THE TOMS – Life Raft (Songgram)
Tom Marolda is the one-man-band responsible for one of the finest power pop records the genre has produced: 1979’s The Toms. He’s released a handful of other full lengths over the years, and Life Raft may be the best of those. The melodies on tunes such as “Tangerine,” “I Wish I Went to Princeton” and the title track recall the halcyon days of the debut album, albeit with a modern flair to the instrumentation. The rest is solid pop-rock, with the wackily-titled “The Everlasting Stone in My Shoe (Parts 1 & 2)” giving off a very cool late ‘60s pop-psych vibe. The latest from The Toms’ camp is that Marolda will soon be releasing a dozen previously unheard tunes from the late ‘70s sessions that produced The Toms album. Great news, but in the meantime, grab a Life Raft for some current Toms tuneage. Grade: B+
RICHARD TURGEON – Go Deep (Kool Kat)
Richard Turgeon’s third album since 2017 is another winner, with the San Francisco-area resident doing it all (mostly) himself. It’s pretty much your standard guitar-bass-drums instrumentation, but Turgeon’s flair for crafting catchy melodies—and his clear, emotive lead vocals—help make Go Deep stand out from the pack. Think Matthew Sweet circa 100% Fun and you’ll be in the ballpark. Great guitar sounds, too. Grade: B+
ROB LAUFER – The Floating World (Self-released)
It’s been nearly a decade since the talented LA-based multi-instrumentalist Rob Laufer has released a solo effort, but The Floating World proves to be well worth the wait. Outside of a few outside sonic embellishments on some songs, Laufer has crafted these ten thoughtful, sumptuous tunes all by his lonesome, and on songs such as the gorgeous title track, the chugging “Space + Time” (dig the guitars on this one) and the heart rending, all-too-brief “Fence,” the results are quite stirring. Elsewhere, “This River” begins with a guitar riff reminiscent of McCartney’s “Teddy Boy” but takes on a life of its own with its insidious melody, and the disc-closing “Hippie Love” is a singer-songwriter-ish delight. Stellar. Grade: A-
RICHARD X. HEYMAN – Pop Circles(Turn-Up)
Veteran pop-rock savant Richard X. Heyman is back with another solid collection of tunes that rank amongst his finest in many a moon. Containing a more-than-generous 17 tracks (the final five of which he dubs “Richie’s Three-Chord Garage”), Pop Circles is bursting at the seams with highlights: “Action Screams Louder Than Words” is powered by Heyman’s hot drumming, a wicked cool guitar riff and a keyboard solo torn from the Zombies playbook; “Marlena” features jaunty-sounding keys and a typically memorable Heyman chorus; “Everything Must Go” is endearingly pretty and nostalgic; and “As Love Would Have It” is a sweetly melancholic jewel. Really, though, Pop Circles is best taken as a (wonderful) whole rather than in bite sized pieces. Well-produced, well-played (Heyman is a master of many instruments) and overflowing with hooks, this is a release that’s certain to end up on year-end “best of” lists. Grade: A
IN DEED – Everest (Big Stir)
A super cool record from a super cool five-piece who hail from Uppsala, Sweden, In Deed’s Everest finds the talented combo shining brightly in a variety of genres: powerful pop (“Heart Attack,” “Another Start”); sincere balladry that refuses to get mawkish (“Fantastic,” which features a sweet little George Harrison-like slide guitar bit from Richard Ohrn); insistently hooky mid-tempo rock (“Over and Over,” which gains power from Johan Helander’s snaky keyboard figure and finds lead vocalist Linda Karlsberg sounding a touch like Aimee Mann); a near punky rave up (“Song to You”), and shiny, new wavey pop (“Flavour of the Month”). For my money, though, the absolute tops of the pops are “Don’t Need, Don’t Care,” which is nothing less than a perfect power pop song (big ups to drummer Marcus Segersvard for his Keith Moon-inspired fills here); the luverly “Five Times a Day,” whose gentle backing vocals are quite swoon-worthy (more superb drumming on this one, with some melodic bass runs from Jens Siilakka); and the absolute pinnacle, the beautifully chiming “According to You,” where lead Karlsberg croons quite magically over some Byrdsy guitar. Very nice. Grade: A
THE LAST BEES – The Last Bees (Seventh Science)
Merseybeat is a tricky business: in the wrong hands it can come off like cheap parody, but done correctly, it captures the magic and spirit of ’64. Ian Ash, the dude behind The Last Bees, definitely knows how to do that thing he does: he imbues the half-dozen songs on this sprightly little EP with all the proper ingredients that insure a Merseybeatin’ good time. His voice is sugary-sweet, the songs hit the mark and stick, and the instrumentation, while a bit on the lighter side, is always appropriate. Every song mixes these ingredients together to great effect: “Crusade” adds some harmonica to the mix that helps carry the melody, “Way Too Deep” begins with a Beatlesque (think “Tell Me Why”) percussive kick, and the winning “Saturday” is innocence personified. Jim Peterik (Ides of March, Survivor) co-wrote one of the tunes, but it’s clearly Ian Ash’s show – and a good one, indeed. Grade: A-
CHRIS VON SNEIDERN – Emerge (Mastromonia)
Has it really been nearly 15 years since we’ve been gifted with a new Chris von Sneidern record? Yup; 2005’s California Redemption Value was the last all-new CvS release. Since then there’s been the 2010 documentary film that posed the (very good) question, Why Isn’t Chris von SneidernFamous? and more recently, CvS has busied himself touring with the semi-legendary Flamin’ Groovies.
