Given the everyday horror of the past few years – war, pandemic, the political right – it’s getting hard for a humble, candy-fueled monster holiday to compete. Luckily we still have the music. This post celebrates fright night with a set list of seasonally appropriate tunes covering a good range of monster diversity.
Justin Roberts gets called a kids songster but I think his tunes are for everyone who’s not quite finished growing up. He’s fun and whimsical and not afraid to be silly. And his songs will get stuck in your head like that gum on the underside of your chair at assembly. His “Trick or Treat” captures all the action of the nighttime candy run from a kid’s point of view and thus is an appropriate opening to our proceedings. The Freddie Steady 5 also strike just the right seasonal mood with their spirited cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Halloween Mary.” They take the tune out its original folk rock register to deliver a more pub rock easy-going party feel. Let the party begin!
Alright kids, we know you’re mostly here for the candy but deep down you’re also up for a bit of fright. Time to bring in the monsters. Don’t worry, we’ll ease you in with the pleasant Byrdsian psychedelic vibes of Pseudonym on “Before the Monsters Came.” Then the elusive and mysterious Clovis Roblaine sounds like he’s cooped up in his castle on a hill at the start of his “Monster Love.” But as he gets going we’re transported to what sounds like a 1970s riff on all those old cartoony drive-in movie monster encounters. Like Rocky Horror but without all the cross-dressing. Then there’s Timmy Sean’s “She’s a Monster” from his poprock musical A Tale From the Other Side where the creature sounds very 50 foot women-ish put through a serious ELO soundtrack filter. So far the monsters are pretty low on terror but come with popcorn.
One band reliably up for a holiday musical tribute is Vista Blue. “Boy Beast” is the flip side to their Halloween single release “Victor Crowley” and I liked this b-side just a bit more for its imagery and pulsing energy. The band also appear on Radiant Radish’s timely, pumpkin-approved collection Time of the Season. The whole album is great, it’s free, and it also includes a band called The John Carpenter’s The Things doing a mad rush of a song called “Here’s The Thing.” It’s poppy and punky with some great early 1980s synth background runs holding everything together. Aimee Mann’s “Frankenstein” is obviously on point for our theme. Do I really need much of an excuse to include anything by Mann? No. But listen to the sophisticated lyrics here amid a layering in of so many interesting musical adornments. Talent bleeds out of this gal like an open wound. Indie darlings Kiwi Jr. serve up some “Wicked Witches” because it can’t be All Hallow’s Eve without some serious sorcery.
Now if we really want to move into more scary territory we’ve got to get to the zombie and vampire portion of our programming. Modern horror definitely leans on these two players to up the terror quotient. Sal Baglio uses his band The Amplifier Heads to bring The Band back from the dead with his spot-on Band-like reincarnation of their sound on “Zombie Moon.” Warning, things get a bit hairy near the end (as they should). During a zombie apocalypse it’s all too easy to forget your partner’s many co-dependent observations about your shortcomings. Luckily we have B.A. Johnston to keep us focused with “You Will Miss Me When the Zombies Come.” Not that you’ll remember. Ok, on to vampires with The Orion Experience’s disco poprock vamp of a tune “Vampire.” The ‘ooh ooh’s so remind of those creepy Tommy Lee Jones photo shoot scenes from The Eyes of Laura Mars. Tired of those impersonal representations of vampires? Italy’s Bee Bee Sea give them some personality on the rollicking “Vampire George.” I love the Together Pangea vibe on this performance, combining swing with hooks and just a touch of punky swagger.
Our last stop on the fright night scare tour is ghost city, just so the mood will linger. Copenhagen’s Surf School Dropouts are such a curious outfit. Are beaches in Denmark much like California? Because they’ve got the California beach sound down. And just how hard is surf school anyway? Whatever. “Attack of the Ghost Hot Rods!” takes us back into the fun zone of this holiday with goofy lyrics, sound effects, and killer guitar licks. By contrast, Look Park’s “I’m Going to Haunt This Place” is more mellow, a bit maudlin. Haunting really.
Well kids I hope the candy was worth it. Because soon the frights won’t end when the monsters take off the mask. They’ll just be starting.
