Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Joe’s Montage: The FRANK ZAPPA Vinyl Reissues!


Reviewed by Dave Rayburn

Zappa Records and UMe have teamed together for yet another monumental wave of Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention releases, all available on vinyl again for the first time in decades! Following November’s highly-anticipated new offerings of MEAT LIGHT, CHICAGO ’78 and LITTLE DOTS, five core catalog titles were immediately announced to follow as part of the Zappa Family Trust’s continued excavation of the storied music vault.

The five titles given new analog life include CRUISING WITH RUBEN & THE JETS (the fourth Mothers of Invention album, released in 1968), JOE’S GARAGE (all three Acts, from 1979), LUMPY GRAVY (Frank’s first solo album from 1967), WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH (the last album from the original Mothers lineup, 1970), and WE’RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY (the 1968 political satire classic, complete with a Beatles parody cover).  Each of these records stands on their own as essential listening among Zappa aficionados. Although they don’t paint the complete picture of his range and diversity, they all coalesce as a well-defined denominator to Frank’s immense catalog. The humor. The innovation. The culture. The nerve. The genius. It’s all there.


Of the reissues just unleashed, JOE’S GARAGE is perhaps the most alluring to both casual listeners and those that have already jumped in the deep end of Zappa’s catalog. There’s always something to keep coming back for. Originally issued as two separate pieces (Act 1 was released in September of 1979 with Acts 2 & 3 being issued together two months later), it wasn’t until 1987 that Barking Pumpkin Records (A Frank Zappa label) issued all three acts together as one cohesive piece. Since 1990, however, JOE’S GARAGE has been achingly out of print on vinyl… just waiting for the right time to infect the world again.

The three-LP R&B/Prog/Doo-Wop/Reggae/Jazz/Lounge/Rock Opera takes the listener on a journey through what Frank liked to call “a stupid little story about how the government is going to do away with music.” Once you buy into that premise, Frank and his cohorts handle the rest. With censorship stalwarts clearly in his sights, Zappa (The Central Scrutinizer) proceeds to weave the tale of a young man (Joe) with dreams of being a rock star and what can happen if you choose a career in music. From groupies to the government, the onslaught to take him (and those like him) down is unleashed. Lyrically, Frank was unapologetic about using the English language, unmolested, to convey his thoughts in the clearest and most concise way possible with his storytelling. Much of this phase of his work was used as an example for the case against the spread of explicit content in music in the coming decade, which he fought boldly against.


And then there’s the music of JOE’S GARAGE. Although it’s worth noting recognizable contributions from Peter Wolf (J. Geils Band) and Dale & Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons), the spotlight manages to shine brightest on the soulful vocal styling of one Ike Willis, who is featured quite prominently throughout the record as the voice of Joe. Willis’ masterful range and gift of delivery adds a level of humanity that draws you in from the title track onward. The story traverses an avant-garde field of musical genres, taking sharp left and right turns at nearly every opportunity, making a start-to-finish spin of this album a true joy ride. In fact, one of the more interesting things to listen for is Frank’s extensive experimentation with “xenochrony” (the practice of taking previously cut live guitar solos, with different time signatures, and overdubbing them onto new studio tracks). All but two songs on this album incorporate this method, showcasing the complex nature of how the record was made. The album eventually enters cool-down mode with what many consider Frank Zappa’s most beautiful guitar solo in “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, a nine-minute epic that replicates the last imaginary guitar solo that our hero, Joe, dreams up. That track alone is a sonic wonder, but the new all-analog mastering of the 1979 ¼” safety master tapes by Bernie Grundman really brings this entire record into present day standards. Complete with a triple-gatefold package that includes all three LPs pressed to 180-gram audiophile quality vinyl, JOE’S GARAGE has finally achieved its best sounding state since its original release nearly four decades ago.


And, at a time when audio quality is starting to matter again… there’s never been a better reason to re-explore the Frank Zappa catalog. “You’ll love it. It’s a way of life.”

Monday, January 16, 2017

MADNESS/Can't Touch Us Now: SPAZ reviews the new album!

