Tag Archives: Sunshine pop

Review: The New High

Brent Cash – ‘The New High’

***** (5 stars out of 6)

Some weeks ago I received an advance copy of the upcoming third album by US singer/songwriter Brent Cash. Set for release in late January, Cash has once again recorded a batch of elegant songs with a delivery and production value that should appeal to Cue Castanets readers.

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Front cover for ‘The New High’ by Brent Cash
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brent in 2015 and if you haven’t read that blog post I’ll advise you to do so to get a better understanding of his music and where he’s coming from aesthetically.

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/brent-cash-interview/

Honestly, listening to Brent’s crystal clear, relaxed vocals and intricate arrangements is akin to, say, discovering some sort of overlooked A&M Records soft pop LP. The tunes are sophisticated, elegant, groovy – defiantly soft. Yep, it’s really that good and since Brent serves as a one-man Wrecking Crew, laying down backing tracks with all sorts of quirky little details, his albums are like time capsules of all that was good within the more sophisticated pop of the 60s and 70s.

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How Will I Know If I’m Awake (2008) – Brent’s debut album
The right way to listen to Brent’s music would be to cruise down highway 101 in an open sports van, the sun reflecting in your shades and a beautiful blonde by your side. Instead, it’s December and a cold and rainy one at that where I live. Despite the grey surroundings I’ve tried my best to envision the breezy, sun-kissed landscapes that Brent’s music compliments while reviewing his latest effort.

Where the first two albums, ‘How Will I Know If I’m Awake’ (2008) and ‘How Strange It Seems’ (2011), were text book examples of well-produced harmony pop and soft pop that would make Bacharach toast with his dry martini, ‘The New High’ sees Brent expanding his sound.

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“Check this out Angie. Here’s a groovy new platter by a fine gentleman named Brent!”
I really love the dreamy soft pop aesthetic on the covers of Brent’s first two albums and you could say that the change of direction is already visible on the cover of ‘The New High’. A skyscraper with glass and chrome that made me think “oh no, I hope Brent hasn’t gone all New Wave on us!

He hasn’t, luckily – the love of sophisticated piano-based pop is still at the heart of Brent’s music but he has expanded his palette somewhat with subtle nods towards the jangle sounds of folk-rock and Beatles-like songwriting.

Two things really stand out to me above all after repeated listening.

For one thing, Brent has probably never sung better on record. His voice may not be very unique but especially when he sings in his upper register his soft, pleasant tone really carries a lot of the magic on these songs. My favorite part of the album is the last one and a half minutes of ‘Dim Light’ where Brent goes into falsetto mode and sings skyhigh in an incredibly catchy and goose bumps-inducing section. Lesser songwriters would probably just take such a section and turn it into the basic hook in the chorus but Brent only introduces it at the last part of the song – to me, that’s always a sign of a superb songwriter at the top of his game, holding back a killer hook in order to unleash it late in a tag for maximum effect – the Beach Boys always excelled at that. There are a few other great examples of both tags and Brent’s smooth falsetto throughout ‘The New High.’

Secondly, the string arrangements on this album are incredibly effective and just ooze elegance – a testament to the care and length Brent and his string-playing friends have gone to to make each song gain as much from their playing as possible. Strings were also present on his other albums but I feel they’ve come more to the forefront here and all for the better of it. Listen to the strings in the latter part of title track ‘The New High’ – pure bliss!

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Brent Cash
Songs like ‘Dim Light’ and ‘All in the Summer’ show Brent’s evolvement as a songwriter and producer. The first one, with it’s strummed guitars, reminds me a little bit of Joni Mitchell’s more bouncy recordings while the latter has a bit of a John Lennon ‘Imagine’-vibe going on. Maybe it’s just me coming up with these reference points but if anything, such songs show that Brent tries to expand his sound. On other songs, such as ‘Every Inflection’ and ‘I’m Looking Up’, the latter one of my favorites, you hear a closer kinship to his first two albums.

