DEAD BY SUNDAY – Fall Asleep to Regret (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, cylsrecords.com)
Dead By Sunday existed for a brief time around the turn of the millennium, and this CD contains the band’s entire recorded output, recently remixed and remastered. The band played a particular style of post—hardcore punk, marked by a mix of emotion, melody and urgency. The press materials claim that this was a style that bands would emulate years later, which may be true, but the implication that Dead By Sunday originated this style is not. This is a style that emerged in the late 80s and grew in the early 90s. That, in no way, though, takes away from this collection of songs, which brings waves of nostalgia. I loved this sub-genre. Perhaps it’s just that they fell between the cracks, after the first wave of emo and before the resurgence in the 2000s. They’re a band that never really caught on – I can find precious little about them on the Internet – but I have to feel some sympathy for this plight. One of my favorite bands that played an earlier version of this style, suburban Chicago band Gauge, never got their due either, with bands that followed getting all of the attention. Perhaps, too, it’s that they were from Flint, Michigan, rather than New York, LA, or the Bay Area. In addition to the melodic/emo blend, Dead By Sunday’s vocals sometimes veer toward a softer form of what, in the 90s, became known as “screamo;” softer because it’s not nearly as intense and noisy as the bands best known for the style, and much of the vocals are more tuneful and melodic than screamo bands. All of this is neatly encapsulated in the opening track, Mexico Sounds Nice,” a song that will feel at once familiar and fresh, as if anticipating the modern wave of emo pop punk bands. “Decoding the Silence” is a particular favorite, with a strong post-punk edge and a heightened level of tension. I like the shifting meters of “Niagara Fell,” and I hear Jawbox influence in some of the songs, including “Self-Defense.” Dead By Sunday is a band that should have been heard more widely, and now, with these songs seeing reissue, they finally can be.
SE VENDE – Happy Accidents (Paper Street Cuts, www.paperstreetcuts.com)
I have fond memories of Bay Area bands of the late 80s and early 90s, the ones that put Lookout! Records on the map. I loved those bands, the ones playing a post-hardcore brand of pop punk that was both melodic and raucous. Se Vende are a San Diego band in that same tradition. Their music is pop punk with an earnest DIY feel and vocals that can only be described as deeply passionate, as is the music. I love the opening track, “So Much More,” which takes a while to get going, starting out as an 80s DC style emo instrumental, but just past the halfway mark the song really takes off, speeding up, and amping up the emotional quotient with a pop punk flair. The lyrics are just as anxious as the music and the vocal delivery, being about how so much of society lives for the material things, greed, and consumerism. “The culture of excess makes me depressed,” the song declares. “Life is so much more than all this mess,” it continues, but it’s clear that for too many people, it isn’t, and the meaning of life and love are lost. It’s a depressing sentiment. Such melancholic sentiments are a common thread through many of the songs, with lyrics of self-deprecation and hopelessness, like “Life Decay,” which sings the praises of “being stuck beneath the sheet,” as in dead. Another favorite (in an album of great tracks) is “Yesterday.” It has a great pop punk jangle and a more moderate pace. The intensity of the vocals contrasts wonderfully with the bright bouncy melody, and the lyrics are about living in the moment for today, because “Yesterday’s gone, time to move on.” A bonus feature of this album comes in “Big Sleepy Pt. 2” in the form of guest vocals from Ricky Schmidt of Ricky and Hey Chels! (formerly of Western Settings). And there’s a second bonus. The album ends with a “hidden track,” a cover of Tiltwheel’s “Do They Make Tin Foil Beer Helmets? Cuz I Want One!” a song they’ve been playing live a lot lately, with Tiltwheel’s full blessing. This album is a must for all fans of DIY pop punk with strong emotional content.
A CAST OF THOUSANDS – Songs from the Second Floor (Record Records, record-records.bandcamp.com)
I’ve reviewed a number of ACOT albums before, and always loved their unique blend of pop and folk-psych. It’s always wonderfully understated. Their latest LP has some of that, but sees the band expand their repertoire into other genres, as well. “No Detection,” which opens the LP, has none of the psych pop and instead is a blend of power pop and post-punk. It’s a solid track and one of my favorites of the record. “Decades,” which follows, on the other hand, has the lovely delicate sound I’ve come to expect from ACOT, with brushed snare, acoustic guitar and bright piano playing a simple melody. Beth Beer’s vocals continue to mesmerize me, feeling so perfect for this style of music. I hear retro AM pop influence in “Heading Nowhere Again,” though the super psychedelic bridge makes you feel like you’re spaced out. I also enjoy the light and breezy “It’s Your Birthday,” a song that’s more of a laid-back celebration that an all-out party. If you’re a fan of power pop, “Astrological Signs” is for you. Beers and Terry Cuddy take turns on the lead vocals and even harmonize together, something that’s not common for the band, where one or the other usually takes the lead in any given song. And another favorite, “Holiday in Amerika,” sounds like a Go Go’s track, with bright new wave era pop and dark lyrics about the country’s descent into fascism and authoritarianism. “Death squads on the streets of Portland! Death squads on the streets of New York! Death squads on the streets of Boston! Death squads on the streets of Detroit!” the song declares, an apparent reaction to the police overreaction to protests during the summer of 2020. There’s a nice variety of sounds in this latest LP, and the band never goes too over the top; they show a restraint that really complements these melodies. It’s a very pretty record.
DOT DASH – Madman in the Rain (The Beautiful Music, thebeautifulmusic.com)
I’ve always thought that Dot Dash are masters of breezy, jangly indie pop, and this latest LP from the prolific Washington DC band does nothing to change my mind about that. The trio play songs that are bright and shiny, with hints of retro bubblegum, British invasion, and psych influences. The opening track, “Forever Far Out,” is a favorite. It’s light and airy, with a great prominent bass, a lovely ambience from the keyboards, and a sparkly feel to the melody and vocals. Many of the songs, though they have a light touch, nonetheless feel epic in scale. “Everything = Dust” is a good example of this, a song that jangles like mad and has a lilting melody, but the strong beat and almost march-like rhythm propel the song with an urgent feel. “Tense and Nervous” also has that imperative feel, with a more upbeat pace, big organ sound in the keyboard, and lyrics that are partly sung and partly spoken emphatically. A couple of the songs have a slightly different feel. “Space Junk Satellites” is one, with more of a lounge sound. “Animal Stone” has a dark garage influence, though it’s still too jangly and pretty for garage. And then there’s the lone ballad of the LP, “Wokeupdreaming.” “I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m afraid of being dead,” the song declares. There’s a slight doo-wop feel to the song, and lyrics that seem to be about confusion, jealousy, and depression, and a desire to climb out of the morass. The one problem I have with Dot Dash and other bands like them is they’re made up of scene veterans who have been around and have long since settled down and only play locals shows, never touring. This limits my chances of ever seeing them live. Until that chance comes, I’ll be content to listen to enjoyable albums like this one.
THE LAUGHING CHIMES – Zoo Avenue (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecords.com)
Hailing from southeast Ohio, The Laughing Chimes are a duo, teen brothers Evan and Quinn Seurkamp. They play lovely indie pop inspired by the British and American jangle pop of the 90s, so are perfectly at home on Slumberland Records, a label that’s specialized in the genre for the last few decades. There are six songs on the EP, out digitally and on cassette (likely due to the severe problems and lead times with vinyl pressing), and they’re all simply gorgeous. I miss bands like this, who play simple indie pop without all of the processing and effects. Just pretty songs that, according to the press materials, are inspired by the crumbling coal town in which they grew up. That sounds grim, but the songs are anything but. They’re sparkling.
THE REAL MCKENZIES – Songs of the Highlands, Songs of the Sea (Fat Wreck Chords, fatwreck.com)
The Canadian band, active now for the past 30 years, are back with a new LP chock full of Celtic punk tunes for your listening pleasure. And a pleasure it is for those of us who enjoy the genre. The Real McKenzies have always focused more on the pop punk side of the musical equation, but with bagpipes and a blending in of traditional Celtic melodies in places, the musical roots in the Scottish highlands are unmistakable. On this latest LP we get exactly what the title advertises, songs of the highlands and songs of the sea; in other words, punk reworking of traditional songs from Scotland’s highlands and the band’s modern take on traditional sea shanties. The album opens with a punk rock rendition of “Scotland the Brave,” a song for which everyone knows the melody, because it’s the most well-known bagpipe march. But few realize it’s an actual anthem with lyrics, and The Real McKenzies, though a punk band they may be, sing and play the song with the reverence it deserves. The sea shanties featured are both traditional and folk tunes, and include the band’s raucous skate punk take on “Drunken Sailor,” the solemn “The Bonnie Ship The Diamond,” a hard rocking rendition of the pirate song, “Dead Man’s Chest,” and a more traditional sing-along version of “Blow the Man Down.” Additionally there’s the 60s folk classic “The Sloop John B,” a song whose roots lie not in Scotland but in the Bahamas. And there’s the lovely “Swansea Town,” a traditional shanty sung when raising anchor and heading out to sea, thinking of those the sailors were leaving behind and already long to see again. Here it’s sung by The Last Gang’s Brenna Red (because, according to the press notes, it meant so much to front man Paul McKenzie that he couldn’t bring himself to sing it). The album features, too, the poetry of Scotland’s premier poet, Robert Burns, in the form of the songs, “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” “Ye Jacobites by Name,” and “A Red, Red Rose.” The first is a poem of longing, from the perspective of a Scot who has left his homeland and yearns to return. Turning the beautiful poem of an aching of the heart into a raucous punk tune is no mean feat. I’m not sure I would have made the metallic musical choice The Real McKenzies did on this one. On the other hand, “Ye Jacobites by Name” has just the right feel for the protest song it is, about the grim strife and division wrought by the Jacobite Risings of the 17th and 18th centuries. “A Red, Red Rose” is a love poem, and previous attempts to turn it into a song have made it a quiet delicate tune, but The Real McKenzies instead turn it into a declaration, sung loudly and proudly. I always love some good Celtic punk, and I always love a new LP from The Real McKenzies. This is no exception.
RICKY – Pure Fun (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)
Former Western Settings front man and current Hey Chels! member Ricky Schmidt began exploring a solo effort during the pandemic, his debut LP coming out just about two years ago. That one was recorded with whatever friends he could pull into the studio, but since then Ricky has built up a regular lineup, played some shows, and has released this, their sophomore LP. It continues Schmidt’s branching out from his years of emotionally driven pop punk of Western Settings and deeper into the world of indie-pop with a dreamy edge. Bright pop melodies are produced with a lo-fi misty sound, to make them feel worn and faded with age, as if the songs were well-used and well-loved. And Schmidt’s pensive vocals completely change the tenor from bright to lugubrious. The music swirls all around you and becomes completely enveloping, particularly on the aptly titled, “Everything,” a track you can lose yourself in. Another such song is “Living Spirit,” which also swathes you in its lush arrangement, and is also somewhat harder and edgier than most of the tracks. Another high-strung track is “Headbanger.” It’s a more emphatic piece, with guitars used as rhythmic instruments, pounding away just as furiously as the drums. But even before these we get the album’s proper opening track (after a moody intro track of eerie sounds and chirping birds), “Flowers.” It’s a wonderful way to begin, as it’s the brightest and sweetest track of the LP. The title track is another that’s aptly named, as it’s got a carnival sort of feel in the melody, bright and shining, though the production and vocals have a more thoughtful bent. Other special mentions to go “Africa,” eschewing pop melody for a mournful ballad, and “Cool Guy,” for sounding like something Lou Reed might be doing if he had been born a few decades later, with its minimalist melody and partly spoken lyrics. The album’s ending track, “Feel Good” was previously released on a very limited lathe cut, but rerecorded here, with interesting production in which the vocals are highly manipulated and multi-tracked, to make it seems as if Donald Duck were joining Schmidt in the studio. It’s fascinating watching Schmidt’s musical journey and following his growth. As good as “Palm Trees” was, you could tell it was tentative first steps on his own, where “Pure Fun” feels more fully formed, and definitely more cohesive.
AMERICAN THRILLS – Parted Ways (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)
After releasing a smattering of 7” singles, splits, and EPs, Connecticut’s American Thrills are now releasing their debut full-length LP. They play an emotionally charged brand of punk-inspired alternative rock. The nine songs here all have a big anthemic quality of the sort where everyone is pressing forward and singing along, fists in the air. It’s got a working class rock streak through it, too, like mixing Bruce Springsteen with The Gaslight Anthem, then slathering it with a DIY ethic. There’s even a track called “Blue Collar” here, as if to acknowledge where they come from. It’s an ode to the unfulfilled lives of the previous generation, those who worked hard for little return, who sacrificed their own happiness to take care of their families, who made mistakes, but whose hearts were in the right place. The arrangements are well done, with guitars alternately crunching and jangling, and the songwriting makes good use of shifting meters at times. The vocals have just the right amount of grit – not so much as to sound like rocks and gravel, but not too little as to sound like smooth crooning. The band, too, have a good handle on dynamic range, with quiet and loud sections presenting alternating moods and mixed emotions. One of my favorite songs is “Maybe You Were Right About Me,” a self-deprecating song with a pretty jangle to it, especially in the lush gorgeous bridge. There are plenty of bands playing this sort of music, so American Thrills aren’t unique, but they acquit themselves quite well on this solid debut LP.
TIM BARRY – "Carolina’s RV" EP (Chunksaah Records, chunksaah.com)
This EP is a companion to Tim Barry’s recently released LP, “Spring Hill,” and was inspired by some traditional songs and “B-sides” he had written and recorded in the same sessions as the LP, but were always intended to be released as a separate 7” EP. The record includes two Barry originals and two traditional songs, all performed in Barry’s unmistakable troubadour style. The two traditional songs include “Wreck of the Old ’97,” and “Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet.” The former was originally written and recorded by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, and it went on to become the first million selling country song. It’s since been covered by innumerable artists, the latest being Barry’s. It’s much more stripped down than a lot of the previous recordings, as is Barry’s style, with a scratchy sounding banjo and with Barry’s clear booming voice. The latter is a song much older, an Americanized version of the British folk song, “The Lass of Roch Royal.” It, too, became an oft-recorded country folk classic, and Barry’s pretty version includes banjo, mandolin, and guest vocals. The other two tracks have a more modern sound, with “Carolina’s RV” being a twangy song about someone with a checkered past whose changed his ways and just wants to be left alone, but lives in constant fear of persecution by authorities and society. The delicate “Clem’s Court Date,” like many Barry songs, tells a story, in this case of a woman who shot and killed her lover who had turned into an abuser. Tim Barry’s solo stuff is always good, and when he strips it back like he does in his live shows and on this EP, it’s unbeatable.
DUMBSKULL – POP (Laptop Punk Records, laptoppunkrecords.bandcamp.com)
Dumbskull is a prolific one-man band, playing guitar, bass, drums, singing, and even playing keyboards here and there. There’s a decidedly strong 1990s pop punk sound here, like the Queers. The songs are short and simple, with buzzy guitar (almost as buzzy as Vista Blue), snare-heavy drums, and simple bass lines. This latest effort is a nine-song mini LP, clocking in at 17 minutes of snotty pop punk. One highlight of the record is the opening track, “Narcolepsy,” a song about wanting to stay in bed and sleep all day instead of, well, doing anything else. The best part comes after the initial rendition of the song ends and a second version starts. While the melody is the same, the addition of keyboards on the bridge gives the song a cool off-kilter feel. “Mission Terraform” has nice shifting rhythms, a science-fiction theme, and a chill guitar solo on the bridge, sounding distant in the mix, a perfect match for punk sci-fi. And “Oh Donna” (not the Ritchie Valens song) has a great surf opening before the loud guitar buzz comes in. And I really like “Sugar, Sugar,” especially for its chorus, the return of the chill guitar in a brief bridge, and lyrics of anticipation of a reunion with a loved one, simple and snotty they may be. Dumbskull isn’t slickly produced (hey, it’s Laptop Punk, after all!), and he isn’t breaking new musical ground, but if you’re a fan of basic 90s pop punk, this is something you’ll likely enjoy.
ESZTER BALINT – I Hate Memory (Red Herring Records, eszterbalint.com)
This is an album filled with subdued indie pop songs, some of them with some great Laurie Anderson style spoken lyrics and performance art. The songs are very understated, yet have quite a theatrical quality to them – appropriate since Balint has a background in acting and the theater, and used these songs as the basis for a stage production she calls her “anti-musical.” The title comes from the opening track, “Memory Song,” a track about the anxiety induced by dwelling in the past (the lyrics even say that “the past is a dick”). Simply plucked guitar, bass, drums, and ethereal flute accompany the sardonic vocals. “Before America; (Newsreel Avenue)” is one of the tracks that evoke the Laurie Anderson aesthetic, a pretty, dark melody quietly playing underneath Balint’s poetic spoken lyrics. “Campfire at the Chelsea” uses plucked upright bass and piano with restrained electric guitar to create a pretty backdrop for Balint’s vocals, her lyrics telling an abstract story, like the other songs. “Art Bodega Nation” is a favorite, as it’s one of the more raucous tunes, with an early 80s post punk quality to it, the era when there was a ton of creativity and experimentalism going on in rock and pop music. There’s a break in the song in which we hear an argument that apparently happened (or could have happened) between Balint and her mother, Balint complaining that it’s too cold and her mother replying that she’s spoiled. Mom then yells at her about how to “make it in America” (the family immigrated from Hungary) and they argue about going to parties vs. working, and how parental authority is just as bad as Communist dictatorship, making art vs. paying the bills. A real highlight is the gorgeous “After the Party (Fifteen),” a beautiful song played on piano, with violin and trumpet accompaniment and Balint’s tentative singing, as if she’s uncertain and confused. Of the more traditionally structured songs, “Second Avenue” is a favorite, with a lovely hazy quality. The stage production was created before and cancelled by COVID, but has since been revived. And word is that a film adaptation is in the works. Here’s hoping either the live or film version makes its way to San Diego, because I’d love to see it, based on listening to this record.
MIKE BAGGETTA / JIM KELTNER / MIKE WATT – Everywhen We Go (Big Ego Records, www.bigegorecords.com)
When he’s not recording or performing with his own band, Mike Watt and the Secondmen, the storied bass player collaborates with a lot of different people and plays a lot of different genres. This new LP finds him again working with jazz guitarist Mike Baggetta and session drummer Jim Keltner, the second outing for this trio. The LP is replete with laid-back instrumentals, though I hesitate to call them “easy jazz.” There’s nothing easy about this album that features avant-garde experimentalism and free improvisation. Subtle surf undertones sometimes creep in, as well, understandable given the Southern California locale where this was recorded. Think the cool jazz of Thelonious Monk combined with the musical explorations of The Art Ensemble of Chicago. There’s not a lot more to say about this record, either you’re going to love it, like I did, or you’re going to hate it because it’s not punk, not what you expected. The title track that opens the album is, perhaps, my favorite of the bunch. It’s laid-back, with so much great understated playing. You can hear the surf influence in the melody, and the whole vibe of the tune is incredibly chill. But that describes the whole album: chill. Though some of the improvisation from Baggetta’s guitar can get nice and angular, there’s never anything truly dissonant here. “In the Center” is a gift to fans of ambient music, as this track is gorgeous and flowing. So is, “Not Enough Time,” “Fake Break” has a loping feel to it, while “Fearmongers” sounds like something that could have come out of the Twin Peaks soundtrack, then gets even stranger. The digital version of the album contains a bonus track, too; it’s a somewhat more aggressive (relative term – it’s still relaxed) version of the title track, less subtle, less surfy, and with less use of guitar overtones. Throw away all your preconceived notions and give this album a listen. It’ll expand your horizons.
OMNI OF HALOS (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
After dropping their debut EP earlier this year, Gothenburg, Sweden’s Omni of Halos’ debut full-length LP picks up where they left off. They play a unique blend of heavy alternative rock, dream pop, and country twang. Growling fuzzed bass and guitars combine with pop-filled melodies and the ever-present understated guitar twang to create a singular sound, and it’s all painted over with a lo-fi brush. The songs are on an epic scale, too, full of grandeur. A perfect introduction is the opening track, “You Suck.” It might have an off-putting title, but the sound is anything but. The sound is enveloping, and you can just get lost and become one with the music. “Darkest Hour Final Hour” is one of my favorites of the album; it still has the huge sound, but it’s more wistful, the guitars jangling thoughtfully rather than just being full-on wall of sound. Another favorite is “Empty Shell,” a track that’s less twang, more dark psychedelic aggression. This track is the edgiest thing on the album, and you can hear more anger and less of the pensive dreaminess of the other tracks. I love how effortlessly the indie pop melody melds with the controlled chaos of the arrangement on “Hand in Hand” and “In the Mud,” while the closer, “Out of Control,” has a distinct 90s post-emo feel mixed in with the other sounds. Omni of Halos are creating a whole new sound, a new sub-genre, with their musical style, and it’s one I really like. Recommended.
THE RAGING NATHANS - Still Spitting Blood (www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)
Goddamn! The Raging Nathans keep cranking out new LPs at a record pace. This latest LP comes just over a year after their last full-length, “Waste My Heart,” which itself came out less than a year after the “Oppositional Defiance” LP. In between these they’ve released various EPs and singles and have appeared on splits and comps. But rather than running out of ideas, this Ohio punk band just keep getting better and better. The front half of the album features powerful Midwest melodic punk, gritty and crunchy, speedy and strong, yet with great pop punk melodies and strong tuneful vocals. They remind me of classic Midwest hardcore and punk bands of the 80s, with a big muscular sound, bands like The Effigies and Naked Raygun. Songs like “Head in a Hole,” which opens the album, are just incredibly pummeling. I love the guitar sound and the vocal harmonies on “Fucked Olympia,” while Patrick Cost’s drums pound away faster than a speeding bullet. As great as those tracks are, one of my favorite songs of the album is “The Lime Pit,” a song with a more moderate pace and a dark power pop melody. “Waste of Time” starts out as a pretty loping track, with a slower pace, and gorgeous melody. Then, as the song edges toward the close, it has a classic late 80s pop punk sound, sort of like Screeching Weasel from that era, speedy and very tuneful (with cleaner better vocals and harmonies). And lest you think that only Fat Wreck bands can play the speediest hardest skate punk, The Raging Nathans use the title track to teach you otherwise and put all skate punk bands to shame. This track is super fast, super tight, and super crunchy, and it does it all without the wanky metal crap. Then there’s “Nothing I Can Do,” which brings a ska-punk like feel without being ska, in the way Operation Ivy did back in the late 80s. The Raging Nathans keep bringing us albums that are expertly performed, well written, and varied enough to hold our interest. They’ve made my “Best of the Year” list the last two years in a row. Will they make it three? They’ve got an excellent shot with “Still Spitting Blood.”
REJECTION PACT – Can We Wait (Safe Inside Records, www.safeinsiderecords.com)
Nineties hardcore is alive and well and still being made by bands like Boise, Idaho’s Rejection Pact. The album features a dozen tracks of crunchy metallic youth crew style hardcore – with a difference. In many of the songs, the arrangements are more thoughtful than is typical of the genre. But the bulk is exactly what you’d expect: heavy crunchy instrumentals, angry shouted vocals, and big gang vocals. Political and social commentary dominates the lyrics, rather than the themes of unity, brotherhood, and betrayal that are the norm for this genre, so that makes the band stand out from the crowd, too. I’ll say right from the start, the genre isn’t one of my favorites, but I do like the interesting touches this album offers, like the highly experimental “found sound” collage of the first track, “Imperative.” We hear a radio dial being spun, with static and radio stations coming in and out, and then a solemn distant piano, the static still in the background, providing an eerie atmosphere. But then things explode with the fury of “Hollow Ethos” and the other songs that follow. “Collective Will” is an interesting one, starting with eerie reverb effects and ending with a cool smoothing out of the guitars and the addition of piano. In between is some Gorilla Biscuits worthy 90s hardcore. “Profit programming” uses sound clips and a more progressive rock sound to slam the excesses of American capitalism. And “Prune,” the speediest track of the album, mixes hardcore and progressive sounds in an interesting way. If you’re a fan of the 90s hardcore sound, give this a spin. It’s got what you love and yet it’s a step above the generic hardcore sound.
S.C.A.B. (Grind Select Records, grindselect.com)
This is the sophomore release from the Brooklyn-based band, their debut having been released just prior to the onset of the pandemic. The band name began as the first initial of each band member’s first name (Sean Camargo – Vocals/Guitar, Cory Best – Guitar, Alec Alabado – Bass/Synth, Brandon Hafetz – Drums), though Hafetz has since left the band and the name now takes on different meanings. The music here is bright pop music played with a retro goth sound, the guitar tone clear and loaded with reverb. It gives the otherwise glittering songs a dark dreamy quality. It’s the sort of sound I’m hearing more and more often from younger pop bands coming from the indie tradition. MTA LUX is a particular favorite of the LP, being the most raucous track of the ten on the LP. It’s upbeat, with more emphatic vocals and guitars jangling like mad, synths ringing out. It’s almost like a dreamy poppy punk tune; with so much going on it gets awesomely chaotic. And “Tuesday” is a nice pop tune with a propelling rhythm in both the drums and guitar, the bass playing a soaring line. One thing that bugs me about the guitar tone used. It seems to wobble, in and out of tune, which sometimes makes the vocals seem to waver in and out of tune, as well. This sort of guitar tone and heavy reverb can be interesting when used judiciously or when the entire tone of the band is darker and less pop oriented. Used too much in an album of pop tunes, it can get tiring. In S.C.A.B. I find a band with some promise; they’ve got a decent variety in their songs pace and good dynamic range. All they need now is a bit more variety in the overall tone they use from song to song.
