Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 


BLACK WINE - Yell Boss (Don Giovanni)

It's been long enough now that Black Wine needs no introduction nor references to the beloved Jersey underground bands its members played in previously. On its fourth full-length, the Asbury Park trio continues the reliably punchy post-punk its known for, with all three members taking turns on lead vocals and songwriting. Guitarist Jeff Schroeck sticks to crunchy powerchords on his tracks, finding Sixties-pop inspiration in standout track "No Time" and gritty Husker Du-like intensity on "Magnet Time." Schrock doesn't eschew melodic lead lines or short, fiery solos on his bandmates' tracks though. Drummer Miranda Taylor struts her garage-rock muscle on "No Reason" and explores her inner Patti Smith on "Familiar," while bassist Jay Nixon remains the angriest sounding member of the group on the album's most straightforwardly punk-rock track "Solar Flare," as well as the new-wavey album opener, "Komrades." Taylor's drums have never sounded bigger, bolder, or louder, and there's an overall heaviness to Yell Boss that sets it apart from its predecessors, but you'll still find it one of the most thoroughly enjoyable Jersey releases of the year. You'll want to get the vinyl LP for Marissa Paternoster's signature artwork on the cover too.

BISHOP ALLEN - Lights Out (Dead Oceans)

Bishop Allen's founding members Justin Rice and Christian Rudder met at Harvard, and like another Ivy League band, BA favors borrowed foreign rhythms to propel its power pop songcraft. Here it's Caribbean beats rather than Vampire Weekend's South African jones that comes to the fore, although clearly Bishop Allen has also been enormously influenced by the Feelies, with its motorik tempoes and pastoral melodies. It's a pity the album's coming to us at the tail end of summer, since it's sunny vibe clearly belongs to Springtime. You can hear other influences as well ("Why I Had To Go" could almost be a Cars b-side, and Beck and Davd Byrne clearly loom large in the group's record collection) but mostly Bishop Allen's fourth album delivers engaging, entertaining power-pop that will brighten your days through the waning weeks of summer and well into the fall.

KAREN HAGLOF - Western Holiday (www.karenhaglof.com)

For indie fans of a certain age, Karen Haglof's return to music (after taking a few decades off to become not just a doctor, but a respected oncologist) hits all the right bells and whistles: Produced by Steve Almass (of Minneapolis' seminal punk band Suicide Commandoes as well as early Hoboken pop combo Beat Rodeo,) recorded by the Del Lords' Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, and mixed by Mitch Easter, with a guest appearance by Easter's late Let's Active bandmate, Faye Hunter. None of that would matter if Dr. Haglof didn't delier the goods, and indeed she does, with a jangly album full of jangly country and honky tonkin' blues. For someone who deals with cancer on a daily basis (or maybe because of that,) Haglof displays a great sense of humor here, with clever songs like "Musician's Girlfriend Blues" and "Dog In The Yard." But she can also be sincere, as on the sad "24 Hour Prayer" or the bluesy Bonnie Raitt-like "Soul Clap."

Given the world-class personnel involved, as well as Haglof's own distinguished pedigree (she played with Almass in the post-Suicide pop trio Crackers before moving to New York and hooking up with avant-noise innovator Rhys Chatham,) it's not surprisingly that Western holiday efforflessly glides from country to cowpunk to rockabilly to blues and back again. It's an old-fashioned record that sounds immediate and modern, and one that I'm betting you will enjoy.

SW/MM/NG - Feel Not Bad (Old Flame Records)

What would a band from Fayetteville, Arkansas sound like? Probably not like SW/MM/NG (Swimming if you don't mind the fact that there's a U.K. band with that name.) There's definitely a lot of Manchester in this collegiate quartet's sound, and a good bit of Athens, GA as well, with a mix of dreamy shoe-gaze and jangly indie-pop. . For much of the album, the guitars don't sound like guitars; processed, delayed, chorused, and reverb'd, they peal like wind chimes behind layered guitars and muffled percussion. It's all bright and sunny and jangly and pretty, but without much substance for the first three tracks; but just when you start thinking this album will be too samey-sounding for repeated listens, the band comes alive midway through "Younger," everything comes alive and the band starts displaying the energy and excitement you'll find in its live show. On "AllI Want," things abruptly change course; the wall-of-sound falls away to reveal recognizable guitar strums backed by a simple motorik beat. This is a song you'll want to hear again and again, which is a good thing, because SW/MM/NG changes the mood, tempo, and timbre again on the final two tracks, slowing things down to a lethargic, syrupy crawl. Feel Not Bad justifies its titles with its best tracks, but SW/MM/NG has to learn to find the consistency of its live set in the studio or risk sinking.




“Revolution In The Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter”
Book, music and lyrics by Ivar Pall Jonsson, Story by Ivar Pall Johnsson and Gunnlaugur Jonsson (Minetta Lane Theater, NYC)

This Icelandic import, a musical that mixes politics, romance, and fantasy with an ambitious prog-rock score, will leave you scratching your head… if not your elbow.

The story serves up a phantasmagorical allegory for Iceland’s 2008 financial meltdown by mashing up elements from musicals like “Evita” and “Urinetown” as well as Dr. Seuss’ whimsical “Horton Hears A Who.” The story concerns the inhabitants of Elbowville, a microscopic community that lives in the elbow of the titular Ragnar Agnarsson (whom we see as a disheveled, unkempt layabout in a projection at the play’s start.) What’s more, these people know they live in the elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter, and worship as a deity the visage of Robert Redford, whom they can see through Agnarsson’s eye sockets whenever he watches one of Redford’s movies (which, apparently, is all the time.)

If you suspend disbelief and simply go with the flow, “Revolution In The Elbow” proves an entertaining (if sometimes befuddling) mishmash of predictable plot twists, imaginative set pieces, flashy choreography, and groan-worthy jokes, all set to the Jonsson’s melodic and often operatic prog-rock score, with lyrics that sound as if they might have been passed through GoogleTranslate from the original Icelandic.

Marrick Smith stars as Peter, a well-meaning resident of Elbowville who invents a Prosperity Machine. He’s soon manipulated by the evil Mayor Manuela (played with scenery-chewing brio by Tony-winning actress and frequent Iron Chef judge Cady Huffman) to print endless reams of worthless promissory notes, backed only by the community’s meager income of lobster fishing (from Ragnar Agnarsson’s lymphatic nodes.) Suddenly, everyone in Elbowville is prosperous and happy… until the bubble bursts.
Predictably, Elbowville’s credit rating goes to hell, but not before Peter gets caught up in a love triangle with his brother Alex (Graydon Long.) It all ends in tragedy, economic collapse, and political reform… sort of, since the forces of greed and capitalism wind up triumphant even though the play ends with a revolutionary tableau straight out of “Les Miz.”

Smith – who, with his chiseled good lucks and powerfully emotive features, should be getting a call from Hollywood for the next Marvel superhero movie any minute – steals the show with stunning tenor vocals that fly into rapturous falsetto whenever the action ratchets up. Huffman, portraying Manuela as a cross between “Evita,” Bjork, and Ming The Merciless, needs more stage time to justify her presence in this crazy enterprise. Zac Cossman as Mr. Elbowvillain – who comes from neighboring Mount Breast to audit Elbowville’s books – gets to shine in a big, campy hard rock number straight out of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and Patrick Boll as Manuela’s political henchman adds a welcome touch of maturity to the mostly twenty-something cast.

“Elbow” shines in its individual pieces – there’s a clever shadow play bit, some enthusiastic tap dancing, a few moving romantic ballads – but the play never really holds together as a whole. With the exception of Huffman’s Manuela, the women’s roles seem underwritten and underplayed, and Brad Nacht as Peter and Alex’s lumpy, ineffectual brother Stein can be bothersome. The clever if minimalist set design and background projections by Peter Hlousek impress, as does Lee Proud’s choreography, and the Revolution Cellular Orchestra – a synth and guitar-driven rock band that plays onstage during the action – kicks ass.

Go for the singing, go for the spectacle, go to get your mind blown; the play continues to run at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village into the Fall. Just don’t expect to leave understanding what you just saw or humming any of the tunes. “Revolution In The Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson House Painter” is as baffling and difficult to suss as its title is to remember.

THOSE MOCKINGBIRDS - Penny The Dreadful (thosemockingbirds.com)

Every media outlet in New Jersey has already proclaimed Penny The Dreadful as the jam of the summer and potentially the album of the year, and I have little to add to that assessment except to note that I've been rooting for Adam Bird ever since I saw a very young band called Perfuma perform a terrific song called "Bellville" back sometime in the mid-Aughts.

Like so many promising young bands, Perfuma flashed and burned fairly quickly, so frontman Adam Bird has taken his time with this group. Those Mockingbirds picked up where Perfuma left off, building on Bird's earwig choruses and trenchant lyrics and slowly adding pieces (like Tory Daine's gypsy violin and powerful vocals) and releasing teaser EP's, all the while establishing itself as a live powerhouse everywhere from DIY all-ages spaces to the area's best clubs.

When a band with the profile of Those Mockingbirds finally releases its first full length after five years of touring and career-building, you expect nothing but "A" material and the 'birds more than deliver here; there's not a wanting melody, wayword vocal, or weak hook to be found on these ten sterling tracks.

An acoustic intro and daunting lyric beguile at the beginning of "A Ballad From Hell," leading into a gorgeous violin part and a melody that builds to a thunderous crescenco and then recedes with the power of the tides. The rockers like "How To Rob A Bank," "Teenage Fantasies," and "Loose Leather" manage to be both exciting and radio ready, almost as if the band were challenging the mainstream to choke down these tracks, fusing elements of classic rock riffage and prog harmonies. The pizzicato violin and folk-rock vibe of "S.A.L.T." add yet another dimension to the band's arsenal as does the acoustic arrangement of album closer "I Feel Like I Died," which showcases the softer side of Bird's voice.

This is what a rock'n'roll album should sound like in 2014.

WREATHS - Wreaths (Killing Horse Records)

Shaun Towey (Falling Trees) and Ralph Nicastro (Sparks Fly From A Kiss, Aviso' Hara) anchor this Asbury Park combo, but it's the deadly rhythm section of Kevin Beeg on bass and drummer Colin Carhart who provide its pulse. Wreaths combines the drone of the Velvet Underground with the thick sludgy guitars of British shoegaze and the Jesus & Mary Chain, and it's a potent, mind-altering combination. "Going Back To Hait" infuses an endless two-chord riff with scifi effects, swirling guitars, and ethereal vocals for a 12-minute psychedelic excusion. Wreaths can be short and punchy ("Ruby") or glide on motorik rhythms ("Piedmont Aire,") whispery and ghostlike ("Adult Life,") or dreamlike and confusing ("The Designing Women of Asbury Park." It's all about the juxtaposition of rhythms and textures, and a bold indifference to traditional song structures and song lengths. You will wonder how time slipped away so quickly while lost in the depth of these hypnotic constructions.

DEENA -Rock River (Life Force Records)

Deena is, of course, Deena Shoskes of the Cucumbers, and fear not, hubby Jon Fried is here too, singing harmonies and adding guitars. If you're a Cucumbers fan, then you already know Deena is a beam of sunshine on a rainy day, an endless source of childlike enthusiasm and delight even when she's assaying the blues or lamenting a broken heart. If you're not already a fan, then by all means you owe it to yourself to bring a little Deena into your life. The album boasts bright trebley production from Rob Friedman (who adds touches of pedal steel and glockenspiel,) , with nods to blues, jazz, and country. "My Friend Superman" stands out with its witty take on the Man of Steel's human foibles, while the upbeat "Heart Full Of Now" will warm the craggiest disposition. It should be noted that Deena and Jon have been dear friends of mine for 30 years; one listen to Rock River and you'll understand why I fell in love with this voice so long ago, and rejoice whenever I get a chance to hear it again.


THE FEELS - Dead Skin (igotthefeels.bandcamp.com)

When you're in your twenties, it's called angst, and being miserable has a certain romantic allure. But by the time you're in your thirties, those feelings of regret, heartbreak, and uncertainty congeal into emotions far knottier, deeper and harder to sweep away. That's what you'll hear on this debut album from The Feels, the solo project of Christian Migliorese (formerly of the Tattle Tales.) Dead Skin combines Christian's unfailing knack for power-pop hooks with deeply felt ballads, all driven by multi-layered guitars and minimal percussion. The Tattle Tales floated on Anya Kaats' surgary synth fills and girlish harmony vocals, but The Feels segue from sublime power pop ("Dumb Or 21?," "Maybe," "You're Gonna Haunt Me All Your Life") to acoustic ballads that will melt the stoniest hearts. Miglorese doesn't entirely abando his early pop-punk heroes, but clearly he's also referencing sophsticated influences like Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel here, and the results are delightful.

BLACK WAIL - EP (michaaltarlazzi.bandcamp.com)

Jersey City's Michaal Tarlazzi lets his freak flag fly on this solo outing that somehow manages to mix bar band blues, minimalist 70's punk, disco, and AOR jazz-rock on one 7-song EP, basically providing a guided tour of the entire spectrum of 70's music. Tarlazzi played in the equally eclectic Thomas Francis Takes His Chances so these forays into the fringe are not entirely unexpected, but his execution and the way he perfectly matches vocals to each sub-genre do impress.

THE ALL-ABOUT - You Make It Look So Easy, Vol.3 EP (theallabout.bandcamp.com)

This is the third in a series of singles recorded by drummer/singer/songwriter Zac Coe during his senior year at Colgate, with Gaby Ambrosio adding harmony vocals and Zac's dad David Coe contributing lovely lead guitar lines and tuneful bass. "All Your CD's" reiterates Zac's talent for tasteful hooks and mopey romantic melodies, with a mix that accentuates his crisp drumming and some simple 60's-pop keyboards. "Be Your Man" picks up the tempo, with a killer earwig chorus and a twangy solo from Coe Sr. I've said this a million times, but in a sane and just world, this is what pop music would sound like. Zac's not just one of the best drummers I know, but one of the most accomplished songwriters and arrangers as well; if these tunes don't make you smile, I'd worry whether you really like music.

MONTEREY - The Kings Head EP (monterey.bandcamp.com)

Never judge a book by its cover, or a band by its list of influences on Facebook. I'll be honest, seeing that lineup of flatulent corporate crapola (Sublime, Kings Of Leon, Chili Peppers, Blink-182,) I fully expected these guys to be clueless Jersey thudrockers. Wrong again, moron. Instead what I found was tuneful, heartfelt modern guitar rock; "Mr. Rockaway" even suggests the Replacements. Michael O'Reilly and Carter Henry switch off on lead vocals, both offering enough snarl and spit to set them apart from the pack. Both offer thoughtful lyrics and tastefully restrained guitar parts as well, ably backed by a crack rhythm section (bassist Chris Beninato and drummer Matt Debenedetti.) New Brunswick, you never fail to surprise me.

GOD TINY - "Cosmos"/"Lucid Blues" (godtiny.bandcamp.com)

Pushing the envelope in so many directions, it's a miracle the whole thing just doesn't burst at the seams, Brooklyn post-punk quintet God Tiny deliver three and a half minutes of gonzo psychedelic punk on "Cosmos," melded with Allmans-styled harmonizing guitars. The flipside is a lazy lysergic ballad with surprisingly accomplished bluesy vocals. It's like someone distilled the essence of Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and dabbed it on the same sugarcube as a perfect hit of Owsley. Let it melt in your mouth and bend your mind.

GRIM DEEDS - Grim Deeds EP, Grim Deeds Has Needs EP (grimdeeds.bandcamp.com)

" Grim Deeds" sent this to me anonymously, although I'd bet I know the mastermind behind these two clever, catchy pop-punk EP's, updating the Lookout Records pop-punk sound for the new millennium. With three chords and singalong choruses, the "Grim Deeds" EP includes "Bachelor Of Arts," detailing the poor plight of a guy with a college diploma and no hope of a job, while "Ballad Of The Opening Band"

updates Mr. T's "Dumb Little Band." "Number Sense" is the Queers' "Born To Do Dishes" reborn, and "She Won't Get High" recalls the Serlingtons or Lillingtons or Ramonesingtons. The fun continues on "Grim Deeds Has Needs," switching the focus from Lookout! to Fat Wreckchords with tracks like "Addicted To Porn," "Fake Dad" (about a dumb step-dad,) "She Won't Fuck Me" (self-explanatory,) and my personal favorite, "Being Fat Mike." Grim Deeds says he's from Foster City, California, which I figured was a Screeching Weasel reference. But no, there really is such a place, and a band there is bringing back all the best parts of 1995 .

ROY ORBITRON - Jeffrey Lynne (raworbison.bandcamp.com)

Despite the tongue in cheek name (and the habit of titling their albums after members of the Traveling Wilburys,) Trenton's Conor Meara and his farflung collaborators in Roy Orbitron aren't fooling around. They dish out a complex crazy gumbo of psychedelic rock fused with warring keyboards, breakneck guitars, and deadpan, almost Beefheartian vocals. Every song's a busy mishmosh of styles and ideas , usually with a raw streak of the blues running through the cacophony. Recreational drugs may or may not have been used in the recording of this music, but they will definitely help your appreciation of it. And that's a compliment.

THE SAFES - Record Heat (Wee Rock)

Chicago's the Safes - composed of the O'Malley brothers, Frankie, Patrick, and Michael - belong to a tradition of Midwestern power pop that includes bands like Shoes, Magnolias, or (insert your own favorite obscure power-pop band here.) "Hopes Up, Guard Down" conjures the snarling melodicism of early Elvis Costello while "I Would Love To" overlays a trilling synth part over heavy Cheap Trick powerchords. Surf, new-wave, Elton John piano and even classic AM radio pop like the Raspberries all provide fodder for the Safes' non-stop barrage of hummable melodies and hooky choruses.


THE HARMONICA LEWINSKIES -
Dad Rock (
theharmonicalewinskies.bandcamp.com)

When you fall in love with a local band, a couple of things can happen. The band can reach a plateau - even a pretty good one - and stall out, never really improving until, inevitably, the whole things falls apart. Or the band can feel pressure to "grow" in order to reach broader audiences and make inroads into a real career, and lose all the quirky little details that made you fall in love with them in the first place. And then, every once in a while, a group of individuals will be able to embrace what makes them unique and take it to the next level. And that, in short, happens with the Harmonica Lewinskies' first real full-length, Dad Rock.

I'm hesitant to say the Lewinskies have grown up; a large part of the appeal comes from their laddish irreverence, enthusiam, and sweaty, anarchic live shows. But Dad Rock (forgive the title, as silly as the band's name) does evidence a considerable amount of progression. Just the patience it took to wait until they had a 13-song full-length album (instead of rushing out another 7-song maxi-EP) indicates a newfound maturity.

First, it's the horns. They've come and gone before, with changing personnel. Sometimes the horns would show up for a gig, sometimes they wouldn't. Some songs benefitted hugely from sax, trumpet, and trombone; others either eschewed them completely or they felt forced. On Dad Rock, the horns have become completely integrated into the persona of the Harmonica Lewinskies, as integral to the group's sound and identity as Dan McLane's goofy smile, Will Simpson's sexy profile, Robert Bettega's soulful roots in Brazilian jazz and bossa nova, Oliver Fetter's much improved drumming, and Zebedee Row's undulating bass. Chris Lucca on trumpet, Marco Sanchez on trombone, and Jake Warren on sax make the Harmonica Lewinskies much more than just another Brooklyn guitar band.

On much of Dad Rock, the Lewinskies still play to their strengths, from the salacious horn-driven groove of Simpson's "Put Your Mouth On Me" and "Feelin' Boozy," to the nostalgic reverie of Bettega's "Do You Believe" and the sensual bossa nova vibe of "Americana," to the party-till-you-puke cover of Chris Kenner's "Land Of 1,000 Dances," popularized as a frat-party perennial by Wilson Pickett.

But the Harmonica Lewinskies' introduce a few new wrinkles on Dad Rock that we've never heard before. Two instrumentals showcase the band's abundant chops, one a brassy Big Band swing tune, the other Jobim-ish jazz. "Americana" begins as one of Bettega's Brazilian-flavored lounge songs but ends with a coda (featuring producer Oliver Ignatius on vocals) that gives a nod to Ignatius' band Ghostpal's psychedelic palette. But the real showstopper comes with "The Hunt," a moody ballad quite unlike anything else in the Lewinskies' repertoire, sung by bassist Zebedee Row. It's the sort of suave, silky R&B with a seductive call-and-response chorus that's all the rage on the radio these days, and proof that these guys can just do just about anything they set their minds to.


DEATH OF SAMANTHA - If Memory Serves Us Well (deathofsamantha.com)

John Petkovic has been a fixture in Cleveland’s garage-rock underground longer than almost anyone can remember, not just as lead singer for a string of cool bands but also as a rock critic at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. Death of Samantha dates back to the mid-Eighties and the height of what was then called “college rock;” the original lineup included guitarist Doug Gillard (who’d go on to Guided By Voices,) bassist David James, and drummer Steve-O. A chance encounter between Petkovic and Gillard led to a full-scale reunion and the band’s first release is that double-CD collection of some of the band’s early hard-to-find material re-recorded for a new generation. Death of Samantha’s barrage of cheery guitar blam, garage-y beats, and Petkovic’s wailing vocals (think Cheap Trick meets the Dead Boys in the Fleshtones’ basement) holds up remarkably well, with killer tracks like “Coca Cola & Licorice,” the Kiss-via-Replacements “Savior City,” “Rosenberg Summer,” and “Geisha Girl” poised to win over a new generation of listeners hooked on the faux-garage stylings of today’s Ty Segalls and Black Lips.

ACCIDENTAL SEABIRDS - The Greenpoint Spill (www.theaccidentalseabirds.com)

There’s this silly idea that every band in New Jersey sounds like Bruce Springsteen, but truth be told, the Garden State currently boasts an impressive roster of homegrown bands delving into authentic folk and Americana. Accidental Seabirds became as a bedroom recording project of talented singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumental Jesse Lee Herdman, and it’s definitely his aesthetic – stripped down, acoustic, analog, and raw as a nerve ending – that guides the 17 songs on this impressive album. The band briefly lived in Brooklyn, near the site of the devastating Greenpoint oil spill, which gives the album both its title and repeated themes of ecological apocalypse. Using banjo, acoustic guitars, piano, violin, stripped down drums, and Herdman’s supple, emotive voice, the Seabirds assay traditional American folk, with influences from country, blues, and gypsy dance music. At over an hour, The Greenpoint Spill required patience to get through but it’s rewarded with songs as diverse as the dark, brooding “I Want You To Die” and the sprightly campfire folk of “Footprints.” Also of note, all of the CD sleeves are being handmade with recycled materials and individual artwork, so every one is a collector's item.

SPEED THE PLOUGH - The Plough & The Stars (Bar None)

Speed The Plough started out as a band called The Trypes, composed of high school friends from the same Haledon, New Jersey community that included the Feelies. When the Feelies resumed performing and recording in the Eighties, the Trypes morphed into the Speed The Plough, and despite many personnel changes (and a fairly long hiatus to raise children,) the band remains active to this day. This impressive collection includes a CD retrospective culled from STP’s out-of-print CD’s, a live set recorded on WFMU-FM in 1993, six brand-new songs, and a bonus download of live tracks. The constants here are the husband and wife team of John and Toni Baumgartner; John wrote all the material, both spouses sing and play a variety of instruments. For a time, Feelies bassist Brenda Sauter played with the group and added her own distinctive vocals, often harmonizing with Toni. Other members included Glenn Mercer and Bill Million of the Feelies, rock critic Jim DeRogatis on drums, and the current lineup includes the grown children of the original Haledon clique. It was Toni’s classical training that allowed STP to create an orchestral pop sound that incorporated flute, clarinet, and sax , as well as Bumgartner’s accordion. The group’s pastoral rhythms, warm harmonies, and undulating melodies do recall some of the Feelies’ later work, but Speed The Plough owed an equal debt to groups like Renaissance, Young Marble Giants, and Fleetwood Mac. Through all the many incarnations (and reincarnation,) it’s the Baumgartners’ voices that supply the consistent thread that ties this music together, and makes this collection a must-have for fans of the Hoboken pop sound (or just beautiful, engaging, soothing folk-pop.)

ODETTA HARTMAN - "Bark"EP (odettahartman.bandcamp.com)

Billie Holiday, arguably the greatest jazz singer of the 20th Century, had a voice that tasted of honey, tears, and raindrops. Odetta Hartman has that kind of voice, a voice that makes you stop what you're doing and take notice, with a hint of a rasp but enormous range, easily catapaulting her into the same class as contemporaries like Alex Winston and April Smith. Like those artists, Hartman seems to be speaking to us from another era. The four exquisite tracks on "Bark" swaddle her voice with jazzy trumpet, tinkling piano, gossamer-light flute, and lulling saxophone. All of these tracks come meticulously arranged as well, from the suave big band swing of "Daphne And Apollo" to the smoky, afterhours torch song "Negotiations," to the folky reverie of "Oh Misery," to the bawdy, bluesy Mardi Gras celebration that is "The End Of The World." The only flaw I can find with this EP is that there's simply not enough of it. More, please.

