New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: power pop

Boston Band Aloud Nails a Slew of Catchy Purist Rock Styles

If Boston band Aloud‘s new album It’s Got to Be Now had come out in, say, 1980, it would have been all over the radio. The same would have been true in 1970, or in 1965: their sound is that tuneful, and that timeless. The two guitars of bandleaders Henry Beguiristain and Jen de la Osa jangle and clang, the vocals soar and the rhythm section of bassist Charles Murphy and drummer Frank Hegyi is dynamic verging on explosive. Their songs are eclectic, ranging from 60s flavored garage and surf rock to classic powerpop spiced with psychedelia. And they don’t waste a note – most of the songs are done before the three minute mark (they’re streaming at Spotify). As you might imagine, Aloud are excellent live: they’re at Bowery Electric on April 28 at around 9.

The album kicks off with a triumphantly crescendoing powerpop number, Back Here with Me Again, with its guy/girl vocals, And Your Bird Can Sing bassline, and a tersely tuneful guitar panned in both  left and right channels. Don’t Let It Get You Down shifts nimbly back and forth between funky verses and the band’s signature, wickedly catchy choruses. The Wicked Kind sets a snide, politically-fueled lyric to distantly menacing, chromatically-fueled garage/psych rock, de la Osa singing coolly and imperturbably over the guitars and organ.

Jeanne, It’s Just a Ride! is a funny, catchy janglepop number about a girl who wants to make more of a one-night stand than she ought to. “The futility of existence requires not your assistance,” Beguiristain deadpans. They pick up the pace with the blistering A Little Bit Low and its burning Radio Birdman-esque garage-punk guitar hooks. Then they blend bittersweet twelve-string jangle with Lynchian 60s Nashville pop on Such a Long Time, following that with the new wave Motown of After the Plague, a surprisingly optimistic post-apocalyptic scenaro.

The album’s title track sets a devious variation on a classic garage riff to a vintage soul-clap beat: it’s like the kind of neo-garage that was coming out of the band’s hometown thirty years ago, but without the cliches. A defiant escape anthem, Complicity builds from punchy surf rock to a big roaring chorus. The Beatlesque Ballad of Emily Jane brings the album full circle. Aloud have been around for awhile and have messed with different styles: it’s good to see such an excellent band getting back to the kind of purist tunesmithing they do best.

The Split Squad Hits a Home Run Their First Time Up

During spring training, baseball teams often field two different squads on the same day against different teams, to facilitate plenty of practice time for both the stars and the scrubs. Which explains the sarcasm in the Split Squad’s name: this retro rock supergroup includes keyboardist Josh Kantor from Steve Wynn’s Baseball Project as well as Blondie drummer Clem Burke, guitarists Keith Streng of ageless garage rockers the Fleshtones and Eddie Munoz from powerpop cult legends the Plimsouls along with bassist Michael Giblin. On their debut album Now Here This, the Split Squad goes back through fifty years of rock, plundering ideas all over the place and mixing them up into a snarling, roaring, guitar-fueled blend of powerpop turbocharged with punk and oldschool garage rock. They’re at Bowery Electric on April 25 at around 10 atop a great purist guitar-fueled triplebill: Lakeside Lounge supergroup Los Dudes open the show at around 8 followed by legendary indie power trio the Figgs, still going strong after twenty years. Advance tickets are $10 and highly recommended.

The album unfortunately isn’t streaming on the web, but several of the tracks have made it to youtube (follow the link and enjoy!); there are also brief clips at the band’s music page. The title track opens the album. It’s Clash City Rockers meets Shakin’ All Over, as done by a late edition of Radio Birdman – yeah, that good. Those two paint-peeling wah guitar solos could be Chris Masuak. The steady, punchy, snide Touch & Go is the Kinks as done by Guided by Voices, more or less. With its mean, jangly guitar on the chorus, snappy bass and screaming guitar solo, She Is Everything could be a Del-Lords track from the late 80s. Then Sorry She’s Mine works the La Bamba/Hang On Sloopy riff before it goes in a janglier direction – anybody remember 18, that excellent Williamsburg garage-punk band from about six-seven years ago?

