Tag Archives: Gin Blossoms

Under The Radar: Icecream Hands

Although the band name is also a slang term for the aftermath of a self-pleasuring act, here the creamy goodness of Icecream Hands only refers to sweet music. As the title Memory Lane Traffic Jam implies, there’s a wealth of classic powerpop influences wedged together here. The band is okay with that as long as it’s a “B”Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Big Star, etc.

I discovered the band around the time of this, their second album, four years after their debut. I was glad to see that these Aussie popsters recently fired up the bus again, releasing a new album in 2007 after a layoff of a few years. From their page:

After laying low for a few years, raising families and pursuing solo projects, the Icecream Hands have recently found a new home in the form of Melbourne label Dust Devil Music and have just released their fifth studio album – The Good China. With songs galore and a new spring in their step, their legion of fans worldwide can expect nothing more than an album full of glittering, guitar soaked, harmony laden rock’n roll jewels; fit to be worn by Australia’s regal kings of power pop.

Sounds good to me; that’s twice now that these guys slippedUnder The Radar. Here was my initial quick take on them from TransAction Magazine…

Formerly The Mad Turks, these Aussie popsters call to mind all the usual suspects like Shoes and Badfinger, but on their slower tunes like “Embarassment Head” and “Early Morning Frost” they are also reminiscent of more commercial pop fare like Semisonic and The Gin Blossoms. I much prefer them when they showcase their harmonies on rocking songs like “Here We Go Round Now” and “Supermarket Scene” where their Posies-like energy can really catch fire.

Those who have Bomp’s Pop On Top collection will recognize “Bye”, an excellent JellyfishQueen moment that is actually track thirteen but was inadvertently left off the liner notes (ironically it’s the best song on that disc by a mile). Three “real” bonus tracks round out a solid effort.

Icecream Hands website

Icecream Hands on MySpace

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Under The Radar: Rex Daisy

Another one from the pile that I haven’t played in years.

Rex Daisy was one of those bands who fell between the cracks for most people. Here’s the original review as it ran in Consumable Online almost thirteen years ago.

Here’s a band that’s been through the grist mill – signed, ignored and dropped before the record ever came out on the major label. Whether their carefree attitude stems from natural forces or the skid marks on their backs, Rex Daisy is daring you to like them.

Boasting a tasteless green and yellow package and a blue plastic interior (was there a sale on ink?), the package for the Guys And Dolls CD is saved by a clever cartoon cover. The rest of the booklet features, among other things, a goofy group photo, a collage of faces floating in a bed of flowers and a photo of a wedding – with two of the three band members in drag. But I’m a reviewer, I can get past this.

The initial slap of “Stooge”, the opener, is punchy enough with an infectious chorus, but my antennae are up – is this another Refreshments record where there’s one formula alterna-pop tune and the rest is bar band filler? Maybe so –  “Brand New Friend” (after the Eels, the second best toy piano intro I’ve heard in a while) and the older “Stuck On You” follow, and I’m not in wow mode yet.

Then it comes on like a tidal wave. “OK, Casey” is  everything a pop tune should be, great harmonies, good hooks, sing-along chorus. Bingo. Then the Gin Blossoms-ish “Changin’ Yer Mind” kicks the tempo up a notch. Merseybeat and Cheap Trick cross-pollinate with the rollicking “Bottom O’ The World” before the Byrds-like “The Last Pufferbird” (no pun), another strong track. Another favorite is the bluesy ballad “Distance” with its lonesome guitar and desperate vocal.

Ten songs would have been fine, but tacked on the end is their serious take of the “Welcome Back Kotter” theme (from the previously issued Pravda samplers) and a second version of the song 2:15, sung in Spanish for all you romantics out there. No extra charge.

I’m glad I got past the initial roadblocks and gave the disk a chance – the middle four songs are outstanding, and two or three others have grown on me as well. So forget the warning signs and dive in. For three guys trying to look goofy and out of place, there’s a good pop heart beating underneath. Besides, the Presidents of the United States of America have that Three Stooges schtick down pat.

Rex Daisynot dead, just resting” on MySpace.

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Semi-Semisonic

The law firm of Wilson-Munson-Wilson is back!