STREET DIAMONDS – Scenester Citizens (A.D.D. Records, addrecords.limitedrun.com)
Street Diamonds, formed on the eve of the pandemic, took some time to get off the ground due to the pandemic shutdowns. Their first show was a live stream from an empty bar with the band all wearing facemasks. They’re all scene veterans, having played in a multitude of bands of the past, including J Church, Jack Acid, Vena Cava, Bloodbath and Beyond, and many more. They’re based in the Bay Area of California, and play music with that they say is an 80s Bay Area punk sound: it’s got a hardcore crunch, has tons of melody, but isn’t speedy or poppy. To my ears it sounds more like the music punk bands were playing in Chicago years earlier. Their debut EP consists of four songs filled with dismay at the state of the world. For example, “The Right to be Dumb” speaks to the purposeful ignorance of people who get their news from Internet blogs and social media. I love the chants of “USA! USA! USA!” on the bridge, mocking the people who declare the nation to be exceptional, even as they continue to remain in ignorance. And “I’ve Been Rights for So Long” speaks to the frustration of knowing what too many other people ignore until you just give up and “watch it all burn.” Crunchy melodic punk with political and social commentary? To me that’s a perfect combination.
BRING THE HOAX (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
This Stockholm, Sweden band focus on a 90s sound, with grunge and indie rock influences. They even throw in a little bit of 80s in the opening track, “Los Angeles,” by heavily processing the vocals through a vocoder on the chorus, giving it a big retro pop sound. Tuneful melodies blend with fuzzed out guitars, elevating the grunge genre like never before. I like the angular post-hardcore lines of “1993,” and the power pop influenced “Jonestown” is a standout; the distorted grunge mixed with the poppy jangle makes for a great sound. And that’s a good overall description for the five-song EP, distorted grunge mixed with poppy jangle. Nice stuff.
THE DARTS – Love Tsunami (Dirty Water Records, dirtywaterrecords.bandcamp.com)
I love the description The Darts have on their Facebook page: “If Elvira and Wednesday Addams did shots of snake venom at a bachelorette party, that’s The Darts.” It gives you a distinct flavor for this garage rock band that leans heavily into eerie organ sounds and drips with debauchery. As the band has evolved they’ve moved from the heavier fuzzed-out hard rock sounds more toward a brand of “horror garage, I’ll call it, with a psych-pop bent. The three songs on this EP blend great pop melodies with psychedelic garage rock, and that sweet keyboard with the heavy vibrato gives things that mysterious air. Another ace release from The Darts.
MAGGIE CUBILLOS – Old Shoes (distrokid.com/hyperfollow/maggiecubillos/old-shoes)
Singer-songwriter Maggie Cubillos is currently studying at Berklee College of Music, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. Her music, though pop oriented, is informed by the indie influence of her Southern California roots. “Old Shoes” is her debut single, and it’s a pretty, delicate tune with acoustic guitar, understated percussion, the quiet twang of a steel guitar, and Cubillos’ gorgeously clear vocals. The song is about embracing change, despite the fear and trepidation it can bring. This is a lovely debut.
NIGHTMARATHONS – Hidden Vigorish (A-F Records. a-frecords.com)
Pittsburgh punks Nightmarathons (what a great name!) return with their sophomore LP. The eleven songs are huge, big emotionally charged music made for beer-soaked sing-alongs in divey venues. Melodies are enormous and broad and the vocals have just the right blend of grit and tunefulness, shouted at the top of their lungs. This is the perfect band to play something like The Fest, and in fact they did this year. I love this sort of stuff, and there’s not a bad song on the LP. But there are a few standouts. I love the urgency of “Abandon,” especially the opening bars, with just vocals and guitar. Even when the guitars get a little mellower in the middle and we get some dueling vocals going on, the drums and bass keep propelling the song ever forward. I like the start-stop in the melodic line of the lead guitar in the intro to “Wrong,” as well as its martial rhythm and the glorious sounding ending. “Bridge” has a bright hopeful sound with pretty jangly guitars, and “Not the End” is a fittingly epic track. One thing this genre does suffer from is a sameness from song to song. When all your songs are huge epics, it’s hard to pick the better songs. But I do love this sound, and Nighmarathons do a good job with it. Solid record.
SIC WAITING – A Fine Hill to Die On (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
For anyone wondering if the relocation of Sic Waiting’s front man, Jared Stinson, from Southern California to the heart of Dixie, meant the end of Sic Waiting, rejoice! It did not signal the demise of the storied band, and now we’ve got the proof in a brand new album, their first since 2015’s “Derailer.” Sic Waiting have always championed the 90s punk sound, but never fell into the 90s punk rut, never turning into another same-old-same-old SoCal skate punk band. They’ve got big melodies and big arrangements, and Stinson’s vocals are enormous, ringing out with commanding decisiveness. I love the soaring and bouncing melody of “American Hearts,” and its chord changes are not typical of punk rock, giving the song a pretty unique sound. I like, too, the sentiment of the lyrics, slamming and shaming the so-called patriots who crowed at all of the military actions our nation has taken around the world, invading other countries and bending them to our will. Another favorite is “One Fell Swoop,” especially its gorgeous bridge, where the guitars get all smooth and pretty, lush harmonize vocals singing out, in contrast to the rougher punk sound of the rest of the track. “Good Things” proves the band is way more than a generic SoCal punk band, almost ballad-like, epic in scale, with a gorgeous lush arrangement. At one point we get a quiet section with swirling guitars, and the whole song is just to pretty. The lyrics, though, are in contrast with the melody, about how all of the good things always seem to have bad endings, the result of our own faults and the way we hurt others. Another good one (well, all of them are, really) is “Life’s On Fire,” with Bad Religion-like sciencey lyrics (“Turn potential to kinetic energy”) and big Dirty Nil chords. The song really is about taking the great American road trip, getting into a “mean machine” and using a “folding map,” starting in California and covering the whole lower 48 states. The bottom line here is that “A Fine Hill to Die On” is Sic Waiting’s best record to date, and gets my recommendation.
DAVID WOODARD – Stupid Kid (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
David Woodard’s debut full-length LP is a bit of a mixed bag for me. For the most part, this is soft rock, adult contemporary sort of music that’s will relax rather than excite. It’s pleasant background music. But among the seventeen tracks are a few gems. I’ll focus on those. The album opens with the title track, which is a great power pop tune with self-aware lyrics about writing and recording “stupid songs” about love and girls and all the typical pop song tropes. It’s got a lively rhythm and melody, and I’m a sucker for good power pop. Immediately following, “Literally Probably Maybe” has a solid indie rock sound with shades of REM. “Home the Long Way” is gorgeous, with violin, bowed bass, and hammered dulcimer mixed in with the electric guitar, bass, and drums. I like “Everything In Between,” with a great mod British Invasion sound. The use of piccolo trumpet is a nice touch, giving it that retro 60s feel. And the gentle folk-pop-rock jangle of “Nine Hundred Ninety-Nine” is especially pretty. The other songs are not bad; they’re just inoffensive.
MARTHA – Please Don’t Take Me Back (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com / Specialist Subject Records, specialistsubjectrecords.co.uk)
The indie-pop-punk band from the village of Pity Me in County Durham, UK are back with yet another album that’s filled with brightness and darkness, with elation and depression. Their songs always sound so bright and cheerful, and sometimes they are. But other times they’re full of gloom and doom. As the band has evolved, their songwriting and arranging have gotten better and better, and their songs have gone from inward-looking to outward, from the ups and downs of relationships, self-identity, and self-awareness, toward a grim look at society. While earlier albums delved into the awkwardness of love and relationships and the healing power and triumph of love, “Please Don’t Take Me Back” is an album filled with resignation. Such is the case with “Every Day the Hope Gets Harder,” a song about the slow destruction of the band’s home country by its ruling elite, the turning of it into a real example of The Hunger Games, in which the wealthy live in extravagance while the majority of the people live lives of desperation. Musically, the song is upbeat and dazzling, but the lyrics speak to the numbness of daily life, the utter lack of hope for a better future. You can hear the growth of the band in songs like “Irreversible Motion,” one of the prettiest songs the band have ever done. The arrangement is lusher and the melodic line more complex, with gorgeous vocal harmonies and loads of jangly guitars. Then there are the huge, dark songs like “Total Cancellation of the Future,” with a grimmer sound and sentiment than anything the band have ever done before. Another enormous tune, and one of my favorites of the LP, is “I Didn’t Come Here to Surrender,” a song that defiantly declares that, although life is boring and mundane and our existence is fragile, “I didn’t come here to surrender.” Life will out, as they say. We will survive and thrive. It’s one of the most optimistic moments of the album, and has glorious instrumentals to match. The album closes with “You Can’t Have a Good Time All of the Time,” a lovely hazy tune that uses synths in the arrangement, with the return to resignation that, as much hope as you might try to have, sometimes life just punches you in the face. The song’s ending feels like something out of a dream, with just synths tuned to sound like fairy tale bells. I love Martha, and I think this LP may be their best yet.
REST EASY – Hope You’re Okay (Mutant League Records, www.mutantleaguerecords.com)
Newish Vancouver hardcore band Rest Easy released their first EP last year, and now “Hope You’re Okay” represents the band’s debut full-length LP. And I do mean full-length. At twelve songs and 51 minutes, even at the breakneck pace some of these songs are played at, that’s a lot of music! The band features gruff, gritty vocals over the typical guitar-bass-drums makeup, and the songs mix crunchy hardcore with some poppy melodies. The opening track, “Dirty Work,” is a perfect example; the song is harder hitting than pop punk, but poppier than hardcore. I especially like the DC/Dischord style breakdown toward the end of the song. They do channel that DC sound here and there, with it also popping up on “Broken Wrists,” among others. Some of the songs, too, have a broader 2000s emo post-hardcore sound, like “Hey Maxine” and “On the Outside.” Those songs are done well, if you’re a fan of the genre, but they’re my least favorite of this LP. I really like songs like “All Inside Your Head,” which starts out as the fastest song of the record, with tons of rage. But then 45 seconds into the 2-minute track, it slows to a lope and turns into a great crunchy pop punk tune. “Coast to Coast” is a favorite, reminding me of a local Southern California band, French Exit, who sadly broke up several years ago. The combination of melodic punk and hardcore with emotionally charged gruff vocals hits the sweet spot. If you like crunchy hardcore with a strong pop sensibility, this is a record for you.
SARAH AND THE SAFE WORD – Strange Doings in the Night (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)
Having recently appeared on Say-10’s LGBTQIA compilation “Never Erased,” Sarah and the Safe Word are now teaming with the label to release their debut full-length LP. Originally released as digital only, the album has been fully remastered for a well-deserved vinyl release. As I’ve noted before, Say-10 is mostly known for releasing aggressive punk and hardcore records, especially in the skate-punk vein, Sarah and the Safe Word are not even close to that sound, but what a sound they have! I’ve seen them described as “queer cabaret rock and roll,” and I suppose it’s an apt description. The band play a brand of indie pop that uses non-traditional instruments, including violin and piano. The album opens with a real cabaret sort of song, “Act 1, Scene 1,” which serves as an introduction. “Do you wish for the ruin of the people you loathe, do you secretly hate all your friends?” it asks, with a waltz-time arrangement. “We have good news for fans of that music, your wait is at last at an end, “ it continues, indicting that the band plays “that music.” “So Metropolitan” kicks things off in earnest and presents the band’s full sound, which is glorious indie pop, with guitar, bass, drums, piano and violin. It’s a huge full sound, and I even hear some horns. The title track is even better, with an orchestral sort of arrangement. The songwriting and arranging are simply brilliant, sounding like something out of a staged musical. It almost reminds me of Chicago’s late lamented The Fire Show, with a similar grand scale to the songs. The album keeps getting better and better, as “North Ave” comes up next, starting out as a quiet pop tune, and grows, the piano adding a great loping jangle to this dark tune. “You’re the Sort of Man I Like” is a jaunting little tune with a dark twisted sensibility. The muted trumpet solo gives it a real old-timey sound, and the whole thing has some great perverse humor. “PillPusher” and “Audrey Honey…” are the only songs that I couldn’t get into, with an 80s arena rock sort of sound. Otherwise, this is a lovely and unique album that I recommend.
VISTA BLUE – "No Cliques, No Trends" EP (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)
The prolific Vistas return with a brand new EP, six new songs of buzzy pop-punk goodness. Typically, the Vistas write all their songs around a given theme, be it seasonal, holiday, movie genre, or what have you. But this EP is different from the rest. There isn’t a single theme, and a couple of the songs veer somewhat from the traditional Vista Blue sound. “The Boys are Still in Town” and “The Girl on the Magazine Cover” are more moderately paced and the guitar tone is more subdued, giving both songs more of a power pop feel. I particularly like the latter of the pair for its great use of keyboards in the arrangement and retro sounding melody. “The Real Richard Bates” brings back the speedy buzzy guitars in a 28 second track that features some lo-fi ukulele recordings as bookends. “We Don’t Think So” is halfway between, with a more interesting melody than is typical in Ramones-core, but with more of the Vista guitar buzz. “I Don't Wanna Spend the Summer With You” and “Bryan Funck's Not Really Such a Bad Guy After All” are the only tracks of the EP that sounds like typical Vista Blue. The variety is stronger than any previous Vista release, making this one of my favorites of theirs.
VORTIS – The Miasmic Years (vortis.bandcamp.com)
At last! The amateur critic gets to review the professional critic! Vortis, a band that’s been kicking around Chicago for the better part of two decades, features none other than Jim DeRogatis, former music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of Public Radio’s “Sound Opinions” radio program and podcast. Besides DeRogatis on drums, Vortis includes Tony Tavano on guitar and Louie Calvano on bass, with both featured on vocals. The trio play raw pared down punk rock, with retro 80s distorted guitar tone reminiscent of “Beneath the Shadows” era TSOL, solid Chicago thumping bass work, and pounding drums. In typical punk tradition, the songs are short sonic blasts, laden with social and political commentary, the seventeen songs clocking in at just over half an hour. The album was written and recorded during the COVID pandemic lockdown, and as a nod to this the band created “COVID Blues,” a modern take on “1919 Influenza Blues,” a song from Essie Jenkins about the last great pandemic. Besides this song of death by disease, there’s also “Quarantine” and “Distanza Sociale,” both songs inspired by the two years we all experienced with little contact with friends and family. “Quarantine,” in particular, has a deeply ominous sound, courtesy of an eerie guitar solo and some judicious use of looping technology. A favorite of the album is “Accretion,” a song whose title means a gradual natural growth through accumulation of material. The song has a loping rhythm and accusatory lyrics asking, “What side are you on? What street are you on?” The song seems to reference the anti-racist protests that grew and spread during the spring summer of 2020, some turning violent when police met peaceful protesters with unjustified force. Another favorite is “Launch,” with a march-like rhythm and sarcastic spoken vocals about “the biggest spectacle the world has ever known.” “This Ain’t Gonna End Well” seems to take all of the political tropes and put them all into one song, as the lyrics reference gun control, voting rights, fake news, pollution, abortion, trickle down economics, and racism. And I like the swagger of “Suspicion,” a song with a strong backbeat, wah pedal in the crunchy guitar, and a cool sing-songy meter to the spoken lyrics. The closing track, “Crisis,” reminds me in some ways of Boston’s The Proletariat, particularly their early stuff, from the guitar tone to the drumming making use of the all the toms, to the call and response vocals. Vortis isn’t slickly produced; it’s certainly unpolished. You can tell they aren’t a professional touring band, and rather are a group of friends playing music for their own enjoyment as much as they do it for others. But often those are the best kind of bands, aren’t they?
BEAR AWAY – A Drastic Tale of Western Living (bearaway.bandcamp.com)
Five labels team up to bring us the debut
full-length LP from this Scarborough, UK band that just formed in 2019. The
band have an emotional pop punk sound, similar to bands such as Hot Water
Music, Bouncing Souls, Iron Chic, and others. Big vocals and big guitars make
for a full, rich sound, and the songs feel ready made for huge group
sing-alongs. The title comes from a lyric in the opening track, “Wake Up and
Smell the Floor.” The song speaks to how fucked up life has become, how society
is cracking, and how life has become empty and meaningless. I love the guitar
sound; with big bright chords and jangly strumming, it’s just gorgeous.
Similarly, the huge guitars on “East Coast,” with one an octave above the
other, give the intro a distinct 80s wave sound. The overarching theme of the
ten songs seems to be our broken Western society, with lyrics referencing
environmental destruction, meaningless votes, and the struggle to earn a
living. There is such a bleak thread throughout the lyrics, though the
instrumentals feel defiant, as if we will go on, even in the face of such
adversity. “Seaside Trash” is a song about that in particular, with lyrics that
talk about growing up running your own life, with hopes and dreams, only to see
them go nowhere. But “We struggled through it all / We just got old and carried
on.” Stoicism as a virtue? Perhaps it’s the best we can hope for. Punk returns
to its nihilistic defeatist roots. Recommended.
DARKO – Sparkle (Thousand Islands Records,
I think this new EP from the UK’s Darko
may be their first recorded output since the 2016 LP, “Bonsai Mammoth.” It’s
certainly their first release with new vocalist Tom West, replacing Dan Smith,
who left the band in 2020 to return home to his native Australia. The band,
perhaps best known for their explosive melodic skate punk style, breaks out of
that strict mold without straying too far from the path. The four tracks are
longer form songs than is typical, ranging from four to eight minutes. Even
with the longer songs, though, they pack enormous energy into these
relentlessly powerful tracks. There’s more complexity in the playing and the
arrangements include funk in some of the bass lines, and even an arena rock
sensibility that comes through sometimes. Such is the case during the opening
of “Aux,” the second track of the EP. As that song evolves, it goes from
slower and smoother to faster and more complex, with big gang vocals and
complex yet jangly guitars. The funkiness comes back in spades in “Cruel to
Be,” spreading to the other instruments, though overall the track never veers
too far from its melodic hardcore mission. Anyone who was concerned about the
departure of Smith can rest assured, Darko are better than
THE INTERESTS – Going Nowhere Fast
After releasing three singles over the last
year, young Londoners The Interests bring us their debut EP, five songs,
including two of the previously released singles. It’s been interesting
following the development of the group, as they started out with very
melancholy retro sounding indie, and with each subsequent release their sound
has gotten brighter. I’ll focus on the three new songs here (You can search
below or at the link at the bottom of the page for reviews of “Capitulation”
and “Feel the Disparity”). The EP’s opener, “It’ll Never Be You,” has a great
bounce to it, the guitar tone and deep vocals giving it the only hint of
darkness. With the exception of “Feel the Disparity,” it’s the brightest
sounding song from the band thus far. The title track is the shortest the band
have released, at just under a minute and a half. It’s a pensive quiet ballad,
with acoustic and electric guitars, making for a very wistful track. “Somber”
is the other new one, and it adds violin to the arrangement, adding warmth to
the otherwise somber song, which is nearly but not quite another ballad. The
guitars are relegated to the back seat, offering occasional jangle or plucked
melody, while the vocals, bass, and violin are in the forefront. It’s a lovely
song, indeed. I’ve enjoyed seeing the Interests grow musically, and look
forward to a full-length LP, hopefully in the near future.
JAWBOX – Live at Metro Chicago 2019 (Arctic Rodeo
Recorded at the last show of
their triumphant reunion tour (which really consisted of several long weekend
runs in various regions of the country), on this new double LP we get
twenty-five tracks spanning the bands entire history (though there is a heavier
focus on their last couple of albums). I was lucky enough to be present at the
show at the Regent in Los Angeles, and the band not only sounded as good or
better than ever, they appeared to be having more fun playing than ever. It was
evident from my vantage point in the crowd, let me tell you. And now that Bill
Barbot has left the band, this will stand as his last recordings with them.
Now, a lot of live recordings sound terrible, or mediocre at best. This one
sounds quite good, with the instrumentals and vocals all coming through quite
clearly. It captures the live energy really well, sounding more emphatic than
the studio versions of these songs. Now, I’m biased when it comes to Jawbox,
because they were one of my favorite bands of the 90s. And though I loved their
earlier albums a little better than the later ones, I must say the live
versions of some of those later songs are pure fire. One particular example is
“Desert Sea,” off the final self-titled studio LP. The original is good enough
but this live version contains more tension that really makes the song work
better than ever. Even “Grip,” from the band’s debut LP, “Grippe,” is edgier
than the original studio recording; it’s livelier, with less of a smoothed out
studio sound. A highlight of the set for me has to be the back-to-back pair of
“Nickel Nickel Millionaire” and “Motorist,” both crackling with energy,
particularly in J Robbins’ vocals. Another is “FF=66,” from “For Your Own
Special Sweetheart.” As powerful as the original studio recording is, this live
performance has to be one of the most intense of the LP. It’s got the sort of
ferocity you would expect from a Steve Albini band, the angularity of the
chords adding to the tension. Another one that’s long been a favorite, “Chinese
Fork Tie, takes on epic proportions in this live performance, with even more
oomph and more unbalanced dissonance than ever. Even “Savory,” which I know was
a popular tune of theirs, but was never one of my favorites, is cranked up to
eleven in this live performance, making it a real standout. The set “closer”
(before a few encores), “Cornflake Girl,” is the perfect ender, especially the
way they ended it, with the muffed final chord modulating and fading out. If
you missed out on Jawbox the first time around, or if you were a fan, this two
record set is a must have. You get more than an hour and a half of Jawbox’s
hits in one of their best live performances ever. Highly recommended.
THE MIKE BELL CARTEL – The Cartel & I (Kool
Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Sounding everything like a 1960s San
Francisco band, rather than a 2022 band based in Helsinki, Finland, The Mike
Bell Cartel cranks out authentic sounding 60s garage pop, tinged with psychedelics.
Guitars buzz and jangle while the drums and bass keep the beat. Farfisa organ
provides a sound so authentic you would swear your ear buds have transported
you back through time. You will believe that these are archival recordings or
at least covers, because Mike Bell (actually Miikka Siira) and his band (Pekka
Laine, Ville Särmä, Samuel Abaujón, and Aaoee Hainola) get this sound spot on.
I hear shades of Iron Butterfly and the Troggs, maybe a bit of 13th Floor
Elevators, but toned down a bit. I even hear a bit of Johnny Rivers (“Secret
Agent Man”) in the song “No Turning Back.” If you’re yearning for the days of
flower power, give this a spin.
MT. ORIANDER – Then the Lightness Leaves and I Become Heavy Again (cylsrecords.com)
Mt. Oriander is none other than Count Your Lucky
Stars label boss Keith Latinen, who sings and plays guitar, bass, drums, and
trumpet on this mostly solo effort. Formerly of Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely
Estate), Latinen quit playing music in 2016, though the urge to write and
record slowly returned over time. Latinen recruited a host of friends to assist
with this album, and the result is a dozen delicate tracks of emotionally
charged indie music. The instrumentals have plenty of room to breathe, and the
vocals have that nerdy yet earnest indie quality. The album is introduced by
the short instrumental, “The Dark Parts of the Map Are Places You Have Not Yet
Visited,” starting very tentatively, punctuated by percussion and trumpet. It’s
a beautiful way to begin, and it leads into “What We Have is You,” a song with
the sort of angular melody that was common in certain circles of 90s indie
music, but just isn’t done much anymore. The world is the poorer for it, and it’s
wonderful to hear Mt. Oriander bring this sound back. Guitars and trumpet play
intertwining melodic lines, while somber thoughtful vocals sing out, telling us
stories. We get some upbeat songs, too, with a lively rhythm and richer
instrumentals, but still with the somber vocals. Such is the case with “If This
is Sadness, I Don't Like It One Bit.” Songs with a shiny bounce and a
melancholy message are always a joy. We also get very tentative instrumentals
on some songs, where it feels like Latinen is heightening the sense of
uncertainty. A good example of this is “A Drawing of a Bird that You Have Never
Seen Before,” in which he admonishes someone, calling them out for not pulling
their punches like they think they do, for “throwing stones from your house up
on the hill you were looking to die on,” and “I don’t need you to fix me.” The
sadness of the lyrics this time is matched by the gorgeous restraint of the
instrumentals. I adore the choices made in some of the arrangements, including
violin in the very pretty instrumental, “If Only Something Would Go Right for a
Change.” Lovely, lovely stuff.