I’ve Got a Feeling has a tasty post-Stooges/Radio Birdman sway, with a deliciously swirly, all-too-brief organ solo. The vicious kiss-off anthem I Can’t Remember goes for a haphazard, 6/8 oldschool soul groove. I Feel the Same About You bookends a somewhat wry Beatles Abbey Road intro and outro around a four-on-the-floor powerpop stomp that could be Cheap Trick, right down to the Bun E. Carlos drumrolls out of the verse. Likewise, Superman Says, a look behind the mask of a stressed-out superhero: “They take it for granted that I never lose,” Clark Kent grouses.

Put It Down keeps the catchy powerpop going over a soul-clap beat that slows down to make way for the organ. Tinker Taylor hints at a Dolls glam vibe, while Hey Hey Baby, the most trad garage rock tune here, blends fuzz guitar into a biting minor-key riff-rock tune. You’ll Never Change is a brooding Vegas tango done as oldschool soul, Spooky by the Classics IV but genuinely spooky. The album winds up with Messin’ Around , which is basically Gloria, right down to the half-assed harmonica. They take it out with a nasty exchange of bars from the guitars. Recycling has seldom been so much fun.

The Sound of the Fab Four Inspires Andrew Collberg’s New Album

Swedish-born, New Zealand-raised and now based in Tucson, Andrew Collberg is a connoisseur of many retro rock styles. He has a background in southwestern gothic, and a couple of years ago put out a killer single, Dirty Wind b/w Back on the Shore, a rich evocation of classic paisley underground rock in the same vein as True West or the Dream Syndicate. These days he’s mining sounds that evoke ELO and the Beatles, adding layers of the blippy faux-vintage keyboard textures that are all the rage in the Bushwick indie scene on his latest album, Minds Hits. The whole thing is streaming at Spotify.

The opening track, Rich, is totally ELO, a soul-tinged update on the sound Jeff Lynne achieved with Evil Woman, then morphing into something of a glamrock song with a fuzztone guitar solo before coming back to the wickedly catchy, funk-tinged verse. From there Collberg segues into Hole and its Penny Lane bounce, followed by Take a Look Around, a retro 60s soul tune with Abbey Road touches: la-la-la backing vocals, elegant broken-chord guitar lines, organ and a terse faux electric harpsichord solo. After that, the long, hypnotically vamping Pepper Peter keeps the Abbey Road vibe going, this time on the Lennon side of the street.

Tear has Collberg playing precise soul chords that rise to a swaying, ba-BUMP late-Beatles groove that grows more majestic as he adds layers of guitars and keys. Stars takes the sound about a dozen years forward into ornately catchy Jeff Lynne space-pop territory, while Snide Creepy Soul takes an insistent, similarly hooky ELO-style pop tune thirty more years into the future with a mix of vintage and fake-vintage keyboard voicings.

Easy Lazy Dome speeds up a Hey Jude ambience doublespeed and then takes a turn into unexpectedly ominous psychedelia, fueled by shivery lead guitar. Cantaloupe looks back to Sergeant Pepper, complete with tumbling Ringo-esque drums. The album winds up with Hit the Gas, which sets a classic Lennon-style tune over boomy lo-fi drums before it picks up with increasingly ornate layers of guitar/keyboard orchestration. Isn’t it amazing that fifty years after the Beatles first hit, artists and audiences alike continue to be obsessed with them? Fans of Elliott Smith, Abby Travis, and of course ELO and the Fab Four will have a good time with this.

The Baseball Project’s 3rd Album: As Much Fun As an Unassisted Triple Play

The Baseball Project‘s new album, simply titled 3rd, sends you straight to Retrosheet. Baseball may not be the national pastime anymore, but this album is as deep and rich as the lore and the lure of the game. For fans, it’s pretty close to heaven – and for those who aren’t, it won’t alienate anybody because the tunes are so memorable and the playing is so flat-out excellent. What began as a one-off Steve Wynn side project has grown from a well-conceived novelty into a perennial World Series contender. The band is Hall of Fame caliber: Wynn (the Stan Musial of rock) on guitars and most of the lead vocals along with REM’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills plus the Minus Five’s Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon, who reasserts herself as the best and most consistently interesting rock drummer out there. The album isn’t up at Spotify yet, but the band’s first two are, so keep an eye out for it.

