Reviews: 4.9.19: John Howard’s Emotional Rescue, and Anchor and Bear’s Tasty EP

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

John Howard | Cut the Wire (You are the Cosmos, 2019)

In the end and at the end, when we take stock of ourselves, when we reflect on a life lived on purpose and with purpose, we remain the product of what we achieved; our footprint is the culmination of a life lived in so many ways.

John Howard’s gorgeous, wistful song cycle, Cut the Wire, draws on the idea of living a life affected by love and pain and faith and belief in the self, in others, and in the stars; it’s about innocence lost and remembered, and found again. Pretty melodies, rich harmonies, emotional vocal leads and an intimately pastoral sound, evoking the early, baroque songs of Elton John and brought to life by poetic lyrics deeply reasoned, take your breath away as the hearts of these songs beat.

In Cut the Wire’s breezy, thoughtful opener, “So Here I Go,” a life is lived with the controls set at full steam ahead, no matter what may occur along the way (“Nothing ever takes the time / You think that it will take / Nothing ever lives in head and heart / Nothing ever feels / The way you think that it will feel / Nothing ever ends the way it starts”). It is, when all is said and done, a song about hope (“So here I go…”).

All of Cut the Wire’s songs are ultimately about hope or joy, celebration or remembering, in one way or another. The title song, a beautiful, melody-rich ballad that revels in a sweet childhood that changed when adulthood set in, cautions how important it is to hold on to good memories and keep them alive (“I told my sister we were eagles / She laughed and tapped me on the head / I combed her hair and heard the seagulls / I dreamed of sand-dunes in my bed / And it was on the day / That childhood ran away / The day they laid the wire”).

“Keep Going, Angel,” a happy mid-tempo number with lovely chords that increases in intensity as it plays on, is all about believing in life and all of its possibilities, no matter what (“Keep believing in believing / That anything can happen / And it most probably will”). “Idiot Days” looks back from the position of a grown-up to the days when consequence of action wasn’t a present state of mind (“‘Who did you hurt back then?’ / Oh there’s too many to mention / From my Idiot Days”).

Perhaps the centerpiece of Cut the Wire is the emotionally gripping piano ballad, “Becoming,” in which a partner muses about how he and his relationship have changed and longs for how it used to be. He finally figures it all out and comes to a peaceful place (“This morning I held your hand / And told you we were lucky / We were older / We were frightened / But we were lucky / You waited for a moment / And then you smiled / You squeezed it back and suddenly I knew / It was still you and me together / In our anger / In our confusion / In our weaknesses”).

The brilliant stroke of Cut the Wire is that its emotional stories are told with sweet, heartfelt melodies at their core, and sung with a voice that conveys the truths of life that most everyone can relate to and even learn from. On this, his 16th studio album, Howard draws breath from the fabric of life in a most enriching and entertaining way.

Where to Get It: You are the Cosmos, Amazon

Anchor and Bear | Arrows (2019)

The third release from California quartet Anchor and Bear follows last year’s top-flight album, Raincoats and Gold, with a delicious serving of differently-flavored pop songs, all of them quite delectable and delivered in catchy style by Katy Pearson, Brian Bringelson, Eric White, and Kenny Bringelson.

“Want Your Love” is a sprightly confection, with gorgeous harmonies, about being overcome by love. “Broken Arrow” is a meaty pop rocker spiced with a bit of funk about, as near as I can tell, a loner musician who has lost his music mojo and is disconnected from his friends.

“Disconnect the Phone,” Arrow’s jewel, all shiny and bright and catchy, is a classic slice of pop that should be a slam dunk at radio. Telling the story of a relationship’s disconnect, the song is ingeniously composed of several distinct sections that work together to put a huge smile on your face (the sweet-sounding opening is reminiscent of a familiar online ringtone). And
“Magic” is a quite catchy pop rocker with heavy guitars.

Throughout the program, Katy and Brian’s vocals unite harmoniously, a perfectly matched pair communicating joy to listeners. And with Arrow, Anchor and Bear is continuing to build a fine catalog of releases.

Where to Get It: Bandcamp

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 4.4.19: The Armoires’ Two Songs of the Moment

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

The Armoires | “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?” b/w “Not a Good Man”
(Big Stir Digital Singles, 2019)

The 23rd release in the ongoing Big Stir Digital Singles series is a whizzing whizbang that juggles velocity and an ever-present cadre of moving parts that sizzle and steep like a teabag that has dutifully filled an oversized mug with aromatic flavor.

