Crossword Smiles, ELO, Mo Troper, MTV, Now That I Have Your Attention, Phil Thornalley, Pressed and Ironed, The Happy Fits, Tom Petty, Travelling WIlburys, Under the Shade of Green
As fall settles in the headline news is full regal passings and rightwing populist posturing. Definitely time to check in with the poprock desk.
New Jersey’s The Happy Fits are back with their third album Under the Shade of Green and it is pretty amazing. If you could bottle up the intensity and explosive joy of youth it might sound like this. The band still seem like the late night love child of the Violent Femmes and the Killers to me but perhaps with a more consistent sonic palate this time around. The album kicks off dance-party style with a trio of stompers: “Around and Around,” “Dance Alone” and “Changes.” If you’ve seen any pictures of their concerts then you know ‘party’ is operative word. The band and the audience are serious about having fun and these songs deliver. There’s more of the same on the rest of the album but as we sojourn into the deep cuts you really start to appreciate the instrumental tension that binds these players into a singular musical force, how the cello and guitar and drums (with an occasional dose of keyboards) hold together and stretch apart as if by elastic. Check out the fantastic keyboard and cello interplay on “Little One” and “Another Try,” how they drive up the intensity of melody. Or there’s just the breathtaking 10cc-like melody that breaks out of the chorus of “Cold Turkey.” Hints of other influences are peppered throughout – the subtle dab of ABBA lurking in “Sweet Things” or the Cure-like kick off to “Place in the World.” Album closer “Do Your Worst” really showcases the band’s incredible musical tightrope act, contrasting opposing sounds like dramatic shades of colour, green or otherwise. Seriously, you could recapture a bit of your youth just by purchasing this LP.
Since the release of his pristine pop album Natural Beauty in 2020 Mo Troper appears to have been pedalling back to the rougher parts of his musical youth. 2021’s Dilettante wasn’t afraid to let its sound get a bit blare-y at times, an effective counterpoint to the reliably hooky melodies. Now his new MTV takes things even further, messing with tape speeds and offering up an indie-garage-like mix. The effect is like a cheesecloth-covered dream-return to one’s old apartment: it’s gonna be one part nostalgia and mega parts pure invention. As always, the tunes here are brilliant, testimony to Troper’s mastery of the pop song form. “Waste Away,” “Play Dumb” and “Under My Skin” are all Brill Building/Lennon-McCartney good. But their performance is curiously and sometimes challengingly brittle and cutting. Here Troper appears to be pushing against the grain of ‘authentic’ neo-1960s music that characterizes much melodic rock and roll of late. I love that sort of thing but Troper eschews laurel-resting and good on him for not sitting still. Ironically he goes forward by reaching back to a sound reminiscent of his own earlier band Your Rival, sort of. This time around there’s a greater diversity in sound and style, from the shoe-gazey Beatlesque aura of “Across the USA” to the transistor radio at full blast “I’m the King of Rock and Roll” to sunshine pop on “No More Happy Songs.” Though personally I’d buy the whole record just to get the exquisite should-be hit single “I Fall Into Her Arms.” That lead guitar line – so simple but so wow.
With Pressed and Ironed indie music veterans Tom Curless and Chip Saam establish their new act Crossword Smiles as the best lost 1980s band the new millennium has to offer. But we’re not talking simple retro here. The duo have cooked up a sound full of alluring cognitive dissonance. Steely Dan and Crowded House? On the same record? Yes. Things sound familiar but the genius is in the synthesis. Take the title track “Parallel Lines.” It’s got some jazzy Steely Dan, a dash of John Lennon psychedelic keyboard, a distinctly early Joe Jackson lurch, and vocal harmonies that are late sixties country rock. I wouldn’t believe it would work if I didn’t find myself hitting repeat repeatedly. On the rest of the album the influences abound like a cavalcade of poprock stars. There’s shades of Difford and Tilbrook on “This Little Town,” particularly in the chorus. Man, the violin and viola really work here. You can discern a bit of post-Rockpile Nick Lowe on “Where’s the Sense in That,” some Crowded House vibe on “October Leaves,” and a Grapes of Wrath Treehouse feel to “Walk Softly.” Not everything reminds me of yesterday’s heroes. “Feet on the Ground” could be Jeff Shelton’s Well Wishers, just mellowing out. Saving the best for the last the album rounds things out with three should-be hits: “Girl with a Penchant for Yellow” has a wonderful Tim Finn weirdness, “Second Guesser” is a lush jangle-infused delight, while “Take It On the Chin” combines snappy rhythm guitar work with an addictive wash of overlapping vocals lines. To really get the total effect you’ll want to set your player on repeat for this album. I think you’ll find that Pressed and Ironed allows you to love the past in the present tense.
You might not know it but Phil Thornalley probably got your attention a long time ago. Over the decades he’s played with and written hits for a host of stars, all the while keeping to the shadows himself. Recently he braved the spotlight under the guise of his fabulous retro 1970s-styled vehicle Astral Drive. Now he’s back, this time just as himself with his first solo album Now That I Have Your Attention. The record is a sonic love letter to a slightly different register of 1970s styles than before, emoting a whole lot of ELO, the Travelling Willburys and Tom Petty. “Heaven in a Hash Pipe” leans into the early 1970s ELO strings-plus-1950s vamp formula. By contrast, “One Night in America” seems to draw more from the Time/Balance of Power period. Then there’s “Fast Car,” the early release single. What a homage to ELO’s New World Record era! And while these tunes sound oh so familiar they’re not merely sound-alikes. Thornalley clearly knows how to write winning hooks all on his own. “Hellbent on Compromise” and “High on Your Supply” evoke the Travelling Willburys, the latter even sounding a bit Dylan early on. Those missing Tom Petty (and who isn’t?) will be floored by “Big Plans” and “Stand By Love.” Both sound like lost classics from the Wildflowers sessions. Is your fun meter running low? Give your attention to this long overdue solo outing from Phil Thornalley and let the good times roll.
That’s your poprock news headlines for now. Film at 11.
Breaking waves photo courtesy Larry Gordon.