On album number 32 The Boy Named If Elvis Costello and his Imposters come rocketing out of gate with a manic ferocity. Opening cut “Farewell, OK” kinda sounds like the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” if Lennon and McCartney had been in the Clash. The message is clear: fans impatient for Costello to return to his This Year’s Model roots, the wait is over. Elvis may be 67 years old but he’s not too old to rock and roll. And lay on all his usual clever lyrical and melodic turns too.
Now when I say this record marks a return to This Year’s Model that’s only part of what’s going on. Drummer Pete Thomas is playing on the original kit from that record and you can definitely hear it at the start of tracks like “Penelope Halfpenny” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” But the songs simply refuse to be limited to influences from just one album. “Penelope Halfpenny” is really the lyrical and melodic cousin of “Veronica” from Costello’s 1989 Warner Brothers debut Spike, though the organ riffs would be right at home on Armed Forces. “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” also balances This Year’s Model drumming with an Armed Forces melodic vibe. At times it’s the sound and combination of instruments that harkens back to a particular time. “Magnificent Hurt” aces the early records formula of distinctive bass and organ runs. “Mistook Me For A Friend” and “The Man You Love To Hate” echo the gripping tension that the Attractions could sustain on a variety of cuts from the first few albums. Then again “My Most Beautiful Mistake” reminds me of the pop soul sound EC worked up on his mid-period release Mighty Like a Rose.
And then there’s the ballads. “Paint the Red Rose Blue” is that exquisitely mannered song style Elvis really got into from Trust onwards that pops up again and again over the rest of his career. I sometimes think he must crank a few of these out every day before breakfast, so effortlessly do they flow across his many releases. You want it darker? Both “Trick Out the Truth” and “Mr. Crescent” are those seemingly nice EC ballads that hint at a deeper menace the longer you keep listening to them. But the highlight on this album for me is “The Difference” with its keyboard dominated chorus. I’ve always had a soft spot for Goodbye Cruel World and the mix of elements here really remind of where Costello landed on that record.
Rock and roll Elvis is back. Though, in fairness, he never really went away. What nostalgic fans often want is a return to Elvis circa 1979, all snarl, pounding drums and relentless organ riffs. Well EC has seldom been keen to simply stand still creatively or retread old ground. He’s constantly pushed the limits of his rock and roll horizons. But on The Boy Named If Costello indulges the yearning for past glory, sprinkling hints of musical yesteryear all over the album. And the result, far from a retread, is a distinctively new Elvis synthesis.
Elvis Costello lives online here, at least some of the time.
Nick Lowe definitely likes having a crew to hang with. His many solo records often feature the same names popping up again and again, some from former bands like Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile, or just people he’s picked up along the way like Paul Carrack and Bill Kirchen. Now if only we could bring them all together in a huge Nick Lowe ‘abominable showmen’ revue … What a show that would be! Well, given the present pandemic state-of-the-world and myriad contractual conflicts and obligations that such an undertaking might bring up, my dream show seems unlikely. But nothing is stopping us from showcasing all that talent right here.
We kick off the show with Nick, of course. He’s got a fantastic new single, a cover of Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters’ 1963 tune, “A Quiet Place.” It’s another example of Nick’s amazing ability to breathe new life into rare oldies, backed once again by his recent stellar backers, Los Straightjackets. Compared to the original, Nick takes the song out of its original Sam Cooke-soul register, pushing a more Arthur Alexander country-soul feel. It’s a delightfully mellow and melodic rendition, highlighting Lowe’s masterly of the ‘roll’ side of rock and roll.