THE CLYDES - "Generator" EP (theclydesmusic.com)

New Brunswick pop-rock quartet the Clydes utilize a formula that easily could have found them on the Dromedary Records roster back in the Nineties: A strong vocalist with emotive vocals, dramatic melodies that incorporate familiar pop tropes, solid musicianship up and down the lineup, and engaging, enigmatic lyrics. You can definitely hear the influence of bands like the Smiths and Elvis Costello without anything sounding overtly derivative (although the exhuberant ba-ba-ba chorus of EP opener "The Fate Of California" might have been nicked from the Turtles.) The group is fronted by singer/guitarist Brent Johnson with his brother Brian on lead; both Johnsons also contribute keyboards. Bassist Andrew Lord Chandler and a drummer known only as MadMardigan provide a sturdy, propulsive bottom. If the music sounds a little old-fashioned, maybe that's just because few bands today make this kind of melodic middle-of-the-road pop anymore without falling back on radio-friendly dance beats, hip hop production, or autotuned vocals. At the Court Tavern, good taste is timeless. That's not a bad thing.

THIS IS THE TOWN: A Tribute To Harry Nilsson, Vol. 1 (The Royal Potato Company)

Harry Nilsson's career may have been cut tragically short, but in his time he managed to produce a wealth of memorable songs in a wide variety of styles. The problem with a tribute album to so eclectic a songwriter and performer is that it too, by necessity, will jump all over the place musically. Still, the B-list indie rockers (Langhorne Slim, Low Cut Connie, the Mommyheads, Tracy Bonham, Brian Dewan) and complete unknowns collected on this compilation do a good job of capturing Harry's plucky, often irreverent, and sometimes shmaltzy aesthetic. The Mommyheads breath new life into "Me And My Arrow" (truth be told, I never had much use for The Point,) Dawn Landes does her best to inject a bit of ladylike grace into the raunchy "You're Breakin' My Heart," and The Wiyos turn out a lovely rendering of "Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore." Still, it's Johnny Society (which features the album's producer, Kenny Siegal, who delivers the most memorable cover, mashing up the Beatlesque whimsy of "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song" with a few bars of one of Nilsson's best known compositions, "One (Is The Loneliest Number.)" It was the great irony of Nilsson's career that this magnificent songwriter had his only hits with covers, while other artists scored with Nilsson's originals; that's reflected by including "Early In The Morning" and "Everybody's Talkin'," two of Harry's best known covers, here. (Perhaps Vol. 2 will include one of the Randy Newman originals from Nilsson Sings Newman.)

SUN LOOKS DOWN - "Sungaze" EP (sunlooksdown.bandcamp.com)

These Columbia U. students, recording at Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen studio in Brooklyn, create a remarkably sophisticated sound, delicately wafting layers of guitar, keyboards, drums and Diana Flanagan's stunning, celestial vocals together into perfectly arranged symphonies. "Moonshine" takes an ethereal vocal melody line and builds it to an ear-shattering climax; the romantic "Wash Out The Red" showcases Jacob Sunshine's nimble but funky guitar and David Su's inventive percussion. Throughout, Spencer Horstman's inventive use of a Nord guitar creates the illusion of bass, strings, piano,

and other instruments. "Eastern Seas" overlays a searing jazz solo over a moonlit love song, while the gently rocking "Crazybird" cascades into a joyfully funky noise jam that betrays the youthfulness at work here, before regrouping into a skittish jazz coda. The poobahs at Pitchfork will have to invent a new genre name once wind of this group's inventiveness starts to spread

THE GRAVEYARD KIDS - II (thegraveyardkids.bandcamp.com)

Once you get past the deceptively simple "Jor G," the second album from NYC's Graveyard Kids will probably throw you for a bit of a loop. It did me. Only a year ago the band was creating catchy power-pop ("Raft Of The Medusa" being my favorite;) now, they've graduated to a challenging mix of math rock rhythms, post-rock guitar textures, atonal melodies, and completely mystifying lyrics, somehow crafting Beach Boys chorales onto Sonic Youth-like eruptions of guitar-spazz onto Jonathan Richman monologues onto psychdelic reveries, a sonic Frankenstein's monster of mismatched parts that nonetheless comes alive. Whether it's Jordan Smith's deadpan vocals or Chadbourne Oliver, the thin white duke of Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen, scatting morosely, or Jeremy Kolker's complicated beats, there's always something fascinating going on. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm listening.

THE SHARP THINGS - The Truth Is Like The Sun (thesharpthings.com)

Clearly bent on world domination, NYC's symphonic pop act the Sharp Things are releasing four albums in quick procession. Led by pianist/crooner Perry Serpa, the band (orchestra, really) combines flute, horns, woodwinds, strings and keyboards with the usual guitar/bass/drums accoutrements of pop-rock. The results fall somewhere between the Beach Boys and Beethoven, Sondheim and the Elephant Six Collective. From the Pets Sounds pastiche of "Flesh And Bone" to gorgeous piano ballads to the Phil Spector-ish rock'n'roll groove of "Playing The Benelux," The Truth Is Like The Sun adds a much-needed new chapter to the Great American Songbook. It's just a shame that Sinatra's not still around to give a few of these tunes a spin.

LESS THAN JAKES - See The Light (Fat Wreck)

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds but it's a rare and precious commodity in a band that's been around as long as Less than Jake. After flirting with the mainstream on two majors and then giving their own label a go, these ageless ska-punk heroes from Gainesville have retrenched on Fat Wreck Chords, a perfect fit for a band that's never lost the spirit of '95. The horn section is back in full force and the band still preaches positivity in an age when optimism has become as declasse' as hairmetal, but if you're a fan of what these guys do - and you know if you are - then you'll want to add See The Light to your collection. The band intersperses their trademark high energy ska tunes with a few slower, mor thoughtful tracks like "Do The Math," but here's the real reason we need Less Than Jake: Because everybody, no matter their age or sex or lifestyle - needs a reason to skank their brains out in their bedroom every once in a while. It's good for the soul. And LTJ still delivers.

THE HARROW - The Harrow (functionoperate.bandcamp.com/ album/the-harrow)

Inspired by the late Seventies style called Cold Wave (think Siouxie & The Banshees,) Brooklyn's The Harrow combines processed guitars and electronics to create gloomy, churning soundscapes showcasing ethereal female vocals. If you remember the late Nineties New Brunswick band Prosolar Mechanics, it's easy to imagine them evolving into this sort of sound - futuristic and yet grounded in post-punk. This is dance music for the way people who dressed in black used to dance at NYC clubs - slow, sensuous, and intense.

 

RADIUS 4 EP (The Beat/The Maxies) (www.radiusrecs.com)

Our old pal Paul Silver of Radius Records pulled off a real coup with this split 7 inch, which features Paul Collins’ The Beat doing the delightfully airy Buddy Holly-esque “Baby I’m In Live With You” and a live version of the more garagey “Walking Out On Love.” On the flipside you get those merry pranksters of Greenland punk the Maxies, with one of their typically catchy yet twisted pop-punk anthems “Baby I Love You” and a peppy cover of Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” (also with a demented Maxies twist) that’s been renamed “Seal Club Sitta.” This EP hits all the right notes – singalong melodies and head bobbing rhythms along with a little silliness and mayhem, like if Blondie crawled into Screeching Weasel’s van and Debby beat the crap out of Ben.

THE GOLDEN FURS – “Strand” EP (thegoldenfurs.bandcamp.com)

This NYC quartet strikes a perfect balance between dance rhythms and indie rock melodies, recalling early ‘00’s groups like Radio 4 or the early Yeah Yeah Yeah’s. “Run Back” features a new-wave guitar sound that reminds me a bit of Blondie, courtesy of guitarists Jamie DiTringo and John BellaVia. The pogoing intro to “Amethyst” recalls Devo, before seguing into a smooth dance track with bubbling bass from Saul Slotnick. And the African polyrhythms of “O Father” take you straight to Graceland. The title track takes you back to that Blondie influence, this time from the punk group’s crossover hits like “Rapture” and “Heart of Glass,” again melding new-wave guitars with sensuous beats. The MVP here goes to drummer Matt Langner, who provides just the right shading for each of these distinctive tracks.

 

WAKING LIGHTS – “Week Nights” EP (wakinglights.bandcamp.com)

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Waking Lights but here they are, reconfigured now as a trio but still with the same seething energy and elegant command of danceable rhythms, like New Jersey’s answer to Roxy Music. Fueled by the passionate vocals of Matt Maroulakos, this new incarnation of Waking Lights bears little resemblance to the chamber-folk ensemble of the band’s early days, when violin and cello swelled the band’s sound. Now the group produces lean and economical pop-rock designed to make the listener move, whether it’s the sleek rhythms of “Come Over” or the sexy staccato groove of “Gold Digger,” the soulful throb of “Shine” or the sensuous balladry of “Blue Bloods.” The EP concludes with an electronic dance remix of “The Sounds” from the band’s previous release, which shows that these guys could easily have a future in EDM if they get tired of slinging those guitars.



SPIRES – “Candy Flip” / “Comic Book” (www.insound.com)

If I didn’t know Spires were from Brooklyn, you could easily fool me into believing that “Candy Flip” escapes from the vaults of some drug-addled British shoegaze band. Matt Stevenson’s hazy vocals and the group’s layered psychedelic guitars create a woozy lysergic pillow of sound that’s easy on the ears and fun to just fall into. “Comic Book” follows suit with an even more pronounced Sixties vibe, tie-dyed, blissed out psychedelia that recalls early Pink Floyd as well as the Britpop revivalism of Oasis. These guys look the part too, with a Carnaby Street cool that, 40 years ago, would have propelled to the cover of every teen magazine in the U.K. and beyond. I would be very surprised if the girls of 2013 don’t notice too.


SAM DAVISON – Always Around (samdavison.bandcamp.com)

Will the real Sam Davison please stand up? Is it the self-mocking, doofus anti-hero of “Always Around” and “Move Back,” the noise-mongering lo-fi absurdist of “Rigatoni Macaroni,” the anti-folk popster of “Better Than That” and “Diddler,” or the Jonathan Richman-ish romantic underdog of “Chill Out” and “just Wondering?” Armed with only a bass, a tambourine, and a voice as elastic as Plastic Man’s pelvis, Sam Davison manifests himself as all of these personas and more on his new album, Always Around, recorded at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen in Brooklyn. Producer Oliver Ignatius and musician Gabe Stranahan add subtle accompaniments on keyboards and guitars but for the most part, Davison unburdens his soul to the mic as nakedly as possible; this is his life - thumped, screamed, bellowed, and sung with the raw emotion and unvarnished honesty that Sam Kinison brought to standup comedy. Rhyme “dilemma” with “mozzarella?“ Of course! Include a lyric book with a dozen photos of himself? Why not? Sam Davison is a lot like his beloved New York Mets; he knows he may not always win the pennant, but that’s no reason not to be Amazin’.

THE BRITANYS – “Hello Britany” EP (thebritanys.bandcamp.com)

This young power trio from NYC looks like rock stars, sounds like rock stars, they even have names like rock stars, with singer/guitarist Lucas Long wearing shirts that seem one plucked thread away from falling off his body, and drummer Steele Kratt with his Frampton Comes Alive hair and androgynous good looks. On this 5 song EP, recorded at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, Long sings with a voice of a wounded and vulnerable alley cat, sexed up and yet horribly damaged by life’s circumstances. The millennial trio betray their influences, coming of age in the year of the Strokes while worshipping their older brothers’ Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. record, from the jittery riffage of “Mamma Says” to the heavily-distorted Crazy Horse guitar barrage of “Coming Home.” “Hello Britany” sounds like a Kurt Cobain love letter played with a bloody pick through savaged speaker cones; “Ravens In The Night” add odors of musk and sweat to the mix. “Blue Walls” opens with a Syd Barrett vocal over a plucked guitar before exploding into a My Bloody Valentine orgasm of psychedelic guitar noise, a beautiful thing indeed. This band could be going somewhere, if they don’t blow out their ears or their amps first.

THOMAS WESLEY STERN – s/t (thomaswstern.bandcamp.com)

When a band releases its third album as the self-titled one, it’s usually a sign that you’re in for something special. That’s certainly the case with Jackson, NJ’s Thomas Wesley Stern, who don’t really change anything here so much as just do everything they’ve done before better. You hear all the time about twentysomething musicians having “old souls,” but Joe Makoviecki, Gary Mayer, James Black, and James Herdman will make you believe it. The quartet (abetted by Jim Doyle on trumpet and clarinet) writes new music in the style of classic Americana, from back porch folk to sea chantys to Appalachian story songs, each imbued with impeccable musicianship on acoustic instruments like guitar, banjo, stand up bass, fiddle, and accordion. I’ve been told there’s a little electric guitar and bass on this album as well, but it’s subtly used and never disrupts the vibe, which remains serene, centered, and warm, infused with natural harmonies and lilting melodies. This is a Sunday morning record, maybe even the kind that will make you think about going to church (or back to bed to nuzzle the person you love.)




THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL - : ( (The Frown Album) (thegreatamericannovel.bandcamp.com)

It’s been a tumultuous year for the Great American Novel since the release of 2012’s well-received paean to teenaged romantic fumbling, Kissing. (You can tell from the credits, which list five bassists, including frontman Layne Montgomery.) Where once Layne simply dreamed up waking up in bed next to a real live girl, : ( - or The Frown Album, if you’re not into emoticons – finds him consumed by a full-blown case of post-adolescent panic, living on a diet of “coffee and Cheez-Its,” dealing with tinnitus, counting gray hairs, staring at his beer belly, and afraid of growing up – all at the ripe old age of 21. He may be a wreck as a human being, but Layne – and his cohorts JR Atkins on guitar, Devin Calderin on keyboards, and Aidan Shepard on drums – are clearly just beginning to come into their own as a band. The arrangements add complexity and depth, the keyboards and guitars discover new textures and timbres, and yet GAN has sacrificed none of the exuberant catchiness or deprecating sense of humor that made Kissing such a delight. That last record sounded like the product of Weezer fans who occasionally listened to their dads’ Guided By Voices records. Frown adds grunge, garage, arena rock, power-pop, and Sixties pop to the mix, and masters the art of the hooky singalong chorus. It’s one of rock’s oldest paradoxes: The more neurotic and miserable Layne Montgomery gets, the more the Great American Novel will make you :-) .

CAROLE MONTGOMERY – Because I Said So (cdbaby.com/carolemontgomery)

Because of her work entertaining American troops all over the world, NYC standup comic Carole Montgomery earned the moniker National Mom. But among a certain circle of my friends, she’s also known as “Layne’s mom,” since her son fronts one of my favorite local bands, The Great American Novel. This live set, recorded at Coconut’s comedy club in St. Petersburg, Florida, includes funny (if humiliating) bits about Layne’s puberty and sex life, but he’s far from her only target, since she also aims zingers at her musician husband, her live-in mother-in-law, and most of all, herself. Carole drolly talks about her age, about middle-aged sex, about birth control, about raising a son (and kickin him out of the house,) and about sharing a rent-controlled apartment with her mother-in-law; she doesn’t tell jokes so much as tell stories with punchlines, and a lot of them are laugh-out-loud funny. She’ll get a little blue when called for (check out the routine about female body hair,) and sometimes even a little corny (as when she talks about performing for the troops with genuine respect and humility.) She’s more Phyllis Diller than Joan Rivers, more interested in poking fun at herself and her family than taking potshots at celebrities (although she’ll snap at a heckler like a cobra;) but most of all, she’ll make you smile. Buy this CD or download it from iTunes, because somebody has to pay for poor Layne’s therapy.

J RODDY WALSTON & THE BUSINESS – Essential Tremors (ATO Records)

Given the monumental legacy of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis (not to mention Elton John, Dr. John, and Billy Joel,) it’s a bit surprising that ol’ fashioned barrelhouse piano has almost disappeared from modern rock ‘n’ roll. J Roddy Walston & The Business filled that gap on two hard rockin’ albums in 2007 and 2010, and now return with their third full-length, one that minimizes J Roddy’s roiling piano boogie to emphasize the Business’ feisty electric guitars. Bands often broaden their sonic palette on a third album, and Walston & The Business certainly do that here, from the N’Orleans gumbo of opener “Heavy Bells,” to the whisper of Island riddims on “Take It As It Comes,” to the Brill Building pop of “Midnight Cry,” to the T Rex electric boogie of “Black Light,” “Boys Can Never Tell,” and “Sweat Shock.” But if you come to one of J Roddy’s parties, you want to hear the man banging the ivories, and you only get that twice here, on the swampy, undulating “Marigold” and the Fats Domino-like groove of “Tear Jerk.” If you’ve ever seen J Roddy & The Business live, you know the band puts on one hell of a live show (that’s how I became a fan, seeing them open for the Milwaukees about five years ago.) But personally, I’d like to hear a little less cowbell (and the other Seventies tropes the band has adopted) and a lot more piano next time around.


 

MODERN HUT – Generic Treasure (Don Giovanni Records)

Modern Hut is the solo project of Don Giovanni Records’ honcho Joe Steinhardt, and it’s pretty much just him, his sad sack vocals and strummed acoustic guitar, and some electric guitar noodling from Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster (who produced.) This review comes with an advisory: Joe and I are good friends, and I’ve heard him perform embryonic versions of these Modern Hut songs for years, so I’m not the most objective observer. But I have to say I found this album endearing in its honesy, its immediacy, and it’s complete lack of pretension. The sound’s a little bit better than, say, Conor Oberst’s pubescent bedroom recordings or early Sebadoh, but the arrangements couldn’t be any simpler or more stripped down. There are no intros or outros, no solos, and not even much of an attempt at “singing.” It’s just Joe laying out his soul, often depressed and alone but so deadpan in his delivery that he often verges on being funny. (Sample verse: “ If I could be more aggressive/less obsessive, a little more possesive/maybe things would move along/can someone out there in America tell me what’s wrong?”) It’s hard not to notice that Steinhardt’s picked up some intonation from Jeffrey Lewis, and the fact that both write in archly-written rhyming couplets just makes the similarities more obvious. But whereas Lewis is almost always telling you a story in his songs, Steinhardt’s just letting you know how he feels. Sometimes, that’s enough.

DRUM & A TANTRUM – “The End” (drumandatantrum.bandcamp.com)

Julian Altbuch (vocals and keyboards) and Russell de Moose (drums, guitar, etc.) comprise Drum & A Tantrum, an intriguingly offbeat duo I first saw perform at JC Studios. Altbuch is a classically influenced (although not trained) keyboardist; deMoose brings a more pop sensibility to the project; but together they’ve made one of the oddest records I’ve heard in years, a hybrid of 70’s AOR pop (ala Cat Stevens or Steely Dan) and orchestral prog-rock (along the lines of early Genesis, Gentle Giant, Fairport Convention, or Renaissance.) The opening track is basically a modern classical instrumental but from then on, it’s through a time warp to a late-night freeform FM station in the early 70’s after the DJ’s ingested just a few too many recreational pharmaceuticals. Certainly not for every taste, but I’m forwarding it to Jim DeRogatis for sure.

 

SINK TAPES – How You Mean (Mint 400 Records)

Sink Tapes list New Brunswick as their hometown but I think of them more as part of the ever-shifting and always surprising scene at the Brighton Bar, that overlooked gem of a venue where you’re liable to find anything from venerable 80’s pop stars on the comeback trail to teenaged hardcore bands making their first foray out of the basement. Sink Tapes needs a fan base that supports eclecticism since the band’s sound is so all over the place, with elements of psychedelia and shoegaze interspersed with Nineties alternarock, Pavement-y slacker-pop, and Yo La Tengo-like whispery ballads. These guys have also been prolific, releasing two albums and an EP since 2010; but on their third full-length, How You Mean, all these different puzzle pieces seem to be coming together and listeners can finally see the big picture. If you’re into lo-fi, droney, occasionally propulsive (“Paper Crown”) and sometimes Beatlesque (“Little League World Series”) psyche-rock with echoes of the Beatles, Feelies, and Ride and occasional forays into semi-acoustic mope-rock, then this is the band for you.


TWO STRIKE MARK (twostrikemark.bandcamp.com)

At first listen, it’s easy enough to write off this Asbury Park acoustic quartet as a familiar amalgamation of Jawbreaker vocals and Blink-182 pop-punk tropes, but then you get to a song like “Red And Gold” or “Pigeon Hole Principle,” with their Front Bottoms-esque lyrics (never said that before!) and earworm melodies (augmented by nifty one finger’d synthesizer riffs) and you realize these guys are pretty damn likable. Personally I’d skip the more emo tracks (“Good Times, Great Times, Florida”) but there’s a lot here I’ll listen to again, whether the band’s being lighthearted (“Spike Dudley”) or so damn earnest you can feel it (“Sex Positions,” “Watch Me Ollie.”) Dear Scott Stamper, here’s a band for the Asbury Music Awards lineup this year.

QUINCY MUMFORD & THE REASON WHY – It’s Only Change (quincymumford.com)

It seems like only yesterday that I saw Quincy Mumford perform for the first time, a gangly teenager in board shorts, tank top, and sandals with an acoustic guitar. A friend leaned over to me and said, “he looks like the kind of kid who goes to the beach by himself a lot.” And he did. Five years later, at the ripe old age of 21, Mumford fronts one of Asbury Park’s most respected funk and jam ensembles, and his latest album, It’s Only Change,” shows just how well this talented young artist has integrated his influences and created a musical identity for himself that has nothing to do with sand, surf, or skateboards.
As evidenced immediately on the album’s opening track, “Change,” you can hear that Mumford’s at best a very laid-back singer; he’s not going to wow you with fancy runs. He lets his band do the heavy lifting, and they’re more than up to the job, from Karlee Bloomfield’s lush organ fills to Brian Gearty’s melodic bass. Mumford’s reedy voice reminds me a bit of Paul Simon (listed to “A Hard Place,” especially,) powerful enough to carry a melody on a big hook but more concerned with communicating emotion in a emotive whisper. The gospel backing vocals that open “For You” showcase this album’s no-holds-barred production, although the song almost immediatley slips into a sultry reggae groove, but I wish the choral vocals had come back at the end of the song; as is, they seem almost gratuitous, a “look what we can do moment” that doesn’t really work in the service of the song.

“Under The Covers” introduces a horn section for a funky soul workout that lets Quincy showcase some of his most nimble singing, followed by the romantic ballad “When You Get Back,” highlighted by a lovely guitar solo. When not relying on reggae or funk for rhythms, Mumford & Co. fall into a pleasingly melodic, jazzy jamband groove in mid-album, finishing up with the reggae/wah-wah funk fusion of “Baby Don’t Go.” Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’d volunteer for a triple root canal before listening to a John Mayer album, but Quincy Mumford & The Reason Why’s musicianship and melodies (as well as self-control) somehow make jamband music safe for indie rockers.

THE JEFFREY LEWIS & PETER STAMPFEL BAND – “Hey Hey It’s…” (jeffreylewis.bandcamp.com)

The second collaboration between anti-folk hero Jeffrey Lewis and acid-folk pioneer Peter Stampfel bring two generations of folkie weirdness together in a fun-filled, slapdash, utterly lovable collection of goofy originals and inspired covers. Even better than 2011’s Come On Board (billed as Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis,) Hey Hey It’s… lets two generations of freaky Lower East Side folkies shine, accompanied by plunky banjos, screeching fiddles, twitchy mandolins, and a couple of energetic girl singers. This is the best band Stampfel has had since the heyday of the Bottlecaps back in the Eighties, and some of the best songs Lewis has written since 2009’s Em Are I, and together they’re just terrific. From Stampfel’s celebratory folkie freakouts like “More Fun Than Anyone,” “Hey Hey,” and “Duke Of The Beatniks,” to Lewis’ caustic pop culture critiques like “Do You Know Who I Am? I’m Fucking Snooki!” and “Indie Bands On Tour,” all of these tracks find the duo harmonizing (sort of,) with Lewis’ nasal monotone and Stampfel’s creaky crackly mischievous yelp combining in glorious chaotic abandon. They supply new lyrics to the Russian standard “Moscow Nights” (inspired by the late Tuli Kupferberg) and turn “Mule Train” into an eight-minute psychedelic fuzzbox freakout, but the album reaches its apotheosis on the fiddle-driven fuck-you anthem “Crazy Creek (That’s Where We’re Sending You,)” in which Lewis’ dry-as-dirt wit meets the Holy Modal Rounders’ classic “Random Canyon.” If you can’t remember the last time you used the word “wacky” as a point of honor, you need to hear this record.

 

THE FRONT BOTTOMS – Talon Of The Hawk (Bar/None)

The one drawback to making a successful first album is that you inevitably have to make a second one. Not that the Front Bottoms’ self-titled debut lit up the Billboard charts, but the album’s quirky, deeply personal folk/punk songs resonated with its predominantly adolescent audience deeply enough to let guitarist/singer Brian Sella and drummer Matt Uychich leave their day jobs behind and tour non-stop for the last year and half. Now these Jersey boys are back with a dozen new songs and two new members, multi-instrumentalist Cieran O’Donnel on trumpet, keyboards, guitar, and percussion, and Tom Warren on bass and backing vocals.

The first album swathed Sella’s strummed acoustic and Uychich’s pounding punk rock drums with backing tracks, trumpet, and bass as well, but often these had to be recreated on tour with a laptop, locking the band into playing to a click track. With the new lineup, all that’s gone; Talon Of The Hawk was recorded live in the studio, and it definitely has a freer, more organic vibe than its predecessor, fuller at times and yet equally as intimate in its quiet moments. The big question, however, will be whether Sella has managed to write another batch of songs that will inspire the same passionate singalongs as the first. As someone who’s lived on the road for nearly two years, it makes sense that Sella would start the album with a song that says goodbye. Loneliness, regrets, and goodbyes recur as themes throughout the album. “I walked around like a skeleton last night, confused and alone,” Sella cries in “Skeleton.” “Who was I kidding, I can’t get past you, you are the cops, you are my student loans.”

