Thursday, June 26, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/26/08: Middle States-Happy Fun Party

The Minneapolis band Middle States debuted in 2004 with the Great Portland Street EP, and it made a nice impression at the time; one of the tracks ended up on an IPO comp, and I personally enjoyed their mix of Americana, classic rock and power pop but kind of forgot about them in the intervening years. So it was a pleasant surprise to see them four years later finally releasing their debut full-length, Happy Fun Party.

The opening track "In Charge" firmly puts them in that position, a driving Replacements-meet-Big-Star rocker that has that Minneapolis rock sound. Tommy Stinson (if not Westerberg himself) would be proud of "No Curse No Drunk No Fight" with its insistent beat, take-no-prisoners attitude, and mini-guitar freakout at the end. "Straight to the All or None" channels 80s David Bowie, while "Thought Control" brings to mind Robert Pollard. Meanwhile, tracks named "Winds of Eidertown" and "Warlords of Ari" might have you thinking you've stumbled upon a Dungeons and Dragons concept album, but both are pleasant midtempo rockers. And it's probably not a shock that the track titled "Tumbleweeds" is the most Americana-ish of the tracks. But the real highlight of the disc is "Friday Night", which does a perfect job of evoking a night out on the town listening to bar bands set to a great power pop melody. If you like your power pop and rock served Midwest-style, you'll definitely want to crash Middle States' Happy Fun Party.

CD Baby | MySpace

Monday, June 23, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/23/08: Gordon Weiss-Sum of Its Parts

Last week we had The Rip Off Artists' Esque, and this week in the so-meta-it-hurts category, I bring you Gordon Weiss' debut album, Sum of Its Parts. Like The Rip Offs, Weiss proves he isn't shy about wearing his influences on his sleeve by virtue of the album title, and with tracks titled "Fountains of Weezer" and "Red Shoes Revisited", the subtext truly becomes the text.

The first line Weiss sings on this disc is "I know you've heard this all before" from "Fountains of Weezer" and that comes after the Cars-like guitar riff heard throughout "Stacy's Mom". So yes, "Fountains of Weezer" lives up to its title. That still doesn't mean it isn't a catchy rocker. "Too Much" follows, a "Tumbling Dice"-style rocker that lets Weiss pay homage to The Stones, while "It's Easy" is a fine, laid-back West Coast-influenced number. Meanwhile, "Red Shoes Revisited" is a worthy sequel to the Elvis Costello original as Weiss captures the Attractions' late 70s sound, and "Unforgivable" is quality jangle pop. Elsewhere, "Hook, Line and Singer" (apart from its punny title) channels the first Marshall Crenshaw disc with its catchy melodies and slight rockabilly feel and the piano-and-strings-based "Match Point" proves Weiss knows his way around a ballad.

This is a debut that's both tuneful and confident (in a genre where "derivative" is the main complaint leveled at it by non-fans, Weiss essentially says here "I'm derivative and proud of it!") and power poppers should be all over this one.

CD Baby | MySpace

Saturday, June 21, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/21/08: Hello From Reno-Hello From Reno

First off, let it be said that Hello From Reno is not from Reno, Nevada. Nor is it a new project from former Loverboy lead singer Mike Reno. Instead, Hello from Reno is an LA band which is definitely worth a listen even if they fail the truth-in-advertising test.

Mixing roots pop and jangle pop, Hello From Reno will be appreciated by fans of Marshall Crenshaw, Walter Clevenger and the Traveling Wilburys as well as some recent artists featured here like The Offbeat. There's plenty here to choose among - from the bouncy leadoff number "So Far Away" to the dreamily midtempo "Angela" to the wonderfully jangly "Good Thing Coming". The boys also pay homage to Roy Orbison on - wait for it - "Roy Orbison", and do so tastefully by recording the type of song he'd sing without attempting the futile task of imitating his vocals. This is the kind of hidden gem of a disc that you're happy to find, even though it isn't going to reinvent the wheel or change your life.

CD Baby | MySpace

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/18/08: Derby-Posters Fade

Expectations can be tough, especially in the world of music. "Second Album Syndrome" (SAS) is a well-known (12,700 Google hits for the phrase in quotes) affliction for artists who put out a dazzling debut disc, only to have album #2 disappoint fans and critics alike. Enter Derby. Their 2005 debut, This Is The New You, was my #1 disc that year, and an instant all-time favorite of mine. How could they possibly live up to that (at least in my eyes) on the followup? Well to be frank, they don't. But Posters Fade is 85-90% as good as New You, so I'd say they've safely avoided SAS, and while they may not challenge for #1 on my year-end list in 2008, the top 10 is a distinct possibility.

