A new single from Overlord is cause for much excitement over here a PRR headquarters. We’ve loved their past work with a monastic intensity. But let’s face it, it’s been a tough few centuries for overlords. Notwithstanding John Lennon’s claim that we’re all still effing peasants, demand for a ‘lord of all lords’ who can rule the shire, extract a bit of surplus from the serfs, and go all bro with his nobles on regular trips to the holy land to kick some infidel ass has declined precipitously since that whole ‘free labour’ thing came in with capitalism. That must be a contributing factor to Overlord’s declining musical productivity of late. Since the release of the band’s last long-player The Well Tempered Overlord in 2016 there’s been just one single, 2017’s “Up For Anything.” Oh for the good old days of feudal leisure!
Well chin up loyal subjects, your continuing fealty is about to be rewarded. Overlord is back with a song as good as any of their past curio poprock classics. I mean, who opens with fabulous accordion? Ok, They Might Be Giants. But who else? Overlord gateway-drug your way into “I Don’t Want to Sing This Song Again” with some alluring accordion work before breaking out a masterful melodic performance, perhaps vibing a bit of Teenage Fanclub but mostly just giving us that good old hooky, verbally-clever stuff we love them for. My only concern is the possible subtext here. Does not wanting to sing this particular song mean Overlord is really saying ‘so long’? Banish the thought. Even in the darkest ages I’m a bit of a musical optimist so I’m going with ‘early single from a fab new soon-to-be released album’ as my judgement of this one-off release.
For a medieval holdover, Overlord are working the social media with a modernist élan. Check them out on their internet manor, Facebook and Bandcamp pages to get all latest ‘hear ye, hear ye’s.
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.
My two-volume Oxford dictionary on historical principles informs me that an ‘overlord’ is not just any feudal ruler but a guy pretty far up on the Middle Ages food chain. The uber lord, if you will. But then the online urban dictionary claims its just a bit of modern slang for “one who excels greatly over their peers in any particular task.” I think either one could work for Overlord, the highly literate poprock band from Brooklyn, NY. Their new single is “Up for Anything” and it’s brilliant. A straight up, one minute and 18 seconds of manicured pop songcraft, no filler. But to really appreciate what Overlord has to offer, we’ve got to go back – way back – to the 1990s and track the evolution of a slightly noisy, fuzzed out garage outfit to the finely crafted poprock connoisseurs they’ve become.
The band’s discography is like a picture slowly coming into focus. The first albums and EPs are somewhat discordant, vibing a kind of DIY punk ‘tude. But everything becomes more clear and pristine over time. The turning point is 2001’s The Wonderful World of Chemistry. Both “Populist Anthem,” with its blurry take on late 1960s California pop, and “Meet the Situation Artist,” featuring nice strummy electric guitar and washed out vocals, up the melodic anti for the group. But it is the brilliant “The 70th Love Song (Class of 1993 Reunion Theme)” that gestures toward the wit and intelligence to come on future releases. Beyond the stylized vocal effects, the song features some killer lyrics. It takes a certain perspective on things to contrast “some boys’ lips are made for smiles” with “some boys’ lips are made for sutures.”
Populist AnthemThe 70th Love Song (Class of 1993 Reunion Theme)
These early tendencies are much in evidence on 2006’s Ticker Symbols. The deadpan drollery is there on “The Very Next Person to the Hold My Hand Can Have Me” and “When You Were Crazy” but things also get more melodically serious on the “We’ll Never Get Away” with its Brydsian and Beatles’ Revolver era élan. Meanwhile “The Song that Saved the World” sounds like a milder XTC take on the pretensions of ‘let’s give the planet a big hug’ musicians. Five years later In Soviet Russia, My Heart Breaks For You serves up another great batch of songs, particularly “Oh, My Mechanical Heart!” “Keep it from the Baby,” “Nothing is Wrong.” There is something very Hollies or even late 1960s Moody Blues in the broad sonic palette here, especially the vocals. The band’s mastery of form is even more obvious four years later on their note-perfect homage/send up of the mopey one on “I Want to Die with You Morrissey.”The Very Next Person to Hold My Hand Can Have MeWe’ll Never Get AwayThe Song That Saved the World
All this leads us to 2016’s The Well Tempered Overlord, the band’s undeniable masterpiece. The wit is cutting, the umbrage exquisite. This is deeply intelligent and catchy music, intellectually riffing on indie culture and beyond. Think of all those smart and clever bands – The Smiths, Magnetic Fields, They Might Be Giants, XTC – and this record adds a new member to the club. There really isn’t a weak cut on the album but I’m specifically loving the hooks on “You’re Gonna Love This One” or the great lead guitar and vocals on “It’s a Travesty,” the alternating tempo of “Incredibly Human” and the rollicking rush of “Posthumous Honors,” with its great line about ‘my whole life was a bad idea.’ And for those who came only for the sardonic wit you’ve still got “Give Up Your Dreams” and “My Absence Will Go Unnoticed.”