May Day is an annual wake up call for the working class, a day celebrated in more than 160 countries around the world. What better way to get on-message than through music? Today’s post honours May Day aka International Workers’ Day with songs about class, identity, and solidarity. It’s definitely time to work out which side you are on.
New York City’s Jeremy and the Harlequins put out a killer album in 2019, Remember This, a solid slab of Americana rock and roll in the Fallon, Mellencamp and Springsteen mold. But the standout song for our purposes is “American Gold,” a highly listenable hooky tune with lyrics that slay the American dream with a clarity seldom matched in popular music:
Brothers and sisters if you wanna be saved Listen close to a story about how the streets get paved Not by men selling greatness or hope But on the backs of the working class folks Well they sell you a dream that you don’t really need Cut you up by colour or creed Then they’ll give somebody to blame It’s the same old story but they change the name
There’s a lot of talk about outlaw country but the usual examples are anything but. Most just mix dominant ideology with a few y’alls and call it a day. And then there’s Will Hoge. His 2018 album My American Dream takes aim at Republican politicians, the NRA and the conservative undercurrent to the country music establishment. Given how the latter dominate that scene, Hoge is clearly the real outlaw here. On “Stupid Kids” he rages in favour of kids making a difference, with a Steve Earle snarl and a driving Blue Oyster cult guitar riff:
Oh stupid kids don’t listen to what the old folks say You’re the only ones that are ever gonna make things change Keep your feet marching Raise up your voice don’t quit Keep doin’ what you’re doin’ Keep being stupid kids
But the coup de grace lyric comes in the bridge when Hoge sings:
Turn your music up Sing to your own damn song You know you got it right When all the old white men don’t sing along
Crossing the pond This Circus Life take a break from their usual smooth poprock sound for something more Beautiful South or Chumbawumba (in a mellow mood) on “Where Are the Working Classes?” From 2021’s The Vast and Endless Sea, the tune calls into question the superficial and mostly unattainable middle class aspirations of the post Thatcher era in the UK, reminiscent of critiques from the likes of filmmaker Mike Leigh in his movie High Hopes. As Charlie Mear sings “Didn’t we see them pulling the wool down over our eyes?” Indeed. Another UK band that reliably banged on and on about class were McCarthy. I can’t believe I didn’t notice this band during their heyday circa 1987-88. They were essentially a twee version of The Smiths but with super-sized politics. For these guys, everything was political. Lyricist Malcolm Eden is like that guy at the party that won’t stop droning on about capitalism. My kind of guy obviously. There are so many possible songs to choose from here but “In the Dark Times” remains relevant and has some nice Johnny Marr-like guitar work. Wrapping things up this May Day we have the ever relevant Billy Bragg. His recent album The Million Things That Never Happened is another Americana folk tour-de-force, both sing-a-long good and highly topical. On “Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free” Bragg shreds the libertarian right, pointing out the glaring flaws in their unrealistic utopian plans that should be the obvious to everyone.
So listen for the bugles’ call this May Day. Whether your reveille be “The International” or “This Land is Your Land” the sentiments are basically the same. As my grandmother used to say, ‘working people gotta stick together!’
As a month, March just feels so in between. Lacking any real ‘big event’ or holiday it can seem like we’re all just doing time waiting for spring to start. What we need is something big, something spectacular. So I’m offering a roundup of recent melody-drenched singles to help get you through.
San Francisco’s Richard Turgeon kicked off 2022 with a new career highlight, the infectious stand-alone single “Better With You.” Need a shot of feel good guitar oriented power pop? Turgeon adds a lot of Matthew Sweetener to this track but to my ears the mix is just right. The king of Dad rock is unstoppable! Shifting gears, French outfit Persica 3 takes us in a more ethereal direction with their dreamy “Water Lily,” the most straight-up radio friendly contribution on their new LP Tangerine. The song is like a museum of sonic trappings from years gone by, a bit 1980s keyboard ambience, some lilting 1970s acoustic guitar, and vocals that would be at home in any roomy medieval church. With Commotion Pop Garden Radio have released a tribute album to Creedence Clearwater Revival that pulls together 26 indie artists to remake the band’s canon. It’s a gutsy endeavor because trying to cover John Fogerty often begs the question, why bother? It is gonna be hard to top the master. All the bands make a stellar effort but the contributions from Popdudes and Yorktown Lads really stand out for me. Popdudes key up the jangle guitar and fatten the vocals on “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” in a way that really suits the song, adding something new to this classic. Yorktown Ladshilariously add an early Beatles rocking veneer to “Green River.” The mix could have been just a joke but the band ace melding the disparate styles with such a smoking dexterity you can’t help but be blown away. Michael Goodman’s musical project Goodman is reliably good. Every few years another album comes down the pike full of hooky poprock sketches, drawing from classic 1970s and 1980s indie motifs. His new album is How Close Are You to the Ground? and the whole thing is strong but the obvious candidate for should-be hit single is the punchy “Au Pair.” Goodman mixes up all the various elements with a creative genius: engaging guitar, hooky vocal lines, a staccato seductive lurch to the rhythm.