NEW JUNK CITY – Beg A Promise (A-F Records, www.a-frecords.com)
This Atlanta punk outfit’s latest LP is big and
broad, with a huge open and emotional sound. The songs are catchy and poppy,
yet crunchy and heartfelt. Every hook is bigger than the last one, the power
level remaining cranked all the way up throughout almost the entire album. I
even hear synths in the mix, something that’s slowly becoming more common in
some punk circles, but it doesn’t feel out of place at all. “High Contrast”
opens the record, with guitars jangling and screaming like mad, passionate
vocals belted out, and bass and drums propelling the song. We get a series of
huge powerful tracks, relentlessly pulling at your heart with fiery and
forceful music and zealous vocals. “Rosey” eases things up, but just a bit. The
instrumentals and vocals are dialed back to a smoother feel with a power pop
jangle in the melody. The use of harmonized and contrasting backing vocals
against the lead vocals is effective and very pretty. The bands that are
brought to mind are RVIVR and Iron Chic, but mixed with a West Coast pop punk
sensibility from bands like Nothington, Western Settings, or Caskitt. Things do
calm down briefly, as the band do an acoustic reprise of the fourth song, “Old
Maid,” a melancholy tune with an up-tempo beat. While the first version is
brisk and broad, the reprise is solemn and serene, with just acoustic guitar,
subdued synth, and vocals. The finale, “Sold In Bunches,” is glorious and epic,
a fitting finish for a dazzling LP.
THE STOOLS / TOEHEADS – Watch It Die (Drunken
Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)
Two Detroit bands
and ten songs; it’s a split LP! Both bands play deep, gritty garage punk, but
there are punk and rockabilly undertones to many of the songs, and even a bit
of surf. The Stools get the A-side, and open with “Dead Man’s Ford,” a track
loaded with distortion and power, a rockabilly rhythm and surf guitar in the
chorus. “Fascist Cupid,” too, blends garage rock with sparkly twangy guitar
that gives the song a unique and compelling sound. Then we get “Strong Street
Stranglehold,” which just a deep heavy garage punk tune in the vein of The MC5
or The Stooges, except even heavier and grittier. “Evil” has a great blend of
early punk and garage, speedy and insistent, reminding me of Mexico’s DFMK. But
The Stools save the best for last, with “Harsh Green River,” a manic tune
mixing all the aforementioned genres into something that’s simple, yet
effective. Just this one song is enough to make ne want to see them live.
Toeheads side features songs that are no less noisy and chaotic, no less filled
with powerful garage rock, but maybe deeper in on the rockabilly sensibilities,
at least on the first track, “Wanna Be Alone.” “Haista Vittu!” is pretty
straightforward garage rock and roll, but “Painkiller” is my favorite of their
side; it feels more insistent, more urgent, and more melodic than the rest. I
can hear some rockabilly influence buried in there and some power pop too, but
it’s all deeply entombed in some of the loudest most raucous rock and roll
you’ll ever hear. “Water War” mixes a mod feel into the raw punk rock, and the
closer, “I Want To Be In Your Life (So I'll Die),” is a major departure, with a
slower, calmer power pop ballad. Split LPs aren’t that common, and this is a
BANDA DESTRUIDA (Beer City Records & Skateboards, beercity.com)
Banda Destruida, which translates into “Destroyed Band,” is a group out of Chile formed in 2013. Initially a duo that formed when Losmodestos broke up, the pair added a bassist as they worked over the years to write and record songs that mutated over time. The recent political upheaval and change in Chile also prompted the group to add some inspiration from Chilean folk music, emblematic of the left and a movement that went into exile after the military coup of 1973. The band’s songs are an interesting mix of early punk, garage, indie, math, free jazz, and Chilean folk. The addition of Mauricio Tapia on bass injects a NOMEANSNO sort of punk-funk to some of the songs, too. And I don’t mean some of the songs are in one style and others in a different one. They mix things up within songs, too. The opening track, “Infulas” (Intruders), starts out as a caustic early punk tune, then, with distortion turned up and the bass getting more prominent, takes on a hard rock feel. The meter changes to 3/4 waltz time and we’re treated to a pretty folk melody. The song returns to straight time for a bit, getting manic, and then the rhythms shift and chaos reigns. Songs have fascinating arrangements, with some including instruments such as accordion, trumpet, flute and more, injecting a ton of Latin and folk into the garage punk proceedings. The frequent shifts between melodic singing and speaking of lyrics, the rapid tempo and meter changes, and the huge dynamic range make these songs engaging and fascinating. Such is the case with “Prepotencia” (Arrogance), which goes through a number of mood shifts, but is mainly very much in-your-face early punk mixed with frantic indie. I adore “Pepikan,” a mostly instrumental folk dance tune that shifts between dark and bright, twisted and joyful. And there’s an updated noise-rock version of “Lonquén,” the iconic song from early ‘70s Chilean folk band Sol y Lluvia. It has a more insistent rhythm and urgent feel than the original, using electric instruments in place of acoustic. “Radicalito” is an instrumental that shifts between rough punked music and breezy speedy jazz-funk, with Tapia’s amazing bass lines flying all over the place. I could go on an on, but I’ll just end by saying this is one of the most creative and interesting records I’ve listened to this year. It doesn’t even matter that all the lyrics are in Spanish and I don’t know what they’re saying.
GIFT – Momentary Presence (Dedstrange, dedstrange.bandcamp.com)
Imagine taking 80s new wave and melding it with the dreamiest dream pop you can imagine, then throw in healthy doses of psych and Krautrock. The sound you now have in your mind is a good approximation of what you’ll experience as you listen to “Momentary Presence,” GIFT’S debut full-length LP (yes, they spell their name in all caps). The songs have a strong dance-like beat, and ambient synths swirl all around while guitars and synth play 80s melodies. I hear strong influence from Bill Nelson, as well as Neu and Stereolab here, with celestial sounds fusing with dance club and new wave tones. Minimalist repeating melodic lines abound, albeit in a very hazy dreamy way. In the song, “Share the Present,” I even hear echoes of Vangelis, from his “Heaven and Hell” album. Each of the ten songs is performed on a grand scale, as if it’s the finale of some epic science fiction film from 1980. “Dune” has a distinct Krautrock throb to it, along with a twee pop melody played on bright buzzy synths, making it one of the more unique tracks of the album. Pity it’s such a short instrumental interlude. I like the mix of spaced-out bliss and mechanical beats, and how expansive the music is. The one thing, though, is a lot of the songs tend to blend into one another.
GIVE YOU NOTHING – Songs for the Broken (People of Punk Rock Records, peopleofpunkrockrecords.com)
Formed by veterans of the Bay Area punk and hardcore scene, Give You Nothing specialize in crunchy metallic skate punk and post hardcore. Some of the songs on this, their third album, lean heavily into that 2000s melodic hardcore sound. This is especially true in the front half of the record, with lots of metallic and melodic punk. It’s fine for what it is, but the sound is somewhat generic, given the large number of bands that have played this genre for the last couple of decades. Where things get more interesting, though, is when the band mixes things up, injecting bright pop melodies and old school hardcore sensibilities. This starts with “The Hardest Part,” which is poppier and lighter than the preceding tracks, though still with a lot of crunch in the guitars. The band’s transformation continues in fits and starts through the remainder of the album. “Price of Words” is more of a pop punk tune than anything else on the LP, with a pep and liveliness to it, a sense of fun that’s missing from the heavier metallic skate punk sounds of other songs. “Astray” takes old school hardcore and gives it the 90s skate punk treatment, making it a standout of the LP. It’s like if Minor Threat was playing metallic hardcore with a dose of pop melody in the 1990s. “Elemental,” too, has that mix of old and new, speedy pace, and big gang vocals. To sum up: The band executes their songs well, most of them are somewhat generic, and there are a few songs that stand out from the rest.
KID YOU NOT – Here’s to Feelin’ Good All the Time (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Bypolar Records, bypolarrecords.com)
Florida’s Kid You Not returns with their fourth full-length LP full of emotionally charged pop-filled punk rock. The songs are big and anthemic, filled with tons of gang vocals, some even with hints of harmonizing. These are songs to play in a small club, with everyone crowded to the front, beers in hand, shouting along with every song. Some bands that play this style of music have gritty vocals and an abrasive sound, but Kid You Not are smoother, while still retaining a large dose of angst and passion and a proper raw DIY drive. I hear shades of Caskitt and Western Settings, two former San Diego bands that often played songs in this vein. Maybe some Neckscars, and maybe some Menzingers, but with less polish and more oomph. Song titles reveal the darkness of the songs, like “I Am Who I Am, and I Wish I Weren’t” and “Doomscrolling.” As gloomy as the titles may be, the songs feel more uplifting, defiant in the face of despair. One of the biggest songs of the LP is “Last of a Lost Generation,” with a slower pace and a gradual build up. It starts with quietly jangling guitars and big vocals and grows from there, with an ending that dissolves into eerie, ghostly voices. Another huge one is “Fire Sale! (Everything Must Go),” which has the feeling of a set-ender. I was surprised to find it wasn’t the last song of the LP. A favorite is “The Longer It Isn’t Us, The More It Will Happen.” It’s more upbeat sounding than other songs on the LP, and has a real sense of forward momentum and optimism. There’s even a humorous studio moment left in, at the start of “I'm Not Superstitious, But I Am A Little Stitious,” when we hear one band member say to another, “Alright, I got an idea, why don’t you try playing it right?” followed by a lot of laughs. The closing track, “Here's To Feelin' Good All The Time,” opens with the sound of a religious hymn, then turns into another big sing-along punk song. I really need Kid You Not to get a west coast tour planned.
LIBRARIANS WITH HICKEYS – Handclaps & Tambourines (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)
To follow-up their 2020 debut LP, “Long Overdue,” Librarians with Hickeys return with their sophomore effort, “Handclaps & Tambourines,” a dozen songs of light, jangly power pop tunes. But it’s not just plain ordinary power pop; rather Librarians with Hickeys inject hints of psych and hints of dream pop, creating something that rocks, bit is also just a little spaced out. The resulting songs have a warmth about them, and an easy feel. One highlight is the lovely “Ghost Singer,” a song with a retro feel and loads of jangly guitar. Where vocals sometimes feel breathless, in this case it’s the instrumentals. The song is about crossed communications and missed opportunities, with lyrics that speak to an inability to hear and understand someone, and that “time will always be between us.” I really like “Can’t Wait Till Summer,” a song that’s less about a season than it is about the cold winter of loneliness and the longing for the warmth of companionship. The bridge has a rich modern dream-pop sound, thick and lush, more so than the other songs. It’s a really pretty song. As is the simple, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” a charming song of longing. As with the other songs, the guitars twinkle brightly. The blend of acoustic and electric guitars on the lithe “Last Days of Summer” makes me think of the folk rock movement of the 60s and 70s, in which elements of ancient pagan folk music were fused with modern psych and pop. Librarians with Hickeys aren’t breaking new ground, nor are they going to open up the pit. Nevertheless, this is a really nice record, the kind I will listen to again, particularly playing softly while curled up with a good book or with a companion.
SWEET TEETH – High Anxiety (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
Swedish band Sweet Teeth present their debut full-length LP, coming just over a year past their “Acid Rain” mini-LP. The band take the late 80s/early 90s alternative rock sound that came out of the mix of post punk and pop, and give it a modern spin. Think bands like Hüsker Dü, which was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind listening to this. The thick, raucous, noisy wall of guitar sound, blended with a jangle pop sensibility and gruff yet melodious vocals, is a great sound. Mix in a dose of the angst-filled tunes of Beach Slang and the picture is complete. The opening track, “High Anxiety,” begins with the sort of explosive sound and repetitive melodic lines that we got from Beach Slang, but the thick jangle is pure Hüsker Dü. On songs like “Love Panic,” and “Soul Sunday,” there’s even the sort of melodic pop sound of Dinosaur Jr., though with a grittier tone. Some songs lean heavily toward the Beach Slang sounds, with a broad guitar jangle and heart-on-your sleeve vocals. Songs like “October,” “Too Good, and “No Me” fall into this category. Sweet Teeth’s sound may be somewhat derivative of those who have gone before them, but it’s a great sound, and this is an enjoyable album.
DAN VAPID AND THE CHEATS – Welcome to Dystopia (Eccentric Pop Records, eccentricpop.bigcartel.com)
Chicago’s Dan Vapid has been around the punk rock block. He’s played in Screeching Weasel, The Riverdales, The Methodones, The Mopes, and more. He started Dan Vapid and the Cheats in 2011, and now comes their fifth full-length LP, “Welcome to Dystopia.” The record reflects the surrealism that has overtaken the world in the past few years of pandemics, MAGA insurrections, and mass protests.
Musically, the songs range from hard rock to garage rock (some reminiscent of early Angry Samoans) to pop punk (some of which sounds similar to earlier Green Day). Several of the songs deal with the state of social media, our cultural garbage dump. “Fact and Fiction” has an early punk sound and speaks to how, online, “you can’t separate fact from fiction,” where algorithms turn your experience into an echo chamber.
“Anti-Science” is a very Green Day-like song, about the dumbing down of America and the spread of online misinformation. “Who needs evidence? Who needs common sense?” is the refrain here, demonstrating that people will believe what they want to believe, what makes them happier, rather than what’s real – especially if what they want to believe is posted to the Internet. “Boiling Over,” too, is about interacting with ignorant people on social media and getting irate, wasting one’s time arguing with these phantoms of the Internet. Musically this one is hard rock in the vein of early metal. Sour Pauline” and “Bad Blood” are down and dirty rock and roll, the kind your grandmother warned your mom about. A favorite is “Mr. Belittle,” which crosses the rocking power pop of The Romantics with the pop punk of Green Day. A couple of others are the back to back pair of retro garage punk tracks, including “Let Me Out” and “Strapped,” with a grittier feel than most of the other tracks. The album features a diversity of musical styles, tight performances, and strong social messages. Recommended.
THE ERADICATOR – Forever the Eradicator (Stonewalled, stonewalled.bandcamp.com)
Alas, the mighty Eradicator has announced his retirement from both squash and music, hanging up his black mask and his racquet, but not before giving us one last explosive album full of post-hardcore musical mayhem. The mysterious sportsman has pulled out all the stops on this, his final outing, and the anarchy is stronger than ever. Loud distorted guitars, pounding drums, buzzing synth, and throbbing bass meld into a mass of metallic cacophony, but a sense of melody is never neglected. And, of course, the songs are universally about the sport of champions, squash (and other racquet sports). The album intro, “Squash Stomp, is pure crunchy metal, with no punk pretensions, while “You Can’t Play Me” introduces the key sound for the rest of the album: pop punk melody masked in post-hardcore fury, similar to how The Eradicator masks himself. It’s a favorite of the album, the peppiness and the power vying for dominance, just as the Eradicator battles others on the court. I enjoy, too, the confessional track, “Can’t Play Well With Others.” The poppy sing-along song with its huge chorus is buried under mounds of distortion, like trying to watch a distant TV station through the snowy picture, your TV antenna adjusting to try to make order from the chaos. “Figures” has a bit of start-stop punk rock like Big Black, but it’s sped up and even more uncontrolled, a jumble of art-core. “John the Squash Man” is a fun one, with a big pub-like sing-along melody barely buried by the distortion and screaming vocals. “Tennis World” has a fantastic 80s alternative pop melody, with huge glorious guitars, but again, as is the case with the Eradicator, chaos reigns supreme, and the song is blanketed in thrash. The penultimate song is the title track, and is the farewell message from our hero, starting as a spacey synth ambience, recounting his past successes and assuring us that, though we might not see him, he will always be with us, as the song then explodes into a furious raging departure. We’re then left with a Clash cover, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” as if the Eradicator is having second thoughts about leaving. Is this really the end of The Eradicator? Start searching for him anywhere you can play a squash match. He might be lurking there, waiting for his next challenger.
THE SLACKERS – "New York Berlin" / "Tell Them No" (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
Two new songs from the modern masters of rock steady, and with typically gorgeous Pirates Press packaging, this is a 12” single on UV printed vinyl. The A-side is a cool one, mixing in some honky-tonk feel, and the lyrics are about traveling and living all over the world, always thinking that somewhere else and other times were better, and always missing the people and places. This one’s a real head-bobber. The B-side leans a bit toward a reggae beat, adds in a dose of R&B, and paints over it with a power pop/punk gloss. It’s a song of empowerment, about standing up for one’s self in the face of bullies and nay-sayers. This single is a worthy addition to the Slackers’ extensive catalog.
VARIOUS – This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio Volume 5 (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Thirty years ago, Dana and Carl began hosting the radio program ”We’re Your Friends Now,” and to celebrate (and raise money for Spark Radio, which hosts the program), Kool Kat Musik presents Volume 5 of the compilation series the pair have curated from their collection. Ranging from girl groups to classic rock to power pop and bubble gum, and everything in between, the 23 songs here represent the sort of music you can hear on their program. It’s an eclectic mix, some tracks better than others, but none are outright stinkers. That’s a testament to Dana and Carl’s tastes and hosting abilities. Interspersed, too, are recorded greetings from various musicians, just like you might hear on the radio. There are some highlights of note. The opening song, Laurie Biagini’s “Hey, Mr. DJ,” blends 60s girl group sounds with AM pop and 90s indie pop, and its loping beat it sure to get your toes tapping. Pop Co-Op’s “ Americana-laced pop tune, “Extra Beat In My Heart” feels more like real country than anything coming out of the Nashville music machine, with power-pop sensibility, plenty of twang, and gorgeous harmonized vocals. I like Hoover and Martinez’s “What the Heart Wants,” a lovely pop tune made even better with a lush arrangement that features glockenspiel, piano, harmonized vocals, and periodic key changes. In addition to the retro sounds, there are some modern indie tracks included too, such as “Pretend to Pretend" by Deadlights. Arielle Eden’s voice is gorgeous in the indie meets Americana track “Sagittarius.” The song has a very delicate touch, with loads of jangly acoustic guitar. I really like “Forget About Him,” a lilting tune that mixes jangly indie and power pop. Ballzy Tomorrow is a ballsy name for a band, but their track “Out There” is a favorite, blending in riffs that sound influenced by classical music, particularly Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” You’re not going to find anything heavy or grinding here, but if you like light power pop, Americana, and the like, you’re going to really enjoy this collection. I know I did.
2ND GRADE – Easy Listening (dbldblwhmmy.com)
Take a base that’s equal parts power pop and AM bubblegum, add a dash of classic rock and a sprinkling of modern indie rock, and you’ve got the recipe for 2nd Grade’s sophomore full-length LP. The music is generally exuberant, bright, and bubbly. “Hung Up” is a favorite song, with sparkling pop content and a lovely bounce. A couple of the songs almost lean into pop punk territory, with a more aggressive sound. “Beat of the Drum,” with its prominent harmonics over the beachy surf-punk power pop number is one of these, and another favorite, the harmonics creating incredible tension. “Teenage Overpopulation” is another, with a nice raucous pop sound. And the way too short “Which Itch Are You Scratching Today” has fuzzed out guitars and a cynical sneer. There are some songs with weird humor, such as “Kramer in LA,” a letter from the “Seinfeld” character to his friend Jerry, back in New York. It’s a melancholy yet jazzy song, with just vocals and electric guitar, and the end includes the sound of a phonograph needle in the run out groove of a record. This effect is used on a few other songs, too, including the title track, which closes the album. I also like “Hand of the Brand;” it’s lovely jangly pop music, with the intentional sound of an intimate bedroom recording. While 2nd Grade aren’t creating anything new and original here, they do a solid job creating an enjoyable album.
THE AIRPORT 77'S – We Realize You Have A Choice (Jem Records)
Named for the third film in the successful film franchise, The Airport 77s are a power pop band that takes the late 70s guitar-fueled genre and blends in 80s new wave synths. The result is something that has the power and appeal of power pop with a rocking dance beat and an ethereal atmosphere. In the case of “Birthday Girl,” they also include a disco sensibility, making this a very danceable track, even as it’s got more guttural rock and roll content (including an arena rock guitar solo). I like the mix of power pop and new wave angularity in “Bad Together,” and the retro pop sounds of “All Torn Up Over Tina,” a track that bridges the gap between 60s pop and 70s power pop. Sometimes the music veers pretty strongly toward 70s AM pop rock territory. Such is the case with “Somebody,” a track that blends a mild Latino pop sound with a strong commercial pop rock sensibility. Latin pop sounds also show up in “Honey Don’t” and “Since The Circus Left Town,” and they’re my least favorite tracks of the album. They try to sound romantic and steamy, but I don’t think they do. It’s a mixed bag for me.
DRAKULAS – Drunk Dial #10 (drunkdialrecords.com)
If you’re unfamiliar with Drunk Dial Records and how they operate, well, I’ll tell you. They invite their favorite bands into the studio to record, asking them to write one original song and to play one cover, one song for each side of the 7” single. But wait, there’s more! They have to write and record these songs while drunk! The results are often…interesting. In the case of Texas garage proto-punks Drakulas, the original is a song called “Shame.” Booming bass, pounding drums, and wall of distorted guitar accompany front man Mike Wiebe’s rocking vocals. It’s a worthy addition to the Drakulas’ song catalog, fitting right in with the rest of their output. The cover on the B-side is “Three Sisters,” the Jim Carroll Band number. Wiebe’s vocals capture Carroll’s poetic aesthetic, with a sing-song-like spoken delivery. You can feel the degeneracy through the speakers. The instrumentals are darker and grittier than the original, an appropriate update for modern audiences, but the ‘80s blend of power pop and new wave is still very present. This is a cool idea and a cool record. Grab it while you can!
NE’ER-DO-WELL – "Fun Days" (neerdowell.bandcamp.com)
Ne’er-Do-Well is the vision of a single man, Bryan Rolli. But Rolli must have a split personality, because I hear different genres here. The opening track, “Compromise,” is a solid pop punk anthem about the struggle with trying to live to ideals versus making compromises. It’s the best track of the five on offer, because from there we delve into the world of arena rock. “Feel No Pain” and “Wasteland” are the sort of wanky commercial rock that turned me off back in the 70s and 80s, and the antithesis of the punk movement that grew to counter it. “The Truth” brings us back to something more a kin to alternative rock, with a great pop melody. The closing track, “I’m Not Getting Any Younger,” is the obligatory ballad, and it’s an attempt to bridge the arena rock and pop punk sounds into one. I was never a fan of arena rock, and this EP has not changed my mind.
PUSH PUPPETS – Allegory Grey (laurelcanyonrecords.com)
Start with a power pop base, then blend it with soft pop rock, and you’ve got the recipe Push Puppets use to create music. The suburban Chicago band appear to be strong proponents of what used to be called the “adult contemporary” genre, rock and roll based music, but with softened edges; music that appeals to people as they grow older. The music is all very smooth and even-tempered, perhaps too much so. Injecting a little more passion and a larger dynamic range would go a long way to improve things. Not to say this is a bad record. These songs have potential. The melodic sensibility is really good, injecting a good dose of indie rock into the proceedings. But it’s all just a little…too easy and relaxed sounding. “Sometimes The Buds Never Flower” has a nice melody, a 60s pop rhythm, and an emotional story-telling style in the vocals, though those vocals are very even keeled I’m not sure what advice I could give other than to add a little more passion to the song. The song writing and arrangements, on the other hand, are really nice; the melodies are pretty and the arrangements have just the right mix of simplicity and complexity. I adore “Perfect Picture,” a song that perfectly matches the band’s style. It’s a gorgeous acoustic guitar driven song, with soft string synth ambience. But the band could use with a little more… oomph.
SHRUG DEALER – Infested
In the Spring of 2021, Shrug Dealer re-released a remastered version of their debut EP, which I raved about over its mix of melodic pop punk and speedy metallic skate punk, and its sarcastic and politically conscious lyrics. They band are continuing in 2022 with all new music: an eight song EP that clocks in at 15 minutes. It takes the formula of that debut and amps it up even more. If you’re a fan of bands like Pears or Lagwagon, this is something that needs to be on your radar. The songs are speedy, hard-edged, yet bouncy and poppy. The musicianship is outstanding and the band is tight. Songs range from the serious “Summer Camp,” which speaks to the government’s treatment of refugees at our border, putting them into cages that are more like animal kennels, to the ridiculous “Get To The Point,” which consists of 8 seconds of music and a shout of the song title. It’s a bit reminiscent of Descendent’s “ALL” in that respect. “The Call of Epigon” is a hoot, starting out as a heavy metallic track, and then morphing into a disco-funk-rock track at the bridge. The opener, “Participation Trophy,” is a great rager that decries the sense of entitlement that our society has baked into itself, and may be my favorite track of the bunch. It’s hard-hitting, musically and lyrically, yet incredibly poppy, too. The EP has a feeling of controlled chaos and intense fun and energy. Recommended.
A VULTURE WAKE – Animal (thousandislandsrecords.com)
A Vulture Wake has been quite prolific lately. It wasn’t that long ago that I reviewed their EP, “Kingdom,” and now they’ve released another new EP. And, in fact, “Kingdom” and “Animal” are being released together as an LP, “One.Kingdom.Animal,” in the coming weeks. Since I’ve already reviewed the A-side of the LP, this review will focus on the B-side, the “Animal” EP that came out mere weeks ago. As I noted in the earlier review, A Vulture Wake can best be described as a “progressive punk” band, blending 90s melodic punk with the intricacies of earlier progressive rock. Plenty of metallic flourishes and guitar solos make their way into the songs, as well, and some of them even veer into angular math-pop realm. It makes for an interesting listen, though when the band gets to be too metallic, like on “Life Is Snakes,Mice are Men,” it doesn’t do a lot for me. That song takes metal and grunge rock sounds of bands like Peal Jam and mix then together. On the other hand, songs like “The Fool Must Be Killed,” with a very ALL-like opening and bits of that angularity, and a big open melodic punk sound on the chorus, is pretty tasty. “Lost Cause of the Year” is smoother and leans more toward alternative rock than punk, with very passionate vocals from front man Chad Price. And Price’s commitment to the songs, the ardor that comes through in his vocals, may be one of the most compelling things about A Vulture Wake that keeps me listening.
