VARIOUS ARTISTS – The Nice Price: The Rum Bar Records 2023 (Free Digital) Sampler

Keen power pop fans and garage rock aficionados who’ve been following the Rum Bar label since their early days will know how seriously they take their music. For head honcho Malibu Lou, the label has been an ongoing labour of love, and his bands are his family. Those bands, in turn, appear to look out for each other, and their social media often shows musicians hanging out at each others’ shows. The Rum Bar ethos values heart over perfection, and often feels as if its giving something back to the Boston music scene. The aspect of “giving back” is also why the label has never been shy of issuing free downloads: their album length samplers aren’t just a way of attracting new listeners to great, DIY music they might not have otherwise found, they’re also a celebration of the scene as a larger construct. The label’s Summer ’21 download – ‘XOXOXO Volume One’ – was one of the best free downloads ever. By rounding up a lot of the label’s better known bands and previewing things to come, it felt like a complete experience, enjoyable for committed followers and the curious alike, but this even bigger selection of Rum Bar wares – orchestrated by the guys at Knyvet PR – is pretty much its equal.

‘The Nice Price’ gives fans a whole thirty one tracks, gratis. A one-click venture through the label’s past year or so, it’s the perfect catch-up, but – like the brilliant ‘XOXOXO’ – it’s also unafraid to lift the lid on a future endeavour or two. There’s so much good stuff here. In the top tier, The Shang Hi Los’ ‘Plymouth Rock’ doesn’t skimp when it comes to jangling guitars and punchy drums. Its mix of melodic punk and power pop is very much the meat and potatoes end of the Shang Hi Los’ sound, but between some impeccably sharp riffs, hefty handclaps and a sassy vocal, it serves up some brilliant sounds, with an edge that sometimes feels like a throwback to the Blondie debut. Across this number’s high octane groove, Jen D’Angora belts her voice at full pelt and Dan Kopko barely deviates from his opening thrust, but a pleasingly melodic core is provided by bassist Lee Harrington (also of The Neighborhoods) who uses his bottom end sound to constantly dance beneath the harsher elements. It’s all relatively simple, but for those who still hanker after those classic power pop sounds, it’sa track that’s almost guaranteed to please.

Dan Kopko reappears in his solo guise, Danny The K, sharing the title cut of his ‘Cigarettes & Silhouettes’ EP, a tune that’s very representative of the parent release. By opening with a chopping acoustic riff and a familiar vocal melody, it immediately advertises a tune with an old heart. As it slowly builds, firstly by applying Danny’s slightly husky vocals and then a full compliment of rigid drums and chiming electric guitars, it grows into an old school power pop gem. Moving through the verses, it’s easy to hear the pop that sits at the heart of the best Shang Hi Los material, even if it’s shared here in a slightly more DIY fashion, and the track’s use of keys that sound like old Beatle-esque mellotron embellishments give everything a necessary lift. By the time the last chorus is reached, something that began life in a slightly raw mood has blossomed into a great pop-rocker, and its flowing bass and buoyant tune supply a great addition to Dan’s catalogue. ‘Dead Inside’ by The Cruzados, meanwhile, sounds like something you’ve always known. Their sound – part bar room rock, part grubby roots rock – advertises itself with immediate effect via a wall of loud guitars, but strip away the bluster and you’ll find a tune that has a huge melody running through its centre. The swirling organs and chiming guitars deliver huge musical hooks throughout, and a natural vocal is a perfect fit. Somewhere between the world of Nato Coles and John Hiatt in a bad mood, this rocker is the perfect flagship track for Rum Bar’s blue collar fare.

Tapping into retro sounds of a different kind, ‘Real Good Time in 1969’ by The Lassez Fairs revisits a late 60s garage rock/freakbeat sound, on a tune absolutely loaded with choppy rhythm guitars and sneering vocals. With traces of MC5 jostling with The Seeds, the band wear their influences broadly, but the end result sounds like a lost classic – despite being recorded in 2023, and on ‘Stay’, Matweeds also boast a very 60s feel, but apply a lot more melody. Between some strong power pop riffs and harmony vocals, the track sounds like an old Real Kids number dropping in bits of melody that could have been inspired by The Four Seasons. The hook is good, but the pointed guitar work is better. Overall, though, it serves up four minutes of fun that makes it easy to hear why they’ve made the cut here. In a more rowdy stance, ‘She’ by The Legendary Swagger is a musical love letter to the CBGB’s glory days with its combo of punk ‘n’ roll riff and Rezillos-ish sax, but it’s a gruff lead vocal and huge hook that sells the track, and one listen is all that’s needed for it to sound like a classic.