In other words, this is a thing that cannot be contained because why would you want to? The Armoires are back, baby, and the fruits of their new labors compel you to chugalug with abandon.

This is the song pairing of the moment, and it’s a toss-up as to which track wins its way into your heart over the other. I mean, pick and choose your favorite and do the very same an hour later and I submit that it would be hard for you to choose.

“(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?,” a stomping garage rocker with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them baroque touches, ear-ringing background harmonies, spit and a whole lot of polish, co-written by Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko, kicks in with a very Byrdsian guitar figure atop drum smacks, cymbal crashes, and Larysa Bulbenko’s steady viola. Spygenius’s Ruth Rogers pilots a runaway bass line that works in tandem with Derek Hanna’s drums to propel the track forward. And, if you determine that Christina’s vocal is delivered in the best Debbie Harry tradition, you would probably be correct.

The story told is one of a mismatched couple who hang in there against all odds. But why is this couple together? The narrator sums up the perilous situation with one of the cleverest lyrics I’ve heard this year: “They call me three miles of bad road, but babe, I’m the whole 405 / And the biggest mistakes take the longest to kill you, and that’s why you’re still alive.”

Produced by Plasticsoul’s Steven Wilson with the Armoires, the half-parenthetically-titled “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?,” which will feature on the Armoires’ forthcoming album Zibaldone (due in August), is a hoot of thing, a real live honest-to-goodness keeper. But, and your mileage, as they say, may vary, the song’s digital single mate, “Not a Good Man,” may well eclipse it and wind up your favorite.

If “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?” is a stomping garage rocker, “Not a Good Man” is full of extra-added stomp. A supercharged back-and-forth duet, with Rex Broome taking the Sonny position and Christina Bulbenko taking the Cher, this I-don’t-deserve-you-well-I-don’t-care four-on-the-floor rock and roll-until-the-finish-line-is-in-sight track is fully baked with crunchy electric guitars, pumping drums, and Larysa Bulbenko’s viola as the musical cherry on top.

Round about the 2:47 mark, the band ever-so-temporarily hits the snooze button, and Rex mutters “Probably should have finished the song.” Christina coos a knowing “Uh-huh,” Rex mutters “Okay,” the guitars kick back in, and Christina gets the band back in gear with a strong-willed “Sock it to me!” in her best Judy Carne verbal guise. From there, the guitars are in charge, the background singers chant “Awoo not not a” as if they’d just wandered in from recording America’s “Sister Golden Hair,” and the track comes to a close, but not before tipping its hat to early ELO with a thump of a tag that would only have raised even more hackles had a full orchestra been ushered into the mix.

“Not a Good Man” dates back to the Armoires’ earliest days, being the first song they played live. Produced with gusto by Nathaniel Myer with the Armoires (Myer features on the track behind the drum kit, plucking the bass strings and handling the guitar solo), this is one of the kind of musical moments that, thanks to your incessant toe-tapping, will have your downstairs neighbors all hot and bothered.

“Not a Good Man,” by the way, will not feature on the upcoming Armoires platter, Zibaldone, so you will want to snap this single pairing up without delay. Offering “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?” alongside “Not a Good Man” seems like the bargain of the century, or at least of the moment. However you look at it, it’s quite the thing.

Where to Get It and Preview Tracks (Releases tomorrow,
Friday, April 5): Big Stir Digital Singles (Preorder)

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 4.2.19: Charming Folk-Pop from Scotland’s Ally Kerr, and The Lunar Laugh’s ’80s and ’90s-meets-Motown Track

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Ally Kerr | Upgrade Me (Much Obliged, 2019)

It could be said that the observations and life lessons drawn as lyrical imagery in Ally Kerr’s beautiful new songs are proper fodder for listeners trying to assess the validity of their paths in life. Let’s go with that as we marvel at the quality of some of the prettiest songs we’ve heard in many a moon.

It would be fair to classify the songs on Upgrade Me as folk-pop but, and here’s the thing: wouldn’t it be lovely to just say that these are gorgeous compositions, beautifully performed? Sure it would.

These gorgeous compositions are flooded with imagery; at first listen, you get the general sense of what Kerr is describing, and upon further listens, you start to feel the onion peel and insights begin to reveal themselves. Kerr’s lyrics are poetry in motion, blending in the musical mix.