But now the long wait is over and CvS returns with Emerge, a 15-track disc that often strays quite far from the Badfinger-esque pop for which CvS is best known. Of course, he’s strayed before: London Payne and 2-cute 2-be 4-gotten are two selections from the CvS discography that found him throwing off the often-oppressive yoke of power pop. This time out, he’s fashioned a fascinating collection of tunes that includes a bluesy shuffle (“Fight”), two brief-yet-gorgeous instrumentals, a folky workout (“Why Didn’t You Save Me?”), classic-sounding CvS pop (“Feline”), some straightforward rock (the irresistible, mysteriously-titled “Hey Ron,” a musical love letter to rock and roll) and a gorgeous ballad (“Ravens”).
The stylistic shifts all work quite well, but it’s the lyrics that ultimately help make Emerge a challenging and deeply personal—yet rewarding—effort. In the title track, for example, CvS confesses to “…feeling drowned, oppressed, confused and bound,” but ultimately decides to “find a new way out and then emerge.” Like some of the other tunes here (the hypnotic “Leaving Here,” “It’s Gonna Be Alright”), the theme is rising above pain and darkness and discovering a new beginning.
A few of the songs on Emerge feature sets of lyrics so dark that one hopes they are fictional: on “Fight,” for example, von Sneidern intimately—and graphically—paints a portrait of a dysfunctional family. Lyrics such as “Dad has the hatchet, mom’s in the bed/Big Jim’s gonna get it in the arm or the head” and “Nothing makes sense, my brother’s upset/Your father in handcuffs, you’ll never forget” are certainly unsettling. On “Why Didn’t You Save Me?” a lilting melody belies tear-stained ruminations such as “Why couldn’t you touch me, a simple act to love me” and “A little boy who needs his dad, something you never had” that seem to be autobiographical. A bit of hope and a lyrical respite is provided in the grand-sounding aural pep talk, “Grow Up and Start Having Fun,” but the disc closer is the nearly eleven-minute “Animal,” a mesmerizing, slightly disturbing character study that may or may not be about one of the prior tunes’ protagonists.
So while Emerge may not be what CvS’s audience has come to expect from the talented tunesmith, it’s a wonderfully evocative record well worth investigating. Grade: A
THE LUNAR LAUGH – Goodnight Noises Everywhere (Kool Kat)
The third full-length release from this Oklahoma-based quartet is definitely their best yet: it brims with sweet, relaxed vocals, memorable tunes, and arrangements that ebb and flow with grace and precision. The power pop sureshots include the lovely, harmony-filled “By the Light of the Living Room” and the Rundgren-esque “Welcome to the World,” but the more measured, slower-paced numbers hit the spot as well: “You Remember Me,” “Where We Belong” and the acoustic-based “Lightning in Bottles” are all wonderful examples of the band’s top-tier songcraft. Grade: A-
THE ARMOIRES – Zibaldone(Big Stir)
Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko are not only two-fifths of the Armoires, but they’re also the brains and brawn behind the Big Stir Empire, which includes a record label, a magazine, and regularly scheduled live showcases in California and the UK. In addition to all they do to help keep the indie pop scene thriving, they’ve recently released their sophomore album—hot on the heels of dropping an excellent seven-song EP. Damn. Busy much?
