by Alan Sculley, Last Word Features
This week’s edition of Now Hear This is a global musical experience, with new releases by acts that hail from Sweden, France, London, Canada and the United States. These acts all have one thing in common: music that makes these albums stand out from the pack.
The Tragically Hip
When The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie succumbed to cancer in 2017, his death and the demise of the Hip was a gut punch, as the band enjoyed arena-filling popularity for much of a 33-year career. It still stands as one of the very best bands ever to come out of Canada. Now, the surviving band members are beginning to dig through the vault, and Saskadelphia offers up the first batch of unreleased songs. Recorded mostly during sessions for the Hip’s excellent second album, 1991’s Road Apples, the six songs on Saskadelphia would have been featured tracks on albums by most bands. “Crack My Spine Like a Whip,” “Not Necessary” and “Ouch” are good examples of the kind of taut, tuneful and passionate music that became the Hip’s signature. Meanwhile the EP gets some variety from “Just As Well,” a rocker with a bit of Rolling Stones-ish swagger, and “Reformed Baptist Blues,” which despite its title has a punk/rockabilly kick. The one non-studio track is a live version of the song “Montreal,” a slower burning anthem with plenty of muscle and grit. The Hip were still writing and performing at a high level right up until Downie had to step away from music, and the band is sorely missed. But hopefully Saskadelphia is the start of a steady stream of EPs or albums of unreleased songs. It’s as essential as any of the Hip’s albums.
Jessie Lee and The Alchemists
Let It Shine
France is not exactly known as a hotbed of the blues, but in Jessie Lee and The Alchemists, the country appears to have a world-class blues-rock band. Guitarist/singer Lee is a powerhouse vocalist with some sass and suppleness in her performances, while the other band members form a tight backing unit (with guitarist Alexis “Mr. Al” Didier and keyboardist Laurian Daire unreeling some impressive solos and fills along the way). Most importantly, Jessie Lee and The Alchemists have the songs. There’s some hard rock lurking in the band’s influences, as the songs “Another” and “You Gotta” have lots of crunch to go with sharp melodic hooks, while the fat rock riffs of “Sometimes” play surprisingly well with some swinging soul. The soulful side of the band surfaces again on “You Took My Mind Away,” a song that trades off between moments that are silky smooth and melodic and some forceful rock. “Get Out of My Head” is a blues shuffle that packs a punch, while the bluesy ballad “One Only Thing” suggests the band can show restraint when it suits the song. Just the second album from Jessie Lee and The Alchemists, Let It Shine is rich and accomplished enough that one wonders just how much better this band can get.
The guitarist/singer from Sheffield, England, has gained a decent amount of success as a songwriter for 15 years in the band Reverend and the Makers, which has notched four No. 1 indie singles in the United Kingdom. So it makes sense that Cosens doesn’t sound like a newbie as he steps into the spotlight on his accomplished first solo album, Fortunes Favour. On songs like “Lovers Blues,” “On The Run” and “Running On Empty,” Cosens builds graceful melodies into Brit-pop songs that are mixed with some folk touches and no hints of the pretension that sometimes filters into Brit-pop. That said, there are many moments of elegance on Fortunes Favour. “The River” has a lovely melody set to a tempo that almost qualifies as a waltz. Gentle acoustic guitar notes and strings weave around the pretty vocal melody of the ballad “Last to Know.” And “If,” an epic ballad with a gorgeous melancholic vocal melody and plenty of drama, may be the high point of the album. Cosens may have had a good thing going with Reverend and the Makers, but Fortunes Favour suggests he has too much talent to play a supporting role in a band. Cosens is clearly ready for his close-up.
Being the Girl
This Swedish songstress has been getting raves in Europe as one of the country’s best new talents since she released her EP Boys in 2017. The four-song EP Wave, which followed a year later, only increased the buzz. Now Koch-Emmery picks up where she left off with her first full-length album, Being the Girl. Don’t look for much heart-bruised female singer-songwriter fare here (although “Wake Up” and “Lasershot” show Koch-Emmery can write highly appealing guitar pop ballads). American fans may liken Koch-Emmery’s music to Grace Potter or Metric on the arena-worthy rockers “Hologram Love” and “Dirty Words,” and there’s a little Florence + the Machine on the poppier but still quite epic “Hard to Love.” At other points, Koch-Emmery’s sound verges on grunge on “Blow My Mind” and there’s a new-wavish quality to the energetic “No Place for You.” These rockers all come with the kind of bright and effortless pop hooks and big choruses that immediately grab one’s attention. All signs point to Koch-Emmery having an auspicious future.
Trash Your Life
This Chicago band refers to its music as scum pop/power trash. And yes, there is some garage rock rowdiness, grit and grease to the music on Trash Your Life, Old Joy’s second full-length effort. But that discounts the songwriting talent that sneaks through in the songs of main man Alex Reindl. For instance, “Hook, Line & Sinking” could be just a ranting, expletive-laced rocker about a one-sided, soul-draining relationship, but strings that flow through the verses elevate the song with some unexpected musical grace. Meanwhile, the chiming guitar tones and multi-layered guitar solo of “Don’t Get Me Lost” sweetens the ragged Replacements-ish tendencies of the song. And there’s no missing the pop hooks that make rocking songs like “90’s Baby,” “Baby Below You” and the title track highly listenable, even if Old Joy also releases bits of sting and dissonance along the way. And then there’s acoustic-based, country-tinged rocker “I Wish I Loved You (Cuz I Really Like You),” which is deceptively charming in its vulnerability. Yes, Old Joy is suitable for your next rager, but the music on Trash Your Life is more advanced, intelligent and emotional to be dismissed as bar band fodder.