Generally, the ballad form, sporting pretty melodies, is most prevalent here, but a few swift kicks to the side are also on offer. The ballads are the strongest tools in Kerr’s kit. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

The album opener–the title song–talks about fighting emotional elements in order to assess what is going on around you, as love fills your core. “Resting you between my arms / Feel a life so charmed / Leaning on the slender rays of setting sun,” Kerr sings atop nimble acoustic guitar, slight piano and tender violin.

In “All Go Dancing,” lovers join together to go on an adventure, possibly for the last time (“This is my final throw, where I end up I don’t know”). Looking back, the narrator wonders how their union began (“I saw you down by the ocean / Breaking waves on the bay / Did our eyes meet once, in that moment? / A spark of come what may”).

Partners gather round a virtual “Campfire” to plot out their escape to an island standing all on its own, where peaceful waters flow. New adventures will hopefully bring happy times (“Ditched all I’ve known / Made a bolt for the blue / May the future / Remake us anew”). The tune is casual and happy and pretty.

Acoustic guitar and orchestration pilot the gorgeous “Gilbert,” an emotional, slow-to-midtempo song about leaving a draining job to make one’s dreams come true (“To be young at heart, such a gentle art / Open minds flirt with wisdom of the seasons”). All of the emotion of Upgrade Me’s songs lay bare as they play toward the closing instrumental, “Toldeo,” where feeling is felt as an orchestrated piano piece that plays slowly, deliberately to a silent close.

Producer Biff Smith presents Kerr’s delicate songwriting and performance with an understated approach that elevates the emotion weaving through this artist’s songs. It is a wondrous exercise in the portrayal of art, a musical mosaic, the parts of which add up to a shining half-hour’s worth of thinking person’s magic.

Where to Get It: Bandcamp, Amazon, iTunes

The Lunar Laugh | “Waiting for a Sign” (2019)

Last October, we reviewed “By the Light of the Living Room,” the first new song slated to appear on the Lunar Laugh’s next album, due in June. “Waiting for a Sign” is an absorbing look at a fractured romance (“You jump ahead, I hesitate / I know you tried to set me straight / And I lost you in the by and by / Gone with the wind, my empty sky”). The song scores with an inventive soulful track that pays homage to ’80s and ’90s pop, with a slight scent of Motown melodic structure.

The players: Jared Lekites, lead vocal, piano, and percussion; Connor Anderson, vocals; Jimmy Jackson, drums; Taylor Johnson, bass, keyboards, and electric guitar, and Campbell Young, electric guitar and vocals. “Waiting for a Sign” points to a terrific album to come.

Where to Get It: CD Baby, Bandcamp

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 3.26.19: Terry Draper Invites You Into His Garden, Brad Marino Does What Comes Naturally, and Popdudes Channel the Cookies, the Beatles and Roy Orbison

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Terry Draper | In My Garden (TerryTunes, 2019)

How you got here from there really isn’t all that important; it’s that you wound up here that really matters. Many, if not most of you will, while flying your Klaatu flags high, proudly note that you were here from the very beginning (some of you will have been here even before the beginning, which is quite a feat of legerdemain).

In any case, you are here now because the music of Terry Draper has spoken to you through the years, since Klaatu burst on the music scene in 1976 or even before (kudos to you). Think about that: Terry Draper has been making music for at least four decades plus. That is a very long time to be putting smiles on people’s faces.

So, kudos to Terry. The thing is, though, that some of you will have come to this new album, a gathering of earthly delights picked from previous releases and featuring two new songs, without having experienced the wonder that is Klaatu. For you, this new album, In My Garden, is perhaps the perfect introduction to the music that Terry Draper has released during his solo years–music that looks at life and how to negotiate it.

Released on 180 gram vinyl with 11 tracks for old-school enthusiasts and on CD with three bonuses for everyone else, In My Garden is a veritable cornucopia of musical joy–something for everyone and then some, bringing together a community of been-there-all-alongs and hey-I’m-new-heres to celebrate the music of one of melodic pop’s most important practitioners. (Purchasers of either the vinyl or CD from Terry’s website also get a download with WAV files of the songs, a digital booklet, and nine videos.)

