Shane Lamb-Disengage. Every year it seems like I come across a singer-songwriter who makes a great "Ryan Adams album". Of course I'm speaking of the Ryan Adams of Gold and Heartbreaker, not the Ryan Adams who became a parody of himself. In 2007 it was Jeremy Nail, last year it was Tyler Burkum, and this year it's Shane Lamb. Hailing from Nashville (where else?), Lamb mixes pop, classic rock and Americana, and comes through with one quality tune after another. "Free" grabs you right off the bat, with its memorable chorus, horns-and-organ backing, and some fine guitar work from Pat Buchanan, a name which may be familiar to many of you (no, not that Pat Buchanan). "I Would" is the kind of languid, midtempo number that you'd expect on a disc like this, and "To Get You Through" has a Jayhawks-style drive to it. Also don't miss the Springsteenesque "The Change in Me", a 2:10 slice of upbeat roots rock (complete with sax) that falls somewhere between "Working on the Highway" and "Stand on It".
The Literary Greats-Ocean, Meet the Valley. I could have sworn I reviewed this Atlanta Houston band's 2007 excellent self-titled debut, but a search of the site revealed that I only listed it at #55 at year's end without further comment. I'll try to remedy that here on their newly released follow-up. They fit the Popicana/roots-rock mold as well, and there's no sign of a sophomore slump on this one. "That Mountain Yonder" might sound like the title of Del McCoury's latest bluegrass opus, but instead it's a meaty rocker with pop smarts (dig the "ooh-woo-ooh-ooh-ooo" refrains), and "Show Me the Coast" rocks with heart and melody. Other highlights include "Oh Abilene", which reminds me of some of the Black Crowes' moodier work, the excellent "Dreadnought", which tackles the fear of flying and comes up with the music to match it, and the pop-rockin' "Ruby Sapphire", a Signal Hill Transmission-type number. They definitely do live up to their name, as this disc has a literary, almost Southern Gothic, feel to it.
Australia's Popboomerang is one of my favorite labels out there, constantly releasing one power pop gem after another. Although perhaps nothing will top last year's trifecta of Adrian Whitehead, Bryan Estepa and Danna & The Changes, their latest pair of releases deserve a spot in your rotation.
Russell Crawford-Floating Aimlessly. Crawford made his debut with the excellent 2006 EP Hearing All That's Heard, which placed #3 on our year-end EP list that year and was produced by Michael Carpenter. Additionally, Crawford is one of Carpenter's Cuban Heels, the backing band MC used on two EP releases last year. Carpenter also mixed and mastered the new full-length, which raises the question where does Michael Carpenter end and Russell Crawford begin? To answer the obvious, there are a lot of stylistic similarities between the two, but Crawford is his own man here. "Overachiever" is a piano-based number with attitude, bringing Ben Kweller to mind, "Bad Luck" chronicles Crawford's grade school days with wit and melody, and the busy "Lisa" adds some nicely-placed chimes into the mix. Other standouts include the MC-co-written lovely ballad "If You Ask Me", the bright pop of "Melody", the piano boogie of "Shake It", and the pure power pop of "Leave it All Behind". It's nice to see the promise of the EP realized. Kool Kat | Not Lame | MySpace
Deserters-Pale Morning. While Russell Crawford is something of a known quantity, Melbourne's Deserters qualify as a plesant surprise. Not quite power pop, they instead have a more rustic sound that brings to mind early Wilco, Waterloo and to some extent, My Morning Jacket, but with an Aussie twist. Leadoff track "Waking Birds" captures their essence, sounding like the aforementioned references but as if they were fronted by Neil Finn. First single "Take It as It Comes" is a tough rocker, and "I Think It's Alright" has a real front-porch rock quality to it. "Race Me Home" has an anthemic, classic rock feel, and "Looking My Way" shows they can handle the soft, string-laden ballads. A fine example of - what do we call it - Australiana?
Nashville strikes again. The home of so many artists that have brought us quality releases in 2009 gives us This Modern Station, whose debut disc All We Leave Behind is a melodic breath of fresh air. They tread that fine line between power pop and Americana, sounding at times like an American Teenage Fanclub and at others like early Wilco.
The driving opener "Long Overdue" sets the tone, with hooks galore and a stomping beat that's reminiscent of Being There-era Wilco tracks like "Outta Site (Outta Mind)" and "Monday". "Next Best Thing" follows in the same vein, while the midtempo "Just Another Heartache" recalls The Favorites (who placed in our top 20 last year) and Red Guitar. "Evangelina" is another driving number, reminiscent of Todd Herfindal and The Meadows, and "Sunday Morning" brings the rock.
