May Day is an annual wake up call for the working class, a day celebrated in more than 160 countries around the world. What better way to get on-message than through music? Today’s post honours May Day aka International Workers’ Day with songs about class, identity, and solidarity. It’s definitely time to work out which side you are on.
New York City’s Jeremy and the Harlequins put out a killer album in 2019, Remember This, a solid slab of Americana rock and roll in the Fallon, Mellencamp and Springsteen mold. But the standout song for our purposes is “American Gold,” a highly listenable hooky tune with lyrics that slay the American dream with a clarity seldom matched in popular music:
Brothers and sisters if you wanna be saved Listen close to a story about how the streets get paved Not by men selling greatness or hope But on the backs of the working class folks Well they sell you a dream that you don’t really need Cut you up by colour or creed Then they’ll give somebody to blame It’s the same old story but they change the name
There’s a lot of talk about outlaw country but the usual examples are anything but. Most just mix dominant ideology with a few y’alls and call it a day. And then there’s Will Hoge. His 2018 album My American Dream takes aim at Republican politicians, the NRA and the conservative undercurrent to the country music establishment. Given how the latter dominate that scene, Hoge is clearly the real outlaw here. On “Stupid Kids” he rages in favour of kids making a difference, with a Steve Earle snarl and a driving Blue Oyster cult guitar riff:
Oh stupid kids don’t listen to what the old folks say You’re the only ones that are ever gonna make things change Keep your feet marching Raise up your voice don’t quit Keep doin’ what you’re doin’ Keep being stupid kids
But the coup de grace lyric comes in the bridge when Hoge sings:
Turn your music up Sing to your own damn song You know you got it right When all the old white men don’t sing along
Crossing the pond This Circus Life take a break from their usual smooth poprock sound for something more Beautiful South or Chumbawumba (in a mellow mood) on “Where Are the Working Classes?” From 2021’s The Vast and Endless Sea, the tune calls into question the superficial and mostly unattainable middle class aspirations of the post Thatcher era in the UK, reminiscent of critiques from the likes of filmmaker Mike Leigh in his movie High Hopes. As Charlie Mear sings “Didn’t we see them pulling the wool down over our eyes?” Indeed. Another UK band that reliably banged on and on about class were McCarthy. I can’t believe I didn’t notice this band during their heyday circa 1987-88. They were essentially a twee version of The Smiths but with super-sized politics. For these guys, everything was political. Lyricist Malcolm Eden is like that guy at the party that won’t stop droning on about capitalism. My kind of guy obviously. There are so many possible songs to choose from here but “In the Dark Times” remains relevant and has some nice Johnny Marr-like guitar work. Wrapping things up this May Day we have the ever relevant Billy Bragg. His recent album The Million Things That Never Happened is another Americana folk tour-de-force, both sing-a-long good and highly topical. On “Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free” Bragg shreds the libertarian right, pointing out the glaring flaws in their unrealistic utopian plans that should be the obvious to everyone.
So listen for the bugles’ call this May Day. Whether your reveille be “The International” or “This Land is Your Land” the sentiments are basically the same. As my grandmother used to say, ‘working people gotta stick together!’
This is a countdown to both warmer temps and hotter tunes: our spring singles countdown! I find my incoming new singles pile never really shrinks but that’s not really a problem is it? So here goes with another 21 songs just pining for your attention.
The Stranglers were one of those bands I was vaguely aware of in my youth but I was too distracted by the melodic heft of The Jam and Squeeze to take notice of their more subtle charms. In fact it was only in the past few years I heard the band’s exquisite “Golden Brown” from their 1981 album Le Folie. Fast forward to last year and the band’s 18th album Dark Matters is full of winning tunes. The tribute to late longtime band member Dave Greenfield “And If You See Dave …” is touching while “The Last Men on the Moon” has a hooky futuristic vibe a la 1980s Moodies meets Blue Oyster Cult. Another band doing the coming-back-strong thing are The Lovetones. After a decade gone they returned in 2020 with Myriad and the must hear song for me is “Rescue.” Ok, this is not a breaking single but it should have been, it’s got that magical mid-1960s sparkle tune-wise. Tamar Berk is building up to something pretty extraordinary, if her drip drip of confident pre-album singles is anything to go by. “Tragic Endings” opens with alluring simplicity, just a single electric guitar and Berk’s clear voice, before adding layer after layer of sonic hooks. The song is masterful arrangement of push and pull melodic effects and the vibe is like Pat Benatar meets Blondie, with a touch of Laurie Anderson thrown in. The upcoming album is Start at the End but you’re gonna want in at the beginning. Ottawa’s Robby Millar turns up the 1970s bubblegum/glam guitars on “All We’ve Got” with a chorus that is very The Cure. It’s a creative combination that is oh so obvious once you hear it. Incipient spring brings a new double A sided single from Nashville artists *repeat repeat and they certainly paint a picture, “Soft” a dreamy, shoe-gazey float along the water, “Hmm Feels Like” a punchier Kevin Devine-ish acoustic bit of hooky shuffle.
