Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Starbelly and Sarakula

Starbelly-Four. It's not quite the crossover team-up of Avengers: Infinity War, but fans of melodic pop have their own summer blockbuster as Cliff Hillis and Dennis Schocket have reunited as Starbelly for the first time in approximately 15 years. Hillis, of course, has been a staple of these pages from the beginning, but Schocket hasn't been heard from since his brilliant late-2008 album The Cinderblock Mansion. The reunion doesn't disappoint as it features both singer/songwriters at the top of their respective games. Schocket's wonderful McCartney-esque ballad "The Boy Who Learned How to Cry" (about the passing of a father) opens the album, followed by Hillis's "Lay Low", the kind of effortlessly-sounding melodic gem that it almost seems he can write in his sleep, and it's great to hear them both harmonize on "Sleep", which recalls Bread at its creative peak. It's not all softer pop - "The Stars of Constantine" has the guitars front and center with a classic power pop sound, "Yes I Love Her Again" finds Schocket jangling and "Strange Constellations" is a fine rollicking Hillis number. Other standouts include the lovely "Emily Says" and the five-and-half-minute sorta-rock-opera of "Danny Opus" about a has-been rock'n'roller. Just an all-around instant classic, and halfway through the year we have 2018's best.

iTunes | Kool Kat




Joel Sarakula-Love Club. London-by-way-of-Australia's Joel Sarakula is a top-notch synthesist, taking pop styles from the 60s through the present day and mixing them up to create a tour de force that should appeal to anyone with a ear for melody and song structure. This time around Sarakula targets the 1970s, with shades of that decade's R&B and disco sounds influencing his sound and readily apparent on the opener "Understanding" with its sleek groove and the horn-backed "In Trouble". Meanwhile, "Baltic Jam" is less of a jam and more a 70s-ish singer/songwriter piece while "Dead Heat" and "Coldharbour Man" have a light disco feel. It's all very catchy, pop without the power but with real craft.

iTunes

Friday, June 08, 2018

A Wanderlust reunion (of sorts)

Wanderlust was one of my favorite power pop bands from the 90s and they did in fact reunite in 2012 but who knows if they will ever again. So instead we have the next best thing - brand new solo albums from their primary singer/songwriters Scot Sax and Rob Bonfiglio, released within weeks of each other.

Scot Sax-Drawing from Memory. Sax has been the consummate music professional over the years, from fronting Wanderlust and Feel to a wide-ranging body of solo work that's included everything from pop to rock to funk to country as well as being a songwriter-for-hire who's penned hits for the likes of Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Drawing from Memory is his return to the pop/rock idiom with the emphasis on the "pop". It kicks off with "Where Do You Go to Cry?", a midtempo number that sounds like a pop standard, and continues with "I Never Loved You", a Bacarachian ballad sung with Judy Blank, followed by "Am I Still Living?", a Lennon-esque number that's classic Sax. Highlights elsewhere are the string-laden "Parade of No's" which sounds co-written by Neil Finn, the ukulele-strummed "Addicted to the Needle" (which is about his love for vinyl, not drugs) and the wistful "Used to the Idea". It's the kind of album that Harry Nilsson used to make, a type not seen much these days.

iTunes




Rob Bonfiglio-Trouble Again. If it's straight-ahead power pop that you prefer to singer-songwriter stuff, then Sax's former bandmate Bonfiglio delivers for you with his latest solo album. I once wrote that Bonfiglio has a power pop sound that's big - big choruses, big hooks, big melodies. It's kind of a cross between indie power poppers like The Meadows and Velvet Crush and big name artists like Matthew Sweet, Collective Soul and Oasis, and the one-two punch to open the album of "Passenger Seat" and the title track makes that clear, as does "Spread This Feeling". But Bonfiglio can take things down a notch as well, with the wonderful "Gone" incorporating some Philly soul into the mix while "There Goes My Heart" sound like a top ten hit that charted sometime between 1975-1985. In fact, the whole album almost plays as a greatest hits from an alternate universe where Bonfiglio ruled the charts during that era and might be his best, most consistent album yet as well as one of 2018's.

iTunes




Thursday, May 24, 2018

Welcome to the Future, man.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who reads this site, but Futureman Records has emerged over the last several years as one of the top power pop labels around and they're really killing it in 2018. Fresh off the Matthew Sweet tribute (and with new albums from Gretchen's Wheel, Super 8 and Your Gracious Host's Tom Curless to drop in the weeks to come), they have a pair of excellent albums out now and featured below.