Kicking off the second half of the disc, "Ruby" finds the band into a bit of pop-noir, telling the story of a wayward woman to a moody melody not unlike The Smithereens' "Blood & Roses", while "Playing With Fire" proves the boys can handle the ballads as well. Closing things out, "I Think I'm in Love Again" is another infectious rocker, and "The Highway Never Ends" is quality straight-up Americana. "Popicana" fans, and those who liked the later-day Gary Louris-led Jayhawks are going to flip for this one. With nary a duff track to be heard, this one's a definite year-end Top 20 contender.
As kind of a pit stop between full-length releases (2008's Flight of the Knife and a new one planned for 2010), Bryan Scary & The Shredding Tears have a new EP out, Mad Valentines. I've stood pretty much alone in the power pop community as being a bit underwhelmed by Scary, feeling his music has been hyperkinetic for hyperkinesis' sake - Jellyfish with A.D.D., if you will. And after hearing the first track on this EP, "Andromeda's Eyes", in which Scary revs it up to Ludicrous Speed, I began to think he was becoming a parody of himself.
But then a funny thing happened with the rest of the EP. He dialed it back about 15%, and the remaining five tracks are the kind of effervescent, joyous Jellyfish-inspired pop that I knew he had in him. "(It's a) Gambler's Whirl" would have fit nicely on ELO's Discovery (a/k/a Disco Very); "The Garden Eleanor" sounds like Jeff Lynne producing Mika (that "I don't care if she cuts off her hair" hook is embedded in my brain); "Maria St. Claire" is the closest Scary gets to a ballad, and it's wonderful; and "Bye Bye Babylon" and "The Red Umbrella" find Scary in full bells-and-whistles mode, but in service of the song, not the sound.
Finally a Bryan Scary release I can get behind. Probably means everyone else who loved the first two finds it a letdown.
(Note: it's available digitally right now, but not on CD until October 27.)
The Prime Ministers-Compromiser. Detroit's The Prime Ministers have been around for 10 years and four albums, and they finally get the attention they deserve on this site with album #5, Compromiser. The PMs serve up Motor City-styled high-octane power pop similar to other hometown bands like The Offramps and The Respectables, and they don't miss a beat (or a hook). Although they're not afraid to rock, they're also not afraid to tackle the topic of getting older as they hit their mid-30s. "Double Rings" and "Learned from the Best" are a fearsome one-two punch the open the disc, but "Only 35" finds them grappling with getting older to a Clash-like reggae beat. Meanwhile, "Late in the Day" tackles the topic of aging rock bands playing amphitheaters past their prime, and "Safe & Sound on Microchips" gives Internet 2.0 a rock theme. Rockin' power pop with heart and wit, the Prime Ministers may find themselves Compromisers with life, but not with their sound.
Bob Collum & The Welfare Mothers-Twisted Lines & Mixed Up Rhymes. Oklahoman-in-England Bob Collum has become a reliable source of Popicana, that certain mix of alt-country, Americana, roots pop, and power pop that artists like Brian Jay Cline and Walter Clevenger have made semi-famous, and his new EP (with backing band The Welfare Mothers) is another gem, following up on 2008's Set the Stupid Free. "My Little Hurricane" is 2:13 of Popicana bliss, while "She Hates Me" is quality straight-up country, and "Behind the Bottle" sounds just like you think it does. "Devil in the Details" adds some power pop to the recipe, and "Knockdown Dragout" recalls Nick Lowe's "Raging Eyes". Yet another outstanding entry in the Year of the EP.
Jake Laufer-Notes from the Sherpa Underground. DC-gone-California's Jake Laufer is a singer-songwriter with hooks, lyrics and a strong pop sensibility, and with Notes from the Sherpa Underground (Sherpa Underground being the name of his band), his first disc in nine years, he puts it all together. Reminding me of a cross between Nick Pipitone and Elvis Costello with a bit of Matthew Sweet in the mix, Laufer pumps out one quality tune after another. The standouts here include "Only One in Town" (think Costello fronting the Gin Blossoms), "Subway Girl" (Tommy Keene meets the Smithereens), the mod beats of "Song Called Nora", and the gorgeous "The Only Way". Plus, he throws in a revved-up, rocking cover of "Hungry Like the Wolf". What more can you ask for?
John Shaugnessy-Re-occurring Dream. If you're looking for a down-to-earth, classic rock-infused slice of power pop, Philadelphia's John Shaughnessy is your man. Shaughnessy enlisted the Philly power pop mafia (Smash Palace's Stephen Butler and IKE's Brett Talley produce) to help him out here, and it's a fine collection that will appeal to fans of those artists as well as Tom Petty and Collective Soul. The acoustic-based title track is a treat, and the uber-catchy "Feelin' Good Again" hits all the high notes. Other key tracks include the upbeat "Dorothy Reminds Me", the heartfelt fallen soldier ballad "Next of Kin", and the 70's rock of "Chasing the Wind". You'll be glad to have these tracks re-occurring on your iPod.