PILOT TO GUNNER / HER HEAD’S ON FIRE – Split EP (mindovermatterrecords.com)
Each band contributes one song for this new split single. Pilot to Gunner’s is “Gone For Real,” a leftover track from their “Hail Hallucinator” LP recording sessions. And, while unused songs from the studio are usually throw-aways, this song has a great 90s post-punk meets post-hardcore sound, as if Jawbox, Tar, and Quicksand were mixed together. Her Head’s On Fire gives us a cover, the early Goo Goo Dolls track, “Just the Way You Are.” It’s a bright, spirited rendition that stays very true to the original. Both songs are very enjoyable, and as far as splits go, this is a good one.
CELEBRATION SUMMER – Patience in Presence (A-F Records, a-frecords.com)
I’m not sure if this band took their name as an homage to one of the greatest songs of all time, “Celebrated Summer,” the Hüsker Dü classic. Regardless, they don’t sound like the Minneapolis legends. Instead the sound like a mash-up of DC post punk and Fest-like pop punk, more so the latter. I can tell they’re David Lynch fans, too, because the LP opens and closes with Twin Peaks sound clips. At the start, the giant tells us, “The owls are not what they seem,” one of the more mysterious quotes from the series. They then launch into the title track, a very DC-like post punk rager, with emotive vocals and guitars shouting minimalist melodic phrases. It’s a strong way to start the LP, as the song’s chorus is more melodic and the verses and bridge are less so. Other tracks are less post punk and more pop punk, with the sort of sound associated with bands that play The Fest. Gruff vocals are accompanied by up-tempo guitar, bass, and drums, with an appropriate amount of distortion. It’s almost as if they’ve modeled themselves after Tiltwheel, which is high praise, because they’re another favorite band. “Disconnected” is a great song about living for the moment, and was written during the COVID lockdown. “Let’s go wild / Let’s run through the streets,” the song exhorts. “Let’s act like the world’s not sick and set ourselves free / Fuck tomorrow because there’s only tonight.” The song is huge and grand, as it should be, because we should burn brightly always, like there’s no tomorrow. This song sets the template for the rest of the album, and reveals the real character of Celebration Summer. The one exception (other than the opening track) is “Take My Love,” a darker track that I suppose doesn’t work as well for me as the rest of the album. These are all big anthemic songs that encourage the crowd to press to the front of the room and sing along, fist pumping high and beer getting spilled all over each other. The capper is that Celebration Summer ends the album with a fantastic Tiltwheel cover, “Hold My Hand To Make Them Go Away,” off the 2002 split EP with Watch It Burn. They start out with a yell, “We love this shit!” and off they go into their version of the song, staying true to the original greatness. And then comes the other Twin Peaks clip, in which Agent Cooper gushes over the great cup of coffee he got at the Double R Diner. Yeah, I love this shit, too.
CRISIS PARTY – Welcome to the Party (Dirt Cult Records, dirtcultrecords.com)
Musically, this Canadian band blends garage punk and post punk, painting the whole thing with a dark brush. The resulting sound has echoes of bands such as The Wipers. Sometimes the music brightens just a bit and goes from dark drone to a hint of poppy melody, sort of like when the sun peaks out from behind a thick layer of clouds. Sometimes, with the rhythmic strumming of the guitars, I get hints of the Denton, Texas garage punk sound of Marked Men, only darker. The instrumentals on this five-song EP are great, loaded with distortion and stabs of guitar harmonics. The opener, “Warble,” has a great feeling of forward motion, and builds through the song. And the dark lope of “Exist” brings to mind the early days of New England’s The Proletariat. “Numbers” has a quicker pace and is the track that brought up the Denton reference, with the guitars almost used as a percussion instrument. Musically, I really enjoy this EP. But the thing I don’t enjoy is the vocal quality. The singing is halfway between singing and shouting, which normally isn’t a problem, but the vocals seem to be in a different key than the instrumentals, so they come off as grating. They mar an otherwise good EP.
EXPERT TIMING – Stargazing (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, cylsrecords.com)
Expert Timing are two bands in one, playing pretty indie pop melodies with gritty grunge instrumentals. But rather than switching between the two styles, as they did on their “Whichever, Whatever” EP I reviewed a couple years ago, the two disparate styles are fully integrated with each other in the eleven songs here. Even when Katrina is singing, the instrumentals, though slightly brighter than when Jeff sings, are still sufficiently gritty to qualify as “grunge-like.” People who like indie-pop but never liked grunge and vice versa will unite and celebrate because the combination of these two genres works quite well. Check out “New Queen,” with instrumentals that will remind you of 1990s Seattle, but vocals and melody that come from more of an east coast indie scene. It’s a genius combination. I really like “The Bigger Picture,” particularly for its massive math-like instrumental toward the end, and its meandering guitar line. The back half of the album gets grungier with a deeper bass and dirtier guitar tone, and even in the vocals, but the melodic sensibility never leaves, and the songs still bounce and jangle. The penultimate track, “I Can See You Dancing,” flips the whole concept on its head, with a grunge melody played with quiet clean guitar and sung with sweet, clear vocals. That is, until the end, when the grunge tone returns at the end of the song. Expert, indeed.
STRAIGHTLINE – Keep Your Cool (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com / Lockjaw Records, www.lockjawrecords.co.uk)
Munich’s Straightline returns with their first LP in more than five years. It’s the band’s sixth LP, and it features primarily speedy crunchy metallic skate punk. It’s so metallic that taking this album with you to an airport is liable to set off the metal detector. It’s pounding and relentless, the punk aspects coming primarily from the gang vocals, speed, and melodic lines. The arrangements are pure metal, though, for the most part. A perfect example of this is “Shame On You,” with its hair metal guitar solos and guitar tone. Even the gang vocals can’t punk this one up – it’s more mid-tempo, pure metal, and not my thing. “Stood For Something Else” is an interesting mash-up of metal, thrash, 90s post hardcore, and…rap? Songs like “Dead Certain” and the opening track, “Global Frustration,” are more palatable and more familiar sounding modern skate punk. To my ear, “Undone” is the best song of the LP, with more of a bouncy pop punk feel, rather than the skate punk or metals sounds. “Dead Certain,” in particular, is speedy, but with more pop and less metal, so is more enjoyable. “Earth Defenders,” too, focuses more on a pop melody than the guitar flourishes or speed. If you’re a fan of metal and skate punk, you’ll probably dig this. The few poppier songs weren’t enough for me to want to listen more.
SUZI MOON – Dumb & In Love (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
You can take the person out of Southern California, but you can’t take Southern California out of person, to paraphrase a famous adage. Suzi Moon may have relocated from sunny Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., but her music still has a west coast sparkle. And it’s even more so on this, her debut full-length LP. While her two previous EPs focused on a grittier rock and roll sound, the new LP is downright bright and poppy. It still is gritty rock and roll, but there’s a lot of SoCal pop punk in the ten songs here. When I looked at the credits and noted that the LP was produced by Davey Warsop, it all made sense. Warsop is the noted producer of Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s records, and this LP, though grittier than BC/BC, has a similar feel of both defiance and optimism. And it makes even more sense when you find out these songs were recorded before the two EPs, and before relocating to DC. I love “Family,” the second track of the album, a brilliant song full of looking to past memories of family, both good and bad, to chart a bold and hopeful future. “I Go Blind” is a song of longing, and you can feel the aching heart in the mid-tempo song, the pounding drums, and the passionate vocals. “Honey” is a great power pop track, too, with a bold melody and big dynamic range. Speaking of Bad Cop/Bad Cop. “Any Other Way” could have easily come from that band, with Moon’s vocals sounding so much like Stacey Dee and big pop punk melody and arrangement. The sweet instrumentals and sassy vocals are a great combination. While there’s plenty of pop goodness in the songs here, there’s still gritty rock and roll, such as on the title track and on the fun bouncy garage-pop “99 Miles to Pasadena.” And the closing track, “Freedom,” uses acoustic guitars to inject a dose of Americana, Moon’s vocals smoother here. But overall this album is brighter and more joyful sounding than the (excellent) EPs, and I find it to be even better than those earlier releases. Recommended.
TITE NAUTS – Denim & Smoke (Dirt Cult Records, dirtcultrecords.com)
The quip on Tite Nauts’ bandcamp page says, “What if Black Fork and Black Sabbath had a baby? And the baby was sucking on Agent Orange tits?” That’s a reasonably apt description for this debut LP from the Chico, California band. The songs have elements of early metal a la Sabbath, a Northern California punk aesthetic, and maybe just a hint of surf punk guitar sounds. The sparseness of the arrangements and guitar sounds reminds me, too, of The Proletariat, the second band I’ve said this about this week. And they’re both Dirt Cult releases! It’s interesting how label boss Chris Mason goes through musical phases, putting out multiple records of a particular sub-genre that’s grabbed his fancy. It’s something that usually doesn’t steer him wrong. The album opens with “Calling In Dead,” a song about our broken American healthcare system, how our nation does not protect its citizens who get sick. A for-profit health system and lack of laws allowing employers to dock pay for sick time or even fire employees who have serious illnesses such as cancer. It’s possibly my favorite song of the album, with a strong 80s post-punk sound. “Internalized Lies” is another one leaning more toward the post-punk flavor, and its rapid-fire line, with the bass and guitars follow in unison, is pretty cool. And “Gender Reveal Party” is a punky tune about the obsession with genders and gender stereotypes, the titular events used as a signal to friends and family about what “appropriate” gifts would be for the baby to come. The most hardcore song of the album has to be “Antifas On Your Lawn,” a song that ridicules the paranoia of the right wing about the Antifa movement. The Sabbath-like songs, the ones that are slower and grungier, are less successful to me, but that’s just my taste. The band executes them well, so if you’re into mildly proto-grunge type music, you’re likely to enjoy them. Songs like “Sheep Drench,” about people who fall down the Internet conspiracy theory rabbit hole and sometimes engage in self-harming activities because of something they saw online, have that sound, and they’re fine, they just aren’t my thing. Likewise, “Unobtanium” is about how money drives everything in society, and things like housing, food, paying student loans, and healthcare are expensive and out of reach for a growing number of people in our country. Though the music isn’t my thing, the sentiments in the lyrics of the songs are spot on. A third category is that of good old indie rock. “Living Without You” is a fantastic song of this ilk, with a pop melody and pretty guitar intertwining guitar lines. This record is a mixed bag for me.
DAMFINO – Skywriting By Word Of Mouth (damfino.bandcamp.com)
Damfino presents their latest LP, an eclectic mix of music that ranges from singer-songwriter style to folksy, to Americana, and indie. There are lovely light jangly tunes like “Streetscenes,” which opens the LP. It’s a pretty number about the simple joys of going out and enjoying the city at night. Guitar, bass, and drums are supplemented by piano, accordion, and mellotron, creating a pleasant easy sound. Some songs are a bit of adult contemporary pop, such as the lilting “Chew a Little Ice.” It’s got a casual lounge-jazz-folk quality about it. The use of South Asian instruments, such as the shahi baaja and tanpura, brings a sense of the exotic to the otherwise Americana tune, “Any Road.” And there are darker songs, like the dusty “Purple Dot,” which also uses interestingly freaky production and electric sitar. I really enjoy “The Art Closet,” which reminds me of the post-punk of the 80s. The rolling melody and bass line propel the fun song about using and abusing art supplies, such as Elmer’s glue and magic markers, after your parents have gone out. One thing that Damfino front-man Joe Merklee does that gives a lot of these songs their strong jangly feel is that he uses a 12-string guitar. The thickness of that sound really contributes to the arrangements. The overall effect of this album is one that’s light and uplifting.
HEAVEN FOR REAL – Energy Bar (Mint Records, mintrecs.com)
Heaven For Real sure like to take their time crafting new albums. The band formed in 2012 and released some singles and EPs, plus an extended length self-titled cassette (not quite a full-length album) in short order, but it wasn’t until 2016 that they released their first full-length LP, “Kill Your Memory.” And here it is, six years to bring us their sophomore album. The music is light and lively, with a bit of dreaminess about its edges. Guitar, bass, and drums are augmented by keyboards, and various production techniques are used to give the band a sense of adventurous experimentation without veering too far from pop music structures. The opening track, “Slow Clap,” is anything but slow. It’s got a rolling guitar line, and a chugging rhythm with smooth vocals that give it a Stereolab-like feel. The winding rotating sense in the melodies continues on “Do Your Worst,” a song that sometimes feels like the band is playing underwater. (There’s also a song on the album called “Underwater Song” that sounds less like it’s played underwater, with the exception of some synth effects). Rhythms shift around, guitars get noisy and chaotic, the reverb gets deep, but the vocals remain calm and placid. I love “Wait in the Doorway,” as it transforms itself multiple times, going from another rolling pop tune to a dreamy ballad to an almost gritty song, guitars grinding away, and then back again. Minimalist repeating lines are used throughout the album, like the bass line in “Energy Bar,” which also uses percussion interjections with heavy reverb to create a starkness to the musical landscape. Through all the instrumental changes and effects, the vocals remain supremely serene, a guiding light through what sometimes can be the chaos of life. The more times I listen to this LP, the more interesting touches I find in the arrangements and the more it grows on me.
MORE KICKS – Punch Drunk (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com / Stardumb Records, www.stardumbrecords.com)
More Kicks’ debut full length came to us back in November 2019. Now, nearly three years and a lifetime of global events later, they return with their sophomore LP. And like most of us, the upheaval we’ve been through have wrought changes to the band. Where the debut LP was light mod-tinged power pop, “Punch Drunk” is heavier and grittier. Sure, it still is mainly power pop, but replacing the mod tendencies are 70s garage and early acid rock in some songs. Check out “Hurts Like Hell,” the opening track. It has a bouncy pop melody and rhythm, but the guitars are fuzzed out and smoky sounding and the bass is emphatic. Even the vocals seem to be sung with more power. Listen to “In Love,” and its opening bass and guitar; it doesn’t even sound like the same band from the last album; it’s deeper and grungier, more rock and roll. But then the vocals and melody come in, and it’s pure power pop. The combination is pretty intoxicating for fans of rock and roll. I’m reminded of one of the first bands of the genre I saw live, The Vertebrats from Champaign, Illinois. The combination of power pop melody and garage rock and roll intensity is compelling, and is one of the things that sent me along in my journey into underground and indie music. “Terminal Love” is bouncy and poppy as all hell, melody-wise, but the guitar and bass tone tell a different story. I like the ballad “Got Lucky;” it’s almost a spiritual, and played with jazzy keyboards and lyrics about aging and fighting the tendency to fade into irrelevancy (but often losing). But it’s “Come Home” that has to take honors as best track of the album. It’s the simplest, rawest, and purest rock and roll track here. A close runner up is “Colour Me,” which follows, and is the jangliest and poppiest song of the album, the guitar fuzz taking a back seat to the sweet melody. Far from a sophomore slump, “Punch Drunk” shows growth and maturity from the debut LP. Recommended.
BUMSY AND THE MOOCHERS – Diet Violence (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Ska Punk International, www.skapunkinternational.com)
Ska punk can be hit or miss. Some of it is brilliant, while some of it falls flat. But never before have I encountered a ska punk band that’s sort of in between. Enter Bumsy and the Moochers, a band from Chicago. The instrumentals here are quite good, both in the punk portion (guitar, bass, and drum) and the ska part (sax, trombone, and trumpet). The punk parks are crunchy with just the right amount of pop goodness, and the horns are gorgeous, particularly when they harmonize, like on “The Rat.” But the vocals, in my opinion, feel uninspired and don’t match the enthusiasm shown in the instrumentals. A good example of this is the track “AKT,” which stands for “Ass Kicked Tonight.” The thick instrumentals are speedy and fun, but the vocals should be stronger, tougher, grittier, and angrier sounding. Instead they sound too sweet and uninvolved. Compare the vocals to the enthusiastic trombone solo, which sounds like getting your ass kicked tonight is a real possibility. The vocals feel like they would be more at home in an indie pop band, something smoother and more relaxed. The high-energy genre of ska punk demands something more engaging. “Cathy Ann” is another perfect example. The instrumentals rage, horns blaring like mad, guitars, bass, and drums providing a suitable cacophony. The vocals, though, are too twee. “Cathy Ann,” too, is one of the best tracks of the album, with a blazing guitar solo and explosive melody. The power of the instrumentals more than makes up for the weak vocals. But in other tracks the vocals pull down the instrumentals. “Hey Margarita” feels too smooth through most of the song because of that. Perhaps the melody and arrangement are to blame, too. Now, don’t get me wrong – the singing is strong and in tune, which normally results in great vocals. It’s just that the singing just doesn’t feel appropriate for this genre. As a result, I had a hard time getting into this album.
DIVER THROUGH – All Nighter (Subluna Records, www.diverthrough.com)
Upon listening to the opening track of this new LP from Brooklyn’s Diver Through, I heard influences from REM and from Pearl Jam. It’s sort of a mash up of alternative rock and grunge-lite. What follows is eight more tracks of alt-rock that sound nothing like REM or Pearl Jam. The music feels somber, with a distant sound coming from production choices. There are hints of Americana in the love song, “To Death,” with plenty of jangle and bits of twang, while “All Nighter” channels 80s pop rock through the lens of modern emotional alt-rock. Other songs blend acoustic and electric guitars to create soft relaxed songs with an easy feel. It’s fairly non-descript and inoffensive. But neither does it stir the soul.
JEREMY PORTER AND THE TUCOS – "Tonight Is Not The Night" EP (GTG Records, gtgrecords.net)
This two-song 7” single was recorded just before the pandemic changed the world, as they recorded their “Candy Coated Cannonball” album. But these weren’t leftovers from the album, but were rather intended to be released separately on a single. The title track is the A-side, featuring a blend of power-pop, working class rock and roll, and a little bit of Americana. The B-side, “DTW,” is more intentionally twangy country rock instrumental. Apparently it was intended to be the theme song for an animated series that was never picked up, so they use it here. It does kind of feel like throwaway filler, particularly compared to the A-side, which is a pretty solid pub-rock sort of song.
JESUS AND THE GROUPIES – Insomnia (Mandinga Records, mandingarecords.bandcamp.com)
What would Tom Waits sound like if he had been in a punk band before going solo? Brazilian band Jesus and the Groupies aim to answer that question. With gritty spoken-word lyrics, brusque, boisterous, experimental instrumentals, and an adventurous attitude, Jesus and the Groupies present a dozen new songs. The band takes garage rock roots, but mixes in a variety of influences from jazz, hip-hop, funk, and experimental industrial music. It’s a strange and unnerving mix that keeps you off balance as you listen. Take the opening track, “Hot Grill.” It combines funk, delta blues, and industrial music to create something that grinds its way into your nightmares. “Hell” is cool jazz mixed with garage rock, but twisted, warped, and distorted into a corrupt mass of debauchery. Other tracks skewer other combinations of these genres, like something that skulked out of a dark alley and wants to slit your throat. I particularly like “Henry Dirty Hands,” a dark, avant-garde jazz spoken word poetry sort of piece, and the one that brought the Tom Waits comparison to mind. The strong mechanical rhythm and distorted minimalist instrumentals channel the experimental band Silver Apples. This is challenging music if you’re a casual listener. But if you’re into the offbeat and enjoy music that’s not heard in normal rotation, this is worth checking out.
LIGHTWEIGHT – You Have To Promise (lightweightpunk.bandcamp.com)
Following up their spring EP release, “This One’s On Me,” Lightweight return with three new songs of glorious punk rock music. They combine huge group vocals, crunchy guitars, soaring melodies, and heartfelt lyrics. “Purple Balloon” is so big and inspiring that it reminds me of the late, great RVIVR, with an enormous sound that has, as has been described of the Olympia band, room to breathe. The melody reminds me, too, of Canadian band PUP. It’s a solid song. The other two songs, “SMF” and “The Shore,” follow in a similar vein, with “SMF” reminding me a bit of Caskitt’s earlier period. Their previous EP is a candidate for my “Best of 2022” list, and so is this one. Highly recommended.
BOON – Bad Machine (Window Sill Records, windowsillrecords.bandcamp.com)
After an uneven beginning, Boon’s fourth LP really gets started. That first track, “Pictures of Mom,” is kind of an odd one, with ambience and free-style shoe-gaze jamming before settling in on a smooth and non-descript pop tune. But it’s “Talking To” that will really catch your ear. It has a clean clear sound that seems to glide over a cool mathish rhythm. The melodic line, while using unorthodox intervals, feels seamless. There are notable moments of controlled chaos on this album, too, particularly at the start and end of some songs, bits of the experimental. I’m still trying to figure out “Figure It Out,” a song that eschews most indie pop traditions and instead is a melancholy dirge that morphs and changes multiple times throughout its five minutes. Acoustic and electric guitar, synths, and piano all contribute in various ways at various times. And “The Light” is more of a tone poem with lyrics than a song; it’s a dreamy amorphous arrangement with meandering vocals, something unexpected and out of the ordinary. “Candle” is a hopping pop number, with bright bouncy beat and vocals and a guitar line that’s in constant motion, plucked out and reminding me of a wind-up music box. “A Shape A Shell” has an innovative pop melody that reminds me of something The Happy Fits might have done, but smoother and breezier (and without cello). It’s definitely a fun one. Best songs: the aforementioned “Talking To” and “Barky,” the closing track, with a very retro pop sound from the 60s mod era. Overall, an interesting, if uneven, album with some really catchy songs, some good listens, and a few somewhat confusing tracks.
CF98 – This Is Fine (SBAM Records, sbam-rocks.us)
CF98 is a band from Poland, but they sound like they grew up in California, listening to the Fat Wreck Chords catalog. The songs here are melodic pop punk, with glorious harmonized vocals (I think done via multi-track recording?). The music is tight and expertly played, and clearly sounds very influenced by 90s pop punk. I think the band must be fans, too, of The Bombpops, a Southern California band on Fat Wreck that have been playing this sort of music for several years. The meaning behind the album title is explained in the opening track, “Intro,” in which we hear a raging fire and a smoke alarm beeping, with an ignorant voice saying, “This is fine.” It’s the audio version of the infamous Internet meme. The ensuing 35 minutes of music is expertly played and will sound very familiar to American fans of this style of pop punk. Some of the songs have a speedy skate punk feel, like “Plot Twist,” “Better Than Cocaine,” and others. My favorite song is probably “Fuck You.” It’s not significantly different from the rest, but it has a catchy melody. It’s hard to pick out other highlights – the band is very good and the album is enjoyable, but there isn’t a lot to distinguish them from other bands playing this sort of music.
DEMONS – Swallow (Knife Hits Records, knifehitsrecords.com)
You want a dose of rage with your music? Here you go. This Virginia band present four songs of grinding powerful hardcore, full of confrontational fury. I particularly love “Art,” the second track, which is played in 3/4 time, with dissonant angular guitars and chaotic drums. It reminds me of the old question asked by SSD, “How much art can you take?” Not that it sounds like that song, but the sentiment is the same. The wide intervals in “Nothing at the Bottom,” too, are nothing if non-traditional for punk and hardcore, and they force you to fucking pay attention! This is heavy hard-hitting music that’s played with a take no prisoners attitude. I’m not a big heavy music fan, but this stuff rules.
THE SCHIZOPHONICS – Hoof It (Pig Baby Records, pigbabyrecords.com)
San Diego’s finest garage rockers, The Schizophonics, present their fourth full-length LP. If you’ve ever had a chance to listen to this band, or if you’ve been lucky enough to see them perform live, you know they are the musical embodiment of the word “excitement.” Pat and Lety Beers exude pure joy through their music, and Pat’s manic performances are legendary. The band has seen a revolving door of bass players, and on this recording, Pat does double duty, playing both guitar and bass. Not only do they play with explosive energy, they’re downright soulful, and channel 70s music like that of The MC5, but crossed with James Brown. Yeah I sorta stole that from the press release, but it’s spot on. Though there are plenty of bands playing garage music and plenty playing soul, there are precious few playing music quite like this, and that makes them a San Diego treasure. Right from the get go the band crank things up to eleven and don’t let up for a single second of the thirty-eight minutes that it takes for the eleven songs to play; there isn’t a single throwaway track. And as good as their last LP was (2019’s “People in the Sky”), this one is several steps up from that. There are some really nice touches in these songs, too, besides the high-octane energy. “Desert Girl,” which opens the album, features the periodic interjection of zills (those small finger cymbals that belly dancers use). Many of the songs, too, make use of minimalist repeating guitar lines, which heighten the tension. Though every track rages, there are a few standouts. The title track is one. The intensity, the passionate soulfulness, the attitude, and the stirring backing vocals add up to more than the sum of the parts. “Won Your Love” cranks things up even more, so much that if you aren’t jumping around wherever you are when you’re listening to this, it’s because you’re dead. And “Rain Down” is a great classic garage tune, with less of the James Brown soul and more pure raw rock and roll. Give this record a spin, and you too will be mesmerized and amazed and will fall in love with our San Diego greats. This gets my highest recommendation.
