Thursday, November 14, 2019

Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band - Flyover

Flyover, the second studio album from Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band, has been a great many years in the making. The period between this album and its predecessor Promises To Deliver now approaches six and a half years. For context, consider that the year Promises To Deliver came out, the Houston Astros were a 51-win team! But if this is what we get after all of this time, then every last bit of the wait was worth it. Out tomorrow on Don Giovanni Records, Flyover is exactly the album you would expect from one of THE great American rock and roll bands of present times. It does not redefine what Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band are all about. The Minneapolis outfit continues to be the quintessential garage/punk influenced bar band - playing traditional rock and roll with grit, soul, and an impressive flair for storytelling. And from the first spin, this album absolutely knocked me out. Coming in at ten tracks, Flyover is honest, straight-forward rock and roll done so well that you wouldn't want it to be anything else.

While I have heaped plenty of accolades upon Nato Coles as a singer, songwriter, and general man of the people, I have not said nearly enough about the Blue Diamond Band. The group's formidable chops are the result of years of continuous touring and an undying commitment to rocking the roof off of every dive bar, pub, club, social hall, amphitheater, shopping complex, picnic pavilion, water park, coffee shop, bowling alley, gambling den, and basement venue that will have them. The band as constituted on this 2017 recording is Sam Beer on lead guitar, Mike Cranberry on drums, Luke Lecheler on keyboards, and Bill Rohla on bass. Beer is an absolute force on this release. I don't know whether to describe him as Nato's own Mike Campbell or as a combination of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. Either way, he's one of my favorite guitarists working today (It figures that I'd be huge fan of a guy named "Beer"). From the opening strains of "Under The Flyover", the Blue Diamond Band sounds plain hot on this release. Cranberry and Rohla mightily drive the rhythm while Lecheler works the keyboards with exemplary old school R & B flair. And while his band fires on all cylinders, Nato delivers a stunning set of rockers, ballads, and anthems.

Given the years elapsed between albums, Flyover might be considered Nato's own Darkness on the Edge of Town (although it's probably closer to The River!). He had to be dying to get some of these songs on record. Like any Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band record, Flyover transports you to a world where the bright lights and hot sounds of transcendent rock and roll spring weary souls to life. Propelled by a big hook chorus and Beer's guitar heroics, "Under The Flyover" is absolutely the huge opening statement this album required. This is the sort of magic we expect from the Blue Diamond Band, and Nato's lyrics vividly complete the picture:

It's a hub of glorious hell in a west Wisconsin town/
I won’t stop coming around/
The last time we came through we raged until the dawn/
Count the bottles and bodies on the lawn… allright!

"Under the Flyover" is one of several standout rockers on this album. While slightly slower in tempo, "L.P.'s Yard" is even more powerful and emotion-packed (in Nato's own words, the song possesses a nostalgia "usually reserved for songs about great victories against the odds in battle"). "Standing On the Corner Alone" (previously heard on 2016's Live At Grumpy's) and "Michelle of the City" are vintage BDB sing-along anthems. "The Roadrunner" is a high energy barroom rocker replete with a moral ("Don't you waste no time/You know tomorrow's thine"). "Demolition Man" is completely over the top swagger-rock with lyrics to match ("I'm your real live, bonafide, nationwide, rippin' tide, living eyed, triple-wide, chicken-fried, double A-side"). If it's rock you crave, it's rock you shall receive! But Nato and the Blue Diamond Boys have reached the point where their ballads and quietly reflective numbers just might outshine their rockers. "Phoenix, Arizona (1989)" offers the indelible lyric "If this is what I wanted, why do I feel so haunted?" and leaves the Blue Diamond Band with at least one song in its back pocket should it ever find itself performing at Bob's Country Bunker. "Milo and the Bars" finds Nato excelling as a storyteller and expert chronicler of the human condition. In my book, it's the finest songwriting of his life. The roots/folk/Americana ballad "Disposable Camera" finally delivers Nato his "Here Comes A Regular" moment. While "epic" may be a term overused by music reviewers, I cannot think of a more appropriate way to describe closing number "The Avenue of the Saints". 