Like every other Beatlemaniac, I was thrilled to see the band put out some new songs in the 1990s. But somehow I just couldn’t get past the poor quality of John’s vocals on the two singles. Enter Francis Lung with his beautiful and Beatles-faithful rendering of “Real Love,” a version that offers us a more balanced treatment of the song. Now we can really hear how good it is. Sometimes there’s a band doing something that generally is not your thing but then there’s a deep cut that totally grabs you. Well that is Connecticut’s punky, sometime-screamers Anxiousfor me. Their uptempo material on Little Green House is fine but it was their out-of-character acoustic guitar ballad “Wayne” that really got into my head with its mellow backing and captivating vocal interplay. And looking at album’s cute cover design, it’s really the only song that you’d predict would be there. Let’s say you release an album of new tunes in the October, so what do you do in the new year? If you’re Ricky Rochelle you release a stand-alone single that branches out with a whole new style. 2021’s So Far So Good featured songs that straddled the pop punk and indie rock and roll sound but his new single “In a Dream With You” is something else again. Personally I like where he’s going. The song is a bit more light and buoyant than the previous efforts, with a dreamy hook in the chorus. Minneapolis subs for Memphis when TheCactus Blossoms come to town. Their new album is One Day and it delivers on what fans loved about their debut album Easy Way, an unerring feel for that Everly Brothers/Roy Orbison mode of playing and singing. The new record does branch out a bit into more contemporary song styles (e.g. “Everybody”) but tune in to “Hey Baby” to get your fix of the old magic. Another band living the 1960s musical dream to perfection is New York’s Jeremy and the Harlequins. On their new single “It Won’t Be Love” they reinvent the early 1960s tragic rock song style, adding some Springsteen-ish rocking muscle to proceedings.
A straightforward blast of poprocky goodness can be found The Summer Holiday’s “What Happens When You Lose.” I hear a bit of the New Pornographers in the song’s poppy twists and turns. The band’s creative force Michael Collins is working on material for new album, according to I Don’t Hear a Single. So there’s that to look forward to. The Hoodoo Gurus are back after eleven years with a new album and winning, timely single, “Carry On.” Though written back in 2005, the song manages to give voice to healthcare workers struggling to keep going amidst this seemingly never-ending pandemic. The song has everything you’d expect from the HGs, big guitars, in-your-face vocals and solid rock and roll hooks. Another band with a big sound is Cardiff’s Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard. Their new album Backhand Deals is chock full of a 1970s sense of poprock abandon, all driving keyboards and different vocals playing off each other. But it’s “Break Right In” that will really knock you over. The lyrics are eccentric and the mood is a shot of seventies 10cc meets Queen in full-on pop mode. Seems it was just yesterday that The Orange Peels re-released their 1997 debut Square to serious reviewer accolades (it was 2019, actually). But the band is not living in the past. Their most recent album is Celebrate the Moments of Your Life and it’s full of perky song sketches, like “Indigo Hill” and “Human.” I hear a real Shins vibe on the former but the latter reminds me of The Pixes, particularly the keyboard work. Former Figgs and NRBQ member Pete Donnelly moves in a more decidedly poprock direction his new EP Anthem of the Time. You can really hear it on the title track, a song that has some definite Beatlesque turns and benefits from a relentless dose of jangly lead guitar work.
Norway’s Armchair Oraclesmust be working up to a new album, what with the slew of singles they’ve released over the past three years. “Addicted to the Ride” is the latest and this time out I’m hearing a very Gerry Rafferty gloss on the vocals (and that’s a good thing!) while the tune is very Macca in mid-period Wings flight. Surge and the Swell is an Americana project from Minnesota’s Aaron Cabbage, working with the Honeydogs’ Adam Levy. I think you can really Levy’s impact on “Gravity Boots” with the electric guitar licks really adding some poppy hooks to the song. It just shows how a creative songwriter and producer can work together to blur genre boundaries, with good effect. I really got into Sarah Shook and the Disarmers on their 2017 Sidelong album, a wonderfully ramshackle bit of what Rolling Stone dubbed ‘agitated honky tonk.’ But that didn’t prepare me for their new single “I Got This.” The song defies genre. The playing reminds me of Darwin Deez in its economical roominess while the vocal is full of surprises. Gone is the surly country twang, replaced by a more direct delivery in the verses and disarming falsetto in the chorus. Altogether a delightful surprise. Another genre crosser is Oliver Tree. He describes his new album Cowboy Tears as ‘cowboy emo’ but on the earwormy single “Things We Used to Do” I get a more Front Bottoms or Grouplove vibe. This one will seduce you slowly, its shuffle beat and acoustic guitar anchor lulling you into hitting replay multiple times. One of the many delights of 2019 was the debut effort from Glasgow’s U.S. Highball. Great Record was indeed a great record. So the teaser release of a single from their upcoming new record A Parkhead Cross of the Mind is most welcome. “Double Dare” sounds a bit different off the start but once it gets going it’s not too different. There’s the jangle, there’s the poppy melody, there’s the distinctive vocal harmonies we’ve come to rely on from this duo. There’s even a cool keyboard solo halfway through.
Let’s wrap up this 21 song March spectacular with Tamar Berk’s new single “Your Permission.” Berk was one of the breakout indie stars of 2021 with her smart, stylish debut album The Restless Dreams of Youth and particularly the single “Socrates and Me.” But let the reinvention process begin because with “Your Permission” she offers up a striking change of direction, shifting from a guitar to keyboards focus to create a gorgeous pop setting for this tune. The song itself channels the sophisticated song-writing and performance of a Suzanne Vega or Aimee Mann. A new album can’t arrive fast enough.
Whew, what a cavalcade of should-be stars! With these tunes you can cast aside your winter doldrums and put a bit of spring in your step. Even if there’s still snow left to shovel.