The Smithereens, Diana Panton & Crossword Smiles

The Smithereens

The Lost Album (Tollie)

https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Album-Smithereens/dp/

I refuse to let The SmithereensLost Album to be a bittersweet realization. As a diehard fan of these Jersey boys, I claim it as nothing short of a miracle. It’s a gift that 99% of Smithereens’ fans thought was an impossibility, a new album with original frontman Pat DiNizio’s distinctive baritone, front and center.

In between record deals with Capitol and RCA, in 1993, the band headed into the studio on their own dime. The twelve tracks we’re treated to here, are power pop gold. Slightly less-produced than 1989’s 11 and1991’s Blow Up, it’s chock-full of the meat-and-potatoes rock the quartet is famous for.

Out Of This World and Stop Bringing Me Down, find the band in their Marshall crunch mode, while Monkey Man and I’m Sexy are pure pop fun. The real standouts, however, are some of the more quiet numbers, where DiNizio lets his inner Buddy Holly take over. A World Apart and Face The World With Pride are among the best material The Smithereens have ever produced. Dammit, this is wonderful!

*

Diana Panton

Blue (SRG)

https://www.amazon.com/blue-Diana-Panton/dp/

As a critic, I listen to a massive amount of new music, for the purpose of reviewing it. More often than not, though, the cursory consideration is more of a task that needs to be completed, and less, a moment of musical enjoyment. In a very small fraction of those instances, I am quite literally awe-struck by what I’m hearing. This, is that.

Diana Panton is an award-winning jazz singer, blessed with a voice that softly enters the room and then the ears, with a whisper that cannot be ignored. It is as similarly-captivating as the emoting of classic singers like Mindy Smith and Madeleine Peyroux, you simply hear it and want more.

The opener, a medley of Where Do You Start? and Once Upon A Time, is exquisite. Heartbreak has never sounded so good. Panton’s version of Lennon and McCartney’s Yesterday, is relevatory, with an arrangement that bends the familiar melody into new shapes and sizes. There are many other really savvy song selections here, like a wonderful reading of Armando Manzanero Canche and Norma Winstone’s classic, Just Sometimes. Very highly recommended.

*

Crossword Smiles

Pressed & Ironed (Big Stir)

https://bigstirrecords.bandcamp.com/album/pressed-ironed

Big Stir Records gives us the debut from Crossword Smiles, a new collaboration comprised of Tom Curless and Chip Saam. These two gents are well-known in pop circles, a place where Pressed & Ironed will doubtlessly be embraced.

The opener, Feet On The Ground, is a nifty Gin Blossoms-styled rocker, followed by the somber October Leaves, which feels like more 90’s-inspired alt-rock, in the absolute best way. In fact, a lot of these tracks conjured up images of my own life, pre-marriage and responsibilities, when I was completely unattached and gigging around Chicago with my band.

My fave of the set, however, is the power-popping Lotus, which takes off like a jet engine, buoyed by crunchy guitars and a wide-open, unforgettable chorus. Though I prefer the faster-paced numbers, Curless & Saam are equally adept at switching into other gears, as evidenced by the atmospheric folk of Walk Softy, and the Zombies/Doors-inspired Parallel Lines, which is pop music at its ethereal  best. Very well done!

By Dan Pavelich

The Braam Brothers, Greg Lato & Nick Frater

The Braam Brothers

Swan Swan

https://braambrothers.bandcamp.com/

Chicago’s Braam Brothers have experienced a noticeable burst of activity lately. Their 2021 Lp, Landscapes, found its way onto this critic’s year-end-best list, standing stoic in contrast to the Midwest’s (and even their own) power pop traditions. Fans of the genre will remember them as the fine Swingset Police, once signed to Shoes’ famous Black Vinyl Records imprint.

These days, however, Scott and Tom Braam deliver a more moody and melancholy strain of pop. Fables Of The Reconstruction-era R.E.M. is an easy general comparison, but they’re definitely mining their own ground here. Indeed, Swan Swan sounds like Landscapes’ logical follow-up, as the brothers seems a bit more sure of themselves this time around.

