March 2016 Review Roundup, Part 1

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by John M. Borack

 

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JORDAN ANDREW JEFFERSON – The Only Way Out is In

For a journalist, sometimes the coolest releases are the ones that catch you completely off guard. To that end, although I hadn’t seen much in the online pop press about Jordan Andrew Jefferson, The Only Way Out is In came as a very pleasant surprise. It’s 30-odd minutes worth of sunshine-poppin’ ear candy with echoes of ‘70s soft rock soldiers such as America, and it also proudly features more than a bit of Beach Boys influence. “Ghost By the Water” is a lovely opening number with vocal shades of both Brian and Carl Wilson, and the disc’s final two tracks – “Caroline, Don’t Cry” and “Goodbye Hello Goodnight” also evoke that summery, feel-good vibe. The fact that Jefferson did pretty much everything himself here makes the record all that much more impressive. Grade: A-

 

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ANDY REED – Relay Volume 1

More mid-period Beach Boys-styled goodness on the latest from Andy Reed, which is unfortunately only a five-song EP; it’s unfortunate because Reed is one of the best out there at writing, recording and singing the catchy pop ditties and we want more, dammit! The two standouts here are the most overtly Beach Boysy: “Waves,” which begins as a pretty, acoustic guitar-based tune and builds and bursts into a Pet Sounds-flavored chorus; and “Dreaming of the West Coast,” which is a nice vehicle for Reed’s perfectly plaintive vocals. Grade: B+

 

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ANDY REED – Oddities and Entities

22 big tracks, spanning the years 2001-2014, and each one as melodically stimulating, smartly sung, and memorable as the next. It’s Andy Reed in a variety of guises (solo, An American Underdog, The Reed Brothers, The Hotel Buzz, The Haskels) and it’s all uniformly swell. Whether he’s covering such disparate artists as Jay Ferguson, Howard Jones, Jellyfish and Elvis Costello quite agreeably, laying down some straight-up power pop (“Make Up Your Mind”), or offering up tasty slices of his patented mid-tempo pop treasures, he never fails to hit the mark on this collection that doubles as a rarities collection/best-of. An embarrassment of riches, as they say. Grade: A

 

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CLAY HOWARD – Who the Hell is Clay Howard?

Well, here’s the short answer to the titular question: Clay Howard is the former lead vocalist with the North Carolina power pop outfit Stratocruiser, he’s really tall (6’9”), and his new solo effort is pretty darned nifty in a classic rock kinda way. Oh, and to these ears it’s the best record he’s ever been involved with.  “LOL” is the track to watch out for; it’s fortified with an uber-catchy hook and a great vocal performance (love the kiddie vocalizing at the end, too). Matter of fact, Howard’s impassioned vocals throughout Who the Hell… help sell many of the tunes, including the sweetly soulful “Send Me an Angel.” The whole shebang – a collaboration with Minnesota-based producer/instrumentalist Brynn Arens – is mixed extremely “hot,” with a gloriously big, fat drum sound driving the songs. So, yeah – catch these classic-sounding classic rock sounds before they becomes classics. Or something. Grade: B

 

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IDENTICAL SUNS – Identical Suns

Borne out of a chance meeting in the Mike Viola Super Fan Facebook group (ahhh, technology), these Suns are unabashed fans of Viola, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, among others. There are some nicely-arranged, well-written songs here: the McCartney-esque “Baby I’m Down” is super-catchy, the hypnotic “Yesterday Ended at Midnight” features some pristine, Brian Wilson-informed harmonies, and “After the Lullaby” is quite lovely. Unfortunately, some of the tunes are hampered by less-than-stellar lead vocals. Grade: C+

 

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DENNIS HOLSEYBROOK – Merry-Go-Round

Dennis “Songsmith” Holseybrook is known in some circles as an Internet DJ, whose “Music Motel” showcases many indie artists on a regular basis. He’s also been a working musician for many years, and his Merry-Go-Round EP finds him showcasing five tunes that he’s co-written and performed with just a little help from his friends. (Former Bay City Roller Duncan Faure adds guitar to three of ‘em.) The slower ones are rather affecting, featuring sincere lyrics married to Holseybrook’s soulful growl and elegant keyboards. “Save the World” (“Mother nature is crying out in pain”) is vaguely reminiscent of John Lennon’s “God” and some R&B song whose title escapes me at the moment; “Till the Morning” is fueled by a Left Banke-like harpsichord figure; and the title track is a well-written rumination on life and love. The two rockers come off as somewhat forced and Holseybrook’s vocals are a bit strained, although I imagine “Everybody Bowls in Buffalo” would knock ‘em dead in an upstate New York barroom on a Saturday night. Grade: C

 

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JONATHAN RUNDMAN – Look Up

Rundman’s a wonderful singer/songwriter, and Look Up is brimming with real (good) songs played by real (talented) people. It’s got thoughtful lyrics, creative arrangements, and no song sounds like the one that came before it. Rundman’s wistful-yet-strong vocals add flavor to tunes such as the rockin’ “Helicopters of Love” (dig the distinctive synth hook), the Matthew Sweet-like “Flying on a Plane” (kudos to Rundman for being probably the first songwriter ever to use the word “Mesolithic” in a chorus), and “No More Old Times,” which moves along at a brisk clip while being propelled by insistent pounding on the toms. Simultaneously moody and uplifting, Look Up is one of those left-field treats just waiting to be discovered by the discriminating pop fan. Grade: A

 

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LAURA STEVENSON – Cocksure

If you’re a female singer/songwriter and you title your album Cocksure, you’re bound to raise a few eyebrows. But once you get past that – and heartwarming lyrical couplets such as “I’m fu*king hideous and spiteful when I’m left to my devices… I’m wasting away my life and gifts on being a piece of sh*t” – you’ll put those eyebrows back in place and discover that Cocksure is an entertaining little record. Stevenson’s tunes are mainly hooky slices of supercharged power pop fed by muscular guitars, with “Torch Song,” “Jellyfish,” “Emily in Half” and “Happier, Etc.” all but forcing the listener out of their seat to dance/sing along. The slower ones are sometimes dirgy and not nearly as successful, however. Grade: B

 

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DANA COUNTRYMAN – Pop 3! Welcome to My Time Warp!

Is Dana Countryman the Neil Sedaka of the new millennium? A one-man Brill Building? Some sort of not-of-this-era, honey-voiced mutant who churns out snappy little readymade pop tunes like nobody’s business? I don’t know for sure, but I do know this: it’s pretty much impossible not to be smitten by Countryman’s retro-pop cuteness, so don’t even try. Resistance is futile, as they say. Grade: B+

 

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THE LUNAR LAUGH – Apollo

Connor Anderson and Jared Lekites are the laughing lunar boys, and they’ve fashioned a nicely done, relatively brief (nine songs, 26 minutes) foray into ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired pop music that quite often sounds not unlike early Wings jamming with Lindsey Buckingham. (Speaking of Buckingham, if you haven’t heard Lekites’ glorious solo tune “Too Far Gone” from 2012, seek it out post-haste; it’s the best tune that LB never wrote.) The compact tunes on Apollo push all the necessary buttons: plenty of harmonies, tasty melodies galore, and Lekites’ perfectly understated lead vox out in front. “Man Against Man” is a hyper-catchy opener, “Winsome” is just that, the backing vocals on the title track are crazy good, “On the Road” features more amazing – and somewhat ghostly – background vocals, “Beds on Fire” ups the dreamy/moody quotient, the piano on the folky “Bottom of the World” is a nice touch, and a pretty cover of Mike Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues” is a worthy disc-closer. Hope to hear more from these guys soon! Grade: A

 

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