Some things old, some things new aka a ton of CD reviews

by John M. Borack

Since I’ve been remiss in getting through the ever-growing stacks of discs on my desk, here’s a humongous blow out of a lot of stuff – good, bad and in-between – that you should know about. (Or be warned about.) Googling the artist’s name and the disc’s title should get you the ordering information, should you so desire. Read on, if you will…

Don Dixon – High & Filthy & Borderline

Dixon’s 2013 self-released effort slipped out with not many people even aware of its existence. Here’s Dixon’s take on it: “High & Filthy & Borderline is based on the lives of two assassins. A man and a woman. The songs aren’t primarily narratives, they serve as adjunct color so don’t try to find the story in the songs. I decided to play a lot of trombone on this record.” Typically eclectic, typically soulful and wonderfully unique, which is to say…typical Dixon. Grade: B+

Loveland Duren – Bloody Cupid

Singer/songwriter Vicki Loveland and revered Memphis power popster Van Duren join forces on Bloody Cupid and fashion a sleek, honest and pleasurable adult contemporary record that includes splashes of country and quite a bit of pure pop melody. It’s a treat to hear Duren’s voice on record again and he still sounds great. Grade: B-

wellwishers_dunwoodyThe Well Wishers – Dunwoody

Five-song EP performed entirely by Well Wishers’ head dude Jeff Shelton that’s apparently some sort of mini-concept thing about the denizens of a Georgia town called Dunwoody. The slightly melancholy pop ditty “Open Up Your Eyes” is one of the best things Shelton’s ever done, and the other four tunes alternate between low-key acoustic ruminations and subtle rockers. Wish it was a full length. Grade: B+

Agony Aunts – Big Cinnamon

I wanted to love this one. Really, I did. But the latest by this Northern California quirk-pop outfit led by KC Bowman and Karla Kane just sort of left me cold. It’s not that I mind the quirk at all – these guys’ alter ego The Corner Laughers are way cool – but Big Cinnamon too often seems to be quirky just for quirk’s sake, particularly in the lyrical department. (It’s almost as if the disc is sticking its tongue out at you, saying, “Look how clever we are!”) There’s also not exactly a boatload of memorable melodies on display, making the impenetrable lyrics to tunes such as “Uranium My Love” and “Undecimber” all the more irritating. Grade: C+

Demitasse – Blue Medicine

Sometimes discs just show up in my mailbox, unannounced, from acts I’ve never heard of. Blue Medicine from Demitasse, a two-piece hipster/alternative act from Texas, is one of those albums, and holy crap, is it ever horrible. Overwrought, turgid and ridiculously pretentious, it’s the downcast, anti-melodic sound of two boys taking themselves far too seriously. (Their bio actually says they’re “hoping to cure sadness with sadness.” Kill me.)  And as if this description doesn’t’t turn you off enough already, they get docked an extra notch for actually writing a song titled “I Remove My Penis” that doesn’t seem to be a joke. I may never open my mailbox again. Grade: D-

cherry bThe Cherry Bluestorms – Bad Penny Opera

One of the more talented Los Angeles-area acts currently plying their trade under the pop umbrella, the Cherry Bluestorms have fashioned a rockin’, slightly psychedelic record that doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there, but at the same time feels very comfortable. Led by vocalist Deborah Gee and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Glen Laughlin, the 13 songs on Bad Penny Opera are memorable, instrumentally varied (Laughlin’s guitar wizardry is supported by nicely placed keyboards, horns, and a touch of violin) and unique. The male/female vocal harmonies are cool, and Gee’s lead vocals manage to simultaneously exude sweetness and a sense of danger. The insistently driving “Bad” is a favorite, a spiky-yet-reverent cover of Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” is most welcomed, “Sunday Driving South” slips a bit of 1967 Beatles into the mix and “World Going Mad” manages to simultaneously bring to mind the Police and the Byrds. Groovy. Grade: A-

Colin Blunstone – On the Air Tonight

This was released in 2012, but didn’t make it into my hands until late last year, hence its inclusion in this batch of reviews. It’s a bit closer to adult contemporary than the Zombies, but still…it’s Colin Blunstone, people. And his voice is still pure heaven; check the starkly gorgeous piano ballad “Though You Are Far Away” for proof. Oh, and one of the songs is co-written by a former Spice Girl. No, really. Grade: A-