Velvet Heart is a beautiful song about longing, in particular, longing for the company of parents that have departed this Earth. If you can get through this track without tearing up, your heart is stronger than mine. Still Missing You is similarly as somber, with thwacky drums giving it a haunting dirge-like vibe. My fave of the set, however, is Silent Joan, which sounds like a lost track from Matthew Sweet’s Altered Beast. Very Well done.

*

Greg Lato

Adults These Days 

https://www.amazon.com/Adults-These-Days-Greg-Lato/dp/

Rhode Island’s Greg Lato is a bright star in the genre of family/children’s entertainment. I won’t bother to recount his numerous accolades, as they aren’t the reason that he should be on every parent’s radar. His wonderful songs are.

Lato must be listening to a lot of Fountains Of Wayne & The Cars lately, because their influence is all over these tunes. Indeed, New Lunch Box and My Birthday Party, are both full of enough synth hooks to make Greg Hawkes blush. To me, incidentally, that’s a very good thing. These days, songwriters who focus on the family market must take care in grabbing the ears of the big person driving the minivan, as well as the tiny passengers.

The previously mentioned New Lunch Box is a definite feel-good, even going so far as to remind me of the joy of choosing a new lunch box at the beginning of the school year when I was in grade school. The track Adults These Days takes a wistful look at remembering childhood as an adult, which many of us parents of a certain age find ourselves doing. Extra points awarded for name-checking Marty McFly. Highly recommended.

*

Nick Frater

Aerodrome Motel

https://nickfrater.bandcamp.com/album/aerodrome-motel

Nick Frater’s latest is nothing short of an absolute pop masterclass. If they’re not referring to this dude as The Pride Of Croydon, his hometown, they damn-well ought to be. The ten tracks that make up Aerodrome Hotel are as close to pop perfection as one can achieve.

The bouncy goodness of The Pleasure Is Mine and Stuck In My Ways are strong enough to raise Glenn Tilbrook’s eyebrow, in a “Are those mine?” kind of way. Frater impeccably creates a vibe here that evokes the best of English pop, roughly 1977-1982. For goodness sake, the rollicking Rough & Tumble could be a Wings’ outtake, and not a weak outtake, an outstanding one.

It’s also worth noting that we’re barely a year away from Frater’s last release, the brilliant Earworms, and its baby brother, The Rebutles. Most singer-songwriters would be lucky to hit a high-water mark like this once in a lifetime, and Frater has done it two years in a row. Consider this gob officially smacked.

By Dan Pavelich

Spygenius / Jobbernowl

Spygenius

Jobbernowl (Big Stir)

https://bigstirrecords.bandcamp.com/album/jobbernowl

A momentous occasion occurs June 24th, as this is the date the new Spygenius album is released. Skating in as the Canterbury, England band’s seventh full-length endeavor, “Jobbernowl” is jammed to the pores with tunes of the “hit repeat button” quality.

But then again, we wouldn’t expect anything less from lead singer and guitarist Peter Watts, bassist and vocalist Ruth Rogers, keyboardist and vocalist Matt Byrne and drummer and vocalist Alan Cummings, who certainly hold court as one of the most interesting and exciting musical configurations of today.

Enigmatic verse, compounded by ripe melodies, compelling instrumentation and perfectly-pressed harmonies represent “Jobbernowl,” beginning with the spinning thrust of “I Dig Your New Robes, Pierre!,” which is topped by a manic chorus of “Dig it! Dig it! Dig it!,” and then there’s the throbbing stomp of  “Sky-Pie, Century 21” that slips a pinch of zoomy surf-rock shadings into the fold via the iconic “Batman” theme. 

Submerged in jangling guitars and juicy hooks, “Mandy Rice-Davies Applies” cycles in as another particularly stand out cut on the album. Also seated in the platinum-plus category is “Screwy,” a bippity-boppity XTC-influenced number  charting the experiences of a couple who are nine years apart in age. 

An invitation to spool back to the flower power era, “The Marvellous, Mendacious Time Machine” is an uptempo slice of psychedelic pop magic, where “Son Of The Morning, Go Man Go!” rocks to a racing beat, based in the neighborhood of The Buzzcocks and The Undertones.   