Time to turn up the wattage on the choice of featured artists for this post. I mean, don’t get me wrong, everybody I put up on this blog is a star to me. But some acts don’t really need much push from Poprock Record to sell records. You know what? Who cares. I still want to rave about their fabulous new releases and I’m gonna do it now.
Aimee Mann is the Joni Mitchell of her generation. Her ear for melody, her unique vocal phrasing, her restless pursuit of new musical challenges, they all exude that Joni brand of creativity. At the same time Mann embraces Mitchell’s intellectual seriousness. Just one listen to Queens of the Summer Hotel and you know you’re at the grown-up table. Others have explored the subject matter of the album in some detail so I won’t repeat that here. Suffice to say for our purposes, the tunes here are lush and memorable. There’s an acoustic bent to the instrumentation, Mann’s distinctive electric keyboard set aside for this outing. The style is sometimes somewhere between Costello’s Brodsky Quartet and his work with Bacharach, except when it’s pure Mann. Listeners looking for a hit of the latter classic sound, go directly to “Burn It Out.” She has a very specific and familiar way of bending a hook, usually occurring two thirds of the way through a sentence. But the rest of Queens of the Summer Hotel is both familiar and yet new territory. Opening cut “You Fall” has the delicate introspection of Joe Jackson in strong piano mode. “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath,” “At the Frick Museum” and “You Could Have Been a Roosevelt” all vibe a musicals feel (as in Broadway), minus the dance numbers. I love the swing on “Give Me Fifteen,” the wistful melancholia to “Suicide is Murder,” and the subtle hook anchoring “I See You.” Ultimately, this is an album that pays repeated listening. Queens of the Summer Hotel confirms Mann as one of America’s premier troubadours, delivering an album that defies genre, time and any sense of commercial constraint. And it’s a damn good listen.
With Ultramodern the Ruen Brothers take their distinctive postmodern pastiche of classic 1960s Americana with a contemporary twist in some decidedly new directions. First there’s something old. The album does gather together some of the previous year’s stand-alone singles, radio-friendly should-be hits like the broody Blue Velvet pop of “Saving Me, Saving You” and the infectious earworm “A Million Things.” Then there’s the familiar ‘git along little doggie’ western sound the boys do so well on tracks like “The Storm in You” and “Topanga Canyon.” Things go in a more contemporary pop direction on songs like “San Diego Nights” and the explosive dance number “Takin’ It Easy.” Other tracks max out a rollicking sense of fun, with “Up in California” a bouncy ditty with a surprising pedal steel guitar solo while “Flying Cars” sounds very early 1980s new wave. And no Ruen Brothers release would be complete with some dark, introspective testaments to loneliness. Fittingly, “Alone” has an aching cinematic quality in its spare delivery. Or check out how the demo version of “Takin’ It Easy” is like a completely different song, its formerly frantic commercial delivery transformed into a haunting acoustic number. If Ultramodern is the future of music I say, bring on tomorrow!
They Might Be Giants are a seemingly unstoppable force. Year after year they just keep putting out great material, with no appreciable decline in quality or productivity. Book is album number 23 and it represents no revolutionary change for the band. It’s just more of that heart-lifting, ‘life as a mad montage of silliness and sadness’ kind of goodness. It’s all there on selections like “Moonbeam Rays,” pleasant hooky numbers that instantly put a smile on your face. But what sounds simple can obscure some serious complexity, like the melodic and rhythmic development of the earwormy “Brontosaurus.” TMBG also always curate great instrumental sounds on their records. Exhibit A, some recognizably early EC Steve Nieve organ fills add value to the poppy delight of “Lord Snowdon.” Clever wordplay is another hallmark of TMBG songs, in evidence on the “Anna Ng”-ish “I Can’t Remember the Dream.” “I Lost Thursday” was a pre-release single and it has the obvious mark of a should-be radio hit (in my poprock alternative universe, at least). And check out the cocktail jazz laminating “Super Cool.” It certainly is. The verdict on Book is simple, another great TMBG record. Albums for these guys are more like another episode of your favourite show that you can’t wait to see and see again.
They are the stars of poprock indie-verse and just as reliable as those lights in the night sky. You won’t go far wrong with any of these shiny things.