Most of what was great about the debut is present here. The great melodies are there, Nat Johnston's vocals are perfectly matched with the material (for those unfamiliar, he comes across a huskier-sounding Joe Pernice or a less histrionic Ed Roland), and the quieter moments again sparkle. The primarly stylistic difference is subtle - overall, the disc shades a bit more toward indie pop than power pop. Not that New You was Fountains of Wayne or anything, but Posters Fade is a bit less Beatlesque. Like the debut ("Jet Set" into "Qualities"), Posters opens with a gently strummed acoustic number that segues into a louder, faster-tempo track as "Why Don't You Do It?" leads into "All or Nothing", a great track with more BPM than you've heard before in a Derby track. The lovely "Only What's She Selling" follows with its "don't feed the bear" refrain (not to be confused with the later bookend track actually titled "Don't Feed The Bear"), and "Stop Stalling" and "Hopes" are excellent examples of how well Derby can do power pop and are sonic cousins to some of the debut's great tracks like "Pay No Mind" and "One Reason".

Elsewhere, "If Ever There's a Reason" (a holdover from their interim EP) is an acoustic number that sports an infectious drum-and-handclaps backing and has a bit of "I've Just Seen a Face" in it. "Streetlight" (also an EP carryover) is another choice cut with its driving beat, tasteful synths and a fine melody. "Michigan" is a quality rocker, and "As My Own" is a real standout, coming in as a bit of a cross between Nirvana in their quieter moments and the Alan Parsons Project in their less prog-rock moments (Johnston reminds me a bit vocally of Eric Woolfson at times as well).

So while this isn't New You II, there's no shame in that, as Derby have crafted a followup that stands on its own and bodes well for the band's future.

CD Baby | MySpace

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/17/08: The Rip Off Artists-Esque

A couple of weeks ago, I appovingly posted The Rip Off Artists' manifesto. So much for words, though - how is the disc? Well, let's just say you'll be glad to hear that they put their money where their mouths are. Esque has it all - winning melodies, big hooks, clever lyrics, and that certain intangible quality that results from two talented popmeisters joining forces (cf. The Red Button).

For those just tuning in, The Rip Off Artists are Peter Batchelder and Nick Pipitone. Ever since his great 2005 EP Anything I Want to Say, I've been looking forward to new music from Pipitone and although I can't profess familiarity with Batchelder, he more than holds up his end on Esque. The best comparison for their sound is the music of Squeeze or a less-smartassy Fountains of Wayne with the wordplay of Elvis Costello, which becomes apparent right off the bat in Pipitone's "The Present Tense", a track which takes the cliched musical subject of a fighting couple and recasts it with clever lyrical imagery ("But if we break this ice/there's a chance we'll drown", "it's like a soap opera spinoff/of a play by Chekov") as well as imbuing it with a Philly Soul chorus. The first "single" from the disc, "What Happened?" follows, and it's catchy as hell, a piece of classic 60s/70s British pop that would have fit in snugly on the Red Button disc. And it's accompanied by a brilliant video which is at the end of this review.

There are plenty of more goodies to follow: the waltz-time "So Happy", the jangly "The Wishful Thinker", the FoWish (dare I say FoWesque?) "The Girl Behind The Bar", and the dreampop of Batchelder's "Sidetracked". And the final third of the disc is a treasure for the puntastic titles alone - i.e., "Without You I'm Something", "The Look of Like" - but the songs behind them are even better than their monikers, especially the former, and album closer "I Thought It Over" is pitch perfect for this disc. This one's a real top 10 contender, and the highest compliment I can pay it is that no doubt soon enough I'll be praising a disc for being Rip Off Artistesque.

CD Baby | MySpace

Now enjoy this sublime video for "What Just Happened?":

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thursday Roundup.

The Popravinas-Everybody's Fault But Ours. This Santa Monica band pronounces its name with a long "o" (as in "Pope" rather than "pop"), which you'll find out right off the bat with "Popravina Weekend", a track that encapsulates their good-timey, power-pop-meets-alt-country sound - think a more down-to-earth Old 97s crossed with an American Faces. The band is led by Eddy Sill, late of the semi-legendary LA band The Mutts, who were kind of SoCal's answer to The Replacements back in the 80s and 90s. Plenty of quality tracks here, including "She's Got Fashion", "Biggest Shot" and the fine midtempo number "She Feels 101". Pick this one up and have your own Popravina Weekend.

CD Baby
| MySpace

The Jeff Michael Band-The Other Side. Jeff Michael can best be described as a one-man Traveling Wilburys, at least the Tom Petty and George Harrison part of that supergroup. On the band's debut EP, Michael combines Petty's jangle pop and a Harrisonesque voice to fine results, with "When Will I See You Again" and "Straight Line" sounding like outtakes from the Wilburys' Volume One. The John Hiatt-ish "Enjoy The Ride" is another winner, and the EP closes with "Empty Lives", a track heavily influenced by "Tomorrow Never Knows" with its hypnotic drums and backwards guitars. As I always say with quality EPs, bring on the full length!