MADNESS
CAN'T TOUCH US NOW

Available NOW

We all grow up. Some of us try to live in the past while others are happier living in the here-and-now.  Our favorite artists have it far more difficult, though. They grow older and move forward, maturing like the rest of us, yet they have fans that prefer them to stay exactly the same as they were when they first started having hits. British sextet Madness has certainly had their fair share of dealings with these types of expectations from their audience.  The young adults that recorded their first two albums in ’79 and ’80 – ONE STEP BEYOND and ABSOLUTELY - began to mature by the mid-‘80s and as soon as that happened, the band’s sound evolved. Their 7 and RISE AND FALL albums signaled their new-found confidence and each of them contained some big hits (most notably, “Our House”), but their audience wanted the band to remain the Ska-influenced nutty boys of old while the band just wanted to experiment and expand upon their sound. They were still selling a lot of records six years into their career but nobody seemed to really accept that the band that recorded “Yesterday’s Men” (a fab single in 1985) was the same gang that gave them “House Of Fun,” “Baggy Trousers,” and “One Step Beyond” just a handful of years before. By 1986, Madness called it quits.  Each member had personally outgrown the ‘image’ that people had of the band and they needed to shake those shackles before people could take them seriously… Thankfully, they reunited for live shows in the early ‘90s and have remained together ever since (although there have been solo and side projects released since they’ve been back). Not as prolific as they once were, a studio album from Madness is definitely cause for celebration.


Incredibly, the same six man line-up that recorded ONE STEP BEYOND in 1979 is the same line-up on their latest album, CAN’T TOUCH US NOW. That, in itself, is pretty damn impressive. This is only their fourth all-original album since WONDERFUL - their first studio ‘reunion’ album in 1999 - and their second since the critically acclaimed THE LIBERTY OF NORTON FOLGATE (2009). Like RISE & FALL and  NORTON FOLGATE, CAN’T TOUCH US NOW finds the band taking off their rose-colored glasses and revealing the shady underbelly of London (and British life in general). From religion and politics to lost souls in turmoil, CTUN is a trip through the darker side of jaunty. This is a raw look at the real world by middle aged men who still know how to easily craft Pop gems that ‘feel’ like classic Madness songs but reveal different layers with each listen.  Lee “El Thommo” Thompson’s sax still blurts and swings; Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman’s guitar still twangs and stings; Mike “Monsieur Barso” Barson’s keyboard work is so highly under-rated; Daniel “Woody” Woodgate and Mark “Bedders” Bedford are still one of the most creative rhythm sections in Pop/Rock; and GrahamSuggs” McPherson remains the ultimate front-man – you’ll always get an equal mix of tongue-in-cheek and heart-on-sleeve.


“Mr. Apples” is a worthy first single but the real meat in CTUN reveals itself over repeated spins. “Good Times,” “(Don’t Let Them) Catch You Crying,” “You Are My Everything,” and the title track are the ones that hit you first, slowly giving way to a host of other gems like “Pam The Hawk,” “Blackbird,” and "Soul Denying". While a slow-burning album may not be welcome in a digital-on-demand world where everyone feels like they are entitled to their instant gratification right now, CTUN ultimately pays off big time for Madness fans and those who love thoughtful, well-crafted albums. If you’re looking for “Our House,” “It Must Be Love,” etc., go buy the old albums.  This is an album created by six guys who gratefully acknowledge their past but prefer to move forward.  For the record, I kept getting a feeling that this might be the band’s studio swan song… but I hope not!


NOTE: While I haven’t mentioned it above, I did want to address one issue: Although not an “official” member of Madness on their debut album, Cathal ‘Chas Smash’ Smyth became an integral piece of the Madness puzzle from 1980 onwards. Sadly, he has chosen to take a break from Madness and his presence is most certainly missed on this album – much like when bassist Bedford and guitarist Foreman took separate brief sabbaticals from the band in the past. 



Friday, January 13, 2017

TIFT MERRITT: An EXCLUSIVE Q&A


STITCH OF THE WORLD:

An EXCLUSIVE Q&A 
with 
TIFT MERRITT


STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: STITCH OF THE WORLD is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the journey you took to make it?
TIFT MERRITT: I’m feeling really proud of this writing, these performances. I feel really, really lucky to have worked with this cast of characters. Marc Ribot is my favorite musician and one of my favorite human beings. He’s plugged into the sun. And I am forever grateful to Sam Beam for his input and generosity. To be in conversation with him about songwriting gave me a new eye on lyrics, on what to look for in third verses, on countermelody. But honestly, I don’t know that I ever truly have perspective on my work. I just have the sense of having had a creative experience that hopefully opened me more and will inform my next creative experience. I think that is what it is all about.

SPAZ: The album is just as intimate and warm as your past releases. The production really brings the songs to life. Is there a particular approach you take to recording? Is it a natural process to get the sounds and feel you are looking for?
TIFT: Thank you. That is what I am always after: warmth and intimacy. As well as energy! The energy of this record is much in part to the speed at which we recorded! Four days. As well, Jay Bellerose’s drumming is a very strong engine and gives much clarity and fire. I’m always interested in singing where sincerity and raw energy meet. Sometimes intimacy can drain the power out of things on behalf of closeness or delicacy. It’s a balance that is not always easy to strike.


