For Chris Merritt, Cruise Elroy has been a labor of love years in the works, built on the solid foundation that was the song of the same title, a seven-four exercise in pop-jazz perfection. Daring continuously to push the envelope of what great pop music can and should be, he’s existed on the fringes of pop, building melodies of the Ben Folds ilk while taking his lyrics in the vein of a less snarky Jonathan Coulton. There’s always been more to Merritt’s music than easy comparisons may make clear, but it’s a good start. Now with the arrival of EP1 and EP2 from Cruise Elroy, the full spectrum of this sound is immediately evident.
While the first EP takes the opportunity to update early Merritt faves “Tarmac”, “Feminine Mind” and “Rain King” via a cleaner studio veneer, it also provides us with the songwriter’s strongest pop contribution yet. Via “The Fever,” which speaks to the search for truth between what we can see, smell or touch versus what we sense might be true on the fringes, Merritt hits us with his catchiest chorus while peppering the musical arrangement with his trademark odes to video-game music and off-kilter kitsch. “Shorty” opens the EP with an extended 5/4 disco-funk breakdown, then segues into a surprisingly straightforward dose of keyboard-tinged nostalgia complete with the best fuzzed-out bass outside an early Ben Folds Five effort. And even the new studio recordings of Merritt classics shine as examples of remarkably astute songwriting, particularly “Feminine Mind” for it’s twist on Billy Joel’s “She’s Only A Woman To Me” — “She’s a killer but she’s always on time; she’s brutal but she’s never unkind,” Merritt sings without the dark edge of Joel’s misogyny tainting the proceeding. And “Rain King” softens the edges of the lo-fi gem via a pair of extended instrumental interludes at the song’s center and conclusion while heightening the contrast between the bare melody with the trio’s deftly layered vocal harmonies.
But if EP1 introduces you to the sounds of Merritt and Cruise Elroy in a non-confrontational setting, EP2 becomes positively revolutionary, evident from the moment you crash ears-first into “Sisyphus.” Thirty seconds in and you’ve thrown out any comparisons to Ben Folds as the band embraces prog-rock leanings much more in tune with bands like Wax Fang. Quite unlike anything else I’ve heard on any pop album this year, “Sisyphus” takes everything that’s great about Merritt’s songwriting and encapsulates it within a melodic structure that demands a schizophrenic arrangement. All but demanding headphone listening, the song features layers upon layers which, peeled back, illustrate an artist coming fully into his own. And four minutes in, the Chris Martin-inspired harmonic breakdown seals it, making repeat listens compulsory.
And if you weren’t already sold, the EP’s closer, “Ghost,” which opens with the best rock intro not composed by Styx, will cement you as a lifelong fan. A freewheeling pop masterpiece, Ghost reminds one immediately of the more experimental side of Weezer (“The Greatest Man That Ever Lived”), a symphonic synthesized sensation which aptly showcases why I’ve argued for years that Merritt is the best pop songwriter you’re not yet listening to.
These two EPs make it tantalizingly clear that great pop music won’t be denied. With the tease of a full-length still on the horizon, take the opportunity to introduce yourself to the sonic world of Cruise Elroy. Nothing else this year comes even remotely close to this, and you ignore it at your own peril.
Elroy was here, and he’s thrown down the gauntlet.
Not since I heard Bloomington, Indiana’s now defunct 16-piece funk outfit Flattus have I heard anything as immediately infectious as Doctorfunk, a band as comfortable dabbling in off-kilter covers as they are breaking fresh ground. I submit for your approval this funkadelic bad-assed restructuring of AC/DC’s “Back In Black,” which is as fitting a summer jam as I’ve heard in years. The jazzy funk backdrop gives the song a fresh new groove, but the vocals stick close enough to the original that this serves as a fitting homage to one of rock’s greatest tracks. For more, check out Second Opinion, the band’s exceptional sophomore album, produced by Jeff Tamalier, who formerly produced or played guitar for Tower of Power, the Strokeland Superband, Cold Blood and others over the years. And follow them on Facebook, you’ll want to definitely keep these guys on your radar screen!
A few months ago I introduced you all to Tom Levin, an artist I feel is destined for much bigger things in the future. He’s released a video for “Father to a Son,” one of the standout tracks from his album Them Feet which, if you haven’t heard it, now’s as good a time as any! The video, which you can view below, is a perfect counterpoint to the traditional songs about fathers and sons, a work of art that elevates the song via a colorful blend of animation and live images showcasing three generations living life fully.. I’ll let Levin say it in his own words:
“Father To A Son” is about my father, me and my son. Ever since I became a father, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of person I want to be and what I really leave behind. I can pursue a career, start a company, make money, acquire gadgets and build a house. But the one thing that, in a longer perspective, truly will affect many generations to come is the respect I show my fellow humans and the love I give my children. This is my true legacy.
