Peter Kearns goes on a quest to find songs that can boast more than a good riff or a good line or a good melody. Songs that have everything. Just like the good old days.
LIKE ANY NORMAL person I’m self-critical of some of these song choices I make. If I’m going to make suggestions, they better be good ones, and I think mostly these songs are, but in a pretty one-dimensional way. It’s what I’m finding with the vast majority of music being released today – If a track is good, it’s usually just in one facet such as production, or it might have a great vocalist, the players might be cookin’ but the song itself goes nowhere, or it might have a great guitar riff that gets under the skin and initially seduces me into thinking the whole shebang is gangbusters. I’m looking for those now rare creatures that demonstrate quality in all of the above areas, at the same time! What a novelty. A novelty that was once as common as muck.
I’m a bit behind for various reasons, so most of this week’s suggestions dropped, plopped, or flopped anytime over the last few months. A couple of interesting indie-folk groups flew on to the radar. Stornoway from Oxford, England, hint at ‘60s folk melody over beds of exotic Celtic instrumentation and rock drums, sometimes electronic. Their work has substance and comes close to the amalgam of ingredients mentioned above. California’s John Darnielle-led Mountain Goats are eclectic indeed, weaving their way through a kind of jazz-inflected folk, alt-country and indie-punk melange. But tying the whole thing together is Darnielle’s seemingly effortless facility with a lyric, in the case of the recent Beat The Champ album, focusing mainly on the topic of wrestling.
Sideways to a similar roots mode are Arizona’s Calexico, though their new panel-beaten hubcap Edge Of The Sun is sounding a little tired and uninspired compared to the grand heights of previous work, like 1998’s The Black Light. Their identity is still in there somewhere, even if it sounds like someone is trying to screw them into a poor-man’s version of Los Lobos. Oddly, and I’m finding this more and more, the extra tracks on the deluxe version of Edge Of The Sun are superior to the main album tracks. All a temporary wobbliness I’d say.
Two pop/rock groups that turned my head this week were Bop English of Austin, Texas, and Liverpool’s The Wombats. Bop English appear to have a love of ‘70s trans-Atlantic vocal-harmony-laden power pop that at times steers them towards sounding like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Bolan. The Wombats tend to remind me of Franz Ferdinand and they’re certainly good at pulling me in with their big choruses, though it all seems a little formulaic by the end of the album, Glitterbug. On the playlist you’ll also find fellow Liverpudlian Ringo Starr, and the Todd-Rundgren-co-written title track from Postcards From Paradise. On the surface flippant, it’s historically interesting in that the lyric is largely made up of Beatle song titles and follows in the tradition of ancient Starr stuff like ‘I’m The Greatest’. One of these days we’re going to get the last record by a Beatle ever. This could be it, who knows.
If you like extremes you could first go for the overtly poppy Halsey and the sometimes overtly auto-tuned, The-Dream. Both are Top 40 fare. Halsey’s ‘New Americana’ caught my ear right away. It’s a bangin’ chorus in spite of its obvious ultimate disposability. More sincere is The-Dream aka Terius Youngdell Nash, co-writer of Rihanna’s R&B firework, ‘Umbrella’. His ‘Fruition’ comes off as a pretty good attempt at an old-school R&B ballad, if lacking in the lyric-craft department thanks to lines like ‘Say whatever you want, You’re in charge, I’ll be right here where you need me, I won’t barge… in’.
The other end of this extreme would be Brooklyn’s Ava Luna and their boy/girl song-based avant-garde soup. They’re refreshing if you can’t cope with any of the above and want an escape from the everyday mainstream pap and anything that branches off it. Who wouldn’t? PETER KEARNS