What makes the Baseball Project ultimately so much fun is that their songs celebrate the weird, the obscure and the tragic rather than the obvious. So many songs about baseball are cheesy and don’t really have a lot to do with the game, but the Baseball Project plunge into the history and the personalities involved, as well as what it’s like to be a diehard fan (and these guys really, really are). Although Wynn, the bandleader, has adopted the Yankees as his team, he’s written insightfully and poignantly about the Boston Red Sox, among other teams, on past albums. This time out, players from the Evil Empire are represented by four songs, while the Atlanta Braves – Mills’ and Buck’s team – also get plenty of props.

The first track is Stats, a pseudo-Ventures spacerock stomp with a seemingly random litany of numbers recited by Pitmon: random, that is, until you realize that’s Nolan Ryan’s season-record 383 strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak…and then the guessing gets really good. For those who don’t know, stats are crack for baseball fans and so is this song.

Two of the best songs here, neither of which namecheck the player involved, are the most depressing. From Nails to Thumbtacks traces the career arc of one of the early steroid casualties, Lenny Dykstra, who went from spare outfielder with the Mets to sudden and prodigiously beefed-up stardom with the Phillies, only to wind up behind bars after a long, long downward spiral. “You gotta be high to fall this far,”McCaughey intones over a backdrop that’s part Ramones, part new wave. And 13, arguably the best song on the album, looks at the A-Roid scandal with even more of a caustic eye than Wynn cast on Roger Clemens in the gorgeous Twilight of My Career, from the band’s first album Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails. Over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western tune, Wynn explains how Alex Rodriguez took #13 as his Yankees uniform number since Babe Ruth wore #3, but ultimately it was hubris rather than bad luck that scuttled the third baseman’s assault on Henry Aaron’s home run record.

Wynn evokes his classic 2001 riff-rocker Strange New World in Hola America, the brooding account of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, whose World Series stardom with the Yankees obscures the alienation he must have felt while estranged from his family in a new culture. McCaughey celebrates Dock Ellis, not for the Pirates pitcher’s acid-fueled no-hitter, but for his abbreviated start on May 1, 1974 when he decided to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup as payback for what he perceived as hotdogging – and also to energize his lacklustre team, a ploy that actually worked! Mystified manager Danny Murtaugh pulled Ellis five batters into the first inning, but the hurler’s message had been heard loud and clear.

The mid-90s REM-style powerpop hit To the Veterans Committee makes a soaringly persuasive case for enshrining longtime Braves centerfielder Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame. Not only was Murphy one of his era’s top power hitters, he made the tricky transition from catcher to centerfield – where he won more than one Gold Glove – and he also was (and maybe still is) a competent piano player!

Box Scores celebrates a great tradition that someday may only be accessible on your phone, but as Buck reminds, “Every summer, every day, the box scores keep me sane.” The only really obvious track here, The Babe, sends a shout-out to the Sultan of Swat over a regal Hey Jude pulse lowlit by some deliciously watery vintage chorus-box guitar. Another tribute to a home run king, They Don’t Know Henry makes haunting 60s style garage-psych rock out a tip of the cap to Henry Aaron.

McCaughey cynically ponders what makes the low-budget Oakland A’s so good – and connects the dots between Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and the recently retired, mostly mediocre Dallas Braden – over a slinky Stones/T-Rex groove. Mills and Pitmon share vocals on Pascual on the Perimeter, memorializing the afternoon when the Braves’ eccentric righthander ostensibly got lost on the way to the ballpark – and wouldn’t you know it, Phil Niekro started in his place. Part Dream Syndicate, part True West and maybe part Yo La Tengo, it’s got some of the best snarling, burning guitar of any of the tracks here.