Hot Freak Nation – Lifetime to Lifetime

Nice little unassuming rock/pop record from Don Main (who was formerly the lead singer of little-known early ‘80s power pop combo The Late Show) and Greg Roberson. “Everything is Everything Else” is a sweet melding of garage rock and power pop, and “Never Coming Home” wouldn’t sound out of place on Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Come to think of it, none of this would. Grade: B

The Touchies – Mess With the Unicorn…Get the Horn!

Southern California punk rock that is happily (and heavily) influenced by the Ramones and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. 8 songs in 15 minutes and loads of fun, fun, fun, including amped-up covers of the Banana Splits and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Rock on, Touchies. Grade: B

orange-peels-sun-moon-coverThe Orange Peels – Sun Moon

A large helping of the California sunshine sound, some Teenage Fanclub-like jangle, a couple of ‘60s-influenced instrumentals and a whole slew of thinking man’s (and woman’s) pop all adds up to another nifty Orange Peels record. Kudos to Allen Clapp and the gang for another fine effort, but hey: how about releasing a new record more often than every four years?  Grade: B+

The Drysdales – Dakota

The Drysdales’ second full-length recording comes 13 years after the debut, and this time around, the band (led by singer/songwriter Patrick Potts) ups the ante on their ‘70s and British Invasion roots, with about half of the 10 tracks connecting all the right dots. “My World” sounds a bit Stonesy, “Genuflex Jane” has some nice guitar work, powerful drumming and pristine harmonies, and a cover of T. Rex’s “Jeepster” is fun. Guest shots from Scott Bennett (Brian Wilson’s band) and Jon Brant (former Cheap Trick bassist). Grade: B-

The Cherry Drops – Everything’s Groovy

Even though the cover of Everything’s Groovy sports an Archies-like cartoon depiction of the Cherry Drops, this Southern California pop combo succeeds when they mine the garage-rock side of the fence instead. A cover of the Syndicate of Sound’s “Little Girl” is a treat (as is an original titled “Outta Sight”) and some of the surf-styled stuff is pleasant enough, but a few of the tracks here are downright embarrassing (I’m talkin’ ‘bout you, “Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated”) and overall, the record could have done with a bit of editing. Still, not bad. Grade: C+

gripweedsThe Gripweeds – Inner Grooves (Rare and Under-Released Tracks)

As the title gives away, here we have 11 odds and sods from the uber-talented Gripweeds: demos, acoustic versions, alternate takes, b-sides and the like. “Rainy Day #1 & 2” is pretty much the perfect power pop song, “She Don’t Care About Time” (from Not Lame’s Gene Clark tribute) is simply wonderful, and the single version of “We’re Not Getting Through” showcases the band’s instrumental muscle, in particular Kurt Reil’s all-over-the-kit drumming. Not a duff track in the bunch. Grade: A

Sex Clark Five – Rembrandt X

Huntsville, Alabama’s finest aka the original “strum and drum” band is back with a 30-track extravaganza that goes from catchy to endearingly nutso and back again about 17 times. Not sure if my favorite song title is “Howdy Deuteronomy,” “Why Aren’t We All Screaming Drunks,” “Epistle Packin’ Mama” or “New York Cosmic Disaster 2014,” but I can tell you that the chiming ‘n’ driving “Down With Beauty” and the early Beatles history lesson “When John Lennon Died” are personal faves o’mine. Hopefully the final track, “The End of Strum and Drum,” isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grade: B+

Jamie & Steve – Circling The latest EP (6 songs) by half of the Spongetones finds Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel stretching out a bit musically and arrangement-wise and moving even further away from their Merseybeat roots. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but overall, things seem to be a tad short in the melody department this time around. The ‘50s homage, “Wonder Girl,” closes out the disc and is the best thing here. Grade: B-

late showThe Late Show – Live in Concert ’79-‘80

Indianapolis, Indiana has never exactly been known as a musical hotbed, but they did manage to spawn one of the great indie power pop bands of the late ‘70s, The Late Show. The band’s lone long-player, 1980’s Portable Pop, was treasured by the few pop nuts who had the pleasure of hearing it, and it was finally reissued on CD a few years back. Live in Concert is a collection of radio broadcasts that features 10 of the 12 Portable Pop tracks, and not only is the sound quality excellent throughout, but the performances are also grade-A. Grade: A (duh)

