Words by Art Jipson
For the past 15 years, Art Jipson has championed new local and national music through Your Tuesday Afternoon Alternative on the University of Dayton’s WUDR Flyer Radio 98.1FM. As a contributor to Off Shelf, Every month he brings you Singles Club, featuring five of the best singles of the month along with an extended playlist.
The Auckland, New Zealand band released one of my favorite records in 2018 with The Future Me Hates Me. The band embarked on extensive touring following that record. Now two years later, they have another exceptional record in 2020. Great arrangements, loud guitars, driving drums and slinky bass lines abound on this record. Singer-guitarist Elizabeth Stokes worked on the band’s sophomore record while on tour with Death Cab for Cutie. And that was a fertile time for her and the band. The Beths capture loss, anxiety and self-doubt in a way that is compelling and engaging without sounding maudlin. This band captures a feeling of stress directly and piercingly while acknowledging how trapped one might feel. Many of the songs on ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ focus on how we manage that stress and anxiety by relying on one another in a form of community that arises from attachment and commitment to one another. The excellent title track demonstrates through the metaphor of a child’s toy, the social bond between people. One hopes that more people will discover this excellent record.
Brian Baker – Outdoor Drama (self-released)
Former Smug Brother and Brat Curse singer and guitarist Brian Baker makes some compelling music. The slow build of the instrumental ‘My Whole Skin’ kicks off the album and leads the listener into an almost 80s-like soundscape that feels surprisingly fresh and present. The excellent ‘The Wheels are in Motion’ has some of the most captivating lo-fi Guided By Voices sound this side of ‘Bee Thousand’ or ‘Alien Lanes’. Taking numerous creative challenges on this record, Baker releases an eclectic and catchy record that does not disappoint the listener. The almost manic energy of ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Human Goings’ is balanced with the measured ‘Wells Fargo’ and ‘Spring Break Reagan II’. With melody that pulls the listener into the experience, this record is one that needs to be experienced.
The Brother Kite – Make It Real (Little Fighter Records)
The return of The Brother Kite is a majorly welcome homecoming. This album is full of charm, wit and guitar charisma that evokes some of the best indie songwriting of the past several years. If there were awards for clever catchy hooks, this band would be the winner by a mile. This record is full of gems that will lead to toe tapping and head nodding as all great arrangements, harmonies and hooks pull the listener in to the sonic soundscape made by the band. The album begins with the driving ‘Afraid to Even Try’ and then launches into the energetic ‘Don’t Ask Why!’ This one-two punch unequivocally states the intention of the album. The closer, ‘Dream to Me’ should have been a Top 40 hit. This record has nine power pop indie tracks that will stay in your head long after you stopped listening to it. While releasing a new album during a pandemic is difficult, The Brother Kite’s ‘Make It Real’ has enough verve and joy to cut through some of the problems we face and remind us of how a great song can make us feel.
One of the best songwriters in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio has to be Charlie Jackson. Whether exploring the lyrics of his solo record or the full band Charlie Jackson and the Heartland Railway, Jackson’s intelligent and accessible songwriting is a breath of fresh air in a landscape of awkward lyricism (or is that the lack of lyricism). Now, in 2020 he has embarked on an album that moves in a different yet not unexpected direction. Much of Jackson’s brilliant songwriting moves somewhere between country and acerbic rock and roll. ‘The King & Queen of Dayton Country’ is an album made with his wife, Amanda. Recording in the best vein of the classic country duets, Charlie and Amanda Jackson pay tribute to many of the duets that propelled country legends. Yet, this album is not a walk down nostalgia lane. The themes while universal about family, struggle, relationships and real identity, sound timeless and important. The chemistry of this real life married duo translate on record with a kind of grace that few married duos in country music can manufacture. Moreover, manufacture is the opposite of what Charlie & Amanda craft in their excellent ‘The King & Queen of Dayton Country.’ I highly recommend the Westerbergian ‘Masochistic Heart’ as a first listen into this collection of ten remarkable songs. Regardless of whether you are a country music fan, the songs on this record will resonate with you.
Readers of the Singles Columns will know well that I absolutely adore good melodies wrapped around melancholic lyrics. Cornershop’s latest record, ‘England is a Garden’ is an example of everything right in a well-made, well-produced, well-recorded record. The crunch of the guitars, the passion in the vocal, the driving drums and propelling bass all shine in this record. What is it about a great song that adds a little less weight to our shoulders? This album is full of terrific songs that remind us of the power of song craft. The record opens with the propelling ‘St. Marie Under Canon’ moves effortlessly into the slinky ‘Slingshot’ and then jumps into the catchy as hell ‘No Rock Save in Roll.’ That for me is a sign of a great record when you want to play the first three songs repeatedly. However, do not stop there as the rest of this record explores the sonic terrain of rock and roll with a side of funk and a healthy dash of indie swagger.
