Mrs. Magician and Bryan Estepa

Mrs. Magician

Mrs. Magician “Bermuda”

San Diego’s noise pop band Mrs. Magician hits the bullseye on their second full-length release. Its punk filtered through 60s thru 90’s power pop, where “Phantoms” foreshadows the gleeful self loathing people have as “everything’s automatic/dogmatic/I’ve had it!” Its all set to catchy layered garage riffs that echo in your head. If Nirvana was power pop band then they’d sing “Eyes All Over Town,” its fuzz guitar riffs sped up to a bouncy beat. Lead vocalist Jacob Turnbloom’s does a great job getting to the heart of nihilism on “Tear Drops” where the ba-ba chorus undercuts the lyric “Life sucks. Tough shit.” His sound and style reminds me of A.C. Newman (The New Pornographers) throughout the album.

There is still a glossy sweetness to the music as Jacob’s layered vocal tells you to “Just burn in hell” like a satanic Beach Boys on the song “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” Virtually no filler on this brilliant study of contrasts, as another gem “Where’s Shelly” has the harmonies shine through revealing the evil underbelly of tropical paradise. The catchiest melody here, “No More Tears” is about going off the grid and “burying your head in the sand.” This is a brilliant album that makes my top ten list.

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Bryan Estepa

Bryan Estepa and The Tempe Two “Every Little Thing”

Bryan Estepa and The Tempe Two (David Keys on Bass and Russell Crawford on Drums) remains one of the best kept musical secrets down under on Every Little Thing. A combination of California and Americana roots styled pop, it starts with a few folk-styled ballads “Think of You” and “At Least You Did Not Know” easing into the the guitar pop of “Object of My Disaffection” which recalls Neil Young’s “Lotta Love” mixed with a little Fleetwood Mac.

“Sooner or Later” is another good ballad that brings to mind Paul Williams. “Don’t Hurry Baby” is a little twist on Brian Wilson, looking at the girl from the dad’s point of view and “Empty Handed” has some smartly added guitar distortion in the solo. But primarily this is Estepa at his most self-reflective in soul searching mode. A grower for sure, and definitely worth repeat listens. Fans of Paul Williams, The Jayhawks, and Elton John will enjoy this one. Highly Recommended.

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Rooney and Bent Van Looy

Rooney

Rooney “Washed Away”

Rooney was one of those rare power pop bands that achieved commercial success early on. I guess the opening line of the title track sums it up the state of the band now, “I’m so washed up… I need more time.” With just Robert Schwartzman helming this version of the band, it uncomfortably tries to modernize its sound and remove most of the gritty melodicism that made it one of the most exciting bands to hear when the single “Blueside” burned up the charts in 2003.

There are still guitar based tracks here, but only after several shallow synth-beat-heavy pop songs. “All The Beautiful People” is a vapid theme for those Hollywood red carpet parties. The sun soaked “Don’t Be A Hero” sounds like a lost boy band, with its Beach Boys-like lyric “Corona, tequila, a little marijuana…” Feels to me like its pandering to millennials, and it isn’t until mid-way through the guitars come out on “Washed Way,” and “Love Me Like There’s No Tomorrow” that it starts to sound like the “old” Rooney. The feel good “Come On Baby” has the requisite handclaps, jangle riffs, and catchy chorus, but the best song here is the melodic ballad “Sad But True” written for Schwartzman’s directorial movie debut, Dreamland. Maybe they need to revive themselves the way Weezer recently did by going “back to the shack.” Anyway, its decent listen and an enjoyable album fans will embrace.

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Bent Van Looy

Bent Van Looy “Pyjama Days”

Belgian-Parisan pop singer Bent Van Looy made a big impression on me with his debut produced by Jellyfish alum Jason Falkner, so I was eager to hear this new album. His natural relaxed vocals are a big sell along with his knack for catchy melodies, “30 Days Without Sun” opens with a flowing piano and smooth studio production. The Falkner touch is clearly heard on “High and Dry,” with its layered guitars and handclaps in the chorus. No real filler on this album has it comfortably shifts from mid-tempo “Downtown Train” to bouncy ear-worm “1000 Deaths.”

It gets a bit more low-key in spots “One Way Dialogue” and “Today and Forever,” ditch the drama to pay attention to self reflection. But when Bent turns up the volume, he produces masterful melodies like the title track, and “My Escape.” Fans of great pop songwriting like Sondre Lerche, Neil Finn or Ron Sexsmith will thoroughly enjoy this. Highly Recommended.

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EP Reviews: Hemmingbirds and Nate Leavitt

Hemmingbirds

Hemmingbirds “Half A Second”

Chicago’s Hemmingbirds began as a solo project of singer/guitarist/violist Yoo Soo Kim, but has since emerged as truly talented band. On this latest EP, its blasts out of the gate on the title track a blend of indie rock and catchy power pop in the chorus. It grabs hold and doesn’t let go with subtle layers of instrumentation and balanced noise. “Mess of Things” follows with its tribal beat and rhythmic guitar riffs, in fact the album notes specify that it “isn’t necessarily a concept but more so a feeling. “

“Stay” has some dissonance and a repeating synth loop that reminded me of Tokyo Police Club a little, with a quiet break in between the frantic drums, and it ends with the solid ballad “Lover, You’re Out There” but even here the instrumentation drowns out the piano and lead vocals at some point. While way too short, this EP is highly recommended and worth repeat listens.

