Feel free to cancel Christmas, my present came early with Gregory Pepper’s new single “I’ve Got a Bottle.” Pepper is Canada’s should-be favourite curio pop songwriter. Master of styles, piquant tunesmith, a clever with words guy, Pepper never fails to deliver the goods. But I have to say, it’s been a while – too long. Pepper took a year to write a song a week during 2017-18 while weathering the loss of his father, arrival of a baby daughter, and driving the occasional snow plow. But now the word has come down that a new album of Pepper tunes – I Know Why You Cry – will drop in the new year. I can’t wait! Seriously, waiting is not my strong point. But in the interim you have this delightful dollop of Pepper pop craftmanship. Enjoy, and get ready for a fab Pepper-stravaganza coming to this station sometime this February.
Christmas music gets a bad wrap (pun intended). Some people seem to think that you can take any old song and throw a seasonal reference in and – voila! – holiday classic. Hardly. Every year an ocean of new Christmas songs hit the holiday beach but few have any staying power. There is something inexplicably magical about the combination of tune, sentiment, and bells that maketh music genuinely seasonal. Kinda like if tinsel and marzipan had a soundtrack. Fortunately, there are a few tunesmiths who still understand how to work the formula, with some of the finest featured here on our now annual holiday music post!
Nine. I don’t why or how I settled on that number but my three previous holiday music posts have all featured nine artists. Weird. Well, I’m not one to needlessly buck tradition so here’s nine more … starting with the amazing Lannie Flowers. Flowers is a longtime veteran of the power pop/indie music scene, charming audiences with his consistently Beatlesque melodic hooks. He returns this year with a remixed version of his 2013 holiday release, “Christmas Without You,” a song that nicely combines jangle with just a hint of country. Next up is a very modern take on seasonal themes, namely, that surely Joseph would have had some doubts about just what was going on with Mary and their miracle baby. Only the New Pornographers could pull off such content and they do on “Joseph, Who Understood,” a new holiday, sing-along classic. Proving their recent comeback Good Times! album was no fluke, the Monkees return this year with a whole album of festive music, with a similar crew of indie pop royalty providing the tunes and musical direction. There’s plenty of good stuff here but “The House of Broken Gingerbread” stands out for me as a superior poprock tune, written by celebrated author Michael Chabon and FOW’s Adam Schlesinger. I’m kinda cheating a bit with this next contribution from Gregory Pepper who just released his holiday-themed four song EP Tsundere. I’m treating his effort like a double-A sided effort, but one with four songs. Pepper’s work sounds deceptively simple but melodically and lyrically he’s a master of so many genre styles and a brilliantly funny and smart lyricist. Spend some time with these tunes. Anybody who can song-check both Macca (“Secret Satan”) and the mopey one (“Home Alone”) knows what he’s doing! Lannie Flowers – Christmas Without YouThe New Pornographers – Joseph, Who UnderstoodThe Monkees – The House of Broken Gingerbread
Digging a bit deeper into our Christmas music bag, Pugwash prove they are the deserving inheritors of XTC’s brand of hooky, intelligent indie poprock with “Tinsel and Marzipan,” capped with a darling Irish-accented child at the end! Crossing the water to Liverpool Rob Clarke and the Wooltones Mersey up the Christmas music scene with a whole album of festiveness on Bring Me the Wooltones This Year! It’s a very Beatles-ish collection of serious and not so serious contributions, with new songs and old faves. The double-A single for me would be “Another Wooltones Xmas Record/Santa Claus.” It can’t be a Christmas tune-age roundup without a tender ballad of seasonal longing so now we head a bit north to Glasgow to hear from The Pooches and their simple song of needing to be with someone as the yuletide comes, “Christmas, With You.” Both stark and moving. Super poprock stars Fun. haven’t put out much in terms of albums but they did put out a holiday single shortly after their first album. “Believe in Me” bears all the hallmarks of that band’s winning formula: intriguing change ups in the song structure, toy piano solos, and plenty of hooks of course.Pugwash – Tinsel and MarzipanThe Pooches – Christmas (With You)Fun. – Believe in Me
Wrapping up this year’s holiday blog post (literally this time), something more traditional. Well, sort of. Quiet Company love the holidays and we’ve featured their stellar coverage of the traditional canon before. Now they’re back with a timely release that captures the distemper of the times with Baby It’s Cold War Outside. With song titles like “Merry Christmas, The President is Terrible” and “Alone on Christmas (You’re Going to Die)” the sense of seasonal dread really comes through. But the traditional themes of hope are there too with “Little Drummer Boy” and particularly on their original reworking of “Carol of the Bells/Setting the Trap.”