DAVE RAYBURN: "Dusty Old Man" reunites you with more of the inventive guitar work of Marc Ribot, who also appeared on 2012’s TRAVELING ALONE. When did you first work with Marc, and what do you feel he brings to the table with your songs? 
TIFT: Marc is absolutely plugged into the sun. He’s the finest of the fine. As a lead player, he is so attuned to rhythm, to pushing the song along. He is minimalist and high energy at the same time, and never runs out of ideas. Marc is one of the smartest people I know as well as one of the kindest. If I could work with one musician from now until the end of time, it would be Marc. There is no one like him.

SPAZ: “Love Soldiers On” is quite beautiful. The haunting guitar work harkens back to early Rock ‘n’ Roll while the song itself is timeless. Is it difficult to create something that reaches back to your roots yet also looks forward?
TIFT: Thank you. That is an awfully nice thing to say. I think, at the end of the day, creating something that pushes forward but also honors a tradition is really the sweet spot for me, the place I’m reaching for.  I always want to bring something new from inside myself, push forward to something new sonically and lyrically. But I’m not operating in a vacuum or exploding a form. I love abstract painting for the way so much can be gathered in just a few strokes. Maybe it is like that. You take everything you’ve learned and gather yourself and make a mark. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

SPAZ: STITCH OF THE WORLD is your sixth album. Are you still learning how to get exactly what you want while working in the studio, or do you find yourself discovering new ways of expressing yourself musically with each new release?
TIFT: I am much more comfortable in the studio now than when I began. It is a kind of performance that I really enjoy, but it is tricky to create the immediacy of live performance without being present at the performance. I hope I’ll always be learning and thinking about how to make the next album. That’s the good nature of it. I always feel at the beginning of what I can do, whatever I have just learned being the door to the next place. I really like making records live off the floor rather than overdubbing lots and lots. I really love summoning a performance on the spot, finding the right parts, keeping some space and air.
DAVE: How did your working relationship with Iron & Wine's Sam Beam come about and how instrumental was he in fashioning new material with you?
TIFT: I am such a fan of Sam as a musician and as a person. I will always be cheering for him. He was an angel in this process — he gave me confidence to jump. I sent him all my songs and I was very scared of my writing at that point. I didn’t know whether any of it was good. When he said, I love these and I can tell you have been working really hard, it was like the sunshine came out! He encouraged me so kindly and he taught me a lot about what third verses can do, about what chord structures can do and about how counter melodies can bring things to life. PLUS he lent his beautiful, warm voice. I adore him and his family.


DAVE: How heavily did recent transitions in your personal landscape weigh on the new album's content?
TIFT: Writing in and of itself is such a completely personal experience. Observation — seeing something in a new way — is a big part of writing, but without an emotional connection, it is just clinical and cold. Writing is, I think, one of the most intimate things I do — I spend time, presence and energy with something, I give as much of myself to it as I can. So whatever I am writing about is personal.
My personal landscape and questions about my life will always permeate my work, of course. And yes, this was a very difficult album to write because I didn’t have perspective on myself or what was happening to me. I think it must take many years to have perspective on a divorce, or any big changes. I was scared as hell. I was very sad. But I had to write and press on. A finished song stands on its own, an experience in and of itself, and gains a distance from whatever seed began it. I always hope my songs feel intimate and real and honest, but they are not journal entries.
I really love moving in and out of intensity in the studio, summoning a performance live, and then putting it down again and having a beer and a laugh. It’s like you have set something free after you perform it right. Maybe that is why it can sound relaxed.

SPAZ: Judging by the way radio approaches Country Music today, a lot of the more traditional, roots-based Country artists are now being relegated to the Americana genre. Does it bother you that people have to even categorize what you do? On one hand, it is helpful for fans of a certain genre, but on the other hand, real artists don’t want their art to be put in a box…
TIFT: I think this is probably an age old question that takes new forms every decade, every time a record store has to be rearranged. I don’t think about it that much and I never have. I think about how I organize music in my own mind or in my own record collection. It’s good to have a musical family tree, a way of relating things, a way of finding things, a path into discovering other music. But that is more about musicology than it is about marketing. I’m really proud to be a part of a tradition of songwriters and storytellers.

