It’s an exciting time because both Liz Phair and Juliana Hatfield have brand new albums out. These two never fail to deliver solid material full of subtle hooks, performed with a sonic panache defined by groovy guitars and alluring vocals. But don’t just take my word for it. These two are so good that people write songs about them. A lot of people, actually. I came across the phenomenon quite by accident when I was searching to see if either artist had material up on Bandcamp (with music purchases I try to make sure the biggest cut goes to the artist). Surprise, surprise, the results turned up songs about the artists as well as the artists themselves. And some of the tracks are pretty good. So today’s post showcases new songs by Hatfield and Phair as well as songs by people who (obviously) love them!
Juliana Hatfield has been keeping us entertained in recent years with her exquisite, meticulous cover albums dedicated to material by Olivia Newton John and The Police. At first the concept seemed a bit over the top – until you hear them. Hatfield knows how to ride the line on doing covers: you give the audience a bit of what they expect, something familiar, even as you stretch the song into a new shape. It’s the difference between karaoke and a real craft in performing. Still, it’s great to have a new album of originals. Blood is packed full of Hatfield’s usual cool tunes, whip-smart lyrics, striking guitars and compressed vocals, coming off like the Bangles’ new wave neighbour. Keyboards also figure prominently on this record, bouncing against the guitar and keeping the two in tension. You can really hear it on “Gorgon,” my fave track right now. I love the simplicity and swing behind the guitar hooks in the chorus. But it’s there all over the record, from the dynamic opening cut “The Shame of Love” to the early single “Mouthful of Blood.” If you’re a Hatfield fan, get ready to enjoy yourself. Blood’s a pleaser.
Hatfield and Phair make for an interesting pairing. They’re almost exactly the same age, born three months apart in 1967. But productivity-wise, Phair has been a bit more selective about releasing material under her own name, with just 7 albums compared to Hatfield’s 19. Of course, she has released other work as part of Some Girls, Minor Alps, and The I Don’t Care’s. The soon-to-be released Liz Phair album is entitled Soberish and we’ve only got three songs to go on for now. But what a triple play. “Hey Lou” is an imagined conversation between Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Lyrically it is already clever enough, but music-wise the song’s structure is striking and original, a layered melody that really pulls you in. “Spanish Doors” also offers some distinctive layering, this time with juxtaposed vocal melody lines in the chorus that are definitely captivating. “In There” is a more open, vulnerable track, nicely filled in with acoustic piano and some airy synth lines. Can’t wait to hear more.
Overall, the songs about Hatfield and Phair are pretty indie DIY. But not Bad Bad Hat’s “Liz Phair.” Wow, this is one slick, spot-on Phair-ish number. The song is professionally produced, with interesting guitar and keyboard work, and pretty Liz-like vocals. The rest of this trio’s EP Wide Right is highly listenable, with a sound that departs from the Phair mould. Jimmy Murn and the Heymakers go all fan boy on “Dear Liz Phair” but the earnestness is cut with some great Weezer-ish vocal ‘ooh oohs,’ crunchy guitars and funky organ fills. Picturebox’s fuzzed out “Juliana Hatfield One” is a poppy number riding a Nick Lowe kind of melodic hook. “Juliana Hatfield Two” is the same again but de-fuzzed, which brings out the cheese on the synth and adds extra preciousness to the vocals. 24 Hours Blues Cycle’s “Juliana Hatfield Type” is a bit of a departure, kicking off in an Americana folk vein but the supporting background vocals are very Juliana. And then there’s the very professional Swiss band Lovebugs who manage to name-check both our featured artists and many more women in rock in their somewhat datedly-titled but peppy “Girls in Rock.”
Imagine what it must be like running across a song written about you. Must be kinda cool. Or maybe it’s a bit creepy? I’m not really in a position to judge from personal experience. Ultimately, as with all things musical, the bottom line for me is the quality of the tune. A lot can be forgiven if the thing is hummable. Hatfield and Phair never let us down on that front.
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.
Shamelessly exploit an emerging health crisis for some weak blog tie-in? Not our style friends. Think of this as a public service, designed to distract you from the impending end of the world as we know it. As someone once said, if we’re going to have to go, we might as well go out singing!