Classy piano flourishes, whirling with beauty and grace, highlight “All That Is Solid Melts Into Ash,” which frequently reflects the moodier aspects of The Beach Boys, while the squeaky ukulele-driven “Foucault Swings Like A Pendelum Do” would make Tiny Tim glow with pride. 

As is the case with previous Spygenius albums, “Jobbernowl” contains a grab bag of notions, but such variation somehow manages to flow to a synchronized rhythm. So raise a toast to these three lads and a lady, and relish every minute of “Jabbernowl” and its avant-garde magnetism. 

Walker Brigade / If Only

Walker Brigade

If Only (Big Stir)

https://bigstirrecords.bandcamp.com/album/if-only

Having secured the reputation as a sizzling hot live act, Walker Brigade will finally be releasing their anxiously-anticipated first full-length album. Available May 27th, “If Only” includes offerings from most of the Los Angeles band’s 2017 mini-album, “Animal Therapy,” plus digital download singles previously issued by the Big Stir label, as well as new material and bonus tracks. 

Consisting of vocalists and guitarists Tracy Walker and Jeff Charreaux, bassist Mark Fletcher and drummer Craig Tykra, Walker Brigade produces an immensely powerful sound that blends artsy punk incentives with jarring pop rock maneuvers. Brandishing both ability and attitude, the band thrives on the kind of paranormal rapport found in uniquely great groups.

Piloted by a feral intensity, “If Only” is a noisy but wonderously melodic affair, with songs such as “No,” “Tower,” “Fallout,” “Disease” and “Choker”  zoning in on Walker Brigade’s flair for fusing nail-biting tempos and expressions with user-friendly undercurrents. Split somewhere between quirky roots rock and hook-happy garage punk, the cocky swagger of “V.D. Doll” and the loose-limbed rumble of “Fancy Boots” plug in as further winners on the album, along with the properly titled “Shake Shimmy,” which hustles and bustles to a hip-grinding beat. 

Awash with shifting rhythms, pinching breaks and tantalizing twists and turns as a whole, “If Only” discharges one surprise after another. But a cover of “I’m Tired” – which was initially sung by Madeline Kahn in the  1974 box office blockbuster “Blazing Saddles” – testifies to be an especially unexpected treat. Tracy’s vocal performance on the tart and raunchy cabaret corker is absolutely phenomenal, as her phrasing, range and passion is stretched to extremes.

A rendition of Wire’s kinetic “Sand In My Joints” also appears on “If Only,” while the gig wraps up with a number not listed on the set. Slyly coined, “Rock And Roll Toilet” makes the Sex Pistol seem tame by comparison. Devised of two  grungy chords, a hoarse growl and super trashy drumming, the hidden cut is the real thing – just like Walker Brigade. Raw, authentic and pulsing with mind-exploding singing and playing, “If Only” may have been worth the wait, but let’s hope the band’s next album arrives sooner than later! 

Anton Barbeau / Power Pop!!!

Anton Barbeau

Power Pop!!! (Big Stir)

https://bigstirrecords.bandcamp.com/album/power-pop

According to the definition printed on the back sleeve of Anton Barbeau’s latest album, power pop is “a guitar-based form of self-limiting pop music created primarily by/for unrequited men who wish The Beatles had never invited Dylan up to their hotel room.” And while Anton has certainly fathered a fair share of tunes grounded in the genre, he has always avoided restricting himself to a solitary style. So, therefore, calling the album “Power Pop!!!” Is merely a stroke of the singer, songwriter and multi-faceted instrumentalist’s sardonic wit. 

After thirty-plus years of making music and recording an equal amount of discs to match, Anton – who originally comes from Sacramento, California but currently lives in Berlin, Germany – still has plenty of petrol to spare. In fact, “Power Pop!!!” is possibly the musical mad scientist’s best album to date, as the collection seamlessly reinforces his remarkable shapeshifting techniques for composing and playing strangely addictive songs.