But all that misery inevitably leads to the big chorus and you can just picture a room full of screaming kids singing along to the hook, “And I got soooooo stoned…” The downbeat “Twin Size Mattress” conveys both the camaraderie of tour life but also the pain of leaving someone behind, especially when it’s someone who may need you there. In “Santa Monica,” 3,000 miles from home, Sella dreams of just laying on the beach with his girlfriend drinking Tecates, while admitting that he’s “an emotional baby boy, emotional man, I am emotional.” “I want to be stronger than your dad was for your mom,” he bleats, knowing full well that as long as he’s on the road, it’s never going to happen. And things get only more dire from there: On the tortured“Tattooed Tears,” a lovesick Sella admits “this love will never be convenient;” the protagonist of “Lone Star” finds himself with a pregnant girlfriend, wondering if the pittance left in his bank account will be enough to make the problem go away. There’s a little light at the end of the tunnel in “Back Flip,” in which Sella copes with anxiety attacks over his choice of lifestyle while admitting, “there are answers here, they’re just harder to find,” all set to the borrowed chord changes from “La Bamba.”

“This is not the way I plan on living for the rest of my life,” Sella proclaims in the album ending “Everything I Own,” “but for right now it gets me by.” But inside, Sella knows something’s wrong. “God forbid I ever stop feeling sorry for myself for feeling selfish,” he sings. “But for right now, it gets me by.”

On the Front Bottoms’ first album, Brian Sella was the wacky kid who had maps on his walls and big, big plans; he laughed about swatting his dad with a baseball bat and found comfort in the bottom of a swimming pool. On Talon Of The Hawk, all those daydreams have turned sour; now he’s alone on the road and just trying to figure out how to hang on to the next town, where he can get drunk with his friends and maybe get a tattoo he’ll regret for the rest of his life. The kids will still sing along, but they’ll have a lot more to think about now. The stakes have changed. The hawk is adulthood, and its talons are sharp.

ELEVENTH DREAM DAY – New Moodio (Comedy Minus One)

Is it okay if one of my Top 10 albums of 2013 was actually recorded in 1991? Eleventh Dream Day made New Moodio at the height of their powers but the nadir of their professional career, when their deal with Atlantic Records (following the substantial critical and modest commercial success of Beet) seemed to have disintegrated. Recorded on their own dime with producer Brad Wood, the tracks on New Moodio would later be shelved when Danny Goldberg wooed the band back to the label; most of these songs were re-recorded, a few appeared on compilations or singles, and several have never been heard before. Until now.

The re-recorded tracks do sound looser and a bit funkier than their major label counterparts, but it’s the overall experience of the album – the new sequencing, the airier production, the insertion of previously unheard gems like “Everywhere Down Here” – that sets New Moodio apart. As always with EDD, there’s the constant churn of Rick Rizzo’s post-Velvets guitar, snarling spoke/sung vocals, and a substantial amount of Neil Young worship, leavened by Janet Bean’s counterpoint vocals, a good bit of Yo La Tengo pop-jangle (the two bands were – and still are – frequent tourmates,) and an occasional blast of brawny Windy City punk. “Everywhere Down Here” riffs like deconstructed Dream Syndicate, “Raft Song” floats on a jangle of Feelies-esque guitars, and the interplay between Rizzo and guitarist Baird Figi’s dueling axes often recalls Television.

“Making Like A Bug” – which flopped as the first single from El Moodio – is the biggest revelation here, with Bean’s quizzical lead vocal detonating a masterpiece of Rizzo guitar skronk. Just a few years later, Chicago would be dominating FM radio with female artists like Liz Phair and Veruca Salt; but when Atlantic released this track, the band was told that “women were not big that month.”

Well, they are now. New Moodio is like a gift plucked from a time capsule or beamed back to Earth from 23 years in the past. It’s what 1991 sounded like to a lot of us, and it still sounds fresh and exciting today.

THE ALL-ABOUT – Suburban Heart (theallabout.bandcamp.com)

Zac Coe is from Connecticut. I wish I could claim him for New Jersey, but he’s a Nutmegger. He’s an amazing drummer, talented singer, gifted songwriter, boyishly handsome, a radio deejay, and he’s performed on Broadway. He never has cavities when he goes to the dentist, and he stops to help little old ladies cross the street. Let’s face it, the kid is perfect. And so’s his new album Suburban Heart, recorded under the nom de rock The All-About.

Recorded at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen in Brooklyn (and on his parents’ living room piano at home,) Suburban Heart does for earnest, post-adolescent puppy love what Snoop Dogg did for blunts. Coe’s songs are always pretty but never saccharine; his heartbreak real, but never privileged or misogynist. This is a boy who honestly loves girls and thinks everybody should be in love; “So every girl just grab a boy, lately I’m losing my voice, baby, singing along with the radio,” he sings on the tender “Jessie.” Separation anxiety and the joy of reunions are current themes, and with good reason; Coe just spent his junior year of college abroad in London. These relationships can get passionate (“Heat Wave”) but never smutty, needy but never desperate, witty but never smug (“I got all the answers, but nobody’s asks.”)

And the production? Oh my lord, this sounds like it was produced in a ballroom replete with a string section and champagne and candelabras all over the place, instead of Mama Coco’s dank basement with a synthesizer and a bottomless wellspring of imagination. There are tinkling pianos (courtesy of Oliver Ignatius) and pealing glockenspiels, plinked strings and orchestral synthesizers, light-as-air interludes of just drums and vocals followed by layers of dense synth and electric organ, rumbling drums and flicked drumsticks as nimble as tapdancing angels. Mama Coco's co-horts Alex Da Silva and Layne Montgomery added electric guitar and bass, respectively.

Throughout the album, Coe leavens the sweetness with dollops of self-deprecating humor (“I liked you better when you just played drums,” huffs one prospective sweetie) and the occasional nudge-nudge wink-wink nod to Bruce Springsteen (“’Rosalita’ on the radio,” “everybody has a hungry heart , including all of you.”)

The Boss may get quoted here but he’s never imitated; Suburban Heart feels instantly familiar but doesn’t really sound like anything else on the radio right now. Which is why you’ll be playing it over and over over.

DEERHUNTER – Monomania (4AD)

Like a lot of people who listen to way too much new music, I like the idea of Bradford Cox more than this records. Lord knows we need an outspoken weirdo in indie; otherwise, who’s left, Billy Corgan and Wayne Coyne? Despite its benediction as ‘Best New Music’ at Pitchfork, though, Monomania, like most of Deerhunter’s catalog, leaves me wondering what all the fuss is about. This time out, Cox’s often off-key, dirgey meanderings have been filtered through a wall of fuzz box guitar, leaping onto the same bandwagon as the brigade of lo-fi, new-school garageband dirtbags like Black Lips/Mikal Cronin/Ty Segall/Pujol/yadayadayada. Only the yearning, melodic “The Missing” by guitarist Lockett Pundt (who moonlights under the name Lotus Plaza) sounds like it wasn’t tossed off in one take at 4 a.m. The rest of Monomania sounds like frat boys banging out Pavement and Beck covers on acid on a weekend bender.

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – Modern Vampires Of The City (XL)

It’s been done before, but it’s still fun to compare the careers of Vampire Weekend and the Strokes. The latter masked their Upper East Side privilege in a veneer of Lower East Side leather jacket sleaze, rising out of the ashes of post-9/11 Manattan as the new saviors of rock ‘n’ roll. Vampire Weekend came along a few years later, embracing their Ivy League roots with not just their preppy J.Crew wardrobes but songs peppered with five-dollar words and the esoteric rhythms of world music. The Strokes looked for sure they’d be in it to win it, but a dozen years later, it’s pretty clear that they’re through as both a creative force and a meaningful NYC icon (with not much more than one halfway decent album to their credit) while Vampire Weekend remain both critically and commercially ascendant. Add me to the growing chorus who welcome Modern Vampires Of The City as not just the best VW album to date, but one of the best pop albums of the year.

Everything everyone always loved (or hated) about Vampire Weekend remains, including Ezra Koenig’s Paul Simon vocal affectations and the band’s infatuation with both South African rhythms and their Columbia educations. But where those influences once seemed clunky, obvious, and even at times annoying (“horchata?” really?), Ezra Koenig and his songwriting partner Rostam Batmanglij have this time crafted a suite of gorgeous, melodic pop songs which provide space and ample opportunities to showcase the nimble polyrhythmic subtleties of drummer Chris Thomson and rich textures of layered vocals, guitar, synths, and bass. From the gorgeous chorale of “Obvious Bicycle” to the penny arcade playfulness of “Step,” the preppy funk of “Diane Young” to the peppy falsetto pop of “Finger Back,” Modern Vampires Of The City smoothly glides from ballads to rockers and back again. By the time the band gets to “Hudson” – a chilling narrative that links explorer Henry Hudson to Manhattan real estate - Vampire Weekend have convincingly graduated from that Columbia University novelty band to one of today’s most sophisticated purveyors of modern pop. Even if you think you don’t like Vampire Weekend, give this album a try. It’s as soothing as a milky glass of horchata after a particularly spicy meal.


 

THE PORCHISTAS - The Porchistas Live (www.theporchistas.com)

A live album makes a lot of sense for Montclair's Porchistas. While they've been one of my favorite NJ folk groups for a while now, their other releases tended to be produced unevenly, and the band's penchant for kooky novelty songs often overshadowed the band's tasteful blend of traditional folk and indie-pop. Recorded by bassist Gerry Griffin mostly at Tierney's Tavern, The Porchistas Live captures the group's abundant charm, elegant harmony vocals, the wit of lead singer Alan Smith's lyrics, and the individual members' accomplished musicianship. Selections range from traditional folk ("Waddlin' Fool," "Tooty Tooty Ta") to clever, catchy indie-pop ("Frankly, You Can Thank Me," the slightly risque "Oh Brother") and yes, there's even one of those wacky novelty tunes ("Zombie Jesus.") Smith spends part of every year working on a sustainable-living commune in Costa Rica and that experience is reflected in the Latin flavored "Los Pescadores de Puntarenas." A cold beer, a warm night, a back porch, and The Porchistas Live... life in Jersey doesn't get any better.

THE DEFENDING CHAMPIONS – Breakfast Of… (thedefendingchampions.com)

The seven skilled musicians in Montclair’s The Defending Champions might seem like a throwback to the mid-Nineties ska/punk revival, when teenaged marching band nerds would take their trombones, trumpets and saxophones and start the coolest bands in the underground. I was a marching band nerd in my day too, so I know the chip it leaves on your shoulder. It ’s no surprise then that the Defending Champions come out ripping and roaring and ready to reduce even the most jaded hipsters into sweat-soaked skanking fools on Breakfast Of…The Defending Champions. Much more than mere ska revivalism, these eight tracks fuse earwig hooks, nimble percussion, syncopated rhythms, and infectious gang vocals into a fusion of ska, reggae, punk and soul. “Lucky Man” marries ska rhythms and tight horns with a catchy Motown chorus; “Step To The Man” and the instrumental “Beatstreet” build from quiet intros into irresistible rocksteady ska, and “Relax A Little” slows things down to a soulful blues with jazzy sax solos before erupting into another dancehall anthem. “Raise The Glass” ends the album with a crazy gypsy wedding twist somewhere between Gogol Bordello and World/Inferno Friendship Society. This isn’t the jokey ska/punk of Less Than Jake or Reel Big Fish, but exciting, original, danceable music that draws from a variety of traditions and styles to form something unique.

GHOST PAL – “God Bless MCFK” (ghostpal.bandcamp.com)

Following an impressive psyche/gospel/funk full-length about an actual ghost (2012’s Nathan Jones Is Dead,) Brooklyn’s Ghost Pal retrenches a bit on this new EP, going back to what they do best: Acoustic psychedelic pop that conjures the spirit of classic rock icons like the Beatles, Who, and Beach Boys. But being Ghost Pal, they continue to innovate as well, adding new elements like pennywhistle and glockenspiel to a mix that includes Oliver Ignatius’s enraptured vocals, Alex da Silva’s post-rock guitar, Henry Kandel’s evocative sax parts, and the precise percussion of drummers Carson Moody and Matt Evans. After a one-minute overture that introduces Oliver’s vocals and a bit of da Silva guitar noise, the EP begins with the seductive “Sleep/Whatever,” a weary lament built over acoustic guitar and glockenspiel that slowly crescendos into a symphony of psychedelic pop, with Syd Barrett-worthy lyrics that warn of the perils of sleeping your life away: “I looked into the mirror that was passing me by/I saw that it was breaking and I wanted to cry… and now it’s dark and I’m asleep/while everybody out there has fun/ I wish, I wish, I really really wish/ I really really wish I’d had some.”

Just in case you’ve been ignoring everything on this blog for the last year and a half, the MCFK in the EP’s title refers to Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, Ignatius’ studio which has become the nexus of a young, spirited and insanely talented DIY community that includes Ghost Pal. On “God Save Mama Coco’s,” Ignatius returns to the themes of sleep and wasted opportunities: “Three o’clock in the morning, though I’ve spent hours yawning, I can’t fade into the night.” Beset by doubts and physical as well as emotional travail, he knows that ultimately, the music will be worth the sacrifice: “When money's tight, we'll have music/just to keep us in holy flame / When we can't talk, we'll be laughing/at the fact that nobody came.” As with so much of Ghost Pal, “God Bless Mama Coco’s” is a spiritual disguised as a pop song swathed in psychedelia. There’s a touching soulfulness to the vocals, as well as the warm organic tones of pennywhistle floating above murmuring keyboards and fuzz guitar that simply enchant.
Henry Kandel’s multi-tracked saxophones and bold strokes of acoustic guitar launch “Everyone Knows,” which spotlights Oliver’s silky lower register in the early verses before blossoming into a beautifully melodic chorus and a full-on instrumental freakout, with hammering electric piano, sax, and percussion, Rubber Soul colliding headfirst with Olivia Tremor Control in the 21st Century.

Inspired by the passing of Oliver’s beloved family dog, “Raja’s Song (Hold On My King)” melds lush Beach Boy vocal harmonies with a passionate, melodic vocal that sees the boy say goodbye to his best friend and face the prospect of becoming a man alone. It’s a track worthy of Pet Sounds, both heartbreaking and strangely, powerfully uplifting, as any song about love will be. Oliver mourns not just the loss of his pet, but the regret and guilt we all feel when someone we love leaves us. It’s a beautiful reiteration of a theme that flows throughout this EP: Seize every moment and treasure it, because none of us know how long anything will last.

WYLDLIFE – The Time Has Come To Rock N Roll (wyldlife.bandcamp.com)

The tattooed bad boys of Jersey City party-rock return with their second full-length EP, a raunchy, raucous collection of glam-punk should-be-hits celebrating boozy, wasted nights and nihilistic youth. Produced by Tuk of Atlanta’s Biters, the album has more of a loose, live feel than its predecessor, 2011’s Wyldlife; Dave Feldman sings in a more expressive, higher register on this album and it suits him, wryly slurring hooks with the sardonic cool of Johnny Thunders or a young David Johansen while guitars, drums, and bass churn in the background. You can tell the band had more of a budget and more guidance in the studio this time: Samm Allen’s guitars have more bite, Rusty Barnett’s drums seem crisper, Spencer Alexander’s bass provides rumbling depth, and the songwriting’s improved as well. “The Right!” kicks things off with a gritty kiss-off song, while “Saturday Night” makes for the perfect weekend anthem (complete with a clever drum shout-out to the Bay City Rollers.) While Wyldlife often sings about girls who rock as hard as the boys, there’s never a note of misogyny or condescension; “First Time’s The Worst” comforts a young woman who slept with the wrong creep, while “Cowboys & Slutz” celebrates a modern-day “Cherry Bomb” with an almost avuncular pride. On the other hand, Wyldlife doesn’t do deep and rarely traffics with allegory; one look at the titles and you’ll know where each song goes. “Wasted” builds from a chunky Stones groove that adds some nice harmony vocals, “Sonofabitch” kicks some major ass both musically and lyrically, while the hooky “Trash” pretty much sums up the Wyldlife manifesto: “A girl I used to see comes walking past/ with a short mini-skirt thinking she’s so flash/ she’s just trash… but she’s another man’s treasure now.” “Out On The Run” finishes things up with a soulful “Tumbling Dice” groove. Ten mostly short songs might seem a bit skimpy, but Wyldlife say what they have to say and leave you wanting more. That’s a whole lot better than overstaying your welcome, and the essence of real rock ‘n’ roll.

THE SCOTCH BONNETS – Live Ya Life (www.thescotchbonnets.com)

My old friend Kristin Forbes sings and plays guitar in the Scotch Bonnets, a female-fronted reggae/ska group (with male rhythm section) that blends mellow bass, Hammond organ, nimble percussion, and skittish electric guitar, as well as Kristin’s immensely personable vocals. The riddims here tend to be less dancey than the frenetic third-wave ska-punk you might know, but less laid back and cannabis-infused than traditional reggae, creating a nice balance of grooves. You can also hear undercurrents of soul and funk, especially on “Weatherman,” with its funky sax and Motownish lyrics. On other tracks, Kristin tackles the inequities of American healthcare (“Live Ya Life”) and Washington D.C. street crime (and former mayor Adrian Fenty’s attempts to curb it,) although mostly she’s sings about love, relationships, and spirituality, with uplifting lines like “there’s always sunshine behind the cloudiest sky,” or “the music inside of me is the only thing I need.” When people think of Washington, D.C. today, they dwell on partisanship, gridlock, corruption, and greed; it’s nice to remember that there are also some very sweet souls making people happy with their music there too.

WAVE ENVY – Yes, Let’s (waveenvy.bandcamp.com)

This punky four piece came together at Bard, and makes happy, jangly pop music. Singer/guitarist Gabe Adels has a boyishly winsome voice that’s impossible to dislike, whether the band is channeling Superchunk (“I Don’t Mind,”) borrowing a Bo Diddley beat on “Plane Crash,” or experimenting with different guitar tones on the Vampire Weekend-ish “Every Night.” I have no idea what kind of grades these guys get, but they obviously spend an awful lot of time on this band when they should be studying: You can hear it in the inventive arrangement of the multi-part “Melatonin,” with its dream-pop chorus; or the complex dual-guitar intro to “Alright” (which suggests they’ve listen to Marquee Moon more than a few times,) or the nimble wordplay of “Sometimes.” Once school’s out, I hope Wave Envy starts playing out in the city. These songs are way too good to keep sequestered out in Annondale-On-Hudson. (Thanks to Miles from Dr. Skinnybones for bringing this album to my attention.)

LITTLE WAIST – Econo Body Demos (littlewaist.bandcamp.com)

Recorded in a practice space and a bedroom, these homemade demos provide a tantalizing taste of this “trans-core” trio from Manhattan. I definitely hear a lot of Jawbreaker influence mixed with snotty vocals that suggest the folk-punk stylings of the old Plan-It-X Records roster. Rudimentary chord changes are met with intricate vocal melodies for an intriguing mix of basement punk and indie-pop. A little more seasoning and a real studio beckon, but I like what I hear so far.


THE BLACK MARKET MERCHANTS – “Black Market” EP (blackmarketmerchants.bandcamp.com)

This 3-song debut features the smoky vocals of Madeline Lingett (who has since been replaced in the live band by Savannah Sturgeon,) with an inky, sensuous vibe that’s unafraid to rub shoulders with the heavy, hoary strains of acid- rock and progressive. All three tracks offer variations on a theme, starting intriguingly with a bare bones arrangement that just barely supports Lingett’s sinewy vocal but slowly builds, adding layers of fuzz guitar and ominous bass. “The Mountain” and “Watch The Rope” offer a similar experience, conjuring images of dark rooms, day-glo posters, lava lamps, and the pungent scene of patchouli (or is that weed?) Certainly Black Market Merchants have the beginnings of a captivating (and original) sound here, but it will be interesting to hear how these songs work with a different lead singer and how the band expands on its sonic blueprint with new songs.

SICK SICK BIRDS – Gates Of Home (Killing Horse Records)

I remember watching Doc Hopper years ago and my friend Alex Saville turned to me and said, “you know what’s great with these old punk bands? It’s all there. They know how to write a song, they know how to play their instruments, and they know how to get the most out of every piece of equipment they own.” That thought occurred to me listening to Gates Of Home by the veteran Baltimore group Sick Sick Birds, released by Toxic Pop Records last year and recently re-released by NJ’s Killing Horse Records. Of course I’m using the term “old” relatively here; frontman and primary songwriter Mike Hall is a veteran of the late 90’s/millennial B’more punk scene – not the 70’s or 80’s - having played in that town’s The Thumbs, and he’s managed to stay active after other bandmates and contemporaries have faded away into the thirtysomething malaise of mortgage payments, family, and day jobs. And quite frankly, he and the SSB’s have never sounded better. Another thing about these “old” punk bands is that they know rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t invented by Blink 182 in 2005; you can hear echoes here of everything from the Pixies and Husker Du to Mission of Burma and the Smiths. Not that the Birds are in anyway derivative; in fact, the way they straddle that fine line of demarcation between punk and indie give them a unique spin. But like all great pop music, “Gates of Home” manages to sound simultaneously familiar and new. Hall’s youthful but seasoned vocals can communicate sadness without sounding whiny (like most of what gets labeled “pop punk” these days,) but whereas songs like “Conversation” and “One Town Over” carry overtones of remorse and regret, Hall can also be as giddy and boyish as Superchunk’s Mac Macaughan on songs like “Marietta” and “Pick And Choose.” Like J Robbins in Jawbox, Mike Hall – with his voice, his guitar, and with Melissa Jacobsen’s engaged backing vocals – can invoke a range of deep and often dark emotions without resorting to the theatrical excesses of emo. This is a record I’m going to want to hear again, and again. Thanks to Killing Horse for making it more widely available.


THE HARMONICA LEWINSKIES -
"Salad Days" EP (theharmonicalewinskies.bandcamp.com)

After their well-received 2012 full-length Octopus Wallstreet, it would have been easy for the Harmonica Lewinskies to return to Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen studio and follow up with an EP that simply reiterated all the things they did so well on the album. And the first track here, "The Ghost Pal Song," does exactly that: It's a near-perfect three-minute pop song blending funky horns, a smooth cosmopolitan vocal from Roberto Bettega (one of the band's several frontmen,) a bridge that sounds lifted from an old Stax/Volt 45, a sexy sax solo, a shout-out to Porgy & Bess, and that impish Lewinskie sense of humor. (The title is a homage to the flagship band of the Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen collective, Ghost Pal.)

"Funky Home" changes up the formula a bit, mixing funk, r&b, jazz, and even a little hop-hop in a sassy, flirtatious call-and-response duet between bassist Zebedee Row and guest singer Emily Mattheson, with some especially nice Booker T. organ from Devin Calderin. The whole ensemble cooks on this cut, but besides the clever, seductive lyrics, "Funky Home" stands out foremost for Row's throbbing nibble funky bass lines. Octopus Wallstreet lost the bass in the mix; that sin is atoned for her in spades.

But if you think you know what's coming next, guess again. The band dives headfirst into Americana, with a charming, off-the-cuff variation on "Red River Valley" that they call "Harlem River Valley." The track shows off Jake's chops on the uke and harmonica, as well as the band's effortless vocal harmonies. It reminds me of the first time I met these guys, at a barbecue at Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen, where producer Oliver Ignatius produced these tracks. In between bands playing in the basement studio, Jake pulled out his uke and the Lewinskies started freestyling campfire harmonies on old rock tunes. I had just met them at the time but I left thinking two things: This band is really talented, and these are people I want for friends.

And even though they ripped off the title of this EP from Minor Threat (really, guys?), that opinion hasn't changed.


SCIENCE POLICE - You Are Under Arrest In The Future (sciencepolice.bandcamp.com)

It's no secret that I'm a sucker for anything Grath Madden records, from the Steinways to House Boat to whatever silly side projects he's floated in between. Now he's put together a new pop-punk supergroup of sorts, teaming with keyboardist Marisa Bergquist (who did a memorable EP with Mikey Erg not too long ago,) ex-Steinways drummer Chris Grivet and LLC member Joe Evans on guitars, and the legendary Chris Pierce (Groucho Marxists, Doc Hopper, Sinkhole) on drums. Whereas Grath has been venting his 30-something angst in House Boat lately, Science Police finds him back writting moony, goofy pop-punk love songs, often dueting with Bergquist. And of course it's terrific: A little funny, occasionally pathetic ("oh the Internet says that you have a boyfriend,") frequently inspired, and always entertaining. The cult of Grath should be sizable enough (at least in pop punk circles) that this 6-song gem will be a no-braine for a lot of our readers, any Insubordination Fest regular, and those whose only records purchases consist of colored vinyl from Interpunk.com. For everybody else, if you like catchy, funny, romantic, vulnerable, and slightly nerdy punk (in the Queers/ScrWeasel/Ramones vein, not that Blink/Sum/post-emo shit), then you need to surrender to the Science Police immediately.

AWKWARIUM - "Tampossom" EP (awkwarium.bandcamp.com)

I've never been a huge fan of instrumental music, except for the occasional track like "Wipeout" or "Tequila" that uses huge catchy hooks to take the place of vocals. Awkwarium, a trio from Jamaica, Queens, goes the other way, creating layers of sound in the vein of Brian Eno's ambient albums of the 70's. The band is certainly well named; there's a burbling, almost aquatic texture to the warm-toned guitars and rhythms on tracks like "Bubbles" and "Crystal Complications." Some instrumental bands use fantastic song titles to provide some sort of narrative for the sounds, but Awkwarium uses its song titles more as teases; there's nothing chanty-like about "The Pirate Song" to conjure images of Capt. Jack Sparrow, nor is "The Acid Song" any more psychedelic than anything else here. The title track "Tampossom" has the most beguiling melody here, with its twangy guitars suggesting elements of Ennio Morricone, but the repetitive drone of "Righteous One" lost my attention. I don't believe in the idea of "this is nice if you're reading or vacuuming;" music should be foregrounded or not listened to at all. If you're at all into ambient instrumentals, you should be intrigued by this album; and even if you're not a fan of the genre, any one of these tracks coming up on shuffle will provide a few thoughtful minutes.