Larry Yount, a pensive folk-rock number by Wynn, recalls the older brother of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, whose single big league appearance ended before he’d thrown a pitch. He hurt himself while warming up after coming in from the Astros bullpen late in 1971 and never again appeared in a game.

The material gets funnier as the album goes along. The Baseball Card Song is a country patter tune rippling along with Buck’s banjo and a rapidfire rap by Wynn…see, he’d held onto the collection he’d amassed as a kid until this big Wall Street guy offered him some stock in a startup in exchange, and then the fun really starts. Another patter song riffs on both Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue and Heart’s Barracuda, a sideways look at a fireballing Red Sox righty who never won a single Cy Young Award despite his 511 career victories. Instead of the usual tired round-the-bases metaphors, the wry faux 70s boudoir soul number Extra Inning of Love looks at another kind of game you play at night from the perspective of a pitcher rather than a batter. And the album ends with Take Me Out to the Ballgame done Ramones style.

There’s also the They Played Baseball, a folk-rock rogues’ gallery of sorts: “Durocher had his lip, and Bob Welch his great big wine, Piniella had his temper, Mendoza had his line and it’s a fine line,” McCaughey grins. Which perfectly sums up this album, and this band: if you know who those guys are, this is for you. Now let’s get Steve Wynn to throw out the first pitch at a Mets home game sometime this year!

The Foxx Reinvent a Classic CBGB-Era Sound

The Foxx play an edgy, distinctively New York flavored style of powerpop that’s a dead ringer for what was happening at CBGB around 1978. At that point, new wave was still in its infancy, but glam was still fresh in everybody’s mind and some people, notably Lou Reed, were still playing it. That’s where the Foxx picks up. They’ve got a couple of albums up at Bandcamp: their most recent one, Lila, as well as their ep Born Tonite, recorded in 2009, a free download that you should grab immediately if this kind of stuff is your thing. The Foxx are at Death by Audio on March 26 at around 10 for a $7 cover.

Frontwoman Juliet Swango sings with a Chrissie Hynde seductiveness over an early Motown-style electric piano riff and Tim Cyster’s growly guitar on the ep’s title track, her deliciously swirly organ solo leading back into the stomp. Wanting Only You pairs Cyster’s Stonesy chords against Swango’s lush organ and quirky Missing Persons-esque vocals: they rip through it in two minutes on the nose.

With its darkly intricate interweave of guitar and keys, the artsy anthem Black Rainbow gives Swango a launching pad for some powerful, dramatic vocals in the same vein as Vera Beren. Waiting in the Dark bridges the gap between oldschool 70s soul music and gritty powerpop, with the album’s most sarcastic lyric. The final cut, Velvet Helmet layers Swango’s elegantly echoey Rhodes piano over a tense groove from bassist Zac Webb and drummer Jill McArthur up to a towering, anthemic chorus. With Swango’s creepy organ and practically operatic vocals as it rises, it’s the most menacing track here. .

The more recent release brings more of an anthemic C&W flavor into the mix: Swango distinguishes herself by writing and singing in a country vernacular without getting all cheesy or faking a southern accent. Standout track: Don’t Start Blaming Your Heart, a big anthem midway through the album.

Brilliantly Lyrical Janglerock from Son of Skooshny

Mark Breyer is one of the best underrated rock tunesmiths and lyricists of the past four decades. Beginning in 1978, he co-led powerpop mavens Skooshny – sort of the genre’s Steely Dan, considering that they never toured – with guitarist Bruce Wagner and drummer Brian Winogrond. As you might correctly assume from the band name (sarcastically meaning “boring” in Russian), they were popular in Russia, where they still have a cult following. And they deserve a global one. Since the band officially called it quits in the 90s, Breyer hasn’t slowed down, continuing to release richly tuneful, jangly, anthemic, deviously lyrical rock as Son of Skooshny. With its lush interweave of electric and acoustic guitars and wickedly literate lyrics, Son of Skooshny’s excellent latest album, Mid Century Mod, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a dead ringer for Australian rock legends the Church at their most direct and accessible, circa 1982 or so, with lyrics that bring to mind Elvis Costello around that time. Breyer plays the acoustic guitars, with Steve Refling (who also produced) handling the other instruments.

