The Stanleys – The Stanleys
In the current musical climate, too much of what passes for power pop isn’t the real deal – it’s either too contrived, too polite-sounding, or lacking in memorable tunes. The Stanleys’ debut full-length possesses none of those flaws: it’s a cracking, 11-song effort chock full of sharp guitars and even sharper melodies, played and sung with passion and heart by the Australian trio. Each and every song here provides a joyous burst of energy, and the choruses are some of the most memorable you’ll run across this year (or any other): try getting “Cigarette Glow,” “Say You Will,” “Everybody Dance,” “Hefner” (yep, it’s about Hugh) or “What Are We Gonna Do?” out of your head after you’ve heard ‘em once or twice. Impossible, I say.
Mark Di Renzo, Jamie Horsburgh, and Tomas Dahl (former drummer for the Yum Yums, among others) make nary a false move here, and Di Renzo’s lead vocals are a perfect mixture of sweet and tough. If there’s a better pure power pop album that’s been released in 2017, I’d like to hear it. In the meantime, I’d like to hear The Stanleys four or five more times. Available via Off the Hip Records (Australia), Rock Indiana Records (Spain), and Pop Detective Records (USA). Grade: A
Jan & Dean – Filet of Soul Redux: The Rejected Master Recordings (Omnivore)
In late 1965, in an attempt to deliver one final album before leaving Liberty Records, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence presented the “suits” at the label a downright bizarre mélange of live tracks, sophomoric comedy skits, silly spoken word bits and liberal doses of sound effects (car crashes, gunshots, fake vomiting and the like). It was rejected post haste, with the label instead opting to release a more traditional (mostly) live album after Berry’s 1966 car crash. Now, 52 years later, comes the “authentic” version – for better or worse. It’s solely a historical curio. Grade: B-
The John Sally Ride – A New Set of Downs (Kool Kat)
NY singer/songwriter John Dunbar has been releasing criminally under-known music for more than 25 years, both solo and under the moniker A Confederacy of Dunces. His tunes are whimsical and sardonic with ear-catching melodies, and his latest project, A New Set of Downs by the curiously-named The John Sally Ride, contains 10 stellar examples of the Dunbar sound.
Joined by semi-legendary bassist Sal Maida (Sparks, Milk ‘n’ Cookies) and drummer Sal Nunziato, Dunbar whips up a sweet musical soufflé on A New Set of Downs. The leadoff track, the lighthearted near-skiffle of “One of These Days You’ll Have One of Those Days” sets the tone for the rest of the record: it’s a breezy singalong, with a hook-filled chorus and some jangly six-string. Elsewhere, the listener is treated to the riffy power pop of “Not Taking Credit” and “The Girl You Won’t Leave Your Wife For,” the mid-period Squeeze sound of “From Expectation to Surrender,” the self-deprecating “I Can Really Disappoint You” (where the lyrics are belied by a snappy melody line), and the disc-closing “Forgetting That I am Forgotten,” which comes off like some unknown Irish drinking song. Filled with twists and turn and Dunbar’s signature inventiveness, A New Set of Downs is an under-the-radar delight. Grade: A-
Wesley Fuller – Inner City Dream (1965)
After hearing Wesley Fuller’s magnificent 2016 EP Melvista, I hoped that it was a portent of more to come, so I’m happy to report that Fuller’s new release, the 12-track Inner City Dream, definitely does not disappoint. As was the case with Melvista, the new record has elements of glam, power pop, ‘60s AM radio and bubblegum informing the overall sound, and the result is a highly enjoyable collection.
Fuller recorded most everything on his own, and there’s a little T. Rex stomp here (“It Can Change My Ways” at times sounds like a distant cousin of “20th Century Boy”), some sunshine pop there (“Wish You Would”), and a whole stack of hummable popsongs littering the proceedings (the swirling, keyboard-laden title track, the slightly sinister “Better of Me,” and the insidiously catchy “Morality” and “No More Chances” among them). Fuller’s voice has enough of an edge to it to keep things from ever getting too soft, so if you’re a fan of catchy pop sounds, you really can’t go wrong with Wesley Fuller or Inner City Dream. Grade: A-
Kyle Vincent – Miles & An Ocean (MotMot)
The singer/songwriter I once dubbed “The Crown Prince of Soft Pop” is back, and on Miles & An Ocean, Kyle Vincent proves that he has no intention of abdicating his throne anytime soon. It features eleven tracks brimming with everything Vincent’s fans have come to expect from him: smooth, velvety vocals, cushy melodies, and sincere lyrics coming straight from the heart. Vincent’s trademark piano-based numbers dominate the disc: the “Hey, get off that cell phone and live” ode “Look Up,” gorgeous tales of regret and longing titled “It Could Have Been Me” and “Soon,” and a sweet little musical love letter (“Everything You Are”) confirm that no one can tug on the ‘ol heartstrings like Vincent.