Whether you’ve been following Terry’s music all along or have just been hipped to him, you will find much to admire and enjoy here. Some personal favorites that may well be yours too, regardless of your starting point: “When I Grow Up,” from Civil War… and Other Love Songs, which contains one of Terry’s prettiest melodies; it’s a wistful song about holding on to one’s youth as a way of tempering the less-than-happy shades of one’s life. And “Jules and Me,” from Searching, a pretty, multihued song about getting lost in good books–in this case those written by Jules Verne–and being taken away to far-off lands because how cool is that.

More personal favorites: “Pied Piper,” a fun cover of Crispian St. Peters’ top five Billboard chart hit from 1966, which features the great Ray Paul, whose new compilation is about to be released, on harmony vocals. And another fun song, “She’s All Mine,” from Remarkable Women, a joyous, pop-rocking charmer about accepting one’s partner lock, stock and barrel.

Of the two new songs on offer, the beautiful “I Wish I Could Fly” is my pick to click–a gorgeous song that, on the surface, is about the freedom of flight and what it might be like looking down from above as you glide along through the skies. The first song written for an animated cartoon called Sparked (unfortunately never produced) is about the childhood of Nikola Tesla, who was the inventor of, among other things, the AC, or alternating current, motor. What a joy this cartoon would have been to experience!

Making its first appearance on an album (in this case, the CD version of In My Garden; it was previously released as a single track), “Latitude Adjustment,” featuring Ray Paul on backup vocals, finds Terry escaping the cold for the warmth of the sun in Florida. Never has an escape to the Florida Keys been so melodic or catchy. Or sun-tanny.

Helping to bring Terry’s catchy creations to life are Dana Countryman, Bill Nadeau, Brenda Webb, Spitt Passion, and more melodic fellow travelers. Old friend Ted Jones, who brought so many Klaatu album covers to life with his imaginative designs, provides this collection’s captivating cover art.

Welcome to Terry Draper’s garden of earthly delights. However you got here, you are here in this very special place. Track one, here you come…

Where to Get It: Terry Draper’s Album Store (USA), (International), (Canada)

Brad Marino | “What Comes Naturally” (Rum Bar, 2019)

For this rocking new single off the upcoming, highly-anticipated album from the Connection’s Brad Marino (Extra Credit, releasing April 19), the multi-instrumentalist extols the virtues of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in a song that portrays a Rolling Stones-meets-outlaw country vibe.

What comes naturally for a guitar player keeping the beat? Sleeping late, steaks on the grill, breakfast (at a quarter to two), checking the sports scores, celebrating happy hour (but only from 3:30-5), and listening to records. Sounds like a life, doesn’t it?

Tap your feet in time with this top-flight melodic rocker, and look forward to Marino’s album, just a little over three weeks away.

Where to Get It (Single releases digitally on April 1): Amazon

Popdudes | “Chains” b/w “Dream Baby” (Big Stir, 2019)

The 21st entry in the ongoing Big Stir digital singles series is a warm-hearted, joyous double-sided melodic pop hug from Orange County, California’s Popdudes, with up-and-coming popster Addison Love and his pop Tim joining always-and-forever members Michael Simmons and journalist/drummer John Borack.

This million dollar quartet is more than up to the task of celebrating the original recordings by the Cookies and the Beatles (“Chains”) and Roy Orbison (“Dream Baby”). The harmony vocals on “Chains” are quite attractive; Addison Love sings the solo lines and plays lead guitar. On “Dream Baby,” Tim Love steps up to the microphone with a sweet lead vocal–channeling the Big O, no doubt (he also plays electric bass); the equally sweet sha-la-la-la, uh-uh-huh background vocals also shine.

Where to Get It: Big Stir Digital Single No. 21

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 3.21.19: The Squires of the Subterrain’s Radio Silence: Ghosts are Afoot

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

The Squires of the Subterrain | Radio Silence
(Rocket Racket, 2019)

In the achy, far-from-silent world that the characters of Christopher Earl’s new songs inhabit, ghosts, or feelings that go bump in the night, are afoot, the past is a bubbling mess ripe for healing, and actions have their consequences.

Channeling Tom Waits and Randy Newman’s somewhat-skewed New Orleans-flavored optimism, Earl tells some tales about people who may or may not ever emerge from their nightmarish stupor and, you know, be able to get a Slurpee at 7-Eleven without looking over their shoulders for that which is forever haunting them.