The opening track, Dizzy mingles lingering, clanging twelve-string and six-string leads over a lush bed of acoustic guitars, with lyrics in the same vein as Walter Ego‘s more recent work:

Math is so cold, heartless, unfeeling
But don’t let me draw any parallels here
We won’t intersect and that’s become clear
Not in a point or a line
Not at a plane we’re not flying
Wrong place wrong time

The title track, a wickedly elegant kiss-off to a yuppie ex, is swaying backbeat folk-rock as the Church might have done it thirty years ago:

Yoga is liberating, even for beginners
While you are meditating, you’re thinking of your dinner
Have you ever looked in your coffee table pullout
I left a love note in a style
I thought would bring a bittersweet smile

While Breyer is based in Los Angeles, there’s a very New York edge to his songwriting, best exemplified here by Sorry. With its brooding, lingering chorus and echoeoy harmonies, it’s is a dead ringer for early-zeros dark New York rockers DollHouse:

The first time’s a charm but three strikes, you’re out
This was number three in our trilogy
One more would make a quadrology
But I am no good at apology

Knee Deep beefs up a Bydsy jangle as the Church or the Wirebirds would have, with Jason Staczek’s Hammond organ and a more four-on-the-floor powerpop chorus, a characteristically sardonic look at a relationship that was doomed from the start:

Swing ahead then fall back
In the red instead of the black
Back to school, learn to rap
Break the rules, break em in half 
We meet in the twilight sleep
Between sleep and the sundial
Make promises we can’t keep
Knee deep in the blue Nile

The final track, Untold History, traces an uneasy, early atomic age childhood with an offhanded savagery: with Refling’s keening slide guitar,  it’s the hardest-rocking and most overtly angry song here:

Outside the quarantine
A Cold War-era submarine
With a credo to protect
Torpedos can’t eject
In the shadow of the bomb
When my daddy left my mom
I stayed at home and paced the floor
I waited for the smoke to pour
All around the shelter door

Both lyrically and musically, this is a genuinely amazing album. The Church may have drifted into more opaque, symphonic terrain, but this guy is keeping the literate janglerock flame burning as strongly as any songwriter is these days.

And in case these five tracks aren’t enough, the previous Son of Skooshny album, Lovers Leap of Faith, is also up at Bandcamp. And it’s somewhat more diverse, perhaps owing to the shifting cast of characters. It’s got a handful of big rockers: the insistent opening track, Another Time, has Jeff Peters on guitars and bass, Arlan Schierbaum on keys and Mark Lewis on drums. That crew also plays How Does It End, a gorgeously wistful Florida narrative. Andy Colquhoun serves as a one-man powerpop army on the savagely guitar-fueled Kate’s Green Phone and also the brisk seduction anthem Spine. The biting dysfunctional family scenario Bare Bones is only a little more restrained, with Arthur Schlenger on guitars and bass and David Winogrond on drums.

The rest of the album works the Church-like Rickenbacker guitar jangle and clang with a nonchalant expertise, Breyer’s vocals precise and almost sardonically warm over the lingering resonance and steady backbeat. There’s Candy Air, a bedroom scenario interrupted by a sinister phone call, Steve Refling playing the rest of the band to Breyer’s Steve Kilbey. The Right Idea, which could be a poppy cut from the Church’s Blurred Crusade album, and the vividly sardonic LA folk-rock tableau Good Morning Gale Warning, have Schlenger doing triple duty on guitars, bass and keys. The cleverly lyrical, Beatlesque Science Changes Everything has Peters plus Michael Meros on string synth, Craig Fall on bass and Steve Bankuti on drums. Love’s Not Impossible, which hints at Orbison-style Nashville noir, features the Peters/Meros lineup.

Yet for all the intricate rhyme schemes, towering arrangements and anthemic angst, the best song on the album might be its simplest one, You Can’t Love Me, a bitter coming to grips with a situation where she’s taking her afternoon nap and he’s drinking alone and it can only get worse from there. Skooshny and Son of Skooshny have a substantial back catalog, something well worth investigating if the idea of state-of-the-art tunesmithing is your thing.

