Winter has hit us hard here in the Great White North. Correction: it’s hit us harder in the parts that usually don’t get sub-zero temps and dumps of snow that won’t leave e.g. Toronto. Nothing to do but hunker down and check out the singles scene. This mix has got a wide variety of poppy rocky sounds, most pretty new, some left behind from 2021, and a few surprises too.
West Midlands’ jangle purveyors The Proctors offer up a killer B-side with “You Me and the Sea.” The guitar just drips with reverby jangle goodness and the vocals are breathy and ethereal in that 1990s English guitar band sort of way. And that’s a pretty groovy synth keyboard riff tucked in there too. Did I mention it’s on pink vinyl? Snuck in at the very end of 2021 was the release of The Boolevards’ new album PoPtastic. It’s a garage take on British Invasion guitar pop, wonderfully exemplified on “Master of Lies.” And many more of the 14 tunes on this LP. With a musical resume like Jason Narducy (Superchunk, Bob Mould Band) the polish and hooks on his recent Split Single album Amplificado should come as no surprise. The single “(Nothing You Can Do) To End This Love” is poprock perfection, charging in from the start only to take off melodically in the chorus. The melding of guitars and vocals reminds me of the always reliable mix from bands like the Well Wishers. Faster Than Light wield a wicked, straightforward brand of melody infused rock and roll. Their one-off single “Blacker” is a fist-pumping, highway-driving song loaded with tasty lead guitar licks. To mark what would have been David Bowie’s 75th birthday, Automatic Shoes decided to put out nice little tribute EP called Rising. I love what this guy does production-wise, the acoustic guitars are so crisp, the vocals are so 1970s-intimate in the best Bowie/Marc Bolan style. The cover of “Andy Warhol” from Bowie’s 1971 Hunky Dory gets a more stripped down treatment here, which really allows the delicacy of the tune to surface.
Brighton UK’s Bloody Norah are bloody marvelous. From their Instagram page they self-describe as “your dad’s favourite rock band” with “[m]elodies tastier than your mom’s spaghetti and harmonies sweeter than your uncle’s crème brûlée.” This is not just presser bluster. “Shooting Star” is a delightful sixties-themed poprock confection, complete with addictive lead guitar lines and splendid harmony vocals. B-side “Joy” is a winner too, with its Abbey Road Beatles wavery guitar and minor key poignancy. More please! Brett Newski has just released the original version of “Dirt” recorded makeshift-style while living in Vietnam a decade or so ago. The song appeared on his 2014 album American Folksong Armageddon but this older version has a very different feel, rougher obviously, less slick, but also channeling a serious level of late 1960s Donovan. Retro but somehow also very contemporary at the same time. Stourbridge anyone? Yes, I had to look it up, a town in the West Midlands, UK – Birmingham is the most recognizable town to outsiders. Well that’s where you’ll find jangle masters Amoeba Teen. They’re putting together a new album and this month’s teaser single was, appropriately enough, entitled “January.” The song has the band shifting a bit into a country lane filled with the likes of The Byrds and Teenage Fanclub, on occasion. Airy, pedal steel-filled melodic goodness here. Seattle’s Green Pajamas have to be the best kept secret in indie rock and roll. Since 1984 the band has released something like 35 albums or so of original material! You can catch up on the first 15 years of singles on the compilation Indian Winter. But why just love the oldies? The band have got a brand new single that is so 1980s indie retro fabulous. “I Love the Way You Smile at Me” is a lovely midtempo pleaser, with catchy guitar licks and bits of pop psychedelia thrown in here and there. Heading over to the Dutch province of Limberg, we catch up with easygoing funsters Afterpartees whose mega-single The Bunn pays tribute to the band’s fave beer hangout. However, I’m more partial to the sub B-side offering “I Don’t Want the World to Stop.” The track has got a great loping rhythm and a steely lead guitar line that won’t give up while the hint of desperation in the vocals is strangely endearing.