Career-wise, it’s clear that Nick’s a joiner. He’d just got a look in on the pop psychedelia of Kippington Lodge and wrote their only decent single of original material, “I Can See Her Face,” before the band morphed into Brinsley Schwarz. Fairly quickly, Lowe became their main singer and songwriter. But listen to their cover of The Hollies “Now’s the Time” from 1974’s New Favourites of Brinsely Schwarz to hear him working closely on the vocals with Ian Gomm, the band’s other main singer/songwriter (who famously cowrote Nick’s biggest solo hit, “Cruel to be Kind”). Nick’s next band was Rockpile, a group that recorded either one or six albums, depending on how you count them. Basically, contractual difficulties meant that most ‘Rockpile’ albums were credited to either Lowe or Dave Edmunds as solo artists with only 1980’s Seconds of Pleasure an official release. From the 1976 Edmunds release Get It Nick and Dave nail an updated 1960s-meets-new wave sound on “Here Comes the Weekend,” a song they co-wrote. Nick’s last stab at joining a group involved John Hiatt and Ry Cooder in the ill-fated Little Village project. The high hopes for a band with this combined talent failed to materialize, record-sales-wise. Too bad – Nick’s “Take Another Look” definitely showcases the band’s considerable talents.
Outside of joining bands, Nick loves duets and guest appearances. He’s played on countless records by other people and they’ve returned the favour. He produced, performed on, and co-wrote a number of songs for Paul Carrack’s super solo album, Suburban Voodoo and Paul appeared in Nick’s backing band throughout most of the 1980s. I love their duet on “Wish You Were Here” from Nick’s 1983 record The Abominable Showman. Another artist Nick has spent a lot of time with over the years is Elvis Costello, producing his first five albums and one more later on. The two do a lovely cover of The Shirelles/Beatles song “Baby It’s You.” Old Brinsley Schwarz friends like guitar player Martin Belmont also reappear on Nick’s solo records. In return, Nick does the vocals on a somewhat different version of “A Man in Love” (a song from Nick’s 2007 At My Age record) on Belmont’s 2009 album, The Guest List. And then there’s people like Bill Kirchen, former member of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and early Americana performer. His collaborations with Nick stretch from the 1970s to the present. “Shelly’s Winter Love” is a trio performance featuring Kirchen, Lowe and Carrack on vocals. The title sounds like classic Nick wordplay but it’s actually a cover of a Merle Haggard song from 1971.
Our show will need opening acts, of course, and here’s a chance to showcase artists that may not have worked with Nick officially but have either joined him live or delivered great covers of his songs. Two Nick Lowe tribute albums give us some direction here. Christie McWilson and Rick Shea offer up a lovely country-fied performance of “Never Been in Love” from 2005’s Lowe Profile: A Tribute to Nick Lowe while Ron Sexsmith puts his distinctive stamp on “Where’s My Everything” from the 2012 collection, Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe. Of course, if we’re aiming big, we could try to get Wilco to show with their 2011 take on Nick’s “I Love My Label.” More recently Esther Rose offers up an inspired reworking of one of Nick’s more recent songs, “Blue on Blue” from his 2019 EP Love Starvation/Trombone. Of course, if such an event as this could be pulled off the most appropriate opening act would be Los Straightjackets. Their 2017 album of guitar instrumental versions of choice cuts from Lowe’s catalogue, (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding, is outa-sight.
I got to see Nick Lowe live in each of the past three decades, on the Impossible Bird tour, playing solo with Geraint Watkins, and more recently with Los Straightjackets, and every time was special. My ‘abominable showmen’ review is unlikely to ever ‘tread the boards’ as Nick might say, but I’ll always have the records and the memories of those great shows. In the meantime, visit the above mentioned artists and don’t forget to drop in on Nick too.
Elvis Costello’s 31st album will undoubtedly divide fans. If you liked the more somber mood of Imperial Bedroom, The Juliet Letters, Painted From Memory, and North then Hey Clockface is probably going to work for you. Fans of Elvis’ rockier material do get a look in here on “No Flag,” a driving vamp not unlike “Tokyo Storm Warning” but with a few more melodic twists. But that’s about it. The rest of Hey Clockface is a cross between a jazzy beat poet-like spoken word slam (“Revolution #49,” “Radio is Everything,” and “Hetty O’Hara Confidential”) and a master-class in delicate songwriting craft and performance. As reader David Blumenstein cleverly quipped, the record is more ‘Eclectic Costello than Elvis.’