Doesn’t seem like that long ago that Semisonic was a staple of our radio diet. “Closing Time” – both song and video – seemed to spool in an incessant loop for about a two year period. Fortunately the band had both chops and songs. Like the Gin Blossoms, they seemed like they’d pump out pleasing melodic pop rock for a long time, and then – like the Gin Blossoms – they were yesterday’s hot band.

Before there was Semisonic there was Trip Shakespeare, where the Wilson-Munson-Wilson axis was firmly in place. Now those three are involved in related projects as artists and producers (damn, Minneapolis is a fertile ground!). And Jacob Slichter? Well, he only wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read about being a musician and getting tossed into the star-making machinery. I heartily recommend you go read So You Wanna be A Rock And Roll Star as soon as possible – it’s literate, funny and poignant.

But on to these two records; a semiSemisonic, if you will.

One of the things I liked about Semisonic was that even when they weren’t really rocking (“FYT”, “Brand New Baby”, “Across The Great Divide”, “If I Run”, etc.) they had a punch to their songs. Sure, much of it was powered by piano and acoustic guitar; maybe it was the way Dan Wilson’s vocals soared above it all that hooked me. The slower paced songs (“Secret Smile”) seemed more fragile by comparison. I could listen to something like “Falling” all day long.

Well, if you like great vocals, those of John Munson and Matt Wilson as The Twilight Hours are stellar. Stereo Night kicks off with the ambitious “Dreams”, weaving hook and melody between foreground and background like a delicious hypnotic dance. But after ten tracks I was in serious need of something more uptempo, although the closing track “Never Mine To Lose” is a solid exit.

“My Return”  and “Queen of Tomorrow” are probably the standouts as far as the more energetic tracks go, while “Forgot Me Now” reminds me of Semisonic’s finest slower moments. (It actually reminds me more of a song called “Fall” by The Tender Idols, but that’s really stretching a reference!). And “Winter Blue” is a pretty stunning exercise in twee-pop, with some nice arrangements that will remind you of another guy named Wilson.

It’s pretty, well-crafted and consistent. For me, it’s just lacking that intangible oomph to force its way to the top of the pile. Give a listen and decide for yourself.

The Twilight Hours on MySpace

***

I’m rabid for tribute albums, and by a similar nature, always game when established musicians do cover songs because they want to. That’s a long way from the days when you had to cover the du jour pop tunes in your corner bar to put food on your table, so if you’re going there now, I’ll go there with you.

Thanks to Chan Poling’s piano and Steve Roehm’s natty vibes, the album does swing. I won’t say that their version of “Androgynous” will make me forget Paul Westerberg or Joan Jett, but it’s clever and catchy and retains all of the original playfulness. And there are some loopy jazz moments within “Watching The Detectives” that remind you that Steve Nieve would totally do that if Elvis only let him.

But the bottom line for me  is too many albums, not enough time. The New Standards are great musicians, offer some class arrangements, and John Munson (with Poling) are solid vocalists. There will be moments when this album will be a joy to encounter. But there’s no way I’ll ever play it as loud or as often as The Hot Rats, who were just as inventive but (1) selected better songs and (2) rocked the snot out of them.  (Caveat: I didn’t realize they had a prior album out, and some of those songs look killer, so I’m headed there to check them out myself).

But this album is well worth a listen as your mileage may vary.

The New Standards website and MySpace

***

And let’s not forget Dan Wilson, who has been pretty busy himself.

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Under The Radar: Northey Valenzuela

 

Yeah, I go on mental tangents. 

The Olympics are on television, and the games are being held in Vancouver, which is where The Odds hail from. So out come the Odds albums, almost subliminally, and as I play them loud and long, I remember again what a great band they are and how criminal it is that the U.S. market just hasn’t caught up to them yet. 

But if the Odds albums are below their radar, imagine how stealth this 2005 pairing of Craig Northey and Jesse Valenzuela was. Any fan of the Odds and Gin Blossoms didn’t need to hear a note in advance. But even with the success of the Gin Blossoms in the States, radio programmers remained a tough sell for this type of music. 

But as usual, their loss, not ours. Northey is one of the best songwriters around, and Valenzuela is no slouch either. Their collaboration followed the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts;  it played to their strengths and beyond. Meaning that while they brought the best out in each other, they pushed themselves as well. 