Rum Bar isn’t just about the rock, and 2023 brought a superb debut album from retro songstress Mozzy Dee. Dee’s stock sounds take influence from Elvis, Connie Francis and other 50s greats, and her ‘Orale!’ album is a pure joy. One of its highlights, the record’s title cut, can be found here. It’s a tune that shows off her great voice against a rockabilly rhythm, augmented by a few Latin influences, and with Mozzy backed by a few rousing gang vocals and an echoing rhythm guitar, this sounds like the work of the most focused bar band ever. It should provide more than enough inspiration to check out the full album. Similarly, Angela Tini shares a love for a pre-60s sound, and the rousing R&B of ‘Have You Met Me Yet?’ showcases a busy boogie woogie piano and sax on a Ray Charles-esque arrangement, and Angela’s huge voice fills the track with a performance that’s not to be missed. If anyone makes this worth the effort of clicking a few buttons, it’s Angela… Taking a dip into country, this sampler is also proud to present Kate Redgate, whose ‘Fools, Drunks & Liars’ shares the sound of an old soul, but with a modern production value that gives her sound a genuine warmth. She won’t win over those who aren’t already into country music, but its clear that she’s very good at what she does.

Elsewhere, Stop Calling Me Frank’s ‘My Band On Her T-Shirt’ is a no-nonsense bar room banger. With a sharp rhythm guitar joined by a rousing sax, this track oozes a blend of old style rock ‘n’ roll and power pop that’s hard to resist. The musical elements would be enough alone to make it stand, but the fact that the lyric wears its heart on the band’s collective sleeve makes it even more charming. The song’s t-shirt wearer was the one and only Justine Covault, a Boston based musician, gig promoter and record label owner who passed away earlier in 2023. Justine did so much for the scene. This musical tribute captures both her sense of fun and a musical style she loved. She will be forever missed, but this recording is a celebration, not a commiseration. It’s a tragedy that it would take such a loss to inspire the Franks’ best recording to date, but this is a track to treasure.

Justine makes a second appearance as the influence behind Jay Allen & The Arch Criminals’ ‘Sister In Crime’, a raw, six minute rocker that replays ‘I Fought The Law’ melodies with the roughness of a proto punk/garage rock band. The sentiment is simple, but it’s clear how much Covault was loved, how much she pulled everyone together and wasn’t afraid of “kicking them in the ass” if they “fucked up”. The Lemon Drop Gang’s ‘The Party’s Over’ takes a really rough swipe at a sixties sound where elements of surf rock take a more dominant role. This really benefits the rhythm section throughout, and bassist Danny really proves himself in terms of solid playing. Joined by drummer Tommy Larkins – making his debut on a Lemon Drop Gang recording – there’s a genuine musical camaraderie that works, especially once Tommy latches onto a groove that harks back to a classic Merseybeat feel. The British Invasion qualities aren’t lost on guitarist Johnny either, and he fills the bulk of the track with strong ringing tones. The musical highlights very much come from a drum heavy middle eight that revisits the sounds of 1964 with a great confidence, and a fine descending riff sending off a confident chorus. It’s a ragged tune; it isn’t necessarily one of the band’s best, but if this gets a few more people checking out other tunes like ‘I’m Done!’, then it has more than served a purpose here.

Another of ’23’s best new arrivals, The Leather Catsuit are representedwith their excellent ‘Can’t Get You Off My Mind’ which introduces a truckload of garage rock melodies via a ringing guitar riff that, again, draws a massive influence from the 60s British Invasion. The retro arrangement also applies a huge drum beat and various handclaps for good measure, and recycles a hugely familiar melody for a sizeable vocal. In many ways, its the instant familiarity – and early Stiff Records/Nick Lowe feel – that gives it the real appeal, but that shouldn’t detract from the musicians’ abilities. The Gypsy Moths – makers of the enjoyable ‘Sounds On’ long player – bring things back to a more easily digestible pop fuelled mood on ‘Turn It Down’, a number that sounds like mid 80s Squeeze aping a skinny tie power pop act from the US, but comes with enough catchy melodies to rise above being a mere pastiche. The harmonies and sax alone are enough to make it stick, but you’ll also find some very pleasing keyboard work throughout a very tight three minutes, on a radio friendly tune.

With a full blown, overdriven guitar sound, Slamdinistas sound like Watts’ rowdy cousins on ‘Little Troublemaker’, a Keith Richards via Johnny Thunders rocker that sounds great with the volume cranked, and Watts man Tim McCoy brings a mix of roots rock and punk vibes on his own ‘First of June’, sounding like a turbo charged Refreshments in the process. Better yet, Stars Like Ours show how a Letters To Cleo inspired sound is never that far away from the heart of the Boston scene. Their overall mood is somewhat crashier, but its still possible to hear a similar alternative pop core on their brilliant ‘What’s Going Wrong’.

If that’s not enough, you’ll also get to explore musical wares from Cold Expectations with their goth tinged power popper ‘(I Live With) Ghosts’; hear legendary Cars man Greg Hawkes adding some very distinctive synth sounds to an Eddie Japan number, and revisit a couple of festive numbers from Beebe Gallini and Cindy Lawson that first appeared at the end of 2022, and more besides. In terms of “free stuff”, ‘The Nice Price’ is insanely generous. It’s hard to imagine any power pop or retro rock fans cooking this on a gas mark six for later listening and not finding something worthwhile. Grab it via the Bandcamp link below!

November 2023