Time to turn up the wattage on the choice of featured artists for this post. I mean, don’t get me wrong, everybody I put up on this blog is a star to me. But some acts don’t really need much push from Poprock Record to sell records. You know what? Who cares. I still want to rave about their fabulous new releases and I’m gonna do it now.
Aimee Mann is the Joni Mitchell of her generation. Her ear for melody, her unique vocal phrasing, her restless pursuit of new musical challenges, they all exude that Joni brand of creativity. At the same time Mann embraces Mitchell’s intellectual seriousness. Just one listen to Queens of the Summer Hotel and you know you’re at the grown-up table. Others have explored the subject matter of the album in some detail so I won’t repeat that here. Suffice to say for our purposes, the tunes here are lush and memorable. There’s an acoustic bent to the instrumentation, Mann’s distinctive electric keyboard set aside for this outing. The style is sometimes somewhere between Costello’s Brodsky Quartet and his work with Bacharach, except when it’s pure Mann. Listeners looking for a hit of the latter classic sound, go directly to “Burn It Out.” She has a very specific and familiar way of bending a hook, usually occurring two thirds of the way through a sentence. But the rest of Queens of the Summer Hotel is both familiar and yet new territory. Opening cut “You Fall” has the delicate introspection of Joe Jackson in strong piano mode. “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath,” “At the Frick Museum” and “You Could Have Been a Roosevelt” all vibe a musicals feel (as in Broadway), minus the dance numbers. I love the swing on “Give Me Fifteen,” the wistful melancholia to “Suicide is Murder,” and the subtle hook anchoring “I See You.” Ultimately, this is an album that pays repeated listening. Queens of the Summer Hotel confirms Mann as one of America’s premier troubadours, delivering an album that defies genre, time and any sense of commercial constraint. And it’s a damn good listen.
With Ultramodern the Ruen Brothers take their distinctive postmodern pastiche of classic 1960s Americana with a contemporary twist in some decidedly new directions. First there’s something old. The album does gather together some of the previous year’s stand-alone singles, radio-friendly should-be hits like the broody Blue Velvet pop of “Saving Me, Saving You” and the infectious earworm “A Million Things.” Then there’s the familiar ‘git along little doggie’ western sound the boys do so well on tracks like “The Storm in You” and “Topanga Canyon.” Things go in a more contemporary pop direction on songs like “San Diego Nights” and the explosive dance number “Takin’ It Easy.” Other tracks max out a rollicking sense of fun, with “Up in California” a bouncy ditty with a surprising pedal steel guitar solo while “Flying Cars” sounds very early 1980s new wave. And no Ruen Brothers release would be complete with some dark, introspective testaments to loneliness. Fittingly, “Alone” has an aching cinematic quality in its spare delivery. Or check out how the demo version of “Takin’ It Easy” is like a completely different song, its formerly frantic commercial delivery transformed into a haunting acoustic number. If Ultramodern is the future of music I say, bring on tomorrow!
They Might Be Giants are a seemingly unstoppable force. Year after year they just keep putting out great material, with no appreciable decline in quality or productivity. Book is album number 23 and it represents no revolutionary change for the band. It’s just more of that heart-lifting, ‘life as a mad montage of silliness and sadness’ kind of goodness. It’s all there on selections like “Moonbeam Rays,” pleasant hooky numbers that instantly put a smile on your face. But what sounds simple can obscure some serious complexity, like the melodic and rhythmic development of the earwormy “Brontosaurus.” TMBG also always curate great instrumental sounds on their records. Exhibit A, some recognizably early EC Steve Nieve organ fills add value to the poppy delight of “Lord Snowdon.” Clever wordplay is another hallmark of TMBG songs, in evidence on the “Anna Ng”-ish “I Can’t Remember the Dream.” “I Lost Thursday” was a pre-release single and it has the obvious mark of a should-be radio hit (in my poprock alternative universe, at least). And check out the cocktail jazz laminating “Super Cool.” It certainly is. The verdict on Book is simple, another great TMBG record. Albums for these guys are more like another episode of your favourite show that you can’t wait to see and see again.
