Today’s breaking musical stories are all destined for 2020’s parade of ‘best of’ lists come January next. They’re that good. Not just a few strong tunes but full album experiences. Break out the bank card because you are going to want to explore the full story behind these headlines over and over again.
Despite releasing an EP in 2016 and an album in 2018, New Jersey’s The Happy Fits appear to be asking listeners to take sides with their new record, the aptly named What Could Be Better. The previous releases were great but there’s no denying that this new record has the mark a band suddenly in complete control of their muse. All their quirky musical elements really come to together here, from the masterful vocal arrangements to the inventive songwriting to the surprising, delightful incorporation of a cello into rock and roll. Comparisons to marquee acts like the Violent Femmes and the Killers bear fruit on “Go Dumb,” the blood-rushing spare rocker that opens the album, as well as “Hold Me Down.” But I also hear less well-known indie darlings like Everything Everything, particularly in the vocal attack on these cuts. But then things change. Both “No Instructions” and the title track have a poppy melodic wonder I associate with Dutch group Sunday Sun. “Moving” sounds so early 1960s girl group songwriting-wise but twists things with a distinctive interplay on the vocals, adding depth with a splash of cello here and there. And “The Garden” stops things cold with another transition, this time to a kind of Fleet Foxes folk fragility. What Could Be Better is a slice of pure musical excitement. It somehow manages to be relentless and refreshing at the same time. A must have.
I know I’ve been banging on about Swedish melodic rockers Mom all summer but, come on people, this is what the game is all about: jangly guitars, slightly distorted vocals and hooks coming more regularly than the 4:50 to Paddington. Now the band’s new album Pleasure Island is officially out and it’s a delight from start to finish. Looking for a fresh take on the early Cars-era of new wave? This record is your put-it-on replay date. The LP kicks off strong with the single-worthy “I Want You To Feel What I Feel.” Other should-be hit singles for me would include both “Suzie (Use Me)” and “Better Than You.” The album features some nice jangle on cuts like “Talk to Me,” “Ordinary Girl” and “Don’t Leave With My Heart,” a bit more of a rocky feel on “Cry No More Tears,” and offers up a distinctive organ solo on “Tonight.” There’s even a bit of a Cheap Trick-meets-Suzie Quatro feel on “High Demand.” Pleasure Island is a clearly defined musical destination you are going to want to visit regularly.
Another Well Wishers record is always a welcome bit of news. On this 11th outing for the band, Shelf Life is nothing but melodic goodness. “We Grow Up” kicks things off with the familiar, signature Well Wishers wall-of-guitar sound, overlaid with those perfectly compressed AM radio vocals. I love the opening guitar build-up that introduces the song. There’s something very Matthew Sweet going on here and not just the should-be hit single aura. Then “My Desire” shows just how to put the ‘power’ in power pop with big crunchy guitar chords swathed in harmony vocals. “Secrets and Lies” alters the pacing, toning things down just a bit with an XTC-like poppy feel and just a hint of jangle. In different ways both “Father of the Bride” and “All the Same” channel a Fountains of Wayne style to me. Other tracks manage to salt in a few subtle retro influences: an addictive CCR-sounding lick grinding through “Who Cries,” a bit of Eagles’ acoustic rhythm anchoring “Holidays Await,” and a Beach Boys-taking-a-run-at-power pop moment on “Lonely Song.” My ears are still ringing, in a good way.
In 2004 Eugene Edwards lit up the indie music scene with his stupendous debut album My Favorite Revolution. It was a staggeringly good collection of poprock tunes, channeling everyone from Tom Petty to Elvis Costello. It seemed like the start of something big. Then … nothing. Edwards joined Dwight Yoakam’s touring band in 2012 and can be seen all over twitter plugging Fender guitars as recently as last week. Albums of new material? Not so much. That is until A Week of Sundays quietly showed up on various music platforms last summer. And by quiet I mean ziltch promotion, nada, nothing. Even Edward’s Facebook and twitter pages contain no mention of the record at all! A crazy way to run a career but hey, I can say this, the product is solid. It’s fun from the opening riffs and party feel of “Good Old Days” and the straight-up rockier sound of “Did You Kiss the Missus.” There’s also a few exquisite slow dance moments on tracks like “The Best Man” and “Lo and Behold.” Influence-wise I hear a lot Squeeze on this record from “Irregular Heartbeat” to “Who’s Gonna Hate You When You Go.” “Person of Interest” takes off with a classic Chuck Berry opener but then segues to a sound reminiscent of Squeeze’s Argy Bargy. “There’s No Secret” is a rocking vamp but with some tasty melodic hooks buried in the tune. Edwards even offers up two versions of the title track, the latter with a decidedly ska feel. Tell your friends, Eugene Edwards is back and ready to be noticed.
Brooklyn’s SLD sound like a blast of the very best seventies poprock. They are channeling a bit of ELO, Klattu, Badfinger, and especially mid-period Wings over their new very long-player Lost. You can practically hear the sunshine and taste the California ice teas on “He’s Got You Now,” the killer opening cut. Both “Right Place Wrong Life” and “Fly Away” have that recognizable mellow 1970s McCartney touch. “No Way” even manages to rehabilitate a bit of disco guitar and space keyboards for good effect. Vocally I hear Glenn Tilbrook on a host of cuts, specifically “Don’t Want to Get Over You” and “Midnight Eyes.” Meanwhile, an ELO ambience haunts “12 to 5,” “Lost” and “Last Night.” I love the anthemic hooky changes on “Only the Sky” and the mild Oasis vibe “You’re Not Me.” It’s rare for a band that nails such a stylized period sound to somehow still escape a retro tag but SLD do it, largely on the basis of some strong songwriting and damn fine performances.
On Paper Airplane Marshall Holland manages to be retro and topical at the same time. The album is suffused with a strong 1970s sensibility, clearly evident on songs like “Look into My Eyes” and the title track. But the record is not merely retro. The album’s opening cut “Our Fate” takes up contemporary concerns about policing with just the right balance of urgency and restraint. “When the Rain Comes” then shifts the mood completely with the aid of jaunty late 1960s keyboard shots. “A Hand Holds a Bird” puts the acoustic guitar up front, mellowing the listener out in a very Simon and Garfunkel sort of way. Three cuts in and Holland has punched up three distinct moods without jarring anyone. What holds everything together is the album’s over-riding style, a synthesis of a rather cheery Elliott Smith with an up-tempo Sufjan Stevens, captured wonderfully on “Waiting for that Peace & Love.” I love the breezy summer feel on “Don’t Do It” and the sweet variety of guitar sounds blanketing “I’m Checking Out.” Back to politics, “Whatcha Gonna Do” is the most melodic put down of Trump anyone’s ever produced. And despite all this variety, the album plays like a smooth listen. Paper Airplane is like a visit with an old friend, comfortably familiar but full of surprises.
Today’s news comes from a town where everyone lives on Quality Street. The Happy Fits, Mom, The Well Wishers, Eugene Edwards, SLD, and Marshall Holland all deserve top ratings for their efforts. Forget the film at 11, check them out now via the convenient hyperlinks. Physical copies of bands 3, 5 and 6 can be obtained from Kool Kat Music.