This reviewer is not usually one to swoon over guest artists. The phrase “Featuring…” beside a song title leaves us cold, typically a cheap marketing ploy designed to boost sales by crediting some famous name who stopped by the studio for a nip of hot chocolate and not much else.
But obscure names and genuine surprise do count for something. How’s this for an inspired guest list? Neil Hannon (the Divine Comedy, the Duckworth Lewis Method), Michael Penn, Dave Gregory (XTC), and Joe Elliott (Def Leppard, worth an exclamation point by himself) all make appearances on The Rest Is History. Hard to believe, but former Pugwash mastermind Thomas Walsh has been recording intricate Beach Boys-style pop since 1999, long enough to name-drop with the best of them. Previous collaborators include rock royalty like Ray Davies, Ben Folds, Jeff Lynne, and Andy Partridge, who gushed in a late-2000s interview that “Pugwash, at their best, are almost Beatle-like in their greatness.” Daunting praise from XTC’s eccentric mastermind, a man who would know.
There’s just one problem: Some of Walsh’s earlier work lacked oomph, leaning too heavily on soft romantic balladry for releases like 2008’s Eleven Modern Antiquities. But when his prior band fell apart around 2015, Walsh rebooted with the aid of studio wizard and former Three O’Clock member Jason Falkner for 2017’s fantastic Silverlake, shedding this self-restricting approach for an orgy of irresistible power pop. This is where Walsh’s true talent lies. Fortunately, The Rest Is History follows in Silverlake’s footsteps with another hook-laden, playlist-conquering release.
For decades, I’ve complained about the dearth of great indie-rock voices, or even good ones, for that matter. Shouldn’t people in the song business actually be able to, you know, sing? Unlike some of his power pop brethren, Walsh has a smooth, distinctive, engaging delivery with an abundance of sonorous depth. Such is highlighted in the rolling “Another Lesson in Life”, whose enchanting up-and-down chorus rides like a billowing sea.
Intriguing chord progressions, as are the “ooh-ooh” harmonies on the Elliott-assisted “All This Hurt”, are another Walsh specialty. Opinions on Def Leppard may vary, but 1983’s “Foolin'” was a fantastic song. So is “All This Hurt”, perhaps the catchiest power pop tune of the year. Also fabulous is the chiming “Take Your Time”, a sweet plea for love with an excellent 1960s-style bridge. Walsh seems to have an endless supply of fantastic bridges, with “Everyone Back in the Water” sounding like a cross between Electric Light Orchestra and baroque-era late 1980s indie pop like the Trash Can Sinatras.
Walsh’s only real miscue is “This Is My Fortress”, an annoying and repetitive Pete Seeger railroad-tale wannabe. (For epic folk tales done right, see Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” from 1967.) But super-addictive efforts like this don’t come along every day, and The Rest Is History certainly qualifies. While you’re at it, Pugwash’s Silverlake is well worth grabbing too.