They are the stars of poprock indie-verse and just as reliable as those lights in the night sky. You won’t go far wrong with any of these shiny things.
Day in, day out, new singles arrive at our Poprock Record headquarters. It’s a wonder we can keep the Technics 1200 turntable running smoothly what with all the needle dropping going on. Especially today with the second installment of our ‘almost summer’ single mixtape event. So get ready for another twenty – that’s 20! – solid selections for your perusal and possible inclusion on a seasonal singles mixtape.
The arrival of any new recording from Aberdeen’s jangle heavyweights The Vapour Trails is something to cherish. Now that band’s main songwriter/guitarist Kevin Robertson has a solo album but it’s something a bit different. On Sundown’s End Robertson goes exploring stylistically and the results are pretty sweet. Case in point: title track “Sundown’s End.” It kicks off with a very VT guitar hook but as it develops the song moves in a more rocky psychedelic direction than we’re used to. Another guy moving in new directions is Jeff Shelton. The hardest working man in powerpop show business has a new project: Deadlights, a slightly more dreamy take on his usual pristine poprock goodness. Turns out, his new path ends up in basically the same place he usually goes, with solid tunes, earwormy hooks, and enticing playing all over the record. Opening cut “Breaking Down” sounds very REM to me with great swirl of vocals and catchy lead guitar lines. Turning to yesterday’s heartthrobs even working class dogs can learn new tricks, if Rick Springfield’s latest release is anything to go by. Album 22 for Springfield has hit the racks under the moniker The Red Locusts and the results are fantastic. The mild jangle, the harmonica, the big rhythm guitar chords and Rick’s great vocal make “Another Bad Day for Cupid” a should-be hit single. The album is like the Wonders meet the Romantics, it’s that fun. From the ‘never lets you down’ file, Brad Marino is a guy who knows what he likes and he delivers it again and again. His solo work and records with The Connections effectively mine the neo-1950s, post pub rock sound of bands like Rockpile to perfection. But on Looking for Trouble Marino leans into Merseybeat on cuts like “Fell in Love Again.” Love the chime on the guitar and sweet harmonies. Was it just a year ago I was singing the praises of formerly-from-Portland band The Memories? The album was Pickles and Pies and the song I couldn’t get out of my head was mini folk masterpiece “Second Try.” Well they’re back with something that is nothing like that. They’ve segued into a kind of Donovan-meets-Jonathan Richman motif on a new EP Beautiful Sunrise, and particularly with the goofy “Banana.” I mean, who doesn’t like a whistling solo? This definitely sounds like beach blanket material.
Seventeen year old Melody Caudill is back with her Career Woman project, still blending an Elliott Smith esthetic into her work with a new shoe-gazy single, “Balcony.” Once again the guitars are up front (though perhaps toned down a bit from her prior “Teacher’s Pet” single), particularly early on in the solo acoustic part of this new song. Something wonderfully Mary Lou Lord or Annabelle Lord-Patey is going on here. Our next artist deserves an apology. I bought their fabulous debut I Swear My Love Is True but then neglected to write about it. And that’s a shame because Donaher’s work is some fun pop punk in the best Me First and the Gimme Gimmes or Bowling for Soup tradition. From that album, “Heather” particularly deserves your attention. Their new EP is Angus Soundtrack 2 and contains a super remake of what sounded like a demo on the prior album, “Courtney.” Another band I really grooved on was Purses whose “Wheels on the Run” was on pretty constant repeat throughout 2016. So when I heard band member Drew Beskin had a solo outing coming out, I shifted mode to ‘interest piqued.’ The album is Problematic for the People but only a few singles are available. So far I’m loving “Going Alright for You” with its early 1980s Pat Benatar rhythm guitar slashes and otherworldly synth background. Damn, if this single isn’t alive with 1980s excitement! Keeping this manic feeling alive, Cult Stars from Mars have a new single and it combines everything that makes them a fun hot mess of 1970s pop rawk. I’d almost swear there was spandex and cheap lighters embedded in “Funny Face” somewhere but the cool ‘whew hoo’s temper the excess. It helps that the chords are extra chunky with a side of pumping piano. Cincinnati’s Flying Underground really arrive with their latest single, “Nothing.” All the elements of the band really come together with the songwriting, singing, and performance. I love the guitar effect on the arpeggiated solo at the 17 second mark, one that is repeated throughout the song. It’s striking track with so many cool musical adornments that it oozes should-be hit.
