New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: powerpop

A Hilarious Powerpop Party Record From the Airport 77s

The Airport 77s write very funny, very catchy, perfectly retro late 70s style powerpop songs. If this was the year that the cheesy movie the band took their name from came out, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment. And their jokes extend beyond the lyrics to the music as well. In a year where so few rock acts have been releasing records, their debut album Rotation – streaming at Bandcamp – is a blast of fresh air.

The first track is Christine’s Coming Over, about a girl who won’t settle for scrubs – so the dude in the song has to frantically borrow a vacuum cleaner. And his choice of makeout music is spot-on for 1977! The band – frontman/bassist Chuck Dolan, guitarist Andy Sullivan and drummer John Kelly – nail all the requisite late 70s tropes. Brisk 2/4 beat, muted guitar downstrokes keeping time, twin guitar solo, the works.

When You’re Kissing On Me (Do You Think of James McAvoy) is a snidely funny scenario we all know too well: your crush just can’t get over theirs, with embarrassing results. The band hit a burning, minor-key, reggae-inflected groove with Shannon Speaks – it seems to be about a girl in a coma who has some kind of secret.

With its “whiskey/frisky” rhymes and devious innuendos, Wild Love comes across as the Romantics on steroids. The guitar quotes in All the Way, beginning with a smartly chosen Pink Floyd riff, are priceless, and match the lyrics. Their cover of Girl of My Dreams is more four-on-the-floor than the Bram Tchaikovsky original.

Strutting along on Dolan’s catchy bassline, Bad Mom! is the funniest track on the album: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols! And she’s been known to sneak a smoke every now and then! The group make you wait til the second verse of the final cut, Make It Happen before they drop a couple of their best jokes on you. Killer party record all the way through.

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beryond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

Revisiting a Catchy, Fearless, Kick-Ass Rock Record by the Cleveland Steamers

The Cleveland Steamers’ Best Record Ever – streaming at Spotify– came out a couple of years ago. On one hand, it’s purist, catchy, dynamically shifting guitar rock with metal, garage and psychedelic influences. On the other, it’s incredibly original: nobody blends those styles like this crew. Some of these songs sound straight of 1980-  no doubt since many of the group were around back then – but the band really slay with the unexpected mashups.

The album’s darkest and most adventurous cut, Dream of Me is basically a slow, 6/8 doom metal theme infused with Cullen O’Connor’s creepy tremolo organ and an achingly melismatic Marianne Friend sax break. “Soon to share the cosmos with you,” frontwoman Meredith Rutledge-Borger soberly intones; then she makes a candy bar joke. Monsanto is much the same, from its menacing, flamencoish Nick Summa guitar intro, to drummer Emmett O’Connor’s stalking pulse afterward

Hung Up On You has a swaying garage rock beat and some slinky guitar work behind that keening, swirly organ, while Maple Leaf Girl is more of a straight-up, garagey powerpop number. The long trumpet intro to the vampy Last Love nicks a famous classical theme: “I found love is a good place to hide,” bassist/singer Cheese Borger confides.

The album’s funniest song is My Asshole Cousin, a punk tune: it’s a capsule history of Republican bigotry over the past hundred years. Never Saw You Again has a steady backbeat and a lingering guitar burn, a bitter reminiscence about a really bad choice.

There’s also the punchy powerpop tune, See You Tonight; Shut Up, a screaming, amusing punk song; and Something Bad, which sounds like Blue Oyster Cult taking a very successful stab at new wave.

The Goners Mash Up Garage Rock and Powerpop with Classic Heavy Riffage

The Goners play an individualistic brand of heavy rock that’s slinkier and more focused than most bands in the style. Unlike most heavy bands, their rhythm section – bassist Aaron Miller and drummer Aaron Smith – really swing (although Geezer Butler and Bill Ward swung like hell too). And the group don’t use a lot of guitar effects: just overdriven amps and some growly treble on the bass, and that’s pretty much it. Their latest album Good Mourning – streaming at Bandcamp – is a blend of doom metal, garage rock and more opaque indie sounds.

The first track, Are You Gone Yet is basically a garage rock tune souped up with some tasty chromatics and a sunbaked wah guitar solo. High Low and Never In Between is a chunky riff-rocking Sabbath homage, more or less, with a couple of pinwheeling, doublespeed guitar solos.

