I’ve been worried that 2009 would end without giving us a British pop masterpiece.
My top 10 list this year is decidedly American. With no new records from Keane, the Feeling, Coldplay or virtually any other melodic Britpop band I love, there’s been a severe deficiency this year in the kind of dramatic-yet-sweet cheeky-cheeseball pop the Brits do so well. I’d all but resigned myself to a full 12 months without that sound, but then I got an email from a reader named Nick Martin.
And Nick turned me on to a band called The Yeah You’s.
Yes, the misplaced apostrophe drives me nuts. But I’m dealing with it, because this London duo’s debut album, Looking Through You, is pretty great. The Yeah You’s take their cues from the bands I listed above, particularly Keane and the Feeling, but they add even more dollops of sugar in the form of glorious, five-mile-high harmonies. Every song on Looking Through You has them, and even when the musical backdrop is silly and synthetic, those light-through-the-clouds harmonies carry the day.
And there are some terrific silly pop songs on here. Opener “15 Minutes” is big and dramatic, and its musings on fame are a sweet and ballsy way to open a debut album. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes when they’ve made me a superstar,” Nick Ingram sings, then adding, “When I’m back in 15 minutes, I won’t forget who you are…” Second track “Getting Up With You” is even better. It could be a lost Keane song, apart from the giddy hopefulness of the whole thing. It’s full of little touches – the protagonist loses his house keys, and his significant other knows right where they are – that come together to paint a picture of a relationship worth getting out of bed for.
While I like the rest of Looking Through You, it never hits those dizzy heights again. Ingram and Mike Kintish start weaving in dancehall influences with the next track, the insanely catchy “If I Could,” and play the reggae card with “Won’t Be Long.” Both of these songs are well-written enough to rise above the seas of cheese, but tracks like “Ready to Love Again” and “Clifftop” (which opens with a keyboard line reminiscent of early Genesis) aren’t quite so lucky.
I don’t dislike anything on Looking Through You, but I haven’t fallen in love with anything past the first four tracks. The good news is that every single song here is produced with a vibrant, life-loving joy, and even the weakest tracks are carried along by that feeling. Even a slow lament like “If I’d Only Said Hello” is full of hope – you get the sense that Ingram will seize his chance next time it comes around. Whatever else it is, Looking Through You is the feelgood album of the year, and each listen leaves me with that giddy grin on my face. I haven’t grown tired of singing along to these songs, and I don’t think I will.
I forwarded this recommendation on to Dr. Tony Shore, and he’s ready to call Looking Through You the album of the year. I don’t like it quite as much as he does – it’s a little too plastic in places for me – but if you’ve been missing the big, glorious British pop sound as much as I have this year, then this will be just the ticket. A hundred thanks to Nick Martin for tipping me off to this band. You can check them out here.
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And now, another installment of People I Know.
Ten years ago, meeting musicians was my job. I worked for Face Magazine, a local music rag based in Portland, Maine. Every day, the staff of Face got free CDs in the mail from local artists looking to make a connection. And every week, I got to go to local rock shows for free. In the course of four years, I met a lot of very good songwriters and players – more than you’d think would call a place like Portland home, honestly. The music scene up there is surprisingly diverse and amazing.
I’ve only kept in touch with a few of them through the years, but one of them is Shane Kinney. Drummer extraordinaire, stand-up comedian, business owner and renaissance man, Kinney is one of the funniest and nicest people you’re likely to meet. He was the skin-beater with a hysterical band called Broken Clown when I met him, and I still remember sitting in the Great Lost Bear late one night with him and guitarist/singer Mark Belanger, watching in amazement as the two of them performed an a cappella rendition of Iron Maiden’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I still have that on tape somewhere, I think.
A few years ago, Kinney joined up with Walt Craven, one of the mainstays of the Portland rock scene. Craven’s come close to the big time twice before, with Gouds Thumb and 6gig. But it’s his collaboration with Kinney (and guitarist Ted Warner and bassist Dan Walsh) that, to these ears, has the greatest chance of putting them and Portland on the map.