Chris Richards & The Subtractions-Peaks and Valleys. Veteran power popper Chris Richards has been so active this decade with covers albums, compilations, live albums and appearances on other artists' records that it was almost shocking to realize that this is his first proper new album since 2009's Sad Sounds of the Summer. And a welcome return it is, as the man who was once hip enough to get a 7.3 on Pitchfork is back with ten new tracks that are most certainly more peaks than valleys. The peaks include the rocking opener "Half Asleep", the pop perfection of "Just Another Season" and the Raspberries-esque "The Coast is Clear". Other highlights include "The End of Me", "Call Me Out" (which sounds like a mid-80s AOR hit) and an interesting cover of Big Star's "Thirteen" which turns it into a mid-tempo band-backed performance as opposed to the largely acoustic Alex Chilton original. And not to be overlooked are the Subtractions themselves, with Andy Reed now on board in a clear case of Subtraction by addition, and Nick Piunti (who himself has an great-sounding album coming this summer) chiming in with guitar on a couple of tracks.

iTunes



Phil Yates & The Affiliates-Party Music! Yates & Co. follow up their fine 2015 release No Need to Beg with this collection of rollicking power pop that yes, just might be party music (if it's a cool party). The guitars are front and center here, and the hooks and melodies aren't too far behind - "My Favorite Bag", "Triple Fisting" and "Send Him the Bill" are a rocking 1-2-3 punch before the relatively slower-tempo'd "Nothing Happened" gives you a chance to breathe. Reminiscent at times of The Posies and Elvis Costello at others (especially "One Man's Trash") Yates & the Affiliates deliver the dictionary definition of power pop in fine fashion.

iTunes

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Some quick hitters.

Catching up on my music backlog with a few words on some fine new releases.

Smash Palace-Right as Rain EP. Veteran Philly poppers Smash Palace are back with their first new music in nearly four years and it's a welcome return with five tracks of the jangle-rock they've been perfecting for the last 30+ years. Opener "It Happened to Me" is their best track of this decade with "Heart of a Loving Man" and the title track close contenders.

iTunes




Jeremy Fetzer-Wisdom of the Octopus EP. This 3-song EP was released in the fall of 2017 and I've been meaning to getting around to mentioning it here for about 6 months now. Fetzer is a confederate of Reno Bo (who's been releasing some excellent singles of his own lately), and Bo co-wrote "You Should Know by Now", a deliciously melodic tune that serves as the perfect example of his Beatles-meet-Van Dyke Parks pop. The title track and "When Will You Be Home?" aren't too shabby either with the latter being the EP's most baroque.

Free download from Bandcamp



Checkpoint Charley-The Great Jedi Mind Trick EP. Last month I was pleasantly surprised to see Adrian Whitehead back after a 10-year + hiatus, and now Checkpoint Charley is the next long-lost artist from the mid-2000s to return after wondering whether we'd hear from them again. Last heard from in 2005 with the heavily Jellyfish-influenced Songs One Through Twelve, these Tennessee poppers are back with a 4-song EP about the Star Wars universe. And the good news is that they have an Indiegogo crowdfunder for the proper followup to the debut, titled none other than Songs 13-24.

iTunes



Dan Israel-You're Free. Minneapolis singer-songwriter Dan Israel has been going strong for a couple of decades now, and I've featured him on the site before. On album #14 he serves up another winning combination of Tom Petty-influenced heartland rock and Dylanesque folk-rock. Top cuts: the title track, "Gets You Through It", "Someday You'll Say".

iTunes


Wednesday, May 02, 2018

It's Dave Hill's world and we're all just living in it.

Seems like Dave Hill is everywhere these days. His comedy stylings are ubiquitous and if you've watched HBO's Late Night With John Oliver at all over the last few years you've heard Valley Lodge's "Go" from 2013's Use Your Weapons as the show's theme song. And now his all-out aural assault continues with two releases from different projects, both of which are worth your time.

Painted Doll-Painted Doll. Hill loves his different musical projects (going all the way back to Uptown Sinclair, one of my favorite all-time band names) and by looking at the cover of his latest effort you might be forgiven for thinking it's another heavy-metal outing like his band Witch Taint (one of my least-favorite all-time band names), especially when you learn that he's teamed up here with Chris Reifert of "extreme metal" bands such as Autopsy and Death. But Painted Doll is closer in spirit to Hill's power pop band, Valley Lodge, only without the bubblegum. It's a rock album that's more rock than rawk, drawing on Hill and Reifert's love of 60s/70s garage, psychedelic rock and stoner rock, and will appeal to power-poppers as well. Opener "Together Alone" owes a bit to "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (and perhaps The Smithereens' "Blood and Roses"), while "Hidden Hand" has a bit of a glam rock vibe. Elsewhere both the title track and the catchy "She Talks to Mirrors" channel late 60s British mod rock and "Find Your Mind" is just straight-up raucous rock. And it all closes with the loudest, trippiest cover of "I Put a Spell on You" that you're ever likely to hear.

