Peter Block: Peter Block

RIYL: Candy Butchers, The Beatles, Randy Newman

Peter Block has done what many others have done before him – assembled a solid batch of songs following the pain of a divorce. Block was divorced after 16 years of marriage, and channeled the pain of that and the physical pain from two herniated discs in his back into creating music. Along with producer Mike Viola of Candy Butchers fame, and with co-writers that included Viola as well as Tracy Bonham and Dan Miller of They Might Be Giants, Block has a record he can be proud of as he jumps full force into the next chapter of his life. The songs on here are bright and breezy, yet intellectual pop. But one of the reasons Block is so compelling is that no one song sounds the same. The best tracks are the opener “Die a Little Everyday,” a melancholy pop gem; the bouncy Randy Newman-ish “In a State,” which has some slick guitar and key production; and the sad but catchy “Good to See You Gone,” in which Block attempts to do his best Shawn Mullins impression. Block is clearly at his best when he’s going up-tempo. Otherwise, as on the pulsing slow rocker “Room Full of Empty Chairs,” he just sounds like he’s trying too hard. Either way though, this is a solid release if you’re into the adult alternative thing and a fan of good songwriting in general. (Engine Room Recordings 2010)

Peter Block website


Nada Surf: If I Had a Hi-Fi

RIYL: Josh Rouse, Rogue Wave, The Silver Seas

The cool thing about alt-pop band Nada Surf is that they appear to always do things their own way. For whatever reason, though, they stayed together all these years and broke through in 2005 with The Weight Is a Gift, which was produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla. The band continued some of that magic with 2008’s Lucky, and instead of lying low as they had planned, decided to release an album of cover tunes. Fast-forward to today, and If I Had a Hi-Fi. While it’s a set of songs that varies widely from the known (Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and The Moody Blues’ “Question”) to the currently hip (The Go Betweens’ “Love Goes On” and Spoon’s “Agony of Lafitte”) to the mostly obscure (Bill Fox’s “Electrocution” and Macromina’s “Evolucion”), the base of this is Nada Surf’s signature sound, which is akin to Josh Rouse or Ben Folds fronting a modern version of the Beatles. And it’s that sound that is so endearing. That said, there is something about this album that, while nice enough, may leave you wanting more. That could be because Nada Surf’s original material is that good, or it could be that they just chose these songs on a whim based on what they were listening to at the moment. Surely we can’t fault them for taking chances, because they even covered Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger.” But one or two covers on a new Nada Surf record would have worked just as well. (Mardev 2010)

Nada Surf MySpace page


Justin Currie: The Great War

RIYL: Del Amitri, The Cure, Todd Thibaud

Most of you probably do not recognize the name of Justin Currie, but you would if you heard his voice – the smoky and positive tenor that fronted Scottish pop/rock band Del Amitri for two decades. Currie is back with his second solo effort, The Great War, and it’s a solid batch of songs that showcase his way with melody, arrangements and powerful songwriting in general. The Great War is a very balanced set of music – that is, Currie doesn’t write songs that sound the same, his voice being a constant but not much else. And that’s a good thing; Currie also has an interesting way with a hook, as he does on one of the album’s best tracks, “Anywhere I’m Away From You,” which clearly jabs at an ex: “I ain’t running home / Because home is anywhere I’m away from you.” It’s straightforward, funny, and has a funky, bluesy backdrop featuring some real slick guitar work. He does the same tongue-in-cheek thing with success on “As Long as You Don’t Come Back.”


Other standouts are the piano ballad, “You’ll Always Walk Alone,” the Del Amitri-ish “Can’t Let Go of Her Now” and the beautifully haunting, “The Way that It Falls.” It kind of sounds like Currie is coming off a breakup, and sometimes breakups inspire the best songs. Sad, but true, and certainly we fans of good alt-pop or of Del Amitri are the lucky beneficiaries. (Rykodisc 2010)

Justin Currie MySpace Page


Aqualung: Magnetic North

RIYL: Beck, Bright Eyes, Ben Folds

Aqualung, a group that is essentially one man, Matt Hales, flirted with retirement before realizing that his gift for songwriting needed to continue being shared by the masses. His/their latest, Magnetic North, is Aqualung’s second album on Verve and first set of new material since 2007’s Memory Man. Following a move from his native England to Los Angeles, Aqualung’s new material is slightly more upbeat and inspired in spots than some of his previous work, which tended to be mostly dark, moody and melodic. Right from the start, Magnetic North kicks off with “New Friend,” a super catchy ditty that features, for lack of a better term, a psychedelic piano riff. “Reel Me In” is like a cross between Ben Folds and Death Cab for Cutie, and it’s another upbeat anthem.

There are more melodic-as-hell tracks in “Fingertip” and “Hummingbird,” but that doesn’t mean Aqualung forgot where he came from. Some of the best numbers are the haunting and falsetto-laced “Lost,” which sounds like it could have come from 2004’s Strange and Beautiful; the powerful “36 Hours;” or the quirky and dark title track, a fitting closer to this unique batch of songs. If you’re a fan of alt-pop that has more alt than pop, chances are good you’ll love this new one from Aqualung – and as an added bonus, it’s the kind of record that will make your significant other think you’re cool and sensitive. And what could be wrong with that? (Verve 2010)

Aqualung MySpace page


Josh Rouse: El Turista

RIYL: Paul Simon, your Brazilian grandfather’s record collection

When Josh Rouse moved to Spain a few years ago, nobody really expected things to change with regard to his music career. After all, there are many jobs that can be done from anywhere these days, with touring recording artist being one of them. But along the way, Rouse met and married a Spanish woman, singer Paz Suay, and along with learning to speak Spanish fluently, he also began writing songs in his new home’s language. That’s all well and good, but on his latest, El Turista, Rouse took things a step further by incorporating Brazilian and even Afro-Cuban flavors to the music, including a couple of covers. The entire set also reflects Rouse’s desire to lean toward jazz, without becoming a full-on jazz artist. The result? A mediocre experiment.

There is nothing wrong with trying new things, but the problem with Rouse’s recent musical offerings are that he’s been writing too much – causing his songs to become diluted, at least compared to the stuff he was making in his hometown of Nebraska and in Nashville. It’s not just that, but Rouse is better at the alt-pop thing than he is at the Bossa Nova sound he’s aspiring to, and El Turista is, well, it’s sleep-inducing. That said, dude still has a super smooth voice. The best track on here is the English-speaking “Lemon Tree,” and if you’re in the mood to drink a pina colada and start a conga line, put on the festive “Valencia.” However, if you were/are a fan of Rouse’s earlier material, you may want to run the other way before giving El Turista a listen. (Bedroom Classics/Nettwerk 2010)

Josh Rouse MySpace Page