Northey Valenzuela is a joyous album chock full of hooks, melodies and charm with strong lyrics and inspired vocals and harmonies. If you haven’t grabbed this little chestnut, I implore you to do so immediately

Here’s my original review from Cosmik Debris

 

Northey, the soul of Canada’s Odds, and Valenzuela, the heart of the Gin Blossoms, combine for a pop platter that meets both players on common ground. Backed by criminally under-known musicians like axeman Colin James, bassist Doug Elliott and drummer Pat Seward (the latter two the formidable rhythm section of those late great Odds), Craig and Jesse make knocking out catchy songs seem effortless. Both musicians endured the demise of strong bands in an unforgiving industry, then spent time collaborating and touring with others before quietly releasing solo projects. Apparently they share a mutual love for Booker T & The MGs and blue eyed soul, for this new project is dripping with aural honey.  

Where Valenzuela’s songs tend to be familiar sounding (“See Through Heart” and “Hurting On The Outside” are both reminiscent of Tom Petty, for example), Northey is more likely to challenge with minor keys and introspective lyrics. “Something Good” (a nicer take than the Colin James version) is beautifully soulful, as is “Let It Go” – major kudos to Simon Kendall’s supportive organ playing on both. But they complement each other well vocally and musically. 

They’re funky – “Halfway To Happy” sounds like a kissing cousin to John Hiatt’s “Riding With The King”. And they can rock, churning up “Slow Goodbye” and exhuming the 70s era Ron Wood on the fiery “Borrowing Trouble”.  And if you are a fellow Odds fan, you’ll have a big smile on your face. “Not A Lot Goin’ On” sounds like the great lost outtake; everything from the intelligent lyrics to the counterpoint background vocals (think “Someone Who’s Cool”) is right on the mark. 

Northey Valenzuela has cut a great record that needs a wider audience. Gee, how about US distribution for starters?  

The Odd Blossoms

There has been plenty of activity since this collaboration came out, of course. The Odds reformed with a new guitarist to replace Steven Drake and released the excellent Cheerleader while Northey has been involved with television projects like Corner Gas and the brand new Kids In The Hall series. Valenzuela and The Gin Blossoms have reformed, released a live album in 2009 and have a new studio album slated for release this year. 

Sometimes opportunity produces magic. Here’s proof.

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Blast From The Past: The Jayhawks

And so will you when you listen to this album

And so will you when you listen to this album

With the surprising (but exciting!) announcement of The Jayhawks reunion and the release of their new anthology, I’m reminded of how much I love Smile, a work of sheer beauty that is aptly named because it always brings one to my face. Here’s my original review of this classic from May 2000 in Consumable Online…

jayhawks band

Brian Wilson fans, fear not. Despite the record’s title (and a track titled “Mr. Wilson”), The Jayhawks are not trying to usurp your leader or ride his coattails. And for god sakes, naming a record Smile is not blasphemous, although it may have taken balls to do so. Allow me to prescribe this simple task. Listen to the title track – the opening cut on this record – and get swept up in its irresistible, anthemic chorus. Smile? Try not to.

“I love what we used to be, but I’m interested in where else we can go”, Gary Louris is quoted in the band’s bio. And in fifteen years, the band has bent and turned and changed, but never so dramatically as when Mark Olson left the band and Louris’ vision led to the Big Star leanings of 1997’s Sound Of Lies. That baby step is now a confident gait, and if the last record warmed your heart, Smile is Chapter Two of the new direction.

You might be surprised to see Bob Ezrin listed as producer, as his reputation was built on bands like KISS and Alice Cooper. But Ezrin takes no job lightly, and his response to a tape of fifty possible tracks was a three page letter analyzing what each one needed. (Indeed, in an interview last year, Alice Cooper referred to Ezrin as the “sixth member of the band”). The result is a more rhythm-oriented disc, layered with guitars and drums and vocals, but still the essence of the band. “Somewhere In Ohio” starts out like a soft Spring breeze drifting through the window, but then the guitars slam in, and now we’re nose-to-nose with Wilco.