iTunes



Valley Lodge-Stand b/w Come Back to Bed. And fear not power poppers, Valley Lodge is back as well as Hill & Co. have released a two-sided single from what is believed to be a forthcoming album. "Stand" is another of the Lodge's infectious, almost-danceable tracks in the vein of the aforementioned "Go" while "Come Back to Bed" is straight-ahead, catchy rock.

iTunes



Friday, April 20, 2018

Adrian Whitehead / Dave Sheinin

Adrian Whitehead-Nerd from the Suburbs. I got heavily into indie power pop in the mid-2000s and started this blog shortly thereafter, so a lot of the discs I grew to love in those first few years still stand out in my memory. And when I'm reminded of one of those albums and then realize the artist hasn't released anything new since then I figure to myself that he or she has moved on to other, likely better-paying pursuits and I'm just thankful for the music they did make. So it was truly a "whoa" moment when I noticed that Adrian Whitehead, who had my #3 album of 2008 with One Small Stepping Man, has released his first new album in ten years. Nerd from the Suburbs isn't quite a rerun of the debut, which was heavily Beatlesque. Instead, it's more like Elliott Smith when Smith was at his Beatlesque. "Folie a Deux" (French for "shared delusion" and the title of a great X-Files episode) is a wonderful album-opener and the prime example of this slight shift in sound, driven by acoustic guitar but with an electric solo all in service of a pretty melody. The E.Smith comparison also applies to the darker yet baroque combo of "Blaming the Snake" and "Sigmund Freud" both of which feature trumpet, tuba and trombone. Other standouts include the piano ballad "Shades of Grey", the gloriously melodic "Gilded Cage", and the title track which isn't the autobiography its title implies but an honest plea for love and friendship. Unlike some artists who sound the same even after a decade+ absence, Whitehead has clearly evolved, going from the boyish Beatle-pop of the debut to a richer, more mature set of songs both lyrically and musically.

iTunes



Dave Sheinin-First Thing Tomorrow. In the Adrian Whitehead review above, I spoke of musicians moving on to other pursuits but here's a case of someone more prominent in another field making music. Dave Sheinin is the national baseball writer for the Washington Post (you can read his articles here), and his debut album is one of 2018's best to date. Sheinin gets help from the Myracle Brah's Andy Bopp among others, but these are his songs and they're uniformly good. With its staccato guitars and catchy melody, "Lies" kicks things off with a definite 70s AM radio vibe while "Oh Amelia" boasts a jangly, chiming riff at its center. "Little California" sound as sun-kissed as its title and features backing vocals from Bopp, and "City You Left Behind" sounds like a lost Posies track. Throw in a couple of fine piano ballads ("A Warm February" and "You Love the Sunrise") and First Thing Tomorrow is the rare debut album that sounds like the work of a long-time professional. And it's easily the best album from a sportswriter since J.P. Cregan's Man Overboard.

P.S. The album art looks like it was inspired by the opening credits of The Leftovers, which earns it bonus points in my book.

iTunes

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Monday, April 02, 2018

A pair of old friends.

Today it's a pair of new releases from artists who've been releasing new music almost every year since I started this blog in 2006.

The Well Wishers-A View from Above. Jeff Shelton is back with his ninth Well Wishers full-length (not counting last year's covers album) and ho hum, it's another top-notch collection of jangle pop/rock. What sets it apart from recent Well Wishers albums is that it's a bit more folk-rock oriented, hearkening back to mid-2000s WW albums such as Under the Arrows. You won't notice right away as the rocking "Gravity Waits" opens the proceedings but the acoustic guitars come out for the mid-tempo "In Another Life", the tres jangly "April is Only a Lie" and perhaps the album's best track, "Ways & Means". But fear not, rawkers: there are plenty of loud guitars here on "I Like You Better", "There Goes My Gun" and "I'm Not the Enemy", a track first heard on last year's Trip Wire album with Shelton being a part of that collective. And "The New Fade Out" is a terrific album-closer, 5 1/2 minutes of Shelton at his melodic best.

Bandcamp



Dropkick-Longwave. The boys from Edinburgh are back in town with their annual release (technically the first since 2016 but last year saw an Andrew Taylor solo album which differed in name only) and Longwave is what you've come to know and love from this Scottish band. Opener "Out of Tune" is anything but, and it only takes a matter of seconds for their Teenage Fanclub-inspired pop to take hold of your ears and "I Thought it Was OK" with its dreamy melody is an instant Dropkick classic. And while nobody's going to mistake them for Led Zeppelin, a few of these tunes do rock harder than others - most notably "It's Still Raining" and "Fed Up Thinking of You", both of which retain the band's trademark melodies and harmonies. Their amazing consistency over what is now 15 albums is worthy of note, and even if there's a strong element of predictability to their music, having new Dropkick music fall into your lap or pop up randomly on shuffle is always a welcome thing.

iTunes