Brent’s albums have always been growers for me, meaning that upon initial listening I’ve had a hard time distinguishing the tracks from each other only coming to single out songs after a few spins. The same can be said for this album.

I’m also of the opinion that the album loses a little bit of steam towards the end where a couple of slow and less orchestrated songs break the flow of the record. Songs like ‘The Dusk Song’ and ‘Fade / Return’ aren’t weak but they sort of make the album peter out rather than showcasing the variety of Brent’s songwriting on display during the first half of the tracklisting.

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‘How Strange It Seems’ (2011) – Brent’s second album so far
All in all, ‘The New High’ is a fine album that perfectly compliments Brent’s past releases– you’d be a fool to pass on these if you love melodic pop of the highest order that harken back to 60s and 70s LA or New York-based pop.

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Odds & Ends – ‘This Could be the Night’

Here’s a confession… This dazzling Spector-produced one-off single by the Modern Folk Quartet is easily one of my all-time favorite Wall of Sound productions. So this latest installment of the odds & ends section can hardly be said to be unbiased. I just utterly cherish this song and for the life of me can’t fathom why the Tycoon of Teen decided to keep this bouncy pop gem under wraps for so long!

Allegedly, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was present when Spector and the Wrecking Crew laid down the backing track for this majestic tour-de-force and the song made a lasting impression on him. In interviews he has often singled it out as a favorite even going so far as to record his own cover version of it for a Harry Nilsson tribute album. Why, if he indeed was at the session, Hawthorne’s finest may very well be among the gazillion people heard emphasizing the backbeat with hand claps during the song’s middle section! I’ve always loved that part of the song in particular. It’s a classic goose bumps-type moment where it sounds as if Spector rounded up everyone in 60s LA to make them clap in unison at Gold Star.

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The MFQ with Spector during the 1965 session for ‘This Could be the Night’

As is so typical with the most extreme Spector productions, you almost forget who the artist is. Sure, the track credit says the Modern Folk Quartet alright, but since they didn’t write the song or can be clearly heard playing their instruments or singing the folksy harmonies on their more restrained 60s efforts this sonic assault has ‘Spector’ stamped all over it. At the risk of being engulfed by a swamp of swirling instruments Henry Diltz succeeds in cutting through the wall with a passionate lead vocal.

Kudos in particular to Harry Nilsson for supplying Spector with a song like this. The pair also worked on the stellar ‘Paradise’ and the interesting ‘Here I Sit’ by the Ronettes. It’s a shame their working relationship was so short-lived. Here’s a super piano version of the song by Nilsson pitched to the Monkees a few years after the MFQ recording:

Incredibly, despite the fact that the song was used for the intro credits scene to the iconic Big TNT show concert film, Spector defied logic by allowing ‘This Could be the Night’ to linger in the vaults for a decade. It finally saw the light of day in the mid-70s on one of the Rare Masters compilations along with other incredible could-have-been hits such as ‘Paradise’ or ‘I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine’ by the Ronettes.

Why Spector inexplicably decided not to release it we’ll never know. Maybe his notorious insecurities were in full force at a time that was clearly a transition period for him? The mid-60s certainly saw him experience with various adaptions of the Wall of Sound to match somewhat the popular genres of the day. If you listen to ‘This Could be the Night’ in that context you’ll probably pick up little details that, with the Wall of Sound still fully in place, reveals that Spector and his team had studied both folk-rock and the emerging sunshine pop sound.

The MFQ of course had close ties to the former, whereas the latter was about to really catch on nationwide, for instance by way of singles such as ‘Just my Style’ by Gary Lewis & the Playboys, ‘Happy Together’ by the Turtles or ‘The Rain, the Park and Other Things’ by the Cowsills. Obviously, those hits were way more simplistic production-wise and also emphasized harmonies much more than ‘This Could be the Night’ but I feel these songs share the same type of über-catchy, bounc and almost anthemic structure that defined a lot of the era’s harmony heavy and often Beach Boys-inspired LA pop.

