The mailbag is full. So many of today’s artists have to do it all: write, record, make the tea, and slop the product to people like me. The least I can do is respond with a little word love.
Rockford isn’t just the name of some trailer park living, hard luck 1970s private detective. It’s the Illinois home of Half Catholic (formerly Pink Beam) and their neo-1950s goth poprock. Right now they’re just a single: the stylized, mixed-genre “Slow Down.” The song has some nice 1950s touches layered into the background of a contemporary melodic angst rock number, particularly the swooping background vocals. It has a consistent feel, despite various timing changes and shifts in aural attack. Keen to see where an album or EP will take these elements. Just a state away Detroit’s All Over the Shop offer up a distinct rock sound featuring stripped down guitar work and a vocal timbre that conjures the intimate intensity of early Roxy Music on “Moving Too Slow” and Richard Thompson, particularly on the should-be single “If That’s Magic” and “Brand New Summer.” The latter track has some striking melodic changes, particularly into the chorus, with the guitar and vocals in a dynamic but complementary tension. These tracks and more all appear on the band’s recent self-titled debut EP.
If we keep moving east we’ll end up somewhere else. Like Astro Chicken’s new record Different Town. The band still reside in NYC but stylistically they’ve moved on, to a more intimate sound, sometimes folky (“Fight”), sometimes just a more laid back poprock (“Hey Charlie” “SOB” “Card Trick”), sometimes both (“Fred”). If I were a bet-making guy my money would be on “Love Comes Close” as should-be hit single material with its unmistakable Nick Lowe/John Hiatt notes. Though I admit I’m partial to the languid lead guitar driving the instrumental “At Least For Now.” Get caught up on the arc of AC’s past heroic indie poprock efforts from our previous post on the band and then enjoy the adventures this new album represents. Heading north Toronto’s Robby Miller hit 2020 with a nice bit of poprock crunch on his debut EP. But his new single “Little Words” turns up the melodic elements in a very nice Beatles/FOW sort of way. The rhythm and lead guitars nicely balance each other and there seems to be a new confidence in the songwriting. A whole album of tunes along these lines would be most welcome.
Fans of Squeeze, Crowded House, Paul Carrack or any of those early 1980s guitar poprock groups (like the revived version of The Searchers) are going to love James Henry’s new album Pluck. Henry is a virtuoso guitar player and some of his earlier work reminded me of John Martyn or Roy Harper in their more melodic moments. But with Pluck he embraces his 1980s beat group sensibilities, tossing irresistible hooks into every song. Album opener “A Girl Like You” has a vocal and song structure that is so Glenn Tilbrook meets Paul Carrack. But I hear a bit of Neil Finn (“I’ve Never Loved You More”) or Joe Jackson (“Cinema Haze”) or Todd Rundgren (“Currently Resting”) or even an updated Beatles (“Available for Selection”) elsewhere on the album. Currently I’m hitting replay on the addictive “So Many Times Before,” with its Merseybeat guitar flourishes and Billy Bremner sense of heart on the vocal. Other should-be chart toppers include “Only Find Love” with its killer chorus and background response vocals and “Tomorrow May Be Too Late” featuring those hypnotic lead guitar hooks. Get a copy of Pluck, the album is a masterclass in poprock songwriting and performance.
Sometimes the mail presents me with boundary issues. Is this song/album/band really poprock? I’d put Sweden’s Kingfishersomewhere near the border yet still inside. Overall their sound may be a bit on the rock club/dancy side of things but “Illusions” has the punch and swing and melodic chops I associate with genre-crossing acts like Portugal The Man, particularly the guitar work. So I’m counting them in. Their current release of three singles definitely shows tremendous promise. Meanwhile Old Town Crier has that old timely Americana thing going on. “Don’t Go” sounds like something Lennon and McCartney might have vamped during those extended Let It Be sessions, Americana with a touch of punk. But most of the EP I’m Longing for You Honey in Middleboro, Mass has a more Springsteen meets Titus Andronicus vibe, particularly the distinctive harmonica/piano combo on “I Might Get Lost.”
You don’t need a letter from me to find these acts. Click on the hotlinked artist names to reward their melodic hustle.