THE AV CLUB - Believe (theavclubmusic.bandcamp.com)

Baltimore's The AV Club - at this point principally the project of singer/ songwriter/guitarist Aaron Carr - remains one of those underground power-pop treasures that you almost don't want to share. I'm sure there are others who feel exactly the same way about the Figgs or the Shoes or even the dB's. The AV Club, despite a relatively small back catalog, stands proudly in the same class as those other bands, with a deadly knack for a power pop hook, exquisite harmonies, and the uniquely piquant voice of Carr himself, drenched always in regret and unfulfilled longing. (How awesome would it be if these guys covered "Unsatisfied?") After the acoustic, folkie opener "Together" - about the loneliness of the road and the undying power of rock 'n' roll - Carr goes into Cheap Trick mode with three awesome rock 'n' roll songs, one about the joy of listening to music ("Ear To The Speaker") and the others basically about sharing that joy with others. After a few more of those heart-melting yearning songs, Carr delivers the coup de grace, "Last Band In The World," which perfectly describes how heartbreaking it often feels to care about music in 2013 ("there's a going-out-of-business sign at the record store.") Don't approach the AV Club if you're not ready for a consummate songwriter to trifle with your feelings, because trifle he will. And it hurts so good.

BIG DICK (big-dick.bandcamp.com)

Big Dick are a bass/drums duo from Ottawa, not unlike NJ's Brick+Mortar or Chicago's Local H. As you might expect from both the lineup and the band name, there's a lot of clatter and occasional digressions into noisy jams, but Big Dick can write a melody. Occasionally you get blasts of cacophonous hardcore ala Nomeansno (whence the band got its name) but the band can be surprisingly melodic and almost tender at time (I especially like "Anti-Social" in this regard.) And there are tricks that blend both dissonance and melody, like the persuasive and hooky "Schoolyard Violence." This is good stuff, check it out.



THE JEAN JACKETS – Jean Jacques (thejeanjackets.bandcamp.com)

The Jean Jackets might well be the next indie band people start talking about with roots in the New Jersey suburb of Ridgewood, birthplace of Titus Andronicus, Real Estate, and about a dozen other notable acts. Guitarists Jackson Phinney and Christine Spilka form the tandem whose vocals – separately or in tight harmony – drive the band’s somewhat schizophrenic sound, which draws from Sixties lounge-pop, the Beach Boys in their trippiest psychedelic phase, and the beachy washed-out vibe of buzz bands like Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls. Jean Jacques, the band’s long-awaited debut album, recorded at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen studio in Brooklyn, immediately kicks you in the teeth and grabs your ear with the uber-catchy “The Myth Of Sisyphus.” With an earwig doo-wop “ba ba ba” chorus and clever, intricate lyrics about the pitfalls of love, it’s the album’s standout track, but also a point of departure to which the band never quite returns. Instead, there are romantic, fuzzy melodies showcasing Spilka’s silky voice, and a few arch, quirky pop songs sung by Phinney, including the gorgeous harmony-soaked “Sir John Feelgood” (which sounds like the Flaming Lips as reimagined by Brian Wilson (or maybe the “Sail On Sailor” Beach Boys updated by mad scientist Wayne Coyne.) As a free download on the JJackets’ bandcamp page, it’s definitely worth a listen: You might like all of it, you’ll certainly fall in love with at least parts of it, and in either case, you need to have “The Myth of Sisyphus” on your iPod.

THAT’S RUGBY – “Wide-Eyed” EP (thatsrugby.bandcamp.com)

One unmistakable trend in 2012 marked the return of prog-rock to the underground band scene, and Boston-based That’s Rugby makes a fine example. With members from New Jersey and several other states (I’m assuming they attend college in Beantown together,) the band mixes ethereal melodies with the high-pitched, Jon Anderson-like vocals of Rafael Green. Guitarists Brian Seltzer and Mike Giordano, along with the tight rhythm section of bassist Sai Boddupalli and drummer Sander Bryce, add pummeling riffs and challenging time signatures. Two roiling instrumentals help showcase the intricate, technical guitars, although the soloing never gets out of hand. I’ve never been a big fan of the genre – Yes was the enemy if you were a punk in the Seventies – but That’s Rugby provides ample proof that prog-rock not only survives but is thriving among today’s young bands.+

ROLAND RAMOS – Anchor Heart

If you’re involved in any way with the art or music scene in Jersey City and Hoboken, you’re run across Roland Ramos, a big bear of man with a wild mop of curly hair and the fearsome countenance of a Samoan bouncer. Throughout 2012, it seemed like Roland was either organizing an open mic or curating an art installation every weekend, as well as being a regular presence at Northern Soul, Maxwell’s, Jersey City’s Lamp Post, and other venues.

You might be surprised, though, to learn that the intimidating Mr. Ramos counts the ephemeral, poetic folk of Joni Mitchell as one of his biggest musical influences. But that influence – as well as the heady, soulful rhythms of Jamaica and the romantic Latino ballads of Mexico – can be heard throughout Ramos’ latest album, “Anchor Heart.” From the funky reggae of “China Doll” to the tender Latino ballad “Tequila Kisses” to the humorous, folkie “Wasted Again,” Ramos pours soul, heart, wit, and conviction into every song he sings. “Art School Girl” will inspire a smile, “Simple Hands” will propel you to the dancefloor; “Lighter” showcases Ramos’ mastery of classical guitar, while “Turning On The Tide” and “Eliza” could be hits on country radio. Ramos simply knows no boundaries; like his beloved Hoboken, “Anchor Hearts” is a true melting pot of cultures and rhythms.


GOODMAN – What We Want (goodmanmusic.bandcamp.com)

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” said Sherlock Holmes. “It is a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.” And, might we add, pop music. Rock ‘n’ roll can certainly be shambolic and unkempt, sweaty and greasy and unrehearsed. But there’s the other extreme too; think Brian Wilson, Jeff Mangum, Todd Rundgren, Harry Nilsson… geniuses all but of the tucked-in, button-down, every-note-just-so variety. That’s where you’ll find Michael Goodman, who records under his last name, and whose capacity to take infinite pains marks his first full-length “What We Want” as a potential work of genius. We won’t know that for sure until many years from now, of course, but it’s impossible not to be impressed with his idiosyncratic reinvention of Sixties pop.

Every song here has a vocal hook, a harmony, or a guitar tone that distinguishes it from the rest. Kudos go to Zac Coe’s precise drumming, for while this is recognizably rock ‘n’ roll music, I don’t think there’s a single track that relies on a steady 4/4 beat. Everything’s nimbly syncopated, beats falling where you don’t expect them, and that’s a huge part of the album’s appeal. Finally, there’s the songwriting, which hews to themes you’d certainly expect from a barely-twentysomething – loneliness, sleeplessness, the pitfalls of romance.

There’s not only a meticulousness to Goodman’s rhyme schemes and meter – you could easily publish any of these lyrics as a poem – but an unexpected layer of self-loathing that’s part of that excruciating process of growing out of boyhood and into an adult. Goodman sings with such precise diction that it almost seems an affectation, but there’s not a line delivered here that comes across as overtly twee or ironic. There’s palpable pain and longing when he sings “I’m waiting, come faster” in the lovelorn “Waiting;” he actually sounds heartsick on the mooning “Fever” (which borrows a melody line from the ultimate bubblegum classic, “Sugar Sugar,”) and the full-of-regret “Flowers” paints an indelible word-picture. Need a generational anthem for today’s generation, dead-ended by the economy, ambitions crippled by lowered expectations? Look no farther than the title track, “What We Want.”

“Won’t” – with its festive handclaps and unexpected optimism – is what I’ll be playing at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s Eve. Recorded at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen with Oliver Ignatius at the board (and helping with some backup instrumentation and vocals,) “What We Want” points the way to where intelligent, hooky pop music should be heading. This is a guarantee: It will tickle your brain, touch your heart, and brighten your day.

BIG DIPPER - Crashes On The Platinum Planet (Almost Ready)

Big Dipper experienced an all-too-familiar career arc in the Eighties, from college-rock superstars to major label casualties. A 2008 reunion and a 3-disc anthology of the band's material sparked new interest in both the public and the band members, and here we have the first new Big Dipper album since 1990. The band's talent for witty and tuneful pop-rock hasn't diminished with age, as evidenced by hooky, clever tracks like "Lord Scrumptious," a paean to "Robert Pollard," the riff-happy "Pitbull Cruiser, Blue," and the timely "Hurricane Bill." Gary Waleik and Bill Goffrier still pack one of the best one-two singer/songwriter punches in indiedom (think Mould/Hart or Holsapple/Stamey,) with harmony vocals on those big catchy choruses accentuating each songwriter's individual quirks. And there really hasn't been a "let's get the band back together" rocker as fun as "Guitar Named Desire: The Animated Sequel" in this year of wall-to-wall Eighties-band reunions. Highly recommended for old fans and new.

AMY RIGBY AND WRECKLESS ERIC - A Working Museum (Southern Domestic)

This latest release from the late-in-life couple of Mod Housewife Amy Rigby and Wreckless "Whole Wide World" Eric disappoints with uninspired songwriting and lackluster musical backing, with tired sounding synthesizers often subbing for full band arrangements. Still, Rigby displays her trademark dry wit on "Genovese Bag" and Eric contributes the pithy "1983" about his brief time in the spotlight. Rigby wins this battle of sexes song-off with "Do You Remember That?," a wry look at the couple's unlikely romance.

CROPDUSTER – Cropduster / Drunk Uncle (Mint400Records.com)

Unlike many of the bands I loved back in the late Nineties and early 00’s but rarely listen to anymore, Cropduster holds up surprisingly well. The cowpunk quartet from Hackensack (and later New Brunswick) never fit into a box, neither ahead of their time, nor retro, nor slaves to contemporary tastes. Rather, the group’s blend of cracked country, turnpike snark, mumbled nonsense, and vintage riffs seemed outside of whatever else might have been going on around them. So I was delighted to hear that Mint 400 Records (home of Jersey stalwarts Fairmont, the One & Nines, and Les Trois Chaud, among others) would be digitally re-releasing the band’s 1998 self-titled DIY debut and its 2001 follow-up, Drunk Uncle, originally released on the short-lived in-house label at the Music Syndicate.

After playing bass in several failed local acts, Marc Maurizi nearly chopped his thumb off in an industrial accident. While recuperating, he decided to teach himself guitar, learn how to write songs, and step in front of the mic as frontman in his next band. Cropduster (by Cropduster) displays the fruits of those endeavors, with eight catchy numbers that showcase Maurizi’s sarcastic wit, ably abetted by Tom Gerke’s nimble lead guitar and exquisite harmony vocals. “Trevor Trailer Trash,” “Point The Finger,” “Never,” and “Animal Crackers” would become staples of the band’s live show, with a disarming earnestness and Maurizi’s almost sing/song delivery slyly masking the group’s potent pop chops.

Three years later, the band recorded Drunk Uncle for The Music Syndicate, a Weehawken promotions company that specialized in getting indie bands played on college radio. The bigger production budget, plus Maurizi’s considerable growth as both a singer and songwriter, resulted in one of the best homegrown Jersey albums ever, with nine near-perfect, clever, catchy tracks. The band still toyed with country tropes and simple major chord melodies, but on songs like “Lower East Side Blues” and “Mind Rock,” Cropduster proved it could get a room full of twentysomethings dancing as well. The deal with the Syndicate, while short-lived, did let the band tour quite a bit and play larger venues, although I will always remember Cropduster at those infamous house-shows the band threw at its punkhouse in Hackensack, or playing with the tightly-knit New Brunswick scene bands of the era at small clubs like Maxwell’s and the Court Tavern. Marriages and babies and jobs and life put Cropduster on hold for a while, but I hear they’ll be playing out again, and next year Mint 400 promises to release a new CD of unreleased tracks and rarities, which will almost certainly wind up being one of my top albums of the year. For now, I heartily recommend you dig into two of my favorite records from 1998 and 2001.


THE MICKS – The Micks (www.themicks.tv)

Jersey City’s Micks (there are a couple of bands with that moniker) love to stretch out. The short songs on this mostly-acoustic band’s 6-song debut album clock in at nearly five minutes; two of them push the 7-minute mark. But that doesn’t mean these guys like to jam; you’ll find very few solos here, mostly just breezy vocal melodies that the band loves to let linger until they’ve worked their way out of their system. Brothers Matt and Sam McMickle, on guitar and drums respectively, started performing together as the McMickle Brothers but really came into their own with the addition of bassist Hank Prol a few years ago, when they formally became The Micks. On the album, they’re augmented with a host of top-notch Jersey musicians and what seems like a small choir of backup singers, which allows the band to stretch a simple little acoustic tune like the opening “The Dry Splash” into an extended thigh-slapping, gospel-infused harmonica-drenched folkie freakout. “Cry Every Time” boasts one of Matt’s most indelible singalong hooks, as well as a subtle jazzy groove that crescendos beautifully into a triumphant singalong choral finale. “Useless” steps outside the Micks’ usual freak folk box and starts with a slinky melody that suggests an acoustic Nirvana outtake, including that patented quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic (which relies heavily on Matt McMickle’s exquisite falsetto, a weapon he wields frequently to good effect throughout the album.) “Different Walls” gets a bit heavier and almost delves into power ballad territory, not my favorite Micks neighborhood. But it’s quickly redeemed by the gossamer “Dancing For The Smokers,” with its delicate, formal, almost prog-rock opening and romantic, waltz-tempo crescendo. “Finish Me,” a longtime staple of the band’s live set, ends the album on a soaring note, delightfully rocking and melodic with one of Matt’s sweetest vocals. The Micks bring a thoroughly modern and refreshing touch to simple, catchy folk melodies, providing a collection of songs I guarantee you’ll enjoy.


PEACHCAKE – Unbelievable Souls (peachcake.net)

My problem with a lot of electronic music is that if you’re not actually dancing, it’s not much fun. A happy exception comes from the band Peachcake from Arizona, whose giddy synthesizer swirls and electronic beats always come wrapped around propulsive melodies, clever lyrics, and exuberant vocals. Peachcake sounds much more like a pop or punk band despite all the electronics and inherent danceability; at its best, the band creates music so deliciously uplifting that it’s hard to imagine anyone not hearing it and feeling happy. Even the few songs here that delve into darker topics – like “The World’s 21 Shout Salute,” about the loss of singer Stefan Pruett’s brother – wind up with cotton candy choruses. Throughout, the musicianship continually stuns and surprises, with brilliant contributions from Pruett, guitarist/keyboardist Mike McHale, and beatmaster David Jackman. But this isn’t just dumb teenage kicks ala Katy Perry; many of Peachcake’s songs address important political and social topics, which you can glean from loquacious song titles like “Who Are These People And Why Does This Music Suck?,” “The World Is Our Platform To Mean Something,” “Speaking Of Handouts, I Got You Something,” and “We Never Pretended To Know Anything, Why Would We Now?” But Pruett & Co. can be pithy at times too, as evidenced by more straightforward titles like “The Right To Live,” the simply gorgeous title track, “You Matter” (a pro-identity, anti-bullying rant,) and the beautiful “This Club Is Called Heaven.”

Like a less campy Pet Shop Boys or a happier New Order , Peachcake straddles the line between pop and EDM and gives both sides what they crave, singalong lyrics and intelligent lyrics for the pop bands, yummy and energetic dance beats for the ravers. At a time when an awful lot of people could use a little cheering up, this giddy, gleeful, deliciously upbeat collection of bubblegum yet thought-provoking electronica offers a perfect tonic.

LUTHER – Let’s Get You Somewhere Else (Chunksaah)

It’s a sad but true fact: The Bouncing Souls aren’t going to be around forever, but the search for their replacement hasn’t yielded much yet. Philadelphia’s Luther are definitely in the hunt (getting the Soul’s seal of approval by appearing on their label, and having BSoul Pete Steinkopf produce,) even if their brand of bouncy pop-punk owes more to the whiney Chris Connelly school of self-referential post-emo than old-school punk rock. The melodies and beats deliver (I actually like the drums quite a bit;) it’s the gang vocals that fall short, sounding more like yelping than yelling for the hell of it. The lyrics tend to be more inward-looking and solipsistic too, rather than celebratory and anthemic; a line like “I live alone on the weekend” suggests a band weaned on Early November’s pity parties rather than Black Flag’s “TV Party.” There are a few bright spots; “The Glory Bees” sounds like somebody’s been listening to the Hold Steady instead of All-Time Low for a change, while “The Second Star” and “A Quiet Stretch of Weather” share a bit of the Front Bottom’s confessional angst with a little more kick than other tracks here. Mostly, though, this gets a passing grade but without much enthusiasm, it’s just too namby-pamby when it should be kicking some ass. Maybe Luther could take a few tips in that department from its namesake Lex. Right now, this sounds like Jimmy Olson’s band.


TITUS ANDRONICUS - Local Business (XL Recordings)

Less ambitious and overreaching than The Monitor and a bit less slapdash and sloppy than the band's impressive debut, The Airing of Grievances, Local Business finds the pride of Glen Rock with a substantially revamped lineup. Gone are the fiddles, horns, strings, and bagpipes (as well as guest vocalists and readers) who peopled The Monitor; now there are five members of Titus Andronicus, whether on tour or in the studio. Still, this is Patrick Stickles' band, and Titus Andronicus rises and falls with his warbling vocals, peripatetic lyrical musings, and hit-or-miss songwriting chops.

Stickles has proclaimed in the press that Local Business represents his band's return to PUNK ROCK in capital letters, and given the excesses of The Monitor, that certainly makes sense. Short of rewriting Tales of Topographic Oceans or re-staging Quadrophenia, Titus Andronicus' only strategy was - in the words of Steve Martin - to get small, man, real small. And so Titus Andronicus regroups and tries to recapture the transcendent scruffiness of Grievances while still showing some evidence of growth and progression.

Stickles succeeds for the most part, even if Local Business represents nothing so much as a concept album about being a disaffected malcontent. The album starts out with a potent three song wallop, although to suggest that "Ecce Homo," "Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter," and (deep breath) "Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape With The Flood of Detritus" in any way resemble punk rock (other than in grungy basement-show spirit) stretches things substantially. Musically, the sound of Titus Andronicus amounts to a pastiche of Springsteen and Billy Joel reinterpreting union marching songs. What largely distinguishes Stickles as a songwriter is his knack for coining repetitive phrases that sum up generational angst, from "here it goes again, I hear you took it to another level" to slogans like "you'll always be a loser" or "the enemy is everywhere" from earlier albums.

Here's the thing though; that strength also proves to be Stickles' biggest weakness. Too often on Local Business, those shout-along, wave your cellphone and chug your PBR phrases seem shoehorned into songs without much substance. And while a couple of short anthemic throwaway tracks made sense as respites on The Monitor (with five tracks clocking in at 7 minutes or more,) they just seem lazy on Local Business. "Food Fight!" consists of those two words shouted against the riff from the Dolls' "Personality Crisis;" "Titus Andronicus Vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)" repeats the joke with an old Stooges riff and the chant "I'm going insane!"

And while it was brave for Stickles to chronicle his battle with bulimia on "My Eating Disorder," and the track qualifies as the most punk rock thing on the album, it's also painfully solipsistic even by Stickles' standards. Instead of making some kind of cogent point about body image or modern neuroses or whatever, the song devolves into another repetitive singalong (just imagine a room full of hipsters simultaneously changing "Spit it out." Lovely.)

"In A Big City" purports to tackle Stickle's displacement from a "disturbed, dangerous drifter" (ha!) from New Jersey to "a drop in a deluge of hipsters." Of course, Stickles could have just stayed in the suburbs instead of following the migrating hordes to Bushwick, but when he sings, "some of my dreams are coming true, and some of the smoke from the other room is seeping through," it sounds all too much like overprivileged white-kid whining. Worse, the line about "only beggars call me mister" suggests that living in big city hasn't taught Mr. Stickles much about compassion.

The self-pity rolls on in "In A Small Body:" "Don’t tell me I was born free, that joke has been old since high school,” which connects to the album's opening salvo of nihilism on "Ecce Homo:" ("Okay I think by now we've established that everything is inherently worthless.") It's impossible not to admire a line like, "I never wanted to grow up to be some kind of social construct, imagine me a cog in some kind of infernal machine," and at least Stickles admits, "I know some kids who'd kill for this kind of cage." But even if "In A Small Body" represents one of the strongest songs on the album, it also suggests that its narrator is a guy I probably wouldn't invite home to dinner.

"(I Am The) Electric Man" throws another throwaway joke song into the pot, and the album concludes with the overlong, meandering "Tried To Quit Smoking," which treats us to an extended self-excoriating dirge ("it's not that I meant to hurt you, I just didn't care if I did,") followed by several minutes of meandering boogie guitar (harmonica instead of bagpipes this time.)

I really wanted to like Local Business more than I did. I can certainly appreciate Stickles' predicament, not wanting to grow up and desperately fighting to hold on to an identity that doesn't revolve around consumerism and co-optation. And this may be the grumpiest, get-off-my-lawn sentiment I've ever expressed, but I just wish he (and his generation) would try a little harder.


KURT BAKER - Brand New Beat (kurtbakermusic.com)

After a covers album, a flirtation with white soul, and two well-received EP's, Kurt Baker returns to power-pop basics on Brand New Beat, his first full-length of original material since the breakup of the Leftovers. There are nods here to the early Beatles, the Hollies, Joe Jackson, and the Rubinoos, insanely catchy melodies and hooky singalong choruses and dreamy backup harmonies. The piano-driven "I Don't Wanna Cry" even delves into Neil Sedaka-era Brill Building gossamer-pop gooeyness. Less talented musicians - and let's include Kurt's terrific backup band here - wouldn't be able to pull this stuff off without sounding wincingly twee or treacly but Kurt's inherent likeability and sincerity lets him get away with even the most obvious pop songbook cops, whether he's channeling Tommy Tutone, Joe Jackson, or early Elvis Costello. Recommended!


EASTERN ANCHORS –
Drunken Arts & Pure Science (easternanchors.bandcamp.com)

If you knocked around New Brunswick at the end of the last century, you’ll remember the sonically adventurous and always entertaining Aviso’Hara, one of the Hub City’s best bands. Singer/guitarist Walter Greene and bassist Dave Urbano from Aviso – now teamed with drummer Ken Forbes – update Aviso’s guitar-intensive Nineties indie sound with the newest release from Eastern Anchors. Although all three members have recorded and performed with other groups throughout the 2000’s – while starting families and pursuing careers outside music – Drunken Arts & Pure Science seems a real return to form, an enthralling reminder of how exciting New Brunswick used to be. Greene’s keening vocals coupled with inventive riffs and entrancing melodies steal your attention, while the bass and drums churn up a deliciously dirty and throbbing bottom end. The combination of pure songcraft with inventive guitar parts recalls Sonic Youth at its most accessible, from the crashing chords of “Crown Vic” to the almost –R.E.M. pop jangle of “Leading To Your Right,” to the galloping energy of “Expected Highs.” The sad and reflective “Central Ohi” contrasts nicely with the hopefulness of “Clawhammer Man,” a riff- heavy ode to commitment. The album finishes up with the lovely homesick lament “Goodnight Jersey City” and the party-jam Seventies rock of “James The Viking,” driven by Urbano’s funky bass. Pretty sure you’ll see this record again on my Top 10 list at the end of the year; it’s surely one of the best albums to come out of the Garden State this year.

NO SHOES / BASAL GANG – “Mingling” EP

Recorded at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen studio in Brooklyn, “Mingling” serves up four songs apiece from two young NYC math/rock bands. I’ll admit, this is not my favorite genre of music, but even non-math heads have to be impressed by the precision and musicianship on display here – weird time signatures, crazy tempo changes, and from No Shoes especially, more tapping than on a Van Halen album. You can just imagine these guys spending their adolescence practicing runs in their bedroom for hours and hours while all the other kids were out playing baseball or getting laid. The drumming from both bands is outstanding too; keeping all that frenetic craziness together has got to be a huge challenged, but neither band ever misses a beat. For listenability, I give the nod to No Shoes here, they’re a little goofier and do a lot of fun things with their gang vocals; Basal Gang’s songs tend to be a little heavier and darker in mood. If you’re into shredding solos, unpredictable explosions of spastic noise-rock, and math-rock complexity, you’ll find a lot to blow your mind on this EP. Each band’s tracks are available separately at basalgang.bandcamp.com and noshoesny.bandcamp.com

WORM QUARTET – Songs Of The Maniacs (wormquartet.com)

A Dr. Demento favorite for decades, Worm Quartet (aka the one-man band known as Shoebox) is back with a Kickstarter-funded collection of hilarious new tunes, sung with his trademark rapid-fire delivery and cheesy synthesizer backing tracks and beats. The man can write a melody though, so even the most inane lyrics frequently come nestled in an earwig riff you’ll wind up humming for days. In the past, Shoebox’s real life travails and triumphs have always been the best fodder for his comedy, and that continues here with “The Ballad of Dr. Stopp,” the hair-rising tale of his vasectomy.