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It’s interesting to ponder what direction Spector and the MFQ could have followed hot on the heels of an actual mid-60s release of the song. Would it have been a hit? Who knows? But if so, it certainly would have given Spector another try at consistent chart action at a time where his magic with the Righteous Brothers was about to wane due to personal differences.

It has always amazed me that a song this good hasn’t been covered more but there’s been a few, typically fairly faithfull to the original Spector production. Here’s a different approach by David Cassidy from 1975 where the song is slowed down considerably,… and what do you know? It works very well. It’s a shame Spector didn’t do the same during his infamous 70s sessions.

Finally, let’s conclude with a nice, if a bit shaky, version by the current MFQ line-up. Very nice in this stripped-down approach,…. Which only reinforces Spector’s own long-held opinion; that it always starts with the song. If the song is not strong enough, the Wall of Sound can only take it so far.

 

Review: Together

The Explorers Club – Together (2016)

*****½ (5½ stars out of 6)

Consider this; if you think about the phenomenal success the Beach Boys had in their hey-day – and the esteem in which Brian Wilson is still held by today’s musicians – the lack of modern bands playing original music easily recognizable as ‘Beach Boys-like’ is puzzling.

Whereas you still have a gazillion bands mining the Beatles-sound, it’s much rarer to find new and original releases mirroring the sunkissed harmonies and playful pop perfection of Hawthorne’s finest.

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Brian during the sessions for Pet Sounds.
Sure, there are tribute bands out there performing Beach Boys or Jan & Dean hits, but only a few bands seem to have truly based their very existence on the sort of golden 60s California sound the Beach Boys perfected; Britain’s Surfin’ Lungs have been at it for decades, Italy has the aptly named Sunny Boys, the Dukes of Surf out of Hawaii give Mike Love a run for his money and there’s my own band, Surf School Dropouts from Denmark.

All of these have come up with cool songs in a Beach Boys-vein but in my humble opinion none can touch the incredible enigma that is the Explorers Club.

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I first came across these guys in 2006 – or was it 2007? – when a few songs on their MySpace account got the attention of hardcore Beach Boys fans. To this day, ‘Don’t Forget the Sun’, which graced their 2008 debut album ‘Freedom Wind’, is one my all-time favorite songs. ‘Freedom Wind’ was a fantastic first offering from the talented band and the 2012 follow-up ‘Grand Hotel’ didn’t disappoint either.

What was so great about the second album was the fact that the band broadened their sound to also encompass the late 60s & early 70s soft pop sound that followed in the wake of the Beach Boys glory days – think the type of stuff A&M Records put out as an example. In time, the more diverse ‘Grand Hotel’, sound- and genre-wise at least, has become my favorite of the two albums. But both are must-hears for any connoisseur of great pop, Beach Boys fan or otherwise.

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And now,… finally!… we have a third Explorers Club album coming out! I’ve been looking so much forward to this release ever since I got a bit of background info on it from main songwriter and band leader Jason Brewer in an interview for Cue Castanets last year. You can read our discussions here:

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/jason-brewer-interview/

So,… the album,.. how is it?

Well, for one thing, it’s clear that the current incarnation of the Explorers Club has returned somewhat to the familiar grounds of the debut album, their feet firmly planted in Brian Wilson’s sandbox, ready, willing and able to delight listeners with hooks and glorious harmonies.

The sounds contained within the album rarely veer off the path laid out by the Beach Boys, but not in a way that makes the songs come across as mere pastiches. I’ve always been extremely impressed by the way the band picks up on the best parts of the Beach Boys oeuvre and puts its own unique spin on it.

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It’s also clear that the band has been very hard at work recording these songs – lots of things going on in every song and neat little details popping up in the mix upon close listening.

