All my adult musical life, I have had this ongoing discussion with friends on the relevance of artists who embrace their influences. This dialogue began back in Junior High School when I discovered this band called Nektar, a four piece Prog Rock band which I came to love. Yet, for the most part, other friends couldn’t get beyond the notion that Nektar sounded sort of like Yes and Pink Floyd together.
Still, friends often said “Why should I listen to Nektar when I have Yes and Pink Floyd and Genesis and ELP to listen to?”
My answer of “well, because Nektar play these great melodic prog rock epics that rock” usually wasn’t enough to convince most people.
And despite Nektar being popular enough to sell out big concert venues in NYC and be featured in concert on the radio (on WNEW-FM in fact), Nektar bumped along for decades as (what I’ve dubbed) “the little prog rock band that could.” Nektar never got to play Madison Square Garden (as far as I know) like Pink Floyd and Yes and ELP. Yet they survived and ultimately regrouped, especially active in the new millennium. Main songwriter and singer Roye Albrighton kept true to his vision, thrilling fans in smaller venues around the world, putting out new albums and staying the course almost literally to the end not too long ago this year (R.I.P.).
“But what about ELO?,” I would counter to my friends. “They certainly sound like The Beatles at times and you love them,” I would argue
“That’s different,” they would say.
“Um… ok…. right…”
Giving up, I learned to shrug this sort of attitude off, later realizing that my friends had been hypnotized as much by those mainstream bands’ mass marketing hype as the music — fancy light shows, groovy otherworldly logos and space aged album art, hip t-shirts and flying-saucer-shaped stages ‘n all that will do it to you.
I get it… in some ways… I’ve been there myself in many ways… but that is another discussion for another time.
(by the ways, I get lots of complements on my Nektar t-shirts these days!)
Anyhow… life marched along and soon I found myself in high school embracing the New Wave side of the Punk movement as much as my beloved old Prog Rock (and Beatles and Zappa and the good old Grateful Dead). Punk and New Wave more or less dismantled the Prog movement (for a while, at least, until Prog reinvented itself into other genres… it admittedly needed a kick in the bum).
Suddenly music that sounded like the stuff I grew up on as a little kid was all over the airwaves. Beatle-y sounds. Bubblegum sounds. The Cars nicked the intro to one of my favorite childhood bubblegum hits — The Ohio Express’ “Yummy Yummy Yummy” — for one of their first big smashes.
Not swayed by the sheep-like attitudes, I discovered new unknowns from England making way cool music. I dug deeper into this whole next generation / influence thing when I became a huge fan of Elvis Costello and a lot of the Stiff Records stuff that came out around that time (Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Rockpile, Wreckless Eric, Jona Lewie, Ian Dury, etc.).
I was on board as a fan after Elvis’ first album but it was on his third album that sealed the deal for me as I realized Elvis had heard many of the same records I grew up with (and I later learned he’d heard a whole lot more!). For me, that “ah ha” moment occurred the first time I played “Party Girl” — I bought Armed Forces the day it came out at Sam Goody, with the live bonus EP — and I initially laughed out loud when the song ended in this huge coda of sorts that was a pretty much a direct cop off The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Then I got excited by this — it was like Elvis was including a wink-wink-nudge-nudge secret coded message to those of us in-the-know who would pick up on this. It was like “hey, I’m gonna do this and see if any of you get what I’m doing.”
It was there I recognized the difference between an homage and a rip off. Elvis was making a statement and it worked completely, even if it did sound a whole lot like the ending of The Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money.” It was and remains a great song and obviously Paul McCartney himself got the secret message (Elvis co-wrote songs with Macca some 10 years later).
Was I going to write off Elvis because he sort of lifted this classic line from the Fab Four? No way! This was way way cool and it began a lifetime fascination for me of playing a game some of us call “Spot the Influence.”
A little later as I got deep into Swindon, England’s XTC — and their brilliant side alter-ego side project as the imaginary 60s psychedelic rock band The Dukes of Stratosphear — I realized there were a bevy of great songwriters who could internalize all these influences and and create something new and exciting that still conveyed the vibe of the music I grew up on, yet which held up on its own.
Hey Hey, We’re The Rutles!
]]>Fast forward 30 plus years and still today, even in these enlightened 21st Century times, I still encounter people who are seemingly afraid to try and embrace new songwriters who are putting out great works which fit snugly alongside in a continuum with many of our old heroes.
That is the part I really don’t understand…
I mean… lots of people love a great song like “There She Goes” by The La’s (which always felt to me like an updated Hermans Hermits song) and seemingly everybody adores Cheap Trick. And what about Weezer’s brilliant novelty hit “Buddy Holly”?
Yet many seem afraid when a more serious band comes along making music in that vein which is not goofy or a novelty.
How many of you have heard “Hellbent” by Superdrag?
I keep trying to turn friends onto newish bands like Ra Ra Riot and their great stylistic mashup of later period ELO sounds (cellos! violins!) with infectious bubblegum-worthy melodic hooks and funky late 70s and early 80s hip-swinging dance-y type rhythms.