Radio Silence will come as a surprise to listeners who were expecting from this album some kind of rock and pop and roll exposition. Even within Earl’s considerable catalog, this album is something else entirely–an aberration of sorts, but still quirky, if a bit off-balance.

This is an album settled comfortably (or uncomfortably, as the case may be) in the waking netherworld of men and women haunted by their day-to-day uneasiness. That it is also tremendously entertaining and a thinking-person’s collection of wildly creative songwriting makes it a living, breathing object of your affection.

These songs, jazzy, bluesy, and loose-limbed-like-skeletons, function as a lo-fi song cycle masquerading as a waking nightmare. The characters on display have their work cut out for them, being haunted by the ghosts of feelings past that live inside and surround them. Telling these tales with saxes and trumpet, ukulele, piano, drums, guitar, banjo and vibraphone, Earl lets the narrative chips fall where they may as these compositions unravel.

A pair of songs about ghostly feelings rolls out after the moody title track. “House of Ghosts” is a New Orleans jazz stomper with blaring, loosey-goosey flurryed horns that almost celebrates a life surrounded by the ghostly remnants that haunt it. “Another Ghost (In the House),” a slow, moody, jazz grind punctuated by plinking piano and bluesy guitar lines, ponders the state of a home living with its secrets.

In the determined dance of “Whiskey Closet,” which sounds not unlike a hora, the narrator sings of the place underneath the stairs where you go to toss your cares away. In “Tequila and Gin,” a jazzy shuffle that finds Earl sliding brushes atop his snare drum, liquor is thicker and whatever you’re pouring is the cat’s meow.

The subject of the Steely Dan-ish slow, bluesy roll, “Fever Eyes,” holds sway as those in his gaze fold like cheap clothing. In prime Tom Waits territory, Earl sings about the “8th Wonder of the World,” a slow burner of a tune about a temptress with powers far beyond those of mortal women (“She’s a genius of deception and disguise/She’ll pull the wool right over your eyes”). The track rides atop thumping bass hits, bluesy piano and Earl’s emotive vocal.

The idea of ghostly feelings shadowing our waking souls is prevalent throughout this album. Earl finishes with a short, closing rumination, “Shadow,” in which piano, banjo and the artist’s lively vocal tell the tale. And the tale? Shadows follow and keep following, but what those shadows tell us is up for debate.

The Squire

What isn’t up for debate is the weight of The Squires of the Subterrain’s Radio Silence. For Squires of the Subterrain fans, and fans of eclectic, left-field turns that think outside of the box, this collection, “recorded in the basement on analog gear” according to the artist, dazzles. It is quite an achievement in a long career that is defined by them.

Where to Get It: The Squires of the Subterrain website, CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 3.19.19: Gretchen’s Wheel Rides the (Nada) Surf, and Lannie Flowers’ Pop Waltz

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Gretchen’s Wheel
Moth to Lamplight: A Tribute to Nada Surf
(Futureman, 2019)

Listening to this new collection, a tribute to rockers Nada Surf, with less-than-zero knowledge of the band or its songs, turns out to be the smartest move I’ve made in awhile.

Going in blind, I was able to judge the songs on their own merits and I didn’t have to play the Which Version is Better? game. These are the only versions of eight of Nada Surf’s songs I know. But as good as the songs are, and they are very good, I was mostly taken with Lindsay Murray’s vocals and musicianship.

Lindsay’s ability to weave together harmony lines into living, breathing stacks of joy would be hard to beat under any circumstance. Throughout the eight songs she’s tackled on this album, her vocals, lead and otherwise, shine like the brightest objects in the sky (and quite happily recall the vocal timbre of Aimee Mann). Lindsay’s musicianship is stellar; her bass playing, especially, is inventive and serves the songs to a tee (she also plays the guitars and keyboards with aplomb; Nick Bertling plays the drums and provides the solid bottom end in his usual, top-flight way).

These eight, mostly upbeat songs live and breathe and come alive through a steady, deliberate mix of guitars, bass, drums and a smattering of keyboard flourishes. Top contenders for favedom here at Pure Pop Radio headquarters are the mid-to-fast-paced “See These Bones,” sporting a mix of tempting rhythms and a tremendous vocal harmony performance, and the closing, acoustic “Rushing,” in which Lindsay’s lush harmony vocals and acoustic guitar take center stage to phenomenal effect; she ought to make this track her audio business card–sing to impress and all that.