THE SENSATIONAL COUNTRY BLUES WONDERS! – The Adventures of a Psychedelic Cowboy (garyvanmiert.com)
The Sensational Country Blues Wonders is the project of Gary Van Miert, a fixture in the Jersey City arts community. Equally inspired by the country music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the psychedelic sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and classic gospel, spirituals, and blues from the middle of America, Van Miert has pioneered a genre that could be called psychedelic Americana. Some of the songs on this LP do blend the best aspects of the various genres to create something unique and beautiful. Some songs also have a bit of power pop vibe to them. Others hew closer to country or gospel, with less of the psychedelic and power pop. It should be no surprise that the ones that are more pop and psych oriented are my favorites, while the ones that are more basic country or gospel don’t do it for me as much. Songs like “There’s a Hole in the Fabric of My Reality,” with sitar, synths, and flutes, along with a power pop melody and Americana acoustic guitars and twangy vocals, just hit all the right marks. Even the topic of the song is spacey, like a cowboy on an acid trip. “The Psychedelic Cowboy Song,” about “riding on the astral plane,” is a trippy slow burner of song that sounds like something right out of the late 60s. “Airwaves” is another cool one, with jangly poppy guitars, a loping rhythm, and spacey synths. Flutes, strings, and synths on “Life Is So Freaking Beautiful” remind me of a Paul Mauriat arrangement (Mauriat took popular songs of the day and arranged them for orchestra, with “My Love Is Blue” being a breakout hit in 1968). “Music of the Spheres” may be my favorite of the bunch. It’s a lovely psych-folk-rock sort of tune, the sitar returning, along with flutes, providing an ethereal arrangement, very appropriate for a song about heavenly music. There are some cool honkytonk tracks here. “Breathe” is a fun one, with an old-timey feel, piano, tuba, and accordion included in the arrangement to give it an almost fun cartoonish feel, along with the twangy guitar and vocals. The topic of the song is something we all do – breathing! “It’s important to breathe / If you don’t breathe you’ll die / But the beauty of breathing is / You don’t have to try,” says the chorus. There’s even a short Dixieland jazz jam with trumpet and trombone near the end. But songs like “I’m Beginning to Live in the Light,” “I’m a Caterpillar,” and “I’ve Got Memphis on My Mind” are just sanitized country, blues, and gospel music of the ilk you might have heard on the NPR radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” When they’re good, The Sensational Country Blues Wonders! are very good. When they stick to the psych-power-pop-Americana, it’s unique and beautiful. When they go for the white bread country gospel, it falls flat.
STATE DRUGS / ZEPHR – Split (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)
Snappy Little Numbers brings together two Denver bands for this split single, each band contributing one song. State Drugs’ “Mr. Untitled” is a solemn chugging tune, with subdued jangle and a tinge of Americana. Zephr, with their song, “Landline,” have a bit more of an edge and power pop feel, but also very much a heart-on-your-sleeve emotional vibe. The things both bands share in common are great instrumentals, solid songwriting, and vocals that could use a little bit of work. I do like the songs, and can tell that both bands would be enjoyable in live performances.
TODD FARRELL JR / THE 1984 DRAFT – Split (Poptek Records, www.poptek.com)
A split single here, one song from each. The 1984 Draft contributes a raucous alternate version of a song that will appear on a forthcoming LP from the Ohio band. Raucous, of course, is a relative term, as the band isn’t a raging punk outfit, rather they’re a mature indie rock band that hasn’t forgotten its punk rock roots. The song is an ode to Two Cow Garage, in honor of their split-mate and in honor of a band that’s been important to them. After a reasonably raging intro, it settles down into a Pegboy-like sound in the instrumentals and with a smoother sounding vocal. Farrell’s contribution is a new song, “Can’t Sit Still.” It’s a song Farrell says has been kicking around in his head for some time, yet he was never quite happy with it – until asked if the song could be the B-side of this split and he finally finished and recorded it. Rather than it being a full band effort, he recorded and played it all himself. It’s a nice loping track with both indie and Americana sounds. I know The 1984 Draft and Farrell’s band Benchmarks have played shows together, and I can see that given most of The 1984 Draft’s output, but the two songs here don’t really seem to “go together,” if you will. They’re both great, though, and both leave me wanting more from each band.
BANDAID BRIGADE – Sex Is Terrifying (Xtra Mile Recordings, www.xtramilerecordings.com)
Eighties cheese-pop nerds Bandaid Brigade return with their sophomore full-length LP. Featuring Zach Quinn (Pears), Brian Wahlstrom (Scorpios, Gods of Mount Olympus), the band was formed on a whim during one of Joey Capes many “One Week Records” tours, featuring solo performers from various bands. I was at one of the shows that included these two, and the chemistry when they performed a few songs together was remarkable. What was most interesting was that the songs they played, both individually and together, were starkly divergent from the music they’re most noted for. The pair decided to continue collaborating and writing, filling out the band with Paul Rucker (drums) and Brendan Miller (bass). The release of their debut LP, “I’m Separate,” was an unlikely underground hit in the pop punk scene, despite being released just before the pandemic precluded any touring in support of the album. Continuing to work together through the lockdowns, writing on the next LP continued, and now it’s here. And, despite the so-called sophomore slump curse, it’s even more glorious than the debut, with lusher arrangements and production. Not only does it channel the classic sounds of Steely Dan, Billy Joel and Elton John, it actually blends in hints of big pop punk choruses, too. You want to hear huge epic music? Listen to the opening track, “Loveless Love.” Not only does the song give the album its title in its very first line (“Hello, I am terrified of sex / Even more than what comes next”), it starts the LP running at a ‘10’ and things just don’t let up. Themes of broken love and ending relationships run through the album, written at a time when both Wahlstrom and Quinn were dealing with breakups in their own lives.
Besides the opening track, there’s “Broken Toy.” “I was your golden boy / Now I’m a broken toy / With an expired warranty,” the song opens. The song is deeply soulful, aided by the gorgeous jazz saxophone playing of Joe Cardillo. But the song seems to be about more than just a relationship not working out, as revealed in the lyrics, “I’m twiddling my thumbs / ‘Til your procedure’s done / Expecting bad results / I feel like it’s my fault.” When one partner is going through some tough times, they sometimes push the other away, and it can be quite painful. The isolation of the pandemic was fertile ground for writing, as well. “Did You Dream” speaks of being “stuck indoors almost every night” in a song that alternately glides smoothly and rollicks boisterously. Likewise, “Kitchen Tile” speaks of being locked inside, “In a broken home / In the unknown / Where the doors are always locked / I have walked for miles / On the kitchen tile / Pacing around, watching the clock.” The feelings of isolation and boredom are palpable, and the affect that can have on the mind are related in the ending verse, “I am as dead as my city / And you can never bring me back / I derail my train of thought / You can’t put me back on track.” There’s a song here titled “Bandaid Brigade,” which appears to be a thank-you between Quinn and Wahlstrom for the friendship and partnership they found in each other. Played almost like a love song, with subdued vocals and calmly rolling instrumentals, the lyrics speak to believing in each another, despite how crazy you may sometimes seem. “I owe it all to you / In times when I felt trite you still believed in what I do / In my ditch you were the rope / You cannot put a price on somehow finding hope.” Indeed, finding someone who understands and believes in you is just that, a rope out of that ditch of despair. Thankfully Wahlstrom and Quinn have found that in each other.
DENDRONS – 5-3-8 (Innovative Leisure Records, innovativeleisure.net)
Dendrons is a Chicago band that’s been around since 2018 and named with the Greek word for “tree,” taken at random from flipping through books in the library. The band says they’ve been trying to find their identity by playing in front of crowds, and sure enough, this, their sophomore LP, features an eclectic mix of post-punk, indie rock, and dream pop styles. The arrangements are alternately lush and sparse, with wide dynamic range, pretty poppy melodies, and more than a touch of an adventurous sense. The title is taken from a lyric in the song “High in the Circle K,” that goes “Fifths, thirds, octaves only.” There’s also a song called “Octaves Only” that adds to the theme. I guess they’re music theory nerds! The album opener, “Wait In Line,” is a gorgeous 90s era track that features Jawbox inspired a melody, angular tensions, an arrangement that bounces the spotlight from instrument to instrument, and an avant-garde noisy ending. Then there are strong post-punk songs like “Double Ending,” with a very 80s sound, particularly in the guitar tone. The partly sung, partly spoken lyrics and the bass line add to the retro feel. And I particularly love “Vain Repeating,” another very post-punk track. It has that blend of the experimental and pop sensibility that bands like The Pop Group were doing back in the day. A strong rhythmic sense, an exciting performance, and wide dynamic range come together to make a powerful song. The pair of songs, “New Outlook” and “New Outlook II,” are favorites in this vein, as well, with noisy experimental backdrops, spinning rhythms, and those spoken-sung lyrics. And if you’re after more of the adventurous side of things, check out “Interlude (Adjusting to the Light),” a mix of ambience and beats, random guitar strums, dreamy understated singing and other elements swirling around each other. This is a very enjoyable release that made me start looking to see if the band is touring out to the west coast any time soon.
VAL EMMICH – Starburst (valemmich.com)
If I had to sum up Val Emmich’s twelfth full-length LP in a single word, it would be “intimate.” To expand on that, the album presents eleven tracks of gorgeously understated songs. That opening track, “Open Heart Keep Me Safe,” is devastatingly beautiful, with quiet piano and shimmering ambience. Beyond the intro lies ten pretty pop tunes with impeccable arrangements, and an especially luscious sound for a DIY effort. And while the instrumentals shine, the songs are often darker, lyrically. “Bad Vibrations” has a lovely bright beat and sparkling guitar, but Emmich’s quietly crooning vocals tell a different story, one that speaks of heartbreak. “Never No” blends an acoustic performance (guitar and piano) with a Springsteen-esque working class rock and roll melody and aesthetic. Power pop abounds, raucously restrained, in songs like “It Only Hurts If You Let It Hurt,” a song about trying to stay positive when confronting problems. “What the Hell,” too, is quietly stoic; though the music and vocals are understated, you can feel the simmering anxiety in the lyrics. This is one of my favorites of the LP. I like “Shine,” too. It starts with a funky beat, but is piano and vocal driven, and haw breathless vocals about the anxiety that comes with self-doubt. And despite the dark topics touched on in many of these songs, the intimacy ends up feeling, well, romantic. Just lovely.
THE HAPPY FITS – Under the Shade of Green (www.thehappyfits.com)
The Happy Fits were poised for an incredible breakthrough back in 2020. Their second album, What Could Be Better
, was poised to skyrocket them to indie stardom. It appeared in many year-end “Best of 2020” lists, including mine. And then the pandemic hit, putting tours on hold and dashing hopes of getting their message out to audiences. But the New Jersey trio had other ideas, instead launching a series of livestreams, generally on Friday nights, and always free to their fans via their YouTube channel. It worked. The band not only made their fans happy, they gained many new ones, and the live chats became more and more “crowded” and lively. When COVID restrictions began to lift and it was possible to have live shows again, the band began touring, finding themselves playing to sold out crowds in city after city. The Happy Fits may be one of the biggest acts still unsigned, something I fully expect to change after A&R reps get a listen to this, their third full-length LP. Now, comparisons with What Could Be Better
are inescapable, especially given how great that record was. Honestly, I find their sophomore release to be much more exuberant and fresher sounding. Though the album was well produced, the trio stuck to their basic instrumentation of guitar, drums, and cello. It gave the album a bright optimistic sound. By contrast, Under the Shade of Green
has a more somber feeling. Part of that may be the addition of prominent synths and deep reverb. Part of it may just be the songwriting. A lot of these songs have a bright dancey beat, but when you peel back the surface the sentiments are anything but happy.
“Dance Alone” is one of those very somber songs that doesn’t seem to be synth-driven, but the heavy use of reverb and the sad lyrics mixing the yearning of wanting to be with someone with a sense of loss (“I don’t wanna say goodbye. / I just wanna spend my night with you. / How’my gonna catch your eye? I don’t know if I can do this. / I will never understand / How no one was there to hold your hand.”) make for an intensely morose song that tries to put a happy face on with its rhythm. Even darker is “Changes,” a song that speaks to the difficulties in simply living life in our current society, with trying to be who others expect you to be, trying to change yourself for different situations, and dealing with the pitfalls of failure that lurk around every corner, just waiting for us. Through most of the song, Calvin Langman’s cello is relegated to a rhythm instrument, marking off the time in almost robotic fashion, joining with the disco beat. Near the end of the song, though, the cello sings a beautifully melancholy line. Even songs that, on the surface, seem to be about love and living in the moment reveal darker themes when you look deeper. “Sweet Things” could be a sugary top 40 AM radio song about a fling that could turn into something more. But listen more intently, and it’s a cynical examination of relationships that never develop into something deeply intense. “Well you say that nothing’s perfect / Well you said that nothing’s perfect except when I’m here with you / Does it feel right? / So tell me three things, three that you know about me / I’ll say, I’ll say won’t you come with me / Baby, nothing lasts forever, it’s only now or never.” It seems to be a capitulation to never connecting with others and always feeling isolated.
“Cold Turkey” has a very Beatles-esque feel, the production, use of strings and group vocals all creating a sound very reminiscent of a particular era of the Fab Four. The negative lyrics in the song, too (“It’s gonna take some time and space, honey / So when you gonna leave me alone? / It’s gonna get ya high and low from me / So when you gonna leave me alone?), show that, while we all try and put on a happy face in public, inside were a roiling mess of conflicting emotions.
“Long Way Down” has a huge 80s new wave sound, something straight out of a John Hughes teen romance film. It could be the least Happy Fits sounding song of the album, when measured against past releases (and even the other songs of this LP). And the closing track, “Do Your Worst,” is sneering and contemptuous. “Hope you like the bottom where you’ll / Do your worst.” The song scoffs. “Well-rehearsed, repeat the verse of hate again / Right beneath the bottom where you / Wound up on the floor / Like you wanted to. / Now, I thought you wanted more. / Is this all you could be?” The scorn is palpable, the synths singing out in a minor key, a song about compromising one’s principles to get ahead, but questioning whether that’s really where you wanted to be. Where What Could Be Better
was fresh, bright, and optimistic, Under the Shade of Green
seems like the depressing part of life before going into therapy, when everything is falling down inside of and around us, but we try to maintain a façade that everything is OK. It’s the maturing past youthful exuberance and into middle age in which we begin ask the question, “is this all there is?” and get depressed at what we think may be the answer.
Read Editor Jim Testa's interview with The Happy Fits here...
NO TRIGGER – Dr. Album (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
Mere months after releasing their first recorded music in five years (the “Acid Lord” EP), No Trigger returns with a full-length LP, their first in a decade. If you liked the EP (and I know I did), you’re going to love the LP. One reason is the LP includes three of the five EP tracks. No Trigger play music that ranges from metallic hardcore to tongue-in-cheek pop punk with sardonic lyrics. Songs like “Antifantasy” (which was on the EP) drip with sarcasm, this one about the rise of fascism in the country and the virtue signaling of liberals without actually doing anything to stop it. Funny-punk styles do dominate the album, with many of the songs featuring one-liners and satirical lyrics. We also get loping songs like “Coffee From the Microwave,” and the band’s take on “emo” synth pop on “Too High to Die.” I love the hilarious, “No Tattoos,” a speedy poppy song with which I can relate (no tattoos is the new black!). The arrangement, with insertions of various sound effects, is pretty brilliant. Then there’s the acoustic Americana song, “Water By The Beer Can,” with twangy steel guitar and lyrics loaded with tales of self-doubt and self-medication. Another acoustic track is the folksy “Euro Coke,” and when you listen to the inane lyrics you’re going to laugh at every song of this genre you’ve ever heard before despite how serious the artists were about them. I’m not sure why “Foggy Mountain Bus Stop” is here, but I’m glad it is. It’s recorded to sound like some ancient Appalachian folk tune (complete with scratchy recording), super short, but super funny. If you miss the soft disco beats of synth-laden 80s new wave, “Best Friend Stuff” is the song for you, with spacey music and spacey lyrics about the death of a close friend. I guess one way to sum up No Trigger is to say that nothing is sacred to them. They use their songs to skewer anyone and anything deserving of ridicule. In a world where everything is so serious and desperate, having someone take the zealots down a couple of notches is a good thing. Thanks, No Trigger.
ODD MEN OUT (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)
Shortly prior to major changes to the world brought about the pandemic, an international collection of musicians from Italy, Spain, and (of course) the UK came together in London and recorded their take on 60s garage-psych. Now finally seeing the light of day (and perhaps dingy clubs at night?) their debut self-titled LP is here, with eight tracks that want to worm their way into your ears. For the most part, being that they’re a trio, the arrangements are a bit thin. Garage and psych need to have both a thick and a raucous sound, and while these tracks fulfill the latter requirement, the former falls short – for the most part, but not entirely. If you’re a fan of what was known as “acid rock” of the 70s, you’re going to love the deep proto-grunge of “Mary B.” This is the sort of music that inspired Seattle in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s got a full sound, metallically tinged with psychedelics. And while most of the tracks could use some filling out to amp things up, “Can’t Get Over,” which ends side A, is a huge slow burner that just past the halfway mark gets epic. “Look At Her” is the most different from the rest of the tracks; it’s a very British Invasion style garage with a psych bass and swirling organ. It’s a time machine in musical form. The whole album is, really. I do wish they had another guitar to fill out the sound, though.
This has to be one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Strategies is a new group made up of Brian Moss (Great Apes, Hanalei), Neil Hennessy (The Lawrence Arms, Joyce Manor, The Smoking Popes), and Paul Lask (The Ghost). The band began when Hennessey and Last began sending demos back and forth during the pandemic lock downs. Moss was recruited to handle vocals, and the band was born. It’s been no secret that I’m a Brian Moss fan, particularly of his work with the late lamented Great Apes. I also enjoy The Lawrence Arms and, though he wasn’t part of the classic lineup, Hennessy’s time drumming for the Smoking Popes is memorable. The four songs on this debut EP are subdued and serene, Moss’ smooth calm vocals mating well with the hazy, dreamy feel of the instrumentals. Even when the band gets a bit more aggressive, such as on “Silent Count,” the song still has a gauzy feel that’s just lovely. Of the four tracks, though, the back pair, consisting of “Fire Drill” and “Camp Elsewhere” are my favorites. Arpeggiated guitar riffs abound, giving the songs a swirling sensation, and though the arrangements are fairly spare (it’s a trio, after all), the production provides a voluptuous texture. Just gorgeous.
VARIOUS – We All Shine On: Celebrating The Music Of 1970 (SpyderPop Records, bigstirrecords.com/spyderpop-records)
SpyderPop Records has released a collection of covers of songs released in 1970. Why that year? Who knows? But these are new, sometimes unique versions of many songs that were radio hits back when there were still radio hits (and some that weren’t). The songs run the gamut of pop and rock from 52 years (!) ago. A highlight for me is Bill Lloyd’s version of “Mama Told Me not to Come,” the Randy Newman penned tune made into a hit by Three Dog Night. Their version is less psychedelic, janglier, and more like a Bob Dylan cover with its stoic spoken verses. English band Christie’s song “Yellow River” is covered by The Armoires, the Big Stir “house band,” with a version that’s fairly faithful to the original soft rock end of the British Invasion spectrum. Another highlight is the new version of “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” originally a soulful ballad from The Delfonics. The cover is contributed by none other than jangle pop legend Mitch Easter (Let’s Active front man and REM producer), and it’s soft and, well, jangly, giving the old song new life. Irene Peña provides a grunge-pop version of Badfinger’s “Come and Get It,” but that’s kind of cheating, since that song was released at the tail end of 1969, not in 1970. But the gritty instrumentals contrast nicely with the bright bouncy vocals on this cover. The Guess Who’s song “Share the Land” is just as much a “peace and love” song in the Popdudes’ cover, but it’s even bigger and grander than the original. Jonathan Pushkar’s version of “I Think I Love You,” a hit for the fictional Partridge Family, is brilliant, taking bubblegum and turning it into twisted kitsch. And Diamond Hands take The Kinks’ favorite “Lola” and make it completely their own, with more of a spacey drugged out feel that rocks harder than the original. Some may feel the song has no place in the modern world, because the lyrics could be interpreted as transphobic. Sir Ray Davies disagrees, saying the song was written to celebrate the freedom to be whoever you want to be. Some songs are just too on the nose, like Darian’s cover of Mark Lindsay’s “Arizona,” The Legal Matters’ cover of George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” or Bobby Sutliff’s version of the one-hit wonder R Dean Taylor and the song “Indiana Wants Me.” They’re OK, if you’re looking for a cover band. But more than half the fun of covering comes from reinterpreting the songs and making them your own. Some of the tracks here fall flat when compared with the original. “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” as sung by Melanie, is a huge and glorious, but the cover from Marc Johnson is tepid in comparison. As is always the case with comps (and this one is massive, with 22 songs and an hour and eighteen minutes of music), there are highlights and lowlights. But if you’re a fan of the music of 1970 (or thereabouts), it’s worth checking out.
CINEMA HEARTS – Your Ideal (www.cinemahearts.com)
When one thinks of indie pop performers, one does not usually think of beauty pageant contestants. Yet former Miss Virginia contender, Caroline Weinroth is here to shake your world. She even played electric guitar as her talent, and this new five-song EP explores the pain, loneliness, and cutthroat drive of competing in the Miss America circuit. The opening track, “Mirror,” is about the conformance to expectations required of pageant contestants. “When you look in the mirror what do you see? / The question the judges love to ask me / I see a woman who wants to be free / But I’ll be what you want me to be,” the song opens. It’s a lovely, dreamy indie pop song in waltz time, with guitar, bass, and drums, and synth creating a sense of epic scale. “Your Ideal” opens with a 60s pop bounce, but turns into a grunge-lite pop tune about living up to others’ expectations, regardless of what you want for your own life. Retro themes continue with the 50s “girl group” pop in the love song, “Everyday is a Day Without You.” It’s smooth and lovely, with a twangy country guitar solo and easy listening style strings, courtesy of the synth. Another love song follows, the very Roy Orbison-like “Can I Tell You I Love You.” The EP closes with “Sister,” a dreamy pop ballad about the bonds that form between pageant contestants. Weinroth entered her first pageant to have a place to play her music, because she was only 18 years old, and the only other outlets were bars. I think she’ll find success beyond beauty contests and bars, though. Cinema Hearts isn’t breaking new musical ground, but it’s very nice.
THE CHATS – Get Fucked (Bargain Bin Records, www.bargainbinrecords.com.au)
Two years on from their debut LP, Aussie band The Chats are back with another LP chock full of furious garage-like punk rock tunes. Fast, powerful, and raging are apt description of the majority of the thirteen tracks on the album. These short bursts of energy are all the more amazing in that they’re emanated by a mere three-piece band. Listen to the opening track, “6L GTR,” and decide for yourself: is this old school punk rock or is it retro garage? I mean, the topic of the song is a muscle car, like a lot of 60s garage was. Same thing with “Struck By Lightning,” which follows. It strengthens the argument that punk rock’s real origins lie not with The Ramones, but with countless forgotten 60s bands. “Southport Superman” is a favorite track that captures the strength of first wave hardcore of the early 80s: It consists of a minimum number of distinct chords, it’s a short blast of fury, clocking in at only 35 seconds, and it’s fast and loud. This reminds me of why I was attracted to hardcore punk way back when, so thank-you to The Chats for that. Current inflation woes come through in the relatively subdued “Price of Smokes,” and I emphasize “relatively” because it’s still a raucous song, decrying the cost of cigarettes when one can barely afford the rent. Actually, the back half of the album does feel more relaxed, in a way, than the front half. It’s still loud snotty punk music; it’s just not as fast and furious. Even still, this is a great “blast from the past” sounding album, and a solid listen.
THE LINGS (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Thanks to labels like Kool Kat Musik and others that have been keeping garage, power pop, psych, and mod music alive, I’ve been getting into these genres like never before. And thankfully there are bands making this sort of music today – originals, not just covers or rehashing of the past. The Lings are one such band, hailing from the Mantova/Verona area of Italy, and the dozen songs here are their debut full-length LP. The songs aren’t high energy, and are pretty universally played at a mid-tempo lope. But they’ve got a lovely breezy quality to them. The guitars softly jangle and the vocals have a lilting quality injected with a bit of an edge. It’s almost like power-pop/garage music for the island crowd. Good examples of this include “The Worst Of You,” which opens the album with a strong backbeat and a delicate touch (though you can hear the garage, power pop, and mod roots clearly). Listen to the pretty, cozy sounds of “ Blue.” “Dried Up Love” has that easy clean jangle and lope, with an almost Beatles-esque quality. And I adore “Daisy,” a song with a relaxed lounge-like sound, sort of like the cool jazz of rock and roll music. It even has an improvisational jam. “Neverending Lonely Rush M.A.” is the most straight-ahead power pop song of the LP, with just a hint of glam, and it makes it one of the most fun, too. “Freaky Cheesy” is the most up-tempo song of the album, though it’s still just a bit north of mid-tempo. It may be one of the less successful songs of the album, the “cheesy” in its title being a self-identifier. This song does come across as too derivative, sounding too much like a cover band or something. “Grace” is another song that’s a bit different than the rest. Adding harmonica and acoustic guitar and darkening the power pop, it’s got more of a melancholy storytelling sound. The Lings aren’t going to set the world on fire, but this debut is really nice.