DAVE: It would be hard to escape the comparisons of your vocal style to that of Emmylou Harris (who coincidentally holds high accolades for you); however, there are other shades of influence in the mix that could be attributed to an array of lesser known singers. Are there any unsung heroes that you would acknowledge as having indirectly helped in shaping your style over the years?
TIFT: I would have to say that Kitty Wells is someone who really influenced me in the beginning, the way she really sings the heart of every pitch. I spun her records over and over. And Jean Shepherd. There are so many amazing vocalists — Aretha, Linda Ronstadt. Dusty Springfield’s intimacy. Maria McKee. What a sensational voice. I recently was talking to someone about Rod Stewart in The Faces and that’s some badass singing too.


DAVE: What was your reaction to the news that Don Henley chose your song “Bramble Rose,” from your recently-reissued debut album, as the lead-off track on his recent CASS COUNTY album?
TIFT: I really couldn’t believe it. I was hungover when I got an email from him and I just kept rereading it, especially when I got to the part about Mick Jagger, thinking it couldn’t be real. I was on tour with Andrew Bird and I danced all around the bus when I first heard. It was a very lovely thing for me, a tremendous gift from him, and I am deeply grateful.

SPAZ: What’s next for Tift Merritt?
TIFT: Well, I’m gonna go tour this album and I am going to try to be a really good mom to my little daughter. I’ve got a stack of books by my bed I’d like to read if I can find a minute. The rest I can’t figure just yet. I’ll keep you posted.

SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD and record players?
TIFT: A friend just sent me the complete John Coltrane Atlantic years. That’s been on the record player. I played my daughter a bunch of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon recently. It is really a blast to listen to records with her and think, “This is the first time you’ve heard Paul Simon,” for example. I really love Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album and Angel Olsen’s new album. I am about to have a Leonard Cohen marathon too.

Thanks to Tift Merritt
Special thanks to Steve Dixon and Nick Kominitsky


TIFT MERRITT
STITCH OF THE WORLD

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

GOLDEN EARRING - Complete Studio Recordings: Behold the 29 CD box set!





From their debut Just Ear-rings from 1965 till the tribute to their hometown The Hague from 2015 – all 26 studio albums by Holland’s most legendary rock band are collected in a monumental box Complete Studio Recordings, augmented with no less than three CDs full of non-album tracks.

Rinus Gerritsen and the little bit younger George Kooymans as kids live in the same area of The Hague and in 1961 decide to start a band. The two inspired musicians take on three band members and soon are ready to conquer the world as The Golden Earrings. In 1965 they get their first record deal with the prestigious Polydor label and soon after that their debut album Just Ear-rings is released containing the first hit single Please Go. In the ‘60s they continue to score many hits and in doing so lead the way for all Dutch Beat bands that follow. The Earring has some line-up changes in their first years, but when Cesar Zuiderwijk joins Barry Hay, George Kooymans and Rinus Gerritsen in 1970, finally the line-up is perfected: this formation rocks harder than ever before and it won’t take long before they travel around the world with their monster hit Radar Love.

Throughout the years Golden Earring released no less than 26 studio albums. Next to that, dozens of songs were released but not on official albums including classics like That Day, Sound Of The Screaming Day, Another 45 Miles, Holy Holy Life and hard to find songs, like So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star / L.A. Woman and You Gun My Love. In total no less than 307 songs, that for the first time are compiled in this box set Complete Studio Recordings, including extended liner notes per album by respected music journalist Tjerk Lammers. So turn the volume up to 11 and hear how a little beat band from The Hague turned into the biggest and best Dutch rock band ever!


Contains the following CDs:

Just Ear-rings (1965)
Winter-Harvest (1967)
Miracle Mirror (1968)
On The Double (1969)
Eight Miles High (1969)
Golden Earring (1970)
Seven Tears (1971)
Together (1972)
Moontan (1973)
Switch (1975)
To The Hilt (1976)
Contraband (1976)
Grab It For A Second (1978)
No Promises… No Debts (1979)
Prisoner Of The Night (1980)
Cut (1982)
N.E.W.S. (1983)
The Hole (1986)
Keeper Of The Flame (1989)
Bloody Buccaneers (1991)
Face It (1994)
Love Sweat (1995)
Paradise In Distress (1999)
Millbrook U.S.A. (2003)
Tits ’n Ass (2012)
The Hague (2015)
Non-album Tracks 1 (1965 – 1969 Golden Earrings)
Non-album Tracks 2 (1969 - 1980)

Non-album Tracks 3 (1982 - 2003)

Monday, January 9, 2017

2016: THE BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR




THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2016*

(*- That I  actually heard)

By

Stephen SPAZ Schnee

Making year-end lists is always difficult for me.  Since I purposely don’t stream music, I’m limited to listening to the titles I purchase or promos I receive here in the office. Because of this, there are so many releases that I never get a chance to hear. Over the last few weeks, I have read many year-end lists and, again, I realize that I am not in sync with many of my friends and other music journalists. This means that I am either terminally unhip or wholly unique.  I’d like to think the latter, but I’m afraid that most people consider me the former.