Not that we should get too excited. Phoebe Bridgers captures a bit of the aura of impending doom that’s all about on her low key but catchy “Motion Sickness.” By contrast, The Popravinas “Almost Sick” almost sounds celebratory in a country ‘my truck died’ sort of way. KC Bowman’s crew of musical friends also have a timely tune in their Preoccupied Pipers guise with the sprightly “Sick Time.” On the other hand, Swedish/German duo It’s a Musicalget right to the point with the quirky “The Music Makes Me Sick” (disclaimer: no music on this site will actually make you sick). Another KC Bowman vehicle is the cleverly named Stik Pinz and they sound positively blissed out to get some “Medical Time.” Well, who wouldn’t, under our present circumstances? Can I get a doctor? That might be what Chris Von Sneidern is saying on “Doctor.” Then again, the album is called Big White Lies so who knows. It’s a lovely song and that’s all my prescription guarantees. The Lolas get a little more specific with “Doctor Apache” and they’ve pretty’d up their usual rocking sound with some lovely jangly guitar argpeggiations. Juliana Hatfield has turned out so many great, underappreciated LPs. Like Pussycat, with its topical “I Wanna Be Your Disease.” Working the Americana side of the poprock street, The River and the Road layer in the banjo to earworm up their thematic contribution, “Strange Disease” and it works! Just the musical cure we’re looking for. And for the wrap, how about some Bill Lloyd from his fab 2018 album, Working the Long Game in the form of “What Time Won’t Heal.” Hopefully, if our preparations were effective, you’ve been toe-tapping your way to distraction and forgot all about … what was that news headline?
Chris Von Sneidern – DoctorLolas – Doctor ApacheThe River and the Road – Strange DiseaseBill Lloyd – What Time Won’t Heal
Time to pull together people. Even as we practice some social distancing to survive in the days and weeks ahead, we can always let the music bring us together. Click the links above and bring some money-joy to our performers as they tart up their quarantine quarters, er, I mean, wherever they call home!
2019 had plenty of jangle, hooks, harmonies and melody to spare. From an initial list of over 200 songs I’ve managed to whittle my should-be hit single list to just 50 chart toppers for this year. Man, it was hard. Because I only post music I like this whole exercise is a bit like choosing your favourite child. Well, IMHO, the 50 songs featured here all have a strong earwormy quality to them. But let me know if you agree or disagree! Hit the links below to find each artist as featured in my original blog post this past year.
So, without further ado (drum roll please!), here is Poprock Record’s should-be hit singles for 2019:
As you can see, the list is a bit all over the map. There’s hints of country and folk and a lot of rock and roll. Because I’m working a broad poprock vein (as opposed to a more narrow power pop) my list crosses lines that other melodic rock blogs might not. That means the pop folky Bombadil and Fruitbats can sidle up to the more edgy melodic punk of Ezra Furman or country rock of The Cerny Brothers. But most of the entries fall neatly into my definition of ‘poprock’ – as in, melodic rock and roll characterized by plenty of hooks and harmony vocals. It’s all there in my number one song from The Golden Seals “Something Isn’t Happening” with its swinging acoustic guitar base, various hooky lead guitar lines, and catchy vocal melody. Or you can hear it in the addictive guitar drone driving Juliana Hatfield’s great single, “Sugar.” Same goes for The Well Wishers’ fantastic poprock reinvention of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 sound on “Feeling Fine.” And I could just go on dropping superlatives on every entry on this list. Instead, click on the links and check out my original posts about all these artist.
All these artists have instruments to keep in tune and studio time to pay for, not to mention all the time they take away from paying work to write the songs and practice performing them – all in aid of getting this exciting music out there for us to enjoy. Help them thrive by getting out to see them live and buying their music.
It’s a new year – time to break out some brand new 2019 material. This collection of hooky poprock gems are fresh and date-stamped with the new year!
Manchester’s The Maple State formed in 2004, gigged until 2008, and then took a break before releasing a stellar comeback album in 2018, Things I Heard at the Party. Keeping up the momentum, they’re back this month with a double-A sided single release, “Germany” / “A Notion.” On first listen, the band sounds a bit post-punk until you hit the chorus on “Germany” and some pretty glorious power pop kicks in. Meanwhile, “A Notion” is more low key but still swinging, achieving an almost campfire sing-along sense of atmospheric fun. By contrast, Juliana Hatfield has never really gone away (and that’s a good thing!). Year after year she puts out pretty amazing albums, like last year’s phenomenal tribute to Olivia Newton John (check out Hatfield’s take on “Magic” – wow!). Her new, just released album is Weird and it is wonderfully so with another 11 strong tracks, though I’m presently hitting replay on “Sugar.” Somehow Hatfield makes her conflicted feelings about it clever, catchy and hilarious.