ASTRONAUT PUSHERS – EP (Lost in Ohio, lostinohio.com)
Originally released in 2005 as a very limited 4-song CD, this super group’s sole release is being reissued, this time with a fifth previously unreleased song. The Nashville outfit is comprised of Grammy and Academy Award nominee Sam Ashworth, Superdrag’s John Davis, Lindsay Jamieson of Ben Folds and Departure Lounge, and Sixpence None the Wiser’s Matt Slocum. Though the songs are nearly two decades old, they still sound fresh and timeless. Not only that, the five songs are incredible varied and wide ranging in their sounds. The EP opens strongly with alt-rocker “Cut Me Off.” It has a subdued intensity, with minimalist guitars providing an understated shriek and a strong jazzy backbeat rhythm from the drums. It comes across as both fierce and relaxed at the same time. “Come On Make It Harder” is gorgeous, and big, with both dreamy and eerie sounds. “Bacharaquattack” is appropriately titled, with a lighter, lither feel of the 70s pop hits of Burt Bacharach, but with a twangy injection of Americana steel guitar. I like “Nobody Knows,” which has a Beatles-esque feel, a song that sounds like something the Fab Four might have written had they been a more contemporary band working in more modern genres. The unreleased track “Monday Morning,” has a loping tempo and a somewhat melancholy mood. Despite the different characters of these tracks, the EP does feel cohesive. A worthy listen.
FAYE – You’re Better (Self Aware Records, selfawarerecords.com)
It’s been a long six years since Faye’s self-titled debut EP was released, forcing us to wait for more. More is finally here, in the form of the band’s debut full-length LP. Some, if not all, of this album was recorded in pre-pandemic days, and the notorious vinyl delays are infamous, so the wait is excusable. And it was worth it. Faye play music that sounds like indie-pop meets grunge. The songs have wonderfully light melodies, a poppy bounce, and clear ringing vocals, yet the arrangements have a grittier heavier sound. The opening track, “No Vibes,” is a perfect introduction to this sound, with growling grumbling bass, emphatically bright poppy vocals, and guitars that alternately soar with clarity and snarl with abandon. “Dream Punches” is full-on grunge, packing a wallop, and “Swing State” combines grungy instrumentals with pop punk attitude and melody. I’m not usually a big ballad fan, but the slow burner, “Confetti,” is gorgeous. The 6/8 time tune has a martial rhythm and alternates between simmering verses and churning choruses. “Wise Words” reminds me of a rougher gruffer Tsunami, the great indie pop band from the DC area. It’s another slower track, and has gorgeously bright vocals, moody guitars, and a loping rhythm. I really like the feel of this LP. It’s breezy and poppy enough, with just the right amount of edginess to balance it out and prevent it from sounding cloying.
KAL MARKS – My Name Is Hell (Exploding In Sound Records, www.explodinginsoundrecords.com)
This fifth LP released under the Kal Marks moniker represents a complete refresh for the band. In early 2020, the band had dissolved, leaving only Carl Shane remaining. The guitarist/vocalist, however, did not give up, and soon a new band was formed to play new songs Shane had already been writing. The resulting album features eleven tracks filled with big dreamy, dramatic, melodic, noisy rock. One of the amazing things is how the band create a delicate balance between melodic riffs and chaotic noise. Typically, noise rock is short on melody or head-bobbing beats, but “My Name Is Hell” has both in spades. Take the opening track, “My Life is a Freak Show.” It has a glorious melody, dreamy ambience, and nightmarish noise repetition that rises and falls. “We’re all animals,” Shane sings; “We all feed from the trough.” The song seems to be telling us that we all have more in common than we don’t. Our lives are freak shows, we’re all fucked, and we have no place to go. That which may separate us is insignificant. As the track evolves, it gets noisier, Shane’s vocals turning into pleading shouts. One of the things that makes this band work so well and drives the songs hard is John Russell’s prominent growling bass. Rather than being subdued and providing the standard foundation to the songs, the bass takes center stage much of the time, as an indispensible contributor to the overall mix. Listen to it on “Shit Town,” a track in which Kal Marks comes to closest to standard indie rock, though the chaos is never too far away. “Everybody Hertz” is a track that has a bright melody and bright guitars, yet the blasts of the bass and the explosive percussion keep the proceedings from being anything but a melodic cacophony. And if you want even more cacophony, listen to “Debt,” the most discordant track of the album; noise swirls all around, as Shane’s vocals are angrily and painfully shouted. But even here, there’s an underlying sense of melody that keeps things from moving too far into the realm of the avant-garde. The bass line on “Mr. Dictionary (A Satire),” along with the spoken/shouted vocals make the song almost reminiscent of the band Shellac – except this song has lush synths, too, giving it a very different feel. The two styles vie for dominance, and both win. “My Name Is Hell” is melodic enough to feel familiar to indie aficionados, yet challenging and adventurous enough to please the most jaded of listeners. A+
TRASHED AMBULANCE – Future Considerations (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
Halfway between the metropolises of Calgary and Edmonton (up in the Frozen North, eh?) lies the hamlet of Red Deer, birthing place of Trashed Ambulance. The band has undergone some lineup changes and have returned with their third full-length LP. The lineup changes have brought them a tighter sound that’s not as raw, but they’ve lost none of the snot and enthusiasm that endeared me to the band when I reviewed their debut LP, “Blurry Thoughts,” a number of years ago. The dozen songs on this album are universally bright, speedy, poppy punk rock, influenced (but not overwhelmed by) skate punk sounds. It’s speedy and crunchy, making it a ton of fun, but thankfully it lacks the metallic technical flourishes that, frankly, turn me off of some bands. Gang vocals are still effectively used, too, adding to the sense of, well, fun. “56” opens the album with a song of introspection and self-examination about what’s really to blame for one’s problems. Trashed Ambulance likes to toss in sound clips – at least they did on the debut LP, and this one has them, too, though fewer) and the track opens with a line from “Futurama,” “Now stand back, I gotta practice my stabbing.” It’s a reference in the lyrics, “As my headspace decays / I’ll ignore all rapport / And keep stabbing in the dark,” speaking to the lack of ability to take cues from our interactions with others and know when to dial things back. Most of the songs are somewhat like this – fast’n’loud, plenty of attitude, plenty of crunchy guitars and plenty of guff. Favorites include “Ecnalumbma” (“Ambulance” spelled backward), a song about the glories of playing shows with and to one’s friends, “Bottleneck,” and “Melting Pot,” a track about getting out of the sticks where there’s forced conformity and moving to a more cosmopolitan melting pot of a city, where you can be yourself. Robbie Morön and Émilie Plamondon make a guest appearance on “Stalk in the Park,” a song that has a relaxed lope in its pace, but doesn’t come down even one notch in intensity. The song is a warning about the dangers of drunken creepers who sexually harass women in the scene, and could be my favorite of the album. An outlier of a track is “Menace,” a song that injects ska punk into the mix, and oddly enough is the song with the darkest edge. Trashed Ambulance have another winner of an album here.
BEACH RATS – Rat Beat (Epitaph Records, www.epitaph.com)
The term “super group” gets tossed around a lot, but in this case, it really has meaning. Beach Rats has an impressive lineup of punk rock luminaries, including Ari Katz of Lifetime on vocals, Bouncing Souls’ Pete Steinkopf and Bryan Keinlen on guitar and bass, respectively, guitarist Brian Baker (of Minor Threat, Bad Religion, Dag Nasty, and too many other bands to name), plus drummer Danny Windas. They released their debut EP way back in 2018 and played a bunch of shows, but everything stopped due to the pandemic. Well, not everything. The band found a way to practice and write within CDC guidelines of masking, social distancing, and getting good outdoor airflow through open basement windows. The result is this debut full-length LP chock full of solid 80s style hardcore punk rock, with some songs being pure ragers, others with Descendents-style melody, and some with a more unique modern punk style. I was a “hardcore kid,” back in the early 80's, so I really enjoy the tracks that are fast’n’loud. “Bikes Out!” opens the album with some speedy crunchy hardcore, then tempers itself into a loping melodic punk tune. And “Dress for Sick Sesh” alternates between slower dirge-like punk and supersonic classic hardcore. “Heavy Conversation” and “Rat Beat” take very late era Minor Threat and mix it with early Descendents, hardcore and pop punk. “Saturday” is one of those more modern sounding tracks, with a darker, more metallic sound. And then there are tracks like “Clorox Boys,” softer and smoother, with a post-punk/post-emo melodic style, the instrumentals and passionate vocals reminding me of San Diego’s Pitchfork. Every track on this album is solid, but it’s not often you can hear genuine early 80's hardcore played like it was meant to be. Those tracks are my favorites. But it’s the variety and quality songwriting that make this a recommended LP.
LOS PEYOTES – Virgenes (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)
The formerly prolific band, Los Peyotes, released a slew of records in the first decade or so of this century, and then fell silent. Their last LP was way back in 2010, and their last single in 2013. And now, the Argentinian garage-psych band are back, as strong as ever. The vast bulk of this thirteen-track LP is magnificent retro music, dirty, sinful, and gritty as befitting the band, the genre, and the label. Sex and drugs and rock and roll are the key themes, with all lyrics sung in Spanish. Guitar, bass, drums, and electric organ provide a super-‘60’s musical vibe, and the lyrics are growled out with filthy menacing glee. Song titles include, “La Gente Es Una Mierda” (People Are Shit), “Soy La Droga” (I’m the Drug), “El Hombre De Dos Cabezas” (The Man with Two Heads), and more. That moral depravity can be fun is on full display. The tracks are nearly universally joyful. And while most of these songs contain varying levels of psych and garage, “No Quiero Crecer” (I Don’t Wanna Grow Up) is less garage and more pop, with a much smoother sound, but still full of a 60s mod feel. “Cumbia Del Dolor” is the only track I couldn’t get into. It’s psych melded with Latino folk, and just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the tracks. Excluding that one, if you’re a fan of 60s garage and psych, you’re going to be ecstatic at the return of Los Peyotes.
PHONY – At Some Point You Stop (Phony Industries, www.phonyindustries.com)
Neil Berthier, late of Donovan Wolfington and current live touring member of Joyce Manor, fronts Phony, a band that focuses on the dreamier and poppier side of music. The dozen tracks are smooth and lush, with melodies that range between indie and pop music, sometimes mixing the genres, sometimes moving into experimental territory. “The Middle” has a melody that could have come from a commercial pop song, but the arrangement is richer and played at a slower tempo, so it has a lovely somber sound. “Summer’s Cold” has the sound of crossing 90’s post-emo music with 2000s pop punk, then smoothing it over to make it dreamier, and it’s a favorite. “Great White” is very different from most of the tracks, with a brighter synth pop sound, though it’s given a great indie rock melody and a dreamy reverb-laden sound. It’s got an incredibly huge breakdown in the middle of the song that changes the character, slowing things down, thickening the arrangement, and adding some shouted vocals. It’s an abrupt, yet very effective transition. There are some cool experimental bits on this album. “Matter of Taste” is a nice short little track, with “illbient” rhythms and samples. Illbient, for those who’ve forgotten, is “ill” music with an ambient vibe – that is, ambient music with a chill hip-hop rhythm. “LA’s Music” is another short track with a sinister rhythm and samples from voice mails urgently telling someone to “wake the fuck up” and “get your ass” to the club. I really like these explorations in sound. “Kaleidoscope” mixes processed piano and deep growling synths, ambient background, and a solemn melody to create quite a lovely song. From what I hear, Phony will be opening for Joyce Manor on their summer tour. I can understand it logistically, but the bands couldn’t be more different. Nevertheless, I enjoy listening to these songs. If you like dreamy post-emo pop, give this a listen.
VARIOUS – Never Erased (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)
“Never Erased” is the first in a new series of compilations from Say-10, featuring LGBTQIA artists, with 50% of the profit being donated to the National Center for Transgender Equality. And this sixteen-track comp is going to bust stereotypes when it comes to the sort of music people associate with the LGBTQIA community. It’s an incredibly diverse community, and the music they listen to and play is just as diverse. You won’t hear any thumpa-thumpa EDM on this comp, but you will hear pop punk, hardcore, power pop, indie pop, and more. I’m not going to provide a full track-by-track rundown, even though every track is worthy of mention (and listening!). But here are some notable tracks, both for their quality, and for the surprising variety on display. Dog Park Dissidents’ song, “S*xual,” is outstanding loping pop punk with fantastic lead and gang vocals. I enjoy the melodic hardcore mixed with pop punk from Dead Format and their song “Soho Nights.” Mixtape Saints have a great melodic tune in “Cheap Thrills,” with lead vocals that remind me of Jack Dalrymple, and reverb laden guitars giving the song a sad lonely sound, even as it has a happy bouncy beat. “Mexican Wine,” from Sarah and the Safe Word, is a lovely unexpected indie pop tune, not the usual fare from Say-10. The chamber orchestra arrangement is gorgeous, as are the intertwining melodic lines. Cheerbleederz is another band that would normally not be on a Say-10 release, but the stripped back indie pop on their song, “Dead Oaks,” is heavenly. Ozello’s contribution, “Boy???,” begins as an ethereal song, with plucked guitar, piano, synth, and vocals. Later, the full band comes in and the song transforms into a pretty great pop punk tune. This is only a fraction of the great music contained on this record. It’s a great compilation for a worthy cause, and is highly recommended, for both reasons.
ADULT SCHOOL – No Party (Lavasocks Records, lavasocksrecords.bigcartel.com)
NorCal quartet Adult School’s latest LP is a varied adventure in indie music, ranging from moody to bright, from pop punk to indie pop to post punk. The band is tight but nonchalant, making the songs sound substantial, yet light and effortless. The combination of dark, heavy bass, lighter guitars, and deep gliding vocals on “Lighthead” is slightly reminiscent of Joy Division or early New Order, while the next track, “St. Sebastian,” is very pop punk meets indie rock, with a song about the complex relationship we have with our fathers. It’s the most raucous of the tracks. “Might As Well,” too, has a boisterous sound, with bright chord progressions. There are quiet, introspective songs on this album, too. “Other Smash Hits” is one, going from spare to lush instrumentation, and vocals that blend Michael Stipe with jazz and indie pop styles. And “Celebrity” is a lovely ballad that has the feeling of a modern day “standard,” the sort of song that’s destined to become a classic covered by others. Halfway between the lively and solemn songs are songs such as “Off Day,” a jangly loping track about the ennui of sitting at home doing nothing. And I enjoy the album closer, “Love Loss,” which runs the gamut from subdued indie jangle to full-throated pop punk. The album has some great songs, is varied enough to hold my interest for the full half hour, and comes off as uncomplicated and easy.
EMBLEMS – Everything Is Strange (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)
Chicago’s Emblems present an 8-song LP of moody and brooding music. Somber sounding vocals smoothly and softly lie atop reverb-laden guitars. It’s, in a way, Goth-pop. It has the melancholy of Goth, but with somewhat brighter poppier melodies and tempos. It’s like The Smiths meets DC band Strange Boutique, one of the progenitors of the Goth-pop genre back in the late 80s. Guitars flutter and swirl, while synths provide an ambient backdrop. I really like the opening intro track, “LO\/M,” with its ethereal atmospherics, no percussion, just sort of floating out there. It’s, sadly, just a short intro under a minute. But then the album begins in earnest, with the more emphatic “Somewhere Safe.” It’s an alt-rock pounding track that’s been Goth’ed up, creating a unique new sound. Some tracks are lovely lilting indie pop, put through the same treatment to give it a somewhat morose sound. “Virgo” is one such track, with a bright melody and tempo, but even as it tries to put on a lively bouncy face, the reverb and subdued vocals cast a pall over the proceedings. It’s a fascinating effect. “Out to Sea” is an alternative rock track with a 2000s sound, except it, too, has been fed through the same Goth-pop filters, and it’s filled with ghostly synths and reverb effects. There aren’t a lot of bands playing music like this. It’s uniqueness makes for a compelling change of pace.
GENTLEMEN ROGUES – A History of Fatalism (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com / Rocket Heart Records, www.rocketheartrecords.com)
Austin, Texas based Gentlemen Rogues have been making music for over a decade, releasing a number of singles and EPs, but a number of them have never seen vinyl release. Snappy Little Numbers and Rocket Heart Records have teamed up to correct that situation, and “A History of Fatalism” represents the “A History So Repeating” and “Fatal Music” EPs. The band took the opportunity, too, to remix the thirteen songs. Gentlemen Rogues, as I noted in my recent review of their “Fancy” 7” EP, provide a solid mix of power pop and indie rock, but this collection of songs gives us even more variety, ranging from epic emotion-filled songs to harder rocking tunes, along with the power pop and indie rock. There’s a punk ethos overlaying all of it, and the resulting sound is very appealing. Some of the songs are big and broad, with a post-emo sound. The opening track, “Your Armageddon,” fits this category, as does “Pact and Ready to Go.” “Your Armageddon” injects a little bit of pop melody into it, too. “Mocking Love Out of Nothing at All” is a favorite track, loaded with jangling guitars, power pop melody, and charged with emotion. Another favorite is “A Little Respect.” It has both a retro rock and roll feel and a pop punk feel, and the spare arrangement, with powerful vocals and soaring melody makes it a real winner. I really like “Last of the Famous International Playboys,” too, with a mix of Lookout Records era Bay area pop punk and 90s indie pop. “Thin as Thieves” blends power pop with hard rock and indie jangle, creating a powerful mix. And I think that’s a good summary for this record – a powerful mix. Recommended.
TWENTY2 – Dismissed (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
Canadian kings of speedy melodic punk, Twenty2, are back with their third full-length LP, this time out featuring Luke Pabich and Sean Sellers of Good Riddance. While in COVID isolation last year, Twenty2 front man John Génier felt a need to write some songs, and as was the new method, the songs were shared back and forth, parts recorded separately. Génier reached out to his melodic hardcore heroes, who were more than happy to collaborate on the LP. The resulting record sounds like it could have fallen straight through a time warp from the 90s or 2000s, yet it still feels current, too. It’s speedy and melodic, sure, like a lot of skate punk, but some of the songs are even more on the hardcore end of the spectrum, focusing more on the intensity and anger than the melody, and those are my favorites. “Fuck Your Rules” and “Before You Saved Us” remind me of the straight-edge hardcore of the 90s, fast, loud, and full of ire, massive gang vocals, and crunchy metallic guitars. “Adulteen” is a favorite, sounding like they took a Rocket From the Crypt song, sped it up, and turned it hardcore. The lyrics refer to us “lifers” in the scene, getting older, getting snide remarks from others who think we should “act our age” and wear more appropriate clothing. It’s something a lot of us can relate to, and it’s probably my favorite track of the album. “I Know It’s You” alternates between hard raging verses and melodic pop-metallic chorus, and it starts with a fun movie quote from Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko in the film, “Wall Street:” Tell you what, I’ll make you a deal. You stop telling lies about me, and I'll stop telling the truth about you.” One great thing to note, besides how good the songs are, is how tight they are, despite the various parts being recorded separately miles apart. If you’re a fan of melodic hardcore, get on this.
SCREECHING WEASEL – The Awful Disclosures of Screeching Weasel (screechingweasel.bandcamp.com/ Striped Records /Rum Bar Records)
I will preface this with a disclosure: I was a huge Screeching Weasel fan back in the day. From the late ‘80s through the mid ‘90s I went to see them perform live often, sometimes in clubs in Chicago, but mostly in suburban locations such as the famous McGregor’s in Elmhurst and Durty Nellie’s in Palatine. I loved how the band bridged the hardcore of the early 80s and the burgeoning pop punk scene, making the music feel both immediate and accessible. Through controversies and lineup changes, front man Ben Weasel continued to pump out great songs through the early part of the last decade. In 2015, though, Ben and the band seemed to go off the rails a bit with their attempt at a punk rock opera, “Baby Fat Vol. 1,” an album with which I was underwhelmed. That was seven years ago. Two years ago they released “Some Freaks of Atavism,” which was a decent return to form (our fearless editor even put it on his Best of 2020 list). Now comes SW’s fourteenth studio album; did they backslide or have they solidified their return to form? Well, a bit of both, I think. Some of the songs are pretty great pop-filled punk rock music, some even harkening back to their early days with some hardcore in the sound. “Six Ways to Sunday,” the track that opens the album, is a reminder of what made Screeching Weasel the powerhouse of a band they were back in the day. It’s fast and loud, snotty melodic poppy hardcore. And it’s the best track of this new LP. Songs like “Any Minute Now,” "My Favorite Nightmare,” “All Stitched Up,” and “Dead or Alive” are more representative of much of the band’s later output. They’re not quite so edgy or snotty, but they’re still solid pop punk and enjoyable songs in their own right. “My Favorite Nightmare,” for example, feels very smooth and poppy compared to classic Weasel tracks. Sure, it’s formulaic, but it still has a great bounce. But then there are songs that try to be too… arty? Like the songs from “Baby Fat Vol. 1,” they try to be overly cinematic and just don’t sound like Screeching Weasel. They come across as being indulgent and overblown. “In La Quinta del Sordo” is one such song, trying to be a Latinesque punk theme or something. “Gates Lift High Your Heads,” too, tries to sound theatrical and falls flat. Some tracks add keyboards, reportedly performed by Ben’s ten-year-old son. And, while the kid acquits himself quite well, synths do seem out of place in Screeching Weasel songs. Nowhere is this more apparent than “In The Castle,” a dark punk track that’s already out of character for SW’s normally bright sound. The keyboards, while played surprisingly well for a pre-teen, are, nevertheless, ill-suited for SW, and even for a song of this genre. On the other hand, “Hey Diana” has electric organ that feels right at home in the bright and poppy song that feels more like Squirtgun than something from Screeching Weasel. It’s downright happy sounding and it’s a love song! So, as I noted at the start of this review, this album has a couple of great songs, a bunch of good songs, and a handful of songs that we could have done without. It’s a mixed bag for me.
BROKE ROYALS – Local Support (Byrdland Records, shop.byrdlandrecords.com)
Broke Royals hail from Washington, D.C., and “Local Support” is the band’s third full-length LP. There’s a wide variety of songs here, ranging from indie rock to classic rock to AM power pop. Some of it hits the sweet spot, some of it misses the mark. The press materials mention influences ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty, and that’s evident in the songs. Much of the first half of the album has a distinct rock and roll sound, albeit tempered with pop tendencies. The latter half is more influenced by country and folk traditions. The album opens strongly with “Postcard,” a huge epic of a track, the keyboards providing a fanfare-like sound. It’s a glorious and uplifting sound, almost like going to the rock and roll church. The ensuing few tracks sound like songs that could have been lifted from FM radio of the 1980s. On the back half of the LP, “Hardly” is a lovely, quiet ballad that has the feel of singer-songwriter fare, somewhat like a James Taylor tune. And I love the acoustic “Can’t Speak to That,” with a delicate touch and steel pedal guitar providing an ambient backdrop. “Jesus Jane,” too, mixes acoustic singer-songwriter material with a country twang, and the gentle song is packed with passion. “White Flag” and “Go Easy On Me” are two of the big misses, to me. The vocals are heavily processed using effects common in mass-market pop music. The latter, too, has the feel of a country gospel tune, but with pop production qualities. And the title track, which closes the album, uses a vocoder on the lead vocals to give that commercial pop sound, though the melody and use of piano suggest a gospel influence to the tune. Hit or miss here.
THE MORÖNS – The Book of Morön (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords. bandcamp.com)
For some, going to punk shows is their form of spirituality. The Moröns take this a step further with their latest LP, The Book of Morön. Just listen to that sermon on the opening track, “Congregation!” All kidding aside, these whacky Canadian punks are back with a new full-length LP full of variety. Their songs range from speedy skate punk to bubbly pop punk and everything in between. And check out the brilliant parody cover art! I like how a lot of the songs blend speed with late 80s and early 90s pop punk style, and the lyrics are loaded with sarcasm. I’m not a huge fan of modern skate punk, but even when The Moröns do it, they temper it with a lot more pop and a huge dose of their unique humor. Examples of this include “I Wanna Be a Hesher” and “Upgrade to Premium.” “Open Bar” is halfway between skate punk and more “traditional” pop punk, but getting “liquored up for nothing” can be a religious experience for many, and the fun song sings the praises of the titular service at some parties. And “Cable” is a dark jangly song about a troublesome relationship with a woman that doesn’t treat our protagonist very well – but she has cable with HBO! I really like “Southwood,” which reminds me of Youth Brigade’s era of less punk more guitar-pop but mixed with Lookout! Era East Bay pop punk. Vocalist Robbie Morön’s singing is smooth and tuneful, and the bouncy melody has just a hint of epicness. “On the Pil” is a favorite track, speedy as skate punk, but loaded with great 90s pop punk sound rather than metallic flourishes. The band includes an unlikely punk rock cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” the 1980s synth-pop disco hit. Of course, The Moröns’ version is grittier and more raucous, and it turns pap into fun music. This is a solid record.