It’s been five years since I embarked on this mad journey: to write a music blog. I dithered over the decision to start one for a number of months. There’s nothing more pathetic than to start something with maximum fanfare and enthusiasm, only to have it flame out a half dozen posts later. The questions I had to ask myself were: (a) was there enough of ‘my kind’ of music to regularly post about, and (b) could I sustain the effort to get regular posts up on the blog? Well here’s the proof. In five years I’ve managed to produce 347 blogs posts. I’ve written more than 170,000 words about poprock tunes. And, most importantly, I’ve featured almost 1000 different artists. Guess the answers to (a) and (b) are both a resounding yes!
I think the biggest reason this blog thing has worked out for me is that it is such a great outlet for being creative and having fun with something that has always been pretty central to my life: music. I love doing all the mock serious regular features (e.g. Breaking news, Around the Dial, Should be a hit single) and coming up with goofy themes as a way to feature different artists (e.g. “Telephonic Poprock,” “Summer’s Coming,” and the Cover me! series. Sometimes I’ve pushed the posts in more serious directions (“Is That So Gay,” “Campaigning for Hooks,” and “Pandemic Poprock“) but only if the melodies and hooks were there in abundance. The blog has also allowed me to pay tribute to my musical heroes (Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Zombies, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann). But, as regular readers know, such luminaries mostly appear as reference points to better help people get of a sense of what all these new acts are doing.
If you’ve just tuned in, I’m not assigning the past five years of posts as homework. Instead, I offer today’s anniversary post as a retrospective of what’s been happening here. I reviewed all 347 posts to pick out some choice examples of the range of styles I can cram under the rubrik of ‘poprock’. It wasn’t easy! My first go round produced a list of 118 songs. When I converted that to a playlist I got the number down to 81 tracks. Ack! Still too many. So I’ve broken things down into themes. This is not a ‘greatest hits’ or ‘best of’ Poprock Record. I’ve left out a lot of acts I really love. It’s just a representative sample of what goes on here, to borrow some lingo from my day job. Click on the highlighted band names to go to the original posts on the blog.
Let’s start by recognizing that not all that appears here is new. The blog has allowed me to explore a huge number of acts I’ve missed over the years, particularly in the 1990s when my new day job (academe) took over my life. I can’t believe I somehow missed great bands like Fire Town and the Soul Engines with their incredible guitar hooks. The Sighs “Make You Cry” is a pretty perfect poprock single. I knew about Billy Cowsills’ Blue Northern but had never heard of his later group, the Blue Shadows. And Eugene Edwards’ sole solo release, My Favorite Revolution, is a must add for any melodic rock and roll fan.
There have been acts that appeared again and again on the blog, my ‘old reliables’ as I might call them. These are performers I can pretty much carve out space in the queue for whenever I hear a new release is on the way. Gregory Pepper is probably my most covered artist. I love his quirky, always hooky, sometimes touching efforts. Ezra Furman was another great find who has an unerring knack of placing a memorable hook at the centre of whatever he’s doing, whether it’s retro 1950s pop or a punkish political ode. I discovered Jeremy Fisher long before the blog but I’ve used it to feature his work, old and new. He’s like a new wave Paul Simon with great videos. Edward O’Connell only has two albums, but they are reliably good. We really need a third. Mo Troper always delivers something wonderfully weird but still melodic and ‘can’t get it out of your head’ good. Finally, Jeremy Messersmith’s records regularly encompass big vision but he doles it out in memorable should-be hit singles.
In my world of poprock, while any instrument goes, the electric guitar is arguably pretty central. Some bands really know how to ride a guitar-driven song right into your head. Jeff Shelton’s Well Wishers excel at putting the guitar up front. “Feeling Fine” is practically a ‘how to’ example of killer guitar-dominant poprock. The David James Situation and The Format are no slouches either. Jangle is a related field of guitar poprock and takes a number of forms, from the 1960s-inflected Byrds sound of The Vapour Trails to the more jaunty bubblegum feel of The Lolas “We’re Going Down to the Boathouse.” Jangle also usually features pretty addictive harmony vocals, showcased below in Propeller’s “Summer Arrives.”