Garage Rock Legends the Fleshtones Kick Off Their US Tour on Feb 27 in Williamsburg

The Fleshtones have aged well. The world’s most enduring garage rock band have a new album, Wheel of Talent, and a marathon US tour that kicks off at around 8 PM at Grand Victory in Williamsburg on Feb 27: cover is $15. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about the same as what you would have paid to see them at the Ritz (now Webster Hall) thirty years ago. That this band is still around, let alone with virtually all of the original core members, testifies both to their endurance as well as the eternal popularity of the sound they helped revitalize and then make iconic. The whole album is streaming at Spin.com, of all places.

What differentiates the Fleshtones from their second-wave garage rock brethren the Lyres, and the Cynics, and the thousands who followed over the decades, is that they’re as well versed in classic 60s soul music as they are in Nuggets Anthology-style riff-pop. And over the last couple of decades – wow, has it really been that long! – they’ve also taken frequent diversions into boisterously guitar-fueled powerpop in the same vein as Handsome Dick Manitoba’s Master Plan, which makes sense since lead guitarist Keith Streng has also spent time in that band. The Fleshtones have also never been afraid to be funny: they know what they do is fun, they obviously have a good time doing it and have loosened up over the years while keeping their punchy four-on-the-floor groove as tight as ever.

The best and funniest songs here make fun of dumb, trendy spoiled brats, their social ineptitude and social media obsessions. Available – which has a violin on it, an unexpected texture for a Fleshtones song – ridicules kids who find it necessary tell the whole world their most intimate details on Facebook. And the Chuck Berry-flavored Hipster Heaven, a hellish chronicle of the band’s old New York neighborhoods being swallowed by hordes of narcissistic gentrifiers fresh out of college but acting like kindergarteners, will resonate with every real New Yorker.

What You’re Talking About, with Streng’s banks of distorted guitars, organ and snarling, bluesy guitar leads, is garage rock as Cheap Trick might have done it circa 1979. The jangly, Byrdsy It Is As It Was reaches to capture a snapshot of the band’s career: they may not have made a lot of money, but it’s been a good time. They follow that with a minute fifty-nine worth of Remember the Ramones, a spot-on punk rock homage. “CBGB’s was very loud, Suicide packed the crowd, I was drinking Remy with Marty Thau, ” frontman/organist Peter Zaremba reminisces (ironically, Thau’s little label failed to release the Fleshtones’ debut album and a legal brouhaha ensued).

Roofarama blends Byrds jangle and Stooges wah guitar into a funky, sexy up-on-the-roof narrative. With its spacy Ventures guitars, The Right Girl sounds suspiciously like a parody of Joe Meek-style surf pop, right down to the faux British vocals. What I’ve Done Before takes an oldschool soul ballad and soups it up with loud guitars, while How to Say Goodbye goes back to the Cheap Trick (or Blue Oyster Cult at their mid-70s poppiest).

Zaremba croons his way through the Buddy Holly shuffle For a Smile as a British band like the Records might have done it, while the hardest-hitting song on the album, Stranger in My House evokes Da Capo-era Love, right down to the galloping drums and dark guitar chords, a surreal, bitter tale of losing a home and everything in it to something like a divorce or a probate dispute. There’s also a vengeful, Orbisonesque doo-wop pop number, Tear for Tear and the fuzztone garage rock number Veo La Luz and its tortured Spanish lyrics.

Lush, Gorgeous Psychedelic Pop and Vintage Folk-Rock from the New Mendicants

The New Mendicants – the Pernice Brothers’ Joe Pernice, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the Sadies’ Mike Belistky – blend classic psychedelic and powerpop sounds from the 60s and 70s while adding their own wickedly tuneful edge. This supergroup of sorts absolutely nails a whole bunch of styles from the UK from around 1965 to 1975. Their new album Into the Lime is streaming at Spotify…and it’s also available on vinyl!