Lisa Mychols – Above, Beyond & In Between

LA pop songstress Lisa Mychols has released her first solo record in nearly nine years, with her husband Tom Richards (Waking Hours) playing most of the instruments and co-writing or writing more than half of the record’s dozen tracks. It’s received rave reviews from most of the indie pop press, but while I find about half of it to be very good or better, the other half is…well, quite frankly, it’s rather boring, mainly because it too often finds Mychols drifting off into a lyrical fairyland with melodies that don’t have much staying power. But let’s talk about the goodies first: “Taken” is a stunning, ‘60s-inflected popsong and Mychols sings the hell out of it; “Foolin’ the World” is a fine, Gary Glitter-ish stomp; “Hearts Beat in Stereo” is a peppy little ditty with a cool chorus; and “Stay Till Tomorrow” is a grandiose ballad penned by Richards, and may just be the best thing here. Too much of the rest either sounds like girl group pastiches or just doesn’t stick. Oh, and the silly “Pass Me Some Hope” sounds like something an earnest, flighty 15-year-old girl should be singing. Grade: B-

Various Artists – Pop Garden Radio Presents Legacy – A Tribute to Rick Nelson, Volume 2

Some might say that two volumes worth of Rick(y) Nelson tribute tunes might be a touch too much, but don’t tell that to Adam Waltemire, executive producer of the Nelson tribs and host of Pop Garden Radio. He’s a certified Nelson freak, and he gathered together some of his personal favorites to pay tribute to the former teen idol, rockabilly purveyor and country-rock pioneer. Familiar Ricky N. tunes such as “Travelin’ Man,” “Believe What You Say” and “I’m Walkin’” are all handled in a pleasing, faithful manner by The Tickets, Tony & Anthony Rivers and Dave Stephens, respectively (dig the guitar break on the Stephens tune), and some of Nelson’s lesser known numbers shine brightly as well. Ruby Free’s “The Reason Why” is a standout, with Rick Hromadka and Lisa Cavaliere’s dual lead vocals evoking a mellow mood while the instrumentation builds from a solo piano opening to a ’71-era Stones-like semi-funkiness; Tawni Bates’ sugary lead vocal gives SKooBER’s “Sweeter Than You” a warm glow; Cloud Eleven contributes a lovely acoustic reading of “How Long”; and the Smith Bros. turn up the amps for a power poppin’ reading of “Little Miss American Dream.” Solid offerings from Barry Holdship, Bill Lloyd, Lannie Flowers and Circe Link (a torchy “Gypsy Woman”) are also welcomed, and even though there are a couple of dogs (namely the Ringles’ somewhat amateurish and poorly sung “You Just Can’t Quit”), this is a highly enjoyable disc. Grade: A

Harry_Nilsson_Flash_HarryHarry Nilsson – Flash Harry

Nilsson’s final album was this wildly uneven 1980 collection that remained unreleased in the US until this reissue (with four bonus tracks appended) by Varese Sarabande in 2013. Recorded in LA with the assistance of a ridiculously talented cast of musical characters (Ringo Starr, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Danny Kortchmar, Lowell George, Van Dyke Parks, Dr. John and Bobby Keyes, among others), it contains a few flashes of Nilsson’s old magic, but the fact that he delivered many of these tunes in a strained rasp of a voice is disheartening. Lots of lite near-funk and some silly reggae abound, and there’s also Nilsson’s decent version of “I Don’t Need You,” which would go on to become a hit for Kenny Rogers. Collaborations with John Lennon and Ringo are not especially noteworthy, but the disc-opening “Harry” – which is actually sung by Eric Idle and Charlie Dore as a toe-tapping tribute to the man – and Nilsson’s cover of Idle’s “Bright Side of Life” – which recalls the whimsy of Nilsson’s early days – are tops. Grade: C

