Today’s dial turning is finding guitars aplenty with a decidedly country, sometimes western flavour. But there’s a celebration of sixties garage and girl group sounds too. Get your ear close to the speaker for these made-for-transistor-radio selections.
The back catalogue of Sydney, Australia’s The Forresters has inspired comparisons to The Jayhawks, Teenage Fanclub and Big Star. But frankly, in my view, they’ve got a distinct sound all their own – apparent all over their recent long-player Something To Give. The intro guitar work defining opening cut “On My Way” puts the challenge up front, a bit sombre but uplifting at the same time, later enhanced by some great organ, ‘ooh’ing background vocals and a Harrisonian bit of lead guitar work. Familiar ground but a different synthesis than its source material. Meanwhile “Are You Ready” is a delightful rush of country Byrds meets Big Star. “Tightrope” moves in a different direction again, this time channeling some serious Matthew Sweet-like hooks. Pedal steel plus jangle? Yes please! That’s what you get with “Back In My Arms.” I love how the band throw ‘woo hoo’ background vocals over a whole load of material, framing the chord slashing “Pretty Little Thing” or the more languid rocking “Falling Star” or amid the horns and searing guitar solos of “Get To You.” No surprise, the band ace their cover of Big Star’s lovely “Thirteen.” But the slow burn fave for me here is “Fall Back In” with its harder edge guitar sound and touch of melodic ennui. Having said that, you won’t go wrong giving Something To Give a full-album spin. It’s a no-regrets kind of commitment.
Allan Kaplon’s got a deep gravelly voice you might associate with those mid-1960s trucker songs from the likes of Red Sovine. But he manages to apply it to a variety of unpredictable styles on his thoroughly enjoyable recent record, Notes on a Napkin. Case in point: album opener “One Big Parade” is a brilliant Harry Nilsson-ish kind of late 1960s message song, one where Kaplon’s baritone adds gravity to an otherwise upbeat tune. Indeed, Kaplon’s voice should be seen as a crucial and unique instrumental contribution here, adding a depth of feeling to pop folkie material like “Keep You You” and “Every Single Day,” sort of like Jim Croce or Leonard Cohen once did. The record’s got country going on too, from the Hoyt Axton/Glen Campbell 1970s cross-over country feel of “Painted in a Bad Light” to the more late 1960s country-rock mix on “Wonder Where the Angels Are” and “Slow Down Cowboy,” the latter vibing The Band and Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” respectively. But Kaplon gets his rock on too. “Flesh and Blood” has the cheeky swing I associate with Dire Straits’ first three albums, with a similarly understated yet precise vocal approach. Title track “Notes on a Napkin” even has a bit of a Yardbirds meets Bond aura with its tuneful menace. But the star track here is undoubtedly “Restless Ones” with its killer, slow-build earwormy hooks. The verses advance with a Highwaymen’s sense of balladeering anticipation, only to blast off in the chorus. Notes on a Napkin will surprise you, it’s a wonderfully eclectic marriage of strong song-writing peppered with inspired vocal performances.
What kind of cool time travel has brought us Bisbee, Arizona’s The Exbats? As their Bandcamp presser suggests, the group are like some kind of “dystopian garage rock … Shangri-Las” or a “pre-Velvet Underground doo-wop wannabe Lou Reed.” Their most recent LP is Now Where Were We and it is one serious love letter to Phil Spector, the Wrecking Crew and the 1960s California pop sound, though shot through with a punk DIY sensibility. “Coolsville” is oh so Mamas and Papas. “Best Most Least Worst” really does sound like a garage rock take on the Shangri Las. “Practice On Me” moves things in a more dirty-country cowpunk direction. “Best Kiss” is like an R-rated Top of Pops hit single circa 1965. The band can also do mellow. Songs like “One Foot in the Light” and “Like a Song” have a slower, more manicured pop feel akin to Sonny and Cher or Nancy Sinatra. There’s also a pop psych thing going on here on tunes like “Ghost in the Record Store.” I like how they meld different styles – check out the way “Hey New Zealand” combines a bit of The Zombies with the Mamas and Papas. I could go on. Each track vibes on a different flavour of the sixties like some sonic Pot of Gold chocolate box. Very tasty indeed.
The debut album from Melbourne, Australia’s The High Heaven Fairytales of the Heartland casts a Cormac McCarthy-like western spell refracted through a Sergio Leone cinematic filter. And that would be deliberate. These guys clearly love all those Clint movies and their distinctive Ennio Morricone soundtracks – and it shows. But they don’t just throw some spaghetti over any old songs, these tunes are right out of Americana central casting. Opening cut “Wanted Man” is on point, both in musical style and lyrical content. Immediately we’re thrust into the action, our protagonist drawing us into his dilemmas against a solid western-country sonic setting. “Dead Dollar Bill” ups the rock quotient in the country rock balance, with nice Morricone embellishments. “The Evening Redness in the West” adds some rollicking, saloon-worth piano and western-appropriate whistling. But the twin price of admission here can be found in “The Desert” and “Nowhere Bound,” the former a kick-up-yer-heels should-be hit single, the latter a lovely folk/country ballad. The record’s denouement is captured in the ominous sounding title track “Fairytales of the Heartland,” providing an unsettling end to an album that has alternated between glorious send-up and utter sincerity. Despite this, both here and on the band’s subsequent EP Outlaws, Vol. 1: A Few Tales More, the main feeling is a joyous sense of fun in the proceedings. These guys are having a blast so guess what? We are too.
When it comes to melody-packed music, it’s no desert out there. Come in out of the sun and crowd up to the bar with any of these fine artists. You’ll definitely slake your thirst for some quality tune-age.