There are philosophers who will tell you that when it comes to living the good life, the journey is the real destination. But most professional musicians usually dream of actually arriving somewhere, like maybe the top of charts. Still, despite the fact that relatively few make the Top 40 (let alone number one), there are some acts that just keep soldiering on. Like today’s trio of journeymen poprockers – all continue to put out great music even though stratospheric fame has proven illusive. All the more reason to fly their flag right now!
Imagine stumbling across someone with an album catalogue like all those great indie rock and rollers – Elvis Costello, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Don Dixon, etc. – delivered with a Nick Lowe or T-Bone Burnette production-style. Well, imagine no more! Michael Shelley is here and he’s got six albums or so, just brimming with melodies and sweet melancholia. I discovered Shelley as the producer of Juniper’s recent hip record and just a bit of digging revealed his own killer catalogue. If I had to boil down his sound it would be easy to slot him into the Rockpile diaspora, with its retro rock and roll, pub rock country and new wave elements. Sure, it would be obvious to compare him to Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw, but think a bit further afield in this crowd, like the country pop sound of Carlene Carter’s Musical Shapes album or the poppy soul of Paul Carrack’s Suburban Voodoo (both produced by Nick Lowe). Nor can Shelley be limited to just this sub-genre, as his amazing collaboration with former Teenage Fanclub drummer Francis Macdonald in Cheeky Monkey makes clear. Contemporary comparisons of the Shelley sound might bring to mind Edward O’Connell and Richard X. Heyman.
Shelley’s 1997 debut Half Empty nails down the formula with a moody indie vibe on “Don’t” (love the great rumbly guitar and organ – sounds so classic 1960s), strong melodic interventions with “Think With Your Heart,” “Rollercoaster” (particularly the chorus!), and “Mary,” while “Tonight Could be the Night” has a lovely Ben Vaughn simplicity. The follow-up, 1998’s Too Many Movies widens the stylistic scope, adding surfer fun (“Surfer Joan”), Beach Boy harmonies (“The Pill”), country rock (“Lisa Marie” and “She’s Not You”) and solid indie pop with “Jigsaw Girl” and “Summer, I Pissed You Away” (the latter echoing a real Marti Jones feel on the songwriting front). I love the hooks carrying “Too Many Movies” while “You Were Made to Break My Heart” sounds like the kind of obscure tunes that Nick Lowe finds to slip into his records and make sound like great lost classics. There’s even a cool song about brushing your teeth – “That’s Where the Plaque Is” – and that’s not easy to pull off! Keyboards come more to the fore on 2001’s I Blame You with the solid single “Mix Tape,” the McCartney-esque jauntiness of “Face in My Pocket,” and the Robbie Fulks playfulness of “Let’s Fall in Hate.”
I think my favourite release from Michael Shelley is undoubtedly 2005’s Goodbye Cheater. The album veers between solid retro country and hook-laden poprock without losing its own sense of purpose. “Hurry Up and Fall in Love” and “A Little Bit Blue” mine the Buck Owens/Dwight Yoakum vein of electric guitar-picking country while the cover of the Roger Miller/George Jones song “That’s The Way I Feel” and the instrumental “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” actually have a more western feel. On the poprock side there’s the early Elvis Costello vibe to “We Invented Love,” “Move Along,” and “Goodbye Cheater.” Or there’s the Bacharach pop swing of “Suddenly Free” and the Monkees-meets-Simon and Garfunkel elan of “Out.” There’s even a winning instrumental in “Goofball.” 2012’s Leftovers offers up a winning collection of cover tunes and unreleased and live material – check out the great covers of Bobby Fuller, NRBQ, and Teenage Fanclub as well as quality demos of “Don’t” and “Goofball.” Shelly’s most recent release is the 2015 collection of instrumentals entitled Jimmy’s Corners (check out “Ahmed’s Best” and “Back of the Country Squire”). Surely fifteen years after his last album of conventional songs, we are due for some new Shelley material? The answer is yes.