So, being new to Nada Surf, but not new to Gretchen’s Wheel and the magic that Lindsay Murray employs to dazzle her listeners, turns out to be a recipe for a half-hour well spent. Purchase Moth to Lamplight: A Tribute to Nada Surf beginning this Friday, and see if you don’t agree.

Where to Get It (Releases March 22): Bandcamp

Lannie Flowers | “Anything But Love” (SpyderPop Records, 2019)

Song number 12 in the series of free numbers being released during the run-up to Lannie Flowers’ upcoming album, Home, is a typically engaging treat, this time played out as a supercharged sorta-waltz telling the story of a guy stuck in that age-old I’m-in-love-but-I-messed-up-so-can-I-come-back, can-I-huh? turnabout. The guy knows the score, but he isn’t sure how to turn his situation into a win (“Why is it so hard/To admit that I was wrong,” he wonders.)

Another slice of engaging melodic pop from one of our most cherished singer-songwriters. And it’s a free download from the SpyderPop Records website. What are you waiting for?

Where to Get It: SpyderPop Records

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 3.15.19: Screen Test Shines Brightly, and Wes Hollywood Applies Some Lipstick

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Screen Test | Through the Past, Brightly
(Northside, 2018)

From the ashes of the Flashcubes came Screen Test; under that moniker, Gary Frenay, Arty Levin and Tommy Allen, honoring their influences, brought lightning and thunder to meaty original songs and covers.

This compilation brings together seven newly recorded tracks and six that date back to the 1980s. Interestingly, they all sound like they were recorded around the same time, such is their vitality and sense of purpose. Of the new recordings, all written in the 1980-1985 time frame, the power ballads are tops of the pops: “Tomorrow is Another Day” is a Todd Rundgren-like number; “Standing On a Cloud” and “Don’t Lose Your Heart” shine with pretty melodies. And the reverent cover of Emitt Rhodes’ “Fresh as a Daisy” is a welcome listen.

Of the previously-recorded songs, “Make Something Happen” is an upbeat pop-rocker with great harmonies; “Hurt So Bad” is a muscular cover of the 1977 Greg Kihn song, with its timeless catchy chorus; and “Richard Brautigan” is a power ballad tribute to the late writer, who almost released a spoken-word album on the Apple Records offshoot, Zapple, in 1969.

Flashcubes, and Screen Test fans, you know what to do.

Where to Get It: Kool Kat Musik, Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes

Wes Hollywood | Lipstick (2018)

Available as a digital release on Wes’s Bandcamp page, this lively four-tracker is a solid collection from the Chicago rocker that came out before the new Kool Kat Musik CD release, Dynamite, reviewed earlier this week.

Two songs pay homage to the early Elvis Costello sound (the pumping title track and the midtempo ballad “Too Late”). “All the Lovers” and “Peace Before We Die” are uptempo rockers (the latter opens with a seductive, eight-bar intro mixing a rare acoustic guitar strum, bass and drums).

Where to Get It: Bandcamp

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 3.14.19: Joe Sullivan’s Growing Up Schlockstar: Love and Attraction, and Armchair Oracles Hearts You

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Joe Sullivan | Growing Up Schlockstar
(Futureman, 2019)

Joe Sullivan’s Schlock Star was an obvious hit platter when it came out in 2014, partly because it was such a surprise and pure of spirit and joyful in song. It stood out among that year’s top releases because it didn’t pretend to be anything other than the culmination of an honest day’s work.

Schlock Star felt like a natural, pure collection of natural, pure songs. You could tell within seconds of spinning it that Joe had natural talent, that given the right circumstances, he would always deliver on the promise of that first record. And so he has, here in 2019, with the sequel to Schlock Star, cheekily entitled Growing Up Schlockstar, an even more wonderfully entertaining half-hour-long melodic pop album that, plainly put, is more fun to listen to than you could ever imagine.

It’s almost as if Joe wrote the 10 songs on Growing Up Schlockstar to provide clarity to listeners who have been looking at their growing up years and wondering what it all amounts to. Of course, Joe is most interested in what those turns of calendar pages amount to for his edification, but no matter–we all take from songs what satisfies our souls.

Growing Up Schlockstar is, put simply, about love and happiness. There are songs about suburban nirvana (“Greenfield Acres”), high school sweethearting of the pom-pom variety (“Cheerleader”), celebrating with the one you love (“Birthday”), and true love through time and space (“Time Machine”).