As the original and defining decade of poprock (in my view), the 1960s sound continues to be mined by new artists. Daisy House have few rivals in nailing the late 1960s California poprock vibe, sounding like time travelers from San Francisco’s 1968 club scene. Space Dingus have got The Monkees feel down. Both Shadow Show and The On and Ons gives us that rockier pop sound of the mid 1960s, with the latter delivering killer lead guitar hooks. By contrast, both Cut Worms and The Young Veins offer a candy-coated pop sound more akin to The Cyrkle and Simon and Garfunkel.
I’m a sucker for shivery harmony vocals so they’ve been featured regularly on the blog. One of Jenny Lewis’ side projects is the one-off album from Jenny and Johnny, I’m Having Fun Now. Aptly named, the record gently rocks and delivers amazing vocals. The Secret Sisters offer up a punchy tune where the harmony vocals seal the hooky deal. The Carousels “Call Along the Coast” has a big sound the rides a wave of harmony vocalizing and Beatlesque guitar work. Meanwhile Scotland’s Dropkick corner the market on delightful lilting songcraft on “Dog and Cat.” The blog sometimes shades into retro country and folk territory. Bomabil are an eccentric outfit who stretch our sense of song but never drop the melody. The Top Boost are pretty new wave but on “Tell Me That You’re Mine” they’re channeling Bakersfield via the Beatles 65. The Fruit Bats put the banjo upfront in “Humbug Mountain,” where it belongs. Gerry Cinnamon is like Scotland’s Billy Bragg and he shows what you can do with just an acoustic guitar and a Springsteen harmonica.
I’m proud to say that the blog has sometimes strayed off the beaten path of conventional poprock into more eccentric territory with bands that are smart and quirky and not afraid to lodge a hook in a more complex setting. Tally Hall pretty much define this approach. So ‘out there’ but still so good melodically. Chris Staples and Hayden offer up more low key, moody tunes but they still have a strong melodic grab. Overlord take clever to a new level, like a grad school version of They Might Be Giants. Coach Hop is just funny and hooky with his unabashed ode to liking Taylor Swift.
After the 1960s the new wave era is the renaissance of poprock for me with its combination of hooky guitars, harmony vocals, and melody-driven rock and roll. Screen Test capture this ambience perfectly on “Notes from Trevor” with a chorus that really delivers. The Enlows drive the guitar hook right into your head on the dance-madness single “Without Your Love.” Billy Sullivan epitomizes the reinvention of 1960s elements that occurred in the 1980s, well embodied in “Everywhere I Go.” Another strong theme in the blog has been the “I Get Mail” feature, populated largely by DIY songsters who write me about their garage or basement recorded releases. It is inspiring to hear from so many people doing their thing and getting it out there, especially when it is generally really good. Daveit Ferris is a DIY workaholic with an amazing range of song and recording styles. “Immeasurable” is a good illustration of his genius, with a banjo-driven chorus that always makes me smile. Mondello is practically the classic indie artist movie script, struggling to get an album out after 20 years. But then his follow up single, “My Girl Goes By,” is gold!
I want to leave you with a two-four of should-be hits from Poprock Record. These songs are all quality cuts, grade A poprock with melodies and harmonies and hooks to spare. Some of these songs leave me panting, they’re so good. I kicked off the blog back in 2015 with Family of Year and I still think “Make You Mine” is a textbook should-be AM radio hit. Sunday Sun channel The Beatles through a 1980s song filter, in the very best way. Sitcom Neighbor’s “Tourist Attraction” is a delightful earworm affliction. Wyatt Blair has somehow boiled down the essential formula of a 1960s-influenced poprock hit. Wyatt Funderburk understands how to assemble the perfect melody-driven single. And so on. Get your clicking finger warmed up and you’ll be introduced to the essence of Poprock Record in 24 melodious increments.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was all the great people I’d come in contact with writing a music blog. Thanks to all the bands, record labels, and readers who have responded so positively to what I’ve been doing here. A special thanks to Best Indie Songs, Tim at Powerpopulist and Don at I Don’t Hear a Single for their advice over the years and to my friends Rob at Swizzle and Dale at The View from Here for encouraging me to do this.
This post features pics from my poprock-postered 1985-7 apartment in Vancouver’s West End. Just $285 a month, all inclusive. No wonder I could buy so many records.
