EP of the same name. Crashing chords with soaring harmony vocals equals one appealing single. Another band mining a classic rock and roll sound are The Rubs. The new single “I Want You” kicks off oh so Stonesy but into the main body of the tune there’s a bit more Steve Miller Band attention to melody. Love the space synth! Tim Izzard wrote me about his Bowie-influenced album, Starlight Rendezvous, and boy has this guy got Ziggy nailed. But I found myself drawn more to the less Bowie-fied numbers, like the wonderfully hooky “Breaking Me Down.” The main riff is sensational, effectively threaded throughout the song and nicely offset with some pumping piano. Portland punk-noise meisters White Fang tune up the acoustic guitars on their new album Don’t Want to Hear It. The party dude sentiment is still there (on tracks like “Drunk with my Friends”) but check out the easygoing feel of “Never Give Up.” The song opens with a relentless hook that comes back again and again, effectively haunting the song. Then the track shifts to an acoustic guitar heavy sound that reminds me of Eels or Guster. Overall, it’s a concentrated dose of poprock goodness, a delightful departure from these party rockers. Melbourne, Australia’s Farewell Horizontal offer up a dreamy, reverb-drenched testament to the times we are in with “I Never Know What Time It Is.” I love the musical ornamentation here, from the jangle and psych lead guitar, to the subtle, atmospheric keyboard touches, to the soothing harmony vocals. And that’s not the only highlight from their new record, An Argument with an Idiot – definitely worth checking out.

The irony of Mt. Misery’s single “The Dreaming Days Are Over” is just how dream-like the roll out to the tune is. The song sounds like a skip through a spring garden, all pleasant acoustic guitar and keyboard embellishments, carried forward in a distinctive folk pop style. It’s been ten years since Irene Peña’s fabulous debut album Nothing To Do With You came out, with just an EP and a handful of singles released since then. But what killer singles! Like last year’s shimmering “Ridiculous,” a track on par with anything from Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair. Such a great crisp guitar sound counterbalanced with a candy-coated vocal shine. Somehow I missed Purling Hiss’ 2019 EP, Interstellar Blue, and that’s a shame because “Useful Information” is song that screams classic 1960s rock and roll. The driving guitar hook is so 1968. And yet the song has a very subtle melody snaking throughout the song. Another band known for noise and screaming guitars that has turned over a more melodic leaf of late is Terry Malts. “Distracted” lays a folkie vocal harmony over a bed of grinding guitars in an effective hooky counterpoint. Last up, The Menzingers’ reworking of their 2019 Hello Exile went from punky to four on the floor folk with 2020’s From Exile. From what I can hear “America Pt. 2” is a slight reworking of the “America, You’re Freaking Me Out” that appears on the album. It’s topical and has got a winning sing-along chorus.

With any great compilation album, someone else has done all the work. All you have to do is let the music play. Though hitting the hyperlinked artist names and checking out their musical wares wouldn’t hurt.

Around the dial: Nuevos Hobbies, The Lodger, The Stan Laurels, and Mason Summit

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March brings the promise of a bit more musical sun on our blog horizon. Today’s post gathers new tunes from Madrid, west Yorkshire, Austin and L.A., all featuring big and bold hooks. Get set for some audio sunshine!

Last December I was all over Nuevos Hobbies’ single “No puedo esperar” and the song ultimately made my should-be hit singles list for 2020. Now the accompanying album is out and it is just as exciting. Monstruso, or Monsters, is a dynamite collection of jangle-infused melodic should-be hits. The title track ambles along with the breezy, carefree abandon of sixties acts like The Cykle or eighties pop groups like The Housemartins. I don’t want to generalize but there’s something distinctive about Spanish poprock acts, a particularly smooth vocal style that you hear on “Sentado en la esquina de tu cama.” Of course, at other times the album vibes Teenage Fanclub pretty strongly, as on “El viento.” On the whole, the record has a strong consistency, with a few departures like “De mayor” with its more jaunty feel and stand out guitar work. And then there’s my vote for the follow up single, the stunning “Cara limpia.” The lead guitar hook just sings! As an album, Monstruso is a monstrously delightful experience, maxing out on pleasant melodies and enough trebly guitars for everyone.