Flyover demonstrates why I'm such a fan of Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band. It's an album full of memorable characters, compelling stories, and eternal truths - all presented in the context of great American rock and roll. This is an album that could be enjoyed equally by a Fest attendee and your (admittedly hip) grandfather. It's full of songs that remind us to savor the remarkable moments in our lives and take the time to get to know the people we encounter in this world. I know I was a little surprised that "Dangerous" and "Midnight In Memphis" from the split with State Drugs were essentially leftovers from this album's recording sessions. But now having heard Flyover, I get it. These ten songs belong together, and I wouldn't change a thing. Compact disc release coming next month on Rum Bar Records!


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Cheap Cassettes - See Her In Action!

God, I love these crazy far-out digital times! You can wake up to what you think will be an another uneventful Tuesday, and suddenly a quick foray onto social media has you discovering that one of your three favorite bands on the planet has released a new EP that you didn't even know was coming out! Considering that most bands tease their new stuff weeks or even months in advance, that sort of surprise is a real treat! See Her In Action! is The Cheap Cassettes' third EP and first to be released exclusively in the digital format (at least for now). I know you'd probably expect me to say that this is the best thing this band has ever done. And of course I'm going to say it, but only because it's true! These tracks were recorded in June by drummer Kevin Parkhurst and subsequently mixed and mastered by living legend Kurt Bloch. And so here we are!

While generally typecast as a "power pop" band, The Cheap Cassettes could just as easily be filed under catchy punk or rootsy rock and roll. I think what strikes me the most about these songs is how they reflect Chaz's recognizable style as a songwriter far more than any sort of conformance to a genre. In these songs, I'm picking up on many of the same qualities that first made me a fan of Chaz's 23 years ago. He's older (although some of us have our suspicions about that), wiser, and more seasoned in his craft. Yet this is classic Chaz, and it doesn't hurt to have amazing players like Kevin and Izzy bringing out the best in him. This record is full of his signatures. There are the lyrics that just knock me out ("Disco dancing with the alpha males/No, not this one/She's got a necklace made from the teeth/Of all the boys who called her cheap"). There are the references to old Hollywood and classic literature. There's that grand romance that practically bleeds from his poetry ("We were mini brutes in our punk rock boots/Throwing shapes up to the gods"). "See Her In Action" is melodic guitar pop in all of its punchy glory, propelled by a simple but perfect hook and the instantly classic line "even your god is a she". "Only Lovers Left Alive" sure feels like a throwback to the Dimestore Haloes days, right down to those red-hot rock and roll guitars and lyrics romanticizing the resilience of punk rock lifers. Given that the majority of this blog's readership is probably comprised of forty-something and fifty-something musicians, I imagine the line "If we got old, we are the last to know" will strike a chord with a lot of you. And speaking of songs that might say a lot to me about my life, "Lil' Bit Everyday" is the greatest love song to alcohol that anyone has written in years.

See Her In Action! made me think of a recent interview with Ken Burns. He was asked about why so many of his films resemble each other. His response was, "What you're referring to is style, and mine works because it's authentic to me." That quote seems to perfectly sum up The Cheap Cassettes to me. They've been perfecting their own style for the last eight years, and consequently the records just keep getting better. This EP is everything I love about pop and punk and rock and roll all in one shot. It doesn't sound like any other power pop band out there, but it sure sounds like The Cheap Cassettes. I wondered if Chaz would ever be able to top "Kiss The Ass of My Heart", but I'd say he's definitely done it with "See Her In Action". And yes, that "cover model" is Hedy Lamarr - legendary Hollywood beauty and the inventor of frequency hopping. Now go give The Cheap Cassettes three bucks!


