Review: Justin McGuinn’s “Love Songs & Other Strangers”

It’s fair to say that Justin McGuinn (you may also know him as Justin Ploof) knows a thing or two about music.

If you live in or near Central Minnesota, you may have run into this St. Cloud Tech grad at an area festival, or caught one of his shows. And if you love great music from the 1960s and 1970s, you may have caught some of his tribute shows too.

That’s how I first heard him.

I think it was back in 2005 or so, I was invited by good friend Mick Hatten to catch a George Harrison tribute show. It was a stellar mix of Beatles tunes and solo gems, peppered with incredible guitarists and excellent singers (special props to Billy Scherer, whose vocals on the majestic “Isn’t It a Pity” almost brought tears to my eyes and may have been the defining performance of that song for me). Throughout it, Justin and his dad shared stories and kept the mood festive. This wasn’t a night of mourning George, it was a night of celebrating him.

Since that show, I’ve seen Ploof tackle The Monkees and Creedence Clearwater Revival, too.

The dude obviously has range.

But there is more to Ploof/McGuinn than covering the great songs of obviously incredible artists.

He has his own music to share, his own words to sing.

In the dozen years I’ve lived in St. Cloud, I’ve had the good fortune to catch a number of enjoyable shows. Some were tribute concerts, some were bands performing their original material. As much as I’m into music, my work schedules seldom allowed me to get out and enjoy the nightlife or music scene as much as I would have liked (my shifts were always at night, and always over the weekends).

So it was a special occasion when I’d get out to see a show. And it speaks to the quality of Justin’s musicianship that I’ve probably seen him more than any other area act, including Collective Unconscious and The Fabulous Armadillos. I highly enjoy (and recommend) those acts as well, but I like the humor, humility and devout nature that Justin brings to music.

And that includes his own music, as well.

Two earlier Justin McGuinn albums. The top is the “Love Like a Hurricane” record. The bottom, with the obvious homage to Bob Dylan’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” record, was my first McGuinn purchase.

I own a couple of Justin’s records, and have enjoyed his lyrical skill and instrumental prowess.

When I heard he had some new music coming, I was excited. He has a new EP coming out, through Essential Media Group, called “Love Songs & Other Strangers,” and it is well worth your time to track down and enjoy.

The five-song release explores a range of pop-inflected styles, paying homage to sounds of the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, with some subtle (and not-so-subtle) nods to Sixties favorites like The Beatles and The Beach Boys (which obviously hits the right spots with me).

The cover to Justin McGuinn’s upcoming EP, “Love Songs & Other Strangers.”

When I gave the EP a first listen, two things stood out to me: First, McGuinn sounds fantastic. His vocals, which have always shown a great range and a tonal purity, continue to soar and convey a sincerity that never ceases to be refreshing. Second, he has finely tuned pop instincts, giving us catchy hooks and choruses that linger even after the songs are over.

The bulk of the songs take aim at the tried-and-true topic of love, but they are none the worse for it. It’s a universal topic, and McGuinn injects heart and soul into this material. It is endearing, it never floats away on candy clouds or maudlin banalities.

So let’s take a look at the songs, track by track:

“My Heart Is Where You Are”

The opening notes feel like a warp back to the 1970s. The clipped guitar notes at the intro (and throughout) channel a disco / R&B vibe, but that’s not where the song is going.

Instead, we get an upbeat, poppy tune with catchy horn sounds, smooth vocal swoops and an overall feel-good sound. I’d love to hear this track on the radio, it’s perfect for this time of year. Crank it!

“All the Stars”

We jump from that ’70s vibe right to the ’80s. There’s a kind of a programmed percussive sound at the beginning that channels that era’s mood so well, though the tasteful guitar work on the solo and the acoustic (almost Spanish guitar) plucking definitely removes it from being boxed into the Eighties.

I really enjoy the harmony parts on this song. And I bet the “all the stars, all the stars, all the stars / shine for you” hook will get stuck in your head. It’s sure been stuck in mine, in a good way.

“Here With You”

This song really shows off Justin’s influences. You’ll get lyrical nods to The Beatles and The Beach Boys (watch for “and when I touch you I feel happy inside” and “God only knows, wouldn’t it be nice?”), and the song’s construction and sound would have slotted in nicely on The Monkees’ last studio album, “Good Times!”

The song is an upbeat charmer, and has become one of my favorites. The arrangement allows for a mix of styles, sunshine pop with an almost bossa nova groove. A great song for blasting loudly while driving.

“We Owned the Night”

Remember how we were leaping through time on the first two tracks? Here’s one that takes me back to the 1990s, giving me just a slight taste of Oasis.

The track starts with what sounds like a backwards tape loop, then picks up with strident energy (sounds like synthesized strings, but still packs a great feeling).

There are great harmony vocals throughout, and I love the “oooh oooooh” parts. This is a fist-pumper, a great anthem-style song. Another one that keeps running through my head.

“Something in the Way”

When I saw this track title, a few thoughts ran through my mind. An homage to The Beatles’ “Something,” perhaps? Or to James Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves,” maybe? Or heck, maybe Justin decided to give Nirvana some love?

Nope. Again, this is all original material.

The song has a beat-boxy start, with piano brought to the fore and features a bubbling bass part. A melange of styles.

A programmed drum sound gives the track a soundtrack mood, but my favorite part is at the very, very end. I love how the song ends with Justin’s voice and the sustained “in the wayyyyyy.”

Wrapping things up

Justin McGuinn (Justin Ploof) is pictured here.
Justin McGuinn (Justin Ploof) is pictured here.

Five songs, and not a clunker in the bunch. My particular favorites are “My Heart is Where You Are,” “Here With You” and “We Owned the Night.”

Now, before you accuse me of being uncritical and incapable of finding any faults with this material, I do have two minor nits to pick, which may apply only to my ears (meaning that others may enjoy these touches and see them as strengths):

First, I wished for a more live, dynamic drum sound, particularly on the songs “All the Stars” and “Something in the Way,” as I think those songs could be kicked into more colorful renditions with the right spunk on the skins.

Second, the studio polish sometimes added a sheen of “100-percent perfection” that sometimes felt unnecessary when paired with the from-the-heart nature of some of the songs. A little more air, a little more ragged natural sound might have given the EP more punch. Sometimes the flaws, the flats, the off notes can open ears and hearts to more personal dimensions.

But again, that’s just me and my two ears. Your results may vary!

I would really enjoy hearing these songs live, given an airing in front of a good crowd. I think this is material that will catch a lot of ears and get lots of hands (and lighters or phones) up in the air.

If you enjoy accomplished lyric writing, excellent vocals, memorable hooks and catchy melodies (seriously, I keep finding myself humming parts of these songs), as well as some tasty guitar work, then this collection of songs is definitely worth picking up.

Keep your eyes open on the usual digital sources (iTunes, etc.) for this excellent material. The first single, “My Heart is Where You Are,” will be out May 5, and the whole EP will be available June 9.

“Love Songs & Other Strangers” shows a growing maturity in McGuinn’s artistic development. Sure, these tunes may mostly be love songs. But as Paul McCartney famously asked in “Silly Love Songs,” what’s wrong with that?

Absolutely nothing.

Cheers, Justin. Keep up the great work!

FOLLOW JUSTIN

Twitter: https://twitter.com/justinmcguinn
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/officialmcguinn/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/officialmcguinn/ (McGuinn)
          https://www.facebook.com/justin.mcguinn (personal)

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