After taking a decade off West Yorkshire’s The Lodger are back with Cul-De-Sac of Love. Time has not dulled the melodic songwriting skill and performance driving this band. The record is a jam packed with intriguing tunes that combine both dissonant and complementary elements. Take the first single, “Dual Lives.” This song and “I’m Over This (Get Over It)” rehabilitate the disco rhythm guitar feel, subordinating it to a different kind of dance song. And yet these two songs are bit of an outlier for me, a departure from the more joyous poppy feel of much else that appears here. Personally I would have led the single releases with “Wasting My Time With You,” a track with a killer hypnotic lead line that reels you in and keeps you there. It might just be me, but there is something so English about the pop sheen all over this record, like the piano-led melody carrying the Paul Weller-ish “Perfect Fit” or the more New Order/Pet Shop Boys-ish “Stop That Girl.” And then there’s the interesting rhythm guitar and inventive chorus hooks on the title track, capped with an addictive droning guitar break and a glorious wall-of-sound finish. I could go on calling out each song’s unique merits but you get the picture. For me, faves include “I Don’t Want to Be It,” the country-ish “My Poor Mind,” and the timeless, manicured English pop sound on “Former Life,” a style that Robyn Gibson has perfected on his Bob of the Pops releases. Suffice to say, Cul-De-Sac of Love is a winning return for The Lodger, well deserving of 37 minutes of your time.

From the cover art to the general tone of the recording, The Stan LaurelsThere is No Light Without Dark is definitely a step into the shadows, a departure for John Lathrop given his usual sunny disposition. There was a bit of advance notice with last summer’s advance single “Lost and Found,” with its combination of somber melody and crunchy lead guitar flourishes. The song’s strong Pugwash vibe is even more apparent cast amongst all these new tunes. Opening cut “Florida Man” sounds like the b-side to the prior single, a bit achingly sad and strikingly tuneful. Other songs have amazing structural architecture, almost Alan Parsonian in their twist and turns, like the bewitching “Of Love, Wine, and Song.” My personal fave is the strummy beautiful “Red Handed Puppet,” a track that matches the mellow tenderness of the lighter side of Fountains of Wayne. Or check out the strong echoes of The Smiths in “On Paper” or The Beatles/ELO influences on “Mo Collins.” The play with light and dark all over this record is a testament to Lathrop’s cinematic approach to creativity, you feel and see the sound as much as hear it. And what I’m seeing is good. Very good.

This was an artist and album I somehow overlooked in 2020. I don’t know how because one listen to Mason Summit’s Negative Space and you know you’re on to something special. The record opens so inauspiciously with some acoustic guitar kicking off “Doomed from the Start” but by the time you’ve hit that brilliant but oh-so-subtle hook in the chorus, a shift worthy of Mark Everett or even an early Elvis Costello, it’s apparent the track is a minor masterpiece. From there Summit juxtaposes a few rockers with some beautiful, acoustic guitar driven tunes. On the rock side, I could have sworn I was listening to Eugene Edwards as “Confidant’ was playing. Both the songwriting style and performance seemed so in sync with Edward’s brilliant LP My Favorite Revolution. And then, just as suddenly, “Asterisk” thrust me into a full blown Elliot Smith experience, with perhaps some backing from Aimee Mann. The acoustic guitar numbers have a spooky, roomy feel, like the ambient “How Does It End?” and beautiful “More to Fear.” Variety? Sure. How about a killer take on a 1960s Bond-esque instrumental? “Point Doom” delivers that. Or perhaps a more Squeeze take on songwriting with the title track, “Negative Space.” Don’t let the title fool you: Negative Space is definitely something positive.

No static at all, not on today’s post. Nuevos Hobbies, The Lodger, The Stan Laurels, and Mason Summit are coming through clean and ready to (pop) rock.

Spotlight single: Brett Dennen “Here’s Looking at You, Kid”

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Falling somewhere between James Taylor, John Denver and Paul Simon on the singer-songwriter spectrum, central California mountain dweller Brett Dennen aces the acousticy clean, folksy pop song style. But his most recent extended play release sees him stretching into the more retro poprock field with “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.” The track has the feel of a great big song, a classic potential group sing-along with a beat so open even most clap-incapable can get it right. The roll out and beat is very Sonny and Cher circa 1965, with a bright guitar lead line that threads through the song, coming back at regular intervals. I can’t make up my mind whether the track is more Ben Kweller or Dusty Springfield. Vocally and song structure-wise it’s very Ben while the guitar timbre is so Dusty. The acoustic rendering of the tune really brings out the melodic lead guitar line too. I could imagine a faster version that would push the song more into the power pop genre but Dennen’s pace is A-OK too, a nice and easy, in no hurry delight of a single.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid
Here’s Looking at You, Kid (acoustic)

Besides easy rocking the guitar troubadour thing, Dennen is also a talented water colour painter. Check out his art, music, and seemingly constant series of online shows from his website and Facebook and Bandcamp pages.

