There is so much good music to catch up on in 2017 - new releases, reissues, discs from earlier in the year, a few 45s, even a couple of books - that I've recently found myself unable to stop writing about it. That is why, dear reader, I'm about to embark on a week-long journalistic journey and publish 35 reviews in 7 days. Strap yourselves in...
RUBY FREE - Shades
Rick Hromadka has been a player in the Los Angeles-area pop scene for years in a variety of iterations: as part of the straight up power pop combo Double Naught Spies, heading up the psych-pop outfit Maple Mars, taking a solo detour on 2014’s Trippin’ Dinosaurs, and with his wife/vocalist Lisa Cavaliere as part of Ruby Free. Shades is RF’s second full-length record, and the dozen songs here (most penned by Hromadka) consistently hit the mark with unerring accuracy. Sonic comparisons to ‘70s pop-rock acts such as Wings aren’t far off the mark, with the vocal harmonies and all-star ensemble playing – courtesy of Hromadka, bassist Rick Gallego (Cloud Eleven), drummer Jim Laspesa, and guitarist/backing vocalist Joe Giddings (Star Collector) – sounding simultaneously tight and laid back.
Favorites include the super-Beatley “Take a Ride,” the bright ‘n’ poppy “Walking Along” (powered by Laspesa’s galloping drumbeat), the easygoing sway of “Say Goodnight” and the soulful ballad “Billboards and Buses,” sung by Cavaliere. The Todd Rundgren-like “Talk to Me” and the angry-sounding glam-stomper “Why Won’t You Sleep in Our Bed” more than hint of trouble in paradise (“What has become of this wedded bliss?” Hromadka wonders on the former), while the thoughtful disc-closer “Time Without Numbers” is quite lovely, peppered by Gallego’s pedal steel washes. And major kudos for the cover of the Carpenters’ “Superstar” – even though Cavaliere’s lead vocal can’t quite measure up to Karen Carpenter’s (let’s be honest, no one could), it’s a very nice, faithful version and it took major stones for Ruby Free to even make the attempt. Shades is a wonderful record that’s certain to end up as part of my year-end top ten. Grade: A
FLAMIN’ GROOVIES – Fantastic Plastic
Yes, they’re back with a brand new platter of power poppin’ and rockin’ goodies and honestly, this is a hell of a lot better than it has any right to be. A dozen tunes, ten written by the formidable songwriting team of Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson, and pretty much everything here is melodically stimulating. Jordan and Wilson’s lead vocals sometimes display the slight ravages of age, but when the songs themselves are as fine as the melancholy “Lonely Hearts,” the kickin’ “Just Like a Hurricane” or the overtly Byrdsy “Cryin’ Shame,” it doesn’t matter all that much, really.
Covers of the Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and (especially) NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad” are aces, and part of the fun here is playing the “Hey, that sounds a bit like…” game: the main guitar riff on “What the Hell’s Going On” is reminiscent of John Cougar’s “Hurt So Good,” “End of the World” reminded me of some riff-jumble of “Shake Some Action,” “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” “Starry Eyes” and “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” and the aforementioned “Just Like a Hurricane” sports an opening guitar figure that sounds for all the world like Canned Heat. But it’s all good, and it’s certainly heartening to see these guys are still shakin’ some action in 2017. Grade: A-
CORIN ASHLEY – Broken Biscuits
A f*cking tour-de-force, this is. Corin Ashley has always been one of those “do it all” pop guys, equally at home when rocking out or fashioning a more ornate piece of work such as his tune “Badfinger Bridge” (on my short list of the finest pop tunes of the past decade). On Broken Biscuits he does both with equal aplomb, but there’s a rather amazing backstory to the record: midway through the recording, Ashley suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with a paralyzed vocal cord and unable to move the fingers on his left hand. After more than nine months of intensive physical, speech and vocal therapy, he re-learned to play guitar and sing, and then finished the record.