Elephants & Stars – Recovery (Excommunication Music)
Every year I come across bands that I am so thankful for discovering. One of the great discoveries I was fortunate to make this year is Elephants & Stars. The Toronto based band combine the best elements of The Replacements, The Clash and the woefully overlooked Buffalo Tom. Although the band name began as a joke about what can be seen and understood, it stuck. Singer-guitarist Manfred Sittmann and bassist Mike Macmillan formed the terrific band Soap Opera in the early 2000s that had some indie rock radio success in Canada and the United States. After that project, the excellent songwriting continued flowing and formed into the captivating songs that make up this album. The lineup solidified when drummer Chris Chambers joined the band who pulled the band into an even more extraordinary direction. Pulling influences from many indie rock royalty such as Superdrag, The Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub and early Goo Goo Dolls, Elephants & Stars channel these indie rock muses into a rock and roll combination that is a welcome amalgam of guitar-based rock music. My only criticism is that the record at five songs is too short. The album’s five songs though are worth every minute of your time.
The influence of the 1960s remains. Many records in 2020 seemed to owe a debt to the music of the 1980s. LA’s Exploding Flowers remind us that the psychedelic music of the ‘60s can still provide useful fodder for music experimentation and creation. With an almost Byrdsian sweep of jangle across several songs on this stellar record, there are gems of sensation that music can evoke past decades and still remain timeless for the listener. The jaunty ‘A Daunting Thought’, the bouncy ‘Stumbling Blocks’, the keyboard hefty ‘Far But Never Forgotten’ and dynamic ‘My Poor Heart’ with its almost Whosian stuttered delivery – all show how Exploding Flowers can draw from influences of the past and deliver a calling card for a musical adventure. In addition, there is nothing sturdier than excellent vocal harmonies that create a robust foundation within the arrangements. Pulling from other bands influenced by those same classic musicians, Exploding Flowers draw inspiration from and rework those images and sounds in new ways that delve into the experience of the music.
High on Stress – Hold Me In (self-released)
Nick Leet and company have made a great record as a return after a short-lived break up. This Minneapolis-based band offer a return to Midwestern rock and roll. Although wearing their influences on their sleeves, the band generates new observations about the state of life, challenges that feel overwhelming and working class problems. With a directness that is equally involved and disarming, High on Stress capture the weariness we all experience from work, family, relationships and hell, just trying to live our lives the best way we know how. The band’s arrangements are compelling while recalling some of the finest music from the band’s hometown of Minneapolis Nick Leet’s vocals shine on this record and maintain a connection with the listener that feels genuine and authentic. The songs feel as if they were written for the listener alone. Let us all hope that the band continues to make more music that is new for all of us in the years to come.
There have been several terrific live records released in 2020 but my favorite remains this high-energy performance from the criminally overlooked Mayflies USA. Their set was part of the four-day fifteen-year celebration of Yep Roc held at the Cat’s Cradle in 2012. Playing songs from across all three of their Yep Roc releases, the band demonstrated the reasons that they were such a great live band in the past and now. As a longtime fan of the band who has seen them play many times, hearing this record immediately took me back to those fun and energetic shows! The trademark guitar hooks, catchy drumming, strong vocals, and amazing harmonies between Matt McMichaels, Matt Long and Adam Price illustrated the power of this band. The set list on this record is fantastic. It begins with ‘You and Me’ from the band’s first record, ‘Summertown’ and ends with the perfect set closer ‘Down With Peter Green’ from that same record. The songs in between showcase a stellar band. My only hope is that this live collection leads the band to formally reunite and record a new record.
Another standout for me in 2020 was the latest record from Andy Ingram’s project XL427. As leader of the Poptek Records label, Ingram is involved in some stellar bands in Dayton and Southwest, Ohio. With ‘Thee Attack’ Ingram shows that he also is capable of some fantastic guitar driven angular indie pop. From start to finish this is a record that will stay with you and make you want to pick up a guitar yourself. Standouts on the record include the forceful ‘Ideas’, the dynamic ‘The (Surprise) Party and the infectious ‘Water + Sunlight’ with a pleading chorus that brings the listener to tears. Many of these songs reflect some serious health problems Ingram faced and overcame. Using that experience in these songs conveys a powerful set of stories about resilience.