Rob Bonfiglio – Mea Culpa A wonderfully accomplished one-man-band pop-rock record by Rob Bonfiglio. Nothing fancy, just well-written songs, ably performed and passionately sung. “Text Me” sounds like a hit single (remember those?), “Fooled Myself” is a pretty, piano-fueled tune with a pinch of soul, and “Wonderful” is fortified by some powerfully creative drumming. Grade: B+

lyn sagaLyn Saga – Venice On the cover of her first full full-length release, LA’s Lyn Saga looks like the California girl next door – if the California girl next door decided to wield an electric guitar and write herself a whole slew of catchy power pop songs. 10 tracks (with nothing approaching four minutes – a good thing), and each one cranks the guitars up loud and features Saga’s winning vocals, which are both sweet and saucy. The title track will reel you in immediately and the others will quickly follow suit. A triumph, to be sure; can’t wait for the follow up. Grade: A-

David Brookings – The Maze Cute little record from a San Francisco power pop dude who writes decent melodies and delivers ‘em with a nasally voice that can unfortunately get annoying in anything but small doses (and the less said about his falsetto on “The Greatest Songwriter No One Ever Heard” the better). Still, his band is a good one and tunes such as “If I Don’t Make it Back” and “The Dream is Over” are quite nice. Grade: C

Nine Times Blue – Matter of Time

Any band named after a Monkees tune gets major coolness points right off the bat. When the songs are solid and non-cliched, the lead vocals are passionate with just the right balance of grit and sweetness, and the playing is sharp and varied, well, that’s the icing on the cake. Kirk Waldrop writes and sings all six songs on the EP (save for one co-write with fellow pop dude Cliff Hillis) and the results sound to me like a less mannered Darius Rucker fronting a really tight indie pop band. Trust me, it’s a good thing. Grade: B+

Mark Lindsay – Life Out Loud In which former Mark Lindsay collaborates on a bunch of garage rock tunes with Gar Francis, records them at the Gripweeds’ House of Vibes studio, enlists Gripweed Kurt Reil and pop savant Richard X. Heyman to play some drums and ends up with another collection that is tailor made for Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Lindsay is in fine voice as he growls, croons and vamps his way through the 14 tunes – incredibly, with every vocal a first take. It’s certainly a long way from “Indian Reservation” and closer in spirit to the Raiders’ early recordings. Grade: B-

ebThe Everly Brothers – Songs Our Daddy Taught Us

Contemplative. Melancholy. Pure and quite beautiful. That’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a classic 1958 LP by the Everly Brothers that’s now available on CD, fortified with six bonus cuts. The record didn’t chart upon its original release – not surprising, since fans of “Bye Bye Love” no doubt were not ready for a murder ballad such as “Down in the Willow Garden” or traditional folk tunes – but it remains a classic. Powered by only Don Everly’s gently strummed and picked acoustic guitar and some bass – and of course Those Angelic Voices – the sound is amazingly pristine for a 56-year-old recording. The bonus tracks are alternate takes from the album’s sessions. And to think they were just age 19 and 21 when they cut this. Incredible. Grade: A

The Rubinoos – This is the Rubinoos

A 6-song, 16-minute EP presented in a simple white sleeve with faux-scrawled, handwritten song titles sounds like it could be “meh,” but since it’s the Rubinoos, you just know there are going to be some gems here. There’s “Rubinoos Theme Song,” a Saturday morning cartoon theme just begging for a cartoon to accompany it; the driving, “get off my lawn” anthem “You Kids”; the snappy mid-tempo pop confection “This is Good”; the slightly moody “Nowheresville”; and a brash romp through Gary Glitter’s “I Love You Love.” Things wrap up with a nutty little instrumental called “Rodent Patrol,”  but the preceding five tunes – and the unwavering pop sensibilities of Jon Rubin, Tommy Dunbar and Al Chan – make this unassuming little EP a must-own. Grade: A-

dm3_liveDM3 – DM3 Live

One of the finest pure power pop bands to ever come roaring down the pike, Australia’s DM3, led by singer/songwriter Dom Mariani, never skimped on the “power” part of the equation. That power is on proud display on this 12-track honey of a live record, with the band captured for posterity at the Roskilde Festival in 1994. The sound is pristine, the energy is there in spades and tracks such as “Can’t Get What You Want,” “Soultop” and “One Time, Two Times Devastated” fairly leap from the speakers. As a bonus, there’s a Stems track, a Someloves number and a smile-inducing run through of Badfinger’s “Come and Get It.” Grade: A

