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Archive for the tag “chamber pop”

Top 20 Songs of 2013

I decided this year to compile a list of my 20 favorite songs of the past twelve months. Although I review albums on this site, most of my listening is done via playlists that I either compile myself, or which are generated by an iOS “apRecordsp” based on information in the Last.fm database.

As always, it is difficult to make fine line distinctions between great songs that come from a similar sensibility. Certainly, any of the songs in my Top 10 could have landed at No. 1. I could make that case for some of the tracks in the 11-20 positions, as well. And, over time, my assessments could change, as they did during the year. Nevertheless, this is how I see them at the end of 2013. Full tracks are embedded, or can be heard via the included link.

1.   Eric Barao — “On Holiday” (S/T): An audacious, lushly produced roller-coaster of a song that confidently kicks off one of the year’s best albums. Listen.

2.   The Sharp Things — “Light In My Harbor” (The Truth Is Like The Sun): The key lyric — “I love your face/and the tales it tell, its true/you’re the light in my harbor” — spends a lot of time in my mind. The piano, horns, strings, soulful vocals and jazzy interlude make it irresistible. Listen.

3.   Nick Piunti — “13 In My Head” (13 In My Head): Hands down, the best rocker of the year. It looks backward and forward in both sound and outlook, behind driving guitars and Piunti’s classic vocals:

4.   An American Underdog — “Good Girl” (The A/B EP): This one builds and builds in a sweeping, almost cinematic fashion to an emotional conclusion. And, as we have come to expect from Andy Reed, the track is beautifully sung, recorded and played (with some assistance). Listen.

5.   Stephen Lawrenson — “Words To Say” (Obscuriosity): Melancholy rarely sounds this pretty. I’m a sucker for the kind of jangly 12-string Rickenbacker guitar that anchors this update of a classic mid-60s sound. Listen

6.   Wyatt Funderburk — “Love Will Lead The Way” (Novel and Profane): A perfect pop song, without a bell or a whistle anywhere in sight. Simplicity is often the ultimate in elegance:

 

7.   Lisa Mychols — “Make Believe” (Above, Beyond & In Between) — As she usually does, Mychols takes me back to the days of sitting in the backseat of my parents’ old Chevy Malibu listening to AM radio. Listen.

8.   And The Professors — “Turn of the Century Recycling Blues” (Our Postmortem): They describe themselves as “orchestral pop rock,” and I’ll buy that. One of the more jaunty tracks on a brilliant album that deserves much more attention than it has received:

9.  Vegas With Randolph — “You Set The World On Fire” (Rings Around The Sun): A rocking ode to science, philosophy and the advancement of human knowledge in an era where those things are sometimes in doubt. Free your mind, and check it out right here.

10. Bye Bye Blackbirds — “Waiting For The Drums” (We Need The Rain): This is also a perfectly constructed, simple pop song. I defy you to try to sit still while listening:

11.  Agony Aunts — “Mother Make Sleep” (Big Cinnamon): Purposefully obscure lyrics, minimal changes, and an old-school guitar solo yanked from the mid-70s. In a word, perfect. Listen.

12.  Brandon Schott — “Verdugo Park — Part 2” (The A/B EP): Schott handles all sounds, except for bass, on this soaring track with undertones of the Zombies’ classic, Odyssey & Oracle. Listen.

13.  honeychain — “Lucky One” (Futura): Driving old-school new wave/punk rock, kind of like the Buzzcocks mashed with the Go-Go’s. Listen.

14.  The Connection — “Melinda” (Let It Rock!): This is buried as track 13 on Let It Rock!, and thus is probably often ignored. It’s yet another simple, perfectly arranged pop song that will leave you singing “I write the songs/She sings alone” in your head for hours on end. Listen.

15.  The Sun Sawed in 1/2 — “Brittle Star” (Elephants Into Swans): An exuberant piece of joyful Power Pop, featuring some of the strongest lead vocals of the year. Listen.

16.  Andrea Perry — “Spring” (Four): This sounds like a missing track from Cotton Mather’s Kontiki, which is quite a good thing since that is one of my all-time favorite pop albums. Perry’s winsome vocals play off perfectly against the subtle and quietly driving rhythm. Listen.

17.  Andy Klingensmith — “Template Song” (Pictures Of): This sounds unlike anything else on this list. Its just an acoustic guitar and Klingesmith’s gorgeous, multi-layered vocals. Its simply stunning:

18.  The Well Wishers — “Open Your Eyes” (Dunwoody): Jeff Shelton delivers a perfect traditional guitar-driven pop song about life’s regrets, and possible transcendence. Listen.

19.  Lannie Flowers — “Dance With Me” (Drink A Toast To Innocence). I did not want to include cover songs on this list, but this cover of the Orleans’ smash hit is such a wonderful creative re-imagining (that while nevertheless remains essentially true to the original) that it could not be avoided. I can imagine a bride and a groom dancing happily to this version at their wedding. Listen.