C’mon folks, relax and float downstream… the water’s great in the land of rock ‘n roll and power pop… but ya gotta open yer minds, kids.
I’ve long accepted that The Beatles are no more and that John Lennon and George Harrison are long gone. And I still love their music but I’m not going to just sit around and play only those albums. Actually, it was Emitt Rhodes’ first album on Dunhill which helped me make that transition as a little kid, a record which sounded McCartney-worthy yet was played entirely by this one guy from Southern California. Hearing Emitt’s album just as Let It Be hammered the final nails in the Fab Four’s coffin, I knew these sounds would live on.
All that said, I guess this is a good time to get to the meat of this review and turn out attention to a great below-the-radar-of-the-mainstream band from Ireland called Pugwash. Last year I reported on their first album to be released in America — Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) — and it became one of my favorite recordings of the year. You can click here to read that review in case you missed it.
Thankfully, due to steady increase in their popularity, Pugwash’s 1999 debut Almond Tea was reissued recently on vinyl by Sugarbush Records. I ordered two copies of this album (as it came in two tea colored flavors — brown and green).
I so wish I’d heard this record in 1999! If things were different on the Internet and commercial radio…. and if the music listening public were a little less fickle … perhaps I would have known about these guys earlier. But, hey, its better late to the party than never, as they say. So, I’m glad to be on the bus …
Main songwriter and lead singer Thomas Walsh has a gorgeous, rich voice that is as distinctive and fresh as it is familiar. His sound is that of a man who is clearly at home behind the microphone and in full control of his influences; in a breath, you hear echoes of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ray Davies, Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood, Andy Partridge, Emitt Rhodes, Cheap Trick, The dBs, Crowded House, The Posies and so many others. Heck, at times he sounds like a bit like Beck.
“Finer Things In Life” sounds like a lost Lennon out-take (albeit, a more upbeat twist on chord changes reminiscent of Lennon’s “Isolation”).
I fully understand why Andy Partridge of XTC became enamored with these guys a number of years ago.
“Darkness Makes us Blind” sounds like a “modern rock” flavored mash-up of Lou Barlow’s Folk Implosion and ELO.
“Two Wrongs” is a killer rock anthem, like young Bono fronting Mott The Hoople while on Pearl Jam steroids. Here, those Beatle-tinted chord progressions are internalized even more convincingly than Elvis did on “Party Girl,” creating something fine and fresh along the way.
This isn’t retro nostalgia; this is musical continuum, much in the way that Ohio’s Guided By Voices have kept the torch of British rock burning bright through their LoFi and Indie-rock releases, especially their later ’90s and early ’00 releases on Matador and TVT Records. Jazz folks get this — Duke Ellington gave way to Mingus, Miles and so many other great band leaders. Indie rock folks get it — legend has it that all the people who bought the first Velvet Underground album went out and started their own bands inspired by them. Heck, classical composers have done this for centuries!
The vinyl pressings for Pugwash’s Almond Tea sound real nice and full as modern rock albums go. Digital? Analog? I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if a fledgling band was recording in the digital realm at that time period. Still, it sounds good even when you turn things up loud — someone paid attention to smoothing out the harsh edges that can grate on the nerves with digital recording if not handled properly. The vinyl pressing is quiet and, frankly, the colors are kinda pretty (adding to the fun of playing the records, I think). The only downside here is that the albums don’t come with a download but I supposed that was done intentionally to kinda force you to sit and listen to the music instead of using it as background to the morning jog or evening commute.
Hopefully, if these guys get a bit more popular here in the United States we’ll get these albums reissued on all formats here. The CDs are quite pricey up on Amazon — some have become collectors items already.
That said, you can get a really nice affordably priced CD compilation that was issued by the good folks at Ominvore Records a couple of years back. A Rose In A Garden of Weeds includes some key tracks from Almond Tea (“Two Wrongs,” Shine On Norvell Jefferson,” “Finer Things in Life) as well as fun gems from their other albums like “Its Nice To Be Nice,” “Here” and “Answers On A Postcard.”
One of my favorites is “Anchor” in which our heroes from Dublin, Ireland, out-Brian Wilson England’s The High Llamas in the art of repurposing a signature chord change inspired by The Beach Boys’ SMiLE era of recordings. Here, those chords become the centerpiece — the anchor, if you will pardon the bad pun — to an epic homage ending with a fabulous hypnotic jam around those changes. Pugwash’s take on the concept lasts a much more concise five minutes instead of the High Llama’s understandably-lengthy-but-ultimately-exhausting 10-minute excursion (titled “Track Goes By” from their 1992 album Gideon Gaye).
Well, if you’ve made it this far down the review, I suspect you are genuinely interested in this type of music so I’ll wrap this up simply saying that you really owe it to yourself to check out Pugwash.
And… Almond Tea is a good place to start… right back at the beginning!