The trio open it very auspiciously with A Very Sorry Christmas, its growling, Badfinger guitars, a little bit of of a shuffling Ringo feel from Belitsky and some Big Star blending in as well. “I’ve hurt so many people on the way, on a very sorry Christmas Eve, I wonder if the ghosts will ever let me be,” Blake laments. The second track, By the Time It Gets Dark is an optimistically catchy, gorgeous folk- rock ballad spiced with glockenspiel (although the litany of cliches that serves as the first verse needs to go). The bouncy Cruel Annette blends the mod pulse of late 60s The Who with jaunty, slightly vaudevillian early 60s Beatles. After that, the delicate, McCartneyesque acoustic waltz Follow You Down is quite likely the prettiest song ever written about a suicide pact.

The genuine classic here is High on the Skyline, an enigmatically alienated folk-rock anthem that’s equal parts Strawbs Britfolk and lushly clangy, twanging Byrds. “I’ll show you how deadly close faraway can be,” Blake intones in his stately  delivery. If You Only Knew Her is similar musically, but more Beatlesque, sort of like a more fleshed-out take on Here, There and Everywhere. The trio follow that with the most modern-sounding track here, Lifelike Hair, a third-generation garage-psych rock tune with a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre vibe.

It’s not clear at all what the title track is about, other than a lament for a vanished girlfriend: “The killing joke, the killing moon, the killing of me softly with this song,” Blake croons over a lushly orchestrated, sunnily attractive chamber folk melody. Sarasota blends elements of Motown and chamber pop into an absolutely surreal Florida scenario that might or might not be a murder mystery. The album winds up on a high note with the blistering neo-mod rock hit Shouting Match, a dead ringer for Connecticut pub rock legends the Reducers. The whole thing is one of the most tuneful collections to come over the transom here this year and a strong contender for one of 2014’s best albums.

Chris Hickey Survives the 80s to Reissue Two Lost Gems

The 80s got a bad rap. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had a lot to do with that. So did the entertainment-industrial complex. That was the John Hughes decade. It was also the decade where the big record labels, who then dominated all but the most obscure niche markets, began targeting their marketing to very specific age and gender groups. In this rigidly stratified world, that meant teenybopper pop, new wave and hair metal for the girls and 70s elevator pop for women past college age; metal for the younger guys, 70s dinosaur rock for the older ones. But the reality is that there was a vast amount of great music from that decade that never made it past college radio, if it even got that far. That’s where Chris Hickey would have been found, if anywhere, on the pre-internet airwaves back in 1985 when he released his cassette-only debut Frames of Mind, Boundaries of Time. He followed up that dark folk album with the similar Looking for Anything two years later. Happily, both are now available digitally for the first time ever.

It’s impossible to hear Matt Keating and not think of Hickey – and vice versa. Both are nonchalantly strong singers, have a flair for a biting turn of phrase and a catchy melodic hook – and an unease that doesn‘t lift. Where Keating got his start in punk rock, Hickey came from the folk side, but with a grimly lyrical edge that in its own quiet way was just as punk. Right from the first track on the first album, June Fifth, Hickey’s vocals are low, seething, wound tight as a drum. Just voice, a couple of guitars, a string of nonchalantly doomed images, and “A ring of the phone to tell you that you were wrong…”

Sometimes Hickey lets the images paint a picture; more often than not he hits the point of the songs square on the head, with a direct, plainspoken quality akin to Jonathan Richman but with balls. Hickey also has a strong political sensibility and a snarling distrust of authority. The best song on the collection is Another War, a soaring, Byrdsy twelve-string janglerock anthem. And it’s not just a litany of pain and grotesquerie, although there’s a lot of that:

The soldier plays a bamboo flute
The song he used to sing at home
For a a fifteen-year-old prostitute
He teaches her to sing along
The song sounds like a lullaby
She sings the words of quiet love
They could sing that song all night
But a knock on the door says time is up

This is where Hickey is strongest: the song may be going on thirty years old, but it’s as relevant now as it was then. It could have been inspired by Reagan’s misadventures in Costa Rica, or Lebanon, or Grenada, but this war could be anywhere.