I listen to a LOT of music each and every year. 2016 was filled with amazing reissues and stunning new releases.  It was difficult to choose the following 30 titles from all of the releases I listened to (a few hundred at least, but only half of them earned more than one spin).

Unfortunately, I pay more attention to physical titles and seldom connect, emotionally, to albums I’ve only heard through various digital platforms.  I’m old-school, which means I need to be able to hold a tangible piece of product in my hands in order for me to focus on it. Streaming online is kind of like going to a friend’s house to listen to an album and not fully investing time and money into the experience.  (For the record, I’m not as anti-streaming as I used to be but it is a last resort if I really want to hear something.  I’d much rather go over to a friend’s house and hear it…)

I prefer to list them alphabetically because the albums that made my TOP 20 are titles that really stood out.  They are the albums that I went back to numerous times throughout the year. They never lost their magic over repeated spins - they just kept better each time I heard them.  Like the Top 20, the next 10 titles on my list are only separated from the first 20 because TOP 30 just sounds awkward.

This list features longtime favorites and new artists. Each album touched me in a different way and I connected to them for different reasons.  I recommend each and every one of them. They are all magical. I can only hope that you find something here to investigate and enjoy.

Again, this was a very difficult list to make.  I heard plenty of great albums in 2016 and there are many that I’ve yet to hear. But I had to go with what got the most spins...


My Top 20 albums of 2016 
(in alphabetical order):

ABC/The Lexicon Of Love 2
Martin Fry has kept the ABC name alive and while he has not been prolific over the last 20 years or so, he makes each release count.  This album is the best ABC album since BEAUTY STAB (an overlooked gem) and is a very worthy sequel to the band’s beloved debut THE LEXICON OF LOVE. This is pretty much everything you loved about early ABC and more.


THE BEAT featuring RANKING ROGER/Bounce
Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger were the two frontmen in The (English) Beat before leaving that band and forming General Public.  Once GP split, they went their separate ways (Dave to the U.S. and Roger to the UK).  Wakeling has toured and has been recording with his version of The English Beat while Roger has been doing his bit to keep the name alive in the UK. Roger’s version of the band have released BOUNCE, an absolute joy of an album that is actually the Beat’s most consistent full-length since their debut.


PAUL CARRACK/Soul Shadows
Still one of the UK’s finest vocalists, Paul Carrack continues to record and tour long after his involvement with bands like Ace, Squeeze and Mike & The Mechanics. Though fans of those bands would prefer to hear more Pop and Rock oriented material from Carrack, his heart is drawn to Soul music and SOUL SHADOWS continues to explore that genre. Mostly self-penned, Carrack also plays practically every instrument on the album and it is released on his own label. Yes, there is a Carrack cottage industry going on here and it is pure, lovely and full of emotion. Releasing his albums on his own label has allowed him to explore all aspects of Soul (with Pop and Rock flourishes) without major label interference.  And when Carrack gets to do things HIS way?  Pure magic.


THE EXPLORERS CLUB/Together
What a treat. The Explorers Club – like Jeffrey Foskett and The Wondermints before them – channel the spirit of the Beach Boys in more ways than one.  The harmonies are exquisite. The songs are amazing. However, the album isn’t just an homage to Brian Wilson & Co.’s influence – it is a love letter performed by a band that understands the inner workings of what made The Beach Boys tick. At times quite stunning, this is an album that needs the love and attention of a nation at odds with itself.  Peace and love, man.


FISCHER-Z/This Is My Universe
Whether he is recording under his own name or the band name Fischer-Z, John Watts has yet to release a bad album. Sure, some are better than others but he’s yet to release anything that registers lower than ‘really good’ on the Richter scale. THIS IS MY UNIVERSE is yet another solid platter from an artist that is unafraid to challenge himself with each release.  FZ’s sound has evolved over the years, finally merging with his solo work, which tended to be more stripped-back and loose.  Nearly 40 years on, Watts remains as relevant as ever.


STEVE FORBERT/Flying By Night
FLYING BY NIGHT is a surprise release, coming just a year after his previous album COMPROMISED (he usually releases an album ever 2-3 years).  And while that album made my list for 2015, this release is even better.  From what I understand, this album was quickly recorded to be released when Forbert did a tour overseas. The songs were, for the most part, previously written bun unreleased.  Whatever the case, it is a wonderful album that actually feels more relaxed than his last few albums. What I love about Forbert is his ability to travel his Folk path and remain true to his musical calling while also realizing that a good melody draws in listeners just as much as a good lyrical tale.  The album is a lo-fi feast of great songs written and performed as only Forbert can. 