Adam Daniel – Pop, Baby

“It’s a mashup of Elton John piano, glam rock guitars, Beach Boys vocal stacks, and new wave synth candy. All my favorite things.” So says Adam Daniel of his first full length release in many a moon, Pop, Baby, and y’know, his description pretty much hits the nail on the proverbial head. Daniel recorded and performed the whole deal himself on a MacBook Pro and the songs range from joyous to moody, with stops at unapologetically sweet (“Lullaby”), funky (“Dream Out Loud”) and more. Picks to click: “Summer’s Coming” and “Your Gravity.” Grade: B

The Breakup Society – So Much Unhappiness, So Little Time

Wide-eyed, good natured and lyrically prickly fun from Ed Masley and the gang, filled with loud guitars, primo drumming and solid pop songwriting. Masley’s vocals sound like he would have been comfortable fronting a ‘60s garage band, as he puts across every song with a voice that alternates between sneering, vulnerable and powerful. Grade: B+

huxParthenon Huxley – Thank You Bethesda

Always a treat to hear new music from Mr. Huxley and Thank You Bethesda is a typically strong effort. It includes nods to his current place of residence (the breezy title track, which oughta be named Bethesda’s official song or something), his former home (the lighthearted “everybody wants to be a star” lament “Angeleno”), the latter-day Beatles-influenced “Roller Coaster” and a re-recording of “Buddha Buddha,” one of his earliest tunes from back in the early ‘80s when he was known as Rick Rock. The album’s signature track, though, is the beautiful, powerful “Love is the Greatest Thing” which combines an uplifting message with a catchy-as-hell tune and what might be Huxley’s finest vocal performance on record to date. Grade: A-

Corin Ashley – New Lion Terraces This record would be worth picking up if only for the intricate sunshine pop greatness of “Badfinger Bridge” (recorded at some little joint called Abbey Road), but there are plenty of other sonic baubles to be uncovered on NLT. “Jeez Louise” is a super-catchy, sorta Jellyfish-like gem; the title track’s chorus strangely recalls Crosby, Stills and Nash; the jaunty “On the Ledge” has a country-ish lilt to it, and explodes into a nearly punky bridge; and “Eyeshine” recalls a slightly rougher-hewn McCartney. (It’s sort of a sonic cross between “Junk” and “I Will.”) Many of the songs are sublimely orchestrated, giving Ashley’s songs an added air of sophistication. Very nice. Grade: A-

RNRRicky Nelson Remembered (featuring Matthew and Gunnar Nelson)

If the idea of the late Rick Nelson’s twin sons Gunnar and Matthew (late of the hit making ‘90s duo Nelson) revisiting his hit-filled catalog makes you cringe, listening to this disc will no doubt change your mind. First off, these guys could always sing and they still can. Secondly, they treat their pop’s catalog with reverence and respect, freshening up the classics without desecrating them. Thirdly, they enlisted James Burton and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter to play guitar, which ups the musical ante quite a bit. The youngest Nelson offspring, Sam, also makes an appearance, singing lead on a quite serviceable acoustic take of “Garden Party.” This is a fun listen from start to finish. Grade: B+

Richard X. Heyman – X

Like stomping garage rock? Richard X. Heyman can do that. Got a hankering for a lovely, piano-based pop ditty? No problem; RXH is your man. Dig that rich, warm Rickenbacker guitar sound? Heyman’s all over it. NYC’s musical jack-of-all-trades is back with another 15 tracks of what he does best, with inviting melodies and double-tracked vocals all over the place. Although it probably won’t garner him many new listeners, longtime RXH fans will not be disappointed. Grade: B

delVarious Artists – The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter (Volume 1)