Houston’s enigmatic poprocker K. Campbell layers his recent single “Breaking Glass” with an intoxicatingly compressed sound, like a classic 45 blasting from a transistor radio. But listen a little more closely to hear all the subtle shifts in sonic texture that elevate the tune. Another textured mini-masterpiece comes from L.A.’s A. Michael Collins. “In Other Climes” initially sounds like it’s a member of the Bryds family tree with its jangly guitars and harmony vocals. But it quickly turns into something more contemporary, not unlike the retro reinventions from the likes of Richard X. Heyman. Bryan Adams albums typically alternate between effing-eh truck-driving stadium-rawk and more radio-friendly poprock earworms. Album 15 So Happy It Hurts delivers on both but I’m drawn more to the latter, which just happen to be all the songs he wrote here with his traditional hit-songwriting partner Jim Vallance. “I’ve Been Looking For You” is textbook poprock goodness: so simple, nothing ground-breaking here, but man does Adams know how to put it together. Now for something a bit different, Classic Pat takes on Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s In Love With the Boy” stripping out all its ‘easy listening’ country elan and replacing that with a fabulous 1980s Canadian indie vibe e.g. The Northern Pikes or The Grapes of Wrath. The song is just one of many commercial country make-overs appearing on a worthwhile album split with Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard entitled Country Buffet. Austin duo Hovvdy wowed critics with their self-described ‘pillow core’ album True Love last fall. Now they’re back with a new single “Everything.” The acoustic guitar sets the tone and hook for the song, building from a stark and spare backdrop only to drop in a bit banjo on its way to veritable wall of sound as the tune builds. It is somehow both a bit manic and oh-so-smooth at the same time.
Everything about Isle-of-Eigg dweller Johnny Lynch is original. His recordings as Pictish Trail defy easy categorization. Me, I’m drawn to the melody central cuts, which really comprise only some small part of his musical vision. As Guardian writer Jude Rogers reveals, his latest album Island Family is an oblique love letter to his island home and community. My choice for your listening pleasure is “Melody Something” but the rest of the album is worth some dedicated listening. Lincoln UK’s The Rills are something a bit different again, offering up a lot of story detail on “Skint Eastwood.” The verses have a driving, almost relentless attack but when the chorus kicks in, wow, it’s like melodic crack. Staten Island’s Goin’ Places have shifted the intensity of their punk delivery over their twenty years together, edging slightly into more pop punk territory on their most recent album, Save the World. It’s a strong album but personally I’m digging the Mersey-ish “Recover.” Sure, there’s a still a strong punky feel to the proceedings but the boys add some very melodic guitar lines and sweet background vocals. Veteran protest songster Billy Bragg came out with a new album The Million Things That Never Happened last fall and it had more than a few of his signature hooky folk rock numbers. The highlight for me was album closer “Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained” with its rollicking tempo and razor sharp social commentary. Kelowna’s Stephen Schijns has a curious new single that combines an eerie Gordon Lightfoot-reminiscent vocal with a chugging yet propulsive bit of poprock performance, and a tasty bit of 1970s guitar solo. It really works.
North Carolina’s Tracy Shedd ambles onto centre stage with her single “Going Somewhere,” its laid back feel gaining more urgency in the chorus. Definitely a bit of car-driving, windows-open on a summer day sort of music. The Telmos’ “What She Knows” actually first appeared on the band’s 2019 EP How Quick It Goes Away but it has now been re-released by Aldora Britain Records. It definitely deserves a second chance, given its sunny 1960s pop psychedelic feel. Kinda like The Zombies jamming with The Hollies. Back into the pop punk field, Boston’s Invisible Rays pump out what sounds like a somewhat more socially adjusted Weezer on “Landline.” This one is jump-up-and-down dance good. Another late find for me is smiles “Gone For Good.” This 2019 release oozes Teenage Fanclub, Big Star and Matthew Sweet vibes. Turn it up loud and get lost in the melodic haze. Chicago’s Kerosene Stars continue their English 1980s band revival kick with “Purpose of Friend,” a song that sounds like something from Manchester 1988. A bit confessional folkie, a bit swing poprock.