THE FRIGHTNRS/Nothing More To Say
One of the things I love about early Ska and Reggae recordings is their haunting quality. The hollow, monaural, echo-drenched (and Dub-inflected) production almost howls at the moon. Though joyful and carefree, you can almost feel the speakers weeping as the sounds swirl around the room. Daptone Records’ first Reggae signings, The Frightnrs fully understand the core of what made those recordings so special. Recorded in mono, NOTHING MORE TO SAY blends Reggae and classic Soul together, creating something that sounds both modern and retro. While I immediately fell in love with its haunting vibe, it wasn’t until I did some research that I discovered vocalist Dan Klein had passed away before the album’s release. Now, the album feels even more haunting than before.


PHIL JUDD/Unique
Nobody creates music quite like Phil Judd. This former Split Enz, Swingers and Schnell Fenster frontman has seen his former bandmates achieve fame and fortune while he toils away, creating music that is mind-bending, multi-layered, thought-provoking and truly UNIQUE. Phil shines his bright creative light into dark places, sounding at odds with the world but accepting of the rain that has dampened his parade.  His music is sometimes scary, sometimes heartbreaking and often times beautiful - UNIQUE is always riveting. Phil Judd has been a recording artist for 45 years and he still finds something new to say and comes up with interesting ways of saying it. UNIQUE is most certainly an apt title for an album by a unique, intensely creative and continually relevant artist in the fifth decade of his career. While this album may be the least commercial entry in my Top 20, its rewards are plentiful to those who like to submerge themselves into something quirky and murky. The magic of the wobbly wizard is still pulsating through his veins!


LATIN QUARTER/The Imagination Of Thieves
THE IMAGINATION OF THIEVES, is perhaps Latin Quarter’s finest full-length since their 1985 debut album, MODERN TIMES. This release is chock full of lovely moments that evoke a time when songs were written from the heart and not on an assembly line.  Vocalist, writer and guitarist Steve Skaith, who released the excellent acoustic LATIN QUARTER: BARE BONES album last year, is still a master of melodies. He has a way with a tune that reaches down deep and massages your heart while the lyrics keep your brain cells working overtime. Sometimes, the songs may take a few spins to really sink in but they provide the ultimate payoff – you become emotionally vested in the music.  Far more gentle and acoustic than their ‘80s releases, Latin Quarter has changed with the times while staying true to their cause. Their sound now is earthy, warm and inviting. There’s no denying that keyboardist/producer/songwriter Steve Jeffries has become an integral part of the band’s sound. As on Skaith’s solo album last year, his keyboard work enhances the beauty of the melodies, creating an ethereal feeling that floats around Skaith’s still brilliantly earnest vocals. Just listen to the beautiful piano melody on “Dylan Thomas Was Right” to fully understand how important his musical input is. 


THE LEGAL MATTERS/Conrad
The Legal Matters personify the sound of Power Pop. Their music manages to include huge portions of Power Pop’s three key ingredients — melodic hooks, luscious harmonies and shimmering guitars. They also manage to squeeze in plenty of warmth, heart, and honesty. The band’s three members – Andy ReedChris Richards and Keith Klingensmith –have been making music separately for years (Andy as An American Underdog, Chris with The Subtractions and Keith and Chris with The Phenomenal Cats) but once they combined forces as The Legal Matters, they became arguably the finest indie Pop band in the U.S. The Legal Matters follow-up their smashing debut with an album that lives up to expectations… and then some! Not only have they come up with yet another batch of great songs, the trio have upped the vocal harmony ante on CONRAD. The harmonies are so airy, light and beautiful that they sound like they are literally floating above the music. CONRAD is far from a carbon copy of their debut – it is more like an upgrade with bonus features.


LOOK PARK/Look Park
Although it has been five years since Fountains Of Wayne released their last album, 2011’s SKY FULL OF HOLES, singer/guitarist Chris Collingwood has been working hard on mixing up his proven songwriting ‘formula’ and approaching the songs in new and more intimate ways. Produced by Mitchell Froom, this ‘debut’ album is a collection of well-crafted songs that retain the melodic charm of FOW but take Chris in new and exciting directions. One of producer Froom’s earliest claims to fame was his work with Crowded House, and Look Park travels a similar musical path as those albums from the Kiwi band led by Neil Finn. The album is filled with great melodic hooks, yes, but the album is warm and intimate. These are songs you fall in love with, and like true love, the album only gets better with time. The production is lush yet intimate and Collingwood approaches each track with a tenderness that was not as apparent as on his work with FOW. “Stars Of New York,” “Breezy,” “Minor Is The Lonely Key,” “You Can Come Round If You Want To,” and “Crash That Piano” are absolutely lovely without being maudlin or too mellow (not that either of those are bad things). Surprisingly, there is very little electric guitar on the album – acoustic guitar, piano and mellotron create an atmosphere that is inviting and melancholic. In essence, LOOK PARK is a beautiful piece of work. It is Pop and it is powerful – it’s just not Power Pop. Don’t fear, FOW fans, Chris has delivered the goods and they are glorious.