And those harmonies,… stunning harmonies sounding so effortlessly and naturally yet undoubtedly must have required a lot of fiddling around to come up with the perfect vocal wrapping. I know – I’ve been there with the Dropouts! It’s an integral element for the song with the harmony arrangement somehow almost taking up as much time to come up with as the song itself! For this third album, the Explorers Club has concocted some stellar vocal arrangements that are guaranteed to bring a smile to everyone in love with vocal harmony.

Although the album works really well as a whole and the quality is top notch throughout, there are a few stand-out tracks I’d like to highlight in my review.

For starters, lead-off single ‘California’s Callin’ Ya’ is so Brian Wilsonesque it’s almost eerie. It has the same type of modern take on the doo wop sound as can be found on Brian’s ‘Soul Searching’ or ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio.’ Catchy with a capital C then; it’s no wonder this was singled out for a release on its own.

I’m also very fond of the extremely catchy ‘Once in a While’ which has a tag to die for. A tag, of course, was the Beach Boys’ own term for a type of ending that twisted the melody of the song in question a little bit, ensuring that the dying 10-30 seconds had a distinctly different feel than what had gone before,… and was all the more memorable for it. It’s something the Explorers Club has done to perfection on many of their past songs and it works great again here.

‘Perfect Day’ breezes by in less than two minutes but you’d be hard pressed to find a classier, more beautiful little number with close harmony all the way through as its backbone. Close your eyes, listen and dream away – this is timeless in much the same way as those iconic Four Freshman records, Brian Wilson wore out the grooves on in his room before changing the pop game.

Another gem is ‘Quietly’ which comes with yet another tag with tasty falsetto and some dreamy sections throughout the song where the drum fills give off a distinctive ‘Pet Sounds’-vibe. It’s difficult to point out a truly favorite track among all these songs, but this may be the one for me. Fantastic stuff!

If you’re a fan of the cosmic fart-synth sound of ’15 Big Ones / Love You’-era Beach Boys, you’re bound to love the pop grandeur that is ‘Don’t Waste Her Time’ which features longtime-Brian Wilson band member Darian Sahanaja joining the band on keys. This majestic song, which Jason Brewer co-wrote with the great Andy Paley, has come out earlier in a more classic 60s pop arrangement. I do prefer this earlier version, but the song is clearly too good to just gather dust as a single-only release so it makes sense that it’s on here – and it works very well in its updated setting.

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Jason Brewer of the Explorers Club.
If I should offer a bit of criticism, it would be that some of the songs at times reveal their inspiration a little too obviously; title-track ‘Together’ is clearly modeled after ‘Wild Honey’-era Beach Boys while ‘Be Around’ oozes ‘Friends’-vibes right down to its waltz-tempo. It doesn’t ruin my listening experience, but some may find that this sense of ‘what is it this song reminds me of…’ can be a bit overwhelming.

Also, parts of the production can at times sound a bit slick and polished compared to the previous two albums – ‘Gold Winds’ is a good case in point. But who am I or anyone else to judge that, really? I’m sure that the Explorers Club has succeeded in getting just the sound they set out to nail in the studio, – like it or not. Above all, this is clearly a labor of love.

A fantastic release then and one that doesn’t let down. Any fan of good pop music should really check this out.

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The current Explorers Club in the studio.
Please, support the band so that we can begin to look forward to a fourth record from them. Hopefully sooner than later! We need someone to fly the flag for classic 60s pop and timeless harmony in the music world today.

Besides buying the album at the usual outlets, you can order it directly from the band here:

www.timetogettogether.com

Safe Travels on the Sunrise Highway, Pete

Sad news today. It has been reported online that Pete Anders (Peter Andreoli) has passed away.

I’m guessing that most Cue Castanets readers knows Peter by way of the legendary Anders/Poncia songwriting credits but for those who don’t, Pete Anders was one of the finest singers and songwriters the 60s had to offer.

