Today’s artists are all grappling with growing up, shifting from their twenties spent aping cool to a thirties confronting responsibility, aging and loss. They’ve glimpsed the fork in the road that spells the end to endless wandering and possibility. It’s time to commit. Luckily these hard and sometimes painful experience translate into plenty of grist for their music mill.
Athens, Georgia everyman Drew Beskin is back with solo album number three, Problematic for the People, the title a cheeky riff on REM’s Automatic for the People. Beskin’s poprock bona fides were established long ago in bands like PURSES, the District Attorneys, and Party Dolls but on this record he lets loose his considerable stylistic chops to produce an album of gorgeous breadth and intensity. I mean, check out the perfect intro roll-out on the opening cut “I’m Not Human,” the languid way it establishes the basic lead guitar hook amid some effortless rhythm guitar flourishes. As the song continues, it delivers a big chorus, the kind that keeps you humming long after the fade out. From there the album shifts moods with ease, from the rocky early 1980s retro of “Going Alright for You” (reviewed previously here) to more stark acoustic numbers like “Culdesac” and “Torn and Blue” to the lush album closer “Atlantic.” There’s some really exquisite stylistic synthesis going on here. Like “Swimming in Bed,” a track that manages to send wonderfully mixed signals with a muted performance while still bursting with an Oasis-like feel and intensity. Personally, I love “Personal Shopping” with its low key seventies pop-disco feel and Beach Boys-doing-Double Fantasy vibe. My take, Problematic for the People is enjoyment guaranteed. Slip the album on your music player and enjoy the ride.
Matthew Milia‘s second solo album Keego Harbor kicks off with “Salad Bars,” a track whose intro piano trickles out like a lost Carpenters tune, only to suddenly lean hard on the country pedal steel. At that point, it kinda sounds like a deep cut from some early America album. From there the pedal steel and country vibe never really go away, but to my ear it owes more to Fountains of Wayne and the Beatles doing country than Nashville. A lot of it has to do with song structure, with songs like “Sunburnt Landscapers” and “Haven’t Heard You Laugh in a Long Time” sounding right out of the Schlesinger/Collingwood songbook. But another factor contributing to this is Milia’s vocals with their hints of Collingwood, sometimes a bit of Elliot Smith, even exuding some Ben Kweller on “With the Taste of Metal on my Tongue.” I will confess a partiality to the few more uptempo numbers on the album, loving the ‘do do do’s carrying “Condo Lakeshore” and Joe Jackson-meets-Apples in Stereo-ish “Autumn America.” In the end, Keego Harbour is more a musical a love letter to a time rather than a place. Still, you can get there just by hitting play.
It’s Hard to be a Person is described as the soundtrack to a book, a very cool idea. Brett Newski is nothing if not barrier breaking. Developed during lockdown, the project has seen Newski confronting his anxiety and depression via a reconnaissance of his past. The project is a new book of drawings and music developed from old notebook sketches and song ideas. Yet the end result looks and sounds as fresh as anything. Fans of Newski will recognize his familiar punk rock Tom Petty vocals while the songs veer toward a caustic acoustic attack not unlike the Violent Femmes (particularly the raucous “Lie in All Honesty” and “Dead to Me”). Things go a bit more poppy on the opening cut “I Should’ve Listened to Ferris Bueller,” which features a guest vocal turn from Steven Page. Despite the album’s consistent vibe, there’s still plenty of variety, with a great shuffle feel on “Lillian Road,” a country/folk swing to “Second String Heart,” while “Life Underwater” alternates between forceful punky verses and a more hooky chorus. But the album’s coup de grace is undoubtedly “Varsity (American Pie),” the obvious single with its steamroller pace, relentless hooks and engaging falsetto vocals (in the chorus). Ultimately Newski’s right, it is definitely hard to be a person. Listening to this record is one way to make it easier.
Old Dog New Tricks is the second LP-length release from Common Grackle, a collaboration between indie pop auteur Gregory Pepper and hip hop producer Factor Chandelier. The results are a decided departure from Pepper’s more typical, madly manic poprock. The ten songs (running just 20 minutes) are low key, often spoken word ruminations on life, loss and growing up. But engaging melodies lurk here too. The McCartney-meets-Satie piano on “Tiny Aphrodite” offers us just such an engaging moment. It’s there with the lead line buried deep in “Bad News.” You can hear it all over “Bud Dwyer” with its muted, discordant Beach Boys vibe. Sometimes the key element of the song is in the changes, like where producer Chandelier changes the aural setting so strikingly it’s almost a hook in itself. The shift in “Mint Chocolate Chip” at the 22 second mark is captivating and a bit additive. Turning to possible singles, the closest thing might be “I Got Scared.” Here I really like the horns and piano and winsome vocals. Bonus: the bandcamp download contains an extra 10 songs and they’re special too (particularly for me, “Please Stop” and “Canadian Raisin”).
Growing up is an exercise in transformation, shedding the old self for something new. Or maybe it’s just a re-arrangement of life’s deck chairs. Either way I reckon there’s insights and enjoyment galore on these here releases.