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Nate Leavitt

Nate Leavitt & The Elevation “Someone Send A Signal”

Not power pop, but solid alt. country and blues pop. Nate Leavitt and bandmates entered the studio at Studio A in Somerville, Mass and coaxed out the spirits of Neil Young, Wilco, Butch Walker and even Alex Chiton here. “Relieve Me” opens up a painful story with longing in each riff and organ chord. It builds in intensity with each verse, and Leavitt’s guitar work is exceptional here.

The ballad “When I Was With You” is a detailed love story where both people connect to the music and then separate. “Take Me Back” is a rousing layered guitar gem with a catchy chorus that hits the sweet spot. Unfortunately, that bit of optimism is followed by mid tempo wallowing in sadness and then on the title track, moving on after heartbreak. “I Can Breathe Again” is emotionally draining, but ultimately this themed album is a gorgeously produced and performed. Highly Recommended.

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Tommy and The Rockets and Sons of Morning

Tommy and The Rockets

Tommy And The Rockets
“Beer And Fun And Rock ‘n’ Roll”

New Trocaderos’ songwriter/producer Michael Chaney teamed up with Danish multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/rocker Thomas Stubgaard to make a retro beach party soundtrack. Guitarist Brad Marino (The Connection, The New Trocaderos) heard the demos and agreed to play drums and bandmate Geoff Palmer engineered the album. So the similarity to The Connection/Trocadero’s sound is intentional, but this is definitely different .  

If you can imagine The Ramones playing The Beach Boys, then you got the formula right. The title track is an infectious hook driven single that takes no prisoners. “Here Comes Summer” is a bit more bubblegum with those “wee-ooh” backing harmonies, and innocent 60’s school boy lyrics. “Need Your Love” and “Silly Teenage Love” have the same percussive bounce and jangling riff structures. The next several tracks keep the quick tempos, gradually losing the backing harmonies as they start to resemble Radio Days. Despite the sense that we’ve heard this stuff a million times before, this is still an incurably addictive album. Highly Recommended.

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Sons of Morning

Sons of Morning “Sons of Morning”

East Haven, Conn. band with a lot of classic influences; from The Rolling Stones to Lou Reed. It all begins with the unassuming “Outta My Head” featuring a simple bass guitar lead. “Way Beyond” is a slow 12 string, country blues tune and later its followed up by the ballad “He Wore Black,” about a performer wishing Johnny Cash would visit him.

The “side two” portion has more of a rock orientation, but it isn’t as memorable until we get to the impressive “Didn’t See The Man” where the boogie tempo picks up and the vocals of Tom DelFavero and H.Miller suit the style perfectly. Add to this a rockin’ guitar solo at the end and you’ve got something special.

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Starling Electric and Colman Gota

Starling Electric

Starling Electric “Electric Company”

Seven years is a lifetime for a band like Starling Electric and its been that long since we reviewed their debut album. But singer/songwriter Caleb Dillon soldiered on to finish Electric Company. Like the last album, a myriad of influences from melodic ’60s and ’70s pop, prog and rock are the base of this musical soup. Based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan the band’s players have changed a little, but the sound is consistent and the songs resonate even more. 

“No Clear Winner” blares out a chord before it quietly gets to the verse. Then Dillon has the blaring chorus sound like Peter Gabriel had joined Guided By Voices. Some lovely song fragments float in, like “Expression One” but after this we are treated to the joyous “Permanent Vacation,” the magical melody of “Arrowsmith” and fuzz-drenched “Mild Thing.” The elegant Brian Wilson styled orchestration meets CSN baroque harpsichord on “Young Man of The Mountain” continues this string of  great songs. “Bad Blood” has an irrepressible beat and hand-claps, then we get to “Zodiac,” a catchy mid-tempo gem about a girl with an precognitive abilities. The Rundgren-like structure of “(Save Me From This) Amy” is another brilliant tune amongst the bunch with rarely any misstep in its 16-track running time. This is simply a great album that deserves to be on my top ten list for 2016. Super highly recommended.

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Colman Gota

Colman Gota “Tape”

Last year Colman Gota (Insanity Wave) embarked on a successful solo career, and Tape is a really good follow-up. If you can imagine Tom Petty with less alt country, and a lot more alt rock you’ll enjoy Gota’s music. “Waiting for a Change” starts us off with a dense riff and driving chorus. Even catchier is “Another Chance” with its “ba-ba-da-ba” backing harmonies and hand claps. But its the title track that explains it all as Colman sings “I fell in love with rock and roll/that kind of music soothes my soul.”

Colman is more focused and you can hear the difference; “Sing Your Song” and “A Long Week Ahead” speak of long nights on the road, and domestic bliss. My favorite here is “Do What I Want,” a great message about living life the way you want, all set to a great hook. There is no filler here, and even the indulgence of a horn section in “Something I Don’t Need” make it a great party tune. Highly Recommended.

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