Like a modern-day Lewis Carroll, Worm Quartet delights in nonsense rhymes and the sound of certain words (which recalls an old Mel Brooks routine: “Kumquat is funny. Pickle is funny;”) so you’ll hear “nipples” and other silly signifiers quite a bit; and since it’s nerdcore (or some variation thereof,) a lot of jokes about the Internet. “On The Shoulders Of Freaks” takes a jaundiced look at the great innovators of history (and their, um, various peccadilloes,) while “Vampire Penguins (Re-Penged)” takes the piss out of both vampire penguins and our societal fixation with technological newness (no matter how useless or ridiculous.) There’s also the jazzy “A Worm Quartet Christmas,” which reinterprets Clement Moore through Shoebox’s Jabberwocky filter. All in all, it’s fast, silly, goofy fun, finished up by a whole bunch of mini-tracks in which Worm Quartet thanks all of his Kickstarter supporters.

THE EVERYMEN – New Jersey Hardcore (Killing Horse Records)

The Everymen may officially hail from Tuckerton, but the hard-working band has become a familiar presence at Hoboken and Jersey City venues (as well as the Jersey shore.) In fact, After several well-received EP’s, New Jersey Hardcore represents the Everymen’s first full-length, but don’t let the title fool you: This isn’t hardcore punk, but an adrenaline-fueled fusion of fuzzed-out garage-rock guitaris, street corner doo wop, Sixties pop, honking sax, and whiskey-soaked vocals. Frontman Michael V. always sounds like he spent the night before partying just a big too hard, a nice contrast to the barroom croon of Catherine Herrick, who takes a sassy lead vocal on “Coney Island High,” the band’s tribute to the onetime St. Mark’s Place punk club. Everyone contributes here, from Jamie Zillitto’s throbbing bass (check out the groovy rock’n’roll intro to “Boss Johnny”) to the crisp economy of drummer Jake Fiedler (an original member of New Brunswick way-ahead-of-their-time Ex Models.) But The Everymen’s real secret weapon is Scott Zillitto (brother of bassist Jamie) on sax, who absolutely wails on bluesy album-closer “Annie,” with a passionate after-midnight solo that recalls the great Clarence Clemons.

You won’t find a band less comfortable with the stereotype of polite, effete Brooklyn indie-rock than the Everymen; but if I was throwing a party, they’d be the first band I’d invite. As greasy as a sausage-and-peppers sub and as sweaty as a New Brunswick basement show, New Jersey Hardcore sums up everything that’s vital, fun, and enduring about Garden State rock ‘n’ roll.

DAVEY & THE TRAINWRECK – Last Stop Hoboken

Longtime Hoboken resident/ folksinger/ environmentalist Dave Calamoneri last graced us with a live EP recorded at New York City’s Sullivan Hall. On this new album, Dave and his excellent backing band (with Jeremy Beck on keyboards, Bill Hamilton on lead guitar, “the Reverend” Jim Dillman on bass, and Tommy Costagliola on drums) present six sterling studio tracks as well as a loose, howling live version of set-favorite “Wolf.”

Calamoneri is a traditionalist – equal parts Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, with a little Neil Young thrown in for color – and his sturdy voice and simple, straightforward songwriting shine here. “Hopeful Man” is something of a theme song, a statement of purpose and identity, while “Money, It’s Not All About” adds funky wah-wah guitar, the blues delivered with a Motown accent. Dave shows off his harmonica skill on the country-tinged “Sunday,” then revs things up for some honky-tonkin’ fun on the upbeat “I’m Alright.” Lately, Dave’s been working some new political protest songs into his set; here, he sets his sights on government hypocrisy in the stinging “ReUnion.” Dave plays around Hoboken often, at Northern Soul, Maxwell’s, and other venues; and if you don’t catch him on stage, you can always find him at the Downtown Hoboken Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays.
(reverbnation.com/daveyandthetrainwreck)

 

BRICK MOWER – My Hateable Face (Don Giovanni Records)

New Brunswick trio Brick Mower continue the tradition of Jersey basement punk on their first album for Don Giovanni Records, a gritty collection of non-stop raw-throated power-chord squall that owes equal debt to the cigarettes ‘n’ whiskey weltanschauung of Replacements, the raw-throated throb of Jawbreaker, and the sonic guitars of Superchunk. That’s a fine collection of influences, and it works just fine on standout tracks like “Touchdown Jesus,” “Cheap Gasoline,” and “Black Market Cigarettes;” but the band’s clearly front-loaded its best tracks for the album and all those descending chord changes and monochromatic vocals begin to blur together after a while. I like Brick Mower but I’d like them a lot more if they stepped out of their comfort zone and tried a few songs that changed up the formula a bit.


 

GHOST PAL – Nathan Jones Is Dead (ghostpal.bandcamp.com)

Brooklyn’s Ghost Pal takes us to places pop bands rarely tread on Nathan Jones Is Dead, the fiercely ambitious and stunningly moving new full-length from singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Oliver Ignatius and his talented ensemble. We expect these self-confident and innately talented Brooklyn twentysomethings to invoke the best of the Beatles and the Beach Boys in their music – it’s in their musical DNA, after all. What’s unexpected and most impressive comes when Ghost Pal uses Abbey Road and Pet Sounds as a launching pad into the very soul of American music, expanding the musical palette to include – seamlessly and almost sub-consciously – gospel and jazz and rhythm & blues.

Nathan Jones Is Dead is a concept album about one man’s voyage into the afterlife, a barren and terrifyingly sad place without heaven or hell - or even religion as we know it - but yet a place which still remains deeply spiritual. A murderer who dies in his sleep, Nathan Jones finds neither solace nor comfort in the beyond; he remembers a steeple filled with “the worshippers of Jesus Christ,” but they are as shady and hateful as the lost souls in a zombie movie. The music throughout is gorgeous, filled with sonorous church organ, Henry Kandel’s growling sax, Josh Barocas’ throbbing bass, and the sweet harmonies of celestial choirs; but the story remains dark, lonely, and foreboding. Until, finally, Nathan Jones finds music. And in the clickety-clack of skeletons dancing in the dark, he is saved.

Any one of these 13 tracks works by itself; “Hop, Skip & A Jump,” released digitally as the album’s first single, is a joyous, handclapping, Bible-thumping spiritual guaranteed to life you rmood. The cover of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” – brilliantly transposed into the narrative - transforms the simple old hymn into something as wondrous as what the Beach Boys once did with “Sloop John B.” or “Cotton Fields.” The gypsy waltz of “Killer Ghost,” the pure pop sheen of “So Inside,” the spooky reverie of “Ghost Pal…” every track here will impress.

But you really need to experience Nathan Jones Is Dead as an album, from start to finish. Especially if you can’t get to church this week.

VAL EMMICH – Bulldozzzer (www.valemmich.com)

For his previous album, Jersey City singer/songwriter Val Emmich put together a new backing band and traveled to Omaha to record aide memoire, a dense and intricately arranged collection of songs. Since Val always likes to keep his audience on its toes, Bulldozzer couldn’t be more different: Intimate, sparse, and stripped down, the songs have the fragile lo-fi immediacy of demos. Many of the lyrics seem more like song fragments, incomplete ideas that never gelled into full-blown constructs of verse/chorus/bridge. With only a single acoustic guitar or keyboard on most tracks, the vocals – often barely whispered - come to the fore, intensely personal and often troubled. Bulldozzzer seems to be a full length rumination on Val Emmich’s life, from marveling at the miracle of his infant daughter to questioning his career. Who am I, where am I, where is this all going… ? These are all questions we’ve asked in the emptiness of the night, in the loneliness of our minds. Val Emmich is just brave enough to share them with the world.

DR. SKINNYBONES – Bad Education (drskinnybones.bandcamp.com)

Singer/guitarist Jake Williams, his brother Burke on bass, and drummer Miles Joris-Peyrafitte comprise Dr. Skinnybones, an endearingly goofy garage-pop trio with roots in both the jangling two-chord pogo-punk of the Undertones and the more modern hybrid blues-rock of the White Stripes and Black Keys. Jake’s got a terrific ear for a hook and a melody; as a lyricist, he displays both the self-deprecating wit and subtly brilliant interior rhymes of the Mr. T Experience’s Dr. Frank as well as the keen observational eye of a stand up comic. There’s a lot to like here, from clever, bouncy, irony-laden hits like “Bad Education,” “One Of The Rest,” and the shout-along theme “Your Name Is Jake” to the occasional earnest ballad, which Williams mixes in the way a canny pitcher throws a change-up to set up his fastball. The production – by the indefatigable Oliver Ignatius at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen – is crisp and bright throughout, with the occasional handclap, gang chorus, or nicotine-stained harmony perfectly pitched to match the mood of each song. Inspirational verse: “What we need is a rope around your neck/ but all we have is a weekend to forget.”


THE HARMONICA LEWINSKIES
Octopus Wall Street (theharmonicalewinskies.bandcamp.com)

To cop a line from Mark Twain, everyone talks about rock ‘n’ roll, but nobody ever does anything about it. Enter the Harmonica Lewinskies: These young beer-soaked hooligans from the Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen collective in Brooklyn positively live, breath, drink, eat, shit, and – after a particularly good Saturday night – puke rock’n’ roll. While only in their early twenties, the Lewinskies understand the blues like a toothless septuagenarian sharecropper. They have mastered the swagger and strut of soul men like Booker T. and Marvin Gaye. They move like Jagger, write licks like Richards, and sling metaphors like Dylan; they’ll make you want to laugh, sing, dance, and copulate.

They are all those things we have come NOT to associate with Brooklyn indie rock: Passionate, sweaty, sexy, sincere, and insanely gifted musically. Several of them sing, all of them contribute harmonies and gang vocals, and if all that weren’t enough, they work out of the divinely inspired Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen studio, which has been churning out quality product these days faster than Hostess bakes Twinkies (see also: Ghost Pal, Great American Novel, No Shoes, Graveyard Kids, and coming soon, a tasty pop act called the Jean Jackets.)

Talented guitarists and even quality vocalists are a dime a dozen, and it’s not all that hard to find some young buck who can blow a blues harp; but it’s rare to find a local act – especially one working in a DIY studio on a shoestring budget – that uses trumpet and sax as well as the Lewinskies.

While the performances and production remain uniformly top-notch throughout this 7-song release, the inspired songwriting and clever arrangements are what really define this band. “Good Man, He Come” fakes you out with a bluesy intro, then cranks into high gear with a funky soul workout, with perfectly choreographed horns and blues harp. “Two Kids And An Ant” spotlights the Lewinskies’ pop side, with Robert Bettegna’s boyish vocals buoyed by punchy horns, an almost theatrical melody, and an insanely infectious “ooh ooh ooh” chorus, like something out of Stiff Records in the early Eighties. Guitarist Will Simpson does the Sam & Dave thang on the R&B workout “Boner For The Benny’s,” whose bridges features a sinister bassline and insinuating harmonica. Singer/guitarist Dan McLane adds a dash of Lower East Side panache on “Wagstaff,” which slakes its Velvet Underground sleaze with a pure-pop eruption of exuberant woo-hooing. “Tabitha King” and “Kitchen Sink” meld Zappa-esque horn section freakouts with rock ‘em sock’em choruses (McLane’s impassioned “I’m not gonna die” on “Kitchen Sink” could teach Titus Andronicus a thing or two about gang vocal singalongs), while “How To Run A Business” meshes Gram Parsons faux-bluegrass with Exile on Main Street raunch (and the most deliciously filthy double-entendre chorus I’ve heard in years.)

At seven songs and about 25 minutes, “Wall Street Octopus” may run an awkward length, but it will definitely be either the shortest album or the longest EP on my Top 10 list at the end of 2012.

THE MOMMYHEADS – Vulnerable Boy (Dromedary Records)

Well into their second incarnation (the Mommyheads date back to Nineties, took a long hiatus, and reformed in 2008,) the Mommyheads remain masters of intelligent, adult rock exploring serious themes with delicate, nuanced melodies. There are moments here that are breathtakingly beautiful – like the opening moments of “Science And Reason,” or the delicate verses of “Medicine Show.” The band also hasn’t lost its penchant for the weird; just check out the creepy “The Intruder,” about a mysterious stranger who’s insinuated himself into the protagonist’s family. The Mommyheads are not without humor either, as evidenced by the bouncy “Skinny White Uptight” (about a high school nerd’s revenge) and the self-deprecating bonus track, “No One Gives A Damn About Your Band.” If the Mommyheads were content to stick to major chords and catchy melodies, they’d be in a league with Fountains Of Wayne or Nada Surf; but instead, the band too often dives headfirst into prog-rock noise excursions that pepper the tracks with minor key atonality and dissonance. Rather than expanding the band’s musical palette, these forays into unlistenability often just seem self-defeating. Maybe after 25 years (off and on,) songwriters Adam Elk and Michael Holt just find power pop boring and need to keep twist things up a bit to keep themselves engaged. Personally, I wish they’d stick to the script and stop improvising.

BLACK WINE - Hollow Earth (Don Giovanni Records)

It's never easy to start over, so it's understandable that Black Wine had its share of growing pains. For a while, it was hard to think of this as anything but "Jeff Erg's new band," despite the impressive resumes of bandmates J Nixon and Miranda Taylor (Hunchback, Full Of Fancy.) But on the group's third full-length, Black Wine seems to have finally found its voice, a near-perfect assimilation of everything we loved on Our Band Could Be Your Life, from the roiling guitars and subversive melodies of Husker Du to the revelatory guitar leads of Dinosaur Jr. to the exuberant new-wave flavored grrl power of Bikini Kill. Drummer Miranda Taylor (who also happens to be Jeff "Erg" Schroeck's wife) comes into her own as both vocalist and songwriter on this release, channeling the Go Go's and Bananarama even as her hubby and bassist Nixon echo Mission of Burma and the Minutemen. Nixon's bass lines jump from the mix, as do Schroeck's economical but mind-bending solos. This is a trio that exemplifies the power of the triangle, each side an equally powerful and necessary part of the whole.


THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL – Kissing (thegreatamericannovel.bandcamp.com)

Rock ‘n’ roll is due for a comeback; not even the most effete hipsters can listen to Bon Iver all the time.

Nowhere has that been more apparent than at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, the small studio in Brooklyn that’s nurtured a community of talented twentysomethings whose bands infuse classic blues, garage, and Sixties pop tropes into contemporary indie-rock. The Harmonica Lewinskies focus on sweaty, greasy soul and R&B, Ghost Pal (which features Mama Coco’s house producer, Oliver Ignatius) tends to be more cerebral, while The Great American Novel set out on their sophomore full-length Kissing to reclaim the golden era of Stiff Records power-pop for lovesick bookworms.

Frontman Layne Montgomery’s pitchy, yelping vocals may be an acquired taste, but his engagingly self-deprecating sense of humor (try to imagine a Brooklyn wunderkind like Brad Oberhofer singing “I’m so bad with girls”) and uncanny knack for hooky choruses is downright irresistible. While Montgomery’s vocals can’t be avoided, the rest of GAN – guitarist JR Atkins, guitarist Peter Kilpin, keyboardist Devin Calderin, and drummer Zac Coe – shines here, with each member getting at least one chance to really kick out the jams and display their impressive chops.

The band can whip out ecstatic party jams (try not standing still to the exuberant “American Weekend” or the fuzzed-out garage-stomp of “Are You Sure You Don’t Wanna Hang Out?” ) or flesh out melodies with ear-tickling textures (like the barrelhouse piano and doo-wop harmonies that kickstart the opening track, “Sleeping Alone.” ) And at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, no one understands the words “we can’t do it.” So throughout this album, you’re constantly impressed by extra little touches - Springsteen-esque peals of glockenspiel, lush Pet Sounds-like vocal harmonies, Stax/Volt style horns. Besides the “Born To Run” glockenspiel, Calderin contributes a bit of Roy Bittan-like piano tinkling, but the E Street comparisons end when the band kicks into giddy high gear and mashes up equal parts of Eighties Stiff Records-era power-pop and Nineties Pavement-esque squall.

On GAN’s sloppier, less compelling first album You & I, the hooks were there but the band didn’t own its own style yet. On Kissing, the name of the band makes perfect sense: Montgomery revels in his inner geek, resulting in sparkling wordplay on tracks like “Raymond Carver,” “Does This Train Stop At 57th Street?” (with its frank appraisal of parent/son relationships,) and especially “All The Sad Young Literary Men” (“she asked if I read Nabokov, I said no but I loved Philip Roth.”) Just as Conor Oberst emerged a decade ago as the poet laureate of socially retarded teenagers, Layne Montgomery might just be the J.D. Salinger of twentysomething angst, churning out refreshingly honest laments about crushes and kissing and going to bed alone; this record’s not so much about post-adolescent sex and romance as it is a treatise on obsessing over how nice it would be to have a girlfriend.

*In the interests of full disclosure, GAN members Layne Montgomery and Zac Coe write for this publication.

 

GHOST PAL – “Extended Family” EP (ghostpal.bandcamp.com)

Starting off an EP with a Beatles cover is usually either an act of desperation or extreme cockiness. In the case of Ghost Pal – and the “extended family” of gifted musicians, producers, and songwriters who have found a home base at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen studio in Brooklyn – it somehow just feels natural. The band – which includes Mama Coco’s house producer, multi-instrumentalist, and singer Oliver Ignatius – has dabbled in psychedelia before, so the swirling keyboards and layered vocals of “Tomorrow Never Knows” seem a natural extension of the band’s sound. Yeah, we can do that, the band says, and then after perfectly recreating the multi-dimensional sprawl of the Sixties, proceeds to double-down and create a thoroughly modern and utterly infectious pop tune of its own in “Wildebeest.” “To know that your deal is to wind up someone’s meal, and you can’t run those blues away,” Ignatius croons in a choirboy tenor, “and without a word, you’ll be taken from your herd, you’re lucky to live out the day.” Clearly that’s not just about jungle creatures; the metaphor is that we’re all here for just as long as we’re allowed to stick around by Whomever is actually in charge, so let’s make the most of it. After blowing us away with production, Ghost Pal strips things down to just vocals and ukulele on the lovely “Understanding Song,” which sounds like something McCartney could have tossed off for “Ram.” Playful sax comes in to goose the song along mid-track until the whole thing unravels into multi-tracked vocal cacophony. “It’s The Real Thing!” keeps things simple too, with plucked strings (sitar and banjo, I think?) and Ignatius’ sonorous vocal creating a pastoral hippie vibe. Cabaret piano introduced the finale, “Nathan Jones,” which slowly swells into a feverish spiritual funk/gospel workout; consider it a taste of Ghost Pal’s forthcoming full-length, the ominously titled “Nathan Jones Is Dead.”

BILLY RAYGUN s/t (John Wilkes Booth Records)

Equal parts sweat, snot, and adrenaline, New Hampshire basement show heroes Billy Raygun follow up a series of EP's and split 7 inches with their first full length, 10 blasts of aggro pop-punk with an average running time of way under 2 minutes. Early forays into teenage romance and early-Lookout! Records riffage have been replaced by post-adolescent anomie and a newfound love of dissonance. They nail the catchy singalong choruses - "Silkworm" could be some longlost Green Day demo - and even work in a nod to early 'Mats, but mostly they're pissed off and proud of it, throwbacks to the days when punk rock was the last refuge for social misfits and not a soundtrack for the football team's' beer blasts.



KEITH MONACCHIO – “Tips, Drinks, And Gas Money” EP (keithmonacchio.com)

Prolific NJ singer/songwriter Keith Monacchio serves up four stark, stirring examples of his coffeehouse folk approach on this EP, each track stripped down to voice and finger-picked acoustic guitar. A consummate storyteller who taps into the legacies of working-class troubadors like Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, Monacchio offers four indelible character studies: The first song, “Coffeehouse,” seems autobiographical, the story of a musician whose dreams of stardom have led him to lonely gigs in small rooms, performing for a few disinterested listeners. “Bless This Home” is no less grim, a snapshot of the death of the American dream, with unemployment and foreclosure just a misstep away from even the most hard-working among us. “I’ll Take Care Of You” - inspired, presumably, by Monacchio’s recent marriage – shifts the mood from depression to devotion, but the minor key melody and intense vocal make even this romantic ballad seem a bit ominous, with lines like “I will relentlessly wait” suggesting that it’s a thin line from infatuation to obsession. The somber “Now That It’s Done,” which adds growling baritone sax to the mix, continues the grim mood, with lines like “I hoped for amnesty as she drew her gun.” I wouldn’t recommend this EP for the first thing in the morning – you’ll never want to drag yourself out of bed to face the world. But like a good book, Keith Monacchio’s songs drag you into his world and introduce you to unforgettable characters, however gray and unwelcoming that world may seem.

THE DOPAMINES – Vices (It’s Alive Records)

Everybody’s favorite whiskey swillin’ pop-punk trio from Cincinnati return with another collection of furious, fast-paced singalongs, but put down that beer a second and listen to what they have to say this time out. The party’s over when you put your early twenties behind you and life’s nothing but closed doors and unpaid college loans. The Dopamines may sound like they’re having a good time; everything’s still fast, upbeat, punky, and mosh-worthy. But under the clamor, there’s real pain: “Useless,” “You’re Ruining My Life,”Paid In Full”… even the song titles tell you that something’s gone horribly wrong here. Where the band’s last full-length “Expect The Worst” seemed to suggest there really wasn’t anything that that a case of PBR and a good basement show couldn’t fix, “Vices” has a sense of fatalism as serious as a hangover. Take, for example, the gang vocal’d chorus of “Paid In Full,” which goes, “At least we can say that we tried, and it got us nowhere.” Punk rock – especially the boozy, blowsy, blue-collar variety, as championed by the Dopamines, Copyrights, and Dear Landlord – has always been about lovable losers. Now though, those losers are waking up and realizing the game is rigged against them. And that’s nothing to sing about.


d’arcy – “Shoot My Love” EP (darcytheband.bandcamp.com)

This New Brunswick supergroup includes vocalist Michael Santostefano (Fierce Brosnan, Static Radio NJ,) guitarist Jeff Roger, bassist Eric Lutz, and drummer Trevor Thomas Reddell (Let Me Run,) all of whom apparently share a deep love of Nineties alternative rock. “Shoot My Love” is basically a Nirvana tribute album, with Santostefano providing a pitch-perfect tobacco-stained Cobain croak. Quiet verse/loud chorus? Check. Screaming sonic guitars? Check. Tortured self-loathing lyrics? Check. Trevor Thomas Reddell’s nuanced drumming stands out - he can bash as hard as Grohl when called for but adds interesting textures on the quiet parts – and the production (done at Reddell’s home studio) sounds crisp, clean, and first-rate. But you might just as well download Kevin Devine’s re-recording of “Nevermind” (or better yet, just listen to the real thing) if you’re hit by a sudden onslaught of Nineties nostalgia.

THE BOUNCING SOULS – Comet (Chunksaah Records)

Few bands have defined the DIY ideal like New Jersey’s Bouncing Souls. From ragtag basement-show punks to international headliners, the Souls have built their own little self-contained music industry, with everything from merchandise to bookings to their record label owned and operated by a small group of friends. Comet finds the boys in top form, with several tracks – the utterly infectious “DFA,” the more reflective “Comet,” the politically-aware “Static” – among the best they’ve ever written. Yes, they can still be goofy – “We Love Fun” is nothing but an excuse to mosh and get silly – and romantic -“Coin Toss Girl” shows they haven’t lost their grasp on adolescent puppy love. But tracks like “Baptized” and “Infidel” reflect the band’s more mature side, while the roiling “Infidel” sounds like it was ripped from the Bad Religion songbook. The acoustic “Ship In A Bottle” ends the perfectly-paced 10-song album with the same message the Bouncing Souls have trumpeted since their infancy - that anything is possible, even for hopeless romantics and punk rock losers like us (“oh my good friends, let’s start something, then throw it all out to the waves / how many mountains will we conquer? we’ll never know till we begin.”)

 

RIVER CITY EXTENSION – Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Anger (XOXO)

Joe Michelini’s a clever fellow. The singer/songwriter of Toms River’s River City Extension drops the names of cities and states throughout this album as if he were writing the soundtrack to a travelogue – Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, Ohio, Virginia, and California all pop up in song lyrics or titles - all guaranteed to raise a hometown cheer on tour. But there’s nothing particularly evocative of Bushwick or Williamsburg in “If You Need Me Back In Brooklyn;” “Glastonbury” doesn’t have a trace of a British accent. “Welcome To Pittsburgh” undulates with South of the Border rhythms and castanets, while “Ballad Of Oregon” has a distinctly Appalachian vibe. And “Standing Outside A Southern Riot,” if it’s about anywhere at all, seems to be about the band’s native New Jersey. The reality is that, wherever he may be or whatever scenery passes outside the tour van window, Michelini’s almost always writing about himself. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Anger is an album full of regret, apology, and recrimination; it’d be downright emo if this glorious eight-piece ensemble’s musical vocabulary didn’t extend so far beyond the boundaries of that self-reflexive genre. Instead, what you get are mariachi trumpet, sonorous cello, western guitar, Springsteenian handclaps and gang vocals, power-pop ooh-ooh-ooh’s, barrelhouse piano, and bits of industrial synth clamor. In the past, River City Extension was big on party jams and singalongs, and there are some electrifying ones here (“Welcome To Pittsburg,” “Down Down Down.”) But Michelini’s increasingly personal lyrics – echoes of Bright Eyes and Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan abound – find their strongest voice on the album’s quietest - and surprisingly, most powerful - songs, like “Slander,” “There And Back Again,” and “The Fall The Need To Be Free.” Those are the songs, I suspect, that will resonate with audiences and touch their hearts and souls in that special way that turns fans into true believers. Today, Gaslight Anthem; tomorrow, don’t be surprised if the biggest band out of Jersey hails from Tom’s River.