Mostly, what there is is emotion, looking at a life and knowing its value, played through in pop, rock and roll songs that point to the past as much as they embody the here and now. There are spot-on references to Brian May’s guitarring and the sound of Jellyfish and Fountains of Wayne, but moreover there is the sound of Joe, which is the sum of a whole lot of parts.

Joe Sullivan, grown up Schlockstar

Emotion is all over these songs. “Birthday” sounds like the lively and loud mix of guitars, bass, drums and cowbell is looking to break out of the hoosegow even if it takes all night. “Greenfield Acres,” the place where youthful dreams were made, glides along like a Jellyfish outtake with the addition of a very Brian Mayish guitar line, joyous harmonies and a lovely melody.

The biggest emotion at play in these songs is love, is attraction, is two hearts beating as one. In the album closer, the Fountains of Waynesy “Space Princess,” attraction is played out within the confines of a space opera. The path of the imperfect, throwback male explorer (“He gambles, drinks, and smokes cigars/But she doesn’t care/She wants to run her fingers through his 1970s feathered hair”) is set. “Super fantastic intergalactic/You don’t mess/With a space princess,” the explorer observes. “I’ve got my phaser/Set to amaze her/She’s the best/My space princess.”

You don’t mess with perfection, and that’s what you get with Joe and his partners-in-song on Growing Up Schlockstar. Andy Reed, who produced and engineered, always capturing the best performances, plays bass. Drummer Donny Brown puts the oomph where it belongs in his usual skillful, emotive way. Joe sings, strums, picks, wails and generally makes his guitars sing. And Brandon Schott adds a large measure of peace and love to the nostalgic childhood look back, “Gifted and Talented.”

Growing Up Schlockstar, with a colorful cover full of childlike wonder by John Bellsmith, is a joy to behold.

Where to Get It (Releases on April 1): Check back for purchase links

Armchair Oracles | “Porcelain Heart” and “All My Time” (2018),
“Downsized Life” (2019)

The delightful songs that have so far been released by Norway’s Armchair Oracles, in advance of the band’s upcoming third album, Caught by Light, have brought some welcome light into this life. With these songs, this charming band is well on its way to releasing a joyous collection of melodic pop gems.

These three lovingly crafted songs reach out and touch the sounds of the 1970s and 1980s, while also hugging contemporary sensibilites. All three are extremely catchy earworms drifting atop gorgeous melodies and beautifully-realized arrangements.

I heart Armchair Oracles, and you will too.

Where to Get It: CD Baby (all three songs)

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 3.13.19: Wes Hollywood’s Dynamite, and Yorick van Norden’s Melody-Rich The Jester Sings

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Wes Hollywood | Dynamite (Kool Kat, 2019)

From Chicago to your town, Wes Hollywood’s Kool Kat CD debut hits the ground running with a fun, zippy mix of tunes saluting the sounds of early Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, and sixties British Invasion bands. Two guitars, bass and drums rule here.

From track to track, all relatively short, you never know where you’re going to land even as guitars are the primary ingredient. “Dirty Manhattan” is loud, speedy, and in-your-face; “Nothing to See Here” is an uptempo number with a melodic bass line; “Evelyn” is pure, early Elvis C., with a surprising blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quiet bridge–just Wes and guitar–towards the end.

Wes Hollywood

Hollywood ups the ante with songs like “Fall Up a Ladder,” a mid-paced ballad that manages to reference the Kinks and Squeeze and slip in a waltz tempo that increases in intensity with a minute to go. “Dandelion” sounds for all the world like a mix of early Elvis Costello and British Invasion moxie. But it’s the straight-ahead pure pop of the closer (with a Stiff Records cold ending), “No One Loves You,” that neatly pleases this reviewer’s heart the most. It’s a catchy two-and-a-half minute earworm, for sure.

Wes Hollywood’s Dynamite, brought to life by Wes (guitar and vocals), guitarist Pete Javier, bassist Spencer Matern, and drummer and vocalist Tom Shover, is pure dynamite.

Where to Get It: Kool Kat Musik

Yorick van Norden | The Jester (Excelsior, 2018)

Yorick van Norden’s miraculous album is a strong gathering of melody-rich songs crafted with care by a songwriter who possesses a keen sense of melodic structure.