Dear readers, this past year you have given me the gift of your precious and scarce attention. I hope I’ve given you some poprock joy to carry you through whatever challenges came your way. Hey, I know, let’s do it again next year! Right now, why not give Lannie Flowers, the New Pornographers, the Monkees, Gregory Pepper, Pugwash, Rob Clarke and the Wooltones, The Pooches, Fun., and Quiet Company the gift of newfound popularity and check out these holiday offerings and their regular catalogue.
Merry ho ho to all!
Ah, the telephone. That iconic 20th century technology is all over the rock and roll canon, mostly in its original analog form but with a few recent smartphone additions. Plenty of obvious telephone songs to choose from in terms of hits: The Marvelettes’ “Beechwood-45789,” ELO’s “Telephone Line,” Blondie’s “Call Me,” Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309,” and many, many more. There’s also a slew of less obvious yet popular niche tunes like the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone,” Nick Lowe’s “Switchboard Susan,” and R.E.M.’s “Star 69.” But in this post I wanted to feature some less obvious material, either with songs that focus on key aspects of the phone experience or by lesser known but certainly deserving artists.
“Party Line” appeared on the Kinks’ 1966 album Face to Face and even saw release as a single in Norway (it was the B-side of “Dandy” everywhere else). Leave it to the Kinks to go right for the classed aspect of the modern phone experience, no surprise really given Ray Davies’ lyrical attention to social issues. Nearly everybody from a working class background in the 1950s and 1960s had a party line, a cheaper phone service that you had to share with other households. Like “Dead End Street” and “Picture Book” the song catalogued the not-so-hidden injuries of class in 1960s England, in this case the indignity of the singer’s failed efforts to make a private call. At one point he even mock threatens, “I’m not voting in the next election if they don’t do something about finding out who is on my party line.” One can definitely hear the cross-pollination of Kinks/Beatles reciprocal musical influences on this tune, particularly on the guitar work.
The Kinks – Party Line
The Records debuted with a pretty great album, 1979’s Shades in Bed, featuring should-be hits like “Starry Eyes” and “Teenarama.” The record also featured “The Phone,” which opened with a classic operator voice-over announcing “I’m sorry, but that number doesn’t answer. Would you please try your number again.” The singer bemoans the phone’s ability to bring food, love and possibly danger but not necessarily connection. In contrast to such serious themes, Rupert Holmes showcases the lighter side of 1970s telephonic tunes on “Answering Machine” from his 1979 album Partners in Crime. In the late 1970s answering machines were just taking off as mass market items and Holmes’ protagonists play an early game of telephone tag with a marriage proposal and response, including the distinctive (and jarring) message-ending beep.
The Records – The PhoneRupert Holmes – Answering Machine
But enough of the past – there are some great recent telephone songs too. Twin Peaks kick up their heels on the rollicking “Telephone” from their 2014 album Wild Onion, a song that sounds so light but recounts love lost via the phone line. Mo Kenney also finds the phone a barrier to communication with her significant other. From Kenny’s 2014 release In My Dreams, the song has some great lines, both lyrical and melodic, and a great video. Brian Jay Cline paints a melodic, Americana-inflected portrait of the passing of a broken down payphone and his relationship on “Payphone” from his wonderful 2017 album Idle Chatter. Taking phone technology into the 21st century (but with a poprock sound borrowed from the late 1970s), Rob Bonfiglio encourages his intended to “Text Me” on a track from his 2012 album Mea Culpa. There is something so Hall and Oates in this song’s mix of pop soul and guitar hooks. Rounding out our telephonic tribute, Gregory Pepper is not impressed with the advances in phone technology on his brief “Smart Phones for Stupid People,” from the hilarious collection of incredibly short songs that can be found on his 2015 release Chorus, Chorus, Chorus.
To get in touch with the Kinks, the Records, Rupert Holmes, Twin Peaks, Mo Kenney, Brian Jay Cline, Rob Bonfiglio and Gregory Pepper, I would love to tell you that operators are standing by, but we both know that would just prompt a recording from the ‘not going to happen’ exchange. Instead, just hit the links above. I mean, who needs a phone for such things now anyway?