A near-perfect tribute to the legendary Del Shannon, with 16 acts covering songs from all phases of the late singer/songwriter’s career, from the hits (“Runaway” and “Hats Off to Larry”) to the relatively obscure. Among said obscurities are the heartbreaking, downcast relationship studies “You Still Live Here” and “Distant Ghost,” ironically covered here in fine fashion by husband and wife Marti Jones and Don Dixon, respectively. The Rubinoos (and Jon Rubin’s crystal pure vocals) are the ideal choice for “Hats Off to Larry,” while Carla Olson and Peter Case contribute a spirited, faithful “Keep Searchin’” and the Drysdales (whose leader Patrick Potts was one of the guiding lights behind the tribute) perform a straight reading of “I Go to Pieces” with former Raspberries’ bassist Scott McCarl guesting. (The tribute features another former Raspberries bassist, as Dave Smalley offers up the satisfying, country-inflected ballad “Restless.”) Elsewhere, the Britannicas’ smooth “I Got You” inserts some mid-period Byrdsy guitar jangle to the proceedings, while slyly incorporating the opening of Split Enz’s song of the same name (I heard what you did there); Kelley Ryan’s “Drop Down and Get Me” is sweetly sassy (and features Shannon’s daughters Kym and Jody on backing vox) ; Ireland’s Staystillpills provide a smashing rendition of Shannon’s 1965 garage punk raver “Move it On Over’; and Marshall Crenshaw’s “The House Where Nobody Lives” is low-key and lovely. Ironically, the two least successful tracks are by two of the higher profile names: Randy Bachman and Frank Black. Bachman’s “Runaway” (recorded with son Tal) is a noble experiment that injects a samba-like groove and takes away the song’s signature falsetto and keyboard solo, while the main issue with Black’s “Sister Isabelle” is that the guy simply can’t sing. Regardless, this is a loving, top-shelf tribute that also includes a brief essay on Del Shannon’s career, full musician credits, quotes from the contributors on what Shannon’s music meant to them, and artist bios. Grade: A

The Real Impossibles – It’s About Time: 1983 – 1988

It’s About Time is a collection of singles, EP tracks, demos and unreleased stuff from a Los Angeles-based combo who were power pop after it was cool to do so (aka after the fall of The Knack). Led by singer/songwriter Marc Platt, the Real Impossibles had a palpable Plimsouls-like air about them, made even more pronounced by the fact that Peter Case was a fan of the band and produced a handful of the compilation’s tracks. Steve Kobashigawa also wrote some and sang some, and proved his mettle with tracks such as the snappy “All Over the World.” The Real Impossibles never scored that elusive major label deal, but as this collection proves, it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of quality tunes. Kudos to Zero Hour Records in Australia for unearthing these tracks. Grade: B

split squad - now hear thisThe Split Squad – Now Hear This…

Imagine the early Who and the Small Faces all hopped up on glam rock and loud(er) guitars and magically transported to 2014 to rock your face off, and you’ll be in the ballpark as far as the vibe of the Split Squad. Now Hear This is their debut record and it’s nothing short of fantastic, but that’s to be expected from a band with this sort of pedigree: vocalist/songwriter/ringleader Mike Giblin is one of the founding fathers of ‘90s indie power pop darlings Cherry Twister and currently heads up Parallax Project; lead guitarist Eddie Munoz formerly plied his trade in the Plimsouls; guitarist Keith Streng comes to the band from garage rockers the Fleshtones; and Clem Burke, Blondie’s drummer extraordinaire, hold down the beat (and more) with style and panache. From the opening call to arms of “Now Hear This” to the powerful stomp of “She is Everything” and from the cool blast of power pop on “Feel the Same About You” to the fuzz rockin’ slam-bang of “Hey Hey Baby,” these guys sound as if they’ve been playing together for years. Scott McCaughey’s live-sounding production helps pull it all together, as does the fact that the band (which also includes talented keyboardist Josh Kantor) also sounds like they’re having an absolute ball laying it all down. The first great record of 2014, folks. Grade: A

 

 

 

 

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