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Kurt Baker Combo - "Can't Go Back"

What a great run of new music we've had this fall! That continues with the latest single from the Kurt Baker Combo. The new record is called "Can't Go Back", and it's out now on Wicked Cool Records. These tracks come from the same sessions that resulted in the Combo's outstanding summer 2019 single "(I Can't Help) Failing In Love". This single was produced by Mike Mariconda and post-produced by Wyatt Funderburk under the watchful eye of executive producer Steven Van Zandt. What I love about Baker's records with the Combo is that you never know what you're gonna get. Garage rock? Power pop? British Invasion? Pub rock? You can expect any of that and more. Baker co-wrote "Can't Go Back" with Andrew Rice, his former band-mate in The Leftovers. I sometimes think of The Combo as a modern-day version of The Attractions, so the vintage Elvis Costello flavor of this track just seems fitting. And with a guest appearance on 12-string guitar by the supremely talented Johnathan Pushkar, there's a more than palpable Beatles influence as well. What a great little pop song! On the flip, "No One's Home" is a song Baker co-wrote with Mark O'Flaherty, his band-mate in The Gold. This one's straight-up old school rockabilly and ought to have you reaching for your dancing shoes. I like how this track really lets The Combo turn loose its chops: Jorge Colldan tearing it up on lead guitar while Juancho Lopez & Sam Malakian steer the beat like the pros that they are. If this song doesn't get your toes tapping, nothing will!

Baker and the Combo enlisted a whole slew of talented friends to make "Can't Go Back" a cool record. Additional "guest stars" include Dani Niño on baritone saxophone, Maika Maikovski on backing vocals, Kris Rodgers on keyboards, and Manuel Machín contributing hand-claps. These two songs were definitely tailor made to be paired on a 45, and I imagine a lot of you will be playing the heck out of this thing! This is my tenth time reviewing a Kurt Baker record (or 21st if you include other releases he's played on). How long will it take until I've reviewed ten more? I'll start taking your bets now...


Friday, November 8, 2019

Midnite Snaxxx - "Music Inside"

Yes, you read that right! We get a brand new song today from the mighty Midnite Snaxxx, which I'm "leaking" with the blessing of the band and its record label Slovenly Recordings. "Music Inside" is the opening track from the album of the same name, which will be releasing December 6th on Slovenly. I don't want to spoil too much for you. So I'll just say Music Inside is a very different record for Midnite Snaxxx - in an entirely good way. "Music Inside" is essentially a mission statement/tone setter for the whole album, and I've been going nuts for the song for the past month without being able to tell anyone about it. Well now the world can hear what I'm so excited about! I think fans will be surprised, but above all else, really delighted by this track. It's a killer tune, and the band sounds absolutely amazing. I will have much more to say about the full album in a couple weeks. But for now, enjoy "Music Inside"!


New Rochelles - Animal Boy

I have officially come full circle on Ramones cover albums. I went from thinking they were the coolest thing in the world to finding them utterly pointless. I had gone a decade plus without having the slightest urge to listen to any of them. But the New Rochelles covering Animal Boy in its entirety has pulled me back in. This, to me, is where it starts to get truly worthwhile to revisit the Ramones catalog. Animal Boy was released in 1986 - essentially the mid-point of the Ramones' existence. Is it a great Ramones album? Well that depends on who you ask. A good portion of the fan base will still defend a lot of the songs. But can anyone really defend the production? Certainly the Ramones struggled for most of the '80s to find a producer that "got" them. But Animal Boy seems the most blatant example of a failed attempt to commercialize the greatest band to ever walk the earth. It's certainly the most "'80s" sounding release in the band's catalog - and not in a good way. With the New Rochelles being true believers in all things Ramones, they were more than worthy candidates to re-make Animal Boy and perhaps demonstrate what the album could have been. This is the debut release on Hey Pizza! Records - a new pop-punk label with a whole lot of hot stuff in the works!

