Friday November 29, 2013
This Thanksgiving weekend, many Americans are spending at least a few moments - between heaping mouthfuls both savory and sweet - thinking about the many aspects of living for which they are grateful. For music lovers, that list sometimes contains far more musicians who are literal strangers but virtual loved ones than the actual people who make up our extended families. Of all the '80s music that inspires appreciation in me, a great deal of it - as I've admitted often and previously in this space - falls into the general category of melodic guitar rock. There are certainly plenty of exceptions to that generality, but as people tend to reveal when they peruse and select their favorite holiday foods at mealtime, we like what we like and have a tendency to go back for more of the same.
In my case, power pop through the ages is a nearly surefire traditional favorite, guaranteed to please and satisfy. In terms of the late '70s leading into the early '80s, such music continues to be a gift that keeps on giving, as new discoveries seem to lurk in corners of pop music history that I previously imagined to be thoroughly explored. American band Off Broadway enjoyed a criminally brief period of success between 1979 and 1981, releasing two major-label studio albums before abruptly fading away. Still, that doesn't take away from the punchy, immediate appeal of "Stay in Time," a truly signature melodic rock tune that completely ignores the emerging new wave aesthetic in favor of old-fashioned directness. This song reached its modest top peak of No. 51 on the Billboard pop charts in late 1979, but Illinois-based Off Broadway's debut LP, simply titled On, continued to attract attention well into 1980. Perhaps the band's unwillingness to court the skinny-tie trend in a more commercial fashion led to its premature fizzle, because a lack of power pop-inspired, muscular delicacy is certainly not the culprit. So here's to a different kind of holiday savoring this weekend: all of the pleasure and none of the guilt.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic
Thursday November 21, 2013
No matter how many '80s guitar bands I discover that deliver tight melodies and punchy jangle pop
delights, I somehow believe there's always room for one more in my personal, ever-growing college rock
hall of fame. As you might suspect, I've come across another group this week that fits such a description. And though I'm looking for ways to expand the '80s genres I spotlight in this space, I can't restrain myself from sharing this one with you. Australian band Ups & Downs, led ably by frontman Greg Atkinson, is one of those bands that should clearly have become huge on the early alternative music
scene of the mid '80s but somehow stayed far below the radar, especially in North America. That's not to say that music lovers in the thick of things during that era were incapable of learning about the band; rather, the sad truth is most audiences that would have responded enthusiastically to Atkinson's melodic songwriting and his soaring vocal style often remained cruelly in the dark as to the group's mere existence, much less its sparkling songcraft. So if you'll indulge my affinity for chiming guitars and nimble single-note riffs for another week, let's take a look at one of Australia's unheralded great rock bands of the '80s.
A recently released compilation album, Out of the Darkness, deftly chronicles the rise and fall of this quintessentially indie band that couldn't quite find the right path to ensure longevity or widespread notice. That, of course, doesn't take away from the impact of many of the tracks on this compilation, which often resemble (but never seem to mimic) more successful contemporary Down Under bands like The Church or Hoodoo Gurus. No, Ups & Downs certainly created its own distinct if constantly evolving sound, and any exploration of the band's sonic history translates into time well spent. At the risk of ignoring other worthy tracks, I zero in today on the punchy yet polished rocker "The Living Kind," a tune that illuminates the pleasing, reaching tenor of Atkinson and the band's devotion to jangly guitar goodness. There's plenty of rootsy emotional grit here to go along with an undeniable power pop sheen, and I can't for the life of me imagine how a song like this didn't reach more ears appreciative of early R.E.M. and other Athens-based sounds of the era. No matter, though, because this stuff still sounds phenomenal even two full decades removed from the last gasps of Ups & Downs. Atkinson would go on to front the better-known '90s band Big Heavy Stuff, but Ups & Downs is where it all started for this fine '80s guitar rock craftsman.
Compilation Album Cover Image Courtesy of As Is/Fuse
Thursday November 14, 2013
While it couldn't be convincingly argued that there was a shortage of North American guitar-centered jangle pop during the '80s, the contributions of Canadian band The Grapes of Wrath never feel derivative or like a modern Byrds folk rock pastiche. In fact, a simple distillation of the band's sound is rather impossible given the experimental precision of songwriting team Tom Hooper and Kevin Kane. The best I can come up with in terms of concise description regarding the brilliant acoustic track "Misunderstanding" - the lead-off selection from 1985's September Bowl of Green - is a cross between Toad the Wet Sprocket and They Might Be Giants.
Of course, that hardly tells the story, either, but suffice it to say that the nuanced catalogue of The Grapes of Wrath holds many layered, multi-dimensional surprises that reach far beyond labels like college rock, power pop or folk pop. Most interestingly, there are enough sharp angles and edges in this particular song's punchy arrangement to bear comparison to disparate post-punk artists from R.E.M. to Hoodoo Gurus and back again. Ultimately, this breadth of style serves the band well even if many mainstream radio programmers in the U.S. scratched their heads as to the all-important question of categorization - if they bothered to consider The Grapes of Wrath at all. However, as is often the case, the story was much different in the band's native Canada, where radio was less busy oversaturating the airwaves with Bryan Adams. The band's initial period of activity may have been brief (1985-1992), but that time was packed with highly listenable music not to be missed.
Compilation Album Cover Image Courtesy of EMI Canada
Wednesday November 6, 2013
Fans of British classic rock who really know their music history may well argue that Colin Blunstone is one of the great unsung lead vocalists of all time. In light of the recent first-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination for Blunstone's initial band, The Zombies, this is as good a time as any to explore the gifts - famous and obscure - bestowed upon us by one of '60s rock's most talented singers. Unfortunately, Blunstone has not remained terribly active over the four decades and change since The Zombies last hit the big time with the legendary Top 5 smash "Time of the Season." That's not to say he hasn't continued to make music in a variety of ways, but it does seem accurate to say that Blunstone generally failed to find an apt vehicle for his talents post-Zombies.
Of course, an argument could be made that an exception to this assertion can be found in Blunstone's '80s collaborations with the Alan Parsons Project. In particular, Blunstone scored a minor hit in 1982 with his own composition, "Old and Wise," which appeared on APP's top-selling record from that year, Eye in the Sky. However, fans of The Zombies and Blunstone's soaring tenor may be better served to seek out the lone recording from Parsons offshoot Keats, on which Blunstone performs with appropriate grace a song he co-wrote called "Tragedy." Blunstone's collaboration here with a quartet of key performers from Parsons' often fluctuating lineup yields a wide array of sonic dividends, as power guitars combine with familiar electronic keyboards to form an interesting, elegant take on mid-'80s arena rock. The band's 1984 self-titled LP has never carried a reputation as an indispensable recording of the era, but the quality of musicianship is certainly never in question. Even better, this particular track offers a rare glimpse into the '80s activity of one of rock's most moving vocalists, a man who should soon (even if not in 2014) find his way into rock music's most lauded permanent shrine.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of See for Miles Records