Recommended Albums #79

Yacht Rock Revue: Hot Dads in Tight Jeans (2020)

When is a cover band not a cover band?

In the case of front man Nick Niespodziani and his band Yacht Rock Revue, the answer would be when after a decade your tribute to 70’s and 80’s soft rock takes on such a life of its own that it pushes aside other musical aspirations and, like it or not, you’re a dedicated career yacht rock band. Writing new and original yacht rock.

What is yacht rock? It is–or was–or actually still is, I guess, a brand of Adult Oriented Rock that had a West Coast flavor and proliferated mostly from around the mid-70’s to the early 80’s.

The term came later, like around 2005, and was meant to be a less-than-complimentary label ascribed to the music of artists such as Boz Scaggs, Toto, Styx, Player, Little River Band, Orleans, Robbie Dupree, Christopher Cross, Atlanta Rhythm Section and the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers.

But the thing is: people love Boz Scaggs, Toto and the rest. They can’t get enough “Africa” and “Lido Shuffle”. And bands like Yachtley Crew and Yacht Rock Revue can seemingly make a living leading lively polyester pop singalongs and crooning ‘how long has this been going on‘ for, well, as long as they want it to go on.

The genre is too legit to quit.

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With artists like Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams, Fitz and the Tantrums and Lizzo seasoning the pop charts with retro-leaning sounds, Niespodziani and company saw this as the time to surf the nostalgia wave with a collection of new tunes that seems to fall midway between this new/old soft funk and that breezy late-70’s California sound.

Even Rolling Stone magazine has taken notice of a new pop album that–far from being a throw-away genre exercise–is actually crafted with the same care and attention to musical detail as the music it pays homage to, thanks to producer Ben Allen.

While the sax solo in “Step” might hit boomers right in the Kenny Loggins, it’s the musical equivalent of an in-joke in the context of a winning pop tune.

The flute in “Another Song About California” could evoke Firefall or Lizzo, depending who’s listening. The song has an intro that was naggingly familiar-sounding; took me a while to realize what it reminded me of: the first chords of Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone”.

As for “Bad Tequila”, I don’t know how any pop fan could find it anything but irresistible.

Yacht Rock Revue have successfully updated a genre much loved and much maligned but universally thought to be passé. And they’ve done so with a winking self-deprecation that is itself refreshing considering it’s the self seriousness of some 70’s bands (I’m looking at you, Eagles) that makes them off putting to some younger listeners.

These guys clearly don’t take themselves too seriously. But they have crafted a seriously ear-friendly pop–excuse me–yacht rock album.

 

Listen to: “Step”

 

Don’t miss: “Bad Tequila”

 

Listen to: “Another Song About California”

 

Listen to: “House in the Clouds”

Recommended Albums #78

The Cowsills: The Billy Cowsill Benefit Concert (2004)

Family pop band (and inspiration behind the Partridge Family TV series) the Cowsills staged a benefit concert in September of 2004 at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles to benefit oldest brother Billy, whose health was in decline (Billy would pass away in February of 2006, on the same day the Cowsills were memorializing brother Barry, who died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina).

The 2004 concert recording, enhanced by a little studio polish, is a document to be treasured by fans of the group, whose brief top 40 chart run lasted only from 1967-69. Treasured because there is precious little in the way of widely available audio documentation of the Cowsills in a live setting during the years when all performing siblings were still living. Treasured also because they delivered a visceral energy in a live setting that their more sterile studio recordings couldn’t match.

A prime example is the show’s curtain raiser, and their most enduring hit “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”, which perhaps sums up 1967 as well as anything from Sgt. Pepper–given a goosing here by a more prominent bass line and some sweet drum fills. The complexity of the Cowsills’ vocal arrangements may call to mind chart contemporaries like the Beach Boys. Or perhaps a better comparison would be the Mamas and the Papas.

Or “You’re Not the Same Girl”, previously released by Vancouver band Blue Northern, of which Bill Cowsill was a member. The Cowsill family harmonies make one wonder whether the Canadian top 40 hit could have been more than a footnote in America.

Sister Susan Cowsill takes the lead on “Nanny’s Song”, which she’d recorded on a solo album. The lyric–and her delivery–are simply heartrending:

And when I asked here’s what he told
I want to see my son grow old

Oh, Oh, I don’t want to leave this earth
Oh, Oh, I don’t want to let it go

With all the endless summer days
Watching winter while it fades
Autumn’s sunlight through the trees
The scent of springtime on the breeze
It’s real life that sets you free
Can I take it all with me?
Watching babies while they sleep
Chasing fireflies through the streets
Sleeping under star-filled skies
That moment real love arrives
It’s not as if I didn’t know
That I’d have to let it go

“All I Really Want to Be is Me” is the group’s first-ever release, written by brothers Bill and Bob in ’66 when they were 15 and 13 years old respectively. For this performance they hand over vocal duties to the one sibling who’d never sung in the band, brother Richard. Although his singing is uh…somewhat below the band’s–or perhaps any professional band’s–standard, the song itself is a burner, with more great drum fills from John.