One of the more common criticisms leveled at the power pop genre is that it all sounds the same, it's generic, everybody tries to sound like someone else, etc. It's a facile criticism, usually made by someone who doesn't listen to that much power pop. Nevertheless, this criticism doesn't apply to Kevin Peroni, whose Wiretree has an idiosyncratic sound - whenever one of his tunes randomly pops on my iPod, I have no trouble identifiying it as such. As I've touched on before, Wiretree's sound is best described as a hybrid between the Wilbury-era production Jeff Lynne brought to that band as well as Tom Petty and George Harrison and the poppier side of indie rock that artists such as Elliott Smith brought to the table.
With a brilliant 2005 debut EP and 2007's full-length Bouldin (which made my top 5 that year) under his belt, Peroni has a lot to live up to with Luck, and succeeds for the most part. The first chords of "Across My Mind" pass through the ears like meeting an old friend as the familiar acoustic guitar, drums and baroque piano that made the EP and Bouldin great are back in service of another shuffling, catchy melody. "Back in Town", the first single (mp3 download below), leads with xylophone reminiscent of Wilco's "A Shot in the Arm" and its sound does owe a lot to Summerteeth, which in my opinion was Jeff Tweedy's (and Jay Bennett's especially) finest moment. That 1-2 punch sets a daunting standard for the rest of the disc, but it's a challenge met. Particular standouts are "Information", in which Peroni rocks with a tougher edge without sacrificing the tune, the byzantine melody of "Satellite Song", in which Wiretree goes toe-to-toe with fellow Austinites Spoon, and the lovely "Heart of Hearts", which captures the "classic" Wiretree sound.
With any Luck, this will be the disc that propels Wiretree before a much larger audience. It retains their signature sound yet broadens it to point where I could see the intelligentsia of indie rock and the poobahs at Pitchfork giving it a thumbs up if they take the time to check it out. Here's hoping they do.
Crawpuppies-World's Much Bigger. The second album from this Indiana band (after 2004's Peaceful Amnesty) finds them on the dividing line between power pop and classic rock, doing justice to both genres. They actually remind me quite a bit of Vegas With Randolph, a band reviewed earlier this year that a lot of folks took a shine to. There's plenty to like here: the rocking title track, the jangly "She Comes Lovely", the classic power pop of "Owe it All to You", and the honkytonk classic rock of "Sunflower Girl". They even throw a couple of fun tracks out at the end of the album: "So Mundane" is an ambitious 7 1/2 minutes number that's broken into three segments, and "Masquerade" starts out as a Jellyfish-style number that segues into a "Revolution 9"-like freakout. With 14 tracks, there's plenty to like here.
The Alice Rose-In a Daze EP. After a couple of fine albums that made this band an AbPow favorite, they've snuck up upon us with a new EP, and it's a dazzler. "Awaken You" is a catchy number that might be the most immediate thing they've done - imagine Elliott Smith with a spring in his step (yes, back when he was alive). "Black Tresses" and "Silent Mary" are another two of their Jon Brion/Michael Penn-styled numbers that made their first couple of discs great, and the title track is lovely and melodic (see the video below). Apparently, the EP is only available from Kool Kat, so you won't have to figure out which retailer to get it from.
The Brigadier-Time is a Wound. The prolific Matt Williams (known to you and me as The Brigadier) is back with a new full-length, and Time is a Wound follows in the footsteps of last year's The Rise & Fall of Responsbility. Williams serves up another quality slice of pastoral pop, the kind of Brian-Wilson-with-an-English-sensibility in the vein of Andy Partridge and The Milk & Honey Band. Highlights include the upbeat opener "I'm Gonna Make You Mine Missy", which throws a bit of Northern Soul into the mix, the jaunty "Oh, Paddington", and the dreamy "Something Good". Not pastoral at all is "Why Don't You Love Me?", which throws in synths and a somewhat funky beat. You won't get that from Andy Partridge.
Andy Kirkland-No Name Gallery. Kudos to Bruce at Not Lame (or was it Ray at Kool Kat?) for unearthing this Neil Finn-esque gem. Kirkland's an Aussie who's managed a disc of finely crafted midtempo pop that's a real treat. The opener "Wey & Dry" could easily pass for a Finn original, especially with Kirkland's voice quite similar to the Crowded House frontman's. But this isn't a slavish Crowded House imitation, as the disc's standout "That's When This Boy Sleeps" demonstrates. An uptempo number with Motown overtones, it recalls The Pearlfishers' "Womack & Womack" as well as Belle & Sebastian. Other highlights include the lovely "I Called You Up Today" and "Asleep in New York", which both namechecks George Costanza and quotes Supertramp. Now that Shane Nicholson's gone country, the opening for next-best-thing-to-Neil-Finn needs to be filled, and Kirkland sounds a good a bet as any.