“Sometimes you hear new songs that sound like old songs…”, says Nick Piunti of ‘Downtime’, making no secret of the retro qualities that provide the heart of his 2020 release. It’s ten songs draw influence from a very broad selection of power pop and radio friendly alt-pop tunes from the 90s, serving up a selection of songs that easily feel like a visit from an old musical friend and could even awaken a few old memories along the way.
From the second ‘Upper Hand’ fades in with its faint echo of ‘Shake Some Action’ era Flamin’ Groovies, there’s a feeling that the listener might get instant gratification, When the number actually breaks into a big, jangly tune worthy of Alexi Lalas’s ‘Ginger’ album and the commercial end of the Soul Asylum catalogue, you know you’re onto a real winner. Nick’s lead vocals have a scratchy, almost world weary sound that’s at odd with the rousing, sunny music, but that only helps to create an unexpected connection between this recording and Mike Viola’s underrated ‘Falling Into Place’ from 1999 – a near guarantee of quality. Musically, this tough but melodic power pop stance screams hit material…and even if it’s something you’ve heard a hundred times, you’ll certainly want to hear it again. Scaling things back a little for a tune that sounds like Mike Viola covering ‘On A Day Like Today’ era Bryan Adams, Puinti’s pop credentials are incredibly strong throughout ‘Bright Light’ as he fills three minutes with a near-timeless selection of ringing lead guitars, rhythmic jangles and the kind of radio-friendly chorus you’ve always loved. With a fine mix of pop rock, the assembled band sound incredibly tight as they offer finely crafted retro grooves.
Taking a step sideways, though retaining the optimistic jangle, the stand-out ‘Every High’ clings onto a chorus harmony that Bryan Adams would have made a million seller back in 1995. If it were not clear instantly, Nick’s natural gifts for a chorus hook become glaringly obvious with this number, while his love of full sounding arrangements offers one of the album’s very best. Across an uplifting three minute workout, you’ll hear even more 90s rock-pop traits, but there isn’t any hint of a band merely repeating the first couple of tracks. This number is pleasingly layered; the nods to the Gigolo Aunts within the guitar playing are especially lovely, as are the various piano flourishes courtesy of Kevin Darnell. With the rhythm section even making a cheeky nod to The Ronettes along the way, it appears that ‘Downtime’ occasionally looks even farther back in its musical celebrations. For lovers of the jangly power pop style, this won’t just become a fast favourite, it also has the potential to find a place among the year’s finest tunes.
Opting for something faster, ‘Going Nowhere’ throws out several traits you’d find on a Soul Asylum LP from 1993 but dresses everything up in brighter clothes, finding time for a barrage of 60s pop “doo-do-do” vocals and a fuzzy lead guitar solo and even a glockenspiel to finish. Although a close fit with some of the material from Puinti’s 2018 LP ‘Temporary High’, there’s a lot surrounding its tough, kitchen sink approach that might appeal to fans of Jim Boggia. Moving through ‘Gonna Be Good’ and ‘Never Belonged To Me’, the quality remains very high, with the former applying pre-chorus arrangement worthy of Edward O’Connell to a typical Piunti jangle and the latter working a much meatier sound that pushes bassist Jeff Hupp into the spotlight. By working a very 60s vocal melody into a choppy melodic rock/power pop rhythm, The Complicated Men flex some serious muscle throughout this track and although they sound as if they could venture into the kind of vaguely trashy sounds as practiced by Tommy Stinson and Bash & Pop, a world of extra backing vocals and occasionally stabbed piano go a long way towards advertising Nick’s more typical pop centre.
In closing the album, Piunti shifts towards more reflective singer-songwriter fare. “If I could take it back, you know I would”, he cries at the outset of ‘Good Intentions’, reflecting on a feeling that everyone has felt at some point during their lives. In coupling that with the feelings that suggest he’d like to drift into the ether, it becomes clearer that this is about self-reflection and not self-pity; the album isn’t about to leave everyone on a heavy downer. A quieter affair than the bulk of the LP, it’s a pleasure to hear Nick taking the semi-acoustic route as he tackles a Tom Petty-ish strum, before leading the band into something that wouldn’t feel too out of place on a Toad The Wet Sprocket record. His husky voice sounds better than ever, while musically The Complicated Men are especially on point. Soaring lead guitar lines lend a fine melodic hook and although these, again, revert to something very 90s influenced, for lovers of the slightly rootsy style, those sounds will feel like a musical comfort blanket. Although more reflective, the presence of a timeless melody and the mood of a man seemingly keen to venture further into singer-songwriter territory as the record stops spinning ensures this final song is a real highlight on an album full of already top tier material.
If you’ve heard any of Nick Piunti’s previous albums – and specifically have a liking for 2018’s ‘Temporary High’ – you’ll love this. ‘Downtime’ isn’t the most varied album in the world, but with no obvious filler, a classic forty minute playing time and an honest love for good music, it marks its place as one of 2020’s most entertaining discs. In short, ‘Downtime’ is brilliant. it doesn’t try to be too clever, nor try and hide its many influences – it just wants you to have a good time listening.
…And have a good time you will.