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Gary Ritchie / Head On A Swivel

Gary Ritchie

Head On A Swivel 

garyritchie.bandcamp.com

When The Beatles broke big in America, American groups started cropping up everywhere, intent on capturing that same Beatles’ magic. Bands like The Knickerbockers and The Cyrkle were looking to do much more than most of the also-rans, though. Their aim, inspired by the lads from Liverpool, was to create something with the same level of enthusiasm and electricity.

Here, well-known popster Gary Ritchie continues that tradition, with a wink and a nod, and his heart in the right place. He is, after all, along with musical partner Jeff King, responsible for the cult-favorite release, Beat The Meatles.

“Maybe It’ll Be Tonight”, takes a post-punk stab at what might’ve been an early MTV hit, when power pop was really becoming a thing. The title track, reminiscent of The Dave Clark Five’s “Over and Over” is another winner, and gets seriously-close to that ’65 energy.

My fave of the set, however, is “Arms Around A Memory,” which boasts a catchy melody and jangly guitar sound that pop dreams are made of. In a perfect world, that’d be the A-side of Capitol Records vinyl single, spinning on the Dansette.

D.P.

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Kenny Rogers / 21 Number Ones

Kenny Rogers

21 Number Ones (Capitol)

http://www.kennyrogers.com

With the passing of Kenny Rogers, several of his compilation CD’s are back on the charts. 21 Number Ones is a pretty good one, covering his hit material from the 1970’s, into the early 80’s.

“The Gambler”,”Lady” and “She Believes in Me” are all here, freshly remastered. Also included, are his smash-hit duets, “We’ve Got Tonight,” with Sheena Easton, and “Islands In The Stream,” with Dolly Parton.

With 21 tracks in all, it’s hard to imagine that you could want more, unless you’re looking for his early tracks with First Edition. Kenny Rogers was one of country music’s biggest crossover successes, and his his gravelly baritone will be missed.

D.P.

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Robert Cray / That’s What I Heard

Robert Cray

That’s What I Heard (Nozzle)

http://www.robertcray.com

While Robert Cray has always been lumped into the modern blues category, the truth is, he’s always filtered everything he does through the heart of a classic soul singer. On his latest, That’s What I Heard, Cray teams with producer/drummer Steve Jordan, and the results  are positively electrified.

Cray masterfully slides his way through Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “You’re The One,” Curtis Mayfield’s You’ll Want Me Back” and the smokey original “Hot.” Perfectly accentuating his husky voice is Cray’s always-tastey Stratocaster, which flows through these songs like delicious gravy on a buttery biscuit.

What’s really got me scratching my head lately is Cray’s twenty-year history of hopping from one small record label to another. For crying out loud, how in the world is it possible that labels like Alligator, Blue Note or Verve aren’t trying to give him the stable, respectable, creative home that he deserves? 

D.P.

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The Vapour Trails/Lonely Man

The Vapour Trails

Lonely Man (Futureman)

Futuremanrecords.bandcamp.com

It’s snowing and blowing here in Wisconsin, so nothing could be more welcome than a shiny dose of jangle pop from The Vapor Trails. “Lonely Man,” from The VT’s upcoming album, is equal parts Rembrandts and Herman’s Hermits, and features a chorus that is both somber and uplifting.

This three-song outing includes “See You In The Next World,” from The VT’s last release, remixed by the always-brilliant Nick Bertling. With a nifty bit of Ringo-influenced drumming and a sitar-laden bridge, it’s simply irresistible to my ears. A quality live cover of George Harrison’s “Something” rounds out the release with a smile and a sigh. Well done, gents.

D.P.

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Mandy Moore / Silver Landings

Mandy Moore

Silver Landings (Verve)

http://www.mandymoore.com

Among the crop of teen singers she initially broke through with in the early 2000’s, Mandy Moore has taken the most interesting path. While the others became almost cartoonish in their willingness to hit the charts, Moore instead began a gravitation towards her own artistic satisfaction. 

Silver Landings finds Moore breaking free of Ryan Adams, and landing squarely in the somewhat-low-fi world of producer Mike Viola, who knows a little something about making nifty records. As co-writers, they’re a perfect fit, as these ten songs prove. “I’d Rather Lose” is slinky and cool, like a lost pre-MTV Fleetwood Mac track. “Trying My Best, Los Angeles” laments being stuck in life, and the beautiful closer “Silver Landings” is hopeful even as Moore sounds like she’s been crushed by sadness.

Her most mature work to date, Silver Landings is a record made to last, and I’m betting it will. The songs are just too deep not to.

D.P.