The first cut on the album, “Entrez-Vous Dans Les Maisons” punches in at just a little over a minute in length and is a piano instrumental featuring an ominous church type timbre. Then there’s “The Sound” that namechecks The Byrds, The Beatles and XTC, and climaxes to a squall of fizzy psychedelic loopings. Fired by a super speedy clip, “Hillbilly Village” blows in as a demented country-salted ditty, and “Free” is a tight and bright trance-inducing hip hop/electro-pop number. 

On the vigorous title track of the album, Anton proclaims, “Put down your guns, you culture cops, there ain’t no crime like power pop” and “the kids get high on power pop,” where “Running On The Edge Of The Knife” is an action-packed rocker, smirking with mischief and menace. A tribute to one of Anton’s main inspirations, “Julian Cope” dials in as wiggy pop piece, and the swift and bubbly jitters of “Never Crying Wolf Boy” five-fingers a couple of kicks and tricks from The Cars.

The ghost of Buddy Holly and a lady who doesn’t realize she is a cartoon character are referenced on “The Drugs,” which offers some sweet and gentle piano work and baroque pop orchestration before turning a corner, and letting loose a barking rap admirably emulative of Bob Dylan. On a far more traditional plane, “Whisper In The Wind” and “Rain, Rain” are lovely synth pop sentiments, glowing with hypnotic hooks, feathery harmonies and catchy and insistent rhythms. 

Anton’s British-inflected vocals and phrasing – reflecting a melding of John Lennon, David Bowie and of course Julian Cope – are perfectly tailored for the peculiar poetry and inventive sonic operations he so enthusiastically binges on. Cloaked in novel arrangements, off-center melodies and wonky ruffles, “Power Pop!!!” presents a wealth of interesting and exhilarating moves celebrating various art rock fashions, rather than the tongue-in-cheek moniker of the album. Good for Anton, forever following his muse and unraveling riches in the process. 

Amoeba Teen

Amoeba Teen

Amoeba Teen (Big Stir)

https://bigstirrecords.bandcamp.com/album/amoeba-teen

If you liked Amoeba Teen’s previous album – “Medium Wave” which was released three years ago – you will love their latest venture. Simply titled “Amoeba Teen,” the ten-track disc surveys the band encapsulating the joys and wonders of classic pop rock, while dispensing their own exciting tones and colors onto the palette. 

Consisting of lead singers and guitarists Mark Britton and Mike Turner, bassist Simon Muttitt and drummer Carl Bayliss, the group hails from Stourbridge, England, where “Amoeba Teen” was recorded at Claptrap Studios. 

To begin with, these lads can really carry a tune, as their vocals radiate a triple shot of power, energy and charisma. Backed by accomplished harmonies –  extending from blissful to blistering – every song on “Amoeba Teen” not only features great singing, but premium instrumental performances. Motivated and imaginative, the band never ceases to freckle their fare with thrilling zigs and zags. 

Tapped as the first single from the album, “January” pins traditional country factors to big and bright pop hooks, resulting in a sparkly slice of twang and jangle. Fueled by a cocky sneer and a pounding beat, “Barlight Crawl” reprises the glitter rock of acts such as The Sweet and T. Rex, and although “Mainstream” includes similar qualities, funky horns and a blush of boogie are added to the program. 

Designed to shake walls and shatter glass, the heavy and intense “King Of The Cut” is notably modeled after the piercing guitar workouts and spiralling rhythms of Crazy Horse. Remnants of Raspberries and Jellyfish can be heard on the perky charm of “Melody For You,” as well as the absolutely ravishing “A Good Reason Why,” which focuses upon a heart-tugging blend of breathtaking vocals, celestial atmospherics, and elegant piano presentations. 

A tonic cocktail of herky jerky tempos,  crashing guitars, pointed melodies and staggering breaks is served on the modernized new wave sensibilities of “Just Not That Into You,” and “Putting The Kids Through College” strolls along at a rather smooth and leisurely pace that kind of wanders into jazzy Steely Dan territory. 

Eclectic in all the right ways, “Amoeba Teen” expertly exceeds the band’s many influences, making for a spectacular collection of era-defying pop rock sounds and expressions. 