“What Led Me To This Town” and “A Break In The Clouds” find Louris and new keyboardist Jen Gunderman in a vocal duet that would make Gram and Emmylou fans…errr…smile. But “Life Goes By” has Ezrin steering them (and us) into psych-pop territory, more aggressively raucous; wah-wah guitars and percussion driving the song like the Gas Giants or Gin Blossoms might do. Then the brakes are slammed, “Broken Harpoon” centered on the acoustic guitar and the seamless harmony of four vocals fronted by Louris’ lilting lead.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is probably the first single, a hybrid of Ronnie Lane and latter-day Fleetwood Mac that might just leapfrog the boyband stranglehold on the airwaves. And if it doesn’t, that’s radio’s loss, not yours. Because ten tracks in, after the rocking “Pretty Thing”, The Jayhawks seal the deal with four killer tracks. “Mr. Wilson” is as lyrically thoughtful as it is musically stimulating, “In My Wildest Dreams” dabbles in folk psychedelia with great success, “Better Days” beautifully brings the spirit of The Band into the year 2000, and “Baby Baby Baby” forges energetic rock, great vocals and a harrowing story into an unforgettable brew that will have you arguing over the replay button and playing the whole damned thing through again start to finish.

Even if you fell on the other side of the fence after the Louris/Olson split, you have to admire this work on its own terms. Olson will no doubt continue to make good music. But The Jayhawks have just hit back-to-back home runs.

The Jayhawks page on Wikipedia

An interesting video for a live version of “Smile”

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New Album! The Alternate Routes

Actually, more like a sure thing

Actually, more like a sure thing

I first came across The Alternate Routes through their song “Ordinary”, which immediately blew me away and remained one of my favories for that year. I put it on a year-end mixtape (mixdisc?) and it was one of the songs that drew the most comments. And a group of old friends who have a band liked it so much they learned it and added it to their set list. I felt like I stumbled upon a hidden treasure.

Not counting self-released versions of Good And Reckless And True (their debut on Vanguard) and EPs, A Sucker’s Dream is just their second album, and the maturity in both songcraft and performance is already rock solid. Whether acoustic or electric, their material is consistently melodic, infectious and well structured. Lyrically, there are easily identifiable themes like overcoming adversity or coming to terms with yourself in the big picture, and they’re as effective with atmospheric mid-tempo songs like “November” and “Never Gonna Be Rich” as they are with flat-out rockers like (the ironically titled) “On And On We Whisper”. And although a guest spot by Patti Griffin is a nice coup, Tim Warren doesn’t need to take a backseat to anyone as a vocalist.

Guitar play between Eric Donnelly and Mike Sembos always fills the space in a cohesive and interesting manner, with Chip Johnson and studio drummer Giles Reeves able to support or propel as appropriate. A quick peek at their Wiki site makes it look like they go through drummers faster than Spinal Tap – Mike Stavitz is pounding the skins at the moment – but this is obviously a tight-knit crew who gel both onstage and on record.

I recently saw the band play as an opening act, and they totally won the crowd over by the third song. When I first hit the club, the band was in the process of getting the right levels on a toolbox (!) which is featured as a prominent percussion item on “The Future’s Nothing New”. Of course, that ate up their warm up time, so when they took the stage for real they introduced the rambunctious opening number “Toe The Line” as “a little song we call ‘Soundcheck’…” They played a tight, energetic set, were funny as hell and were sincerely appreciative of the crowd. They left town with a boatload of new converts, and I can’t imagine that’s not happening elsewhere.

Bands with a similar sound have clicked before. Maroon 5′ blew up with a combination of solid songwriting and Adam Levine’s vocals, but these songs are solid and Tim Warren is a better singer, more expressive yet without the stage antics. Do you miss Train or The Gin Blossoms? Well, if either band released something as consistent as A Sucker’s Dream they’d be buzzed about as thoroughly as they were in their heyday. These guys are one of rock’s best-kept secrets, and for their sake I hope that changes immediately.

Trust me on this one – The Alternate Routes are a very good band that’s still growing, and this album that will surface again when I’m making my year-end lists of best music.

The Alternate Routes on MySpace.

Video for “The Future’s Nothing New”

“All That I See”, live on World Cafe.

Fan video for “Ordinary” – the song that hooked me.

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