Most of the tunes here effortlessly conjure up a scene. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” sounds like a noir novel reads, with horns that transport you to some foggy late-night street scene somewhere. The once angry young man is now a master of the light touch, hanging clever lyrics over a very spare approach to instrumentation on lovely tracks like “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?” and “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now.” But Costello really saves the best for last with the gorgeous piano ballad, “Byline.” The song is just one vivid example on this record of Costello’s still impressive vocal stylings. Listeners expecting another Armed Forces or Spike won’t find it here. But fans willing to grow with their artist will find in Hey Clockface a challenging collection of dynamic, sometimes jazzy, often tender songs and performances from an artist that now certainly warrants the appellation ‘mature.’
It’s not hard to find Elvis Costello. Hey Clockface is a chance to get reacquainted with a master who’s still got game.
It’s been five years since I embarked on this mad journey: to write a music blog. I dithered over the decision to start one for a number of months. There’s nothing more pathetic than to start something with maximum fanfare and enthusiasm, only to have it flame out a half dozen posts later. The questions I had to ask myself were: (a) was there enough of ‘my kind’ of music to regularly post about, and (b) could I sustain the effort to get regular posts up on the blog? Well here’s the proof. In five years I’ve managed to produce 347 blogs posts. I’ve written more than 170,000 words about poprock tunes. And, most importantly, I’ve featured almost 1000 different artists. Guess the answers to (a) and (b) are both a resounding yes!
I think the biggest reason this blog thing has worked out for me is that it is such a great outlet for being creative and having fun with something that has always been pretty central to my life: music. I love doing all the mock serious regular features (e.g. Breaking news, Around the Dial, Should be a hit single) and coming up with goofy themes as a way to feature different artists (e.g. “Telephonic Poprock,” “Summer’s Coming,” and the Cover me! series. Sometimes I’ve pushed the posts in more serious directions (“Is That So Gay,” “Campaigning for Hooks,” and “Pandemic Poprock“) but only if the melodies and hooks were there in abundance. The blog has also allowed me to pay tribute to my musical heroes (Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Zombies, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann). But, as regular readers know, such luminaries mostly appear as reference points to better help people get of a sense of what all these new acts are doing.
If you’ve just tuned in, I’m not assigning the past five years of posts as homework. Instead, I offer today’s anniversary post as a retrospective of what’s been happening here. I reviewed all 347 posts to pick out some choice examples of the range of styles I can cram under the rubrik of ‘poprock’. It wasn’t easy! My first go round produced a list of 118 songs. When I converted that to a playlist I got the number down to 81 tracks. Ack! Still too many. So I’ve broken things down into themes. This is not a ‘greatest hits’ or ‘best of’ Poprock Record. I’ve left out a lot of acts I really love. It’s just a representative sample of what goes on here, to borrow some lingo from my day job. Click on the highlighted band names to go to the original posts on the blog.
Let’s start by recognizing that not all that appears here is new. The blog has allowed me to explore a huge number of acts I’ve missed over the years, particularly in the 1990s when my new day job (academe) took over my life. I can’t believe I somehow missed great bands like Fire Town and the Soul Engines with their incredible guitar hooks. The Sighs “Make You Cry” is a pretty perfect poprock single. I knew about Billy Cowsills’ Blue Northern but had never heard of his later group, the Blue Shadows. And Eugene Edwards’ sole solo release, My Favorite Revolution, is a must add for any melodic rock and roll fan.
There have been acts that appeared again and again on the blog, my ‘old reliables’ as I might call them. These are performers I can pretty much carve out space in the queue for whenever I hear a new release is on the way. Gregory Pepper is probably my most covered artist. I love his quirky, always hooky, sometimes touching efforts. Ezra Furman was another great find who has an unerring knack of placing a memorable hook at the centre of whatever he’s doing, whether it’s retro 1950s pop or a punkish political ode. I discovered Jeremy Fisher long before the blog but I’ve used it to feature his work, old and new. He’s like a new wave Paul Simon with great videos. Edward O’Connell only has two albums, but they are reliably good. We really need a third. Mo Troper always delivers something wonderfully weird but still melodic and ‘can’t get it out of your head’ good. Finally, Jeremy Messersmith’s records regularly encompass big vision but he doles it out in memorable should-be hit singles.