Another stroll with Walter Egan

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Edgy powerpop guitar god Chris Church hepped me to a new release from Walter Egan. That surprised me a bit as Egan is neither very power poppy nor edgy. But, hey, it’s good to be surprised. The tip sent me down a research rabbit hole of discovery, scouring Egan’s whole back catalogue and the results were delightfully surprising. Like many people, Walter Egan was essentially that one killer single for me, “Magnet and Steel.” When I re-heard it on the 1997 Boogie Nights soundtrack it totally transported me back to 1978 AM radio and that slick but oh-so-addictive California melodic-rock sound of Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon, Egan and others. Kinda made me wonder what else he’d been up to over the years. Well two decades later I’m here to report that Egan was and is much more than a ‘one-hit wonder.’ Over the course to 12 albums or so he’s amassed an impressive collection of memorable tunes.

Let’s start with Egan’s new album Fascination. Man, he’s still got it. The opening bars of “I’m with the Girl” sound so Asylum Records 1977 and once the vocal harmonies kick in it’s like anything Linda Ronstadt or the Everly’s might have put out in the period. Meanwhile “A Fool in Love” bolts out the gate like any should-be hit single will do, the songwriting strong and the arrangement a winner, carried by a relentless guitar hook. Now this record is not some late in life career revival for Egan. Really, he never went away. But his recorded output does seem to be limited to three distinct periods: early career releases from 1977 to 1983, a spate of LPs turned out from 1999 to 2002, and a more recent cache of records from 2011 to the present. The albums try out different styles but never stray far from a California pop meets retro rock and roll formula. And I’m Ok with that.

I’m with the Girl
A Fool in Love

Egan’s 1977 debut Fundamental Roll was produced by Lindsay Buckingham and it shows, all shiny acoustic guitars, tasty electric guitar lead lines, and exquisite background vocal support from Stevie Nicks, the latter nicely showcased on the majestic “Won’t You Say You Will.” His breakthrough 1978 album Not Shy is so much more than just “Magnet and Steel.” “Hot Summer Nights” has a stop-what-you’re-doing cool opener that builds incredibly, helped by those ghostly background ‘oohs’. The vibe from this track so reminds me of John Stewart’s “Gold” from the same period. 1979’s HiFi was supposed to solidify Egan as a hitmaker but the record seemed to fall between audiences. Personally I love the tentative new wave sprinkled throughout this record, and very apparent on “Like You Do” with its interesting song structure (particularly the twist in the chorus). Record labels would give artists a bit more rope back in the day but the clock was ticking for Egan to get back on the charts. Alas neither 1980s The Last Stroll or 1983’s Wild Exhibitions did the trick – but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Both records had great songs, like “Motel Broken Hearts” on TLS or “Fool Moon Fire” from WE.

Won’t You Say You Will
Hot Summer Nights
Like You Do
Motel Broken Hearts
Fool Moon Fire

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed Egan mostly contributing to other people’s tours and albums. But 1999’s Walternative kicked off a recording comeback, the first of a quick trio of albums that saw Egan charting some new musical territory, like the reggae-infused pop of “There Goes My Girl.” Or the very Fleetwood Mac Rumours acoustic twinge all over “The Loneliest Boy” from 2001’s Mad Dog. 2002’s Apocalypso Now carried on with the acoustic theme on songs like “Time and the Rain” and the beautiful instrumental “Lullaby” but also rocked out with solid hooky singles like “The Reason Why.”

There Goes My Girl
The Loneliest Boy
The Reason Why

Egan’s most recent recording period emerged in 2011 with Raw Elegant, a record that is largely unavailable. Even Egan’s website admits it’s a rarity! 2014’s Myth America has a great title and artwork (featured above) and songs that might best be cast in the Americana tradition. Egan’s vocal on “Time the Master” has a lovely vulnerable quality that suits the low key melody. By 2017 Egan was back to an acoustic feel on “Old Photographs” from True Songs.

Time the Master
Old Photographs

Walter Egan’s a musical survivor. He had a gargantuan hit that movie-makers still reach out for to paint that perfect late 1970s tableau. But he’s a whole lot more than that one song, as his sporadic recording career ably demonstrates. Take a stroll with Egan’s new record or any of the albums featured here and hear it for yourself.