We’ll wrap things up with a double blast from prolific Cambridgeshire indie artist 65MPH. The recent singles “Real Life” and “Don’t Walk Away” cap a series of releases from this guy, so an album proper cannot be far off (can it?). I love the rough and ready vibe on these songs, reminding me of work from the likes of The Jam and Cast.
Twenty-one singles crammed into one post is like finding a variety box of quality chocolates on your Easter egg hunt. There’s definitely going to be some you really like. Time to start indulging.
In between competing Canadian and American Thanksgivings is most of November, a month where nothing much really happens. What better time to shine a little light on some new singles? No time, my friends. Get ready to taste test twenty or so new tunes in between bites of leftover turkey.
There’s something very Bowie about Ward White. His delicate yet forceful delivery defies easy categorization. His new album, The Tender Age, is full of sophisticated tunes but I’m drawn to the more rootsy, almost pub rock “Don’t Let’s Die at the Stop Light.” The organ and lead guitar work are fabulous and the chorus takes a surprising melodic turn. The new Grip Weeds record Dig is a cover album tour-de-force. The band blast through an inspired collection of sixties psych rock classics and then some. But their treatment of The Byrds “Lady Friend” is epic, taking the song to new heights by amping the psych content and nailing the vocal arrangement (adding some Turtles’ ba ba ba’s to good effect). And don’t skimp on getting the deluxe double-album version because disc two has some real killers, like the wild cover of The Monkees “For Pete’s Sake” and the banjo-licious take on the Nightcrawlers’ “Little Black Egg.” Another band working the sixties side of the street pretty hard is The On and Onsand they ace that garage-y yet poppy rock and roll sound with guitars that practically leap from the speakers. The new album is Back for More and you will be, guaranteed. But as a taster, check out “Your Kind of World.” What a fab hooky guitar lead line opener! And the rest is a pretty winning Bryds-meets-Beatles “Rain” era single. The minute I spotted that Tommy Scifres had played with Aaron Lee Tasjan I had a feeling his record would be pretty cool. And it is. The LP is Last Legs, a lovely collection of melody central tuneage, like the mellifluous “Thought You Knew” with its spacey vocals and trippy guitar. Like some very early 1970s Steve Miller Band. But I’m liking “What’s at the Bottom of Your Heart” even more with its retro 1950s swing. How many bands can take two decades off from recording and come back like they’d just slipped out to the store for a pack of smokes? Clearly The Connells can. Steadman’s Wake is their new album and it is a fantastic mélange of Americana and Tom Petty poprock. The whole album is a keeper but I’m presently grooving on “Fading In (Hardly)” with its Billy Bragg song-framing and shiver-inducing, gut-punch of a chorus. Get those lighters ready.
There’s something old and something new about Sydney, Australia band The Hard Ons’ new album, I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken. Going on 40 years as a musical outfit (with a few times outs) obviously the band is something old. But The Hard Ons 2021 have a brand new lead vocalist, former You Am I singer Tim Rogers, and pretty punchy poprock sound, apparent on the driving “Hold Tight.” Love the band name, love the album title. Boston’s Scrimshanders get labelled with tags like alt country but I don’t get it from listening to “SXMS,” featured on their latest long-player Songs That Never Were. Just check out that rough chord-slashing guitar work and those John Doe vocals. This is rock and roll baby. Ok, maybe tracks like “Restless Heart” have a bit of country in them, but, again, I hear more of the Jersey shore in those twin engine organ and guitar blasts. I totally loved Nashville band *repeat repeat’s 2019 album Glazed with its unique blend of contemporary and retro sounds. Since then they’ve been teasing us with a succession of tasty singles, practically a new album’s worth. The latest is “Trippin’ (I Know I Will)” and it is wonderfully otherworldly with hooky, winsome lead guitar work that frames a lovely little pop song. Chicago’s The Cut-Outs describe their sound as punk-powerpop-rock and roll. Ya, that about captures it, though not on every song. Take “Ordinary Man” from their latest collection Let’s Go! – it’s a late 1960s rocker all the way. Of course, there definitely a heavy dollop of poppy punk ambiance defining the album’s opening cut “Tuesday Night.” I love the manic clapping and the Dave Rave-like vocals. Washington D.C.’s The Buzz have got that spare 1979 guitar sound all over their most recent record Cut Loose! There are so many great songs here but overall I’m really grooving on “Stuck in the Cloud,” a bona fide should-be hit single. There are a load of subtle melodic change ups in this song, with the band regularly altering their attack and deftly layering interesting musical dynamics behind a glam era vocal.