In my world of poprock, while any instrument goes, the electric guitar is arguably pretty central. Some bands really know how to ride a guitar-driven song right into your head. Jeff Shelton’s Well Wishers excel at putting the guitar up front. “Feeling Fine” is practically a ‘how to’ example of killer guitar-dominant poprock. The David James Situation and The Format are no slouches either. Jangle is a related field of guitar poprock and takes a number of forms, from the 1960s-inflected Byrds sound of The Vapour Trails to the more jaunty bubblegum feel of The Lolas “We’re Going Down to the Boathouse.” Jangle also usually features pretty addictive harmony vocals, showcased below in Propeller’s “Summer Arrives.”
As the original and defining decade of poprock (in my view), the 1960s sound continues to be mined by new artists. Daisy House have few rivals in nailing the late 1960s California poprock vibe, sounding like time travelers from San Francisco’s 1968 club scene. Space Dingus have got The Monkees feel down. Both Shadow Show and The On and Ons gives us that rockier pop sound of the mid 1960s, with the latter delivering killer lead guitar hooks. By contrast, both Cut Worms and The Young Veins offer a candy-coated pop sound more akin to The Cyrkle and Simon and Garfunkel.
I’m a sucker for shivery harmony vocals so they’ve been featured regularly on the blog. One of Jenny Lewis’ side projects is the one-off album from Jenny and Johnny, I’m Having Fun Now. Aptly named, the record gently rocks and delivers amazing vocals. The Secret Sisters offer up a punchy tune where the harmony vocals seal the hooky deal. The Carousels “Call Along the Coast” has a big sound the rides a wave of harmony vocalizing and Beatlesque guitar work. Meanwhile Scotland’s Dropkick corner the market on delightful lilting songcraft on “Dog and Cat.” The blog sometimes shades into retro country and folk territory. Bomabil are an eccentric outfit who stretch our sense of song but never drop the melody. The Top Boost are pretty new wave but on “Tell Me That You’re Mine” they’re channeling Bakersfield via the Beatles 65. The Fruit Bats put the banjo upfront in “Humbug Mountain,” where it belongs. Gerry Cinnamon is like Scotland’s Billy Bragg and he shows what you can do with just an acoustic guitar and a Springsteen harmonica.
I’m proud to say that the blog has sometimes strayed off the beaten path of conventional poprock into more eccentric territory with bands that are smart and quirky and not afraid to lodge a hook in a more complex setting. Tally Hall pretty much define this approach. So ‘out there’ but still so good melodically. Chris Staples and Hayden offer up more low key, moody tunes but they still have a strong melodic grab. Overlord take clever to a new level, like a grad school version of They Might Be Giants. Coach Hop is just funny and hooky with his unabashed ode to liking Taylor Swift.
After the 1960s the new wave era is the renaissance of poprock for me with its combination of hooky guitars, harmony vocals, and melody-driven rock and roll. Screen Test capture this ambience perfectly on “Notes from Trevor” with a chorus that really delivers. The Enlows drive the guitar hook right into your head on the dance-madness single “Without Your Love.” Billy Sullivan epitomizes the reinvention of 1960s elements that occurred in the 1980s, well embodied in “Everywhere I Go.” Another strong theme in the blog has been the “I Get Mail” feature, populated largely by DIY songsters who write me about their garage or basement recorded releases. It is inspiring to hear from so many people doing their thing and getting it out there, especially when it is generally really good. Daveit Ferris is a DIY workaholic with an amazing range of song and recording styles. “Immeasurable” is a good illustration of his genius, with a banjo-driven chorus that always makes me smile. Mondello is practically the classic indie artist movie script, struggling to get an album out after 20 years. But then his follow up single, “My Girl Goes By,” is gold!