The painting above (which adorns the Myth America album) is actually by Walter Egan. What a beauty!

This is Steve and Ed: Swallowing the Sun and “Paper Boats”

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Steve Robinson and Ed Woltil, two great tastes that go great together. Or separately. Their 2015 duo release Cycles was pretty special, particularly “Love Somebody” and “The Boy From Down the Hill.” Since then they’ve released solo work, like Ed’s fab 2020 album One in My Tree. And sources tell me (thanks Ed!) that a new duo record is in the works. But right now both men have got great solo efforts worthy of a deep thesaurus dive to find the appropriate superlatives.

Robinson’s Swallowing the Sun just gives me a good good feeling, like a snatch of warm sunshine somehow embedded in song. With help from Woltil, XTC’s Dave Gregory and others, the sound ranges from mid-period Beatles to XTC to classic English folky pop. The album kicks off with “Sorry Amsterdam” whose chorus sounds so mid-1970s Wings to me. From there Robinson spends a lot of time working a Beatles/XTC axis, a bit of Revolver on “Wild God” and oh so much Harrison pedal steel guitar throughout “Quiet One,” or a Mummer vibe on “Make You Mine” or Nonesuch for “Smiling Delirious.” Sometimes the two sonic pallets collide, as when Robinson has a “Lady Madonna” piano driving the playful XTC feel of “Mr. Empty Head.” “Needle in the Red” changes things up with a more Neil Finn/Crowded House style. And then there’s the folk side Steve Robinson. “Milk and a Dash” reminds me of just about every mid-1960s English beat group – Herman’s Hermits, Manfred Mann, The Hollies, etc. – whose records usually included some obligatory R&B and classic folk workouts. But they always had a delightfully earnest – very listenable – pop quality to them. ‘Bah, bah, bah …’ indeed! But then “Proud of Our Love” shifts folk genres, mining a sophisticated English folk scene I associate more with the likes of Roy Harper and John Martyn. Ten years is a long time to wait for a Robinson solo album but if Swallowing the Sun is the end product, so be it. Seems you just can’t rush this kind of good thing.

Meanwhile, as well as contributing to Steve’s just released record, Ed’s got his own album to do. In fact, all this year Woltil plans to release a new single every month, culminating in an album drop by year’s end. The project is off to a great start with the endearing slice of retro songwriting captured in “Paper Boat.” This is a kind of stylistic impressionism we might link with Paul McCartney or Billy Joel, though the song itself has an emotional depth I associate more with Randy Newman’s soundtrack work. Truly, a perfect little song given a masterful, under-stated performance.

Get closer to Steve and Ed and spend a little time with these recordings via their respective solo and joint internet properties hyperlinked above.

Jangle Thursday

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It’s been a while since we’ve jangled Thursday so to make up for it today’s post features two heavy hitter album releases and a spate of other good things. Secure the good china because the heavy reverb here is definitely gonna make things shake.

In one of the most anticipated albums of the year, The Boys With the Perpetual Nervousness defy the sophomore slump with a drop-dead gorgeous collection of new tunes. If anything, Songs From Another Life is even better than the band’s outstanding debut Dead Calm. The sound is a bit edgier, the feel a bit more urgent. It’s all there on the album opener, “I Don’t Mind” with its muscular jangle hooks and earworm melody. When the sweet sweet instrumental break kicks in at 1:11 it’s like a shot of adrenaline. And then it’s over all too soon! The obvious musical reference points here fall somewhere between the Byrds and Teenage Fanclub, particularly on “Play (On My Mind)” and “How I Really Feel.” But there’s a bit of the duo’s previous incarnations – Dropkick and El Palacio de Linares – lurking here too on tracks like “Rose Tinted Glasses” and “In Between.” And then the band go in totally new directions on songs like “Lethargy” with its hypnotic synth adornments. Personally, I can’t stop hitting replay on “Waking Up in the Sunshine,” the should-be hit single to my ears. If you need something to lift your spirits, something to make your heart soar, then proceed directly to this long player. I may be calling it early but my gut says Songs From Another Life is the feel good album of the year.

Another jangle band that never fails to impress and delight are The Vapour Trails. Their brand new EP Underneath Tomorrow is no exception. These guys hit all the 1960s marks but always throw in a host of original twists. Sure “Tommy’s Tune” sounds so Byrds but there’s a bit of CSN&Y there too. Title track “Underneath Tomorrow” has lovely jangle and great background vocals, with some inventive instrumental interludes. And there’s “That’ll Do It” with its killer Monkees-reminiscent, lead-line opener and addictive pumping organ drawing you in. Man, what hooks! But it’s not just the great retro feel of the album, the songwriting is up to the band’s reliably strong standards. Check out their turn in a more Beatles direction with “Autumn and Spring” or a British 1960s blues vibe on while “Strange.” The only real limit to the EP is that everything ends far too soon.