Nick Frater, Sting & The Harmonica Pocket

Nick Frater

Earworms (Big Stir)

https://bigstirrecords.bandcamp.com/album/earworms

Nick Frater’s beautiful Lp, Earworms, made every year-end-best list that I saw last year. And deservedly so. Although I hadn’t heard it at the time my list was published, it did get a mention for its cool cover art. For the vinyl edition, I knew I had to refuse a free review copy, and plunk down my own pocket money.

Frater has written a batch of tunes that manages to evoke early McCartney and Fleetwood Mac, and sounds as if it was recorded in a living room, albeit an acoustically-perfect living room. It’s All Rumours kicks things off, sounding like a possible Band On The Run outtake. What’s With Your Heavy Heart? has a similar feel. A lot of the pop of the early 1970’s had a strange ability to sound both buoyant and melancholy at the same time. Frater nails this aspect with perfection.

My fave of the set is the closer, How To Survive Somebody. It’s a sweet ballad that nicely showcases Frater’s soft vocals, which always sound warm and comfortable. Much like a favorite sweater on a chilly morning, Earworms is a record that I keep coming back to. I have no doubt that it will stay with me and survive the years.

Sting

The Bridge (A&M)

https://www.amazon.com/Bridge-Sting

Sting has made a couple of really nice pop albums in recent years, namely, 2016’s 57th & 9th, 2018’s 44/876 (Yes, I liked it!), and now, with The Bridge. Sting appears to have mellowed with age, and presenting complicated constructs has given way to a more-focused approach on likable melodies.

The opener, Rushing Water, stands among his best flagship singles. With a stripped-back verse leading to a soaring chorus, it has a similar pacing to Fortress Around Your Heart. It’s a song that you want to hear again, as soon as it ends. 

Other notables include the somber Harmony Road, an ode to a life in a neighborhood that is both loved for its history and loathed for its decay, and The Bridge, which unfolds with thoughts about the passage of a lifetime. There’s something oddly calming about knowing that Sting is having similar thoughts to the rest of us, as we age.

Harmonica Pocket

Sing Your Song (THP)

https://harmonicapocket.bandcamp.com/album/sing-your-song

Late last year, The Harmonica Pocket’s track, One Two I Love You, caught our ears, here at Pop-a-looza HQ. Since then, we’ve had the pleasure of listening to their entire full-length, Sing Your Song.

Brimming with happiness, it’s one the whole family can enjoy. Lead vocalist Keeth Monta Apgar has a warm, tuneful voice, that sounds both fresh and familiar. When he suggests that you sing your song, you feel like you just might be able to do it.

Other standouts include the cheery Apples On The Sun and a cover of Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, which is given a campfire treatment, with acoustic guitar and just a touch of percussion. Very well done, we’re looking forward to hearing more!

Lannie Flowers / Flavor Of The Month

Lannie Flowers

Flavor of The Month (Big Stir)

https://bigstirrecords.bandcamp.com/album/flavor-of-the-month

Lannie Flowers has been a steady presence on the underground music scene since the bi-centennial. Initially springing into action with The Pengwins, a group that existed through the early nineties, Lannie subsequently fronted The Lannie Flowers Band

The Texas-based singer, songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist has recently been enjoying a solo career, with Flavor Of The Month being his latest album. Comprised of fourteen tracks, the collection features remixed versions of previously released singles.

A commentary on growing older and experiencing time slip quickly by, Where Did All The Fun Go? soars with power popping guitars, mega-watt melodies and a charmingly infectious chorus of “na na na na’s,” while Lost In A Daydream quivers and quakes with riveting rhythms, iced with psychedelic gizmos. 

Energized by sharp arrangements and full-bodied hooks, Summer Blue, Don’t Make Me Wait” and the title cut of the album, are also fastened tight with high-substance pop rock qualities. Lannie’s vocals – which exude strength, confidence and personality, ringing with a rural air – are the cherry on the sundae.

 Every song on Flavor Of The Month is special in its own right, and bottles Lannie’s flair for producing and performing classic-related rock sounds without reeking of nostalgia. The lyrics are original and contemporary, and the passion is fresh and exciting. No mere “flavor the month,” here’s an album packed with catchy tunes that will still be relevant years from now. 