I want to leave you with a two-four of should-be hits from Poprock Record. These songs are all quality cuts, grade A poprock with melodies and harmonies and hooks to spare. Some of these songs leave me panting, they’re so good. I kicked off the blog back in 2015 with Family of Year and I still think “Make You Mine” is a textbook should-be AM radio hit. Sunday Sun channel The Beatles through a 1980s song filter, in the very best way. Sitcom Neighbor’s “Tourist Attraction” is a delightful earworm affliction. Wyatt Blair has somehow boiled down the essential formula of a 1960s-influenced poprock hit. Wyatt Funderburk understands how to assemble the perfect melody-driven single. And so on. Get your clicking finger warmed up and you’ll be introduced to the essence of Poprock Record in 24 melodious increments.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was all the great people I’d come in contact with writing a music blog. Thanks to all the bands, record labels, and readers who have responded so positively to what I’ve been doing here. A special thanks to Best Indie Songs, Tim at Powerpopulist and Don at I Don’t Hear a Single for their advice over the years and to my friends Rob at Swizzle and Dale at The View from Here for encouraging me to do this.
This post features pics from my poprock-postered 1985-7 apartment in Vancouver’s West End. Just $285 a month, all inclusive. No wonder I could buy so many records.
A new feature of sorts, a tribute to the almighty single! In this age of catastrophic change in music consumption the single is back as a way of teasing interest in an artist and their new releases. It is now fairly conventional for artists to release a single well ahead of the album. Take this first round of singles – all precede their designated albums by many months. And, frankly, I can’t wait around to feature these talents!
Time it was that I waited on every Elvis Costello release like the second coming of rock and roll’s savior. And then post-Spike, I got a bit more choosy. I mean, I totally support artists going beyond whatever they’ve done in the past and Elvis clearly had many more roads left to explore. They just weren’t always my thing. But like every George Jones record, there’s seldom lacking at least one truly great cut on any given EC album. It looks like Costello’s to-be-released new album will be no exception. “Unwanted Number” is a pre-release cut from Look Now and it’s a winner. Think Imperial Bedroom meets Painted From Memory. The piano and songwriting are reminiscent of the songs from that great Costello keyboard period stretching from Imperial Bedroom through Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World. Meanwhile the bridge captures the feel of the work he did with Burt Bacharach on songs like “Toledo.”
Next up is the criminally under-appreciated Paul Collins, veteran of so many great acts like the Nerves, the Breakaways, and, of course, the Paul Collins Beat. What is striking about Collins is the quality of his songwriting output over a four-decade period. His new single shows he’s still got it. “In and Out of My Head” is the pre-release single from his upcoming album, Out of My Head. The rumbly guitar is wonderfully retro yet freshly deployed on a tune that sounds like it belongs on a Roy Orbison album.
Described as “Califorian pop from sunny Utrech, the Netherlands” on their website, The Maureens have a keen ear for a melodic blend of country folk and poprock sounds. 2015’s Bang the Drum was a solid release, oozing hooks and harmonies. Now they’ve released “20 Years for the Company” from the to-be-released Something in the Air and it’s a blast of harmony-drenched goodness. Speaking to the economic insecurity of times, the song nonetheless gives off a positive vibe with it’s captivating mix of male and female vocals.
A lot of words have been written about Elvis Costello (the artist himself added a few hundred thousand in his recent autobiography Unfaithful Music) but little has been said about just how melodic his music can be. His early years, roughly the period from his 1977 debut My Aim is True to 1980’s Taking Liberties, are crammed with hooky numbers. “Blame it on Cain” is my favourite from the debut, with its leisurely swing and Steely Dan guitar lines, but frankly it’s a pretty close contest with just about every other track from the album. My Aim is True is a miracle of synthesis, taking inspiration from an impossible range of sources: Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, mainstream seventies rock, the emerging punk scene, and arguably Costello’s father, Ross MacManus, a well known singer in the UK. The record also represents an interesting artistic negotiation between Costello as an emerging singer/songwriter and his amazing pick up band, the American pub rock group Clover.