RAY MASON/The Shy Requester
It is difficult to explain Ray Mason’s charm to the average music fan. Normally, I like to say, “Imagine Neil Young fronting NRBQ” and most of them say, “Who is NRBQ?” so that comparison doesn’t really work.  When I suggest that his albums kind of slightly resemble David Lindley’s ‘80s releases with El Rayo X, I get blank stares as well. Anyway, I love Ray.  I’ve got a stack of his solo releases going back 20 years or so and he’s never let me down.  Usually working with a band, Ray occasionally releases albums that feature nothing more than his songs, his voice and his Silvertone guitar.  THE SHY REQUESTER is one of those albums. No frills but filled with heart, the songs are nothing more than simple observations taken from Ray’s life… almost like a diary with a reverb pedal and twang bar.  Honest and pure, Ray Mason continues to be one of America’s greatest hidden treasures. So, if you love Jonathan Richman, Nick Lowe, Neil Young, David Lindley, NRBQ, Dave Edmunds and the like, Ray is your man. 


 
IAN McNABB/Respectfully Yours
I normally don’t purposely make time for albums consisting entirely of cover versions.  However, this is Ian McNabb we are talking about here.  Since his days fronting The icicle Works in the ‘80s, Ian has been one of the most consistent singer/songwriters to emerge during the Post-Punk/New Wave movement in the UK.  On RESPECTFULLY YOURS, this Mercury Prize-nominated Liverpudlian musician has given his own spin to songs by artists as varied as The Bee Gees, Echo & The Bunnymen, Randy Newman and Black Sabbath (among others). Instead of boring us with faithful renditions of these tracks, McNabb has shaken them from their foundations and rebuilt them from the ground up. Thankfully, the song’s melodies are still identifiable and familiar. However, they FEEL different and evoke different emotions from the listener. Laid back, unassuming, passionate and without pretension, Ian definitely handles these songs with love and respect.


 
THE MONKEES/Good Times
GOOD TIMES is the band’s best full studio offering since 1967’s PISCES AQUARIUS CAPRICORN & JONES album and definitely one of the best albums of 2016. It is filled with songs that are short, sweet and filled with the Monkees magic that has really set them apart from their contemporaries in the ‘60s and even today. Does it sound like a classic ‘60s Monkees album?  No, but it does feature all the elements that made those albums stand out: great songwriting, production, performances and vocals. Good Times is modern and filled with more energy and excitement than a Chuck E. Cheese during a six year old’s birthday party! From joyful (“You Bring The Summer”, “She Makes Me Laugh”) to melancholic and lovely (“Me & Magdalena”, “I Know What I Know”), this is a feast for those who like hook-filled slices of Pop that rarely exceed the three minute mark. It is more than a great Monkees album  – it is a great album PERIOD.  If you dig the swinging’ ‘60s, Power Pop, Jangle Pop and a dash of Soul and Psych-Rock, then this is an album you should take home and snuggle with.  It spans many generations, mixes them together and lathers it all with love.  GOOD TIMES, indeed! Micky Dolenz remains one of Rock’s most underrated vocalists while Michael Nesmith sprinkles some of his genius onto a few of the tracks as well.


 
MOTORAMA/Dialogues
Listening to DIALOGUES from Russian Post-Punk band Motorama is like revisiting the ‘80s without having to get out of your seat and bother with the time machine. At the same time, it still features all the accoutrements of modern technology so you never feel entirely out of your element. Imagine, if you will, FAITH-era Cure joining forces with POWER, CURRUPTION & LIES-era New Order! While the production is certainly not as ambitious and glossy as today’s modern recordings, that is part of its charm.  This is melodic, dark, hopeful and mysterious. If you’re a fan of slightly dark and very melodic ‘80s music, this is one that should light our fire.  With that being said, it also stands on its own two feet as a great modern indie album that you need to check out… pronto!