I can’t keep up with Freedom Fry. Seems like every month or so they’ve got another single, EP or new album. They sing in English and French and offer up creative, often dramatic covers of classic songs as well as finely crafted, engaging original material. Their brand new album is L’Invitation, all new songs, all sung in French, and up to their usual high standards. But here I’m going to reach back, all the way to last December for their happy-go-lucky one-off single, “One Big Happy Family.” The duo really excel at this kind folky, endearing sunshine pop, their voices melding effortlessly against a backdrop of spare musical accompaniment. Both versions of the song are worth getting to know. In rise-from-the-ashes news, I was gutted when The Strypes called it quits in 2018. I couldn’t believe that their last album Spitting Image, which I thought was their best, did poorly on the charts. Now three of the four band members have a new outfit named after an old Husker Du record, Zen Arcade, and I have new reasons to be excited. “Don’t Say a Word” takes the former Strypes fellows into a more punky new wave direction than their previous act. Very Stiff Little Fingers or Mould’s Sugar outfit in terms of musical demeanor. Right now there’s only two singles but what a launch! These guys are definitely going places. Another band I hated to see go was Crowded House. Thankfully, they keep coming back around. Dreamers are Waiting is the band’s first record in 11 years and it gives fans just what they want: midtempo lush melodies and gorgeous harmonies. Many highlights here but I’m digging “Start of Something” for its hewing to the classic Crowded House sound. A band that never really goes away is They Might Be Giants (and that is a very good thing). Their new song is “I Broke My Own Rule” and it is an intricately developed piece of pop songcraft. I don’t know how these guys manage to be so productive, to constantly move in new directions while still sounding oh so TMBG. This is what you get when you apply genius to poprock songwriting and performance. In a more pop punk vein, Indiana’s The Putz prove that Buddy Holly is alive and well and lurking inside their new album, Rise and Shine. It’s all over the last track on the record, “All the Time in the World.” At first I thought this might be some Bond cover tune but the drumming and guitar alerted me that this would be a not-so-pure but still great Lubbock, Texas-inspired event.
Jenny’s Justin Mauer has many different outlets for his creativity and he’s using most of them in his autobiographical comedy play Falling on Deaf Eyes. One of his bands appearing on the soundtrack is Suspect Parts and they have a groovy song in “Alright With Me.” The guitar riff and vocals are so mid-1960s fed through a 1980s indie filter, with just a hint of a punk rock Tommy James. The guitar and organ work here is perfection. Looking for a crazy band origin story? Stephen’s Ruin have got it. Original band arrives mid-1980s to some notoriety and success. Now the son of one of the founders restarts the band with a new crew and some pretty amazing 1960s-meets-1980s tunes. The band’s recent double A-sided single “Runaround”/“Tonight” is a pure retro beat rock and roll delight. The former is a frenetic garage-y melodic rock romp, with spot on new wave call and response background vocals. The latter lulls you with its sweet rumbly guitar licks and pristine harmony vocals. I want a whole album of this! Another act mining the past for good measure are Steve Stoeckel (from The Spongetones) and Irene Peñaon their one-off single, “Why.” This one hits me right in the musical solar plexus, immediately calling up all those beautiful folk rock duets from 1960s, from Ian and Sylvia to more recent efforts by Don Dixon and Marti Jones. The song is so 1965 and Steve and Irene’s vocals blend perfectly. Really, a lovely piece of work that will have you hitting ‘replay’ again and again. Now if you’re looking for something that screams subtle summer movie blockbuster theme song, Tim Jackson is your man. His new single “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart” has the confident pop stylings of a great Hall and Oates or Crowded House single. It’s pretty straightforward keyboards and vocals but the simplicity masks a clever complexity in the melody. This one is an earworm that works its magic in a sneaky ‘I’ll just listen to this one more time’ sort of way. From his soon-to-be-released second album Litter in the Park. Rounding out our pool of twenty artists is the prolific Richard X. Heyman from his recent album Copious Notes. 70 year old Heyman has been rocking since the 1960s and solo album 14 shows no decline in his songwriting and performance standards. “Tell Me When” literally springs out of the speakers with head turning piano trills and impressive vocal gymnastics. And it’s just a damn good song. Another stand out from the album is the moving love song “Ransom.” The achingly beautiful melody is given depth via Heyman’s incredible vocal and baroque keyboard/strings instrumental backing.