Hailing from the Netherlands, van Norden is clearly influenced by some of the top melodic stylists of the rock and pop eras. This sophomore release (his debut, Happy Hunting Ground, came out in 2015) makes a strong statement, and is proof positive that melody continues to be king.

The Jester’s opener, the psych-drenched “The Forest of the Mind,” echoes the sensibilities exhibited in similar-sounding work by XTC and the Big Dish. The jaunty, jangly “Another Day in London Town” and “More than Words” sound as if they could have been plucked from the fertile song wells of any number of 1960s British Invasion stars. Yet, they are uniquely van Norden.

Van Norden’s ballads are as inviting as his more upbeat numbers. “Suite No. 1,” a gorgeous, orchestrated flight of fancy, is a pure pop masterwork, a very affecting, enlightened construct. “Winter,” with its Four Freshmen-like harmonies and Beach Boys and Association sensibilities, is a waking dream of a tune, an instant classic. And “Light Up Love,” which sounds like a close cousin of Paul McCartney’s “Put It There,” marries lovely harmonies with a strong melody and a plucking bass-as-percussion bottom.

The shining light that closes van Norden’s sophomore journey, “Suite No. 2,” is a seven-and-a-half minute coming together of song sections clearly influenced by classic, melodically-centered artists such as Harry Nilsson, Emitt Rhodes, and the aforementioned McCartney. It is a stunning offering that closes with a softened instrumental explosion of themes and feeling, one that paints the soundfield with traditional pop and rock instrumentation, orchestration and heart.

With melody as its heart, Van Norden’s The Jester is a shining example of the best that melodic pop has to offer.

Where to Get It: Amazon, iTunes

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

Reviews: 3.12.19: Marc Jonson Returns, and The Connection’s Brad Marino Keeps the Beat

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

Marc Jonson and Compañía de Sueños Ilimitada
“My Girlfriend Doesn’t Like the Ramones” b/w
“I Don’t Want to Go to School Today”

(Munster, 2019)

Pure Pop Radio favorite Marc Jonson (a guest last year on Pure Pop Radio: In Conversation) joins up with Spanish band Compañía de Sueños Ilimitada for a double-dose of deceptively simple electrified pop tunes on the Munster label.

The upbeat, driving, straight-ahead rocker “My Girlfriend Doesn’t Like the Ramones” layers a catchy melody and harmony vocals over cranking guitar and pounding drums. It’s a sad story, but these things happen (“My girlfriend really hates the Ramones/I have to sneak around the house and wear my headphones”).

“I Don’t Want to Go to School Today” echoes a familiar refrain heard ’round the world and features, like this single’s companion track, harmony vocals and a particularly catchy melody. The narrator doesn’t want to get to learning, but there might be an alternative plan for the day: “Well I might get out of bed and I might make something to eat/Or I just might stay in bed and go on back to sleep/Why count the minutes ’till eight/When I can count me some sheep.” In any case, he intros some solo guitar by shouting “Hey! Study this!”

Marc’s much-anticipated new album, When, is coming later this year. Good–no, great–news. Meanwhile, this seven-inch will do just fine.

Where to Get It: Munster Records, Amazon, iTunes

Brad Marino | “Broken Record” (Rum Bar, 2019)

A powerhouse single from the Connection’s Brad Marino, off his upcoming solo long-player, Extra Credit, is an upbeat pop-rocker with teeth, very catchy and singalongable and played with gusto in toto by the artist, save for a background organ part essayed by Kris Rodgers.

“Broken Record” is kind of a once bitten, twice shy, three strikes you’re out tale, about a girl who just doesn’t get the whole treating records like your firstborn child thing. She doesn’t know how to put records away (“She leaves them on the couch/And she doesn’t use the sleeves/There is no alphabetical order/Nothing chronologically”) and the records are toast (“She’s my broken record baby/She scratched up half the tracks/Clicks and pops and skips and jumps/She’s gone and ruined all my wax”).

A sad tale, for sure, but what a record! “Broken Record,” an insanely clever pop and roll number, makes it tough to wait for Extra Credit to arrive. But wait, we shall.

Where to Get It: Amazon, iTunes (Extra Credit releases April 19)

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Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. We’ve been around since the first weekly Pure Pop Radio shows, which began broadcasting in 1995, and the 24-hour Pure Pop Radio station, which ended last August.

Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.