Blame it on Cain
Things changed dramatically with album number two, now backed by Costello’s defiant new band, the Attractions. This Year’s Model charges out of the gate, its stripped-down, in your face rock and roll delivered with a crisp ferocity unmatched by any of Costello’s other recordings. This is the critics’ favourite album for a reason. I like it less than the debut but still love it, particularly the catchy lead guitar line on “You Belong to Me.” Elvis dials back some of the attack on his third album, Armed Forces, letting the listener in on some impressive aural landscapes that illustrate his talent for arranging his music. This is captured nicely on the single, “Accidents Will Happen.”You Belong to Me
Get Happy!! and Taking Liberties were both released in 1980, the latter a compilation of B-sides (released as Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers in the UK). With each record topping out at 20 songs, together they represented a cornucopia of poprock. What is striking here is the restraint, the subtle hooks of “B Movie,” “New Amsterdam” and “Secondary Modern” on Get Happy!! or “Radio Sweetheart” and “Hoover Factory” on Taking Liberties. One almost gets a sense that the songs were chiseled into shape, worked over until every detail reflected the light just so. Of course, there were also more raucous examples like “Possession” or “Crawling to the U.S.A.”
While critics often highlight the venom and sneer of Elvis’ early recordings, these songs demonstrate his capacity for sweetness, melody, and hooks. His penchant for poprock shifts considerably in his middle and later periods, but more on that to come. And he had a sense of humour. Check out this hilarious send up of K-tel commercials from the 1970s to pitch Get Happy!!
Looking for Elvis? Forget that supermarket in West Vancouver, you can find him here.
Sure, when you first hear Edward O’Connell you get the Costello vibe, you get it bad (by which I mean you get something good). You might even think “Hey, this guy is putting out the albums I wish Elvis Costello would …” But the seemingly familiar Costello ring to the songs, to the vocals, to the turns of phrase is so much more than simply reminiscent. O’Connell has taken the inspiration and made it his own. And there is so much more influence afoot in his two albums of material: a bit of Matthew Sweet, a dash of Peter Case, even some Marshall Crenshaw and, of course, Nick Lowe and Tom Petty.
His debut record from 2010, Our Little Secret, is a solid start: a host of great tunes and a cover riffing off of Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool album and the unknown comic. “I Heard It Go” has a great turnaround in the chorus, “Cold Dark World” has wonderfully shimmery vocals, “We Will Bury You” is trademark Costello country, while “All My Dreams” sounds like a lost track from Imperial Bedroom. But the standout song on this album for me is the majestic “Pretty Wasted.” A real gem that exudes equal parts Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, with a lovely Nick Lowe lyrical sleight of hand with the line ‘She’s pretty wasted … pretty wasted on you.’ Pretty Wasted
Four long years passed before O’Connell’s sophomore effort, Vanishing Act, emerged in 2014, but it was worth the wait. The album kicks off with strong material in “My Dumb Luck” and “Lonely Crowd” but the third tune, “Every Precious Day,” is a master class in poprock songwriting: killer guitar riff opener, great Tom Pettyish vocals, with just a hint of Crowded House in the swirling organ and guitar work at the 2/3 mark. Other highlights include “Severance Kiss” (with another great guitar opener), “Odds Against Tomorrow,” “Yesterday’s World,” and “Last to Leave” with its exquisite low tempo atmosphere. “The End of the Line” deserves to be featured if only for its surprisingly aggressive guitar opener that then melds seamlessly into a super midtempo poprock number. But my favourite song on the record is the witty Nick Lowe-ish “I’m the Man,” a sad tale of a man who ‘should have seen it coming’ with his death-obsessed partner.
Besides the music, the best thing about O’Connell is the back story: intrepid university lawyer by day, poprock genius by night. Here’s a guy who trolled in the Washington D.C. rock and roll scene for decades, playing back up for various people, while holding down a legal day job, but finally decided to put his own creative efforts at the forefront rather late in life (at least according to the standard rock and roll biography). Better late than never, indeed.
Looks to be a strong live performer as well: here you can see him doing “Lonely Crowd” solo in Bethesda, Maryland.