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Good, bad or ugly? Get the scoop with these album reviews

Here are reviews of albums doing serious time on the CD player lately — yes, I'm old school — including Bobbleheads, Marshall Holland, Dwight Twilley, Pugwash, Marti Jones, Rob Bonfiglio, Shaen Faubert, Robert Crenshaw, Gail George, Dave Caruso, The New Trocaderos, The Connection, Edward O'Connell, The Hangabouts, Joe Sullivan, Jamie Hoover, The Jigsaw Seen, The Solicitors, Kylie Hughes, Aerial, Secret Powers and Dana Countryman.

By John M. Borack

Here are reviews of some of the new(ish) releases that have been spending time on the CD player lately. (Yes, I'm old school.)

Four years after the first volume of poppy holiday delights from artists associated with the Kool Kat Records roster, here comes volume two right down Santa Claus lane, and it’s a honey indeed. A Kool Kat Kristmasfeatures a baker’s dozen outstanding pop cuts, from names that should be familiar to those into the indie power pop scene: the Split Squad, Stephen Lawrenson, the semi-legendary Martin Newell, and Wyatt Funderburk all occupy spots on the roster.


The Pencils’ “Christmas is Coming Again” leads things off, and may just be the best thing here: it’s a should-be holiday anthem, with one of those it-may-never-leave-my-head choruses, some appropriately Spector-ized production flourishes and - of course – plenty of sleigh bells. The Honeymoon Stallions’ “Snowbirds” is a breezy, super-catchy ditty about the elderly high tailing it down to Florida for the season, and proves that Andy Goldberg (late of the Goldbergs and the Sun Kings) is an underrated pop master. The Split Squad’s “Another Lonely Christmas” marries downcast lyrics to a soaring melody and is another top-drawer number from the pen of Michael Giblin (check out the band’s 2013 debut if you haven’t done so already). Shake Some Action’s power poppy “Christmas in the Sun” recalls (musically, anyway) the Rubinoos’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” while The Genuine Fakes contribute a sweetly sung and powerful ballad in “You Always Come Back Home.”

Nothing here is less than fine, and other high water marks are Wyatt Funderburk’s beautifully fragile “Cold” (Brian Wilson circa 1967 would be proud), Stephen Lawrenson’s cinematic “Glad it’s Christmas” and the Tor Guides’ pop geek fest (not a bad thing, mind you), “Beatles Vinyl.” A must-have collection that’ll provide pure pop thrills all the year through.
Grade: A

Kool Kat is certainly on quite a roll, as this 12-track stunner from the label is sure to end up occupying a significant spot on my “Best of 2014” list. Aerial is a Scottish pop band who has released Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak in School?, their sophomore long-player, 13 years (!) after their debut. There are some aural nods to their fellow Scottish pop brethren Teenage Fanclub, but there are also dollops of Beach Boys, Greenberry Woods (on the absolutely glorious “Go With You”) and Silversun. Thick guitars, splendid harmonies, generally speedy tempos and melodies that refuse to let go are the order of the day here. Not sure why the indie pop community isn’t falling all over themselves heaping praise on this record, but it’s damned near perfect.
Grade: A


DIY pop mensch Dana Countryman explains in the disc’s liner notes that he enjoys “writing songs in the classic American style” and name checks influences such as Eric Carmen, Gilbert O’Sullivan, David Gates, Jimmy Webb, Richard Carpenter, Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson. Pop 2! proudly puts Countryman’s influences on display, and ends up sounding like a vintage jukebox packed with coulda-been-hits from the ‘50s to the early ‘70s. Of course it’s retro as all get out, but that doesn’t stop the bulk of it from being highly enjoyable. (I’m partial to the AOR/power pop pastiche “Jealous Heart” and the sticky sweet “And Suddenly Love Just Happened” and “Just Look in My Eyes.”) Probably the only misstep Countryman makes is titling one of his tunes, “Mama Said I’m Not Supposed to Rock and Roll.”
Grade: B


The Bobbleheads are a talented trio from Northern California fronted by singer/songwriter John Ashfield, and Make YourselfHappyfeatures 11 tasty slabs of no-frills, guitar-dominated power pop that harken back to the sounds of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s without sounding like the band is on some sort of a nostalgia trip. “Turn the Radio On (The Perfect Song)” very nearly is, “Bedazzler Redux” rocks like a mother and features banks of “la-la-la’s,” “Superhero Pose” is somewhat reminiscent of the Bongos, and “Prove Yourself” has one of those descending guitar lines that gets me every time. Very cool stuff.
Grade: A-


Holland dips his foot into both the power pop-lite and soft pop ends of the pool with quite fetching results on his third record, where he comes off sounding like a one-man-band combination of the Left Banke and Emitt Rhodes, with a smidgen of ‘80s UK twee pop acts like the Lilac Time thrown in. The whole deal is really pretty, and tracks such as “Take Me,” “Elise At Least” and “Oh Please” are sure to…well, please.
Grade: A-