Summer’s not going to organize itself. Thankfully your beach tuneage is squared away. With 40 solid poprock artists to choose from your seasonal mixtape this year will be brimming with hooks and jangle.
Forget Schoohouse Rock! Today’s tunes are gonna school you on America’s Electoral College. What it is, who does what, and why it should be abolished. That’s right dear reader, we here at Poprock Record take a side – for democracy. As the bands below point out, the US Electoral College is an anachronistic relic of the nation’s pre-democratic founding. But hey, if politics is not your thing don’t worry, we’ve still got hooks galore. Or you could always do what most people do with popular music: ignore the words.
To get you up to speed on the relevant deets about our topic let’s check in with America’s smartest, bifocaled poprock outfit, Brooklyn’s They Might Be Giants. Their brand new single is a timely exposition on all things Electoral College entitled “Who Are the Electors?” Seriously, the song is a practically a wiki entry on who ‘electors’ are, how they are chosen, and the rationale for choosing a president this way. Of course, they do slip in a mild critique here and there with lines like ‘it’s up to them, not up to us’ and ‘we’re only the voters, they are the electors.’ Overall the track is both effectively educational and eminently hummable. Only these guys could put so much factual content into a song while sacrificing nothing on the melodic front.
From there, things get a lot more blatantly critical. ‘Song a Day’ phenomenon Jonathan Mann has been creating new tunes daily since 2009 so it was statistically predictable that one would eventually touch on American political institutions. Shortly after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 he released “Abolish the Electoral College,” his ode to all that is wrong with it and what might be done to put it right. That’s correct, he’s not just complaining. Mann manages to sing about something called the ‘national popular vote interstate compact’ in some detail. Frankly, the guy should get some kind of award for making that proposal sound both musically and intellectually attractive. Meanwhile Bethlehem Columbus band Deb offer up clear criticisms of how the Electoral College violates basic democratic values like voter equality by privileging land and locale. Musically the track comes off like a shoegaze Bruce Springsteen with its soothing earnest drone and relatable content.
Perhaps not surprisingly, punkers give the Electoral College the best drubbing, coming out with both guns blazing. Chicago band Double Feature offer up a bevy of politically critical tunes on their 2019 release, American Dream Not Found. So many great titles here like “Alt-Wrong,” “You Can’t Silence the Scientists,” and “I’m Still Waiting for the Trickle Down.” But right now our attention lands on “I Dropped Out of the Electoral College,” a delightfully raucous blast of righteous punky indignation, with some great melodic diversions. Alternatively Roosterhead is a punk band from Los Angeles with a more experimental bent, but the politics is still front and centre on their 2018 release Virtual Democracy. With songs like “Dark Money,” “Kleptocracy Now,” “If Millennials Actually Voted,” and “A Swing State” there’s little doubt where they stand. However our featured song is entitled, predictably, “Electoral College,” a challenging melodic noise piece that nicely rhymes ‘college’ with ‘abolish.’