20. The Dead Girls — “Find Your Way Back To Me (Oh My Soul)” (Fade In/Fade Out): At more than six minutes in length, this track is of epic proportions for a pop song. It nevertheless offers a pitch-perfect combination of Neil Young circa 1973 and Big Star without sounding at all retro. Listen.

So, there you have it, the best of the best of 2013. They make a spectacular playlist.

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An American Underdog And Brandon Schott Leave Us Wanting Much More

The A/B EPAlways leave them wanting more.”

That venerable quote perfectly describes the “joint” EP just released by An American Underdog (basically, Andy Reed) and Brandon Schott. The four-song teaser, titled simply The A/B EP, originated online through the artists’ shared admiration of ELO, Elliott Smith and Harry Nilsson.

A virtual collaboration ensued as Reed and Schott contributed to each others’ songs from more than 2,000 miles away. Despite the technology baked into the four tracks, each song nevertheless displays all of the handmade, artisanal qualities of the analog age evident on Reed’s and Schott’s prior efforts, such as this one and this one. The A/B EP delivers four tasty morsels of pure pop goodness to savor until Reed and Schott release their next full-length products.

The digital version of the collection kicks off with Schott’s “Henry,” a joyous romp through three-and-a-half minutes of swirling keyboards, ukeleles, kazoo, glockenspiel and lots of well-placed “la la’s.” What’s not to love?:

Reed’s more wistful “The Show Goes On” follows. Its the perfect vehicle for his gorgeous vocals:

Reed’s “Good Girl” comes next. It’s the emotional center of the collection, as the tension builds steadily throughout the track to a rocking, almost operatic conclusion:

A darker, contemplative mood also marks Schott’s “Verdugo Park (Part 2),” which closes the digital collection. A lot will be written about the many influences at play on this EP, and on the full-length records both artists subsequently release. This one caused me instantly to think of The Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle, particularly (and most fittingly), “Beechwood Park”:

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The A/B EP is a stunning preview of what’s to come soon enough from Reed and Schott. You can download it for $4 or get it on vinyl for $7, right here. You certainly will want more — much, much more.

 

The Sharp Things Deliver Some Sonic Truth

The Sharp ThingsThe Sharp Things’ second release this year, The Truth Is Like The Sun, is informed by a long-span of music history. While its predecessor, February’s Green Is Good, also incorporated “baroque” pop elements, the feeling on The Truth Is Like The Sun is often more “baroque” than “pop.” Its arrangements are bigger, more sweeping and more orchestral than its predecessor. It is anchored by piano, strings and brass, and then sprinkled occasionally by a dulcimer, a banjo, and a glockenspiel to make things even more interesting.

The Truth Is Like The Sun thus takes an even more scenic route to its destination than did Green Is Good. It is the most distinctive release I have heard this year. It may also be the single best.

“Flesh And Bone” likely will draw numerous comparisons to The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” both sonically and thematically. The track about being “lost in the enchanting reverie of you” is one of the standouts in the collection:

The prior song, “Lulubelle” takes a quieter, gentler tact and almost feels like a long-lost holiday song. Perry Serpa’s pitch perfect vocals lead into a multi-voice chorus amid swirling brass and winds:

A theme of “reverie” returns in “Light In My Harbor,” with its key lyric, “I love your face/And the tales it tells, it’s true/You’re the light in my harbor.” Here, we get soulful vocals from Serpa, layered backing harmonies and a nice jazzy piano fill about half way through:

The remaining tracks on Truth fit into this basic construct, and then expand upon it. “Talk To Me” has a cool mid-70s “lite rock” feel, and riffs off of Randy VanWarmer’s “Just When I Needed You Most.” “View From A Room” updates The Left Banke. The lead track, “Can’t Get Started,” about which I wrote here, builds dramatically to a quick wall of sound at its conclusion.

The Sharp Things have now released twenty songs on two albums this year without a single misstep. The ten on Truth Is Like The Sun are each beautifully written, arranged, sung and played. You can “name your price” and pick up perhaps the best album of the year right here. Do it as quickly as you can.

New Music: “Can’t Get Started” — The Sharp Things

The Sharp Things - The Truth Is Like The SunI wrote previously on Green Is Good, The Sharp Things’ release from earlier this year. It remains one of the best albums of the 2013, due to the band’s ability to stitch together such a dazzling array of different pop styles in a way that is entirely natural and seemingly effortless. The sunshiny and soulful “Flowers For My Girl” is also one of my favorite songs of the year.

You can still get Green Is Good as a “name your price” download on Bandcamp. You certainly should do so, and at least put a couple of dollars in the tip jar.

The band has another album, The Truth Is Like The Sun, slated for release this year. The first single, “Can’t Get Started,” was uploaded to Souncloud recently. It’s a brilliant follow-up, and follow-on, to the chamber pop stylings of Green Is Good.

“Can’t Get Started” is piano-driven throughout, with multi-layered vocals, an occasional strike of the guitar, a handful a string flourishes and a slight crescendo of percussion and wall of sound at its conclusion. Its simply gorgeous.