The tunes have held up well, too. The earlier material, understandably, has more of a a lo-fi feel, sometimes just a couple of guitar tracks and voice, sometimes with bass and simple drums. The somewhat more elaborately produced tracks have more of a distinctive 80s feel – it’s that watery chorus-box guitar! The characteristically pensive Faraway has gently fingerpicked acoustic, woozy synth and a faux cello patch; the two-chord vamp in Carol echoes the Police’s King of Pain. I Can’t Wait to See You  is half the Police, half swaying acoustic 80s rock.

Start Over Again looks back to early acoustic Dylan, a word of caution for a would-be sellout: “Your words are thin and your heart isn’t in, so why don’t you start over again?” Not You works similar lyrical territory, with just snarling electric guitar and vocals: “I know who’s telling me the truth and it’s not you.” The caustic minor-key folk-rock tune Man of Principle foreshadows Roger Waters’ The Bravery of Being Out of Range. Freedom explores existential boundaries over a bed of tasty multilayered acoustic guitars:

An attempt is not an escape
An escape assumes a frame
A frame is a boundary that exists in the mind
The mind is one of many
Many agree to a frame… 

This Is My Land makes succinct fun of people who won’t let anyone near their stuff, metaphorically speaking. Not My Place reminds of 60s Dylan, but with good vocals, a plainspoken message to a boss type to kiss off. The unspoken punchline of the mutedly pulsing, allusive courtroom scenario Five Words might be “I sentence you to death.” And Dark Cold Day assesses a gloomy Reagan-era milieu  over biting, minor-key janglerock:

Follow poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night
With your unconcerning voice
Still persuade us to rejoice
With the forming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress 

The rest of the tracks broodingly contemplate interpersonal relations, and for one reason or another this is where the Matt Keating comparison holds most true. There Was a Time, with its simple, elegant broken chords and catchy, anthemic chorus; the grimly waltzing Not Our Son and the gorgeously jangly, uncharacteristically sunny Save My Life are three prime examples. The collection ends with a droll, roughhewn spoken word piece. Hickey remains active in music, with lots more intriguing stuff up at his Bandcamp page.

The Dog Society Go Fetch Beatles Themes

Brooklyn band the Dog Society really, really likes the Beatles. Which isn’t exactly a bad thing. They’re sort of a New York version of Oasis, taking pilfered licks from the Fab Four catalog and making anthemic stadium rock out of them. Their latest album Emerge is streaming at their Bandcamp page. They’re bringing their dramatic, catchy singalong sound to Drom at 8 PM on Jan 28; cover is a modest $10.

The album’s production and playing are tasteful and terse. Their frontman’s voice sometimes edges toward a faux British accent; lyrics are more or less beside the point. The opening track, Being Here is sort of acoustic Led Zep meets Oasis, a slowly swaying anthem with a tasty blend of jangly acoustic and electric guitars. A Good Friend starts out with a bouncy From Me to You pulse and then rocks it out. The Fuse Before works a cachy, insistsnt acoustic-electric Rubber Soul groove with a gloomy lyrical edge
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Scraped juxtaposes a spacious, echoey verse against a scorching Helter Skelter chorus, an attempt at a portrait of madness. From there the band segues into Pink Sun, a mashup of Strawberry Fields and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Oasis style. With its droll woodblock rhythm and quavery, processed vocals, Shade Grown is a darkly White Album-esque folk-pop anthem that seems to be about something that you would expect to find growing in the shade. The album’s catchiest track, Suffer a Smile, slinks along brightly, like an outtake from Someting Else By the Beatles with hints of country and a latin-flavored groove.

Spoken Word is not a poem but swirling, swaying anthem that’s closer to the 90s than anything else here. The band follows a brief three-chord acoustic tune with  Daymare, which makes a towering spacerock anthem out of Phil Spector pop changes. They keep the theme going with more of a glamrock feel through the vintage Bowie-ish Spaceboots; the album winds up with Salt, a soul vamp that would blend in well on Abbey Road. Let’s see – what are we missing? A Hard Day’s Night, maybe? On one hand, there’s no denying how catchy this band’s hooks are; on the other, a cynic could say that those hooks have been catchy for half a century.

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