It has one of those elemental choruses that might make you think of a Basement Tapes-era demo Dylan would toss aside and another band would resurrect. Basic and brilliant.

Richard, for reasons not entirely clear, was kept out of the band by his father, and served in Vietnam while his brothers and sister shared the limelight. While the concert is a benefit for Bill, the family carves out a space for Richard too. You can hear a lot of love in the room.

And a lot of talent too.

 

Listen to: “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”

 

Listen to: “You’re Not the Same Girl”

 

Listen to: “Nanny’s Song”

 

Listen to: “All I Really Want to Be is Me”

 

Recommended Albums #77

The Essex Green: The Long Goodbye (2003)

The difficult-to-categorize Essex Green swirl elements of psychedelia, chamber pop, 70’s-style folk rock and country into an intoxicating blend. They somehow evoke the feel of late 60’s psych pop more than they duplicate its actual sound–if that makes any sense.

From a band bio you’ll learn they hail from Brooklyn. But their music is like a passport stamped with sounds from jangly British invasion 60’s to sunny California, with diverse stops between.

At any rate, if they can be described as “psych pop”, the emphasis is on the pop.

Sasha Bell’s flute and vocals front a dreamy, sunlit mix on “By the Sea”. The harmonies in the bridge have Beach Boy ambitions. But equally enthralling is Bell’s lone and unadorned voice–for my money one of pop’s most beautiful.

“The Late Great Cassiopia” drives at a more uptempo speed, with handclaps and layered harmonies keeping it catchy, and “Lazy May” sees Bell in a supporting role vocally, bringing to mind the textures Neko Case brings to the New Pornographers when she isn’t singing lead.

For those who remember the era of the Seekers and Donovan, or for younger pop fans wanting to get off the beaten path a little, there’s a lot to love about the Essex Green.

 

Listen to: “By the Sea”

 

Listen to: “The Late Great Cassiopia”

 

Listen to: “Lazy May”

 

Listen to: “Southern States”

 

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2012/03/24/songs-you-may-have-missed-62/

Recommended Albums #76

Nanci Griffith: One Fair Summer Evening (1988)

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Sweet-voiced songstress Nanci Griffith straddled the folk and country genres, enjoying modest success with her own recordings and having her songs recorded by country hit makers such as Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea.

Before courting a wider audience with the more pop-oriented releases that followed–much the same way that Mary Chapin Carpenter had done more successfully a couple years earlier–Griffith’s August 1988 Anderson Fair (Houston) performance neatly encapsulated her career to that point with a combination of originals and well-chosen covers

She even made Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” a top ten hit in Ireland prior to Bette Midler taking the song to stratospheric heights.

The sympathetic, restrained accompaniment of the Blue Moon Orchestra gives this live release an organic feel throughout. Compared to the original studio versions, which often seem over produced, these recordings feel like the definitive versions of these songs.

Despite only modest success on its release, this album feels like a classic today.

 

Listen to: “Once in a Very Blue Moon”

 

Listen to: “Looking For the Time (Workin’ Girl)”

 

Listen to: “The Wing and the Wheel”

 

Listen to “From a Distance”

 

Listen to: “Love at the Five and Dime”

Recommended Albums #75

Steven Wilson: To the Bone (2017)

Prog god Steven Wilson (some of you want to stop reading right there but I implore you for your own sake to resist the urge) has created, on his fifth solo record, an homage to progressive pop records that captivated  him in his youth.

Echoes of ambitious works such as Peter Gabriel’s So, Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love and works by Talk Talk and Kate Bush permeate a diverse collection that is more about songs than the album. It’s almost like ABBA meets David Bowie–and how awesome would that have been?

Wilson eschews complex time signatures and paints with brighter colors than on much of his past work. The possible risk? Losing a few of the hardcore proggers from his Porcupine Tree days. The probable reward? Growing his newly multi-gendered audience by throwing them more sonic thrills than challenges. Steven Wilson can make any kind of album he wants. He wanted to go pop-rock. And it’s glorious.

The slow-building “Nowhere Now” hearkens to Wilson’s work with Aviv Geffen in Blackfield, with its dark ruminations on ruination colliding with an uplifting harmony chorus.