What were the biggest hits that weren’t in 2017? Who were the biggest should-be stars? In our alternate universe here at Poprock Record, these guys were all over the charts, the chat shows, the scandal sheets, as well as memed all over Facebook, Snapchatted by the kids, and Instragrammed into oblivion. Jesus, they were so popular you are well and truly sick of them by now. But sadly for our poprock heroes, the universe is not just ours to define. In the world beyond our little blog, they could all use another plug.
First, a few ground rules. The choices are drawn from the pool of songs I featured or found in 2017 and were released in that year. This is not a ‘best of’ list. This blog does not have the kind of coverage that would allow for such ‘omniscient view’ judgments. I cover things as they crawl past my attention, which means as often as not I’m featuring tunes I missed from 1994 as terribly exciting and ‘new’ to me. Nor is inclusion here a knock on the acts I’ve covered but not included. If I put them up on the site, I like’em. But there is something about this collection of tunes that lingers, sticks in my mind, and has the staying power I associate with classic 1970s AM radio hit singles. And we’re offering a ‘two-four’ of hits because, well, we are Canadian. The hyperlinks on the artist name take you to the original post and the featured songs.
So here we go – our annual list of Poprock Record’s Should-Be Hit Singles of 2017:
Daisy House dominated my playlist this year, both their current record and their back catalogue. They channel the 1960s but never let it wholly define them. They have two amazing singers and one fabulously talented songwriter. They deserve all the accolades the internet can hand out. If this were 1970 they’d probably be headlining The Flip Wilson Show tonight. The Rallies were an accidental discovery that turned into an obsession. Their whole album is great but “Don’t Give Up” makes my heart twinge every time. Aimee Mann and Fastball ably demonstrated this year that veterans can still turn out fantastic, career-defining albums. And I got to see both of them live! Los Straightjackets did Nick Lowe proud, producing a phenomenal tribute to his body of work. “Rollers Show” was my go-to summertime happy tune.
I won’t review every selection from the two-four, but I will say that I think the mix of poprock I feature on the blog is evident here. There’s fast and slow, country and rock, guitars and keyboards, etc. And then there’s always the hooks. Case in point: check out the 42 second mark on Greg Kihn’s “The Life I Got.” If you don’t feel the excitement he creates with some classic poprock guitar arpeggiation and the subtle vocal hook you’re kinda missing what we’re doing here. Here’s hoping 2018 is as hit single worthy as this past year has been!
I am going to sneak in an honourable mention for what I consider the compilation of year: Songs. Bond Songs: The Music of 007. This Curry Cuts collection has so many gems, working with material that is frankly hard to redefine. Standout tracks for me include Lannie Flower’s amazing reworking of “The James Bond Theme,” Freedy Johnston’s beautifully spare rendition of “For Your Eyes Only,” Jay Gonzalez’s nicely understated take on “A View to Kill,” and Big Box Store’s wonderfully retooled version of “Die Another Day.”
As always, let me make a plea to support the artists so we can continue to enjoy all this great music. In a way, we are living through a melodic guitar-based music renaissance, in part due to the breakdown of the old commercial music industrial complex. But what is replacing that old system is not clear, particularly the ‘making a living from music’ side of things. Visit the artist sites, go to the shows, buy the records – and repeat.
Aimee Mann snuck up on me. I had one record and then another and before I knew it I had them all on some kind of regular rotation. My Columbia House subscription at the time probably bears some responsibility. Why do I like Aimee Mann so much? I don’t know. There’s something comfortable and sutured about the space she creates, like a self-contained sonic mini-universe. And despite the often sad stories and the sad sacks responsible for them, Mann’s work is never obviously melancholic. Instead, she gives musical voice to the emotional ambivalence of our times. Shit’s happening and people are trying to find love and there seem to be no obvious heroic scripts to draw from. When you can’t work that kind of stuff out sometimes you just want to wallow with someone who isn’t forcing you to smile or cry. Mann gets it. Easy answers are not that satisfying. Her albums are filled with characters struggling to cope with not knowing which way to turn. They’re idealistic enough to want to do something, but wise enough to know each choice has a cost.
