Saturday, November 24, 2012

Recent Faves from Pop Vets

The Human Hearts - Flag Pin EP
Franklin Bruno's recent EP is a digital-only appetizer for the forthcoming full-length Human Hearts album Another, which is getting a Kickstarter-funded vinyl release. I'm not familiar with the entire Bruno discography - it's extensive and spans many years and many tiny labels - but I've enjoyed his work with John Darnielle as the Extra Glenns/Lens, his '90s solo material collected on Local Currency, and, especially, the album of his songs recorded with Jenny Toomey and Calexico, Tempting. The title track of the new EP is a rocker that deals with a subject that was (thankfully) more-or-less absent from the recent campaign season. "Flag Pin" features one of the best Bruno vocals I've heard and, as with many of his songs, is a bit more complex than it sounds at first listen. "Plot of a Romance", currently my favorite track on the EP, is a smart, self-aware love song, a bit meta though not unsincere, the kind of song I associate with New Wave, especially early Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello (Bruno is the author of one of the most musically insightful volumes of the 33-1/3 Series, on EC's Armed Forces). Though it nods to the Attractions sound, this is a Franklin Bruno song through and through - who else (outside of the English folk revival) would refer to the couple in the song as "fair maid, ardent swain"?

A.C. Newman - Shut Down the Streets
Carl Newman's latest is for me the first of his solo records to match up to the best of the New Pornographers (by my definition, their first three records). Newman's songwriting took a somewhat different direction after Twin Cinema, and that direction seems to have finally, fully paid off with Shut Down the Streets. Not only did he write a batch of superb songs, but he found the right group of musicians to realize them. At the Rock Shop record release party, I was struck by just how beautiful and intricately detailed the arrangements of these songs are (incorporating flute and banjo, among many other instruments) and how well Newman and the group were able to translate them to the stage. "I'm Not Talking", perhaps the most memorable song on the record, is sequenced first, but I wouldn't call Streets front-loaded. There are plenty of other high points, like "Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns" - the most New Pornographers-y track here, both in sound (Neko Case's harmonies are prominently featured) and title - and "There's Money in New Wave", one of the best (and least treacly) father's-advice-to-his-young-son songs I've ever heard.

Redd Kross - Researching the Blues     
Though Redd Kross' music has been described many ways ("sugar-punk"?!), I would just say that this is one of the best power pop records I've heard in ages. I need to revisit Neurotica, often considered this band's masterpiece. My recollection is that that record, from 1987, had some rather un-assimilated punk and metal elements while Researching fits more comfortably in the lineage of classic guitar-pop, though there is certainly punk attitude. It's a brief album, unabashedly Beatlesque in places (even the total running time is very 1965) and full of brief, super ear-catching gestures - twin George Harrison-style melodic slide guitars, a distorted guitar that appears to play a couple of sustained, bent notes before vanishing, and even some good-old-fashioned "la la la" harmonies. The best of the best for me is "Stay Away From Downtown", the track that the band and their label (the great Merge Records) seem to have recognized as the catchiest thing on a record full of them, promoting it with a KISS-inspired video. "Stay Away" is a three-and-a-half minute masterpiece, with an unstoppable and unforgettable main riff. Another favorite is "Winter Blues", which, despite the title, could be considered one of the great odes to California sunshine ("solar-regulated days"), a category of song that's certainly been well-represented in pop music since the '60s.