What's noticeable about the New Rochelles' interpretation of Animal Boy is that it has great reverence for the original - warts and all. You can tell they love this record and wanted to pay proper tribute to it. The band chose to retain the use of keyboards, and I was struck by how similar the vocals on "Somebody Put Something In My Drink" sound to Joey's on the original version. Even when you're dealing with a somewhat polarizing Ramones album, you probably don't want to reinvent the wheel. But while all these versions are largely faithful to the originals, I am pleased to report that the dated '80s production has been updated to sound more like a modern pop-punk record (Yeah, I know some of you wise guys will say that that's even worse!). In particular, "She Belongs To Me" and "Something To Believe In" have been made over in such a way that ought to appeal to fans of post Lookout! Records pop-punk. I'm definitely having a "Hey, are these songs better than I thought?" moment with those two tracks. 

Beyond the collectable/novelty factor, I think the whole point of covering an entire Ramones album is the attention it brings to the original version. It had been a while since I'd sat down and listened to Animal Boy. Of course "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg" is great. But upon revisiting the album, I was reminded of several other tracks I absolutely love (the title track, "Love Kills", "Crummy Stuff"). In much the same way that Boris the Sprinkler's version of End of the Century caused me to re-think my entire stance on that particular Ramones album, the New Rochelles have led me to see Animal Boy in a more favorable light. I can't imagine a fan of the New Rochelles not already owning all of the Ramones albums. But if this is your introduction to Animal Boy, it ought to make you want to hear the original. And if this is your first time hearing the New Rochelles, you may be impressed enough to seek out their excellent full-length It's New Too! Anything in this world that encourages more Ramones worship is a worthy endeavor in my book. So I'm giving a big thumbs-up to all parties involved in this project. Now who will dare to take on Halfway To Sanity?


Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Speedways - Just Another Regular Summer (Deluxe CD Edition)

Back in the summer of 2018, I reviewed an absolutely tremendous record by The Speedways that to my mind has never received its due acclaim. At the time, it was intended as a one-off solo project by Matt Julian. But you know how things sometimes work out, and before long The Speedways became a proper and permanent band. Julian and his band-mates are now hard at work on a second Speedways album likely coming out next year. In the meantime, Rum Bar Records has given that stunning debut Just Another Regular Summer new life in the U.S. with a shiny new CD reissue. This deluxe edition includes all 12 songs from the original album plus both tracks from the band's "Seen Better Days" single and three acoustic demos. In my humble opinion, this is one of the best power pop albums of recent years. It absolutely merits some renewed attention. When it comes to writing songs about heartbreak and lost love, there's nothing more authentic than writing about actual heartbreak and lost love. Just Another Regular Summer is a concept album Julian wrote about his real-life summer of 2014. He really wore his heart on his sleeve penning these tracks, which take inspiration from '70s new wave and power pop and the timeless sounds of '60s pop. Hearing this album for the first time, I felt as if I'd encountered not just a talented songwriter, but also a kindred spirit. I am super stoked that Malibu Lou shared my affection for this record so deeply that he was willing to release it in America. Bonus material includes the band's warmly received cover of the Kirsty MacColl classic "They Don't Know". If you love power pop, you need some Speedways in your life!


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Wyldlife - "Neon Nightmare"

Oh boy, a new Wyldlife single! Out now on Wicked Cool Records, "Neon Nightmare" is the New York City foursome's third 7". As usual, the band serves up a welcome reminder of a time when they still played rock and roll on the radio. Well, actually they do still play rock and roll on the radio - just not on commercial radio! But man, it sure would be super cool to hear a song like "Neon Nightmare" while I was shopping for produce or getting my teeth cleaned. This thing is a HIT! As always, Wyldlife finds that perfect blend of hook-laden power pop, old style punk, and arena-sized rock and roll. Dave delivers his usual charismatic performance on vocals, and Sam launches into guitar heroics worthy of a Thin Lizzy record. This is how you do it, man: write a great pop song and rock the hell out of it! On the B-side, the band digs up a real oldie-but-goodie. "I'm Just Losing That Girl" was originally recorded in 1983 by the French band Dogs. The original is a power pop classic, and Wyldlife definitely adds that unique Wyldlife touch.