It has been fascinating to watch the trajectory of Mann’s career. Three albums with her band ‘Til Tuesday channeled a lot of 1980s bombast, with a few gems along the way like “Will She Just Fall Down” (which sounds the most like the post-‘Til Tuesday Mann sound). But with 1993’s Whatever Mann declared her creative independence, establishing the rudiments of the style she would continue to develop the rest of her career. You can tell a little about her from the people she has chosen to work with, co-writing songs with Elvis Costello, Jules Shear, and Jon Brion, and inviting the likes of Squeeze’s Glen Tilbrook and the Shin’s James Mercer to add vocals to various tracks. But ultimately comparisons fail because Mann is a category of her own. In terms of stylistic confidence and delivery, she reminds me most of Joni Mitchell. She is post-genre.
Trying to single out a few songs to feature from Mann’s many albums is painful, there are just so many good tracks. Whatever kicks off with everything Mann has become celebrated for in “I Should Have Known”: a wall of guitar, a solid melodic hook that comes out of left field, great background vocals. But “I Know There’s a Word” showcases the more tender, acoustic side that is never absent from any Mann release. Two years later I’m with Stupid appears to repeat the formula but with a few twists. Opening track “Long Shot” is a bit punchier while the obvious single “That’s Just What You Are” is pulled in a different direction by the distinctive vocal contributions of Squeeze’s lead singer. Though again, the quiet acoustic “You’re with Stupid Now” is a slow burner of a killer tune. Mann came out with Bachelor No. 2 in 2000, which featured songs that had appeared in the film Magnolia. Rightly praised for its strong material, I’m particularly partial to “Red Vines,” “Driving Sideways,” and “Susan.”
I lost track of Aimee Mann for a few years. You know, I got busy, she got busy. 2002’s Lost in Space passed me by, though now I love “This is How it Goes” and “Invisible Ink.” I did catch the brilliant Forgotten Arm when it came out in 2005. It makes sense that a story-telling songwriter like Mann would want a bigger canvas, a whole album that develops an over-arching story. You can’t pick and choose your 99 cent choices here, you have to buy the whole thing to really get it, but I do tend to hit repeat on “Video,” “Little Bombs,” and the achingly beautiful “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart.” I missed both 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers and 2012’s Charmer when they came out. Ok, there are more attentive Aimee Mann fans than me. But I’ve made up for lost time – both these records are fabulous. @#%&*! Smilers adds a wonderful array of keyboard sounds on the uptempo “Freeway,” and the more swinging “Borrowing Time,” while “Little Tornado” is breathtaking with its starkly simple arrangement of guitar, echo-y piano, and whistling. Charmer takes the keyboard exploration to new heights on so many strong tracks, but I really like the title track, “Crazytown,” and “Red Flag Diver.”
Which brings us to the present and Mann’s stunning new album, Mental Illness. With Whatever I thought Mann had put the bar pretty high but looking back over her career I think she has gotten better and better with every release. Mental Illness has the hooks, the careful attention to arrangement that characterizes all of Mann’s output, and an impressive range of instrumental quirks. The two singles, “Goose Snow Cone” and “Patient Zero” showcase this beautifully, particularly the spooky ‘oohs’ that introduce us to the latter song. Is the record a departure from Mann’s past work? In one sense, not really. Acoustic guitar anchors most of her work and every album usually features more than a few solely acoustic numbers. What is different here is the balance, with “Simple Fix” the only track that employs a more full band sound. Aside from the singles, right now I’m also really enjoying “Rollercoasters” and the more piano-based ballad “Poor Judge.”
Aimee Mann is currently on tour with the hilarious Jonathan Coulton opening her shows and playing in her backing band (he played on Mental Illness as well) so hustle on over the Mann’s website to find when she will be in your town.
It is great to see acts come out of the woodwork stronger than ever. The Feelies never raced up the charts when they originally hit the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s but, like the Velvet Underground, they seemed to inspire just about every one of their fans to start their own band. Their original, laid back distinctive guitar sound still seems fresh today. Their soon to be released album, In Between, however, is a bit of departure, with stronger, heavier guitar sound on the pre-release single “Gone, Gone, Gone.”
Gone, Gone, Gone
Toronto’s Hidden Cameras continue to release curious reinventions of all manner of traditional poprock. Home on Native Land features a great hooky alt country sounding single in “Don’t Make Promises,” a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on any number of Dwight Yoakam releases. The most recent album also features a remake of “He is the Boss of Me,” a song from HC’s earliest release, 2001’s Ecce Homo. I remember buying an early release of the CD at one of their shows that contained felt marker writing on the disk and a colour photocopied sleeve. The original version of the song is great but stark in its DIY economism. The new version is rich and frankly, voluptuous, by comparison, which really showcases what a great song it is.
