With a plate full of sounds that span the pop spectrum, Swag lets the light of sweet melody shine through. And these are guys who should be quite familiar with what good pop sounds like. Swag is a supergroup of sorts, comprised of Robert Reynolds (The Mavericks), Jerry Dale McFadden (Sixpence None the Richer), Ken Coomer (formerly of Wilco), Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick), and Doug Powell (solo Nashville pop artist). Together, they write infectiously fun songs with great harmonies and crafty hooks that are hard to ignore.
Touches of the Beatles and the Kinks are woven together as the tunes on Catch-all play like an homage to classic pop tunesmithery. "Different Girl" has Lennon/McCartney written all over it. "She's Deceiving" and "When She Awoke" unfold like old Cheap Trick songs. There's Badfinger and a touch of Todd Rundgren keeping "You" and "Trixie" afloat. And "Please Don't Tell Her" relies on a sound pioneered by the Kinks.
With stellar musicianship, these guys write and perform songs that are dynamic in every sense. "Near Perfect Smile" relies on a wispy hush over a layer of plucked strings to convey its delicacy and emphatic mysteriousness. The overall sound is consistently buoyant pop with shimmering guitar and addictive melodies. Just try to stop bobbing your head when "Louise" starts up. It's damn near impossible.
With shared songwriting responsibilities and shared vocals duties, this record feels like a true group effort. They exude confidence with a gentle, simple elegance. There's a tried and true sound here, like that of a band out to enjoy themselves and make the kind of music they love. -Chris Webb
Bad Dog Records
You have told me who I am and what to do and where to go/I have listened and I'm trapped inside your dream/But I'll take it from here...
The characters in Jonatha Brooke's songs are often victims of their own choices but have tremendous resourcefulness when it comes to compensating, coping - and sometimes excusing their own place in relationships. Brooke herself shows tremendous resourcefulness in her production work (along with veteran engineer Bob Clearmountain) on these dozen self-penned songs. Though her songs are often based on acoustic strumming that has more rhythmic character than tunefulness, a well-tempered love for varying each song's sound puts Brooke's best foot forward time and again. She's like Lindsay Buckingham without the great gift for melody. Larry Aberman's drums are pushed forward in the mix, steadily supporting the hearty honest attitudes that Brooke chops into her vocal performances. She can write insights just fine but also knows the value of simple phrases.
It isn't always the case here that production effects and band meet a song with dynamics to make up for Brooke's tune-challenged writing style - but those moments are worth waiting for. "How Deep Is Your Love?" has a startup tricked up like the listener's being physically pulled into some set-aside space where the musicians are already progressing with something they can't stop. "New Dress" with guest vocalist Neil Finn and violin by Scarlet Rivera has wonderful staid rumbles like a heartbeat in fearful hope - it complements the lyric marvelously. A big-but-quick chorus hook puts a radio-friendly soar into "Out of Your Mind." No one will annoy their friends by humming Jonatha Brooke songs that they can't get out of their heads - but is that a bad thing? -T.E. Lyons
First things first. The honky-tonk Hangdogs are from New York City. NEW YORK CITY(!)... get a rope! Well, actually, with Beware of Dog, the surprising Hangdogs submit a record chock full of twangy rockers and small town stories, despite the band's New York roots.
Beware of Dog is what being a "good-time-bar-band" is all about, offering a nice balance of music. The album gives its listener both songs that blow the roof off the joint live and narrative tunes that ramble like a nice bit of storytelling - a mix that trades off like a boxing 1-2 combination.
For those in the mood for a somber love song, try "Angelina Turns". Or, if you're looking for a John Cougar... er... Mellancamp-esque ditty about the unsung heroes of American life, "Out There" satiates your need. And if you just want to throw down a Pabst Blue Ribbon while listening to an old-fashioned barroom rocker, you're in luck, as the Hangdogs serve up plenty of those. Songs like "Meet Me at Tommy's," where the band, metaphorically of course, gives a big middle finger to an ex, do what music's supposed to do - it makes ya have fun (Screw that &#$*&#$!).
The strength of Hangdogs' work lies not only in the strength of its songwriting, but in lead singer Matthew Grimm's ability to apply his slang to various styles of song. Unlike the carbon-copy voices that dominate the FM waves today, Grimm has a sound and style all his own, which blends perfectly with his band's accompaniment.
The hidden gem of Beware of Dog is "Other People's Houses," the only song not written or sung by Grimm. Admittedly, neither the song, written and sung by the band's drummer, Kevin Baier, nor the rest of the album are going to change the world. But that ain't the band's point. Rather, if you're not looking for karmic enlightenment, and just you want to crack open a PBR, have fun and enjoy music for the good time it can and should be, try the Hangdogs (and do try to forget they're from NYC). -Kevin Faris