Hundred-word Reviews for August 2019, Part One

It’s that time again: reviews of new music that passes the rigorous “smash or trash” competition happening periodically at my CD changer.

Diplomats of Solid Sound — A Higher Place
First off, let’s give credit where it’s due and acknowledge that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are owed a debt for reintroducing soul to today’s listeners. That out of the way, now let’s rave enthusiastically about this ensemble from — wait for it — Iowa. The songs are economical models of pop precision, the arrangements are thrilling yet intimate and not overblown, and the vocals — lead and harmony — are spot-on. Dance to it or just listen; either way, you simply can’t go wrong. Classic but not quite retro, the Diplomats of Solid Sound earn their name with every note. Buy this disc.

The Black Watch — Magic Johnson
If you thrilled to the wide-screen sounds of The Church, Wire Train and (let’s say) Echo and the Bunnymen, you owe it to yourself to discover The Black Watch. The jangle quotient on this idiosyncratically-named album is high, and the overall musical aesthetic is very much in line with what back in the ‘80s we called “college rock.” Intelligent lyrics, swoonworthy melodies and plenty of oomph all add up to a wonderful and heretofore undiscovered gem. The lead guitar lines soar, but they never wear out their welcome. Equal parts melancholy and introspection, like The Smiths without a mopey singer.

The Decibels — Scene, Not Herd
The album’s packaging telegraphs that this is a classic/retro-minded collection of music. But that sells it short. From Sacramento, California, the Decibels have the chiming energy of Smithereens and strong songwriting chops. All of the elements of early-Beatles-influenced powerpop are here, but somehow these 12 songs rise well above the powerpop pack. The Decibels seem less about aping their influences (unlike far too many in the genre, they won’t immediately remind you of another band) and much more about carving out their own sound. That they can do so this late in the rock-era game is no small triumph.

Ray Paul — Bloody Rubbish
Less original than the above but successful in its own right is this collection from longtime fixture on the powerpop scene, Ray Paul. The cover art is a bit too on-the-nose (whomever could that image mean to convey?) but it makes a kind of sense when paired with the music. Beatlesque is an overused term (especially in the context of this genre), but it applies, as would whatever adjective one might fashion out of the name Raspberries. True, by current-day standards, Bloody Rubbish is a bit light on content (about 40 minutes) but that’s how long Paul’s heroes’ LPs were.

Richard X Heyman — Pop Circles
Save for his double-album foray outside the idiom, New York City’s Richard X Heyman has created one of the most consistent bodies of work in powerpop. Most artists sort of ebb and flow in terms of the quality of their output; that’s especially true with artists who have been at the game as long as Heyman has. But you’d never know it from listening to the wonderfully realized songs on Pop Circles. Heyman’s facility with soaring arrangements has always been supreme, and his muse doesn’t fail him here. He’s fully reconciled the ambitions of his non-rock work within pop tunes.

Chris Stamey — New Songs for the 20th Century
Chris Stamey has always been unpredictable. From the dB’s to his solo work, he’s always made music that expressed his unique musical interested. Chamber-pop, Americana … nervy new wave/punk .. he has done it all with conviction and finesse. But none of that will prepare the listener for this double album. Here Stamey makes a bid — as songwriter, bandleader and arranger — to be considered among the pantheon that created what we lovingly call the Great American Songbook. And damn if he doesn’t succeed. Forgive yourself if you mistake these for Gershwin or Mercer tunes. Like nothing else you’ll hear this year.

Sour Ops — Tinder Flame EP
Here’s some new music that rocks with the swagger of the Faces or Mott the Hoople, that opens a tune (“Tinder Flame”) with bloop-bleep analog synthesizer, but that isn’t trying to sound like a ‘70s rock band. When cranky oldsters carp that they’re no good music being made anymore, shove this EP in their face. Featuring musicians from other bands (well-known and not), they’re a little bratty (in a good way, like Redd Kross). Sour Ops puts the lie to any preconceived notions you might have regarding the kind of music they make in Nashville. This is a twang-free zone.

Peter Perrett — Humanworld
It was more than 40 years ago that The Only Ones released “Another Girl, Another Planet.” The band’s time in the limelight was comparatively brief, and that was their only major hit. But after an extended hiatus they returned in 2007. Lead singer Peter Perrett has had a long and documented history of (shall we say) difficulties, but this album suggests that — musically at least — he’s on the right road. Whatever misbehaving he’s done seems not to have dulled his signature vocal style (halfway between Robyn Hitchcock and Steve Kilbey) nor his songwriting abilities. His well-drawn songs draw you in.

Stereo Total — Ah! Quel Cinéma!
French pop music has always been a world unto itself: Françoise Hardy and Johnny Hallyday were monster stars while the Beatles received a relatively cool reception. With that in mind it’s not so surprising that this ball of weirdness doesn’t really sound like anything else. It’s electronic music that’s as odd as, say, Pizzicato Five while seeming not to draw any influence from outside itself (it is vaguely krautrock-y in places, but only vaguely). I hear vague hints of Nina Hagen, but this is more primitively lo-fi than her material. This music dares you to listen, to enjoy. Do both!

Mark Doyle — Watching the Detectives: Guitar Noir III
Naming an album is an important part of the creative process. And though he’s used the title before, Mark Doyle got it right here: Guitar Noir perfectly describes the ambience here. This instrumental set provides oxygen to songs that could use some reviving. “Detectives Medley” connects the dots between the Get Smart! Theme, Nelson Riddle’s theme for The Untouchables TV show, and Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives.” Inspired and effective stuff, it conjures all manner of mind pictures. And — this is key — it rocks. Ostensibly a guitar album, Guitar Noir III is equally remarkable for its string arrangements. Truly inspired.

Ten more tomorrow!