Rounding things out on this political institutions tunes session are a few somewhat unrelated songs. First up is a band called Electoral College. The only track of theirs I can find is called “Bladerunner” and it has nothing to say about politics. In fact, I can’t say much about them at all as they are pretty much invisible on ye old interweb. But the song’s got a cool, loose indie vibe, with just a touch of punk. Now, to wrap things up, let’s return to the endlessly topical Jonathan Mann. On his September 2020 release “Donald Trump is Gonna Steal the Election” he pretty much predicts most of what the Trump team would get up to shortly thereafter i.e. purging voter rolls, acts of voter suppression, endlessly and baselessly contesting the results, etc. Don’t let the song’s infectious upbeat tone fool you, it’s all a load of very bad news.
Well, now you know. The Electoral College is so bad that people even write songs about it. Will these tunes spark the institutional revolution America so desperately needs? Highly unlikely. But they do make suffering with it just a little bit better.
We tend to be inspired by the world we live in so it’s not surprising that some artists are ruminating musically about our present pandemic. While the artists featured below are all over the map in terms of their responses to the situation, the results are all music to my ears!
Kicking things off, prolific poprocker Michael Carpenter teams up Michael Oliver for the slightly country, melodious, and oh so apropos “It Only Hurts When I Breathe.” Thankfully Michael-squared only seem to be suffering from heartbreak rather than lung dysfunction. Whew! Tilting the mood somewhat, the one-off single “wr fkd” is from the Whateverly Brothers, aka Chris Church, and its churning grind of delicious jangle definitely captures how a lot of people are feeling right now. Again, it might be love problems motivating these musical sentiments but, hey, if it fits the bigger picture why not use it? Another deliberately displaced tune comes from Asylums’ last album, Alien Human Emotions, but here too I think the song speaks to our present moment. As some lobby for a quick return to economic normalcy, one has to wonder if the results won’t be a kind of “Graveyard Tourism.” Dead rich, that’s what they’re really aiming to be. Planning to defy that end game is LA’s powerpop grunge-meister Richard Turgeon on “Still Not Ready to Die.” It’s a brand new song that is definitely about what is happening now and it rocks, in his reliably hooky way. Let’s end on an up note with America’s most cheery musical iconoclasts, They Might Be Giants, and their eminently pleasant, uplifting and predictably quirky “It’s Good to be Alive.” Maybe play this one a few times, just to up your dose of good feelingness. And don’t forget to click on all the artist names to give them some money-coloured love.
Today’s feature graphic is courtesy Toronto pop artist Rob Elliott. If pointed laughter is your thing, head over to his Pandemic Diary pages and laugh until you cry.
I just saw They Might Be Giants last night here in Toronto and I’m in love again. How can a basically two-man band be so talented? So smart. Seemingly endlessly inspired. Incredibly musically proficient. Funny, political, and wonderful to just listen to ad libbing comedy between songs. It was a show that seemed both spontaneous and perfectly executed, performed by extraordinary guys playing at being easygoing and unpretentious. It took me back to my joy in discovering them with their third album, 1990’s Flood. I just couldn’t believe how interesting and intelligent their songs were. And the hooks were glorious!
This year Brooklyn’s joy released their 20thalbum of original material with I Like Fun. And it is just freakin’ fabulous. The guys keep churning it out year after year but the quality does not take a hit. “Let’s Get This Over With” kicks things into gear with a jaunty uptempo melody and driving piano, “While I Left My Body” has a great droney hook, “All the Time” is just straight up pop goodness, and things just carry on in a very TMBG set of veins after that. I love the deft jazzy piano base undergirding “Mrs. Bluebeard” or the Beach Boysy sound of “This Microphone” or the more straightforward poprock vibe of “Last Wave.” But special attention must go to “The Bright Side,” the obvious single to me, with its super hooks. The band got the album out early this year but hardly let up on their amazing productivity, mounting a world tour and releasing even more brand new material on their special Dial-a-Song Direct website. Check out the video for their latest melodic zinger: “The Communists Have the Music.”
Go directly to They Might Be Giants’ website to find out about their fanclub, the Dial-a-song promotion, or when their amazing live show will be near your town!