Gregory Pepper is no stranger to Poprock Record. We’ve lauded his early work (“Gregory Pepper is not a problem”), tested the audience reaction to his many changing moods (“The Pepper challenge: Classic Greg versus New Greg”), and included his tunes on themed blog posts (“Celebrity poprock: What’s in a name?“). We’ve even shamelessly name-dropped him and his talents when we’re featuring other artists. But now we can offer you more, much more – a veritable ticket to Pepperland! Now you can see inside the creative process of this superlatively talented artist by joining his Song of the Week Club on Patreon or Bandcamp. Every Friday Pepper posts a new song and the website features Pepper sharing insights into his creative process, answering fan queries, and trading quips with the creative people who’ve signed up to support him.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’ve seen these sort of crazy K-tel-esque offers before and they just seem too good to be true. Oh, it all starts off nice but after a few weeks of genuinely new material the whole operation degenerates into live album outtakes and crude demo tapes. But hey, would I steer you wrong? As your poprock curator I’ve already sampled the goods and I can assure you everything has an address on quality street. The Song of the Week Club got its start July 4 with the anthemically timely “Going Back to the U.S.A.” Since then he’s produced 14 wholly new poprock gems. By special permission from the head Pepper himself, I can showcase some of this new material here to whet your appetite.
Only 14 songs into his 52 song odyssey and already the wide range of material presents too much choice. But the four songs below I think give you a sense of what Gregory Pepper is doing. The songs capture his musical dexterity, sublime lyrical creativity, and sense of fun. “Sublime Sun Tattoo” has a late 1950s, early 1960s melodrama pop sound, with a lyric devoted to exploring Enya’s possibly castle-fed loneliness. “Worrier Spirit” has very Elvis Costello melodic subtones circa Punch the Clock to my ears. I love the way the guitars charge out of the gate, only to drop out with the vocals, the great pulsing organ, and the theramin/Quinn Martin Productions sound that appears at the three-quarter mark, capped by a cool James Bond chord ending. It’s the little details that make these such melodic masterpieces! “Give Yourself a Hand” has a great swinging feel with sweetened vocals that add just a touch of light to the desperate drabness so typical of a bachelor party trip to the strip joint. “Two Speeds” showcases Pepper’s mastery of different stylistic eras, with some nice Merseybeat touches, particularly the guitar riff and the overall song structure. I gotta stop here or I’ll give away the store.Sublime Sun TattooWorrier SpiritGive Yourself a HandTwo Speeds
And the price? Just $4 a month for a new tune every Friday. That is some crazy bargain. Of course, you can always offer to pay more. Hustle over to the Patreon or Bandcamp sites and sign up today – you won’t regret it.
Bad Books, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bobby Fuller, Cait Brennan, Chuck Prophet, Eytan Mirsky, Fastball, Forest Whitaker, Geezer, Gregory Pepper, I'm Bill Murray, Jeff Lynne, Jody Foster, Jonathan Coulton, Lillian Gish, Pinehurst Kids, Steve McQueen, Tom Cruise Crazy
Putting a famous name in your song title would seem to be a sure fire way to have a hit. Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” or Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” readily come to mind. But really, those are the exceptions. A quick search of the internet actually turns up a whole bevy of celebrity names on songs, mostly on the indie side of things, most of them album cuts. So why do bands do it? Homage? Satire? Or are they just as celebrity obsessed as everyone else? The French duo Please was formed and recorded a song with the sole explicit intent of getting a response from Paul McCartney – not that Paul appeared to notice! The range of material covered in this post gives us a bit of all these approaches, from hero worship, to ridicule, to little more than just mentioning the celebrity name.