Scotland’s seeming bottomless pit of quality jangle gains more depth with Aberdeen’s The Vapour Trails. Their new extended 3 song single is named for one of the songs, “Godspeed It” but I’m more drawn the Rickenbacker-anchored jangle driving “The Inner Truth.” The vibe is a perfect distillation of late 1960s Byrdsian sibilant ringing guitar and nice harmonies. And the demo of their previously released “Golden Sunshine” is pretty special too. Though hailing from Pennsylvania and largely known for his distinctive guitar work, Steve Gunn has nailed a pretty ace Crowded House vibe on “Vagabond” from his new album The Unseen in Between. I mean, the guitar works here is still fantastic but it rightly remains secondary to his evocative melody and vocals. Rounding things out is some super-charged California pop from The Popravinas with their new single, “Sofia (CMU).” I love the candy-coated vocals on this track. Very late 1970s power pop, a vein mined by a host a great bands like The Connection and Tommy and Rockets. Looking forward to the band’s soon-to-released new album!
The Vapour Trails – The Inner TruthThe Popravinas – Sofia (CMU)
It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world they tell us and nowhere is that more true than in rock and roll. The omniscient perspective in a rock song is usually male, with a few exceptions. But to the music scene’s credit, more women have been making inroads over the past two decades or so. The first woman I recall identifying not simply as a ‘female vocalist’ but as a universal rock voice was Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. Since then the indie scene has provided us with a number of examples of larger than life female artists (they have to be to crowd out the men) with great songs and powerful performances.
Jill Sobule has had an amazing career doing, apparently, pretty much whatever she has wanted to do. After a false start at Geffen in 1990, 1995’s self-titled Jill Sobule set the frame for what would follow: a quirky, often folky, sometimes hilarious, always introspective and keenly observational singer-songwriter that has consistently produced great albums. Kinda like a rock and roll Suzanne Vega, but with more ‘tude. Threaded throughout her work is a strong set of political and feminist commitments, ranging from the satirical “Supermodel” to the more recent “Women of Industry.” Sobule’s catalogue is an embarrassment of riches so here’s an almost random selection. “Supermodel” showcases the uptempo hit songwriter, “Bitter” from 1997’s Happy Town rides a perfect hook, “Rock Me to Sleep” from 2000’s Pink Pearl exemplifies her tender side, while the banjo-driven “Old Kentucky” from 2014’s Dottie’s Charms is just a bit of rollicking fun. Sobule is working on a new album now and you check out her Soundcloud page to hear the works in progress and other great unreleased material.
BitterRock Me to Sleep
There are times when Amy Rigby seems so country. It’s there in her voice, that weary 1960s sound of oppressed Nashville womenhood. But then the angle shifts and the rock and roll dynamo shows through, giving voice to a whole lot of gendered working class experience from a lifetime of surviving the independent music scene. Her 1996 solo debut Diary of a Mod Housewife was a masterpiece of melodic social commentary but it didn’t lead to explosive sales. Since then, Rigby has continued to release solid records with songs that draw on all manner of classic rock and roll motifs, while giving voice to issues of class, relationships, gender and aging. A good place to start would be her 2002 compilation 18 Again. There you can check out the perfect 1960s elan of “All I Want” or the new wave vibe to “The Good Girls” or the masterful turns of phrase on the acoustic “Magicians.” Of course, I would add a few songs from 2003’s Til the Wheels Fall Off like the age-conscious “Shopping Around” or “Last Request” as well as 2005’s Little Fugitive,which contains a host of beautiful song scenarios like “The Trouble with Jeanie” and “Dancing with Joey Ramone.” She is back this year with Old Guys, where I’m digging “Are We Still There Yet.”
All I WantThe Good Girls
So much has been written about Juliana Hatfield and her many impressive accomplishments, all the great bands she has been part of, there’s really not much I could add. So I’ll just focus my attention on her continuing strength as a songwriter and recording artist. After a break of 22 years, her reunited Juliana Hatfield Three released a killer album in 2015, Whatever, My Love, with radio-friendly single material like “Invisible” and “If I Could.” Deep cut fave – “Parking Lots” with it’s sunny subtle hooks. Then in 2017 she released the dynamite, politically-charged solo album, Pussycat, a reaction to the election of Donald Trump. Here I would single out the jaunty “You’re Breaking my Heart” and “Kellyanne.” Then, as a reaction to the previous election year’s constant negativity, Hatfield decided to release an album of Olivia Newton-John covers. Here she works a creative tension between mirroring and reinventing the originals, with particular success on the Xanadu sountrack numbers, in my view. “Magic” amps up the early 1980s keyboard sound and adds Hatfield’s own distinctive vocal approach. Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John is better than cover albums are allowed to be, a real treat.