By Jeff Burger
The Explorers Club, The Explorers Club and To Sing and Be Born Again. The Explorers Club, led by singer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist Jason Brewer, haven’t exactly been prolific: until last month, they’d issued only three full-length albums since 2008. So it’s a bit of a surprise that the group—whose only original member is now Brewer—simultaneously released two CDs in June. An eponymous disc contains a dozen numbers, all written by Brewer with assorted collaborators, that sound redolent of the late 60s/early 70s AM radio pop/rock hits that the Explorers Club clearly admire. (Many, in fact, seem so reminiscent of those tunes that you might feel as if you’ve heard them somewhere before.) The other disc pays a more direct tribute to their influences with covers of 10 songs from that era.
Expert production, addictive hooks, and amiable musicianship and vocalizing characterize both albums, but I particularly like the covers collection, which finds the band freshening up such well-chosen numbers as the Turtles’ “She’d Rather Be with Me”; Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Kicks”; the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It”; Manfred Mann’s Bob Dylan hit, “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)”; the Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”; and “Maybe After He’s Gone,” a track culled from the Zombies’ acclaimed Odessey and Oracle, on which Brewer channels that group’s Colin Blunstone.
Some of the source material here—such as Herb Alpert’s Bachrach and David hit, “This Guy’s in Love with You” and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s bubblegum smash, “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight”—might be considered guilty pleasures or downright uncool. But the Explorers Club, who deliver this music without a hint of condescension or parody, clearly appreciate it. Particularly after hearing their versions, you’ll likely understand why.
Julian Taylor, The Ridge. Toronto-based singer/songwriter Julian Taylor has explored blues, alt-rock, funk, and other genres on past albums, but on his excellent latest record he favors acoustic guitar and string instruments and focuses on pop and folk. Another change: “I did make up a few stories on some of the other records I’ve done,” Taylor says, “but I decided to stop doing that. Everything since then is something that happened to me, or to people I know. Everything is true.”
Everything is also musically strong. The standout is “Love Enough,” which Taylor cowrote and which features a gorgeous vocal and Spanish guitar. Other gems include “Over the Moon,” a sublime love ballad, and the title cut, in which Taylor recalls childhood summers on his grandparents’ farm in British Columbia.
Though the album is a bit short at 33 minutes, there’s lots to savor here.
Al Hendrix, The Best of Al Hendrix: America’s Lost Rocker. Unlike, say, Carl Perkins, Al Hendrix never scored a Top 40 hit, became a household name, or gained entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hence the subtitle of this album, whose recordings recall contemporaneous Sun Records material and suggest that the singer—who did make it into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame—deserves more attention than he has received.
The digital-only America’s Lost Rocker contains 20 of his best performances, all apparently recorded between about 1957 and 1962, including “Rhonda Lee,” “Rockabilly Baby,” “Loretta,” and “Lover Boy.” Hendrix brings a lot of energy and a versatile vocal style to these quintessential rockabilly tracks, nearly all of which he wrote or cowrote.
If you like what you hear, you’ll be glad to know that there’s more where this came from: the rest of Hendrix’s catalog—including Rockabilly Christmas, Lonesome Whistle: A Tribute to the Great Hank Williams, and four other albums—is being simultaneously reissued.
Mark Fredson, Going to the Movies. This release from singer, songwriter, pianist, and producer Mark Fredson opens with the delightfully anachronistic “Bitchin’ Summer,” whose protagonist announces plans to quit his dead-end job, move out of his mother’s house, find a girlfriend, stay out late, and sleep in his van “like an old beach bum” until September comes.
The lushly produced pop song—which sounds as if it belongs on a playlist with tracks like the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long” and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City”—is the best thing on the digital-only album, but that’s not to say the rest isn’t good. The Nashville-based Fredson’s unabashedly commercial music, which variously recalls artists ranging from Starbuck to Gerry Rafferty to the disco-era Bee Gees, boasts strong vocal work, insistent rhythms, and hooks galore.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.