They go back to a garage rock stomp for World of Decay, then hit a gallop with Evil Is Not Enough, a twisted tale of hooking up with a groupie. After that, they take an unexpected and successful detour into loping southwestern gothic with Good Ol’ Death and return to swaying riff-rock with The Sickening, with a nasty, tremolo-picked guitar solo out.

The most bizarre song here is Down and Out, a mashup of the Ventures and early Iron Maiden, with a spacy interlude for trumpet. Likewise, the mashup of Stooges and crunchy Sabbath in You Better Run is pretty weird, up to the album’s best and most allusively menacing guitar solo. With its punchy changes and watery analog chorus-box solos, The Little Blue reminds of Da Capo-era Arthur Lee.

The band go back to a surreal mix of spaghetti western, surf rock and hints of Radio Birdman to close the album with Dead in the Saddle (Dead Moon). Some fans of heavier sounds are going to hear frontman/guitarist Nate Gone’s flat, off-key vocals and the lithe, supple grooves of this music and find it insubstantial. But leave your mind open and you just might get into this.

The Sideshow Tragedy Take an Embittered Detour into Powerpop

Over the past decade or so, Austin duo the Sideshow Tragedy have done everything from unhinged, electrified country blues, to feral hillbilly boogies and savagely lyrical, hip-hop influenced political punk rock. Their masterpiece, and their most political release by far, is the searing 2015 album Capital. Their latest one After the Fall – streaming at Bandcamp – is a breakup album, sometimes allusive, sometimes completely grim.

They open with the title track, a departure into vintage 70s-style CBGB powerpop, guitarist Nathan Singleton’s surprisingly lushly layered guitars and bass over drummer Jeremy Harrell’s syncopated drive. “Wore a mask so long it became my face/I went in circles for years just to get to this place,” Singleton recalls. Prophetic, huh?

Ben Senerfit’s baritone sax punches in on the lows in Easy Action, which comes across as a mashup of Jon Spencer and Marcellus Hall. Guest lead guitarist Marc Ribot plays sizzling, noisy blues over Kenny Siegal’s blustery layers of keyboards in Hold On It: “I only walk on eggshells ‘cause I like the way it sounds,” Singleton snarls.

He channels Lou Reed, both musically and vocally, in The Lonely One, then he goes back toward the gutter blues of the band’s early years in the resolute Capital Crime. They hit a surprisingly funky pulse in the album’s best, most aphoristic and Dylanesque track, Same Thing:

Edge of the water at the end of time
You can see the other shore on the horizon line
It’s a trick of the light, it’s not too faraway
I’m at the bottom of the bottle next to the bay

Singleton’s Blood on the Tracks reference later on packs a wallop.

“Nothing to live for, it’s something to do,” Singleton muses in What I Mean, a stomping, stark, hypnotic blues anthem in a Jesus and Mary Chain vein. He goes back to Lou Reed mode over Harrell’s simple, steady stomp in Forty Days and the album’s cynical closing cut, Young Forever.

A Richly Detailed, Psychedelic Layer Cake From Polish Rockers the White Kites

The White Kites‘ previous album Missing was a mix of spot-on 60s and 70s art-rock and psychedelia. Their latest release, Devillusion – streaming at Bandcamp – has more of a 70s vibe. David Bowie is the obvious reference point, with echoes of the Beatles, ELO and even Jethro Tull as well as artsy 90s bands like Pulp. The group’s playful sense of humor often masks a dark undercurrent. This is a long record, fourteen tracks of catchy, purist tunesmithing, outside-the-box sonics and strange interludes, best appreciated as a cohesive whole.

They open the album with Spinning Lizzie, a Bowie-esque take on funk, the guitars of Przemek Piłaciński and Bartek Woźniak flaring over the squiggles of Jakub Lenarczyk’s keys and bassist Marysia Białota’s overdubbed combo organ. Frontman Sean Palmer delivers a deadpan account of an increasingly thorny acid trip in the second track, Rather Odd over Lenarczyk’s stately piano and organ swirls

With its ba-bump noir cabaret phantasmagoria, Not a Brownie is just as surreal, especially with the spacy breakdown in the middle. Paweł Betley’s flute flits over drummer Jakub Tolak’s steady Penny Lane beat throughout the cheery Warsaw Summer. Frozen Heartland could be ELO in a particularly lush, wistful moment, circa 1977: “Come back!” is the mantra.