 
OSCAR/Cut and Paste
How’s this for an obscure comparison – Martin Rossiter of Gene meets Damon Albarn (Blur) with some Dan Black thrown in for good measure. Oscar creates music that successfully blends Britpop with Electronic Pop, adding some great songwriting into the mix. Instantly lovable, this is music that is edgy enough to be considered cool by the indie kids but hook-filled enough for their folks to dig it as well.  Oscar may not take that as a compliment, but it truly is high praise!


PACIFIC SOUL LTD/The Dance Divine
 Based in L.A., this trio – Norman Kelsey, Teresa Cowles and Adam Marsland – are chiefly known for their individual work with many Indie Pop-flavored outfits over the last two decades. Inspired by their mutual love of Soul, Pop and Funk, the three combined their talents and have released THE DANCE DIVINE, an album packed to the brim with songs that combine their Pop smarts with a distinctly soulful edge. This trio knows that there is no Soul without soul and they bring plenty of it to the table. Like vintage AM radio from the mid-‘60s to mid-‘70s, THE DANCE DIVINE crackles with pure love and energy. Remember when you could listen to a Top 40 station and hear artists like The Delfonics, Paul McCartney, Bill Withers, The Four Tops, The Partridge Family, The Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder and Edison Lighthouse in the same music block? Norman, Teresa and Adam sure do, and THE DANCE DIVINE mines those memories to great effect. Mix in a dash of Disco and a flick of Funk. Add in some Beach Boys harmonies and a Motown groove and you’ve got one hell of a party platter.


THE ROOMATES/Church Bells Ringing
Released on the El Toro label, The Roomates’ 2016 release is an absolute gem. Call them Doo Wop, call them ‘50s retro.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you need to hear this.  The music is so simple and carefree on the surface, yet there’s so much feeling and emotion.  It is perhaps the most uplifting album I’ve heard all year.  This is an album that will clear the clouds on a rainy day and make the birds sing more joyfully on a sunny day.  By the end of the album, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear.  The album doesn’t possess the haunting feel of classic Doo Wop from the ‘50s but then again, the inspiring vibe of the album might get lost if that layer of sadness was added to the songs on this album. A real treasure.


NEIL SEDAKA/I Do It For Applause
Celebrating 60 years as a recording artist, Neil Sedaka is still touring and, thankfully, writing and recording as only Neil can.  A sequel to his piano and vocal only album THE REAL NEIL, I DO IT FOR APPLAUSE takes things one step further by focusing completely on new material and not the mixture of new songs and classic hits as he did on the previous release. At 77 years old, Neil’s keen sense of melody is still intact and he continues along the same musical road he’s been traveling down since the late ‘60s – classic Pop from the heart. As he stated some 45 years ago, the ‘tra la la’ days are over and he proves that on this album. There are no nods to his ‘50s or ‘60s recordings at all. I DO IT FOR APPLAUSE is Neil in the here and now. He still sings about love, life, hopes and dreams. He still knows how to connect, emotionally, with the listener. Surprisingly, his voice is showing very little sign of age although there are a few moments that his voice sounds a little less powerful than it did on “Solitaire” or “You.” Then again, you have to remind yourself that this guy was wowing our grandparents, our parents, us and OUR kids. He’s a Rock ‘n’ Roll legend, a Pop songwriting genius (yes, genius!) and a survivor. Show him some love. Again!


 SETH SWIRSKY/Circles And Squares
He’s an acclaimed author, filmmaker and songwriter (“Tell It To My Heart” by Taylor Dayne is one of his best known songs) yet Seth Swirsky sounds most comfortable as a recording artist. CIRCLES AND SQUARES is a lovely album from top to bottom. Relaxed, melodic and full of musical twists and turns, Swirsky combines the sweetness of McCartney with the wide-eyed adventurous spirit of Brian Wilson. Whether he is a member of The Red Button or a solo artist, Seth Swirsky is completely in tune with the music he creates. He works from the inside out, crafting glorious slices of Pop music and makes it look so easy.  In a sense, CIRCLES AND SQUARES is a loving homage to those that influenced him throughout his career. Swirsky is the real deal.  A name you need to remember and an artist you need to add to your collection!


The next 10 (21-30)
(In alphabetical order):

ANTON BARBEAU/Magic Act
JIMMY BARNES/Soul Searchin’
CHRIS de BURGH/A Better World
FLASHBACK CARUSO/Flashback Caruso Memorial Barbeque
BRUCE FOXTON/Smash The Clocks
JEREMY & THE HARLEQUINS/Into The Night
NADA SURF/Peaceful Ghosts
NICK PIUNTI/Trust Your Instincts
STATUS QUO/Aquostic II –That’s A Fact!
THE SYN/Trustworks