Saturday, July 8, 2006

Different Strummers

Some friends whose music I've followed for a while have new releases. I admit I'm totally biased, but these albums have nonetheless given me hours of pleasure:

Alan Merrill (with me at right) previously appeared in The Dawn Patrol as "our fave rave shang-a-lang Scheherazade" with his first-person stories of his audition for the Left Banke and his writing "I Love Rock N Roll [second entry down on that page]. The son of singer Helen Merrill and jazzman Aaron Sachs (a Benny Goodman protégé), he has an illustrious history as a pure popmeister.

Alan's latest release is a reissue of his 1971 solo album Merrill 1, made while his star was ascending in the land of the rising sun. (Yes, as the saying goes, he really is big in Japan.) For years, he's been telling me about this, his "Emitt Rhodes" album — a self-penned, McCartneyesque work on which he plays all the guitars and bass (along with some other instruments) and sings all the vocals.

The Rhodes influence is indeed evident on Merrill 1, especially in the blissfully innocent, unaffected vocals and the charmingly miniaturist feel of its catchy three-minute tunes. But Alan's better at harmonizing with himself than Rhodes ever was — at certain points, his vocal blend has a depth that compares favorably with the Hollies. And while some of the album's songs lack Rhodes' astoundingly perfect, near-baroque construction, Alan shows a wider range of influences — particularly Todd Rundgren's most pristine piano-fueled melancholia (think "Baby Let's Swing"), the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (his "Crazy Lady" recalls their "Caroline No"), and early Nilsson (including a brief, blatant homage to "Good Old Desk").

Give a listen to one of Merrill 1's standout tracks, "Everyday All Night Stand," at the CD Baby store. The tune's plugged into that perfect early-Seventies power-pop zeitgeist, with the same kind of gorgeous guitars — run through a Hammond organ's Leslie speaker — that Canadian superstar Pagliaro was doing at the same time (here's one of Pag's best). Not everything on Merril 1 is that strong — at the tender age of 19, Alan had yet to mature as a songwriter — but it's eminently listenable and filled with ear candy.

The Anderson Council's long-awaited second album, The Fall Parade is finally out, and unlike their debut, Coloursound (which featured me on its front cover), it sounds like an album — not just a collection of songs. Gone are the Mod affectations — save for the occasional "And Your Bird Can Sing" riff and singer Peter Horvath's unsinkable British accent. (Admittedly, Peter — at left with me in 2003 — hails from a formerly British territory: New Jersey.) Instead, the Council's moved a few decades into the future, taking production and songwriting cues from their near neighbors the Smithereens, with hints of other Eighties and Nineties acts like Matthew Sweet, XTC, and classic Elvis Costello.

Thankfully, the Council's more recent influences retain a melodic sensibility and jangly guitar sound that's easy on the ears of Sixties pop fans like myself, so The Fall Parade should still appeal to those who dug the revivalist sound of the group's debut. The songs also include a couple of the group's early compositions that didn't make it onto Coloursound, most notably the whimsical "Pinkerton's Assorted Colours," which sounds for all the world like an outtake from The Who Sell Out.

The best of The Fall Parade's newer compositions, like "Strawberry Smell" (with its great cycle of fifths and "Looking at Louth," reflect Peter's ear for inventive chord changes and playfully enigmatic lyrics. The latter's a bit of a problem for me; I always liked Rod Argent better than Ray Davies and Paul McCartney better than Pete Townshend, so lyrics that contain irony, vague symbolism, or similar forms of detachment leave me cold. The words to the tunes on Coloursound, like "Mind Meld Mud" and "Feet of the Guru," were largely nonsense, but they let the listener in on the joke — like Edward Lear for the Cuban-heel set. I've listened to The Fall Parade 20 times and I adore the sound of it, but I have only the faintest idea of what its songs are about. I can only close my eyes and think of England.

Back in 2001, Peter Horvath very kindly recorded a fab demo of a song I wrote: "Girl on the Northern Line." Enjoy!