Today’s acts are indie for sure but their output is so consistently solid they seem like should-be stars to me. Particularly with these new releases. Think REM before Green or U2 before Joshua Tree. Hit play on these new albums and see if you don’t agree.
Superchunk is one of those bands that always seemed to be on the periphery of my musical consciousness. Liked by all the right people, running with all the right musical crowds. But a bit too punky or indie rawk for my tastes. But their new album Wild Loneliness is something else. From the opening track’s Verve-esque string section “City of the Dead” the record had my full attention. Album number 12 sees the band let the songs breathe a bit more than usual, loading them up with acoustic guitars and a pacing that’s not in any hurry. It’s apparent on “Endless Summer,” a single-ish number that is both highly listenable and a kind of environmental anthem. Or there’s the perky “On the Floor” with its piano-heavy arrangement and some background vocals help from REM’s Mike Mills. We can draw out comparisons, hearing a bit of U2 Joshua Tree on “Set It Aside,” or echoes of that Bacharach-like string section that Springsteen coated his 2019 Western Stars album with on “This Night,” or even a bit of Josh Rouse on “Wild Loneliness,” but really it’s all Superchunk. My personal fave and vote for should-be hit single is “Connection.” It starts off pretty Tom Petty-pensive before breaking out into a lush but lightly-jangled Byrdsian chorus. Man, those ‘ooh ooh ooh’s’ are chill-inducing! 33 years in and Superchunk have released their most accessible album. An adult-party, play-it-all-night sort of thing.
With their Elephant Six and Apples in Stereo connections it’s a wonder I’m only just a recent convert to the indie pop glory that is The Minders. I had run across their fabulous 1998 album Hooray for Tuesday and was digging that when I noticed they had a new record out, Psychedelic Blacktop. Shifting focus to the new record was a bit jarring as the sound is different. Sure, those crazy keyboard lines are still there but the vocal and guitar attack lean more toward folk rock than their previous more baroque and jaunty guitar pop, at least early on. “Home” opens things up and sets the scene with a Donovan-esque poppy folk number, loaded with great organ. Then “Let’s Go Driving” starts off sounding a bit like the Lovin’ Spoonful meets Jonathan Richman, but those ‘sha la la la la’s shift things into a more Turtles direction. Again, great organ solo. “It’s All the Same” sees the band slipping back towards their more baroque pop roots, definitely jaunty. “You Call to Me” offers up a very folk country vibe, like Ian and Sylvia circa 1966. I’m also really liking the outlier track, “Listen! The Bugle Calls,” which has an ominous Magnetic Fields 1960s revival sound. And so on. If I were you, I’d get comfy: with 13 tracks, there’s plenty of audio tarmac to tear up on Psychedelic Blacktop. Even the album closer “These Days” leaves me wanting more. It’s defined by great rhythm guitar hooks and madcap feel, particularly in seemingly unrelated coda.
Entitling their second album simply Beachheads II suggests this is not where these Norwegian poppy rockers decided to invest their creative energies. No, Beachheads put their effort into the songs. This outing still has the guitars-up-front style that caught everyone’s attention last time out but added in is a greater focus on the vocals, namely some sweet sweet harmonies. You can hear it all over the strong pre-release single “Jupiter.” Much of the album does carry on from their earlier work, like opening cut “Break It Off,” “1000 Hurts,” and “Oh Joy.” But you can also hear a concerted effort to change things up songwriting and performance-wise. “Change” is pitched a bit slower than their usual manic pace, with an anthemic chorus and some arresting, melodic guitar lead lines. “Down South” and “Shine” are also both departures, sometimes jaunty, sometimes smooth melodic pop. There are darker numbers here too, like the ominous “Nothing.” Or check out the striking turn the band pulls off in “Death of Nation,” breaking out from a drone-y verse into a seductive melodic chorus. This is band that knows what we like but is keen to surprise us too.
Cheap Star’s recent album Wish I Could See is not just a product of should-be stars. The performers read like a roll call of indie power pop royalty with members of The Posies, Fountains of Wayne, The Raconteurs, Jellyfish, Nada Surf and others pitching in. Bona fide indie superstar artist/producer Mitch Easter even drops by with a guitar solo. The results are spectacular, an enticing, guitar-laden slice of power pop. Tracks like “Flower Girl” and “Wish I Could See” remind me of Nada Surf while “Lifetime” and “Move Away” strike a more Michael Penn chord. There’s a lighter touch on “You Don’t Want to Change” and “Slow Down” where the acoustic guitar sets the pace, the latter with an additional country Byrds flavour. Or listen to how the band combine Rubber Soul era guitars with an Echo and Bunnymen vibe on “What’s It Like.” For should-be hit singles, there are so many choices. “Flower Girl” obviously but I’d also cast a vote for “Holding On” with its great lead guitar roll-out kicking off and then anchoring the tune. It’s got a very Matthew Sweet melody and feel. Altogether Wish I Could See has got the sound of a classic vinyl era power pop record (the physical product can be found at Kool Kat Musik), one you’ll want to add to your collection.
The should-be stars are out tonight. Don’t miss their sparkle and shine.
Top photo: Trevor Dobson “Star trails over an abandoned farmhouse – Boddington, Western Australia”