Brian Bringelson, Cult Stars From Mars, Dave Caruso, Death By Unga Bunga, Dolour, Farewell Horizontal, Irene Pena, Mt. Misery, Pictish Trail, Purling Hiss, Radio Days, Tamar Berk, Terry Malts, The Easy Button, The Menzingers, The Rubs, The Suns, Tim Izzard, White Fang, William M. Michael
Pick up this fantasy compilation I’ve entitled March Music Express and here’s what you get: twenty should-hits, all original artists, and melody for days. It’s a collection that rocks when it wants to, throws in some jangle to make your heart sing, and even goes mellow when the moment calls for it. I’m telling you, K-Tel never treated you this good. March Music Express has all the hooks and none of the groove cramming. Just hit play and let it ride!
Let’s start side one with some sophisticated pop. Dolour offer up a very smooth ambience on “Televangelist,” a keyboard-heavy single wrapped in breathy background vocals with some swing in the beat. There’s something I find so captivating about Brian Bringelson’s vocal treatment on “Losing Train of Thought” from his recent album, Desperate Days. Shades of Gerry Rafferty and Paul Kelly covering a long lost 1970s AM radio pop song. Brooklyn’s The Suns kick off “When You’re Not Around” sounding like some wayward Mersey cover band though the song quickly develops its own distinctive feel. The Mersey vibe’s still there, but now its cast in a more 1968 mold. The song is from the band’s recent EP Big Break, a brief excursion into the 1960s-infused rocky pop numbers. I love the urgency established early in William M. Michael breakneck, rollicking “Miles Away” from his EP Modern Sounds in Pop Music. The feel is very 1980s western Rank and File or True West. Detroit’s Dave Caruso creates such pretty pop songs on his recent album Radiophonic Supersonic, reminding me of 10cc mixed with more than a little Macca. “The Drop” perfectly captures his careful attention to song arrangements, juxtaposing some crunchy rhythm guitar with low key sweet vocals.
Oslo, Norway’s Death By Unga Bunga offer a striking a mix of influences, a bit of metal ‘tude, a dash of 1970s glam, and lurking behind their in-your-face guitars is usually an ear-worm quality set of hooks. Take their new release Heavy Male Insecurity. The first singles – “Egocentric” and “Faster Than Light” – are slow burn hook machines. But I find myself drawn to album deep cut “Trouble” with its subtle, alluring chorus. Looking for something completely original? Scotland’s Pictish Trail has an endearing, inventive indie sound that is something else. Just check all the elements at work on “Bad Algebra,” from the ping pong speaker effect on the opening guitar, to the softly understated vocals, to the explosive outbreak in the chorus. And the guy’s website is pretty hilarious too. Tampa Bay’s The Easy Button claim a musical lineage to Weezer but I hear more Fountains of Wayne on their new single, “Waiting Room.” Great edgy lead guitar here, tempered by some pretty smooth vocals. With a name like Cult Stars from Mars you know you’re in for some fun. I was totally grooving on the band’s fab recent cover of the Springsteen-written, Manfred Mann hit “Blinded by the Light” when I stumbled on “Can’t Wait to See You.” What a song! The performance kicks off like some mid-1980s pop hair band (and I’m liking that a bit more than I should) when suddenly the track transforms into a slice of poprock heaven. Something very Cheap Trick going on here, at their most melodic. Tamar Berk’s new album explores the restless dreams of youth but as a politics guy I was immediately drawn to the song “Socrates and Me.” It’s a cool bit of understated guitar pop, kinda like a new wave Suzanne Vega.
For side two, let’s hit southern Europe. Italy has got a pretty impressive underground rock and roll scene, with an accent on Ramones-inspired acts. Milan’s Radio Days up the melodic quotient on a straight rocking sound with “I Got Love” from last year’s EP of the same name. Crashing chords with soaring harmony vocals equals one appealing single. Another band mining a classic rock and roll sound are The Rubs. The new single “I Want You” kicks off oh so Stonesy but into the main body of the tune there’s a bit more Steve Miller Band attention to melody. Love the space synth! Tim Izzard wrote me about his Bowie-influenced album, Starlight Rendezvous, and boy has this guy got Ziggy nailed. But I found myself drawn more to the less Bowie-fied numbers, like the wonderfully hooky “Breaking Me Down.” The main riff is sensational, effectively threaded throughout the song and nicely offset with some pumping piano. Portland punk-noise meisters White Fang tune up the acoustic guitars on their new album Don’t Want to Hear It. The party dude sentiment is still there (on tracks like “Drunk with my Friends”) but check out the easygoing feel of “Never Give Up.” The song opens with a relentless hook that comes back again and again, effectively haunting the song. Then the track shifts to an acoustic guitar heavy sound that reminds me of Eels or Guster. Overall, it’s a concentrated dose of poprock goodness, a delightful departure from these party rockers. Melbourne, Australia’s Farewell Horizontal offer up a dreamy, reverb-drenched testament to the times we are in with “I Never Know What Time It Is.” I love the musical ornamentation here, from the jangle and psych lead guitar, to the subtle, atmospheric keyboard touches, to the soothing harmony vocals. And that’s not the only highlight from their new record, An Argument with an Idiot – definitely worth checking out.
The irony of Mt. Misery’s single “The Dreaming Days Are Over” is just how dream-like the roll out to the tune is. The song sounds like a skip through a spring garden, all pleasant acoustic guitar and keyboard embellishments, carried forward in a distinctive folk pop style. It’s been ten years since Irene Peña’s fabulous debut album Nothing To Do With You came out, with just an EP and a handful of singles released since then. But what killer singles! Like last year’s shimmering “Ridiculous,” a track on par with anything from Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair. Such a great crisp guitar sound counterbalanced with a candy-coated vocal shine. Somehow I missed Purling Hiss’ 2019 EP, Interstellar Blue, and that’s a shame because “Useful Information” is song that screams classic 1960s rock and roll. The driving guitar hook is so 1968. And yet the song has a very subtle melody snaking throughout the song. Another band known for noise and screaming guitars that has turned over a more melodic leaf of late is Terry Malts. “Distracted” lays a folkie vocal harmony over a bed of grinding guitars in an effective hooky counterpoint. Last up, The Menzingers’ reworking of their 2019 Hello Exile went from punky to four on the floor folk with 2020’s From Exile. From what I can hear “America Pt. 2” is a slight reworking of the “America, You’re Freaking Me Out” that appears on the album. It’s topical and has got a winning sing-along chorus.
With any great compilation album, someone else has done all the work. All you have to do is let the music play. Though hitting the hyperlinked artist names and checking out their musical wares wouldn’t hurt.