Said sophomore album—the mysteriously titled Zibaldone, which is not an Italian dessert although it sounds like it could be—finds the Armoires making huge strides from their debut. The secret very well may be in the production, which is handled by Plasticsoul’s Steven Wilson (along with the Armoires). This time around, Larysa Bulbenko’s charming viola is more integrated into the full band sound, which also includes Broome’s sometimes chiming, sometimes biting guitars, Christina Bulbenko’s keyboard flourishes, Clifford Ulrich’s nifty bass runs and Derek Hanna’s inventive drumming. Of course, the sound means little if you don’t bring the tunes, and Broome and C. Bulbenko do just that on Zibaldone: from the Motown-like stomper “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me” and the raucous “Pushing Forty” (“Hope I live before I get old,” testifies Broome) to more delicate numbers such as “McCadden” (love the keyboard/viola interplay here and the Beach Boysy vocalizing on the bridge, courtesy of guest Michael Simmons) and the psych-inflected “Alesandra 619,” the 11 songs here are always melodically stimulating and often lyrically obtuse.
Two more high points are the lovely, overtly Robyn Hitchcock-influenced “When We Were in England (And You Were Dead),” which namechecks spleens, coyotes, paraffin and Bonnie Raitt and features lovely vocal harmonizing from Broome and C. Bulbenko; and the melancholy “Satellite Business,” whose gorgeous, low-key melody is gently prodded by L. Bulbenko’s equally gorgeous viola and another dual lead vocal. Zibaldone is a honey of a record from a band that sounds unlike anyone else out there—and good on ‘em, say I. Grade: A
MIKE DALY & THE PLANETS – All it Takes is One(Pop Goes the World)
Heavy on the crunchy guitar with songs that run the gamut between earnest (“Find the Pleasure”) and humorous (“Slack” just might be the funniest damned tune I’ve heard this year), Mr. Daly and his Planets do the (pop) rock with a workingman’s precision and a bucket of tunefulness. It’s nothing that’s going to set the world on fire, but then again, it’s not meant to. Bet they wow ‘em in the clubs on the East Coast. Grade: B-
SCOTT GAGNER – Hummingbird Heart (Self-released)
This one might be the most flat-out beautiful record I’ve heard this year. Most of Scott Gagner’s songs may be decidedly low-key but given half a chance, they will immediately bowl you over with their understated grace. Assisted by the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow (who contributes background vocals on eight of the songs, mixed eight of ‘em and plays some), Gagner’s tunes are lyrically evocative and involving, whether he’s writing about the joys of fatherhood (“Bella,” “Hummingbird Heart”), the game of love (“Break a Broken Heart”), or the vagaries of life (the devastating, downcast “When I Had the Chance,” and the knowing “Other People”). And damn, are his lead vocals ever passionate: the hopeful, disc-closing “Put a Little Beauty” is marked by one of the finest vocal performances I’ve heard in some time. Hummingbird Heart is Scott Gagner’s fourth album, but it’s the first time I’ve had the pleasure of making his musical acquaintance. Now I’m wondering what took me so long. Grade: A
sparkle*jets u.k. – “The Ballad of El Goodo” b/w “You and Your Sister” (Big Stir)
When a Southern California pop band travels to Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN to record a few tunes, the odds are pretty good that they’d record a Big Star song as well as a Chris Bell number, right? Right. But those wacky sparkle*jets pulled off quite a coup by enlisting none other than Big Star drummer Jody Stephens to man the drums on the A-side, while sjuk’s Mike Simmons sings the bejeezus out of Bell’s emotionally charged “You and Your Sister” on the flip. The 45 is pressed on blue vinyl and comes housed in a deluxe, glossy picture sleeve. Grade: A
MAMA – Eye in the Sky EP (Got Kinda Lost)
Not to be confused with the Alan Parsons Project’s song of the same name—namely because it’s about as far from the pristine Parsons sound as you can get—Mama’s Eye in the Sky EP is a gritty, four-song vinyl blast from a Chicago-based band that incorporates some glam, ‘70s power pop and a bit of metal into their sound, and wears a loose, underproduced, bloozy ‘70s vibe like a badge of honor. “Girls Next Door” is what Raspberries might have sounded like with a tougher lead singer and a few bottles of Jack, while the title track’s slightly unhinged ending is the stuff of which rock dreams are made. Grade: B+