CD Baby | MySpace

Chewy Marble-Modulations. Theyyyy're baaaack! After a seven-year absence, Chewy Marble is back with the third disc and it's like they never left. Now on Nelson Bragg's SideB label, they serve up a disc of classic power pop that bridges the gap between Badfinger and Cheap Trick. "She Roxx" namedrops Britney Spears and Ozzy Osbourne while it, ahem, roxx; "Don't Look at the Sun" breezes by with effortless grace; meanwhile, the Brian Wilson-influenced "Cross Hatched World" is another standout, and "Picture The Finger" sounds like it could have come off of Badfinger's Straight Up or No Dice. All I can ask of them is that they don't make us wait another seven years for #4.

CD Baby | MySpace

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Siren=Sold Out.

It's getting to be as inevitable as death, taxes, and the sun rising in the east - the siren goes up, CD Baby's stock goes poof. The Adrian Whitehead disc is now sold out at the Baby, but Not Lame has it in stock (for how long, we'll see) for those who missed out. Otherwise, it's snooze, ya lose.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/10/08: Adrian Whitehead-One Small Stepping Man

Usually, my practice is to listen to a CD over a couple of weeks before putting up a review, to get a feel for it and to make sure I initially don't overrate or underrate it. Then there's this disc, which I received three days ago and have listened to only a couple of times, and which I can say is easily the best new disc I've heard in many a month.

Adrian Whitehead hails from Melbourne, Australia, and he's on the incomparable Popboomerang label, home of many great power poppers. He's been mostly a sideman, with my only exposure to him being the track "Spector's Dead" (which appears here) on a Popboomerang comp from a few years ago. As good as that track is, nothing prepared me for how great this full-length is, in which Whitehead has shown his utter mastery of 60s and 70s-influenced pop forms that all of us in the power pop community enjoy. The Rolling Stone record guide once said that not liking the Beatles was as perverse as not liking the sun; the same could be said of this disc if you're a reader of this blog. While it draws its influences from the pop greats like the Beatles and Brian Wilson, it's also reminiscent of contemporary acts such as personal favorites like Derby and The Red Button as well as Jason Falkner, Michael Carpenter and Ken Sharp.

The bouncy and appropriately titled "Caitlin's 60's Pop Song" gets things going, and if your ears don't perk up within the first 30 seconds or so, you might be better off reading Pitchfork. The 6-minute "Saving Caroline" follows, and while my normal philosophy regarding songs is that 3-4 minutes is more than enough for a pop song (unless it's "Hey Jude"), it never wears out its welcome as it captures the late-period Beatles sensibility perfectly. "Radio One" is as catchy as it gets, and its breezy midtempo quality reminds me of Carpenter; "You Are The Sun" is piano ballad bliss that builds to a poptastic crescendo; and "Julia" may be even better than the Beatle track of the same name. Meanwhile, the aforementioned "Spector's Dead" doesn't have a wall of sound but provides enough sonic detours to keep things interesting, and "Ways of Man" has a bit of a Todd Rundgren-at-his-poppiest feel. And "Better Man" might be the coolest track on the disc, complete with an awesome honky tonk piano break in the middle.

Folks, step right up and meet the #1 disc of 2008.

CD Baby | MySpace

Monday, June 09, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/9/08: Aprilsrain-Stellar Transmission

I could start this review by pointing out that the debut disc of this San Francisco Bay Area band featured heavy involvement by the Mannings (Chris produced, and Roger Joseph plays on it), and that would suffice to get many of you to check it out. But what looks good on paper doesn't always translate to disc, and no matter how much pedigreed help is there to contribute, ultimately it comes down to whether the band (and by extension, the songs) are good enough.

Thankfully, that's the case here with Stellar Transmission. And despite the Manning connection, this isn't a disc of Jellyfish-style pop. Instead, it's dreamy indie pop that still manages to be catchy and melodic. Opener "Left Alone" calls to mind Chris Brown (of Now That You're Fed fame). The boys delve into Greek mythology with "Antigone", and this lush, languid track is reminiscent of Tears for Fears' more esoteric moments. Meanwhile, the piano-based "Stumbling" could have fit in on the 80s pop charts with acts like Johnny Hates Jazz and Kajagoogoo (and I don't mean that as an insult). Other highlights include the near-jangly "Dagobah" and "Useless Games", which rock a bit more than their brethren on the disc, and the wonderful string-inflected closer "Building Up a Wall".
All in all, this is a captivating disc that rewards repeated listens.

CD Baby | MySpace

Friday, June 06, 2008

Friday Roundup.