SPRING SUMMER – T.E.A.R.S. (linktr.ee/SPRINGSUMMERMUSIC)
Spring Summer is the solo project of California performer Jennifer Furches. Under the Spring Summer moniker, Furches plays lovely breezy indie pop, with wistful vocals and lush, yet delicate instrumentals. Those instrumentals are stripped back to just guitar, bass, and drums, with heavy reverb providing the atmosphere. There’s some light use of keyboards too, such as on “QMII,” in the form of electric organ that gives the song an ecclesiastical feeling before resolving into a warm, soulful sound, courtesy of some vibrato. The result is a light, airy album full of celestial songs. That’s a plus and a drawback. On a positive note, the songs are lovely, pretty things. But the drawback is there could be more variety. Many of the songs tend to sound similar to one another. I hear themes of loss and ending relationships through the album. The opening track is an ode to perseverance in the face of loss, with a chorus that includes the lines “I am tough as nails / I am a mountaineer.” You can hear the hurt when Furches sings, “You never knew me with my heart opened wide.” Many people shut down after a painful loss, as evidenced in these lyrics. And there’s “I Told You It’s Over,” a song for taking the initiative in ending a relationship. And “Show Yourself Out,” too, is about the strength to kick someone to the curb. These too songs are the few exceptions to the overall sound, though they don’t deviate too far. “Show Yourself Out” has an earthy dance beat, but the keyboards have a more ethereal quality. And “I Told You It’s Over” is a bit different, too, with a deep, dark sound, the keyboards used primarily for bass ambience. “Bitter Cold” is the other one with a little bit of variation; its keyboards have a high pitched strumming effect that gives it the sound of an ethnic folk tune mixed with pop. I like this record; it’s very pretty, but it’s not going to set the world on fire or anything.
AMONG LEGENDS – Take Good Care (radgirlfriendrecords.com/
Canadian pop punks Among Legends live in that space between melodic hardcore, skate rock, and pop punk, blending sounds of bands like Bad Religion and Face to Face. After a series of EPs, “Take Good Care” is the band’s debut full-length LP. There’s a strong sense of “posi” punk in the songs, with a broad emotional feel. The songs have the melodic hardcore content of Bad Religion, but smoothed and tempered by the pop punk of Face to Face. That’s both the band’s strength and it’s downfall, I think. In some ways, the songs seem to play it too safe, too middle of the road. In other ways, some of the songs are catchy enough. “Come Up Swinging” is one such track, with a harder punch and poppier, bouncier melodic line than others. “Baywatch” is a fiery rager of a sing-along that’s sure to open up the pit at live shows. And “Manifesto” lives up to its name, with a big pub-rock sound and charged up lyrics. The rest of the tracks are fine enough, and the band are more than proficient. But even in punk rock, middle of the road doesn’t generate the level of excitement one would want.
THE SLOW DEATH – Casual Majesty (radgirlfriendrecords.com)
Jesse Swan Thorson and his rotating cast of band members return with their first full-length album in five years, their fourth overall. While the lineup keeps changing, one thing remains consistent, and that’s the Midwest emotional pop punk sound that Thorson has honed and perfected over the last several years. Joining Thorson on this outing are Paddy Costello (Dillinger Four), Mikey Erg (The Ergs! and too many other bands to mention), Dan Johnson, Dave Strait, and Josh Goldman (The Raging Nathans, The Dopamines, and Rad Girlfriend boss). The songs have a big sound and heart-on-your sleeve lyrics that provide a winning combination. And the band provides diversity, too, with songs both restrained and rambunctious. The album opens with “Is There Anything Left,” a somber song that asks, “Is there anything left that will make me feel like I felt yesterday?” You can hear the loss, the desire to numb the pain. Right after that, “Now I’m Into Nothing” is 180 degrees, a fast paced track with a gloriously raucous sound, guitars jamming in the background and electric organ providing the warm soulfulness to the song. One thing of note throughout many of the songs is the surf guitar tone. These aren’t surf punk tunes, but the guitar tone makes a strong contribution to the thick sound The Slow Death have. “Imaginary Problems” is one of my favorite songs of the album. It has the classic Slow Death big epic sound with a hint of Hüsker Dü influence. Guest vocals from Lydia Loveless really add to the song. “Young Trees” is another favorite that the band has been playing for a while, and previously was released on the “Nice One” four-way split EP that Rad Girlfriend released last year. The epic song relays the fatalist sentiment of doom the current generation, with Thorson’s gritty vocals singing, “We are the young trees waiting for the axe to fall.” The melody is pretty minimalist, with a few licks that repeat, but it’s effective at conveying the feeling that, while everything going to shit is inevitable, we might as well, make the best of it. I enjoy the punked doo-wop vibe of “I’m Not Letting It Go,” and the Americana-punk of “Not Much for Waiting.” Hell, I like all the tracks, and you will, too. The Slow Death have been at it for over a decade, and thankfully show no signs of dying quite yet.
VISTA BLUE – Stay Gold (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)
Vista Blue is one of the most prolific pop punk bands today, cranking out multiple releases per year. They’re also one of the most creative pop punk bands today, with releases all centering on a common theme, whether it be a holiday, a season, or movie genres. This latest full-length LP may be their most ambitious yet, delving into a popular film by Francis Ford Coppola. There’s a scene in which two characters are on the run from the law and one reads a Robert Frost poem to the other, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Yep, all of the songs on this album are inspired by “The Outsiders.” Each song centers on a quote from the novel. For example, “Paul Newman and a Ride Home” comes from a scene at the movie house, and the quote, “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” “She’s a Soc” refers to the class distinctions highlighted in the novel, and the quote, “We’re poorer than the Socs and the middle class. I reckon we’re wilder, too… I’m not saying either Socs or greasers are better; that’s just the way things are.” The song “Cherry” is about the character, Cherry Valance.” There’s a song about the rumble and another about being out in the country. Of course, Vista Blue has one of the most recognizable sounds in pop punk, with their distinctive deep buzzy guitar tone and harmonized vocals. That’s on display here, in spades. A couple songs stand out, though as a little different for Vista Blue. “We Turn It Up” is harder and edgier, reminding more of a cross between 80s hardcore-metal crossover music and 80s Chicago punk. It has a big, tough sound. “Marcia” is less buzzy and janglier, more of an indie pop tune than pop punk, with a cleaner sound. Vista Blue are always a good listen, and they’re probably one of the cleverest bands around. It can’t be easy writing all these themed songs and records.
CAMP TRASH – The Long Way, The Slow Way (Count Your Lucky Stars, cylsrecords.com)
Following up last year’s debut EP, Florida’s Camp Trash return with their debut full-length. The band start with 90s indie-rock and take it to the next level, with plenty of pop punk goodness blended in. Listening to the opening track, “Mind Yr Own,” I hear the indie influence of bands like Superchunk, but also the brilliant pop punk of PUP, though very much toned down from the manic sounds of that band. It’s especially evident in the big unison gang vocals and the lead vocal quality. Songs like “Pursuit” have thick, lush guitars and pleading lead vocals. There’s jangle in the guitars, but also a mixing of dreaminess and big wall of sound. “Weird Florida” brings the 90s jangle in spades and lots of poppy bounciness blended with broad smooth arrangements. The keyboards inject a sense of lightness, even as the big chorus lends a sense of gravity. “Lake Erie Boys” adds a thick electric organ to the arrangement, giving it a warm sense of nostalgia. Favorite song: “Church Bells,” a gorgeous song about aging, drifting away from friends, not going out, and self-isolating. The huge guitars ring out like, well, bells, and there’s a sorrowful feeling of introspection. While the debut EP was good, this LP is outstanding.
THE DREADNOUGHTS – Roll and Go (Stomp Records, stomprecords.com)
The PR materials called Vancouver’s The Dreadnoughts “polka punks.” But they’re so much more than that. I like their Facebook page description much better: “World-core Clusterfolk.” The band uses all sorts of ethnic music traditions and folk idioms and punks them up, creating something varied and fun as hell. Fiddle, mandolin, accordion, and other traditional instruments mix with electric guitar, bass, and drums in an Old World meets New World mélange. After an introduction singing the praises of the cider jar to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is “Cider Holiday,” a raucous Celtic punk tune in the tradition of The Pogues or Flogging Molly. Cider seems to be a particularly favorite topic for the band, as they also have another song, “Scrumpy-O,” a song that mixes Celtic and punk, but leans much more heavily on the punk side of things. Scrumpy, for those who don’t know, is a type of rough cider that’s particularly popular in the West Country in England. “Dusty Ground” is another big Celtic Punk tune, a dark sounding jig with enormous presence. Several of the songs have a strong Eastern European folk base, including “Problem,” which mixes in a dose of ska punk to create a boisterous monstrosity of enjoyment. “Tuika,” too, is unmistakably Eastern European/Russian, with violins taking the melody of this instrumental, along with shouts of “Hoi! Hoi!” from men who would presumably be dancing one of those flashy Russian dances. Maritime shanty songs offer fertile ground for The Dreadnoughts, too. “Brisbane Harbour” is the sort of shanty you might have heard aboard a working ship as the hands work the ship’s sails and prepare to push out to sea. “Bold Reilly,” on the other hand, is a gorgeous traditional a cappella song with multi-part harmony and a melancholy feel. It’s a song of farewell, as Bold Reilly prepares to set sail and leave his love. “The Storm” is a fascinating track that seems to mix everything together into a musical melting pot. I hear Eastern European, Celtic, and shanty themes in this epic track. The title track that ends the LP, too, mixes traditional folk with some Eastern European touches and metallic punk, and is a phrase used in shanties to refer to trimming the sails to get some serious speed in the open sea. It’s a song of brotherhood, too, as it sings “I’ve never known a better bunch of bully-lads than you.” The only real polka punk track, as far as I can tell, is “Vicki’s Polka.” It’s a lively one, though it begs comparison to Polkacide, the best polka punk band ever. The Dreadnoughts seem to play it more on the polka side and less on the punk than Polkacide. Nevertheless, this is a rambunctious album that’s a hell of a lot of fun.
GHOST WOMAN (Full Time Hobby Records, fulltimehobby.co.uk)
For the most part, Ghost Woman’s self-titled LP is what I would term “neo-psychedelic” music. It has a super-chill vibe that would feel right at home in the psych scene of the 60s and 70s. The songs are understated and hazy, with guitar, bass, and drums, the latter played with a light tough. Heavy reverb and a slower tempo add to the hypnotic feel. Vocals are extra relaxed, singing to the groove through the album. This theme reaches its height with “Jreaming,” a song that’s so laid-back as to seem to come from that place where you’re half asleep and half awake. The vocals feel almost like sleep talking, and the instrumentals are at their cloudiest. “Dead and Gone,” though still exhibiting all the aforementioned characteristics, is, nonetheless, a little bit edgier than most of the tracks, the guitars getting a bit aggressive between verses, making it a standout. The last two tracks are way different from the rest, and are the best of the album. “Good,” the penultimate song, is a gorgeous song with a lovely lounge feel, while “Comes On” ends the album on an acoustic note with a dusty western folk flair. This is a pretty unique record, as there aren’t a lot of bands playing this sort of music these days. At least not quite like this. Very relaxing.
TOWNIES – Meet the Townies! (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)
A long time ago there were punk bands before they were trying to be “punk.” Bands that took the rock and roll aesthetic and turned it on its head. Townies, a band from the south of Colorado, are a modern version of such a band, caring little about what genre lanes bands are supposed to stay in. Their music isn’t the fast’n’loud raucous stuff that punk became; it’s more influenced by power pop, surf, and garage, in the same way as early bands such as The Dead Kennedys were. The songs are edgy while remaining melodic, raw while still retaining a sense of cohesiveness and immediacy. Between the two instrumental bookends of “Western Intro” and “Western Intro (Outro Version),” we get songs that cover topics both political and social, injecting a wry sense of humor in the lyrics. The very first song after the intro, “Hooray,” is a declaration of crimes of America, from slavery to using atomic weapons, from white supremacy to wars of convenience, and to the encouragement of debt and endless work to pay it off. As I mentioned, Townies give a bit middle finger to the genre police with their country-folk number, “TX Weeds,” a song about conservatives from Texas who cross the border into Colorado to buy legal weed. A highlight comes in the middle of the song, “Do Something,” an anthem about the wide political divide, armchair activists, and hypocrisy. Vocalist Suzanne Magnuson, launches into an admonishment aimed at those who claim to care about life, yet don’t care about the environment (the life of the planet), don’t care about the lives of immigrants, or the lives of school children who get shot on a regular basis in this country. I disagree with the premise of “Jazz is for Assholes,” a tirade against various musicians of the genre, but it’s still a raw fist puncher of a tune that praises the glories of rock and roll. I enjoy, too, the song “COP!” that tells the tale of the high school kid who failed his math tests, worshipped cops, and never had a girl friend yet was always bragging about “pussy.” The kid tried to join the military but failed the piss test, then became a cop as soon as he graduated, and spends his time cleaning graffiti and “looking for signs of trouble.” In an ironic twist, despite including a song titled “I Don’t Like the Beatles,” in which they describe how much they despise the popular UK pop group, they have a cover on the album: George Harrison’s “I Got My Mind Set On You.” It’s a reasonably faithful rendition, though, of course, with a raw garage rock sound. Townies’ debut LP is destined to become a classic.
ART D’ECCO – After the Head Rush (Paper Bag Records, paperbagrecords.com)
Glam rock performer Art D’Ecco’s follow-up to last year’s “In Standard Definition” is here, and that makes for happy listening. The music has a glorious mix of 80s new wave, power pop, and 70s glam with bits of funk in some tracks. As I mentioned in my review of the previous LP, I’m reminded of a mix of David Bowie and Bill Nelson, two excellent artists. Keyboards, synths, and sax mix with guitar, bass, and drums, and D’Ecco’s sensuous vocals ooze with mysterious romanticism. All the tracks are fun for fans of these genres, but I’ll mention of few of my highlights. The mix of smooth new wave and a super-funky bass and drumbeat on “I Was A Teenager” makes it a standout. The vocals get pretty freaky on the bridge, too. I love the loping feel and gliding and glittering synths on “Get Loose,” with its striding bass. The vibe on “Run Away” is a bit reminiscent of “A Swingin’ Safari,” the 60s tune that was used as the theme song for the original “Match Game” TV show, particularly because of the use of a flute to play the opening lines. The interviewing synths on “SAD Light Disco” are strongly reminiscent of Bill Nelson’s solo material (and I’m a long-time Nelson fan). And the closing track, which is also the title track, uses a lovely circle of fifths chord change pattern in the jangly guitars that makes it an instant favorite. The chords are played back by synths tuned to sound like a horn section, giving the song an appropriately anthemic quality. Enjoyable!
HAUNTED SUMMER – Whole (LaunchLeft, www.launchleft.com/label)
Haunted Summer is the Los Angeles husband and wife team of Bridgette Eliza Moody and John Seasons, and the name is appropriate. The music is light like a summer’s day, with haunting dreamy qualities. The songs tend to feel like a melding of easy listening music, 70s psych, and dream pop, with a hazy, relaxed feel. There’s a filmy smokiness enveloping the vocals, as synths create a sense of mystery and an almost orchestral feel. It’s all a little too…Burt Bacharach AM radio meets elevator music for me. There’s even a hint of Brazilian soft samba, as if Jobim began writing what used to be called “adult contemporary” music – easy pop songs. “You Put My Love Out the Door” is a perfect example of that. But there are a couple tracks I enjoy. The title track seems to be influenced, at least in part, by “Dark Side of the Moon” era Pink Floyd. It’s definitely got that spacey acid rock feel. Toward the end of the track, multi-tracking creates an enormous spine-tingling choir. And “Big Knife” is pretty indie-pop, but dreamier, played at a more leisurely of a pace. The song definitely has a bounce to it, and I can hear this song being part of the repertoire of classic indie pop bands of the 90s, like Tsunami, but without the reverb. The guitars actually jangle, and the melody is bright. Other than these two songs, the album really doesn’t do much for me.
KRIS N. – Tilted Summer (Poptek Records, www.poptek.com)
The ultimate in DIY bedroom recordings, Kris N. returns with a new EP of stripped back pop punk songs. The recordings are not quite as lo-fi as earlier efforts, but not as clean as 2013’s “The Thankful Parade” LP. This new five-song EP is halfway between his solo material and the filled out band of the “The Thankful Parade.” It’s punkier and grungier than previous releases, the opening track (“Pop Music Is Hard”) sounding like a demo for a 90s Seattle band. I like the march-like quality of “This Land Is My Land” (no relation to the Woody Guthrie anthem), with a drum (or is it a drum machine?) and the guitar creating the sound of a chugging train. “Leo the Lion” is the fullest sounding song of the EP, and is a true pop punk song. It should have been the closer for the EP, because it’s got the biggest sound. The actual ending track, the title track, is a return to solo acoustic and, though the song is pretty, with just acoustic guitar and vocals (both multi-tracked), it doesn’t have the oomph of the previous track. I can tell Kris N. is doing this for the love of the music. The EP sounds very personal and intimate, even with a thicker sound than most of his work (not counting the title track).
THE LAST ARIZONA – Forever and Always (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)
The Last Arizona is the solo project of Emma Hartman, and has been ongoing since 2016. After a series of EPs and singles, Hartman released her debut full-length LP last fall, and has followed that up with a pair of EPs, this being the second. “Forever and Always” has a quiet, intimate, and ultimately sad sound. The electric guitar, bass, drums, and synths are mostly subdued, and Hartman’s vocals are angst-filled. I love the opening track, “S15E7,” which starts off very restrained and understated, but halfway through the track the instrumentals begin to swell, and the song gets huge. The sadness is palpable, even as Hartman’s vocals explode with passion. “August” has more than a touch of Americana, with bluesy guitar twang and lyrics of self-doubt and hurt. The title track is the shortest, but is, perhaps, the most painful, with menacing guitars playing lines that get more and more chaotic, while Hartman speaks to bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts over the hatred she faces on a daily basis just for being who she is as a trans woman, but ultimately she says she “will still stand sure and unafraid, forever and always, love Emma.” This is a powerful understated EP.
SPYGENIUS – Jobbernowl (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)
Canterbury band Spygenius return with another LP chock full of retro mod-psych-pop sounds. From the get-go, Spygenius turns up full-blast with the punny track, “I Dig Your New Robes, Pierre,” a reference to the French revolutionary. The music is bright, with a strong 60s mod/psych sound, and the lyrics are brilliantly written, with labyrinthine rhymes. Many of the songs inject a dose of Motown soulfulness, such as “Sky-Pie, Century 21” and especially “Screwy.” “Screwy” is a fun track that melds R&B with 60s Brit-pop and mod sounds, is a song that looks back at the start of love and the looking forward of where time might take the relationship. It’s a reminder to not take love for granted, but also that “life’s more fun with a few explosives.” “2020 Revision” has a lighter musical touch, but a heavier lyrical burden. It references the difficulties we’ve all faced since 2020 and the loss of friends to a virus. Chief lyricist Peter Watts says the song is an ode to grief and loss. “Once upon a time I had a lovely friend who had this extraordinary positivity about him that was quite unlike anything I’d known… it was a delight and it was really infectious… and then he was gone, in an instant. There was a virus going round, as the saying goes… so…,” he writes, as a reminder to “keep alive the spirit of that all too brief, precious friendship.” “So of the Morning, Go Man Go!” is another song of loss and grief, but this time of a pet. The song, though, rather than being morose and weepy, is a bright celebration of the bond we have with pets, and the way they make all the troubles of the world melt away and seem insignificant in the wordless bond we have. I love the bright “The Marvelous, Mendacious Time Machine,” a bouncy song with a lovely light touch that speaks to the dark side of nostalgia. Those who wish for a time machine to revisit simpler times often forget the grisly nature of those past eras. The song has a humorous dig, too, at Rupert Murdock’s right-wing empire, as it references HG Wells’ book, “The Time Machine,” when it says, “We’ll be Eloi to the Murdocks while they sneer and jeer,” replacing the evil Morlocks with the evil Murdocks. The song ends with synthesized sound effects that bring Doctor Who to mind, another time travel allusion. Spygenius provide yet another varied and beautiful record.
CAMICHES (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)
Camiches, hailing from Mexico City, is Wiretap’s first non-English signing, as the band sing all of their songs in Spanish. They have been around the better part of a decade, and this self-titled record is their Wiretap debut. They play big broad emotional music, inspired by the melodic punk of the 2000s, but you can hear touches of post-hardcore and even Mexican folk music in the songs, creating a unique style they call “feeling core.” You can hear this on the poignant, “Durmiendo En El Camino” (Sleeping in the Street). Camiches’ Sinuhé López says of the song that it’s about “adolescence from the perspective of a middle-aged adult.” It’s about not just the freedom and joy of youth, but also the struggle and search for meaning and direction. The song has an easy loping tempo, a big broad melody, and impassioned vocals. The opening track, “Al Ocaso” (At Sunset) probably has the highest “punk” content, with the most raucous guitars, and “El Jardin Oculto” (The Hidden Garden) is the poppiest though it includes a tough metallic breakdown about halfway through, then gets smooth and epic. If you’re a fan of 2000s emo with a twist, check this out. The genre isn’t one of my favorites, but Camiches do a good job here at keeping things varied.
COLLEEN DOW – Inside Voices (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)
Solo indie-pop, featuring Colleen Dow, the front-person for Thank You I’m Sorry. The music is laden with keyboards, along with drums (or drum machine in some cases) and guitars. After releasing several singles, “Inside Voices” is Dow’s first proper EP. The songs are fairly stripped back indie-pop, with Dow’s deadpan vocals. Some have a bit of bounce, such as “Bummer Summer,” a song about being in and bored on a Friday night when you should be out having a good time. “Childhood Home” has a hypnotic quality, droning synths providing a base, and other synths swirling between chords. It’s somewhat different from the rest of the tracks and from other indie pop for that matter, with a unique texture. And “Redline” is the liveliest of the tracks, with jangly guitars and bright percussion effects. This is a pleasant, understated EP.
FAILING UP – Stories of a Disturbed Mind (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com
) It would be easy to label Failing Up as just another melodic punk band, but that would be selling them short. Sure, they play punk rock loaded with melodic content and metallic tinges, like so many other bands, but they mix in a dose of post hardcore, too, making the songs particularly aggressive. The opening track, “Fry My Mind,” is a perfect example of this, with a tough and energetic sound, only slightly tempered with melodic content. “Parasite,” too, has a great mix of tunefulness and grit. Additionally, some of the songs have more than their share of bright poppiness, giving them a bit of a Descendents sound. “Not Today” is a great example of this; it’s a crackling punk tune with enough pop content to bring out a joyful sound. Then there are songs like “Bully,” which has a more standard dark melodic punk sound, complete with flashy guitar licks and all. Vocalist Tanya Delgado shows great versatility, equally at home with melodic singing and hardcore shouts. The rest of the band are tight and show their flexibility, too, easily moving between subgenres. If you like the melodic punk sound, check this out, because it’s less generic and more fun than most.
HANDHELD – A Canadian Tragedy (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
Let’s face it, skate punk can be pretty generic. When I see a band described as being “skate punk,” I gird myself for some stale stuff that sounds just like a million other bands. That’s not the case with Handheld, an Ontario band that was primarily active from 1998 to 2008. After a ten-year hiatus, the band reunited to play some shows, and then the pandemic hit. So what did they do? They decided to record a new LP. They’re back with their sixth full-length LP, and their first since reuniting. Skate punk is typically identified by its fast tempo, close vocal harmonies, metallic licks, and double-time rhythm section with regular time guitars and vocals. Do Handheld play this style of music? Yes. But rather than stay strictly to formula, like so many bands, Handheld dispense with the metal and add in a heavy dose of pop melody. It makes the songs feel brighter and, well, more fun than typical skate punk. There is an irreverence to Handheld, too. The band have a tribute to Canadian legend John Candy on the album, too, called “Leaving Candyland.” And they have songs with titles such as “The Log Driver’s Waltz” and “Life of a Hitman.” The joy comes through in the playing, too, with snotty vocals and the feeling that you’re in on the gag. If you’re a fan of the genre, check this out, because it’ll open your ears to how good it can be and how boring the much of the music you’ve been listening to is.