The body of work Peter has left behind is truly at the pinnacle of perfect pop – along with his lifetime friend and musical partner-in-crime Vini Poncia, there wasn’t a genre Pete couldn’t master, be it doo wop, surf & hot rod music, girl groups, wall of sound, Beatles-esque knock-offs, soul, sunshine pop or bubblegum. Anders/Poncia covered all bases and did so brilliantly.

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Anders & Poncia then and more recently. Pete Anders is pictured to the left in 1969 and to the right in the 2010 Photo.

I’ve been a fan of this dynamic duo’s music since I first heard the killer songs they wrote for the Ronettes and, later on, the two albums they recorded under their Tradewinds and Innocense guises. Those two albums especially are textbook examples of how to write fantastic and charming sunshine pop & bubblegum music. The songs on both albums are inventive, hook-laden and brimming with enthusiasm, all bound together by Peter’s extraordinary lead vocals.

Yet, as with the equally talented Sloan/Barri partnership, the body of work by Anders/Poncia is often overlooked when US 60s pop is discussed in general. Sure, Goffin/King, Mann/Weill and Barry/Greenwich deserve all the praise they get, but dig a little deeper and you’ll be amazed at the sheer quality of the more unknown Anders/Poncia catalog. There’s always something interesting going on in their songs.

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Spector certainly sensed he had stumbled upon a veritable hook machine when Doc Pomus introduced him to Pete Anders & Vini Poncia. According to legend, they hadn’t even written ‘The Best Part of Breaking Up (is when You’re Makin’ Up)’ when they pitched their song idea to him, but the title alone was enough to tell Spector that these guys from Rhode Island knew where it was at. And they didn’t let him down!

To these ears, the songs Anders/Poncia wrote for the Ronettes and Darlene Love during their short stint with Spector are any bit as good as what the more recognized Brill Building couples wrote. Those first seconds of ‘Do I Love You’? Wow… As good as it gets – and it simply must send chills down the spine of every pop music lover. And don’t get me started on ‘He’s a Quiet Guy’ by Darlene Love. What a shame also that the fantastic ‘Hold Me Tight’, credited to the Treasures, was the only thing Pete Anders got to sing on with Spector behind the console.

Then again, Anders & Poncia were perfectly able to churn out top quality productions on their own. A single like the 1967 ‘Sunrise Highway’, which I namecheck in the title to this post, is a sunshine pop masterpiece adorned with a tour-de-force Pete Anders vocal.

There were a lot of questions I would have liked to ask Peter about his interesting career in music. So after starting the blog I reached out for him online through a friend of his, hoping for a Cue Castanets interview. Peter happily agreed to answer my questions but sadly, various projects as well as health problems prevented him from doing so. It’s a shame because it would have been very interesting to hear his side of the story as a supplement to Vini Poncia who luckily has reminisced in a few interviews through the years.

I will conclude this post with a beautiful song from Peter’s obscure 1972 solo album as well as the questions I sent to Peter but that he never got around to answering before he passed away. If anything, the scope of those questions are testament to how varied and interesting a career this great singer and songwriter had in music.

Rest in peace Peter. Thank you for the music!

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Proposed interview questions for Pete Anders

Early years / Videls

You and Vinnie first met each other in doo wop group the Videls out of Providence, Rhode Island in the late 50s. Did the two of you ‘click’ right away as creative partners or was it something that slowly evolved?

‘Mr. Lonely’ appears to be the first ‘Andreoli-Poncia’ written song. Is that so? And in general, how did the two of you work on songs together from then on? Did one of you, say, mainly write the words and the other the melody / chords? Or did it change from song to song?

Even from the early Videls recordings I hear you as a very skilled singer with a distinctive vocal style. Who would you say was your biggest influences when you were starting out as a vocalist?

 

Philles-era songs

How did your writing relationship with Phil Spector come about? Was his interest piqued by one of your song demos (if so, which one?) or were you teamed up with him?

What was it like to work with him and seeing your songs get the Wall of Sound treatment in the studio?