Orlando Florida’s The BellTowers psych their jangle pretty thoroughly throughout Magnetic, both Reel One and Reel Two. The double EP is a whole lot of intensely sibilant guitar work. My recommendation is, start with “Erase Any Doubts.” The guitar is everywhere, hypnotically drawing you in, keeping you focused on it like a great montage sequence from any season one episode of The Monkees. Look I’m not saying it’s an Australia thing but I can’t help but hear a kind of punk rock Paul Kelly vibe embedded in Suburban Urchin’s “4000 Miles Away” from their Born in the Suburbs release. The cut charges along with such fist-waving intensity, you know this would be a dance hall stomper. Milan, Italy’s Radio Days just keep dropping exquisite singles. This time they draw from the British beat group era circa 1965 for the background sonic pallete. There’s an early Mersey feel to the guitar lead line kicking off “Walking Alone” but then the song branches out into a more timeless power pop sound. Buzzard Buzzard Buffalo are a mysterious band that leave a light footprint on the ole interweb. They hail from Manchester Tennessee but sound like they hang in that more famous version of the town. “Love Song for You” is a quirky, endearing bit of lofi pop. It’s a song that comes on in the background and before you know it you’re turning up the volume and hitting repeat. I’ve loved St. Paul Minnesota’s The Persian Leaps for a long time. I own two of their albums, an EP, and handful of singles. So how come I’ve never managed to write about them? Epic coverage fail! Well, let me make up for lost time – get the band’s newest release, Drone Etiquette: it’s great. I mean, check out how that banging guitar opener to “When This Gets Out” is cast against vocals that are so melodically refined, offset by some polite piano shots. Then for something different, there’s “The Company She Keeps” which has such a fab Andy Partridge/XTC chime.
I’ll admit I initially stopped at Växjö, Sweden musician Fredrik Solfors’s site because his band name was so intriguing:School Book Depository. And what’s not to like about a guy with a ‘Bob’ song on every album? Album number three is now out, Bob and the Eastern Beacon of Hope, collecting a host of drip pre-released singles and then some. I’m loving the gentle hooky charm of “Killer in the Mountains,” a carefully crafted bit of poprock portraiture. There are so many delightful details here, from the Owl City meets Good Old War vocals to a captivating musical arrangement. With “Lipstick Queens” Rocket Bureau bolt out of the singles gate with a track that sounds like a mix of some mad off-off-Broadway show and a new wave revival album. They claim to be Wisconsin’s ‘basement-rock and roll-one man-studio band’ but to my ears they are ready to take the stage. The song is from the album Middle Angst, and its got a lot more 1970s guitars and hooky tunes for you. For a while it seemed like the name Andy Boppwas everywhere. “Bopp’s a genius,” they’d say. “Bopp’s got a killer album,” proclaimed the reviews. Who is this guy, said I? Well after a stroll through his latest LP AB, I caught a bad case of ‘reviewer meets genius.’ Everything you’ve heard is true. Just test drive “Uncommon Disaster,” it’s a thing of sonic beauty. It kicks off with some 1966 Beatles rock guitar chords before resolving into a new wave era Kinks kind of number, with some outta-sight background vocals and a bridge to die for. Tacoma Washington’s Vanilla are curio poprock all stars, no genre can stump them. Their most recent collection Sideshow makes my case, with a bit of alt country, old timey pop, XTC-infused new wave and more. But “I Shall Be Re-released” is the standout here for me. Listen closely for those subtle vocal shifts in melody and harmonies, the almost buried retro lead guitar. It’s both familiar and different at the same time. As the world shut down these past few years music collective Orbis Max decided to get some socially distanced jamming going, the results emerging now on The Covid Collaborations 2020-21. There’s a rotating cavalcade of indie starts included here – Danny Wilkerson, Lanny Flowers, Ed Ryan, etc. – as well as great cuts just featuring the essential members of the band. Like “You Sold Tomorrow” with some super ‘woo hoos’ and pumping piano and a Harrisonian sheen to it all.
Track 21 in this monster collection of November tunes is something very Autumn, Chicago indie production legend Andy Reed’s lofi treatment of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I’ve always had a soft spot for Simon’s acoustic-y soft rock numbers but Reed manages to strip the MOR production values out of the original to give the track some added indie allure. The heavenly background vocals are still there, even if the church organ isn’t. Altogether a fresh take on a deep cut classic.
While no alternative artists were forced to dance awkwardly through a background desert motif, here’s hoping that our November singles mediation has spawned some listening pleasure. Click those hyper-linked artist names to signal yes.