Pinehurst Kids’ “Jody Foster” burns along with an edgy indie sound, just the sort of ‘tude’ you expect from a song named for this actor. Punky, but with an underlying melodic coherence and musical depth. Kevine Devine’s Bad Books is a bit more polished but retains distinct edginess on “Forest Whitaker,” a song about some intense person that has named their baby after the aforementioned intense actor. Love how the keyboards gel with the electric guitar on this track – a killer sound. Eytan Mirsky lightens the mood a bit with his breezy melodic charmer “(I Just Wanna Be Your) Steve McQueen.” Here McQueen’s movie roles are conjured up to aid our singing protagonist in expressing his romantic aspirations – in inimitable Mirsky style (sardonic yet somehow sincere). Geezer are from Austria and have a number of great albums under their belt, including their latest Life in Stereo. Their celebrity-named song goes back a few years and is a straight up glowing tribute to its namesake. In fact, “Jeff Lynne” has so many references to actual Electric Light Orchestra lyrics it’s a wonder he didn’t get a writing credit! There is something a bit ironic about a loving tribute to ELO, a band that was often seen as a loving tribute to previous generation of music, particularly the Beatles.Geezers – Jeff Lynne
Today’s blog theme also gives me a chance to feature another song by the great and gorgeous Cait Brennan, namely the intense, melodic and hilarious “Benedict Cumberbatch.” Another underappreciated star that can be included here is former Green on Red frontman, Chuck Prophet, who has been creating a solid body of fantastic solo work over the past decade. “Bobby Fuller Died for you Sins” is a loving recreation of the Fuller sound, with a little Prophet magic mixed in. In the ‘now for something completely different’ category, Fastball’s new record Step Into Light has a host of highlights but one that might be overlooked is the unusual and sonically distinctive “Lillian Gish.” Is there nothing these guys can’t do? Ok, let’s change things up with a bit of humour. A lot of Gregory Pepper’s work is droll and biting. “I’m Bill Murray” has the singer using Murray’s filmic exploits to explain his increasingly bad behavior. Maxi-cool hooks here and so many in such a short song. It’s like a minute and twenty-four second melodic miniature painting. Jonathan Coulton uses more in-your-face put-down humour on his “Tom Cruise Crazy.” Hilarious. No further explanation is really required.Cait Brennan – Benedict CumberbatchFastball – Lillian GishJonathan Coulton – Tom Cruise Crazy
The one thing binding all these acts, beyond writing a celebrity-named song, is that none are really celebrities in the way that term is commonly understood. But wouldn’t it be great if Please, Pinehurst Kids, Bad Books, Eytan Mirsky, Geezer, Cait Brennan, Chuck Prophet, Fastball, Gregory Pepper and his Problems, and Jonathan Coulton were great big fantastically successful celebrities? What a wonderful world that would be. Take the first step toward that future by visiting them today.
Gregory Pepper is a poprock songwriter and performer extraordinaire. He specializes in writing short, punchy, hook-filled masterpieces on bizarre and/or hilarious topics.
The Pepper challenge is a taste test to determine whether you prefer Greg Classic or New Greg. Compare Pepper’s two different versions of his recent tune “This Town” to see what we mean. The song’s lyrics continue to develop some of his longstanding themes: a comic fascination with the macabre, the dead, and a dated horror movie sense of panic. But the two treatments of the song couldn’t be more different. The Greg Classic version from his recent EP Ghost is clearly sweeter with a predictable edge, naughty but still nice to curl up with on a hot summer day or crisp winter night. But the New Greg version from the just released Black Metal Demo Tape album has its charms too. Uber cool in a mascara-wearing, post teenage goth sort of way. Greg Classic will have you humming in the shower. New Greg might make you want to write depressing poetry and hang out in ill-lit, dilapidated buildings. Both are acceptable motifs for today’s hook-obsessed hipsters.
Is there really a need to choose? No. But it’s fun making you go through the motions. Anything that draws potential fan interest to the multi-talented Gregory Pepper means our job here at Poprock Record is done.
Gregory Pepper is based in Guelph, Ontario (which might explain a lot). Check out his video of the Greg Classic version of “This Town” which recuts scenes from the Breakfast Club into a synched up, dance-a-thon. And don’t forget to visit Camp Pepper, where you can peruse his artistic and musical endeavours in a pleasant, web-based environment.
Gregory Pepper is a hilarious, depraved, acerbic modern vaudevillian, a master of multiple styles, apparently loyal to none. On the four albums and one EP credited to Gregory Pepper and his Problems, he effortlessly shifts from genre to genre, one minute doing seeming novelty songs like “The Price is Wrong,” the next launching into the dementedly necrophilic “Dearly Departed.” On a number of songs Pepper skewers pop culture (e.g. “Smart Phones for Stupid People”) but isn’t afraid to skewer himself from time to time (“At Least I’m Not a Musician,” “Whose Dick Did You Have to Suck”). Our focus is on his poprock contributions and they are impressive.
Featured here is the Bond-esque “Drop the Plot” from 2009’s With Trumpets Flaring, the sunshine poppy “Breathe In” from Escape from Skull Mountain and the disarming “Restless Legs” from his EP, My Bad. From his most recent album, Chorus! Chorus! Chorus!, we hear his Fountains of Wayne-like “Welcome to the Dullhouse.”
Pepper appears in Toronto October 1 at the Smiling Buddha. Gregory Pepper website