Along with other Michigan-based acts such as Chris Richards and the Subtractions and the Legal Matters, the Hangabouts are all about bringing the catchy, pretty-sounding pop to the people. The Illustrated Birdis swimming in gentle vocals, bunches of soothing melodies and a mellow vibe that never feels boring or repetitive. John Lowry and Gregory Addington are the guys in charge, and they infuse all 13 tracks with a consistently pleasant pop sensibility that sounds simultaneously fresh and familiar. Even when they’re singing “She Hates You” (one of the best things on the 13-track disc), they still sound sweet as pie. Other faves: the swinging “Forest For the Trees,” the Squeeze-like character study “Roman Forum,” the “Blackbird”-esque title track and the ever-so-slightly psych tinged “Love Nothing,” which recalls the Lightning Seeds.
Grade: A


Longtime Los Angeles-area psych-pop stalwarts are back with a new one, and it’s chock full of good songs, clever lyrical twists and a solid sonic backbone led by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dennis Davison and guitarist Jonathan Lea. It’s more consistent than their last few efforts, and songs such as the balls-out rocker “We Women,” the phase-fest “Madame Whirligig” and the non-autobiographical “Idiots With Guitars” provide instant pleasure, while “Die Laughing” sounds curiously like Bruce Springsteen circa 1980.
Grade: B+


For those who are a bit late to the Pugwash party, the fine folks at Omnivore Recordings have compiled this stellar 17-song collection. It cherry picks tracks from the Irish pop band’s five full-length records released between 1999 and 2011, and adds one B-side. It’s uniformly wonderful, with Pugwash honcho Thomas Walsh leading the band through a slew of primo popsongs with echoes of Electric Light Orchestra (see “Finer Things in Life”), the Beach Boys (“Answers on a Postcard”) and XTC (Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory both make appearances here, and Partridge co-wrote the splendid, jaunty “At the Sea” with Walsh). Many of the tunes are supported by lovely, sublime orchestration (“Fall Down” being one) and Walsh’s way with a melody is unerring as he pays tribute to his musical heroes without aping them. It’s a daunting task to single out individual achievements on such a special collection, but “Here” is a gorgeous slow one, “Take Me Away” is one of those perfect pop tunes that seems a gift from the heavens, and the band’s signature number, “It’s Nice to Be Nice,” is always a welcome listen.
Grade: A


Perky, hooky girl pop from Ms. Hughes, who delivers six sparkling, radio-friendly tunes on her six-song EP. Co-produced by Hughes, the estimable Earle Mankey, and John Ferriter and John Finseth from SoCal popsters the Tearaways, the standout track is the surf-inspired title cut that sounds like a distant cousin to the Euclid Beach Band’s 1978 gem “There’s No Surf in Cleveland.” (How’s that for an obscure reference?) Like the other five numbers, it’s propelled by Hughes’ honeyed vocals and spunky, confident delivery. “Short Skirts” sounds like it could be a Taylor Swift hit (that’s a compliment); “Maliblues” is a pretty, downcast ballad; “Dream Dream Dream” is a swell little ditty that combines a ‘50s and ‘60s vibe; and “Leave ‘Em Wanting More” certainly does.
Grade: A-


The Solicitors are an Australian power pop combo (including UK and US expatriots) that has obviously spent some time listening to their old Paul Collins Beat and Plimsouls records. Blank Checkis unashamedly influenced by and imbued with the spirit of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s power pop sounds that emanated from the US and the UK (a few of these tunes sound quite a bit like The Jags). All 10 tracks are very good exemplars of the genre and while this breaks no new ground, it’s sure to make power pop fans break into a smile.
Grade: B+


As a member of the fabulous Spongetones, Jamie Hoover has had a hand in creating some timeless pop music over the past 30+ years. With the ‘Tones no longer an ongoing concern, Hoover has mainly kept himself occupied by recording and releasing music in collaboration with Spongetones bassist Steve Stoeckel, but he steps out on his own with this fun little odds ‘n’ sods collection, which is a follow up of sorts to 2004’s Jamie Hoo-Ever. Among the disc’s 15 tracks are some cool a cappella tracks - using his voice to simulate instruments - that Hoover recorded after a surgery left him unable to play guitar. (These include a stab at the Beatles’ “Misery” and the nifty original “Press Save.”) Hoover also covers Stealer’s Wheel, Bob Lind, the Left Banke and Don Dixon, whose “Righteous Side of Love” gets a slam-bangin’ treatment and is the best thing here. The voice-and-drums-only “Honest Work” (co-written with fellow Spongetone Pat Walters) is another choice cut, as are the jazzy, gender-bending “The Jim Joanne Massacre” and the ace, doo-wop-styled “You Took the Birds.”
Grade: B