Rising from a blippy bounce to far more serious, Dragon is a knowing parable about the kind of big, unexpected payoff that you might encounter if you keep your mind open. The band go back to a carnivalesque pulse for the album’s fleeting title track, then blend pouncing Bowie rock with crazed atmospherics in Viral Spiral.

Białota’s Rhodes mingles uneasily with the simmering guitars in Blurred, a portrait of a superman which may have sarcastic political subtext. Ola Bilińska sings the miniature Mysteries in the Sky over a twinkling backdrop of electric piano and lush acoustic guitars. Then the band pick up the pace with QRMA, shifting between watery chorus-box-driven late Beatles and skittish glamrock.

Palmer intones an eco-disaster warning over a deep-space soundscape in Goodbye Gaia. Mother Mars is a logical segue, a broodingly waltzing art-rock anthem: if the White Kites got it right, we’re looking at Life on Mars, or bust. They wind up the album with the slow, immersive, guardedly hopeful ballad Fallen Star. The level of craft and subtle detail on this album is even more amazing considering how rock albums are made these days – and how few of them have been released this year.

A Powerful, Lyrical Solo Debut by the Jigsaw Seen’s Dennis Davison

Dennis Davison built a formidable back catalog as the leader of the Jigsaw Seen, one of the best and most lyrical psychedelic rock bands of the 90s and zeros. They played their final New York gig in late March of 2017 at Bowery Electric, an inspired set which proved that even at the end, they hadn’t lost their edge. In the time since then, Davison has hardly been idle, and has a characteristically brilliant new solo album, The Book of Strongman streaming at Bandcamp.

Here, Davison plays all the instruments. he’s always been a solid guitarist and distinctively articulate singer, but it turns out he’s competent on bass, drums and keys as well. As usual, his historically-informed, metaphorically bristling narratives scream out for the repeat button. The album’s opening number, Strongman and Sonny James, a big, stomping, angst-fueled anthem, follows a grim escape scenario:

Yellow bellies left for dead
Everyone was seeing red
Sanity was hanging by a thread
Juvenile soldier, flee!
Run like hell and return home safely to me

The ending comes as a surprise and makes perfect sense considering the current state of the world.

Shadow on a Tall Tree has a 60s Kinks/Merseybeat pulse rising to a lush ELO-ish chorus, awash in tremolo guitar and what could be a Stylophone keyboard. In the Folly of Youth begins as a wistful accordion-fueled folk-rock tune and hits a swaying Bowie-esque gravitas:

When the living is free there’s no misery
So it is and it was throughout history

Museum Piece is a sweeping, dreamy, subtly slashing, distantly Beatlesque portrait of a drama queen who’s seen better days. Bitternesss and disillusion reach fever pitch in the otherwise lushly anthemic Can You Imagine, which could be an early 80s number by the Church. Heaven Bound has a susupiciously blithe, strutting new wave bassline and layers of chilly guitars and keys: “You set your sights on the sky, that doesn’t mean you can fly,” Davison advises.

Organ and layers of keys swirl over stately strummed guitars in The Spoken Word, a meticulously detailed, cynical social media era parable. With bubbly bass paired against fuzzy guitar layers, Auras is the closest thing here to Davison’s old band.

Awash in vintage analog chorus-box sonics, the toweringly bittersweet Aberdeen Vista is arguably the album’s high point:

Clipper ships have sailed
Politicians jailed
Birthday cards were mailed
Locust on a string
Orange and black birds sing
Now we live as kings
In Aberdeen Vista

Davison winds up the album with What the Hell Is That Noise, an uneasily tongue-in-cheek, Love Camp 7-ish reminiscence of teenage experiments in avant garde soundscaping, complete with samples from his 80s basement duo project Bizarre Trolls with Kevin Mackenzie. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of December, assuming there is a December this year.

Purist, Catchy Powerpop From Librarians With Hickeys

Akron, Ohio band Librarians with Hickeys play expertly crafted, catchy, 1979-style powerpop. They jangle and clang, they like layers of guitars, cool keyboard accents and vocal harmonies. And they would have been huge if they’d been around back four decades ago (that’s a compliment). Their debut album Long Overdue is streaming at Bandcamp,

On one hand, this is the kind of album that’s a dead giveaway for what’s in the band’s collective record collection. On the other, the four-piece group – guitarists Ray Carmen and Mike Crooker, bassist Andrew Wilco and drummer Rob Crossley – have good taste. The opening track, Until There Was You is sort of Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know About Us with twin-guitar grit and more of a four-on-the-floor drive. That Time Is Now follows a familiar rock progression (the best a band’s been able to do with it is the Church’s Bel Air) with dreamy harmony vocals by Lisa Mychols of the Seven And Six. And Then She’s Gone recounts the final scene in the film Ghost World where Enid, the Thora Burch character, gets on that magic bus at the end: the tune is a silkier take on Guided by Voices.