Categories
Pop Sunday

Spygenius / Blow Their Covers

Spygenius

Blow Their Covers (Big Stir)

https://spygenius.bandcamp.com/

Trying to pigeonhole Spygenius is a rather difficult assignment. The Canterbury, England band thrives on experimentation, leading their highly rated albums to be charmingly chameleonesque. But Spygenius is so imaginative that they have spawned an identity of their own. The band’s latest album, Blow Their Covers, sends thanks to artists considered core inspirations, and features both obscure and well known numbers.

On their take of Traffic’s Paper Sun, Spygenius pretty much sheds the hazy psychedelic swirl of the original recording in lieu of a bright and burly power pop sound. The band further tends to downplay the country folk timbre of Gene Clark’s So You Say You Lost Your Baby, and Buffalo Springfield’s Rock & Roll Woman, by plumping up the proceedings with a hard-edged delivery.

Michael Hurley and The Unholy Modal Rounders are revisited on Griselda, which spins gleefully around and around to waltzing rhythms clipped of an Irish jig quality, and Robyn Hitchcock’s Queen Of Eyes is cast of a jangly day-glo demeanor. 

A sea shanty – Murrumbidgee Whalers – even appears on Blow Their Covers, while Spygenius turns Plasticsoul’s gutsy Mod-styled rocker, Therapy, into an emotionally-charged chorus of celestial harmonies, gleaming melodies and atmospheric textures. 

Madness is saluted on a remarkably oddball version of Michael Caine, that lies somewhere between the disjointed diddlings of Captain Beefheart and the gloomy gaze of Goth rock. Then there’s a pair of Monkees goodies – For Pete’s Sake and Love Is Only Sleeping – in which Spygenius sings and swings their way through these lively songs with unstoppable energy and enthusiasm. 

Aside from revealing the band’s wide scope of influences, Blow Their Covers captures how amazingly creative Spygenius is. The musicians who are paid homage to would certainly endorse these spirited renditions of their compositions. Routed by catchy and adventurous performances galore, Blow Their Covers is set to keep Spygenius groupies going until the band’s next album of self-penned material is available. 

The Best Albums of 2021

As you may have previously seen, Ken Sharp’s Miniatures scored my pick for Album Of The Year. In my ears, it’s a baroque pop masterpiece that is equally as beautiful on the eyes. No indie pop Lp collection should be without this!

Following Ken Sharp’s Miniatures, are the ten Lp’s that got the most spins at my house. Don’t be offended if your release isn’t included here, chances are that I either didn’t hear it or it nearly missed making this top ten. Also, administrative duties for Pop-A-Looza kept me busier than I would have preferred, which has meant listening to and reviewing, far fewer releases in 2021 than the previous year.

These, in no particular order, are;

  1. Lindsay Munroe w/Raffi – Frogs and Birds
  2. Kevin Robertson – Sundown’s End
  3. The Legal Matters – Chapter Three
  4. Tambourina – Tambourina
  5. Kerry Spitzer – Swan Songs
  6. Bill Sammon – Story Songs
  7. Matthew Sweet – Cat’s Paw
  8. The Braam Brothers – Landscapes
  9. Sorrows – Love Too Late…The Real Album
  10. Deadlights – Deadlights

Nick Frater’s Earworms and Bill Lloyd’s reissue of his classic Feeling The Elephant, fall into their own weird category. While they tie for Best Cover Art Of 2021, they were also both on my Christmas wishlist, yet didn’t show up underneath the tree, Christmas morning. So, I will now be purchasing them as Nick & Bill are two artists whose work I always enjoy!

Best Tribute Record Of 2021, is easily won by Higher Than A Mountain, The Songs Of Andy Gibb, released by the Curry Cuts label. Gibb’s catalog is deeper than you’d think, and this swell comp proves it.

Lastly, the Best Holiday Release Of 2021, goes to The Yule Logs, a fantastic band from Chico, California, that only plays Christmas and holiday-themed music. Their latest, Fezziwig, is a real hoot!

I hope you’ll further seek out of these releases, as they’re all well-worth owning. Stream (if you must) to preview them, but please actually purchase CD’s, vinyl and downloads, which pay the artists the most for their hard work.

Happy listening,

Dan Pavelich