JOE SULLIVAN – SCHLOCK STAR (Reed Recording Company)
There must be something in the water in Michigan, because there sure have been a ton of fine pop records emanating from the Wolverine State - yes, I looked that up - over the past few years. (See the Hangabouts review above.) Joe Sullivan’s Schlock Staris another in the long line, and it’s ably produced by fellow MI popster Andy Reed. Nothing flashy or wild here: just 10 simple, unprepossessing, guitar-fed tunes with maximum melodic goodness. A few of the tunes are a mite cutesy, but since one of ‘em’s about Sullivan’s young son, all is forgiven there. Schlock Starwould have wowed the power pop crowd in 1978, and it sounds pretty darned solid in 2014.
Grade: B+


MARTI JONES – YOU’RE NOT THE BOSSA ME (Dixon Archival Remnants)
It’s a shame that this jewel of a record seems to have flown under the radar. As the title suggests, it’s Marti Jones singing bossa-nova-tinged tunes, with audible nods to masters of the genre such as Sergio Mendes. The melodies are warm and inviting, the instrumentation is impeccable (That flugelhorn! To die for!) and of course Jones’ voice is as gorgeous and sultry as ever. It’s hard to believe that she hasn’t released a record in nearly a decade, but the mainly mellow You’re Not the Bossa Mewas definitely worth the wait. Songwriting, instrumental and vocal assistance from Don Dixon and Kelley Ryan (who also co-produced) is the cherry on top. Beautiful.
Grade: A-


Big faves on Little Steven’s Underground Garage, the Connection join the holiday-themed album fray with a super-strong nine-song EP comprised of (mainly) originals that rock, roll, shake, pop and never resort to gimmickry. (Well, okay, maybe one of the hidden tracks does.) In short, these are really good songs that just happen to include lyrics about Christmas. Inspirational verse: “I got enough socks, I got enough sweaters/this year I want some rock and roll records.” Amen.
Grade: A-


The New Trocs are sort of a mini-supergroup that includes Brad Marino and Geoff Palmer from the Connection and the always reliable power popper Kurt Baker. Kick Your Assis certainly an apt title for this three-song teaser; imagine a louder version of mid-‘70s Dave Edmunds all hopped up on stimulants, and you’ll be in the ballpark. Baker sings lead on “Real Gone Kitty,” a classic-sounding rump-shakin’ rocker; “Dream Girl” sounds like the Hollies hanging with the Beach Boys in Phil Spector’s garage with the amps cranked to 11; and “Brain Gone Dead” is 1:30 of Ramonsey perfection. These guys also released a CD single last year which is sublime as well. More, please!
Grade: A


Michigan again (this time Detroit), and another slice of pure pop bliss. Dave Caruso is a primo purveyor of elegantly crafted sunshine pop, and this is the sort of stuff that would have been AM radio gold in the ‘70s. Caruso's musical heroes are Elvis Costello, Neil Finn, Elton John, Del Amitri, Ben Folds, The Beach Boys and The Beatles, and he assimilates these influences and turns out a record that’s fresh and ultra-listenable from start to finish. (To these ears, he’s vocally reminiscent of Kyle Vincent.) Cardboard Vegas Roundaboutis highlighted by a batch of pitch-perfect vocal arrangements and songs with flowing melodies and neat little lyrical asides (he rhymes “Erica” with “esoterica,” which is pretty genius). It also rocks out from time to time, especially on the punchy “Sticks Keys + Wires,” and the Del Amitri influence shows on the ringing “Your Fake Friends.” CVR also includes an 11-track bonus CD with alternate versions and demos.
Grade: B+


NYC songstress Gail George collaborates with musician Early Times on this fab nine-song disc. The Barrio Sessionswas recorded at Mr. Times’ studio in Spanish Harlem, and Gail says the unique, active surroundings helped inform some of the songs’ arrangements. The bitter kiss off “Mythomaniac” (“You know it’s not that special when the words are make believe”) begins with some of the street sounds of Spanish Harlem, while the low-key, charming “Nobody’s Friend” features some softly strummed, Latin-flavored guitar and sweet-sounding horns.