Listening to “Memory Man,” the title-track off Bl_nk Sp_c_s’ debut album, is akin to hearing what Pink Floyd would have sounded like if fronted by Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan. And that’s a sound I can stand to hear a great deal more of. Memory Man contains nine additional tracks just as genre-busting, a unique take on electronic pop which merge krautrock guitars with pop hooks, delivering a synth-laden mix perfect for solo listening or club excursions. You can watch the video for “Memory Man” below, a clip heavily inspired by David Bowie’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” short.
He looks like John Mayer but has the vocal depth and range of Ray Lamontagne, and James Bay looks primed to take over American radio as he launches his latest EP Let It Go. The buzzworthy songwriter already has a critically-acclaimed full-length to his name in last year’s The Dark Of The Morning, and the new material only cements what we already knew about the man, crafting arrangements which let his vocals shine while emphasizing a real ear for melody and composition. I can’t wait to hear more from Bay in the future. He’s set to take the US by storm with a summer tour supporting Irish sensation Hozier (dates below), and with the production values of Jacquire King [Kings of Leon, Of Monsters and Men, Tom Waits) behind the board on the new EP, it’s hard to imagine these songs not building the same grassroots reputation for Bay. You’ll be hearing a lot more of this songwriter in the coming years.
Check out a live cut of “If You Ever Want To Be In Love” below.
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6/9 Los Angeles, CA School Night @ Bardot
6/10 Los Angeles, CA Hotel Café
6/18 New York, NY Slipper Room
6/19 New York, NY Mercury Lounge [supporting Asgeir]
6/27 Glastonbury Pilton, UK
7/11 T in the Park Motherwell, UK
10/1 Atlanta, GA Variety Playhouse
10/4 Dallas, TX The Kessler
10/9 Houston, TX Warehouse Live
10/12 Mexico City, Mexico Corona Capital Festival
10/15 Solana Beach, CA Belly Up Tavern
10/16 Los Angeles, CA The Cathedral Sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian Church
10/19 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom
10/20 Vancouver, CAN Commodore Ballroom
10/21 Seattle, WA The Showbox
10/24 Boulder, CO Fox Theatre
10/26 Chicago, IL Metro
10/28 Toronto, CAN Phoenix Theatre
10/29 Montreal, CAN Virgin Mobile Corona Theatre
10/31 Boston, MA Paradise
11/1 Philadelphia, PA Trocadero Theatre
11/4 Washington, DC 9:30 Club
11/5 New York, NY Irving Plaza
Elephant Stone returns a year after the release of their self-titled sophomore album to give us <i>Three Poisons</i>, due out August 26th via Hidden Pony Records. I fell in love with their prior album, and it’s single “Hidden Moon,” and the new material shines through with the same twist of pop and psychedelic underpinings, creating a sound unlike anything else you’re likely to hear this summer. The video for “Three Poisons” is embedded below. Here’s the story behind the new album, from Rishi Dhir himself:
I don’t think it was just me, but things felt different this time around. The grooves were groovier, the sonics rumbled heavier, and the songs were connecting to something bigger. It wasn’t until Malika Tirolien came in to record her inspired backing vocals for “Knock You From Yr Mountain” and “All Is Burning” that I reflected on that abandoned record collection I inherited and the trip it took me on. In that moment I heard the groove of the Mondays, the darkness of Echo, the jangle of Ride… but what I truly heard and felt coming together in these new batch of songs was—and is—unequivocally the sound of Elephant Stone.
Can’t wait to hear more? Check back regularly for updates! And if you’re so inclined, their upcoming European tour dates are available here. US dates are reportedly coming later this summer.
I’ll admit that Brian Vander Ark’s vocals on the entirety of Villians soundtracked my early high school years, giving me plenty of reason to play the album and dozens like it on repeat as I navigated teenage awkwardness. Unfortunately the ’90s alternative rock scene wasn’t built on longevity, at least where myopic, aurally insensitive radio execs were concerned, and bands like the Verve Pipe, Harvey Danger and Semisonic never got the long-term traction they so richly deserved. It wasn’t that they couldn’t write another hit, but rather that radio and label honchos wouldn’t have known said hit if it broadsided them.
Thirteen years after their last full-length rock album, however, The Verve Pipe returns June 17th with Overboard, an album which relights the fire under their blend of well-crafted pop and catch-you-off-kilter rock. With “Crash Landing,” the album’s first promotional single, they show you really can’t go back again — this is no “Villians” or “Photograph” — but you can put a new spin on something and reinvent yourself in a way which is refreshing and well worth the listen. “I’m hearing words no one’s spoken,” he sings. “And I can feel my heart beat though I know it’s broken. Nothing is the way it seems, like being awake in a dream.” The chorus then crash-lands with an impact that launches this song instantly into the memory banks.
If you’re looking for the band to tread water through nostalgic carbons of what you heard while walking those sophomore hallways, you may be disappointed. But it’s refreshing to hear a band return after all these years, arriving with the verve to sound as fresh in the current musical climate as their alt-grunge did when we first heard it in the early ’90s. That the band’s songs feature hooks as brilliantly singable even after a decade and a half in limbo is the icing on the cake. Overboard is the most pleasant surprise of the summer so far, and it’s an album you shouldn’t miss.