There’s something so beach dreamy about Stephen’s Shore, you can practically feel the sea breeze coming off the title track from their new EP Brisbane Radio. At just 12 minutes long the release is perhaps more like a maxi-single but, hey, I’d argue it’s a short time well spent. The lovely lilting lead jangle guitar carries us through “Up To No Good” and the mostly instrumental “Midvert.” Meanwhile “Skogen” sounds more like what we might expect from a new album. It’s a song with a bit more complexity and a melody that captures the darker vibe of late 1960s folk rock. Compared to the band’s earlier work, 2016’s crisp and hooky Ocean Blue, this new material sounds more organic and less in a hurry, though no less melodic and endearing.

Last up on our jangle-heavy feature, two singles that showcase the breadth of the genre. First, Will Courtney teams up with two members of the Ugly Beats, Joe Emery and Daniel Wilcox, to take on the Byrds’ classic “Here Without You.” The original is pretty hard to improve on so the boys wisely decide to take it in a slightly new direction, distorting its traditional jangle and countrying up the vocal delivery. The result is a refreshing, exciting reset to an old fave. By contrast, like Tom Petty and Greg Kihn before them, Boston’s Modern Day Idols demonstrate how jangle can be woven into the very core of modern poprock. MDI have a great song with “Not the Only One” from their recent self-titled album but the jangle lead guitar just adds that extra dimension of bliss. I’m liking their whole LP – it’s all eminently listenable – but this particular song just won’t vacate my short term memory.

In these dark times jangle is the musical light glinting from the far reaches of our ‘isolate in place’ tunnel. Click on the hyperlinks to hear more.

Saturday Club: The Poppermost, The Unswept, Cupid’s Carnival, and The Meatles!

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The Beatles’ first live appearance on BBC radio occurred on Brian Matthews’ Saturday Club January 26, 1963. Today we create our own version of the club, chock full of more recent Merseybeats from bands both far and near the Lime Street Station.

The Poppermost hail from Glasgow, Scotland and their releases are very 1963-64 era fab four fantastic. Ok, the ‘they’ here is actually just him, one guy, Joe Kane, but what a beautiful noise this guy manages to pull off playing and singing everything. The feel is the breezy pop perhaps a bit more associated with some of the songs The Beatles gave away in their early days, to groups like The Fourmost, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and Peter and Gordon. The band’s debut single “Can’t Take That Away” has a definite “Bad to Me” swing while its b-side is the Beatles brand of American R&B reinvention. The pop carries over on the just released EP A Piece of the Poppermost with “Laziest Fella in the Realm” and “In and Out” while “Get It Down” nails an “I’ll Follow the Sun” vibe. But the EP does rock out a bit with the opening cut “Well I Will,” in a very gear 1964 sort of way, of course.

The Unswept are originally from Sheffield but now reside in Chicago and their brand of Merseyfied poprock leans heavily on Harrisonian jangle. His distinctive Rickenbacker sound is all over the fun cover of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Cynical Girl” that appears on their brand new EP Power Pop for All the People. Well, sort of brand new – three of the four songs were previously available on their self-titled 2014 release. But hey, who doesn’t want to hear a jangly romp through The Rutles “I Must Be In Love” and Nick Lowe’s “So It Goes” again? I definitely do. And add to the mix another magical Liverpool contribution, the La’s “I Can’t Sleep,” and you’ve really got something special. The La’s don’t get covered much because, frankly, their songs are hard to do. But The Unswept ace the energy, vocal interplay, and dynamic guitar work the track demands. If this EP doesn’t send you packing to pick up a copy of their recent EP of original stuff, The Codependent, then it’s time to make a hearing appointment.