Are there any particular songs from that time you’re especially fond of or have specific anecdotes about?

I absolutely love your vocal on ‘Hold Me Tight’ credited to the Treasures. Whose idea was it to rework, and in my opinion vastly improve, a Beatles song so radically? Did Spector record anything else with you on lead that has remained unreleased?

One of your more obscure songs while with Spector is ‘You’re my Baby’ by Gene Toone & the Blazers. A fun throwback to your street corner doo wop background set to a marching beat. I really love this song. The feel and beat of it reminds me of an unreleased Philles-era track called ‘Pretty Girl’ sung by Spector himself. Were you and Vinnie involved in that song? It has the same type of marching beat and funny lyrics that, among other things, goes: “My name’s Philip and incidentally I ain’t going steady. But you’ve got something that get’s me thinkin’ I may be ready.” There’s a prominent use of harmonica throughout and the chorus goes “You’re so fine. So fine. What’s you number? You’re so fine.” Do you remember this song / production?

‘The Best Part of Breaking Up’ is also fantastic – there’s a story going around that you and Vinnie only had the title / catch phrase for the song [The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up] when you pitched the song for Spector and that he immediately sensed a hit from the title alone, asking you to write it. Is this true?

Darlene Love has mentioned numerous times that ‘He’s a Quiet Guy’ is her favorite Philles-era song. I tend to agree. It’s a fantastic piece of work. Was it written directly for her? Did you participate at the session?

‘Do I Love You’ – that bass riff in the intro is pure genius. Do I detect a bit of a Motown influence in that song?

I’ve heard rumors of an unreleased Ronettes track wittten by you and Vinnie called ‘Someday (Baby)’ Do you remember this one? Did Spector record more songs of yours than what was eventually released?

There’s of course also the Lovelites. You and Vinnie did some fantastic stuff with this group, – ‘When I Get Scared’ on the Phi-Dan label and the not officially released ‘Please be my Boyfriend’ and ‘He’s my Eddie Baby.’ All great productions! What would you say you learned as producers from your association with Phil Spector?

Following up on the Lovelites and ‘Please be my Boyfriend’ – was that song written by you and Vinnie? It has never been disclosed who wrote it as an acetate label and sessions sheets don’t feature writing credits. Also, there’s a version floating around credited to the Crystals. Listen here: The Crystals – Please Be My Boyfriend Many believe that the demo isn’t sung by the Crystals but an unknown group. Do you recognize the voices? This version has puzzled collectors for decades!

 

Tradewinds, Innocense and beyond

You left Spector & Philles Records for Leiber & Stoller’s Red Bird label in 1965. Your first master there was the legendary ‘New York’s a Lonely Town’ under the Tradewinds moniker. A sizeable hit. How did you come up with this great idea for a song? Did you offer it to Spector before releasing it on Red Bird?

Many of the Tradewinds songs have an obvious Beach Boys influence. How did you feel about what Brian Wilson was doing at the time? Did you ever meet him in LA?

On Kama Sutra and later Buddah you recorded fantastic stuff under quite a few names; the Tradewinds, the Innocense, the Good Times etc. But you also released your first solo single, the majestic ‘Sunrise Highway’ backed with ‘Baby Baby.’ Why a solo single at this time?

I’ve heard rumors of an unreleased album borne out of the sessions for the Anders & Poncia ‘So It Goes’ / ‘Virgin to the Night’ single on Kama-Sutra. Any truth to this? If so, why was it scrapped?

Finally, you and Vinnie were involved in so many one-off singles that some were bound to fall through the cracks. A particular favorite of mine is ‘Thinkin’ ‘bout Me’ by the Fairchilds from 1968.

What a stunning song and great production. Should have been a hit! You and Vinnie are listed as producers along with your old Videls buddy, Norman Marzano. What do you remember about this song? Was the Fairchilds an actual group or just you guys recording? I think I hear you sing back-up vocals?