When it comes to winning formulas for 7-inch records, it's hard to beat an A-side smash and a cool cover on the flip. Wyldlife has really nailed this one. For sure, one of the best singles of the year! 


Sunday, November 3, 2019

David Quinton - Overlook Road

What comes to mind when you see the name David Quinton? You most likely know that he played on Stiv Bators's LP Disconnected and authored the classic track "Make Up Your Mind". You probably also know that he was the teenage drummer for The Mods - one of Canada's original punk groups. What you might not be aware of is that Quinton had a solid run as a solo artist in the early '80s. Shortly after his 20th birthday, he made a debut album that was released on the Canadian label Bomb Records. He demoed several more tracks in preparation for a second album that was ultimately never released. Having recently found the master tapes from several of his recording sessions from the early '80s, Quinton worked with Secret Mission Records to give them a proper release. And so now we have Overlook Road - a beautifully packaged 12-track LP!

The album title refers to Overlook Road in Silver Lake, Ohio - where Quinton once lived with his friend George Cabaniss (also a member of the Stiv Bators Band). Overlook Road is where Quinton wrote many of these songs on piano. One doesn't usually think of teenage punk rockers writing songs on piano, but that is the true origin of many of these tracks. A number of these songs were recorded from 1980-81 and are alternate versions of favorites from the original album (of course including Quinton's own recording of "Make Up Your Mind"). Several more were recorded for that ill-fated second album. Cumulatively, these songs document the work of a talented and often overlooked songwriter. The songs from the album are top-notch turn of the '80s power pop ("Make Up Your Mind" is every bit the equal of Bators's more well-known version). The tracks intended for Quinton's second album suggest that it would have been quite a different record. The likes of "That's All I Want", "Scene of the Crime", and "Afraid of the Light" (all recorded 1982) find Quinton's songwriting craft growing more sophisticated and contemporary. It's not hard to imagine "Scene of the Crime" as a radio hit in 1983.

It's somewhat miraculous that Overlook Road even exists. The master tapes unearthed for this release were in extremely poor condition and in serious need of repair. Anton Evans really did a bang-up job of repairing and refurbishing these recordings - which now sound as good as new! Quinton wrote the liner notes and provided photos from his personal collection for the full color insert. If you're a big fan of Quinton in particular or new wave era power pop in general, you ought to be very interested in this album. This was a true passion project for Secret Mission Records, and boy did the label ever go all-out to make it super cool! It's a deal and a steal for $15!


Friday, November 1, 2019

Nick Piunti - "All This Time"

Nick Piunti has been one power pop's shining stars in recent years. He has released four albums since 2013 - all of them absolutely brilliant. He's got another one in the works for 2020, which will be his first with his band The Complicated Men. Out now on Jem Records, new single "All This Time" is a little sneak preview of the forthcoming full-length. The Complicated Men are Jeff Hupp (bass), Ron Vensko (drums), Kevin Darnall (keyboards), and special guest Ryan Allen (guitar, harmony vocals). Given that Piunti is so well-known for the substance and smarts of his lyrics, it's appropriate that he and the band have released a lyric video for "All This Time". There are few things more powerful than songs lamenting lost love, and I gotta say this one really cuts deep. "You got a lot of nerve to say I'm overserved," sings Piunti. "It's not the drink that did me in, can't find no comfort in my skin." If I said those lines sounded Westerberg-ian, well I certainly wouldn't be the first person to make the comparison! This is just a devastating postmortem on a relationship, building up to the powerful refrain "All I wanna do is wake up without you on my mind". Musically this one is right in Piunti's "power pop for grownups" wheelhouse. And with a terrific band backing him, he sounds in top form. So give "All This Time" a listen (and a look!). The new album is slated for release early in the new year and will include ten songs. And if you need to get caught up on all the previous albums, now is a great time to do it!