Ever since they hit the scene Cupid’s Carnival have reliably serviced the mid-period Beatlemaniacs. These guys really know how to throw out a slightly psychedelic, harmony-vocaled set of hooks. As we wait for a follow up album to 2020’s Colour Blind, the boys have got a fab new single “You’re So Cool” and it’s the injection of Mersey poprock you need right now. Our last featured act on this rogue episode of Saturday Club are The Meatles, from their Beat the Meatles release. Now, I thought it was just National Lampoon that went in for these sort of gags but apparently there’s a New Zealand Beatles cover band that has a predictably over-the-top lewd take on the idea. That’s not what we’re featuring here. What we’ve got is uber talented Gary Ritchie’s strictly classy 2000 tribute to the Fabs, twenty-two lovingly crafted note-perfect covers of the early to mid-period Beatles catalogue. Personally, I think Ritchie adds some distinctive elements to “Little Child,” “I’ll Cry Instead,” and “I’ll Get You.” But the whole record is a dance party booster. Get it on the turntable and then get it on!

Cupid’s Carnival – You’re So Cool

The Beatles are not coming back but their influence keeps returning in new releases, showing up in both predictable and innovative ways. Make sure to tune in to these acts at your local e-music retailer.

Should be a hit single: James Holt “Mystery Girl”

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I stumbled across Mancunian James Holt doing a fun cover of Crowded House’s “Weather With You” with himself playing every instrument simultaneously in the video. This led to a bit of research and the discovery of this gem, released in early 2020. “Mystery Girl” is a mélange of alternating musical shots: pumping piano, organ, and harpsichord (among other instruments) amid the delightful swirl of the main and background vocals. There’s something a bit 10cc here, definitely Neil Finn-worthy, even Gilbert O’Sullivan-ish. On the whole, the song is a masterful bit of production disguised as a breezy pop confection, Holt so effortlessly hits all the melodic and instrumental marks. This surely marks the beginning of something good.

Check out Holt’s website, Facebook and Bandcamp pages to see what he else he’s got going on.

Cover me! Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know”

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The guitar harmonics intro to Kirsty MacColl’s original version of “They Don’t Know” is just so perfect, conjuring both the Phil Spector and British girl singer traditions. But ultimately it’s the strength of the songwriting that makes this song a classic and eminently coverable. As one internet commentator quipped, the track is ‘bombproof.’ After listening to a couple dozen versions I’d have to agree.  Still, MacColl’s version remains definitive for me.

Kirsty MacColl

MacColl’s 1979 original was her recording debut and an immediate hit with British radio. But distribution problems with Stiff Records prevented the single from making the official charts. In fact, most fans would have to wait for MacColl’s 1995 album Galore to get their hands on it. In the interim comedian Tracey Ullman took the song to number 2 in the UK and number 8 in the US in 1983. Ullman cranked the sixties references in the tune to the max, turning it into an enjoyable bit of retro kitch. But as subsequent covers have made clear, “They Don’t Know” is not limited to a 1960s girl group register.

There are plenty of choices when it comes to covers of this song so my picks are obviously selective. Early covers by Gigolo Aunts and the Young Fresh Fellows are fine but not as pop rocky as I would prefer. Subterfuge’s 1988 low-key jangle-heavy version strips things back a little, letting the song’s bones show through. Leslie Carter’s 2001 take leans on the piano for the ornamentation and some strong girl group background vocals. The song’s popularity can also measured by the number of foreign language versions – of which there are many. Moneybrother’s 2006 Swedish version speeds up the tempo and gives the proceedings an aura of Springsteen at his most power pop. Belgians Nailpin sing in English but sharpen things up with a very poppy, slightly punk-infused version that bends the basic melody in interesting ways.

Leslie Carter
Moneybrother

More recently indie versions of “They Don’t Know” have been piling up as MacColl’s songwriting skills and performance have gained greater appreciation and prominence. Big indie names like Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs added the song to Volume 3 of their Under the Covers series but, as far as duo versions go, I think I prefer Geoff Palmer and Lucy Ellis‘ version from their recent Your Face is Weird collaboration. Michael Carpenter gave the track a wonderful 1960s beat group treatment while Robyn Gibson lovingly recast the song as a great lost Peter and Gordon out-take on his critically acclaimed Volume One in his Bop of the Pops series.

Many artists have messed with the tempo and feel of the song, with both arresting and exciting results. Feather and Down slow things down with their spare, mostly acoustic performance, an effort that only amplifies the song’s aching melodic beauty. Lydia Loveless takes things in rebel country direction, Karen Basset goes garage rock, while both Boys Forever and So Cow work the DIY indie rock vibe in different ways. My most recent fave cover is from Men of the North Country with their great horns, trebly guitar and video with Kirsty hovering in the background.

Feather and Down
Lydia Loveless

Kirsty MacColl’s catalogue is full of great tunes, well worth exploring. But if she’d only written this one song she’d be in the karmic black for sure. More covers in the future are a certainty.