Be My Plus One is a sunshine pop number: Mrs. Brown, you’ve got a lovely daughter, I’d like to ask her out. Next Time is pure 80s, complete with watery chorus-box guitars, Crossley getting the clap-clap going with his syndrums. Likewise, the trebly, jangly, vamping Obsession could be the Church in a particularly poppy moment circa the Seance album.

The band mash up organ-livened Lyres garage rock with a little spacy new wave in Leave Me Alone and follow that with Poor Reception, another Church-like janglerocker that also recalls legendary/obscure 80s Long Island space-pop band the Hatracks. Wilco goes way up on his G string for the boomy chorus hook in Silent Stars, the album’s most hypnotically psychedelic track.

Carmen breaks out his Rickenbacker for extra clang in Alex, a gentle backbeat folk-rock number. The Church – that damn Oz band again! – come most strongly to mind in Looking For Home, but in the vein of a big rocker from, say, the Gold Afternoon Fix album. The band close the record with Black Velvet Dress, Crossley’s piano rippling above the guitar flare in this empathetic tale of a girl throwing a party for herself. Singalong hooks, expert craftsmanship, no wasted notes: what more could you want from guitars, bass and drums?

Debra Devi’s Latest Album: A Feast of Psychedelic Guitar

Psychedelic guitarslinger Debra Devi opens her new album, A Zillion Stars Overhead – streaming at Spotify – with When It Comes Down, her John Coltrane Stereo Blues. If you’re a Steve Wynn fan, you get the reference: it might not be her signature song, but it’s the big epic jam that everybody screams for at the end of the encores.

This one’s the most epic she’s released yet (although we can hope for a concert version someday). Devi’s multitracks, from gentle acoustic phrases to sunbaked scream, shift through the mix over the slinky rhythm section of bassist Jorgen Carlsson and drummer John Hummel, with a stampeding doublespeed interlude.

She redeems her cover of Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done not only with her honeyed, bruised vocals but also by speeding the song up and giving it a plaintive slide guitar solo: freed from its hippie-rock associations, you really hear the cautionary tale.

Just when you think Stay is a twinkly stadium rock anthem, Devi hits her distortion pedal. Damn, this woman shreds. The album also includes an edited version of When It Comes Down as well as Canna Indica, an echoey riff-fest: now what could that one possibly be about?

Devi’s playing a rare solo gig on 6 PM on Aug 29 at Molly’s House Concerts in Linden, NJ. Cover is $25; email for location/deets and to reserve your spot in the outdoor garden

Classic Influences and Catchy Rock Tunesmithing From the Fast Romantics

Toronto powerpop band the Fast Romantics’ new album Pick It Up – streaming at youtube – is their most keyboard-driven record yet. They draw on classic rock songcraft from the 60s through the 80s and have a sense of humor. This one isn’t as funny or melodically ambitious as their 2017 American Love album: it’s closer to what the New Pornographers have been up to most recently, along with influences from the Beatles to gospel.

The album opens with the title cut, a  slow gospel piano ballad and an enigmatic look at the potential pitfalls of artistic creativity. We’re Only People has George Harrison-style slide guitar over steady Penny Lane-ish piano: “How did you find me in my hideout, how did you get me to come down?” frontman Matthew Angus wants to know.

Keyboardist Lisa Lorenz’s fuzzy 80s textures buzz beneath more of that swooping slide guitar in Made For You, a techier update on the Born to Run-era Springsteen the band love so much. The keys get starrier and also more symphonic in Hallelujah What’s It to Ya, which is more subtly irreverent than the title would imply.

The Rules is a wry Let It Be Beatlesque piano ballad, a sardonic look back at the price of nonconformity, with an unexpectedly defiant coda. “Watch me blow it all on sellout serendipity,” Angus muses in Top of the Mountain, a stoner trip-hop number that brings to mind early 90s Pulp. 

The band follow Iso Radio, a creepily nocturnal, vaguely apocalyptic piano theme, with the album’s final track, Do No Wrong: “i made a mess so I’m clearing my history,” Angus relates over a catchy backdrop that’s part Motown, part new wave.