Other pearls on The Barrio Sessionsinclude “Walk Away,” which begins as a softly sung number and climaxes as something close to a primal confessional. As Ms. George nearly cries out, “Stepping through the wreckage, all I felt was pain…never felt safe, never felt sane,” the listener is drawn in and feels some of the same pain that she experienced, which is the mark of an excellent songwriter: taking something personal and making it universal. Elsewhere, “Thank You” is a delicate musical love letter to the Beatles (written after George Harrison passed away), and glides along quite beautifully on heartfelt, torchy vocals and Early Times’ appropriately understated acoustic guitar. The disc-closing “Little Pink Notes” finds Gail and Early, in Gail’s words, “channeling Harold Melvin, as we did our best to pay homage to the great soul records of the 70s.” They succeed in spades, with Early’s tasteful guitar bits and Gail’s gorgeous, soulful (of course) lead and backing vocals combining to make the tune a special treat.
Grade: A-

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room right from the get-go: Edward O’Connell does not look like a rock and roll guy. He looks like a kindly grandpa. Or an accountant. Or something else. But hey, looks can be deceiving, right? “Sure can,” he said, answering his own question. On Vanishing Act, O’Connell surrounds himself with a cadre of talented musicians (including Parthenon Huxley) and pulls together a collection of polished, smooth-sounding songs that sound not unlike a kinder, gentler Elvis Costello fronting Rockpile in 1981. Often times the vocal similarity to EC is quite uncanny, especially on the more upbeat tunes, which are the easy favorites here: “My Dumb Luck,” “Every Precious Day” and “The End of the Line.”
Grade: B-


Robert Crenshaw certainly has some talented friends and family, and many of them are present and accounted for on this 10-song disc: brother Marshall, Jamie Hoover, Don Dixon, bassist Graham Maby, Bill Lloyd, Don Dixon and others. A whole gaggle of Crenshaws (Robert, Marshall, John and Dean) appear on an appropriately high and lonesome take of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” while Robert’s reading of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” is well-sung and worthy of repeated spins. As far as the originals, “Turn to Booze” is pretty freaking hilarious, as its gentle opening featuring a softly picked guitar and a tinkling piano blossoms into a full-blown gospel workout; “You’re So Hip to Me” (co-written with Lloyd) is a hooky, mid-tempo, country-rock tune; “The Night the Detroit Lions Won the Super Bowl” (“No sane person would have taken the bet/Barry Sanders and Matt Millen danced a minuet”) transcends its jokey title and is a sweet little tune with some subtle orchestration; and the peppy “Down Here in Heaven” was inspired by Crenshaw’s late father and sounds like something the Lovin’ Spoonful could have tackled. A solid effort from an artist who really should record more often.
Grade: B+


“How long you gonna make me feel like I’m on fire?” Dwight Twilley asks on “Always,” name-checking his biggest hit on the leadoff track/title cut of his latest long-player. No new ground is broken here, but the dozen tracks all feel familiar and comfortable, with Twilley mining his signature mid-tempo sound while being assisted by a number of guest stars: Steve Allen and Ron Flynt (20/20), Susan Cowsill, Mitch Easter, Tommy Keene, bass man supreme Leland Sklar and the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow. “Everyday” is classic Twilley, “A Million Miles Wide” and “’Til the Jukebox Dies” are uncharacteristically bluesy, “I See it in Your Eyes” is quite charming, “Fools Like Me” recalls Twilley’s own “Falling in Love Again” and “I’m Losing You,” and “Tomorrow” is graced with one of the most powerful lead vocals Twilley’s laid down in quite some time.
Grade: B+


It’s been far too long since we’ve heard new music from Shane Faubert – has it really been almost 18 years? - but Line in the Sandfinds the former Cheepskates lead singer continuing the delicate, one-man-band neo-chamber pop sound that made his three previous solo efforts so worthwhile. Faubert’s hushed, expressive voice remains a revelation, and tunes such as “The Someday Song” and “Endless Love” are at once gorgeous and heartbreaking. Welcome back, Shane.
Grade: B+


ROB BONFIGLIO – FREEWAY (No label listed)
Rob Bonfiglio’s music keeps getting better and better with each successive release, and Freeway is without a doubt his finest solo effort to date. Bonfiglio’s vocals are more assured than ever before here, and he’s penned an excellent batch of songs that touch on country, rock, pop and a little bit of soul. “Almost Blue” comes off like a long-lost Eagles track circa 1974, “Under the Gun” recalls a less quirky Ben Folds, and “Lonely World” is a glorious pop-rock tune that mines a sound similar to Andrew Gold’s 1970s-era hits. Bonfiglio did it all himself on Freeway, too, although the polished results belie that fact.
Grade: A-


SECRET POWERS – 6 (Self-released)
As the title infers, this is the sixth release from these Missoula, MT popsters, who continue to successfully mine a sound that includes shades of Jellyfish and Jason Falkner, with a little Ramones thrown in this time around (on “Reservoir”). It’s a tad skimpy at only nine tracks, but all of ‘em are pretty danged spiffy: the lyrically odd/hyper-catchy “The Way the Story Goes,” the string-laden, slide guitar-juiced “Ready to Get Old and Die,” the boppy “Spare Parts” (probably the catchiest thing on the record) and the nicely constructed “She’s Electrical” are just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the lead vocals have a bit of grit to ‘em in spots, and the band benefits from having three talented songwriters.
Grade: B+


Coming soon: my top 20 releases of 2014. GM