“Pariah”, featuring guest vocals by Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, ricochets between hope and hopelessness, determination and despair:

I’m tired of Facebook
Tired of my failing health
I’m tired of everyone
And that includes myself
Well being alone now
It doesn’t bother me
But not knowing if you are
That’s been hell you see

“The Same Asylum as Before” is simply a thrill ride and the best rock song I’ve heard this year, period. Falsetto vocals. An anthemic and cathartic chorus that may inspire you to explore your car’s volume dial limits. A searing, channel-panning metalesque solo that drops off a cliff into a quiet, almost jazz section…there’s a hell of a lot going on here. But this kind of ambition and dynamic interplay are the particular forte of the many-hatted Wilson. Guitar god, producer extraordinaire, songwriter par excellence…it’s amazing to think prog rock’s current leading light is actually getting better.

“Permanating” puts the exclamation point on Wilson’s foray from dark introspection to buoyant populism. It’s unapologetically joyful–a description I can’t believe I’m applying to Steven Wilson.

But hey, if Steven Wilson wants to make pop prog, or pop rock, or whatever you call this, he will. And he’ll do it better than virtually anyone else can.

 

Listen to: “Nowhere Now”

 

Listen to: “Pariah”

 

Don’t miss: “The Same Asylum as Before”

 

Listen to: “Permanating”

 

See also:

https://edcyphers.com/2016/03/09/songs-you-may-have-missed-574/

https://edcyphers.com/2014/08/10/songs-you-may-have-missed-513/

https://edcyphers.com/2013/10/04/songs-you-may-have-missed-483/

https://edcyphers.com/2013/02/11/songs-you-may-have-missed-329/

https://edcyphers.com/2012/11/14/songs-you-may-have-missed-236/

https://edcyphers.com/2012/10/01/recommended-albums-24-2/

https://edcyphers.com/2017/05/01/songs-you-may-have-missed-614/

Recommended Albums #74

Ron Sexsmith: Retriever (2004)

Ron Sexsmith’s 2004’s Retriever LP is the ideal primer on the work of the Canadian singer-songwriter, and certainly among best work of his career.

Delivered with his trademark McCartney-esque melodic knack, his insightful takes on (as he puts it) “the business of the heart and of the soul” come across as earnest, honest, and emotionally compelling.

“Hard Bargain” is a tribute to a stubbornly determined love that refuses to accept failure. In the hands of another–or lesser–songwriter, the self-loathing touched on here would have been the song’s focus. But in Sexsmith’s hands it is merely given proper proportion in the greater context of a remarkable love affair:

Each time I’m headin’ for nowhere/Doomed and determined to go there/Seems I never get far/’Cause you drive a hard bargain

How’s a guy supposed to fail/With someone like you around/I’ve tried, I’ve tried to no avail/You just can’t seem to let me down

“Imaginary Friends” is a cautionary ode to friends who “meet you when your ship comes in, but never meet you eye-to-eye”. “From Now On” is radio-friendly and had a topical feel in Iraq-War 2004. “Whatever it Takes” channels Bill Withers, adding another color to the album’s palette. And “How on Earth” extolls the amazement of finding a “love divine” in this vale of tears.

Unabashed romanticism is splashed across this album; it seems to come from a place of domestic bliss indeed. But Sexsmith’s understated style is always engaging, never cloying.

Sexsmith is a consummate song craftsman, combining the lyrical precision of Motown or Tin Pan Alley masters with an honesty that rings true. The songs sound lived-in here, as if the work of a man either revealing his own relationship status updates, as it were, or proving to be a talented illusionist. And that’s what a true songwriter does: either finds the universal in the personal, or makes the universal sound personal enough to feel real.

 

Listen to: “Hard Bargain”

 

Listen to: “Imaginary Friends”

 

Listen to: “From Now On”

 

Listen to: “Whatever it Takes”

 

Listen to “How on Earth”

Recommended Albums #73

walter

Walter Martin: Arts & Leisure (2016)

Ex-Walkmen singer-songwriter Walter Martin has an easy, whimsical, tongue-in-cheek way with a song that calls to mind people like Jens Lekman and even Paul Simon.

walter-martinArts & Leisure is a travelogue of sorts. With wry specificity Martin takes the listener on a tour of places he’s seen, jobs he’s had and people he’s been, with a love of art at the forefront of much of the album.

I don’t know what’s more of a kick here, the lyrics or the playful, kooky arrangements. Percussion like the sound of coconuts takes you “Down by the Singing Sea”, and “Amsterdam” throws bass harmonica and various whistlie and tinklie things into a rollicking mix that may bring Jacques Brell to mind. Fun!

His solo debut, 2014’s We’re All Young Together was a children’s album for adults–something like They Might Be Giants might offer. But on Arts & Leisure, Martin’s childlike playful high-spiritedness is still intact as he explores a wider world. Truly this is an artist with a refreshingly unique world view.

Listen to: “Down by the Singing Sea”

Listen to: “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich and Famous”

Listen to: “Amsterdam”

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2016/03/11/songs-you-may-have-missed-575/

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