JEREMY BENSON – Dark Songs 2 (jeremybenson.bandcamp.com)

If you’re familiar with Jeremy Benson as a member of Metuchen’s veteran alt-folk group Roadside Graves, his second solo album (arriving some eight years after Darksongs 1) won’t come as too much of a surprise. For years, Benson’s had the unenviable task of having to sing harmonies with frontman John Gleason’s pitchy , quavering soprano. On his own, Benson sings in a craggy baritone often eerily similar to latterday Johnny Cash, but stylistically doesn’t stray far from the country-tinged indie folk of the Graves. The ambitious production includes strings and horn arrangements, but everything revolves around Benson’s finger-picked acoustic guitar. Thematically, the title “Dark Songs” certainly fits; along with two sparkling instrumentals, these are breakup songs, farewell songs, songs of partings and endings. I found it fascinating that a track like “Light At The River” promises redemption almost in the guise of an old-time spiritual, but on the humanist “Take Care Of Yourself,” Benson sings, “I don’t believe there’ll be anyone looking watching you from up above, so take care of yourself.” They seem to be the words of a man who cares a great deal about the people in his life – even those who are walking away from him – but who doesn’t place much faith in the Almighty. As a counterpoint to Benson’s gravelly vocals, Ivana Carrescia sings the sad folk lament “The Table” in a delicate, flowery voice, noting that even the church and the horses have turned their backs on this destitute family, and the town’s gone so far to hell that there aren’t even any buckets left to lower down into the well. “Where have you gone,” she sings to her man, noting that as worthless as he may feel, he’s no good to his family if he’s not there. Like Johnny Cash’s cycle of “American Recordings” late in his life, Jeremy Benson sings simple, sad songs that promise little but pain, loss, and deprivation. But the message recurs, again and again, that no matter what happens, life is always better if we find a way to stick together.



THOMAS WESLEY STERN – American Pain (soundcloud.com/thomaswesleystern)

Thomas Wesley Stern plays back porch, kick off your shoes, hug a loved one and pass a jug folk music. It’s warm, embracing, entirely acoustic (and drummerless,) charmingly melodic, spiritually refreshing, and one of the most enjoyable releases by any New Jersey band I’ve heard this year. Joe Makoviecki’s disarmingly low-key lead vocals typically get swallowed by pitch-perfect harmonies and the warm analog sounds of acoustic guitars, banjo, standup bass, with occasional solos on clarinet and harmonica. In case you can’t tell, I love this record. I love the way its fresh-faced optimism washes away the technological drudgery of our age and regales in the beauty of the human voice and the human spirit. I love its humanity and the way each song invites the listener to a party where all are welcome and everyone’s too busy having a good time to worry about whether any of it is “cool” or not. From the lovelorn bluegrass croon of “Your Front Door” to the campfire celebration of friendship this is “Barns Of Wood,” to the hoedown party vibe of “Rounders,” to the elegiac “Princeton City Blues.” Every great country album needs at least one good drinking song too, and that’s here with “Don’t Put My Whiskey Away.” Thomas Wesley Stern defies labels and transcends boundaries; I’d want this band at my birthday party, my wedding and – truth be told – I’d love to have “Barns Of Wood” played at my funeral. They’re the perfect antidote to the 21st Century, whenever you need a reminder of how good music can make you feel with the simple power of strings and voice.

THE PORCHISTAS – The Baby Album (theporchistas.com)

Montclair’s Porchistas call their music “lyrically driven hippy punk,” which certainly fits, although it doesn’t really capture the breadth of these talented musicians’ songwriting. As the auteurs behind the hipster-defining “The PBR Song,” songwriters Alan Smith and Adam Falzer are certainly no strangers to the topical novelty song, and they’ve come up with a few funny ones here, starting with the lead off track, “Friends In The Underground.” A good-natured update of the Mr. T Experience’s “Dumb Little Band,” the track features a swinging horn section and one of the band’s typically self-deprecating and lighthearted lyrics, which eschew the glamour of instant fame (via reality TV or a big radio hit) for the freedom of underground music. “Tooty Tooty Ta” and “Zombie Jesus” also celebrate the Porchistas’ goofy side, the former a folkie singaglong and the latter a novelty track about Jesus rising from the dead…as the undead. But the band does have its serious side, you just have to scratch benefit the surface a little to find it. The upbeat, ska-infused “Make A Wish,” for instance, was actually inspired by the economic disparity of Smith’s hometown of Newark. “Frankly You Can Thank Me” addresses the hot-button issue of gun control (and the Trayvon Martin shooting,) while the funky, reggae-fied “Oh Brother” is a mea culpa from an adulterer (whose escapades may recall a certain soiled little blue dress and a former occupant of the White House.) “Song For Harry” pays tribute to the criminally underrated Harry Nilsson, while “Swing Little Girl” uses a toy piano as eerie counterpoint on a creepy song about a suicide. The band self-produced the album in its home studio but you’d never know it; the arrangements include horn and string arrangements that few local bands have the ambition to attempt, even in an expensive studio. This is the third Porchistas album in three years, and I hope they keep cranking them out. A sense of humor is a terrible thing to waste.

NO WINE FOR KITTENS – “Not Ready” EP (nowineforkittens.bandcamp.com)

Perennial winners of “Best Indie Band” at the Asbury Music Awards, No Wine For Kittens is a pop group featuring Asbury singer/songwriter Rick Barry, vocalist/guitarist Emily Nikki Whitt, bassist Justin Bornermann, guitarist James Stahon, and drummer/producer Andy Bova. It is no secret that I have long been a huge Rick Barry fan; but here, he is very much a part of a group, and the vibe leaves the earthy, blue-collar mindset of Asbury Park for a twee indie-pop sound that would feel right at home in hipster Brooklyn. While there are chunky guitars and melodic bass, there’s also quite a bit of synthesizer, and the distorted vocals give everything a bright, ethereal shimmer. The songwriter is first-rate though, electric pop songs with catchy melodies and bouncy rhythms, with just enough grit (especially on the choruses) to remind you that this is, after all, a seasoned Jersey band and not some starstruck Bushwick kids auditioning for Pitchfork.com. “Summer Seems Hopeless” makes the perfect pop jam for a jog along the boardwalk, with its driving rhythm and anthemic chorus, while “Emily” adorably marvels at the miracle of childbirth (especially when it’s your own.) Take away the xylophone and “Guilty Winds” could be the latest single from Los Campesinos; it’s a bright, modern-sounding pop tune, tinged with the eloquent regrets and self-recriminations that characterize Barry’s insightful songwriting. The synth-driven ballad “Hey You” serves as a showcase for Whitt’s vulnerable vocals, recalling the heyday of Nineties indie-pop acts like Drop Nineteen and the Swirlies, while the dramatic final track, “All Your Things, They Wait For You” gives Barry a chance to show off his singing and songwriting chops (does anyone infuse more meaning into the word “darling” than Rick Barry?) as an abandoned lover who can’t get over his ex. Yes, No Wine For Kittens plays indie-pop, but you won’t find the washed-out, shallow musings of vapid new-media darlings here. These are real people creating real songs with real emotion. I guess that’s why they live in Asbury Park.

FLAGLAND – Tireda Fighting (flagland.bandcamp.com)

The twentysomething NYC garage-punk band Flagland seemed more like an out-of-control frat party on its first release, Danger Music/Party Music. On Tireda Fighting, everything sounds more like a real band – the singing, the songwriting, the musicianship. Things do still get a bit silly on occasion, but overall, you can tell the band took this release much more seriously; even the nonsense has a sense of purpose, and sounds tightly rehearsed. Kerry Kallberg’s droll vocals and chunky guitar chording frequently suggest the Dead Milkmen if they came of age in hipster Bushwick rather than Eighties South Philly; there’s a good deal of self-deprecating humor, some pogo-ready ragers, a little trippy post-psychedelic gobbledygook, even some spoken-word over throbbing post-punk riffage. The title track simultaneous pays homage to Phil Spector and Black Flag. And you can tell bassist Dan Francia (even though he plays with his dad’s Feelies-eque neo-folk band, Speed The Plough) has listened to more than his share of Mission of Burma and Minutemen records. I suspect Tireda Fighting will sound incrementally better with every PBR you slosh down, and I wouldn’t listen to it with a hangover; but if you’re looking for a soundtrack for your Saturday night loft party, you could do a lot worse.

OBERHOFER – Time Capsules II (Glass Note)

Like, oh, about half his generation, Brad Oberhofer moved from his hometown ( Tacoma, WA) to Brooklyn at age 19 to become a pop star. Given that, at 21, he’s already toured the world, played several major festivals, and is only now releasing his first full-length album, I’d say the last two years went pretty well. If hipster Bushwick has had any influence on the lad, it’s probably in that snarkily ironic album title; otherwise, this airy, tuneful, and slightly twee collection of frenetic pop songs show that you can take the boy out of Tacoma but… (You really don’t need to move to Brooklyn to write a Beach Boys-inflected rocker about driving along the highway in a big car, after all.) With his tousled hair, baby face, and strategically unbuttoned retro shirts, Oberhofer’s already won over one demographic; most (but not all) of Time Capsules II should convert any remaining non-believers. Like the UK’s Los Campesinos, Oberhofer (the singer and the band, since he recorded most of this by himself with the assistance of producer Steve Lillywhite) creates sparkly, joyous xylophone-fueled ear candy with just a tinge of regret; but unlike Gareth Campesinos, whose songs convey a maelstrom of complex emotions and generational angst, Oberhofer’s lyrics read like the scribblings in a moody sophomore’s study hall notebook. The lack of emotional depth doesn’t matter when Oberhofer’s at the top of his game, creating earwig melodies and enlivening them with that magical xylophone, buzzy synths, tinkling piano, melodic whistling, and his trademark “ooo-ooo-oohs.” When his hooky muse dries up – as it does on the last three tracks of the album – things can get a little stale. Trim this album down a few songs and you’d have a strong contender for EP of the year. And by the time we get Time Capsules III, young Mr. Oberhofer will have hopefully had his heart broken a few times and have a bit more under his belt to write about. – Jim Testa

COCK DOUGLAS – I Came To Rock (cockdouglas.com)

Cock Douglas came to rock. Yes, he did. Apparently he even gave up a lucrative gig in Christian rock to follow his muse, which consists of equal parts cheesey Kiss-like pop-metal and millennial mall punk (ala Sum 41, Blink-182). That sounds awful but it’s really not (well, except for the power ballad.) And aren’t we long overdue for a power-metal cover of the Kinks’ “Lola” anyway? There’s a real joy in the way Douglas and his young band just let go and embrace what they’re doing; timeless acts like the Good Rats and the Nerds have been mining this vibe at suburban bars for decades. This isn’t headed for my Top 10 list, but I might throw it on in the morning sometime when I need a good jolt of rock ‘n’ roll to go with my first cup of coffee.

ALMOST THERE – Abandon The Sinking Ship (almostthererock.com)

Bassist Zach Sicherman and guitarist Eddie Soles, the co-lead singers of Jersey shore trio Almost There, often post Youtube videos of themselves casually performing acoustic covers of their favorite bands. The thing is, they have really awful taste: Hoobastank, +44, The Academy Is, Incubus, Gym Class Heroes… bands I’d never listen to if you paid me. So it’s a bit of a puzzlement why I like their band so much. You can definitely hear Sicherman and Soles’ infatuation with 90’s guitar-rock (from Eve 6 to Foo Fighters) on every track here, but somehow Almost There’s combines the elements of tightly weaved harmony vocals, power riffs, concise solos, and bursts of power-pop melody into something that’s wholly their own. Original drummer Phil Serzan recorded the album, although Mike Seahawk has since joined the band; f there’s one weak point on the album, it’s not so much the drumming as the drum sound. It sounds like Serzak is hitting wet cardboard boxes on some tracks. There’s no crack to the snare and no explosiveness to the cymbals, yet the vibrant vocals and aggressive guitar attack demand them. That said, the album does manage to capture the live energy of the band, and fans who believe (like Dave Grohl said in his Grammy speech) that good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll comes from guitars and drums and not computers and synthesizers should find much to relish here.

THE NICO BLUES – “Die Happy” EP (thenicoblues.bandcamp.com)

“It’s only where I stand!” proclaim Wayne’s Nico Blues on “Sinking Or Standing,” and it’s pretty obvious where that is - firmly on the backs of Nineties alt-rockers like Pavement, Soul Asylum, and Dinosaur Jr., proudly wearing their hearts on the sleeves of their faded flannel shirts. But if “Sinking Or Standing” is the proto-typical Nico Blues track on this six song EP (in that it most perfectly captures the sum of the band’s influences,) it hardly tells the whole story. This is a band that segues seamlessly from starry-eyed psychedelic shoegaze (“Dementia In Three Dimensions”) to rootsy Americana with a twangy, toothsome crunch (“Melodic Death Jam”) to earwig melodic pop (the Minneapolitan “I Could Be Your Pet,” equal parts Soul Asylum and Replacements.) “Mugshot In Princeton” and “Happy Medium” follow suit, all scuzzy guitars, winsome vocals, tight harmonies that manage to sound uncontrived, honest, and original while letting you know exactly what you’d find in these fellows’ record collections. Killing Horse Records recently reissued the band’s excellent 2010 album Blame The Boredom, Blame The Basements, and it’s a highly recommended purchase, but you can download this little gem for free at the group’s bandcamp page.

MIKEY ERG – “Fucifer” EP (John Wilkes Boothe Records)

The busiest man in punk rock returns to his moshpit roots (anyone remember the Ergs’ “Thrash Compactor”?) with five bursts of blitzkrieg hardcore, each clocking in at well under a minute. This really isn’t how I want to see the man who wrote “Pray For Rain” and “Songs About Miles Davis” spending his time, but as a one-time exercise in forensic pathology, it’s fun to hear him scream his head off for three or four minutes (I can’t comment on the lyrics, since I didn’t understand a word of this, and neither will you, but dude was obviously mad about something .) The EP is available as a $3.50 flexi-disc or as a $2 bandcamp download.



BRIAN McGEE – The Taking Or The Leaving (Paper+Plastick)

Following the successful reboot of his 90’s pop-punk band Plow United, P+P has reissued frontman Brian McGee’s 2010 solo album, a collection of blue-collar honky tonk and country-western that falls somewhere between latterday Mike Ness and Ben Kweller. McGee’s gritty vocals serve the material well, and if there’s nothing extraordinary here, there are no real clunkers either. Uptempo tracks like “Diving Horses” and “First Kiss” (which includes a xylophone, the ubiquitous secret ingredient added to seemingly every record made in 2010) will get your toes a’tappin’, although I didn’t really leave this album feeling like I’d learned anything new about McGee, other than he apparently listened to as much Gram Parsons as Screeching Weasel growing up.

U SAY USA – “CEO” / “Some Prefix (Remix)” (usayusa.com)

U Say USA’s straightforward rock‘n’ roll seems more a product of blue-collar New Jersey basements than hipster-infested Bushwick, where they in fact live. “CEO” takes a well-timed swing at the privileged and uncaring 1% at the top of the economic food chain, while “Some Prefix (Remix)” comes across as a straightforward slacker anthem about twentysomething ennui. Both feature clean electric guitars and punchy (real) drums; no synths, no rack of effects pedals, no tricky studio stuff.


THE ALL-ABOUT – Winterpop (theallabout.bandcamp.com)

Music makes me happy, music makes me sad, and maybe best of all, every great once in a while, music makes me excited. The All-About – principally singer, songwriter, musician Zac Coe and some talented friends – falls into that latter category. One of the many talented young groups who have recorded at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen studio in Brooklyn, the All-About’s boy/girl vocals (the girl is Katie Jenks), giddy new-wave melodies, perfectly structured instrumentation (acoustic and electric guitar, bass, and drums mixed with synth, organ, piano, and sax) and insightful lyrics bring to mind nothing so much as early Los Campesinos. Coe’s boyish vocals capture both the joy and angst of post-adolescence with lines that stick in your ear like sonic Post-Its: “some girls are too dressed up not to go dancing, and too drunk to just go home;” “attractive young people with a lot in common/spend time together for a reason/we can’t help ourselves.” Tracks like “Not Your Type” and “Lovesick Anthem” provide the perfect soundtrack for a new wave dance party, while slower songs like “winterpop” deliciously wallow in rainy day regret and sorrow (“were those terms of endearment only terms of surrender?”) without ever falling into the emo trap of whiny self-pity. Even if the problems of privileged hipster twentysomethings make you want to throw a brick through your television (I Just Want My Pants Back, I’m looking at you), Zac Coe will make you care about his lyrics. In that regard, he reminds me a bit of the Front Bottoms’ Brian Sella, whom I’ve been pretty vocal about touting as the cleverest songwriter of his generation. Now, he has some competition.

THE LUNA LAVAL - "Horoscopes" EP (thelunalaval.com)

This Old Bridge, NJ collegiate quartet (several members attend Rutgers-NB) offers a far cry from what you'd expect to find at the grease trucks and basement shows of the Hub City. The band's mature, dense mix mixes elements of shoegaze, post-rock, and even some jazz into intricate soundscaped and polyrhythmic shuffles. "Speaking Freely" showcases an especially intriguing rhythm while "Cachet" has undercurrents of Americana and a lush melody. What distinguishes these three songs are their fierce resistance to being pigeonholed; these songs transcend genres and suggest that the band would be a mind-expanding trip to experience live. I hope I get the opportunity soon.


DOUBLE-BREASTED – “Suit Yourself” (doublebreastedmusic.com)

The word “unique” gets thrown around far too often but in the case of NJ’s double-breasted, it fits. The chamber pop trio’s lineup includes Ardith Collins on cello and Kristy Chmura on harp, with Josh Bicknell on drums and percussion. The trio surfaced in the early 00’s as part of the Artist Amplification indie-band scene, then took a few years off to finish school and begin careers. But they’re back, first with a sparking holiday single and now with this new EP. All three members of the group sing and each gets to take at least one lead vocal on this deeply atmospheric and richly evocative EP. Ardith’s sonorous cello provides the bottom while Kristy’s effervescent glissando’s and plucked notes (which sonically can resemble a piano) caress the melodies, which are uniformly both beautiful and a bit sad. Broken hearts, defeated spirits, and romantic trepidation provide the themes. “The Date” kicks off with a sprightly drum beat but this isn’t a song about romance; Kristy’s lead vocal takes us on a date with fear, and the creepy minor-key melody evokes the anxiety and peril of day to day life. Ardith’s vocal on “Ice Chest” provides the most pop moment of the EP, in a song about romantic expectations. Josh gets his turn at the mic on the bleak “Tired,” a wrenching foray into depression and emotional ennui.vv”Easy To Leave” features lush vocal harmonies and a bit of country twang, while “Pursuit” provides a neat summation of this group’s extraordinary sound – the swooning cello, the pixie strings of the harp, a martial snare rhythm on the drums, and a rainy day song about romantic longing.

PALOMAR – Sense And Anti-Sense (www.palomartheband.com)

The three ladies and gentleman drummer of Brooklyn’s Palomar return with their fifth full-length, a delightfully adult collection of songs that feed off the conflict created by the urge to rock ‘n’ roll on the one hand and the constraints of adult life (jobs, relationships, babies) on the other. As always with this eclectically twee collective, the guitars percolate, the percussion sizzles, and the harmonies illuminate, but even when all that’s going on at a fairly frantic punk-rock tempo, the vocals tend to be paced much slower, creating a palpable tension that runs throughout the album. Martial snare fills and the reliance on electric piano (as opposed to lead electric guitar, as in the past) to fill out the band’s sound add to the album’s dense, deliberate tone on the opening track, “Wouldn’t Release You,” a song that seems as if lead singer Rachel Warrn is riddled with doubt even as she sings that she’d never let her lover go. “Infinite Variation” picks up the mood for a classic taste of Brooklyn indie-pop (dear Pitchfork, please pay attention; this band’s been doing this for a decade and they’re much better at it than almost any of the flavor-of-the-week bands you’re always hyping.) But again, there’s a deliberateness to the lead vocal that almost seems to drag against the sprightly rock underpinnings, creating friction as if Rachel’s holding back while her bandmates are ready to gallop away. You can feel the same tension on “The Mighty Robot,” where the music twinkles and bomps along at a much quicker tempo than the vocal. And so it goes. Palomar has always been a consistently rewarding band – they don’t release records until they’ve got a dozen worthy songs ready – and Sense & Antisense is no different, although I must say that the final track “When You Stopped Talking To Me” ranks among my all-time favorite Palomar tracks, a song about growing up while trying not to grow old. Been there, done that.

FREAK OUT DUDE – “Demonstration” EP (freakoutdude.bandcamp.com)

The latest addition to the seemingly endless list of two-person rock bands , Freak Out Dude features two Jersey scene veterans, Justin Soroka of Exotic Aquatic and Sam Frisch of Cash Cash, doing what LamplighterNJ generously described as “lo-fi hipster noise punk.” FOD has an abundance of sweaty basement-show energy and one song – “NJ,” which features pop-punkers Washington Square Park and rapper Animal Crackas – that’s nothing short of a basement singalong anthem. Still, the blues-based riffage and “don’t give a fuck” lyrics will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever heard the Black Keys or locals Gay Blades. I like the spirit, I like the energy, and they’ll probably be a fuckload of fun live, and to be fair, this is just a first demo. But hopefully these guys will provide a bit more originality so we can really freak out. Dude.


BIG WILSON RIVER - Octopus (bigwilsonriver.bandcamp.com)

Part of the Black Trunk Records collective from Bergen County, Big Wilson River is yet another group of Jersey kids making rootsy Americana that references everything from the early Who to X. They call themselves "thrash punk" which comes as close as anything to capturing both the energy and earnestness of what they do. "Eighty Dead Armadillos" is Hank Williams by way of "My Generation," "Gypsy Song" mashes up Kurt Weill/The Doors' "Alabama Song" with Tom Waits, "Backyard Passout Fest" sounds like something Michael Hurley meets Nick Cave. Darrin and Emma (no last names anywhere I could find) mix and match lead vocals, backed by big loud guitars, thumping bass, and thrashy drums. It's folk rock for people who like mosh pits. It's really, really good too.

BANQUETS - Top Button, Bottom Shelf (Black Numbers)

Of the four bands whose names start with "B" in this column update, Jersey City's Banquets stand out as the one that someone listening across the country might peg as the Jersey band. As he did during his stint in New Brunswick's Let Me Run, singer Travis Omilian channels Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon with his throaty all-American inflections. Add to that a hearty helping of gang vocals, big crunchy riffs, and lyrics that both celebrate youth while mourning lost innocence . As they did on their promising debut 7-inch release "This Is Our Concern, Dude," the band shows a flair for memorable song titles (just "Me And My Canseco Rookie Card" says more about being 25 than any three Copyrights songs, if you read between the lines a little) and the band writes inspired ear-wig choruses that are tailor-made to be drunkenly sung in moshpits. Today, New Jersey; tomorrow, the coolest basement in your town. And after that, who knows?

BRIGHT & EARLY - "Louder Than Words" (Pacific Ridge Records)

I'll probably go to my grave a grumpy, bitter old man still insisting that New Jersey pop punk died with the Ergs, and these whippersnappers carrying on (and "defending") the genre today are just whiny emo brats whose singers over-emote and who wouldn't know real punk rock if Milo hit them over the head with Mike Watt's bass. Bright & Early do stand out as a something of an exception though; last year's "Something's Personal" was a courageous scene manifesto, dissing the glorified boy-band pap of All Time Low and lamenting the lost days of bands like Midtown. Singer John Browne could trade in his flannel and skinny jeans for a role on Glee if he wanted too; the kid has real pipes, as he proves on the acoustic opener "Stick By Me," with its faultless falsetto. The other three tracks strike more of a modern pop punk pose with chunky chordage, catchy melodies and riffs, with Browne hitting lots of high notes; the whole thing is way more Saves The Day than Screeching Weasel, but that's clearly the path pop-punk is taking, and so be it. Bright & Early seems more than capable of stretching the boundaries a little; "Selling Yourself Short" shows some very sharp songwriting chops, and while much of this is prettier than anything I'd label punk, the band does show a few welcome rough edges here and there.

BOY THINGS - EP (boythings.bandcamp.com)

This Hackettstown quintet sounds a bit like a Jersey version of Los Campesinos that's been listening to a lot of B-52's. It's delightfully upbeat, a bit dancey, and in places, a tad camp, with intertwining male and female vocals and gobs of youthful energy. Like London's Yuck, the music has a new-wave vibe yet isn't purposefully retro; it will, however, have you bouncing off the walls with glee. Where has this band been hiding? I hope to hear a lot more from them in 2012.


SETTLE FOR LESS - "Contemporary" EP (settleforless.bandcamp.com)

I have to apologize for taking so long to getting around to this 3-song EP from South Jersey's Settle For Less, self-released last Spring. But I'm glad that I finally heard it. The young quartet plays powerful brand of post-punk that reminds me a bit of a less emo Thursday. It's not really grunge (and doesn't in the least sound 90's retro) but I'm guessing the guys have listened to their share of Nirvana (and that's always a good thing.) The band eschews the usual verse/chorus pop-punk formula for roiling guitars and intense vocals. This is at heart a rock 'n' roll that's not pandering to any of the usual teen formulas and that's refreshing to hear. The next time they put somethingh out (and I hope that it's more than just three tracks,) I'll be right on it.