Aimee Mann is back with a new album, Mental Illness, one she claims will explore the acoustic pop sound of the 1960s, with back up from Jonathan Coulton no less. I say claim because at present we have just the one pre-release single to go by, the exquisite “Goose Snow Cone.” But if her track record recommends her, it’s going to be great. In another entry we featured her anti-Trump single “Can’t You Tell” as well as few tunes from her collaboration with Ted Leo in The Both. And her last solo album, Charmer, was solid, with nary a track that wasn’t worth paying 99 cents for. Mann has a distinctive songwriting and performance style, and her lyrics are smart though sometimes confounding (which is good – it gets you thinking). Check out the clever wordplay in her 2014 stand alone single, “I’m Cured,” with its low key acoustic guitar accompaniment that features some nice accordion and piano slipping in as it goes along.Goose Snow Cone
On the something new front, The Molochs are an outstanding 1960s re-invention from Los Angeles. Their just released new album, America’s Velvet Glory, is so cool you’re going to have to handle it with gloves. The transformation from their 2013 indie debut, Forgotten Blues, is pretty impressive. The latter is a enjoyable DIY affair but the latest release exudes a kind of uber confidence that says you won’t touch that dial. The influences are many but I hear Lou Reed in the Velvets in the vocal style while the sometimes spare accompaniment reminds me of a number of early 1980s indie bands. In a world of single song downloads, this is an album worth buying. If I have to single out a few songs, I’d note “That’s the Trouble with You,” “The One I Love,” and “No More Crying.”
When artists go solo or come around sporting a new band the results can split three ways. They might come back sounding pretty much like they did when they left, which sometimes turns out well (I guess she really was the band …) or leads to disaster (hm, he really should have stuck it out with the other guys …). But sometimes they return with a markedly different sound, a result that some find disappointing but I often find refreshing and exciting. This post features three different artists defying expectations on their second time around.
Jim Adkins is the lead singer for Jimmy Eat World and you couldn’t get a more different take on him that this solo EP. The title track, “I Will Go,” kicks things off with sprightly clean acoustic guitar rhythm and a lovely swinging melody, later adding horns and electric guitar to what is a solid single. He applies a similar fresh treatment to Beck’s “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard.” Things get a bit edgier with his interesting take on an Everly Brothers’ b-side, “Give Me a Sweetheart,” featuring a double tracked harmony vocal and a guitar with an ominous rumble. But the EP’s highlight has to be his bleached-out, on-tender-hooks version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Adkins deliberately avoids hitting all the familiar notes of Lauper’s mega-hit arrangement, revealing a remarkably flexible tune underneath all Cyndi’s fun flash. I Will Go is a winner: every track on this six song release is value for money.I Will GoGive Me a SweetheartGirls Just Want to Have Fun
Drummers get a bad rap. Other than keeping time, expectations of what they will contribute are often low. They are seldom the singer or songwriter for their respective group. But here Donny Brown defies expectations. As drummer for the grungy nineties Verve Pipe, Brown gradually expanded his influence on the band from just playing his instrument early on to contributing nearly half the songs to their 2001 album Underneath. But nothing could prepare us for Brown’s solo outings where he writes, sings, plays guitar and drums, and goes in a completely different direction than his other gig. Brown has a great soft rock vocal style and the tunes on his first EP, Hess Street, run the gamut from lush spot-on 1970s pop (“Bitter Rival”) to amazing tin pan alley recreations (“Call Me”). A real stand out is the opening track, the McCartney-esque “Lucky Number” with its intriguing melodic twists and Band on the Run lead guitar. His follow up EP, the self-titled Donny Brown, continues in the 1970s vein with tracks like “Life of a Stranger” and “Reach Out” but increases the hook factor on other contributions, echoing just a bit of ELO at times. The marvelous “Now You Can Break My Heart” is a poprock masterpiece that will get in your head and stay there.