Astro Chicken is the moniker that Barney Miller (no, not that guy) has used for the past 25 years for both solo and group efforts, the latter with John Laprade and brother Mike Miller. His story is textbook late 1990s rock and roll: multiple labels, missing the curve of what’s (momentarily) hot, then solo releases, breaks, and now some new tunes. Gotta admire the stamina! 1997’s debut release was the Disposable EP and right away you can practically see the Elvis Costello fingerprints all over the should-be single, “So Can I.” 1998’s Sugarwater takes things in a new direction with “Waste” sounding very Odds, “Honeymoon” acing the Beatles background vocals with a killer, insistent “Getting Better” guitar chime, while “Nothing Around for Me” is faintly Crowded House. 2001’s Almost Anywhere takes yet another turn, this time leaning a bit country in a Blue Rodeo or Jayhawks sort of way, which you can really hear on “Blame Yourself” once it gets going.
So Can IWasteBlame Yourself
From there, the drive to chart success stalled for a bit, with Miller releasing just two essentially solo albums between 2005 and 2018, still under the Astro Chicken label. But the solo work really provides an insight into the breadth of Miller’s songwriting. 2005’s Sweet Truth is alternatively hilarious and introspective, all the while harbouring a lightly stoked sense of outrage. Anchored by acoustic guitar and a Graham Parker vocal delivery, the record offers acerbic commentary on death (“My Funeral is Gonna Be Packed”) and popular culture (“F You American Idol”), sometimes vibing Fountains of Wayne (“Soak Up the Night”) or E from the Eels (see ‘Funeral …’) or an Imperial Bedroom era EC (“I Am Not Blue About You”). 2018’s National Detective Agency Miller describes as album of leftover Astro Chicken demos, tarted up for release, along with a few new tunes. A lot here is stripped down Americana, like the Wilco-ish “Try” and the pretty acoustic guitar number, “Change Your Mind.” “Lock It Up” also has a nice hooky, easygoing swing. Which brings us the present: with Mike and John back with the group, the band’s brand new 2020 EP is Black Balloon. Check out the title track, a nice rocking tune with a solid Tom Petty feel to it.
F You American IdolI’m Not Blue About YouChange Your MindBlack Balloon
Tulsa native David Burdick is the real rock and roll deal. The way he tells is, life has been one long series of joining and quitting and joining band after band, playing across the southern American Midwest, putting out the occasional 45 while recording an enormous number of home demos. From grade 5 on he’s played with The Jeeps, The Jetsons, The Jacks, The Insects, Color of Time, Sins Tailor, The Rickebackers, The Stand, and many more. His bands have opened for the likes of The Motels, The Cramps, The Fleshtones, The Lords of the New Church, the reunited Byrds, Charlie Sexton, and, yes, many more. Long before artists started to do ‘song a week’ gimmicks Burdick challenged himself to record a song a day and then proceeded to do so for sixty days! All of this is to say that Burdick’s career and recordings particularly have been unconventional by mainstream standards – no nice neat release of single, then album, then greatest hits. More like an explosion of bits from all over his career, some professionally recorded, others home demo’d on whatever equipment was to hand. The results are often raw, truly garage rock, like they were recorded in real garage somewhere. And like good 1960s garage rock, they’re exciting, both his originals and many, many covers of rock and roll classics.
You can get a good sense of David Burdick from his 2016 release Under the Influence, which contains songs recorded throughout his decades-long career. As far as I can tell, “Letters” first came out in 1983 and it’s a masterpiece of a single, with fantastic lead line guitar hooks and poppy vocals. This should have been a monster hit! “I Can’t Sit Still” captures that late 1970s new wave reinvention of 1960s poprock, “Let’s Go for a Ride” has a great Lou Reed-tude, while “Independence Day” is a departure with its early 1980s The Fixx atmosphere. If you go digging, Burdick has a collection called Relapse with more great tunes, like the jangle-laden “Sister,” “Look at it Rain” with its hypnotic guitar riff, and the hilarious “Redneck Zombies.” A lot of Burdick’s various band recordings are pretty rough but the Sins Tailor songs were clearly professionally done. Personally, I love the ringing Brydsian jangle on “Morning Calling.” If you want to mainline rock and roll authenticity, hook yourself up with Burdick’s work.
SisterLook At It RainSins Taylor – Morning Calling
Journeymen put in the time because … they have to. Something drives them to play, record, and put the music out there. The least we can do is to check out what Michael Shelley, Astro Chicken and David Burdick been up to. After all, while they’re clearly not in it for the money, but they undoubtedly could use some.