Bits and pieces of the record refer to Ashley’s ordeal: the lyrically harrowing “Broken Biscuit #9” packs more emotion into less than two minutes than some artists manage over the course of an entire record. When Ashley sings lines such as, “That’s me…broken into jagged bits/puzzle pieces all piled in the wreckage” and “That’s me down there/damaged goods on the showroom floor/struggling to re-create what was easy before,” the listener is drawn into Ashley’s spiral of pain and confusion. Powerful stuff, indeed, as is “Broken Biscuit #6,” a brief, distorted guitar-dominated interlude.
Other tunes have more of a lighthearted touch: the delightfully jaunty “Edison’s Medicine” sounds like it could have leaped straight off Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, “Magpie Over Citadel” is a gorgeous little pop number, and a duet with Tanya Donelly titled “Wind Up Boy” is sweet and catchy as hell. Elsewhere, “In Appropriate Fashion” is a muscular rocker, while the wonderful “King Hollow” sounds like a White Album-era McCartney number. Speaking of McCartney, the kickass leadoff track, “Little Crumbles,” is a white-hot raver that recalls mid-‘70s Macca at his rockin’ best (think “Rock Show” with a little extra juice), and Ashley sings the living hell out of it.
As the record winds to a close with the sprawling, powerful “Jellyfish” (nothing to do with the band; Ashley sings about “quivering like a…”) and a completely non-ironic, string-laden cover of the late ‘40s easy listening tune “Powder Your Face with Sunshine,” it’s quite clear that Broken Biscuits is not only a fantastic achievement of the musical variety, but also a triumph of the human spirit and a testament to one man’s perseverance and will. God bless Corin Ashley; long may he run. Grade: A
FERNANDO PERDOMO – The Golden Hour
Knowing how talented Fernando Perdomo is - multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, producer, bon vivant, owner of cool t-shirts, man about Los Angeles – I fully expected The Golden Hour to be good. I wasn’t exactly prepared, however, for how outstanding an achievement this is. Perdomo is one man band-ing it here as so many others do, but without the homemade, claustrophobic feel often inherent in such musical endeavors. His vocals in particular are a thing of beauty: a rich baritone out front (sometimes bringing to mind Jeff Lynne), accompanied by stacks of golden harmonies: check out the simply gorgeous “Sunset” and the lush, romantic “Look at the Moon” (the backing vocals delightfully channel the Beach Boys both), or the subtly pretty backgrounds on the ultra-romantic “Here With Me.”
Elsewhere, Perdomo does power pop on the striking “The Light” and “Spotlight Smile”; both tunes conjure up the melodic spectre of Big Star/Chris Bell, which makes perfect sense seeing as how a portion of The Golden Hour’s songs were recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis. On the smooth, autobiographical “Fine,” he assures us everything is okay and then lets fly with some stinging guitar on the fade as if to punctuate the point; on the devastating “Love Loss Repeat” he’s not so sure, but manages to make heartbreak sound quite beautiful with an impassioned vocal performance, the “nothing last forever” vocal coda, and some ghostly harmonies. Other must-hears: “When You’re Next to Me” is a sweet, plaintive ode to love that closes with another repeated vocal coda and a flurry of lead guitar; the California-kissed title track; and the hypnotic, atmospheric “Sleep.” The Golden Hour is a powerful, thoughtful personal statement from Fernando Perdomo, and definitely one of 2017’s musical high points thus far. Grade: A
THE RALLIES – Serve
I first made the acquaintance of this Washington state foursome when one of their sponsored Facebook ads kept showing up on my Facebook feed. I succumbed to the pressure of advertising, and I’m glad I did: the Rallies’ 10-song effort is filled with hummable, toe-tapping little tunes with choruses that tend to stick around. They claim their influences to be Crowded House, Tom Petty, The Beatles, The La's and Teenage Fanclub, and while some of the songs tend to go on a touch too long, they’re all pretty enjoyable if one’s tastes run towards the non-crunchy, more acoustic-based side of power pop. And no, they don't cover Cream's "Anyone for Tennis?" Grade: B+