Hungry for new tunes? Try these great new pop releases. Plus: NAMM Coverage

by John M. Borack

A Fragile Tomorrow – Be Nice Be Careful

Let’s start with this: A Fragile Tomorrow’s Be Nice Be Careful is one of the finest albums I’ve heard in a long while andBe-Nice-Be-Careful-Cover-300 definitely an early contender for the year-end “best of” list. It’s melodic pop that never comes off as wimpy. It rocks without feeling the need to hammer the listener over the head. It gets mellow but never gets boring. The lyrics are interesting but unpretentious. In short, it’s simply good music performed with passion, skill and energy. You know – rock and roll.

AFT is comprised of brothers Sean, Dominic and Brendan Kelly, along with bassist Shaun Rhoades. Sean sings lead, plays guitar and writes most all the songs; Dom plays drums and sings harmony; Brendan handles guitar and other assorted stringed instruments. BNBC is the band’s fourth full-length record, despite the fact that the Kelly boys are only 21 (Dom and Sean) and 18 (Brendan) years old.

It might seem odd to talk about a band as having successfully matured when 75% of the members are still 21 or younger, but that’s exactly what’s happened on BNBC; the songwriting, singing and playing are far superior to their previous efforts, and each of the 14 tunes is a fully realized gem. Some of the credit goes to co-producers Mitch Easter and Ted Comerford for assisting in fleshing out the quartet’s sound, but most of the kudos should be reserved for the band: Sean Kelly’s world-wise lyrics belie his young age, and his voice – often smooth and edgy simultaneously – takes a smidge of a less-annoying Evan Dando (Lemonheads) and sautés it with a bit of Elvis Costello; Dom Kelly is one hell of a drummer (check out his nifty stick work all over the record, notably on the instrumental bridge of the perky, crazy-catchy “Don’t Need Saving”); brother Brendan’s guitar perfectly complements the tunes without coming off as too showy (his coolly jagged, George Harrison-inspired soloing on the moody “Blank Paper” is but one example); and Shaun Rhoades’ bass serves as a solid sonic anchor (check “Mess You Made” and hear AFT get nearly funky).

Back to those fully realized tunes: whether it’s the devastating, autobiographical ballad “My Home” (“I watched my brother die in my home…I lost my faith inside that home”), the timeless, summery guitar pop of “Kernersville” (think the Monkees crossed with mid-period R.E.M.) or the country/rock chug of “Intentions” (featuring a smart set of lyrics about a relationship gone wrong), it’s obvious that these guys are the real deal and bring hook after hook to the party.

Hooks abound elsewhere, as well: the mid-tempo, accusatory rocker “Crooked Smiles and Greedy Hands” is fortified by an unforgettable chorus and an equally amazing bridge; “Long Time to Be Happy” is a hopeful pop ditty powered by Dom Kelly’s pounding drums; the sweet-sounding “Count on Both Hands” is a charmer of a tune, with acoustic and electric guitars combining with plenty of lovely vocal bits to create something special; “Three More Hours” kicks off with a Byrdsy guitar riff and goes on to successfully channel Teenage Fanclub; and “Dropout Reunion” adds a touch of punky energy to the proceedings without sacrificing one whit of melodicism.

There are some cool guest shots on Be Nice Be Careful, too: Don Dixon, Susan Cowsill, Amy Ray (Indigo Girls) and Vicki and Debbi Peterson (the Bangles) all lend vocal support, but their contributions never overshadow the substantial talents of A Fragile Tomorrow.  Clearly, this is a band and a record not to be missed.  www.afragiletomorrow.com

honeychainhoneychain – Futura

honeychain is the current project helmed by the multi-talented Hillary Burton, late of the L.A.-based power pop outfit Nushu. On Futura, honeychain’s debut 5-songer, Burton steps out and handles everything (vocals, guitar, bass, drums and piano) herself, save for backing vox on one song. In lesser hands, this DIY approach could have come off as little more than a stilted vanity project, but Burton’s instrumental and vocal prowess, the spirited performances, and her uniformly excellent tunes all gloriously transcend the stereotypical “one woman band” label and prove her to be a power pop force to be reckoned with. (Sound-wise, it’s not unlike the Go-Go’s hanging out in the garage with the Muffs, with the Ramones looking on approvingly.)

Each of the five tunes of Futura is a hook-filled treat, with the sugar-sweet melodies, spiky guitars and brisk pace of “Easy to Forget” and “Lucky One” sitting nicely alongside moodier numbers such as the romantic “Two Fools” and the deeply personal “Than You,” which is highlighted by an explosive, swirling chorus. The leadoff track, “The All-About-Me-Girl,” pulls off the difficult feat of sounding simultaneously sing-songy and tough, with Burton’s grinding guitar and insistent kick drum helping to power the aural kiss-off.

Futura is an outstanding first step for Hillary Burton and honeychain, and definitely leaves the listener wanting more. Visit www.honeychainmusic.com for more info.

PS – Yes, Virginia, ’tis true – I am currently serving as the drummer in honeychain, but I am here to tell you that this certainly has not colored my opinion of this fine release in any way, shape or form, because: A.) I don’t play on the disc.  B.) I wouldn’t agree to join any band that I didn’t stand behind 110%.  C.) My middle name is impartial.  Thank you and good day.

“Four days of business, education, music and celebrities” – that’s how the NAMM show is touted, and every year it lives up to its billing and then some.  The King Daddy of all musical trade shows was held in January at the Anaheim Convention Center, drawing thousands of eager musicians, fans, music biz types and others to California to gawk at beautiful instruments (“Man, I’d love that Rickenbacker 12-string, even though I can’t actually play guitar”), check out musicians attempting to traverse the exhibit floor unnoticed (“Hey, that was STEVIE WONDER!”), do some big time networking and stand in line for autographs.

As always, there was plenty of major league star power on hand. Pete Townshend made an appearance to accept the Les Paul Award (named in honor of the legendary guitarist/inventor), which is presented annually to honor individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of audio and music technology. There were also performances and appearances by the likes of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, American Idol judge/musician Randy Jackson, metal guitarist Lita Ford and countless others. (I had the opportunity to check out Randy Jackson jamming on the bass with some American Indian musicians, and dude was smokin’!)

JB BWNAMM (hosted by the National Association of Music Merchants) is one of the largest music product trade shows in the world, and the highlight for many – myself included – was the opportunity to witness a mini-set from Brian Wilson and some members of his current touring ensemble. The set took place at the Gibson booth and the capacity crowd was enraptured at the sight (and sound) of Wilson and the gang running through some classic Beach Boys tunes. I also met Brian backstage after the performance, which was a personal thrill.

Other performers I made a point to visit with include Vicki Peterson from the Bangles, Paul McCartney’s drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., power pop guru Matthew Sweet, and the legendary Phil Everly from the Everly Brothers. All in all, it was another smoothly run, entertaining and informative NAMM show. Can’t wait for 2014!

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