If “Can’t Get Started” is any indication of what’s to come, The Truth Is Like The Sun could cause The Sharp Things to have released two of my favorite records in a single year. Here it is:

 

Five More Top Notch 2013 Pop Releases From The Place Where Melody Is King

I’m still catching up on discussing recent releases that have been spinning my music devices of late. Here’s five more, proceeding in a linear fashion from “quiet” to “loud.”

Andy Klingensmith, Pictures Of: There are only two instruments here — voice and guitar. Or rather many “voices,” as each song with lyrics contains cascades of gorgeous, layered harmonies amid perfect guitar playing. It’s not at all “crunchy” pop, but acoustic pop with an occasional psychedelic sheen in the Simon & Garfunkel vein. Its also the best cool, late-night album you likely will hear for quite some time. Check out “Template Song,” in particular, and let your worries wash away:

Andrea Perry, Four: Perry’s fourth long-player should be played between Cotton Mather’s Kontiki and Emitt Rhodes’ The American Dream. It has the same handcrafted feel as do those two classics. It touches all of the right chamber pop notes with its use of strings, piano, xylophones, among others, alongside Perry’s dreamy yet substantive vocals. It features contributions from KC Bowman of Agony Aunts and The Corner Laughers, about whom you can read about in the post directly below this one. Four reveals its many virtues slowly but surely, and deserves repeat listens:

Laurie Biagini, Sanctuary of Sound: Dusty Springfield would have made records like this had she hailed from Southern California. Biagini creates the sunniest possible mid-60s Sunshine Pop up in Vancouver, playing most of the instruments and handling the lead and backing vocals herself. The Beach Boys run all through Sanctuary of Sound. The album is so unrelentingly upbeat that I couldn’t stop tapping my foot and bopping my head as it played in the background while doing work earlier this week. Feel the warm sand between your toes:

The Connection, Let It Rock: This is garage rock for now people. The Rolling Stones provide the basic template — The Connection cover “Connection” — and the band’s fingers are firmly planted in the kind of melodic rock that once ruled the airwaves. Let It Rock is not some mere retro project, however. It just, well, rocks, and it does so timelessly. The mid-tempo “Melinda” also features some of the coolest “la la la’s” put to wax or to “zeros” and “ones” in quite some time:

honeychain, Futura: This one takes a trip to 1979 and wraps Blondie, The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, The Go-Go’s and countless other kindred spirits from back in that day around Hillary Burton’s capable hands. The sound nevertheless always remains contemporary. The hooks on this five-song EP come at you non-stop, often launched by pummeling percussion, driving bass and equally hammering guitars:

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So there’s another five recent and somewhat recent releases worth checking out. Quiet or loud, slow or fast, they nevertheless come from the place where melody is king.

The Sharp Things: Green Is Very, Very Good

Sharp Things: Green Is GoodThe Sharp Things is a “a New York City-based chamber pop collective” led by Perry Serpa. By day, Serpa is a principal in Good Cop Public Relations, whose past clients include Sonic Youth and Evan Dando of Lemonheads fame. Green Is Good is the Serpa and company’s fourth long-player, and its one of the more intriguing releases in quite some time.

“Chamber pop” is an apt description for Green Is Good, which seamlessly stitches together dozens of different influences into a cohesive quilt of modern pop. No two songs on the collection sound quite the same. That’s a very good thing in hands as sure as Serpa’s which are equally comfortable with late-60s baroque pop, soul, modern rock, disco and country.

The opening track, “Blame The Bankers,” is catchy, horn-drenched soulful agitprop. “The Piper” is a quiet, contemplative tune that could have been done by The Kinks around 1970. “Here Comes The Maestro” would have gotten the entire house onto the dance floor in the mid-80s.

All of this is just warm-up for the transcendent sunshine pop of “Flowers For My Girl,” the best song in the collection. “She keeps on talking, but I’m not at home/My mind is reaching back to afternoon on Sunday/Kissing, laughing, running ’round your bed/So sorry, haven’t listened to a word you said,” it begins before building to a veritable street parade of pure joy by the time the chorus hits:

“Goodbye To Golders Green” takes the opposite tack over a decidedly minimal, minor chord arrangement.

“I Know You’re Gonna Break My Heart” has the kind of sophisticated adult country pop feel of a Jimmy Webb tune sung by Glen Campbell in the late-60s, with Serpa and guest singer, Laura Cantrell, supplying perfectly weary, soulful vocals:

“Dogs of Bushwick” is an autobiographical look at the frustrations of a songwriter felt over many years. “Its a dangerous endeavor/And its much like a drug/Cos you think that your’re winning/But, its never enough/Till the money’s gone/Still the urge is twice as strong,” Serpa sings against a slow swirl anchored by a piano and strings:

Green Is Good is indeed very, very good. There is not a bum track out of ten. It is currently available as a “name your price” download on Bandcamp. That means you could have it for “free.” But, put a couple of dollars in the tip jar nevertheless. It is well worth it.

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