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James Taylor / American Standard

James Taylor

American Standard (Fantasy)

http://www.jamestaylor.com

With living room concerts being all the range the past few years, I’ve been mulling over who I’d like to see in my front room. James Taylor would definitely be on the short list. Here, on his first Fantasy release, he nearly makes that wish come true, as he makes his way through the great American songbook of standards. Arrangements are kept sparse and intimate, framing Taylor’s voice in warmth.

To those saying that this thematic effort is the sure sign of an artist whose creative juices are all dried-up, I say “Shut up.” Taylor’s voice in of itself is a classic, so why should he shy away from this material?  “The Nearness Of You” and “Pennies From Heaven” have rarely sounded better. There are fourteen tracks in all, and a special Target edition adds two more. American Standard is a gift.

D.P.

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Big Stir Singles: The Fifth Wave

Various Artists

Big Stir Singles: The Fifth Wave (Big Stir)

http://www.bigstirrecords.com

Way back in the prehistoric 1990’s, cool record labels used to distribute sampler CD’s of their artists to record stores. They were usually in a stack at the front of the store, with other freebies like stickers and band flyers. Cool indie labels like Sub Pop, Mammoth and Enigma, used this as a marketing tool, to expose the music-buying public to their roster. In a move that puts a smile on my face, Big Stir Records is reviving the tradition.

Volume five in this series boasts a whopping twenty-three tracks, almost guaranteeing something for everyone. The including bands are old school, in that these tunes were inspired by classic guitar bands ranging from The Beatles to ELO to Teenage Fanclub and back again.

The GoAllTherWays open in glorious jangle with “Silly Girl,” before Mod Hippie lets loose with “Saturday Show,” rooting in equal parts Matthew Sweet and The Monkees. How can you not be energized by that? The Tor Guides bring the California sunshine with the buoyant “Just A Smile,” and The Forty Nineteens set their hyper-pop sights atop a reworked Bo Diddley beat, that’ll make you wanna get up and dance.

The stunner of the collection is the beautiful “Summer Blue” by Lannie Flowers. With enough clever chord changes and soothing harmonies to make Collingwood & Schlesinger blush, it just may be the best song I’ve heard in a couple of years. Wait, scratch that “may be.” It is.

D.P.

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Halsey/Manic

Halsey

Manic (Capito)

http://www.iamhalsey.com

I don’t know what is is with the music beds on these tracks, but I’m in love with them. Contemporary music, digital music, is usually so heavily processed and compressed, that there’s a complete lack of depth and sense of space. “Manic” is an atmospheric wonderland.

“Clementine” begins with ghostly acoustic piano and other-worldly, knocking percussion. “Dominic’s Interlude” echoes like a vintage Dusty Springfield recording. Halsey’s voice serves as a splendid guide through these places, although I’d enjoy it more without the current trend of trying to jam an “I” into the last word of each vocal line. She would sound just fine without it.

D.P.

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Pet Shop Boys /Hotspot

Pet Shop Boys

Hotspot (X2 Recordings Ltd.)

Petshopboys.co.uk

While casual pop fans will relegate Pet Shop Boys into the one-hit-wonder bin, the truth is, they’ve been releasing music since their 1980’s heyday, maturing and expanding their sound with each new release. Indeed, “Bolshy” and “Thursday,” from 2013’s “Electric” made that release a career high-water mark.

Frontman Neil Tenant and synth genius Chris Lowe have another stunner on their hands. These ten tracks are among their best. “Will-o-the-wisp” is a thumping club groove, albeit with cheeky bleeps and blips giving way to a dark, minor-key chorus. Driving and relentless, it sets up the rest of the record impeccably.

“Dreamland” and “Monkey Business,” catch my ear in particular, as they fill the roll of throwbacks. I’m a sucker for anything that sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1984 and Pet Shop Boys have a sly knack for doing this without sounding silly or pandering. I’m betting most synth-pop fans will feel the same and be entertained.

D.P.

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Diana Panton /A Cheerful Little Earful

Diana Panton

A Cheerful Little Earful (Hamilton)

http://www.dianapanton.com

I’m always appreciative when I come across an album recorded for children that doesn’t aim down at them. Children have absorbent minds, capable of much more than most adults give them credit for, and jazz is something that they absolutely can appreciate and enjoy.

Canadian singer Diana Panton has assembled a collection of standards that will please ears of every age. Her vocal style reminds me of Madeleine Peyroux, an obvious thru-line to Billie Holliday. “Red Red Robin” sounds playful and happy, as does Ira Gershwin’s “Cheerful Little Earful.” Panton’s secret weapon is Don Thompson, a first-rate acoustic bassist doubling melody lines on piano and vibes.

I suspect that even jaded, diehard jazz enthusiasts will enjoy every second of this. It’s a really nice example of a great singer picking the perfect songs to fit her voice and accompanying players.

D.P.