Aimee Mann, Book, Queens of the Summer Hotel, Ruen Brothers, They Might Be Giants, TMBG, Ultramodern
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.