The band is called Lost on Liftoff. Their new album is called The Brightside, and it’s a quick burst of tightly-controlled modern rock, explosive and melodic and well-crafted and fun. It’s the follow-up to their full-length debut, Mixtape Blackouts, and while I found their consistency of style somewhat tiring over 13 tracks, it’s perfect over eight. The Brightside runs a trim 30:59, and every song is a winner. It’s like a midnight bombing run – blow some shit up, get out quickly.
In my world, the second track, “All That Love,” is a hit. Craven has never sounded better than he does here – I’ve always been a fan of his tough yet emotional voice, and it’s made for songs like this. The chorus is huge and wonderful, the kind of thing I would go hoarse singing along with at shows. As good as that song is, my favorite here is “The Day the Sun Forgot to Rise.” That one’s a rocket ride, opening with a killer riff and segueing into a powerhouse chorus. Just listen to Kinney on this one – he’s a superb drummer, but he’s always delivering exactly what the song needs, and no more. A lesser drummer would have cluttered up this song, but Kinney’s just the right level of awesome here.
I have two complaints, and they’re the same ones I had last time. First, the mix is flatter and quieter than I would like – this record should pop from the speakers, but it kind of sits there, and the wall-of-sound guitars all start to sound the same after a while. Second, while I love what Lost on Liftoff does, I’d like to hear them try a few other things. The Brightside is eight well-written rockers with melodic choruses, and only the bridge section of closer “Total Wreck” goes somewhere else. What’s here is great, but a little more experimentation, and a better mix, and Lost on Liftoff could soon be worldwide.
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I left Face Magazine in 2000, and I transitioned into news reporting. That means I meet many more politicians these days than I do musicians, but I still like to keep my finger somewhere near the pulse. Thankfully, I met Benjie Hughes, whose Back Third Audio is essentially the center of the Aurora music scene.
Through Benjie, I met Andrea Dawn and her husband, Zach Goforth, both terrific musicians. Andrea plays piano and sings like an angel, and Zach seems to play everything well. One of the most interesting and fun stories I got to write this year tracked the two of them as they waited for most of an entire day to audition for American Idol. I couldn’t say this in the story, but I’ll say it here: they’re too good for that show. They’re actual, you know, musicians.
I’ve owed Andrea this review as long as I’ve known her, and I feel pretty bad about putting it off for so long. Last year, she teamed up with fellow songwriter Jeremy Junkin to write and record First Try at Goodbye, an eight-song document that serves as her second full-length. Ironically, Dawn and Junkin said goodbye shortly after the album came out – he moved on to another state. (She’s come up with a nasty-awesome song about it, which just goes to show you shouldn’t piss off a songwriter.)
I say ironically, because First Try is a series of songs about leaving and being left. It starts with Dawn’s piano-led march “Over It,” which showcases her husky, soulful voice. The lyrics are about a bad breakup, and consist of a litany of things the singer won’t miss: “I’m over your stupid trendy sense of style, your condescending sideways smile, your super sappy emotional world…” Elsewhere, Dawn’s “Better Be Good” seemingly catches that same relationship a month or two earlier: “I’m losing sight of what I’m doing here by your side,” she sings over a liquid piano line, before the song erupts, the Hammond organ and electric guitar adding color and shade.
I tend to like Dawn’s songs better than Junkin’s – his are more rooted in Americana (and a bit more typical), and his voice isn’t as striking as Dawn’s is. The title track wears out its welcome, the spare melody leaving more spaces than it should, but Junkin’s closing song, “Say Goodbye,” is nice, stripped down to acoustic guitar and two voices. I find I’m drawn more to off-kilter pieces like Dawn’s “Clarinet Suite,” the most propulsive thing here – yes, there are clarinets, and saxophones and trumpets, all in service of a pumping piano and a skipping beat.
But it’s “Ask Me” that stands out to me. This one’s just Andrea Dawn and her piano, and it’s the album’s one song of reconciliation – it’s a list of things the singer has given up, and at the end she admits, “I’ve been doing it to do right by you, and be right by you…” The melody is simple, but she digs into it, finding soulful nuances and wonderfully graceful moments. It’s this song that makes me excited for what Andrea Dawn will do next, now that she’s back on her own, playing with Zach. (Who is all over this record as well, and also co-produced it.) For now, First Try at Goodbye is a sweet and sad little album that ably demonstrates just how good she is.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.