Christopher Cash-Invisible. San Diego's Christopher Cash is back with the followup to 2005's fine Hollywood Mirage, and if you liked that disc, you'll love this one as it's even better. With a voice that splits the difference between Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello and a sound that does likewise, fans of intelligent and sophisticated singer-songwriter pop will want to give this one a listen. Highlights include "Morning Star" (complete with sitar backing), "Not Going Back", which recalls some of Al Stewart's non-historical songs, the power popping "Blistering Velvet", and "Houdini Knew", which is about the title subject.

CD Baby | MySpace

Smokekiller-13. Another artist with a quality sophomore release is Saskatchewan's Smokekiller. They have a winning mix of indie pop, power pop, and Americana (Canadiana?) and 13 just might be their lucky number. The rootsy, jangly "California" opens the disc in quality fashion, and "Jenny" is excellent power pop. "Out There" channels the Old 97's and Hundred Air, and "Foolish Heart" channels the Pernices. The real triumph here is "You've Got a Hold on Me", which combines all of their styles into one fine mix.

CD Baby | MySpace

Blue Skies for Black Hearts-Serenades & Hand Grenades. This is a very cool indie pop album that has a real 60s sensibility. Part of the thriving Portland music scene, this band will be playing IPO LA in August and their sound should go down well there. "Siouxsie Please Come Home" is a particularly stunning track, channeling the Zombies and other similar late 60s bands, "A World Without Love" is catchy as hell, and "Jenny & Steve", with its horns and all, reminds me of The Turtles. Other standouts include "She'll Follow Me", "Ambition" and "I Still Wish You Were Around". Bravo, guys.

Amazon | MySpace

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/4/08: The Offbeat-The Offbeat.

The vintage guitars on the cover tell it all: The Offbeat is all about 60s British pop, jangle pop, and all points in between. The is without a doubt the best album of its kind since The Red Button and Smith & Hayes from last year, and needless to say, fans of those discs will want to snap this one up. The Offbeat are actually English, so in that respect they have one up on the Yanks who served the style so well on those other discs.

"Lonely Girl" is the leadoff track, and it's an elegant piece of early(or pre)-Beatles pop. The midtempo "Wasted" follows with a more Rubber Soul-era Beatles sound, and "Keep It Real" has a Beach Boys/Bacharach-without-the-flugelhorn vibe. "Say The Word" is a smooth, Merseyside number, "First Love" is a true melodic delight, and "Between Us" has a bit of a Motown beat to it. In fact, there truly isn't a bad track on this album, and if the calendar read 1965 instead of 2008, these guys would be regulars on Top of the Pops and American Bandstand. I'd say we have a real top 10 of 2008 contender on our hands here.

CD Baby | Official Site

Monday, June 02, 2008

CD of the Day, 6/2/08: The Black Mollys-Ignorance Is Bliss

The Black Mollys are back, and they're ready to kick power pop's ass. The Chicago band, whom we heard from last three years back with Overnight Disgrace, has unleashed a set of 11 heavy rockin' power pop anthems that will get fans of Cheap Trick, Enuff z'Nuff, Butch Walker and others on the heavier side of power pop all a-twitter.

"Complaining", "Erica" and "I'm So Ordinary" set the tone and let you know you're not in sensitive singer-songwriter territory. As much as I like the softer (and less "powerful") side of power pop, it's nice to something to rock out to as well. Still, if you like things dialed down a bit, they do offer you the power ballad "Hollywood", but in what almost seems like penance for the slowdown, they crank the guitars up even louder on the next track, "Girlfriend". But it's not just mindless noise - the harmonies and melodies are there; in fact, "Girlfriend" even throws in a bit of a Beach Boys break at one point during the song. Meanwhile, "All My Life" recalls some of Nirvana's more melodic moments, and "Fake It" takes aim at phonies, both real and perceived, centering around California. And "Gone Away" proves to be one of the more interesting tracks on the disc - ironically, after knocking California, they follow it with this 70sish Laurel Canyon-sounding track.

I've heard on more than one occasion that I tilt to the softer side of power pop, and I plead guilty as charged. But for those who have made that observation somewhat unfavorably, I give you The Black Mollys - and I would say that there's nothing blissful about ignoring this disc.

Kool Kat | MySpace

A manifesto I can get behind.

From the official site of The Rip Off Artists, a new band formed by Nick Pipitone and Peter Bachelder:
1. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach and John Barry are the 5 primary pop music influences.

2. Lyrics are 50% of a pop song; they should either make a philosophical point or tell a story.

3. Tambourines and shakers must be used.

4. The following words will never be used in a rhyme scheme: heart and apart; young and fun; dead and bed.

5. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.

6. In music videos, no one will be seen playing a musical instrument.

7. No good pop song can come from jamming.

8. Illegal downloading of music is OK; failure to buy the music you love is a crime.
They have a new disc out titled Esque, that I just received and from preliminary listening, will be a top 10 contender (full review to come soon). Between the philosophy behind the manifesto, the band name, and the album title, you know where they're coming from, and that's just alright with me.