 


PLOW UNITED - SLEEPWALK: A Retrospective (Paper+Plastick)

Does a barely remembered 3-piece pop-punk band from Delaware really deserve a two-disc retrospective? You won’t ask that question once you give a listen to these infinitely catch two-minute blasts of snotty teen punk ‘n’roll. Originally formed as Plow in 1992, then rechristened Plow United at the height of the Nineties pop-punk revival in 1995, the trio recorded for small labels, played basements and VFW Halls from coast to coast, and through word of mouth, fanzine reviews, and lots of hard work, endeared themselves to a small but loyal cult of fans. Sleepwalk: A Retrospective collects the band’s three full-lengths, 7-inch singles and one unreleased track, and 20 years later, still sounds as fresh-faced and bratty as ever. Alternately thrashy and melodic, Plow United remain part Dead Milkmen, part Screeching Weasel, with a little Descendents and a whole lot of adolescent testosterone thrown into the mix.

RESTORATIONS (Tiny Engines)

Old punks never die, they just turn into Bruce Springsteen. That’s certainly one way to account for the small army of former thrash-rockers now touring the country with an acoustic guitar under one arm and a beat up Woody Guthrie songbook under the other. Featuring former members of Philly thrashers Jena Berlin, Restorations’ self-titled 8-song album showcases the raspy, two-packs-a-day vocals of Jon Loudon, whose style mimics the gravel-throated gravity of Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach and punk-turned- troubadour Tom Gabel. On the bluesy, downbeat “Canadian Club,” Loudon even does a passable Tom Waits. And through it all, you can’t help thinking of Gaslight Anthem’s regurgitation of tried-and-true Springsteen tropes. The problem here is that everything sounds like something we’ve already heard before. Restorations likes to call its music “punk for grown ups,” but that assumes that grown ups care less about originality than they do about familiarity. This grown up disagrees.

YUCK (Fat Possum)

2011 will be remembered as the year that the Nineties revival came to almost completely dominate indie rock, from the return of iconic bands like Superchunk, Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. to active duty to the 20th anniversary hoopla surrounding Nirvana’s “Nevermind” to the fetishization of those acts’ fuzzed-out garage guitar sound. The UK’s Yuck epitomizes the “back to the Nineties” movement yet surprisingly does so with a great deal of elan; yes, almost everything they play sounds like something you might have heard on college radio in 1994, but they’re still songs you’d want to hear again. Sugar-coated melodies burst through fuzzy guitars like a reborn Jesus & Mary Chain on standout tracks like “Georgia” and “Get Away,” while the loungey, acoustic “Suicide Policeman” sounds like the sort of change-of-pace track that Yo La Tengo might slip on a B side. Perhaps it’s because vocalist Daniel Blumberg and lead guitarist Max Bloom infuse so much youthful enthusiasm into the proceedings that they can get away with what really amounts to inspired plagiarism; they’re not really repeating history so much as extending it into the present.

NAT & ALEX WOLFF – Black Sheep (Saddleup Records)

Nickelodeon’s former Naked Brothers shake off their teen idol past and bid for indie-rock credibility on “Black Sheep,” and while it’s unlikely Pitchfork and the hipster blogosphere will embrace the boys anytime soon, the album does forego autotune, bloopy synths, and the other accoutrements of mass-market bubblegum-pop for modest production and earnest introspection; in fact, it sounds very much like what you’d expect from two teenagers who’ve spent a lot of time mooning over Pinkerton and The Strokes. Happily for the parents of the Wolffs’ Radio Disney demographic, everything remains age appropriate; 17-year old Nat channels his teenage rebellion on the upbeat “18” by equating freedom with hating his parents (or at least living at home with them,) while the still-pubescent Alex flexes his sweet choir-boy falsetto on the delightfully lovesick “Thump Thump Thump.” ‘Tweens will identify with the adolescent angst and pangs of puppy love on songs like “Disappointed” and “Help Me Understand” (little Alex thinks his hair is too curly and his head is too big; Nat wonders why his girlfriend dumped him) but even older listeners should enjoy the relatable lyrics, catchy melodies, and accomplished musicianship. I saw Nat and Alex perform in February, 2010 playing several of these songs and was impressed then; they’ll be back at the The Studio at Webster Hall in NYC on Sunday, November 20 for a 3 p.m. matinee. The Box Story opens. Click here for ticket info.

 

THE MISFITS – The Devil’s Rain (Misfits Records)

In the current episode of As The Misfits Turn, we find Glenn Danzig and Doyle Von Wolfgang Frankenstein doing Misfits (and Samhain) songs on the Danzig Legacy tour, while Doyle’s real-life brother, bassist Jerry Only, carries on the Misfits name with guitarist Dez Cadena (of Black Flag fame) and drummer Eric “Chupacabra” Arce. Questions about “authenticity” seem ridiculous at this point; in fact, Jerry Only does a much better faux-Danzig yowl on this album than Michael Graves did when he fronted the band a decade ago, and Only seems perfectly capable of plugging the band’s Ramones-y riffs and whoa-oh gang vocals into silly (but catchy) formulaic 3-chord punk songs (which is basically what the short-lived original Misfits did 30 years ago.) At least Only isn’t taking all of this nonsense – or himself - seriously, as Danzig still seems to do; from the cheesy horror-flick sound effects (haunted house thunderclaps, the scratching violin and campy grunts on “Ghost of Frankenstein”) to the sci-fi and monster matinee inspired lyrics, Only & Co. have fun with the concept and seem to really enjoy still being the Misfits. Producer Ed Stasium gives everything a big bright ringing sound (as he did with his work with the Ramones) which, while we’re on the subject, is a big improvement on those 80’s Misfits records, which all sound like they were recorded on wax cylinders in Danzig’s mother’s garage. The Devil’s Rain won’t inspire you to throw away your dog-eared copy of Walk Among Us; but if you’re looking for some catchy monster-inspired punk rock, you could do a lot worse.

 

PANTHER MODERNS - Back Off, Warchild, It’s A Demo! (panthermodernsnyc.bandcamp.com)

Panther Moderns brings together the talents of several notable NYC scene vets, including Atom Lame of Sucidie, Chris Grivet of the Steinways, and Oliver Lyons (a longtime Jersey Beat contributor, and formerly drummer of neo-goths Funeral Crashers, here seizing the mic for lead vocals.) This is no mere demo, however, since these four songs give birth to post-pop-punk, a new genre that scoffs at the restrictive boundaries of conventional Rock (like, say, singing in key, or playing in time.) Raw as the nerve of a root canal, Lyons’ tobacco-stained vocals ride roughshod over surprisingly fluid melodies and hooky shards of riffage that reflect influences as diverse as Black Flag, Screeching Weasel, and the fat naked guy from Fucked Up. As one might expect from a band fronted by a rock critic (think: Dictators, Yo La Tengo, Harvey Danger,) the lyrics are frequently brilliant as well; to wit, “And I already miss you more / than the days when you could smoke indoors.” To borrow a phrase from quintessential American cultural observer Dorothy Parker, Panther Moderns are not a band to be tossed aside lightly; they should be thrown with great force. Preferably into the ears of an unsuspecting public.

WYLDLIFE (wydlife.bandcamp.com)

Jersey City’s Wyldlife caught my attention with their self-released “Nicotine” EP and their wild, uninhibited, and extremely sweaty live shows. Their full-length debut happily harnesses that youthful energy and throws it right back at you with the uncouth snarl of vintage Johnny Thunders on a Wild Turkey bender. Perhaps it’s because they spend more time in the seedy bars of downtown Jersey City than the DIY hipstersphere of Bushwick, but frontman Dangerous Dave Feldman and his crew (Samm Allen on guitar, Spencer Alexander on bass, and Rusty Barnett on drums) seem completely disinterested in anything that Todd P. or Pitchfork might consider au courant. Instead they dive headfirst and shirts off into greasy rock ‘n’roll, channeling the Dolls on the sassy “S.W.A.K.”, unashamedly reveling in misogynistic fantasies on “The First Time I Killed Someone,” or assaying bar room country by way of Exile-era Stones on “Bird.” Allen’s guitar sizzles, Alexander’s bass provides a head-bobbingly melodic thump, and Barrnett’s steady drums hold the whole shootin’match together. A few favorites from the “Nicotine” EP get thrown in to flesh the thing out to full-length, which is fine given how the driving “Lit Lounge” and the howling “Sidewalk Queen” manage to kick up the last glowing embers of Lower East Side sleaze into a full-fledged conflagration. Don’t call it a throwback; this isn’t nostalgia, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. Wyldlife are here for your whiskey, your daughters, and your ears. Get ready to hand it all over.

THE AMBOYS – Led Into The Woods EP (theamboys.bandcamp.com)

There’s a lot of country twang, banjo pickin’, and rootsy rockabilly rhythm on the new Amboys EP, but there’s still a hint of Asbury Park swagger on their second release. Recorded live in a rustic cabin with no overdubs, “Led Into The Woods” captures the immediacy of the Amboys’ down home sound which – despite being Jersey boys – never sounds affected or ironic. The band sounds right at home singing about whiskey and loose women, channeling everything from honky tonk to gospel, set to acoustic guitars, banjo, piano, tambourine and shaker. The fervent “Trees” recalls fellow Jerseyites Roadside Graves while “Last Song Of The Night” adds a bit of Latin dance flavor and a hint of the Boss to the proceedings. The elegiac final track, “In The Woods,” adds sonorous cello, bird calls, trumpet, and one of frontman C.M. Smith’s most nuanced vocals to the mix. You could make a pretty gripping alt-country mix tape from the likes of The Amboys, the ‘Graves, River City Extension, and Montclair’s Porchistas, and Jersey City’s Ashes, to name just a few of the Jersey acts currently doing excellent work in this genre.




THE PORCHISTAS – Save The Earth (theporchistas.com)

Montclair’s Porchistas remind me a lot of Cropduster, the Nineties Jersey band that mixed cowpunk twang with urban wit to such great effect. The Porchistas say they were “born on a porch,” and there is a loose, house party vibe to their tunes, powered by sinewy electric guitar, bass, and drums. The band reuses old folk melodies – they turn “Comin’ Round The Mountain” into “The PBR Song,” a paean to the cheap hipster brew, and they emphasize that the grade-school favorite “Down By The Riverside” was actually written as an anti-war protest song. Like Ween, they’re not afraid to shred and show off their chops on occasion, and also like Ween, they seem incapable of being serious for too long. This is good time party music with a bit of twang. Serve cold, with chips.

JEFFREY LEWIS – A Turn In The Dream-Songs (Rough Trade)

Anti-folk troubadour Jeffrey Lewis returns with his first new album of original tunes in two years, after spending time on a collaboration with ageless LES folkie Peter Stampfel and an album of Crass covers. While 2009’s ‘Em Are I presented a fuller band sound and forays into garage rock, A Turn In The Dream-Songs finds Lewis and his finger-picked acoustic guitar rummaging through his fertile imagination accompanied by violin, mandolin, and other sparsely used instruments, as always singing with great charm and dry wit self-deprecatingly about himself – about how girls don’t like him, or how he always feels lost, or trying to kill himself (but getting sold fake rat poison that thwarts the attempt,) or how awkward it is going out to eat by yourself. Lewis’ monotone delivery and two-chord melodies have always been entrancing, but never more so than on a bit of complete nonsense like “Krongu Green Slime,” the story of a primordial life force marketed in grocery stores. There’s also a song about the inexorable power of water (something that I, with a very leaky ceiling, can certainly identify with,) and “Reaching,” a cute boy/girl duet that’s as close as Lewis has ever come to being unironically romantic. But the highlight here is “Cult Boyfriend,” a quintessential Lewis narrative in which he compares his own unique charms to those of other “cult” favorites like the Misfits, WFMU, and (ugh!) haggis.


KEVIN DEVINE – Between The Concrete And Clouds (Razor & Tie)

It occurred to me while listening to this album that living in Brooklyn these days must be like trying to age gracefully in a college town. Every fall, there’s another huge crop of 20 year olds to replace the ones that have moved on, but you keep getting a year older. Kevin Devine reflects on turning 30 at least once on his excellent new album, but all 10 songs are shot through with musings about finding one’s place in the world, and coping with the knotty ties of family, religion, friends, and his reflections on mortality. Introspection has always loomed large in the Kevin Devine songbook, and often he’s been pretty hard on himself; yet his music remains buoyant and upbeat, optimistic and encouraging even when coping with hard times.

I became a fan (and friend) of Kevin’s back when he was still fronting The Miracle of 86, which had to have been the happiest pop-rock band ever tarred with the emo label; and this – his sixth solo joint – is his most “band” oriented album since those days. Kevin’s put away the acoustic guitar that dominated his early solo work (and infused even his most recent albums with a singer-songwriter feel.) Echo, chorus, sustain, delay - a plethora of effects pedals add distinctive tones to the electric guitars; nothing feels overproduced, but the shimmering “sound” of these songs definitely constitutes a consistency that was missing from albums like “Brother’s Blood” that segued from scratchy folk to sonic ear candy. Probably for contractual reasons (this is his first release for Razor & Tie,) the cover reads "Kevin Devine," but moreso than any of his other solo work, this is a Kevin Devine & The Goddamn Band album.

Devine’s distinctively reedy, raspy voice still tickles your ears on the verses , but it’s almost always multi-tracked into bright, ringing harmonies on the choruses. . If you want to stream a few songs before buying, check out the title song or “The City Has Left You,” which both showcase Devine’s knack for endearing melody as well as soul-probing lyrics. Then head over to Amazon.com, where the download is currently on sale at a super-low bargain price

THE FRONT BOTTOMS - s/t (Bar None)

In the name of full disclosure, I am not all that bright and frankly, I am often confused. Listening to the Front Bottoms has me blissfully confounded. This Jersey duo plays punk without sounding anything like a punk band, although drummer Mathew Uychich also plays bullhorn and I think that’s pretty punk. Actually, what makes this such a triumphant exercise in musical experimentation is Brian Sella’s soaring vocals and positively scathing lyrics. His storytelling sounds like stream of consciousness run amok; a wild, sardonic dissection of suburbia, growing up, and being bored. When he says on “Maps” that “I move slow, slow enough to make you uncomfortable”, he may be capturing the mood of the disc. There is a perpetual sense of confusion and disorientation that will either endear this band to one’s soul or fill a person with indescribable frustration. “Mountain” acts as a perfect example: the song begins innocuously enough with a well placed horn accenting such lyrical gems as “I love your eyes the way they look when you’re uncomfortable,” before effortlessly giving way to a surprisingly aggressive riff. As the noise fades, the beautiful horn returns and the song leaves quietly and quickly. Each track plays out like an intriguing short story; a mixture of brilliant metaphors with musical accompaniments that range from gritty to lush. One can find wildly funny and biting lines within the context of every effort, whether Sella is discussing homeless former classmates (“Flashlight”), being on the run to Florida (“Rhode Island’) or killing his father with a baseball bat (“Father;”) although my personal favorite comes from the aforementioned “Maps.” as Sella emotes in a marvelously deadpan delivery, “One day you’ll be washing yourself with hand soap in a public bathroom.” Wow. Even the bouncy, dance-hall groove of “The Beers” seems to take on a more ominous tone when the narration turns to the brutally honest admission that it was” the summer when I was taking steroids because you like a man with muscles and I like you”. The courage to express such awkward, even embarrassing, truths makes this an unforgettable listening experience. Within these songs, there is some piece of your own life experience whether you chose to admit it or not, and this will connect with people on a hauntingly personal level. The playing is fairly straightforward and somewhat minimalist, yet as all the components come together, there is a vast canvas on display for those daring enough to stay with this. For those who believe that the DIY aesthetic is fading away, find this and revel. - Rich Quinlan

 

Brian Sella (acoustic guitar, lead vocals) and Matt Uychich (drums, vocals) are the Front Bottoms, who until recently had been my pick as the best unsigned band in New Jersey. Enter Bar None, who offered to remaster and reissue the band’s barely-heard 2010 EP “Slow Dance To Slow Rock” along with six new songs as this eponymous debut full-length, available in a nifty two-disc 10” vinyl configuration along with CD and digital. The songs are fleshed out with dollops of synths, trumpet, and strings, although mostly it’s Brian Sella’s plaintive post-emo vocals and his vibrant imagination working against Matt Uychich’s minimalist drumkit, pounding home the beat. Sella portrays himself as the nerdy post-adolescent, fretting about girls (“I will remember that summer, as the summer I was taking steroids, ‘cause you like a man with muscles, and I like you”), pondering suicide like a latterday “Harold And Maude” (“there’s comfort at the bottom of a swimming pool”) and patricide (smashing his father’s head in with a baseball bat.) But his morbid fantasies are more than offset by his insecurities (the brilliant “Maps,” the creepy “Flashlight,” the obsessive-compulsive “Bathtub;”) and his ability to conjure up indelible images from the most prosaic details, often nonchalantly throwing in mind-blowing non-sequiturs (“I love your eyes, the way they look when you’re uncomfortable;” “I’m the last one on the dance floor, as the chandelier gives way.”) Or this one: “But you’re an artist, and your mind don’t work the way you want it to; one day you’ll be washing yourself with hand soap in a public bathroom.” And Sella speaks for the entire post-Obama generation when he sings, “I could stand up, I could man up, but it’s just so convenient to be fragile.” Every one of these original and provocative thoughts is set to an irresistibly catchy singalong melody too. In a perfect world, these songs would be the summer jams of misfit teens and twentysomethings everywhere, obsessing about growing up, getting laid, and leaving home (or worse, not being able to come back.) Then again, speaking personally, those themes resonate when you’re in your fifties too. As Sella sings in “The Boredom Is The Reason,” “you’re part of a program, so get with the program... You’re not even sleeping, you’re probably even listening.” God, I hope so. - Jim Testa

 

LET ME RUN – “Let Me Run” EP (letmerun.bandcamp.com)

New Brunswick’s Let Me Run has been nothing if not a work-in-progress, not to mention perseverant; Rocky Catanese is the third lead singer in a band that only dates back to 2007. And on their new self-titled, self-released, 5-song EP, this plucky quartet has pretty much reinvented itself as a lean, energetic, relentlessly tuneful rock ‘n’ roll machine that’s embraced its punk rock roots. Let Me Run’s earlier recordings, especially 2009’s “Meet Me At The Bottom,” leaned heavily towards Gaslight Anthem-styled bar-room rock. The new songs still feature fist-pumping gang vocals on the choruses to excellent effect, but the music’s been stripped of its nostalgic bluesy roots-rock for a more modern punk feel with a nod towards the classic punk melodies of bands like Bad Religion. The chugga-chugga guitar parts and rewarmed Springsteen tropes of older tracks like “The Count of Monte Fisto” and “We Bring The Booze” have been supplanted by more intricate guitar lines and more complex lyrical ideas; instead of celebrating weekend beer blasts, the band is now addressing the damage alcohol and addiction can wreak on “Broken Brother.” Rather than living in the moment – or in the past – the band’s now writing songs about looking inside and contemplating one’s place in the world (a logical progression when you’re suddenly 24 instead of 19.) Instead of knowing all the answers, Let Me Run are now asking a lot of good questions. That’s called growing up. And becoming a better band.

THE END MEN – “Build It Up” EP (theendmen.com)

Matthew Hendershot used to play in a Brooklyn band called the Dead River Company that I enjoyed a few times. Drummer Livia Ranalli played in Top Ten Lovers. When those groups disbanded, the duo formed this bluesy project, with the assistance of Jason Godbey on harmonica and lead guitar. Hendersot’s got a gruff, gravelly, voice that can’t help but draw comparisons to Tom Waits; it pairs with Godbey’s bluesy harp as perfectly as whiskey and ice. Ranalli adds skittish minimalist drums to the proceedings. On tracks like “A Dirty Song,” Hendershot hams it up almost to Buster Poindexter-ish extremes, like a more theatrical version of early White Stripes or a more stripped down take on George Thorogood’s back-room blues. It’s all very entertaining and a nice break from the overreaching hipster artiness of most of what comes out of Brooklyn these days.



THE CALL OUT – “Closer” EP (thecallout@hotmail.com)

In a perfect world, “Kally” would be the jam of the summer, a radio-perfect power-pop shoulda-been-a-hit with an infectious chorus and clever lyrics about longing for a girl named Kally who’s back in California while the narrator’s stuck in Jersey. For me, it’s the best song on the Call Out’s excellent new 5-track EP. The band plays catchy day-glo post-emo pop that teen girls pine over and dudes in tees and sandals can mosh to, but happily the Call Out does it a bit better than most of the other bands in Jersey working this genre. Start with Jon Ferris, a gifted lead singer who not only has an American Idol-worthy set of pipe (not a “pitchy” note here) but the ability to infuse these lyrics with honest emotions (as opposed to the lovesick ferrets who all too often yelp this sort of thing.) The arrangements show that the band really sweated over these tunes too; almost every song has some original guitar bit – a weird chord or a stop/start bit of riffage - that catches your ear. It seems like the band’s been through more bassists and drummers than Spinal Tap in its short existence but hopefully this lineup will stay together and the right people will get to hear this record. (That starts with you, by the way.)




CAMDEN – “Totally Fine” EP (Camden.bandcamp.com)

The members of Camden split their time between South Jersey and Boston due to college, so we don’t get to see them very often around these parts (although NJUnderground and Jersey Beat were able to lure them into driving down to play Maxwells at our joint showcase last winter.) On their 3-song “Totally Fine” EP, the band goes in a more rock direction than their debut “Vale” EP and that’s a good thing. “Vale” had an electro-pop edge with R&B and soul influences that sounded much more “indie rock” when played live. Frontman Jason Sibilia put aside his samplers and synthesizers and made this much more of a band record. “Diamonds In Bloom,” the standout track here, is a beachy summer jam with a relaxed, groovy melody that sounds like it floated out of some Bushwick loft. The crisp studio production keeps this safe from the chillwave tag but certainly this band would mesh perfectly with the hipster sounds of Brooklyn heavyhitters like Oberhofer or the Drums. “Let’s Go For A Drive” is a surprisingly straightforward pop song and the bouncy, head-bobbing ‘Mustangs” is similarly perfectly suited for listening on long summer drives with the top down and the wind in your face. The only thing wrong with this disc is that it’s only 3 songs.

 


 

SPEED THE PLOUGH – Shine (Dromedary)

Speed The Plough was born back in the Eighties, when the moonlighting members of the Feelies decided to reunite. Toni Paruta, Jon Baumgartner, and Marc Francia - who had been playing with Bill Million and Glenn Mercer as the Trypes – decided to carry on as Speed The Plough. Though there were several incarnations of the band (including, at different points, rock journalist Jim DeRogatis and Feelies Stan Demeski on drums), the Baumgartners (Jon and Toni married) and Francia created a distinctiv sound rooted in the insinuating polyrhythms of the Feelies coupled with a pastoral, post-hippie sort of mysticism. Fast forward to 2009, when Speed The Plough re-emerged with the core three intact, this time abetted by a second generation – Toni and Jon’s son Michael on guitar, Marc’s sons Dan and Ian on bass and drums. With Jon and Toni still sharing vocal duties, the new lineup still sounds like Speed The Plough. Only … well… different. There are still echoes of the Beatles (especially George Harrison’s raga influences) and the Feelies (the slow-build syncopated build up that begins “Madeleine”) but the instrumentation adds synthesizers, accordion, flute, and woodwinds to the basic guitar/bass/drums mix. “Madeleine” includes a solo (by something that sounds like a cross between a synth, a trumpet, and a kazoo) that wanders off into the melody from “My Favorite Things” from The Sound Of Music. “Can’t Get Over You,” with a wistful vocal by Jon, features a colorful organ part over strummed Feelies-esque guitars, while “Pour Man” wanders into Fairport Convention folkie/faerie territory. “Honey Bee,” in contrast, has Jon laying a soulful Hammond Organ part under one of Toni’s declamatory vocals, while a playful jazz saxophone tickles the melody. “(Love Is) The Best Revenge” features a vocal duet between Jon and Toni, with strummed guitars and organ erupting into a pastoral flute solo by Toni that’s one of the prettiest things I’ve heard in a while. “Sea Of Tranquility” – whose lilting chorus gives the album its title – showcases Jon on organ and Toni’s mellifluous lead vocal. And the old-timey piano ballad “Who Knew The World” ends the album on an appropriately nostalgic note, with ukulele and pealing guitar under Jon and Toni’s mixed voices. “Shine” is an appropriately sentimental and slightly old-fashioned collection of songs representing a sentimental and slightly old-fashioned ideal: A family that loves one another, and loves playing together.

 

THE COPYRIGHTS – North Sentinel Island (Red Scare)

Ridiculously catch singalong gang vocals on every track? Check. Subtly insightful lyrics championing the underdog and the working class? Check. Songs that make you feel happy to be alive and ready to jump headfirst into the next available moshpit? Check. So it must be the new Copyrights album. I wish there was something original I could add to this conversation, but this crew has been the most consistently excellent purveyors of this sort of fist in the air pop-punk going back to 2003’s “We Didn’t Come Here To Die.” This is their fifth album and might just be their best; as always, Brett and Fletcher and Jeff and Luke capture the relentless back-breaking torment of day-to-day survival at the bottom of the food chain, yet still manage to inject notes of optimism and hope. “Ignorance is bliss, they say,” they sing on “Never Move Your Back Row,” “and I’m a tough motherfucker who can make it through the day.” So how do they – and we – keep on going? Because there’s always tomorrow, and it might just be better, and we’ve always got our dreams: “I wanna die with a worn out passport, in the pocket of stolen jeans, on a beach somewhere I’ve never been before, surrounded by people I’ve never seen.” Don’t say you’ve heard all this before; you may have heard music like it, just like you’ve heard the blues or soul. But every note the Copyrights play, every word they sing, comes from the heart, and that never, ever gets old.