Terms like ‘emo’ get thrown around in discussions of Pittsburg’s Short Fictions but I’m not even sure what it really means anymore. Sure, their 2019 album Fates Worth Than Death had a pretty serious undercurrent but also some pretty funny song titles like “I Don’t Want to Wait Out the Apocalypse With Anyone But You” and “Nothingness Lies Coiled at the Heart of Being (It’s Such a Good Feeling).” Besides “Really Like You” sounds pretty chipper. Ok, lyrically, very emo. Well they’re back with a new single, the very Front Bottoms vibing “Don’t Start a Band.” Can a new album be far off? Dubbed ‘America’s least known supergroup’ The Split Squad combine the talents of former members of The Fleshtones, The Plimsouls, Blondie and Cherry Twister. That experience is all over their new LP Another Cinderella, particularly the title track, which is an onslaught of hooky guitar pop. Dave Molter is another kind of music veteran, the poster boy late bloomer who only released his acclaimed debut EP Foolish Heart in 2019, despite a music career stretching back to sixties. Now his first full LP is about the released and the teaser title track is out now, “Approaching the End of Usable Life.” I’m liking where it suggests the album will be going, some good old fashioned meat and potatoes rock and roll in a Huey Lewis vein. Self-described ‘modern vintage rock band’ The Undecideds are a couple of teens stranded in the here and now, far from the 1980s where they obviously belong. Their understated but still rocking take on Tom Petty and Heartbreakers’ “Even the Losers” has got an authentic feel to it, a thrill all its own. I’m no fence-sitter here – these guys are great. Speedways main man Matt Speedway slipped an EP out at the end of 2021. On Only Trouble Is Gee Whiz he turns the amp down from 11 and dials the Speedways frenetic pace back a bit to showcase his pop side a bit more. Opening cut “She’s Got a Melted Heart and a Frozen Mind” is a mini-masterpiece from the Elliott Smith or Replacements low-key hooks department. The riff snaking throughout the song is pure magic.
I’m liking everything about Ryan Allen’s new EP I’m Not Mean. I like the cover. I like the guitar sounds. I like the range of styles he crams into a release with just four tunes. These tunes are bit more poppy in execution in a 1960s British Invasion mold. Give all four a listen but if pressed for time go right to “Cut Your Teeth” which has a bit of 1990s Britpop going for it too. Another band that seldom lets me down is Freedom Fry. They have a Paul Simon knack of putting a little melodic twist into the simplest of songs to lodge in your head. “You Know the Way” is the first of a new ‘sing along’ series they’ve cooked up. The electric piano line is a sublime delight. Tim Izzard’s campaign to bring glam back into the poprock mainstream continues with a new EP, 21st Century Expose. Once again a decided 1970s Bowie/Bolan inspiration is in evidence but turned to totally contemporary concerns on opening cut “Empty My Head.” The track is a timely rumination on the often oppressive impact of social media, linking back to concerns and lyrics from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” And it’s a catchy little number too. Indie music blogger Eclectic Music Lover put me on to Belfast band Unquiet Nights, specifically “In Spite of It All.” The track has a hypnotic quality, a bit Pink Floyd, a bit U2. Very nice fluid guitar work throughout. The song is the one new contribution to a greatest hits collection they’ve just released, First Ten 2012-2022. You can pick up one album and you’re all caught up! Kelowna BC indie rocker Stephen Schijns (pronounced ‘Skines’) so captures our collective desire to escape cold snaps and Covid with a surf-licious homage to sunny climes and rumbly guitar work on “Trans-Pacific Beach Bum.” And he works in some Dad-joke worthy turns of phrase. This would definitely go with rum, some coconut-flavoured mixer and a sun lamp.
We wrap things up with a folkie turn, though screened through a late 1970s commercial folk filter. Recall those smooth, folkie singer-songwriter singles from the likes of Al Stewart, Gerry Rafferty, and Dan Fogleberg and you get a sense of where we’re going. “Either Way” is the opening track of Steve Noonan’s new album Dreamland and it kicks things off with striking effect. In this song it’s the rhythm guitar that really establishes the hook, offset by an almost staccato delivery on the vocals. This stuff was a staple of early 1980s AM radio and for good reason, it has a very broad possible appeal.
This cold snap’s not going anywhere just yet so grab your sweater and pull up to your Mp3 player to review these super cool singles. The hyperlinked names take you to the artists, their music, or some kind of internet real estate you can hang out on.
The header art above is a fragment from Rob Elliott’s Pandemic Diary page 38.