Is this the second or third time around for Aimee Mann? Ok, we’re bending the rules here to include The Both, her collaboration with Ted Leo. I can’t help but think that this record sounds like the one she could have recorded with hubby Michael Penn before he banished himself to scoring movies, if their few collaborative singles are anything to go by. But, no matter, this debut is a killer. Of our trio of offerings, it also represents the least departure from the artists’ original formula. Overall, it may sound a bit tougher than Mann’s solo material at times, but the songs are indelibly Mann-esque, with all her clever turns of phrase both lyrically and musically. While there are no weak tracks here I certainly hit replay on “Milwaukee,” “Volunteers of America,” and “Hummingbird.” If you’re a Mann fan, this is a must have. It will also have you checking out Leo’s back catalogue with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (hint: start with “Bottled in Cork”).MilwaukeeVolunteers of AmericaHummingbird
Talk about missed opportunities – I managed to miss most of these acts when they blew through town. If only I’d paid more attention to the Jim Adkins, Donny Brown and The Both websites. Don’t let that happen to you.
Time for another trip around the dial with acts that offer something old, something new, or something completely different.
More Suzanne Vega? This is super new, from her most recently released album, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers. Based initially on a project for art school, Vega developed it into a play featuring herself. On the whole, the record has a stylized cabaret feel, but for one track which really harkens back to a more familiar Vega sound, the single “We of Me.” For fans of her distinctive folk pop sound, this song will not disappoint: ringing acoustic guitars, a poetic cadence and a hook that stays in your head.
Michael Penn launched into the charts in 1989 with his debut album March, largely on the strength of a break out single – “No Myth” – which got to 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. But three albums later it was pretty clear that his chart success was a bit of a blip, despite turning out consistently strong material. Still, in 2005, after a five year break, he released the stunning Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, an amazing concept album chock full of striking would-be hit singles: “Walter Reed,” “On Automatic,” “A Bad Sign,” and many others. Still, no chart love. So he walked away, shifting his considerable creative talents to television and movie soundtracks. I rue the day somebody lunched him into this decision. Luckily, the occasional single still emerges from time to time, like “Anchors Aweigh” from volume three of his soundtrack work of the HBO show Girls. Deceptively simple sounding, resting on a basic acoustic guitar backing track, Penn adds impressive depth and hooks with his vocals and the occasional instrumental flourish.Girls
Speaking of Penn, his spouse has had a very different response to chart indifference. Sure, Aimee Mann has done some soundtrack work too, most notably Magnolia in 1999. But she’s also kept up her solo work and a host of other creative partnerships. Mann is unique in not only consistently writing great songs, but she has developed her own distinctive songwriting style, something that few performers – the Beatles, Elton John, Elvis Costello – have really managed to do. “Can’t You Tell” is an original song Mann created for the anti-Trump political project, 30 Days, 30 Songs, narrated from the perspective of Trump himself, basically saying ‘come on folks, you know I don’t really want this job, it’s just my ego at work here …’ The song is not a charity knock off – that is not the way Mann does things. Instead, “Can’t You Tell” is a solid single, the mark of Mann’s talent that she can just give away such strong material for a one-off project like this.Can’t You Tell
Gentle Hen is the brainchild of Henning Ohlenbusch, seemingly the hardest working man in show business this side of Northhampton, Massachusetts. He is one of those guys who is part of half a dozen bands and collaborates with a half dozen more, while still getting out some solo stuff on the sly. The Bells on the Boats of the Bay is the debut album from his old band but now under a new name and everything seems to falling into place: fabulous design on the artwork, stellar songwriting, and a great sound. There are a whole lotta influences going on here: chiming guitars, Ben Vaughn-esque vocal stylings on some numbers, and hooks, hooks, hooks. “I Don’t Know Anyone Else But” is a strong single featuring a late 1960s British poprock guitar line opening out to lilting melody that shifts tempo to great effect in the chorus.
Some bands do variety in terms of song styles but others just sound like totally different groups. Ex Cops fall into the latter category. Some of their more recent work has a cool indie vibe going – definitely check up “Black Soap” and “Pretty Shitty” – but if we go way back to 2012 they were working a decidedly different seam of the poprock scene. “James” reminds me of Nick Lowe’s immediate post-Rockpile work on albums like Nick the Knife and The Abominable Showman. Definitely hooks galore!