Monday April 14, 2014
The combination of Beatles-inspired pop music with complex progressive rock impulses probably seemed like a good idea to a number of bands over the years. Trouble is, not many teams of musicians can pull off such a feat without embarrassing themselves. So thanks to Canada, then, for the exploratory trio Klaatu, a band not only oddly brilliant enough to name itself after the essentially peaceful if foreboding alien character from The Day the Earth Stood Still but also responsible for a stretch of genre-defying rock music during the late '70s and very early '80s. Like The Beatles, Klaatu proved itself highly versatile and often unpredictable as a creative unit, bouncing between relatively accessible pop melodies and dense, challenging compositions from album to album. Unfortunately, the off-kilter tendencies of Klaatu pretty much guaranteed that the group's career would be short. Luckily, '80s music fans were able to cash in on the wonderment, if only briefly.
Klaatu's final original album, 1981's Magentalane, nearly never came to fruition at all, thanks to the poor performance of its predecessor. But come to be it somehow did, even if the establishment of guitarist Dee Long's recording studio at this point all but guaranteed that further original material would be highly unlikely. Even so, "A Million Miles Away" delivers on a number of levels, combining an introductory burst of hard rock guitars with synthesizers and then ultimately the unique tenor lead vocals of John Woloschuk. The track may be plenty orchestrated at times, but it also retains the excitement of riff-ready rock and roll. Even better, the transcendent lead vocal performance here simultaneously brings to mind disparate, talented rock singers like America's Gerry Beckley, Iain Sutherland of the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver, and even occasionally Nick Lowe. This is fresh and fun music that defies categorization and even placement in any particular era. As such, it attains a sort of rock and roll mortality.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Daffodil
Monday April 7, 2014
Waking up on a rainy Monday may not generally be one of the greatest experiences of life, but unsettled weather (and unsettled emotions, for that matter) can certainly be made more tolerable by the presence of music like this. Even before I was awake and alert enough to acknowledge the literal connection between this band's name and today's meteorological conditions, I felt I had stumbled upon an instance of '80s music kismet. So without risking excessive self-congratulation, this is a pretty damn fine choice, if I do say so myself. Which, of course, I just did.
Anyway, The Rain Parade emerged from the Paisley Underground scene of Los Angeles during the early '80s, embracing the chiming, jangly guitars of The Byrds as well as a sedate, delicate devotion to melody and harmony. The group - led by brothers David and Steven Roback - didn't necessarily attract widespread critical acclaim, as some prominent self-appointed purveyors of music quality expressed no shortage of disdain for a sound they felt was nothing if not derivative and uninspired. However, when it comes to thick layers of mood, dreamy melancholy and gentle sonic beauty, a listener could do far worse and could hardly do better than the lovely "You Are My Friend." Music fans appreciative of power pop and particularly revival bands like Teenage Fanclub will find plenty to enjoy here, from the deliberate, ringing chords and psychedelic lead guitars of Matt Piucci to the sad, soft vocal delivery of Steven Roback. Even if brother David had already left the band by the 1984 recording of this track (eventually going on to form similarly dreamy outfits Opal and Mazzy Star), the remaining quartet strikes a confident blow with this tune for staying indoors and simply contemplating, if nothing else, the basic misery of the human condition. OK, I think it's time for me to get up and get dressed now.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Enigma
Sunday March 30, 2014
Rootsy English rock band The Wonder Stuff presented a genuinely exciting alternative to what was widely considered alternative music during the late '80s. In other words, the band's unique blend of frenetic punk rock energy with well-placed touches of Hammond organ and fiddle sounds immediately fresh and engaging. By this time, bands like The Smiths, The Cure and Psychedelic Furs had certainly made a name for British alternative music in both the U.K. and U.S. However, The Wonder Stuff quietly forged a new path, taking some cues from Ireland's U2 but also drawing from organic, earthy American music for inspiration as well. As a lead singer and frontman, Miles Hunt sounds as much like Material Issue's Jim Ellison as he does any of his contemporary countrymen. This versatility makes it seem even stranger that this great band remains virtually unknown in the U.S. as a key representative of early alternative rock.
"Cartoon Boyfriend" deserves attention as a standout track from 1989's Hup if for no other reason than its priceless one-line lyric in the chorus: "Cartoon boyfriend, when you gonna rub yourself out?" However, there are a multitude of other reasons to recommend this track, not to mention several other highly distinct tunes from this highly underrated record. In the specific case of "Cartoon Boyfriend," jaunty fiddle parts bounce exuberantly against chiming guitars to create an exhilarating listening experience. Still, the delivery and urgent style of Hunt's lead vocals ultimately command the greatest attention, even if violinist Martin Bell serves as a significant secret weapon. Quite simply, this is wonderful stuff, if you'll excuse the inevitable double pun.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Polydor
Wednesday March 19, 2014
Early-'80s American arena rock band Spider quietly boasted three underrated but highly influential '80s music figures. The band itself never really went anywhere beyond a couple of minor hits, but two of its primary creative linchpins - just in time for Women's History Month - are undoubtedly female '80s music icons. Let me explain why you should take me at my word despite a general lack of obvious evidence.
Lead vocalist Amanda Blue injects a sweeping, ABBA-tinged majesty to AOR on "What's Going On," which just so happens to be co-written by bandmates Holly Knight and Anton Fig. Knight is none other than the writer or co-writer of such '80s rock classics as Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield," Tina Turner's "Better Be Good to Me" and Heart's "Never" and "There's the Girl." And if that's not enough to recommend this band, Fig - for those unaware - is the longtime drummer for David Letterman's late-night house band. Those tidbits certainly fail to tell the whole story of this interesting band that could never quite turn its brand of new wave/hard rock fusion into the stuff of early MTV-era mass consumption. That's one reason why, as always, it's a good idea to turn directly to the music for lasting evidence. The graceful blend of this tune's central guitar riff, haunting synth lines and Blue's expressive, aching vocal style deserves more than just passing attention from those interested in more than merely exhuming '80s music relics. Shades of Knight's eventual hitmaking prowess can certainly be heard in the song's sturdy verse melody and its appropriately placed soaring harmonies, but there's also a toughness here that should have allowed Spider to cash in on at least a sliver of the Benatar mania just around the corner.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Dreamland