Capsule Reviews for February 2024: More New Rock

Five more capsule reviews. This time it’s music in and around the rock idiom.

District 97 – Stay for the Ending
By now, most everyone knows the backstory: American Idol 2007 semi-finalist Leslie Hunt hooks up with some young Chicago area musical hotshots and fronts their – wait for it – prog band. District 97 released its debut album, Hybrid Child in 2010. But hey, that was all well over a decade ago; what’s the story in 2024? Happily, the group is still at it, making adventurous and challenging progressive music with Hunt’s strong presence (vocal and otherwise) as its focal point. And the group’s fifth studio album Stay for the Ending may be its strongest effort to date. With its trademark hairpin musical tuns and prog-metal arrangements, the band delivers the instrumental goods , and Hunt’s assertive voice soars above – weaving in and out of – the material. No word if the album title is hinting at this being their final release; let’s hope not. D97 makes a strong case for the enduring viability of progressive rock.

Jeremy and the Lemon Clocks – Side by Side
I don’t know for certain that Todd Rundgren’s Faithful was the first album wherein an artist sought to craft tier own sort-of-clone version of classics from the psychedelic era. But it’s nonetheless an exemplar of that subgenre. And while there have been any others since, the latest from Jeremy Morris is a proud addition to that psych tradition. On the new release’s first disc, he covers the Lemon Pipers, Tommy James and the Shondells, Status Quo and Norman Greenbaum. And in each case you could easily guess what songs he’s tackling. His approach is solid: run through the song more or less in its original form, and then head to the outer limits, extending most tunes well past the ten (or sometimes twenty-) minute mark. It works, giving him the space (heh) to explore the nuances within the melodies. The disc wraps with an original, the Lennonesque “Revolution #7.” The second disc digs deeper into the bygone era, with more compact readings of song by The Pretty Things, The Move, CSNY and the Beatles. It’s all something of a busman’s holiday, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride. Roll up, roll up!

Caleb Nichols – Let’s Look Back
If, like some listeners, you tune in to the music – the guitars, the beat, the vocal harmonies – rather than the lyrics, you might come away from listening to Let’s Look Back with one perspective. That POV might place the album in high regard thanks ot its catchy melodies, tight arrangements, expressive vocals and quality indie-rock vibe. If, however, you paid close attention to Nichols’ lyrics, you’d discover an album with songs that explore what it means to be on the receiving end of abuse. Heavy stuff indeed, but when it’s done with conviction and authenticity – as this most certainly is – you’d appreciate it and maybe even find yourself a bit awestruck at the display of forthrightness. Either way, time spent with Let’s Look Back is rewarding indeed. There are hints of Elliott Smith, albeit a bit harder-rocking, and I detect a whiff of the jangly end of The Cure’s oeuvre. All of which is to say: it’s great.

Kimberley Rew & Lee Cave-Berry – The Krelb
Reliably creative (and prolific) couple Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry are back with another winning set. There’s a goo-timing bluesy feel to “Out the Flap,” in which Lee and Kim trade vocal lines while the band chugs along in a low-sling boogie style. “We Got Married in There” conjures a Johnny and June feel. “If I Wasn’t Me” is all gentle folk and sweet harmonies. “Woo Hoo” is stripped-down glam rock, name checking some of the greats. “Goldfish Song” is jaunty c&w; “Adam and Eve” feels like the Beatles’ She’s a Woman” with some wonderfully unhinged lead guitar. this duo can – and does – do pretty much anything they like, and it all works. The Krelb may not be quite as rewarding as witnessing Kim and Lee live onstage at the Cavern, but it’s close enough for when that’s not an option.

Shplang – Thank You, Valued Customer
It’s a breath of fresh air to happen upon a nominally power pop act that displays stylistic range and a command of those styles. Shplang is such a group, and on this, their sixth long player, Los Angeles band shines brightly. Core duo John Krause and Peter Marston know their way around a catchy riff, and they construct songs that work those riffs into study tunes with just the right amount of swagger. As one might surmise from the name, Shplang don’t take themselves too seriously (though they could): titles like “Baby Hobo” and “Little Mushroom Men from Mars” provide clues in that regard. If you can only spare four minutes to decide if you dig ‘em, I’d point you to the irresistible “Understood,” a tune that has (unsurprisingly) been tapped as the lead singe from Thank You, Valued Customer. But the whole disc is ace.

Postscript: I had forgotten that I’ve covered this group before!