ARE YOU LISTENING? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 from New Jersey Artists by Gary Wien (facebook.com/AreYouListeningNJ)

Gary Wien has quietly worked behind the scenes, mostly in Asbury Park music circles, as a publisher, writer, journalist, and most recently, curator of one of the Internet radio stations that airs my show (so, you know, caveat emptor here.) He set himself the Sisyphean task of listening to over 2,000 recordings by New Jersey artists released in the decade 2000-2010 and the results - ranked through some arithmetic process by which each record was given a point ranking by Wien - can be found in this handsome trade paperback (there is also a less expensive B&W edition). The handsomely illustrated tome provides colorful photos (not just recycled publicity stills) as well as background information on Gary's top 100 New Jersey records and the artists who made them.

It goes without saying that this is Gary's list - not mine, not yours - and so, yeah, there are going to be some quibbles, as there always are with these best-of lists. No Wrens, no Ted Leo, no Yo La Tengo? No Roadside Graves or Tris McCall or Screaming Females? Well, to each his own. Wien's taste runs heavily (and I do mean heavily) to white guys with guitars; Val Emmich shows up three times, to give you an idea of his taste. There are women artists well represented in the book, but no virtually hip hop, jazz, or soul. (One wonders if the title shouldn't have been "The Top 100 Indie and Folk Rock Albums From NJ Artists.")

There's precious little metal, hardcore, or underground punk for that matter, unless you want to count post-teen emo-punks Echo Screen (who get two albums on the list, despite being dismissed by AbsolutePunk as "a simplified and high octane Fall Out Boy and Punchline hybrid.") But Saves The Day, Early November, Hidden In Plain View, Boysetsfire? Uh uh.

There are a few ringers, as well; Fountains of Wayne (who, name aside, really were never a NJ band;) Dramarama, who relocated to L.A. decades before recording Everybody Dies in 2004; Springsteen's The Rising, which technically qualifies but doesn't really fit into the indie vibe of most of the book; and the (admittedly excellent) album April Smith made years after she'd moved to Brooklyn.

There are a few recognizable "names" on the list besides The Boss - My Chemical Romance, Thursday, Gaslight Anthem, Bouncing Souls - and a couple of up and comers (the Gay Blades make the list, as does Titus Andronicus' annoyingly self-indulgent The Monitor. But there's nothing from contemporaries like Real Estate, Steel Train, Vivian Girls, and all those other Ridgewood/Glen Rock bands that Pat Stickles went to high school with, or the hugely-lauded 2009 album by Cymbals Eat Guitars, whose genesis was in Manahawkin. Wien does recognize Jersey's history of breeding great punk rock bands in sweaty house shows in several of his essays; but unless those bands eventually graduated from the basement to Starland Ballroom (Thursday, MCR, Bouncing Souls,) they don't make the list: For Science, Measure (SA), Plastic East, Mohawk Barbie, Atomic Missiles, Full of Fancy, Hunchback, Seasick, and that whole '00 generation of New Brunswick punk goes unmentioned.

Mostly you'll find guitar-centric indie-rock bands like Souls Release, Maybe Pete, Bill Owens Five, Successful Failures, Sunday All Stars, Wicker Hollow, Steel Mill, and Red Wanting Blue who spent most of their careers in small clubs like the Saint, Brighton Bar, Court Tavern, and Maxwells. There's also a surfeit of singer/songwriters, many with Jersey shore ties, like George Wirth, Ken Shane, Keith Monacchio, Arlan Feiles, Jon Caspi,Bob Burger, Lisa Bouchelle, James Dalton, Zak Smith, Anthony Walker, Rick Barry, and Christine Martucci.

Don't get me wrong; in the context of this particular book, that's a good thing. It's these largely unheralded and often forgotten artists who are the real stars here, and it's commendable that Wien has chronicled their efforts and provides some background on their work. But even there I have a quibble. (Of course.) Reading between the lines often uncovers a predilection for hyperbole, as when Wien states that Gaslight Anthem's "The 59 Sound" "practically made them a household word for rock n roll fans all over the world." The album peaked at 70 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart and has yet to be certified as a gold record, which means that under 500,000 copies have been sold. (Granted, many more have doubtlessly been shared illegally... but that's another book altogether.) Gaslight Anthem got big in Jersey and did some tours, but "a houseold word around the world" suggests Lady Gaga, Kanye West, or Madonna, not five guys in white t-shirts from Jersey whose biggest claim to fame is how well they rip off Bruce Springsteen. Heck, I doubt the Boss is a household word in Belarus or Pakistan.

Want more? Divine Sign, the fine but humble folk pop pairing of Lindsey Miller and Kerry McNulty, are compared to "Neil Young, the Band, and even Fleetwood Mac," which is a little like comparing that play your 11 year old son made in Little League this morning to the iconic Willie Mays basket catch that helped win the '54 World Series.

Side note: Links or references on how one might access some of this music would have been helpful, too.

If you've been a regular reader of Jersey Beat or the Aquarian for the last decade, Are You Listening? will bring back some pleasant memories and might even inspire a visit to the unvisited corners of your CD collection. And if you weren't there, this is as good a place as any to discover a little of what you missed.

But really, Gary, no Ergs?

 

MODERN HUT - "Wrong" EP (Don Giovanni Records)

Modern Hut is the solo project of Joe Steinhardt, formerly of New Brunswick pop-punkers For Science, and one half of Don Giovanni Records. The band's been through several incarnations (including a duo for a time with Chelsea Lacatena of Short Attention,) but at this point it seems to be Joe and whomever he can corral into recording with him. As Modern Hut, Steinhardt has in the past performed acoustic versions of For Science songs as well as folkie, thoughtful originals, but "Wrong" offers an interesting change of pace, a dense swirl of electric guitars behind Joe's trademark laconic vocals. The man has always had an ear for melody and this one's catchy as hell; the tune nods along a little like solo Bob Mould. I think that's Fid (ex Measure SA) shredding the solo in the background. The flipside "Life" is a song I recognize from hearing live; here, Joe's enlisted Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females to duet with him over strummed acoustic guitars. It's a gently pokey tune with a droopy, shuffling beat; hearing Marissa play Emmy Lou Harris to Joe's Gram Parsons is a real treat. Given the stable of talent Joe can draw from just from his own label, we can almost certainly look forward to Modern Hut serving up more surprises like this in the future.

 

ANTIETAM - Tenth Life (Matador)

It's been 30 years since Tara Key and Tim Harris relocated their Southern boogie-punk Babylon Dance Band north to Hoboken, where the streets were lined with recording contracts and gold nuggets and free John Courage Ale poured from every spigot. Of course the Hoboken of the early 80's wasn't quite that idyllic but Tim and Tara did manage to put down roots, forming an enduring alliance with Yo La Tengo and other musicians (especially Tara's collaborations with Rick Rizzo). So here we are three decades later, Antietam still very much a band, Tim and Tara still very much a couple, and Tenth Life one of the group's most focused and tuneful releases in a while. Tara Key still creates a maelstrom of sound with guitar and voice - in many ways, she's the template for what Marissa Paternoster is doing now in Screaming Females - but the jamming and shredding is kept to a minimum, working in service to some of the band's strongest melodies in a while. Like Sonic Youth and and Mission of Burma and a whole host of Eighties noise-bands who are still making meanintful rock records, Antietam shows no signs of age or irrelevance. Girls with guitars never seem to get the same adulation we extend to our punk poets like Patti Smith or the small army of post-punk divas who strut across stages mic in hand but can't play a note. It's about time Tara got credit for a voice and a guitar style that's as unique as anything indie rock has given us in the last three decades.

 

BIG UPS (bigups.bandcamp.com)
FLAGLAND (flagland.bandcamp.com)

These two collegiate bands both serve up giddy, fun punk rock perfect for beer-soaked basements. Joe Galarrga's high-pitched half sung/half shouted vocals sound like an 8 year old on a sugar high when Big Ups is raging about the simple pleasures pizza, high 5's, or their favorite comic strip. Most songs clock in under 2 minutes, which is perfect for this sort of silly ADD punk, although the band does stretch out a bit for the thrashy party anthem "Breaking Things (Reluctantly.)" Flagland offers variations on the same themes, with whiny post-emo vocals and songs like "Asshole Boyfriend" and "My New Gun." Think Jonathan Richman for frat party mosh pits and you've got the idea.



DEVO SPICE - Gnome Sane? (devospice.com)

Tom Rockwell aka Devo Spice needs no introduction if you're a fan of the Dr. Demento show or an aficionado of nerdcore (a genre primarily composed of comedic rap songs.) But if you haven't heard of him, get ready for a good chuckle. With a deadpan delivery, sampled beats (that often turn into clever mashups,) a sharp wit, and a plethora of nerdist pop-culture references, Devo Spice wrings humor from our technology-obsessed day to day lives. If there's a knock, it's that he often visits the same territory twice: There are songs about nerds and geeks, Christmas and Halloween, Twitter and Facebook. But Rockwell (along with a stellar cast of nerdcore guest stars, including Worm Quartet, the Great Luke Ski, MC Lars, and YT Cracker) hits the mark more often than he misses. Pick hits: "Platform Wars" (Mac vs PC), "I'm Not Your Personal IT Guy," and probably the ultimate nerdcore in-joke, " Weird Al Didn't Write This Song."

 


LAURA STEVENSON & THE CANS – Sit Resist (Don Giovanni)

On her second full-length with her talented multi-instrumentalist band, Laura Stevenson steps aside from her role as the cute punk chick in Bomb The Music Industry and full embraces her new identity as a sultry chanteuse of folk and blues. Stevenson’s smoky, fragile voice has a vulnerability that’s not unlike the great Billie Holiday, although the band’s jaunty forays into uptempo pop also invite comparisons to the vaudevillian jauntiness of Brooklyn indie-rocker April Smith. The Cans make a compelling backup band when they stick to guitar/bass/drums fundamentals but their real appeal and distinctiveness comes into play when they introduce trumpet, accordion, banjo, and violin into the mix, on standout tracks like “The Healthy One,” “Peachy,” and “Barnacles.” On the traditional “Red Clay Roots,” Laura and the band sound like they’re being beamed through time from a Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast from the Fifties. Like Alex Winston and Lykke Li, two other 2011 breakout performers, expect Laura Stevenson to keep turning heads and winning new fans as more people discover the allure of her voice and the depth of her backing band.




QUINCY MUMFORD & THE REASON WHY - Speak (quincymumford.com)

ANTHONY WALKER & THE MEDICINE CHEST – This City Won’t Sleep (Anthony-walker.com)

Anthony Walker, Matt Wade, Tor Milller, Julian Sutton, Quincy Mumford… those names may not mean a lot now, unless you’re a habitué of the Jersey shore indie scene, but just wait a few years. Asbury Park is enjoying a youth movement that’s bursting with talent and ready to break out into the national spotlight. Although he’s not old enough to order a beer, Allenhurst’s Quincy Mumford is a seasoned veteran of this scene and “Speak” is, remarkably, already his third album. With a polished backing band of locals, Mumford qualifies as one of the jammiest artists on the Jersey shore, working a smooth reggae groove into his compositions. He’s also one of the “beachiest” kids on the scene; it’s hard to imagine Matt Wade skateboarding or Anthony Walker on a surfboard, but the strikingly handsome Mumford looks like he was born to walk around in boardies and sandals trying to catch the eye of an Abercrombie & Fitch photographer. Karlee Bloomfield’s colorful runs on electric piano and organ flesh out Mumford’s knack for low-key melodies and head-bobbing rhythms; Travis Lyon adds complexity with his fluid and funky lead guitar. Brian Gearty on bass and Jeff Mann on drums add the polyrhythmic prowess that fuels Mumford’s penchant for island rhythms and sould grooves. On “Rally,” Mumford shows off his vocal dexterity, nimbly spitting out the verses hip-hop style over jaunty pop melody. ‘Sounds Like Music” sounds like a hit single, a ; te with horns. Mumford & Co. rework these tropes – reggae, ska, funk, soul, and hip hop – on the signature “Full Tank Of Gas” and the horn-driven “My Friends.” Speak is a delight from start to finish, from Mumford’s boyish but confident vocals to the impressive musicianship of his band to the deft intermingling of reggae, ska, soul, and funk that runs through his songwriting. Next thing you know, the kid will be dating Jenifer Aniston.


Like Mumford, Anthony Walker (formerly known as Anthony Fiumano) broke into the Asbury scene as a teenager, performing callow solo/acoustic performances at coffeehouses and open mics. With the formation of his band the Medicine Chest, though, he morphed from a folksinger into more of a modern-country and Americana artist. On This City Won’t Sleep – funded by fans through a Kickstarter.com campaign - Walker flexes his songwriting chops as well as the muscle of his impressive backing band, which includes lead guitarist Tommy Strazza (a local headliner in his own right) and talented young keyboardist Matt Wade. When Walker released the vibrant, catchy “The Movie Universe” as a single a while ago, it looked like this new album might take a more straight-ahead rock approach, but most of “This City Won’t Sleep” has a rootsy quality. “Once And For All” emphasizes the western in country-western, with its twangy guitars and barrelhouse piano. Walker’s folkie roots (and panache for clever lyrics) come to the fore on the acoustic-driven “Call Me Custer.” The winsome peel of pedal steel sets the tone for the elegiac “Forget The Railroad,” while Strazza’s searing lead guitar and a throbbing, funky bass line steal the spotlight on “Sundowners.” And “Darlene” ranks as one of the best ballads Walker’s ever written; he should sell it to Scotty McCreery after the wannabe American Idol finishes his run this season, it’d be a monster country hit.

Next up should be the debut album by Matt Wade, the curly-headed Elton John of the Asbury scene; and right behind him there’s the Tor Miller Band and the 10-piece Julian Fulton & The Zombie Gospel, both of whom turned in impressive sets at this year’s Bamboozle.

Don’t look now, Bruce, but they’re gaining on you.


READYMADE BREAKUP (readymadebreakup.com)

Readymade Breakup’s third album turns out to be the self-titled one. That’s a trick bands usually use either to reintroduce themselves after a long hiatus, or to announce a reinvention of the band’s sound. And both of those things are true in a way here. It’s been two years since the group’s last full-length, Alive On The Vine, and in that time RMB has dropped its keyboards and acoustic guitars and found a much more muscular, dynamic sound, thanks to the addition of guitarist Jim Fitzgerald. In that time, bassist G.E. and his wife had a baby, lead singer/guitarist Paul Rosevear moved to Greenwich Village and released an acoustic EP, and drummer Spicy O’Neil left the band and then decided to come back. It’s been a tumultuous period in the band’s history but much to their credit, they’ve emerged from it all with their best and most cohesive collection of songs yet. With those powerful guitars, melodic bottom, and Rosevear’s chameleonic vocals, Cheap Trick comes instantly to mind, seamlessly combining the best elements of power-pop and classic rock. “Just” exemplifies RMB’s robust dynamism as Rosevear goes from an evocative whisper to a bombastic arena-rock roar, surrounded by a kaleidoscopic fusion of harmony vocals and dense guitars. “Waiting For You” builds from O’Neil’s precise percussion to a soaring falsetto epiphany in the chorus, while “There” brings a dash of Tom Petty-like Americana to the mix. “Unzip My Face” continues the Cheap Trick comparison; it’s power-pop with real power, and that “I miss you” chorus is to die for. “Bravest Smile,” about solidering through tough times (in fact, inspired by a close friend with a terminal illness,) packs even more punch with its quadraphonic harmony chorus and Rosevear’s searing “you’re not alone” refrain. “Good Things” borrows from the Who, Kinks, Green Day, and every other rock band who’s used an acoustic guitar to bolster a rock track to excellent effect. Even the inevitable ballad – “Not Through With You Yet” – proves a high point, with one of Rosevear’s most powerful lyrics on the album. “Erased” ends the album on a note of Beatlesque psychedelia – another change of pace, but a welcome one. This isn’t just one of the strongest albums to come out of New Jersey in 2010, it’s one of the best records of the year, period.

THE GAY BLADES – Savages (Triple Crown/ILG)

Clark Westfield and Puppy Mills still do one thing better than any other band I can think of at the moment: They poke a finger in your eye and dare you to guess what they really mean. The flamboyant and theatrical NJ-based duo create a monster sound on their second album, with a kitchen-sink approach that mixes music-hall razzamatazz with fractured 60’s pop (I swear they’re ripping off Jimmy Webb on “November Fight Song,”) and post-punk squall. When the band delves into weighty subject matter – like the solemn family issues of “Try To Understand” – the music turns jaunty and (in the old-fashioned sense) gay; when the vocals seem solemn and emotion-wracked, they’re singing some nonsense like “Puppy Mills Presents” (“well we could find God and join a seminary, if I was Father Clark then I'd be Father Puppy, after all God pays pretty well, we could pay off all the kids to show and never tell.”) Not since Panic At The Disco has strutting around like a popinjay been taken to such arrogant (and entertaining) extremes. The Gay Blades are not a band to be tossed aside lightly; you may want to take this CD and throw it full force into the nearest wall. Or this might just turn out to be your favorite band ever. Me, I’m voting for the latter; if these guys aren’t playing to Screaming Females-size audiences in a year, something’s very wrong with the world.

THE MEASURE (SA) – Notes (No Idea)

Brooklyn (by way of New Brunswick) pop-punkers The Measure (SA) turn in a wonderfully compelling full-length after releasing a string of excellent singles and split EP’s. Lauren DeNitizio’s fragile vocals still hold the spotlight, but guitarist Fid’s doing more singing, which is a good thing (especially on the tracks like “Be Yours” where they trade lead vocals and harmonize. Chris “Gobo” Pierce returns to the fold on drums (following the defection of Mikey Erg to Minneapolis and the road,) so it goes without saying that the drums fucking rule, and Tim Burke plays some nice throbbingly melodic bass parts. Standout tracks include “I’m No Daniel Craig” (with Fid on lead vox and some nice harmonica,) Lauren’s achingly vulnerable “Fear of Commitment,” the super-catchy, hand-clappingly awesome “St. Kathleen,” and the hard-rocking “Sigh;” but really, there’s not a track on here you’re going to want to skip.

KENNY CHAMBERS – Under The Tracks (Bad Blood)

After a long hiatus, former Moving Targets frontman Kenny Chambers returns to the indie rock world with Under The Tracks, inspired by the untimely passing of his two former bandmates, Pat Leonard and Pat Brady. Although Chambers most recently stayed active in music with American Pulverizer (as you might guess, a hard rock/punk combo,) his Eighties roots are evident in the jangly guitars and easygoing tempos of the songs on “Under The Tracks.” Themes of loss, aging, separation, and moving on flicker throughout the album, guided by Chambers’ amiable, somewhat reedy vocals. Although Chambers recently moved back to his native Boston after years in L.A., the feel here is more Eighties Minneapolis. This album would have fit perfectly on the Twin/Tone roster back in the days of Jayhawks, Replacements, and early Soul Asylum. It’s a bittersweet but ultimately engaging collection of 15 songs, a little softer (and older, and wiser) and less aggressive than Moving Targets, but eminently listenable nonetheless.

HUNTERS & RUNNERS – “I Was The Ghost” EP (Bright & Barrow)

Released as a free download on Halloween weekend, Hunters & Runners’ new EP brings a fresh jazzy vibe to the NYC indie scene. The music-hall tone of “Meet Your Maker” suggests what the Gay Blades might sound like without the snarkiness, while “Knife” has an almost Steely Dan like jazz groove. I really like the final track, “The Ghost,” with its layered harmony vocals and propulsive melody. This band borrows a lot of tropes from Sixties pop but makes it all sound quite modern, a neat trick. Mostly this 3-song treat makes me eager to see them live. Download the record at huntersandrunners.bandcamp.com

 

CARE BEARS ON FIRE – Girls Like It Loud (carebearsonfire.com)

The three teen gals in Park Slope’s Care Bears On Fire might not be old enough to remember the Clinton administration, but they’ve got a ton of rock’n’roll history packed into their sound. With echoes of the Runaways and Go Go’s, the girls four super-catchy originals and two inspired covers (Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and the Marbles’ “Red Lights,” a club hit back in late 70’s Manhattan.) The girls’ musicianship and vocals are certainly solid (they hit the harmonies on “Red Lights” way better than the Marbles ever did!), but it’s their songwriting that really impresses: “ATM” tells off a boyfriend who’s always borrowing money , with a “whoop whoop” chorus that will have you dancing around your bedroom. “What Could I Be” and “Ask Me What I Am” both qualify a teen girl anthems that blow away anything Miley Cyrus has ever done, but even they don’t compare with the brilliant “Barbie Eat A Sandwich,” a song about female body image and empowerment. The digital download (available from iTunes) comes with three videos - two different versions of “Everybody Else” from their last record, and a hilarious green-screen visualization of the Barbie song.

 


VAL EMMICH - Looking For A Feeling You Never Knew You Needed (valemmich.com)

TV fans know him from Ugly Betty or 30 Rock, or maybe one of his many TV commercials. But here in NJ, we know Val Emmich is a musician first and actor second. The singer/songwriter pulls out all the stops and gives us a taste of everything he’s learned in his 10-year career on the digitally-released Looking For A Feeling.... He tugs at the heartstrings with the piano-driven ballad “Gone,” pumps up the volume on uptempo indie rockers like “Don’t Wanna Go Home” and “Next To Me,” and hits the dancefloor for the beat-heavy “Sidekick.” Lyrically, many of the songs return to the same themes, the search for identity and the difficult passage into adulthood - understandable for a talented musician who keeps getting cast as boy toys as an actor. Emmich started on an indie, went through the major label meatgrinder, and now he’s self-releasing himself digitally. Do yourself a favor and download this.

SARIN McHUGH & THE EVERYMEN – “Rotocoma Pollution!” EP (myspace.com/ sarinmchughandtheeverymen)

Lo-fi garage punk from the wilds of South Jersey. Imagine Jay Reatard if someone put a foot through the speaker in his amp. Mystery man McHugh mixes in some pop elements (like the Beachy whoo-hooos on “Telephone”) and some big Spector-ish chordage (along with an old Blondie hook) on “Dance Only (Only Dance)” so this isn’t just sonic squalor with a beat. Although you could certainly call it that too.

KURT BAKER – Got It Covered (Oglio Records)

Much like the Methadones, Kurt Baker of the Leftovers has given us an album of his favorite power-pop classics from the 70’s and 80’s, delivered with his usual high energy. With the Leftovers on hiatus (I pray it’s just a hiatus,) Kurt’s recruited a top-notch backup band for these tunes, which include Cheap Trick’s “Let Me Out,” Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind,” and the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese,” all done with considerable respect to the originals. Kurt’s strength with the power-poppy Leftovers – maybe this has something to do with coming from Portland, Maine – has been to imbue even the cheesiest sentiments with a fresh-faced earnestness; he sings everything with a smile, never a smirk, which allows him to make even Top 40 AM Radio fodder like Rick Springsfield’s “I’ve Done Everything For You” into something resembling punk rock. And with his lugubrious take on Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, Kurt proves that he always has a career in lounges to fall back on in case this rock ‘n’ roll thing doesn’t work out.

SCREAMING FEMALES – Castle Talk (Don Giovanni Records)

By now most of you will know that Screaming Females are the red-hot post-punk trio from New Brunswick with that crazy girl who screams like a banshee and shreds like Hendrix. And yes, all the reasons why we fell in love with this band are still present, but Marissa Paternoster actually reins in the solos and keeps the shrieking to a minimum here. Castle Talk features more in the way of actual singing and – holy smokes – Marissa’s started rhyming and enunciating so you can actually hear the lyrics. These are songs now, not just awesome collections of sounds, riffs, and hooks stitched together. While all eyes (and ears) remain focused on Paternoster, it should be noted that bassist “King Mike” Abbate approaches Mike Watt-ian levels of melodic bass here, completing songs that would be lacking a vital piece without his contributions. The way the bass and guitar play off each other, giving each room to breathe on the electrifying “I Don’t Mind It” gives an early harbinger of the growth evidenced on this album. Meanwhile Jarrett Dougherty’s grounds the band with a steady but unshowy barrage of percussive propulsion. Given all the superlatives I’ve showered on this band in the past, it’s actually a little scary that they’re still getting better; but Castle Talk goes places the Screamales haven’t been before, and it makes you salivate at the thought of where they might take this next.

GEOFF USELESS – Don’t Stop (Livid Records)

Geoff Useless has long been a master of ultra-catchy power-pop and pop-punk in bands like The Guts and She’s A Guy (he’s also toured as a member of the Queers.) But on “Don’t Stop,” he indulges his country side, adding a lot of twang (along with some pedal steel, fiddle, and acoustic guitars) on a collection of bright, sassy cowpunk tunes. While the instrumentation and arrangements go country, Geoff’s ingratiating, boyish vocals still sell the tunes, his lyrical wit remains intact, and of course country-western’s as catchy as pop-punk anyway. Geoff throws in a Beatles cover (“I’ve Just Seen A Face”) and a Guts cover (“Easy Come, Easy Go,”) and there are still traces of Geoff’s pop-punk proclivities on some of the backup vocals and power-pop choruses. Your enthusiasm for this album will depend on your regard for country-western tropes and the trebly sound of pedal steel replacing the usual punk-rock sonics of electric guitars and bass; but as a longtime Geoff Useless fan (who doesn’t particularly listen to country,) I thoroughly enjoyed this change of pace offering.

HOODLESS – Music For Jerks (hoodlessrocks.com)

Jersey City’s Hoodless play straight ahead Nineties metal, complete with technical guitar solos and seamless, razor sharp harmonies on the choruses. It’s not a style I’m a huge fan of, but if a little bit of your soul died when Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins knocked Warrant and Alice In Chains off the charts way back when, this is the band you’ve been waiting for. That said, I do not approve of the cover art (heroin or coke being proffered in a spoon) or song titles like “Be My Whore.” You can be retro without being stupid, guys.


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