There are also a few “power pop lite” moments that are more than pleasant: “Narita (Tokyo Girl)” (cute Bay City Rollers quote on this one) and the nostalgic Tommy Dunbar co-write “Hillside Daze.” Another cool thing about Miles & An Ocean is the number of aural “Easter eggs” that can be unearthed if the record is experienced with headphones: sounds that aren’t necessarily in the forefront – congas and handclaps here, a little guitar figure or a Beach Boys-like background vocal there – definitely enhance the overall listening experience. Apropos of nothing: in “Soon,” Vincent croons, “I’ll never say that word again,” but in the hopeful, disc-closing ballad “Miles & An Ocean” – lyrically sort of a soft-pop “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – he sings, “I’ll be back soon, I promise” and “Let’s make forever come real soon.” Hmm… Grade: A-
The Forty Nineteens – Good Fortune (Kool Kat)
Hailing from Temecula, CA (it’s about 85 miles outside of Los Angeles), the Forty Nineteens have more of an east coast swagger about them as they blast through 10 songs in under 28 minutes on Good Fortune. Their easy-to-dig sound is influenced by ‘60s garage rock (“And Such and Such,” the best thing here), the Ramones (the opening guitar salvo of “Easy Come Easy Go” sounds similar to “Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy”), salty roots rock, and even a touch of psychedelia (on the appropriately trippy “Purple Microdot” – duh). There’s also a groovin’ cover of “Time is on My Side,” and most all the songs are about cars and girls – so what’s not to love? PS – If you have the chance to catch these guys live, do so – their live show rocks quite righteously. Grade: B+
Brooklyn Menchaca – It’s Brooklyn! (Self-released)
Okay, this one is not exactly “self-released,” seeing as how Brooklyn Menchaca was only 9-years-old when she recorded this five-song EP. (She’s now matured to the ripe old age of 10.) So perhaps “parent-released” might be a more appropriate term. In any event, this little collection is about as sunny, bright and Disney Channel-appropriate as you’d expect music sung by a 9-year-old to be, but here’s the kicker: little Miss Menchaca wrote four of these five pop-rockin’ tunes all by her lonesome. It’s quite an achievement, really, especially considering how dang catchy each one is – there’s the boppy “Popsicle” (which recalls Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”), the slightly dark (yet still cute) “Monster Inside,” the sweetly hooky “Happy Sunshine,” a lovely piano-based ballad called “You’re My Heart Tonight,” and “Bright,” a completely charming, acoustic-based cover of an Echosmith tune that sure sounds like it could be a hit.
Brooklyn was assisted on these songs by musical mensch Michael Simmons (sparkle*jets U.K., Yorktown Lads), who played pretty much all the instruments. (Brooklyn’s vocal instructor/mentor, the super-talented Nicole Kubis, also contributes, both vocally and instrumentally.) So while the jaded among you may scoff at music created and performed by a kid, I’ll go on record right here and say that “Happy Sunshine” and Brooklyn’s version of “Bright” are two of the catchiest tunes I’ve heard this year. Visit https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/brooklynmenchaca2 and check ‘em out. Grade: A-
The Red Button – Now It’s All This! (Jem)
The term “Beatlesque” does not only refer to head shaking, mop-topped rewrites of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Rather, in the case of the Red Button, the term is more of a basic reference point, with Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg assimilating their musical influences (including the Beatles) and creating something beautifully melodic and wonderfully evocative of the music of the mid-to-late ‘60s. Swirsky and Ruekberg have the sweet/sour, Lennon/McCartney push and pull going on— both vocally and lyrically—but they don’t ape them by any means.
Which leads us to the new Red Button release, Now It’s All This! (Beatle aficionados will recognize the title from a certain 1966 incident involving John Lennon.) It’s a two-disc, 33-song collection that includes both wonderful Red Button albums (2007’s She’s About to Cross My Mind and 2011’s As Far as Yesterday Goes) in their entirety, along with six fantastic new tracks containing the same sort of vocal and melodic bliss that came before. But wait, there’s more, as they say: the compilation is rounded out with four tunes dubbed “unplugged rarities” (three from the second album, one from the debut) that showcase the songs in a more intimate setting. It’s all simply glorious, life-affirming pop music from two masters of the form. “Cruel Girl,” “Hopes Up,” “I Could Get Used to You,” “Genevieve,” “Caught in the Middle,” and new ones such as the title track (which has a cool John Lennon circa 1965 vibe) and the sweetly sad “Tell Me It’s Over” are all just perfect, and the rest of the songs aren’t far behind. If you haven’t heard the Red Button, this is the disc for you; if you have, you’ll need it for the new material. Essential listening. Grade: A
The Flashcubes – Forever (Northside)
A bang-up compilation from New York’s Flashcubes, who have been doin’ their thing since 1977, melding pop and rock quite nicely, thank you very much. Forever – subtitled 1977 – 2017 – is a two-disc set: disc one features various studio tracks dating from 1994 through 2017, and disc two is a cookin’ 14-song live set recorded in 2007 that provides a fine overview of the band. Since some Flashcubes originals such as “Christi Girl” and “It’s You Tonight” suffered a bit from thin production in their studio versions, their presence on the live disc is most welcomed, as are other top-flight numbers such as “No Promise,” Natalie,” “Cherry’s World,” and covers of Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Ramones and the Move. The band – especially drummer Tommy Allen – is in top form throughout.
The studio disc collects fine versions of songs originally recorded for tributes to the Raspberries, the Bay City Rollers, Paul Collins’ Beat, and the Monkees, as well as both sides of a 2016 45 featuring Chris Spedding-penned tunes, four tunes from the ‘Cubes’ 2012 album of Roy Wood covers, and four originals from the band’s 2002 Brilliant LP. (“Make Something Happen” and “Five Personalities” in particular are gems.) It all adds up to a first-rate collection from a band that deserves more than the cult status they currently have. Grade: A-