THE INFLORESCENCE – Remember What I Look Like (Kill Rock Stars, killrockstars.com)
I get annoyed when I get great new albums from bands and then find out they’re from my adopted home town and I’ve never heard of them. The Inflorescence is from San Diego, and yup, I was completely unfamiliar with them prior to receiving this. I guess I have an excuse: the band is still very new, having only been around for the past couple of years, and they changed their name from The Florescents to The Inflorescence. Add to this the fact that they’re just teenagers, with ages ranging from 15 to 18 years old, and that this is the bands debut full-length LP, it’s all the more remarkable. The nine songs presented show a strong maturity, blending lovely indie pop with raucous pop punk to create compelling music. The songs are exuberant, with passionate and harmonized vocals. The band members are masters of dynamic control, too. You’ve read my complaints about some bands that can’t seem to play anything but one volume level or tempo, but The Inflorescence certainly don’t have any issues there. While most songs are mid tempo or up tempo, “So Much of Nothing” has a slower pace, but a huge dynamic range, going from a quiet tune to huge, thick, and lush. “Last Week” is a sure favorite, beginning with delicate gorgeous vocals over gently raucous guitars. The high-pitched rapid strumming in places reminds me of mandolin. As the song evolves, it gets bigger, turning into a big sing-along, pop punk style, the kind of song where you and all your friends crowd to the front of the stage, arms around each other and fists in the air. From what I can make out of the lyrics, it seems to be a song about breaking up and learning to live independently. “You’re not the same person I hurt last week,” the song declares. “Is your heart still beating the way I thought it did?” it asks. And it declares that I’m “finding my way without you.” Usually these sorts of songs are written from the perspective of the person being dumped, but the turnabout here is interesting, and it’s both touching and inspirational. The closing track, “Board Game,” bares painful emotions about navigating a relationship. As the song opens, we hear the sounds of texting back and forth, and the vocals come in, “I can’t keep trying / To figure out how I won’t get hurt / You seem not to care / So why should I care about you?” The song has a desperate pleading quality to it, and you can feel the hurt and confusion in it. This is an outstanding debut LP.
A VULTURE WAKE – Kingdom (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
A Vulture Wake, if you’ve been living under a rock, was founded as a supergroup made up of Chad Price (ALL, Drag the River), Joe Raposo (RKL), Sean Sellers (Good Riddance, Downcast), and Brandon Landelius (Authority Zero). The band went through some lineup changes over its short life, interrupted by the pandemic, and now includes John Hernandez and Dave Klein. But their sound is as big and tight as ever. The best way to describe A Vulture Wake is “progressive punk.” You can hear the punk rock roots, especially 1990s melodic punk, but the arrangements are intricate and complex, like progressive rock of the 70s. The blend of melodic punk and progressive rock creates something unique, interesting, and exciting. The guitar lines and solos on the opening track, “Virus,” rival those of any of the big mega-popular bands of 40 years ago, but Price’s passionate vocals and the lyrical content keep it feeling present and intimate. The EP includes some metallic flashes, too, but nothing off-putting (I’m not a metal fan, particularly). And there are some bouts of ALL-like angularity. “Moths” is the track that really grabs my attention the most, and is my favorite of the EP. I love the shifting rhythms, the edgy post-hardcore and mathish feel, and the use of guitar harmonics and the angularity of the intervals in the guitar lines are amazing. Six songs, sixteen minutes, infinite enjoyment.
EXTRA ARMS – What Is Even Happening Right Now? (Forge Again Records, www.forgeagainrecords.com)
If you read my reviews regularly, you know I love power pop and pop punk, and Detroit’s Extra Arms are experts at blending the two genres, and sprinkling in a bit of glam for good measure. The band’s latest LP is their best yet, with ten strong tracks, a thick rich sound, and a glorious upbeat feeling. The title is a question a lot of us have been repeatedly asking each other for the past several years, as life seems to spin out of control. Front man Ryan Allen belts out the vocals like his life depended on it, with passion and fury. The album starts out strongly, with “Fun Guy,” a poppy song about working on self-improvement, mental health, and not giving up. After a few bleeps from the synths, the song explodes with epic guitars and Allen’s impassioned declarations, as if he’s trying to convince himself, rather than anyone listening. The retro glam sounds are particularly strong on of “Feeling Alright,” a song that lopes at a slower tempo, and “Click Wars,” a quicker paced bouncy tune. “Vulnerabilities” is a favorite, with more of a 90s indie rock sound. The rolling guitar lines and driving rhythm give it the feel of a train powering down the tracks, and like other tracks the lyrics speak to working on one’s mental health, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. “Life in a Cube” has a great bounce and dark indie rock sound, and there’s even a bit of ALL-like poppy angularity tossed in. “Denial” is a powerful driving track with a cinematic flavor, like it could be used in a movie soundtrack for some sort of edgy thriller. Every single track on this album is a good one, making this a candidate for my best of 2022 list.
GONE STEREO – Don’t Think I Forgot About You (Negative Progression, negativeprogressionrecords. bandcamp.com)
New Long Island melodic punk band Gone Stereo have joined up with a relaunched Negative Progression Records for their debut single. The band plays 2000s style melodic pop punk, loaded with hooks and harmonies. The A-side is the title track, and it’s sort of a middle finger to an ex. It’s up-tempo and bright sounding, with lyrics that assures said ex “That I no longer feel lost without you” and “I’m better off without you.” On the bridge, the huge vocal harmonies soar, giving a sense of freedom and exhilaration. The B-side is “Taste of This,” and it’s more of a mid-tempo track, telling a different story, one that seems to be closer in time to the break-up. After relating memories of “Driving down the 495 and I’ve got the radio blasting with all our favorite songs / With no place in mind, right by my side,” the plea in the chorus comes: “Could you please just, could you please just change your mind? / Cause I don’t think I’m making it out of this time.” The breakup seems fresh and raw. Fans of MxPx, The Ataris, and similar bands will dig this well-played material.
THE INTERESTS – "Feel The Disparity" 7 inch (theinterests.co.uk)
The young indie band from London return with their third single, and it’s their lightest and poppiest yet. Their debut, “Attention,” was dark and solemn, with buzzing distorted guitars. The follow-up, “Capitulation,” had a cleaner sound, and while the instrumentals felt brighter, the vocals still cast a melancholy shadow. This latest song, though, is lighter and brighter. Even the deep vocals have more of a sense of joy in them. It’s a good song for indie fans, but I think I like the darker songs better.
LIVING ROOM – New Years (Fear Icon Records, feariconrecords.bandcamp.com)
This latest LP from long-time Brooklyn quartet Living Room is a bit uneven to my ears. The band attempt to blend emo, shoegaze, a bit of grunge, and a bit of pop punk, with some degree of success, though some of the songs fail to generate the excitement and strong emotion I would expect from such a combination. The music is mostly broad, with some grunge-like melodic lines and gritty guitars, but also with loads of hazy reverb and smoothed vocals. The tempos, more often than not, tend to drag, and some of the arrangements are overly grandiose – too epic of a sound. Many of the songs remind me of 2000s emo-pop, but with a gauziness laid on top of it. One exception stands out somewhat. “Mauve Frame” is more raucous than many of the tracks, with a bit quicker pace to the tempo. Even then, though, the smooth unemotional vocals feel out of place among the bristling guitars, particularly on the chorus. I do like the melody of “Flood,” a dreamier track that follows “Mauve Frame” and contrasts starkly with it. It’s got a calmer feel, like floating down a big wide river. There are moments where the grunge tries to break through, but overall this is a very pretty song – though the vocals still don’t do the song justice. Much of the time the intros show more promise than the songs deliver. “Oh Boy” starts with drums and a jangly guitar, then lead guitar comes in with a staccato line, and I think we’re in for something different, more restrained and poppy – but instead we get another overblown emo-pop song. The album includes the obligatory acoustic ballad, in this case “Moon Room.” But what should be a wistful introspective song falls flat, the vocals feeling uncommitted. Probably the best, most cohesive song of the album is “Muss,” a song with gorgeous dreamy electric guitars and no percussion. The vocals seem right at home on this one, as it seems to waft and drift. I think this one has to be my favorite song of the album. The idea of mixing dreaminess with grunge, pop, and emo is a good one, and I think having a bit more commitment in the vocals would go a long way to improving these songs.
PANDA RIOT – Extra Cosmic (pandariot.bandcamp.com)
A lot of music categorized as “shoegaze” tends to be morose in nature, but Panda Riot sounds downright joyful. It combines pretty indie pop melodies with sparkly synths and angelic vocals. “E.S.P.” is a particular fun one, with a bouncy indie pop melody, Stereolab-like minimalist synths, and a strong driving feel. It’s got the same sort of deep fuzz bass line as Stereolab, and the same sort of Krautrock minimalism in the rhythm section, but the melody is pure pop goodness. It’s a combination that works surprisingly well. “Ultramarine” is the closest the band gets to a more wistful dreamy sound, but even then, the poppiness comes through in the heavenly radiant vocals. The synths and fuzzed guitars blend together to create a gorgeous haze that engulfs the song and listener alike. I really like “Remote Viewing,” which injects an EDM sort of dance beat, adding another layer to the already multifaceted music. “Telepathic Landscapes” is an instrumental right out of a dream, and a glorious one, at that. It shimmers, waxes, and wanes, with a beautiful glow. “Glitterati” is appropriately titled, with its glittery synths, but it also includes grungy guitars to provide an interesting contrast, and an enveloping ambience of synths. And one of my favorites has to be “Future Shock.” It’s got an incredible radiance in the synths and the most buoyant of melodies, and is one of the most cheery pieces of music you’re likely to hear all month. This is dazzling stuff.
SACK – Ripper! (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
Sack, Kody Templeman’s side project that he formed after The Lillington’s went on hiatus twenty or so years ago, is back. Everyone thought it was a “one off,” with a single LP released in 2005 (“Get Wrecked”). But they reunited during the pandemic and released an EP called “Live in Quarantine.” Now they’ve got another proper album, twelve songs of no bullshit punk rock. Well, maybe some bullshit is involved, because, although the music is pounding and relentless in a Motorhead sort of way, the lyrics are, shall we say, less intense and serious. So we get songs like the pummeling metallic track, “I Hate the Beach Boys.” We get a crunchy dirge called “The Return of Mr. Bong.” “I Tried Suicide” has an appropriately dark sound, dueling guitars playing mysterious sounding lines over a tribal drumbeat, and lyrics about the different ways of attempting to off one’s self (don’t try that at home, kids!). “Live, Laugh, LARP” is a crackling punk rock ode to nerding out to role-playing games on a Saturday night. And the album closes with an epic metal track called “Staple of the Stoner House.” There’s nothing ground breaking here, and it’s not the sort of record I would seek out for myself, but if you’re looking for a hard rocking party punk album, this one will work better than most.
SETH TIMBS – Easy Answers (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
If you’re a fan of piano-based power pop with a Joe Jackson sort of vibe, this is a record for you. Seth Timbs, the Nashville singer-songwriter who has played with Fluid Ounces and Hot New Singles has been doing some solo work the last few years, playing songs that have a sense of the theatrical in them, and even a bit of jazz and funk, kind of like 70s and 80s TV show music. He has a wry sense of humor, too, commenting on our political divide with the opening track, “Easy Answers.” “The world is full of easy answers / Just pick the ones that you like best / And all the other easy answers / Are wrong, wrong, they got it all wrong, despite what the experts say,” the song opens, commenting on the confirmation bias that plagues society. There are references to “brainless sheep,” an accusation made by the most ardent followers of baseless conspiracy theories against more rational thinking people. The music is simple, with piano, bass, and drums, but it hops and skips brightly. There’s even a sad ballad in the form of “What’s Wrong with You?” With impassioned vocals, lounge piano, and even a small string section, the song is absolutely lovely. I adore the retro “Young Lovers,” which sounds like a cross between 70s power pop and modern Americana, and I think the bright piano, acoustic guitar, and darker vocals (including chilling backing vocals) contribute to that sound. At a mere seven songs, though, Timbs leaves me wanting more.
VENOMOUS PINKS - Vita Mors (SBÄM Records, sbam-rocks.us)
A year on from their fantastic EP, “Based on a True Story,” Mesa, Arizona’s Venomous Pinks return with their debut full-length LP (which includes fresh recordings of three of the four songs from the EP). The production quality on this LP is vastly higher than the raw recordings of the EP, giving the band more of a Bad Cop/Bad Cop sound. This is easily explained because BC/BC bassist Linh Le has co-producer credits here. The songs are raucous punk with a big sound, plenty of melody, and just the right amount of snotty attitude in the vocals. The album starts strong and goes at full speed for the entire ten tracks, without letting up. It’s hard to pick “best” tracks, because every single one is strong, but there are a few that are top of mind. “We Do It Better” is a highlight, a bright upbeat song that celebrates the abilities of women to do more than suffer in “traditional” roles. It begins with a vocal quote from “Annie Get Your Gun” - “Anything you can do, I can do better!” - and the song launches into a speedy poppy punk tune. I love one of the opening lyrics, “You gotta be a housewife,” with a gang vocal response of, “Fuck that!” It even has a short ska punk break toward the end. Another highlight is “I Really Don’t Care,” probably the most BC/BC-like song of the album. Its irreverent attitude, call and response vocals, and huge multi-voice harmonies make the song a real standout of the LP. “Hold On” is a bouncy poppy track that I really like. It’s incredibly inspirational, exhorting us to “work hard, play harder every day,” and declaring that “you’ll never have to walk alone.” The Venomous Pinks philosophy, in a nutshell, is contained in this song, when the band tells us, “Alright. You’ve got one life. One chance. Always do your best. Stand for what you believe in. You’re much stronger than you think. When you really want it, you are unstoppable. Hold on to what your heart speaks.” It’s also encapsulated in “Todos Unidos,” one of the songs that appeared on the EP. It’s a powerful, raging hardcore track of unity. Way to ace the debut LP!
BREAKLIGHTS – Wind Down (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)
After releasing a handful of singles and EPs, Austin, Texas pop punk band Breaklights is finally releasing their debut full-length LP. Like on their EP I previously reviewed, the songs on the LP blend poppy punk melodies, smooth tuneful vocals, and raucous edgy guitars. Breaklights are definitely influenced by the pop punk bands of the 90s, but they make it their own with some modern touches. I enjoy the striding feel of “When You Talk,” a song that, though it’s mid-tempo, feels like it’s swiftly moving along, like a maglev train gliding above the track. “Aging Well” is a standout, not just for sounding different from the rest of the songs – it’s acoustic – but also for its emotional content. For us “older” folks, it’s something we can relate to, looking back and reflecting on a life poorly spent: “with dreams forgotten we’ve all gone rotten,” as the song says at its conclusion. “Sixty Five” is another favorite, with its big chords and a grand feel; I particularly love the chord progression in the intro. “Fairview 1991,” though, might be my favorite of the LP. It’s slower and more introspective than the rest, a song that seems to touch on childhood issues of dealing with a broken family, disappointment, and feelings of abandonment. This LP has not changed my mind about Breaklights – they’re a band you should listen to.
THE ROUTES – Twang Machine (Topsy Turvy Records, soundflatrecords.de/topsy-turvy-records-releases)
What would have happened had Kraftwerk picked up guitars instead of synthesizers? What if they had been into surf and garage rock and roll instead of angular, electronic, and mechanical sounds? This is the fascinating question The Routes attempt to answer, in this unique tribute to the German pioneers of Krautrock and electronic music. The songs are often barely recognizable, because the sound of twangy guitars is so different than that of synthesizers. Often tempos are adjusted, too, to make the song work in the new arrangement. For example, “Computer Love,” which opens the LP, is sped up considerably and has a more raucous sound than the soft smooth original. “The Model” is more recognizable, but sounds like something out of an old western flick, rather than a European art house. The transformation of these songs is nothing short of amazing. “Tour De France” changes from a track that’s part stark, part dreamy into one that feels like a lovely sunny day at the beach. Of course, the Kraftwerk hits are here. They have to be. “The Robots” is transformed from a stoic piece into a gloriously lively, dare I say, human one, while “Autobahn” changes the idea of driving from utilitarian to one of fun and freedom. The Routes may be from Japan, but the feeling of driving a big old American convertible down the Coast Highway in California is unmistakable in this version of the song. “Radioactivity” and “Trans Europe Express” are here, as well, sounding as far from the originals as you can imagine. What a fun idea for a record!
SUPERCRUSH – Melody Maker EP (KR Records, krrecords.bigcartel.com)
Seattle indie rockers Supercrush return with their latest EP on their own KR Records label. They offer up five tracks of alternative rock with poppy melodies and breathy vocals. “Perfect Smile,” which opens the EP is a pretty typical alt-rock tune, until the bridge, which features piano and close harmonies, with a distinctly power pop flare. Other songs, like “Hey Christine,” blend the power pop sensibility through the entirety of the track, but the vocals retain the huskiness through the whole EP. The title track even melds some retro R&B into the melody. Topics are predictable: love and desire, the difficult life of an artist, and the like. These songs aren’t going to set the world on fire, but if you’re a fan of the 90s and 2000s “alternative rock” scene, you’ll enjoy this EP.
WITH THE PUNCHES – Discontent (mutantleaguerecords.com)
Long-standing NY band With The Punches is back with their first recorded music in nine years. The band that formed in 2008 play the sort of music that was interchangeably called “emo” or “pop punk” back in the 2000s, but to my ears it’s neither. Sure, it’s melodic, and even poppy. It doesn’t approach what I consider emo, which began in the mid 80s in DC, and evolved over the ensuing decade into screamo and other variants. To my ears, the sort of music With The Punches make is more accurately called alternative rock. The opening track is probably the standout here. “Stoneham Blues” starts out speedily with the guitars playing a fanfare-like melodic line. The vocals are belted out, including the harmonized backing vocals. The arrangement is thick and the guitars are flamboyant. I like the title track even a bit more, with its head-bobbing rhythm and poppy melody. The guitar lines bounce and crunch nicely. The balance of the five tracks on this EP are pretty much what you might expect from the genre: melodic punk, with a pop flair and broadly impassioned vocals. It’s generally not my cup of tea, but the band do a solid job of it, so if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll enjoy this.
COMPANION – Second Day of Spring (companionband.bandcamp.com)
Oh, my. After listening to all the raucous punk and indie rock records, Companion’s debut LP is like a breath of fresh air on the titular day. This is pretty folk music, acoustic guitar and closely harmonized vocals from identical twin sisters Sophia and Jo Babb. The songs are delicate, and their vocals are ethereal, like angels from heaven. I adore “If I Were a Ghost,” a waltz time song that has the hazy feel of a dream, with tentative strings and woodwinds creating a gossamer backdrop to the hushed vocals. Even dreamier is “Snowbank,” especially at the end of the song, when the strings swell and it becomes…magical. And songs like “How Could I Have Known” even have a bit of spring in them, pun intended, with a head bobbing and toe tapping rhythm. The instrumentation must include subtle synths, because there’s a shimmer that ebbs and flows in the background, and it’s so gorgeous. This whole album is.
DOUBLE CHEESE – The Black Album (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)
Dirty Water Records has long been one of the strongest proponents of the garage rock and roll genre, and this latest LP certainly fits in with their core mission. Double Cheese play some pretty strong garage rock, with a great retro feel. But one of the things about Double Cheese is that they aren’t even stuck in one corner of the garage world. Garage, by its nature, has a retro edge to it, but since there have been garage bands from different eras, the music has different sounds, and Double Cheese like to play around in all eras of the subgenre. For example, the opening track “Mean As F*ck,” has an 80s post-punk vibe going on for the first part of the song, but it ends with a full-on early 70s jam. The band also like to crank up the reverb and distortion, creating a tumultuous anarchic sound. I really enjoy “Sound of the Underground,” a song with bright poppy guitars, almost like modern pop punk. It’s still noisy and chaotic, of course, filled with distortion, but it has an immense sense of joy to it, as does “Pills and Wine,” which follows. I think these two are my favorite songs of the LP. Though I’m not a fan of guitar solos, the simple solo on “Pills and Wine” fits in perfectly and doesn’t come off as wanky. “Mash Potatoes” has a 70s acid rock feel, with wah-wah’ed guitars, swirly psychedelic feel, and deep fuzzed bass. “Lightnin’ Never Strikes Twice,” too, has a 70s rock feel mixed with a bit of funk and psychedelia. “HIYW” closes the LP with the noisiest, most chaotic track of the LP, having an experimental pre-industrial feel. Only one track bothers me a little bit. The chord progression on “Jail Time” seems to me to be too close to “Stepping Stone,” a classic 60s garage tune that everyone knows. Maybe it’s homage. But other than that, this is a cool take on the garage sound.
STEVE & GINIE JACKSON – Colder Than the Sea (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
Thousand Islands Records, the label known for crunchy speedy skate punk and melodic hardcore, proudly presents… folk music? Well, Steve & Ginie Jackson call themselves a folk duo, and they do play acoustic music. But the songs certainly have a pop punk attitude and drive. Yes, you can hear Irish, Acadian, and bluegrass influences in the songs, but you can also hear folk punk influences, as well. “Into the Wild” opens the album, and the accordion’s big bold chords play off the insistent strumming of the acoustic guitar. The emphatic phrasing in the vocals has a very punk attitude to it. The muted guitar opening on many of the tracks reminds me of pretty much all the folk-punk songs I’ve ever heard, and even though “7 Billion People” includes acoustic guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, You can hear the song being done by a pop punk band. “There might be 7 billion people but all I see is you, and I don’t care for the money, I don’t care for the booze. I wanna be the lucky one you choose,” sings the chorus. Reflecting a standard topic in pop punk songs, love is the theme here. Listen to “Time to Dine,” especially the “gang” vocals that are sprinkled through the song. The melody is certainly quite poppy, and it’s easy to hear an electric band playing this. “Everybody’s Calling” is a favorite, a darker cast to the melody and huge gang whoa-oh vocals on the chorus. I also really like the lilting introduction to “Take Me to the Bottle,” which turns into a raucous folk punk tune about drinking and having a good time, forgetting about all the worries of the world and living for the moment. I also enjoy the introspective song, “The Hook.” It’s more subdued and solemn, the accordion providing a backing drone to the song, the chorus reminding me of Mission of Burma songs of yore, particularly in how the bass and accordion blend and in the vocal harmonies. It’s gorgeous. Right after this is the raucous “The Fire Is Out,” with a subtle power and melodic line reminding me of garage pop songs of the 60s. If you’re a fan of acoustic punk, give this a spin. Even though the band don’t classify themselves that way, you’re going to love this. I do.
ONE ARMED JOEY – Happiness, To Me (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)
One Armed Joey have been around for some eight years, and have released some EPs to critical acclaim (they’ve won four Bohemian NorBay Music Awards for Best Punk Band), but they’re just now getting around to releasing their debut full-length LP. Hailing from an area more well known for its wine than its punk rock (Sonoma County, California, north of the San Francisco Bay area), One Armed Joey play strong melodic poppy punk, music that was pouring forth from Northern California in the 90s. Though One Armed Joey are late to the game, they’re some of the foremost ambassadors for the sound, playing full tight up-tempo songs that belie the fact that they’re merely a trio. Rather than coming across like a bombastic “bro” band, a trap that is too easy to fall into for bands trying to play melodic pop punk like this, One Armed Joey come across as honest and ardent. The music has a wistful quality to it, even wit the upbeat tempos and rich arrangements, Listen to the lush guitar lines on “Home Sick.” Rather than beat you over the head with their music, they envelop you with their earnest harmonized vocals, their undulating guitars, and their creative arrangements. I love the delicate nature of the lead guitar on “Mirrors,” as it contrasts with the raucous rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, the melody in the vocals equally as delicate, giving the song a sense of floating. The surprise of the song is the rock steady bridge in the middle. I like “Lost Dog,” a song in two parts. “Lost Dog Pt. 1” is a fun loping song with layering in the instrumentals and vocals, while “Lost Dog Pt. 2” is a little more quicker-paced, and extremely well arranged. The pair of songs deals with stress, anxiety, shitty jobs that we want to quit, self-isolation, and immobilizing fear. Part 2’s lead guitars are gorgeous. “Peace In Yesterday” may be my favorite track of the album; the dynamic range is enormous, there’s some fun shifting time signatures, swirling guitars, pretty harmonics, passionate harmonized vocals, delicate quiet sections, epic raucous sections…it has it all. Solid solid debut, and highly recommended.
RIP ROOM – Alight and Resound (Spartan Records, www.spartanrecords.com)
The press materials say this is for fans of Devo and Fugazi. My first reaction was, “WTF?!” Because there aren’t two more different sounding bands and different fan bases, right? But, holy shit, it’s pretty accurate! When I first listened to the first track, “Complication,” I could hear the new wave inspired start-stop and repetitious melodic lines, but the vocals, arrangement, and attitude are pure late 80s Dischord. These songs have that partially sung, partially spoken quality that Dischord bands were doing in that era, and some of the chord progressions and staccato drum licks are very much of that style. But there’s a funky undercurrent that recalls not only Devo, but also NOMEANSNO. “Worth Repeating” is a favorite, not only for the aforementioned qualities, but also for its bridge, with descending guitar lines and a spacey synthesizer that makes an appearance. “The Timing’s Never Right” has a strong post-punk vibe going on in the mix, while “Second to None” is what it would be like if Fugazi recorded the theme song to a 60s secret agent TV show. As the album evolves, there’s less Devo and more post-punk, but the DC sound remains throughout. There’s even an instrumental track, “Discover What Your Monsters Are.” It marries a funky bass line with a cool guitar sound that’s hard to describe: it’s sort of surf-ish, but not surf, loaded with vibrato. The melodic line has lots of stops and starts and shifts. Recommended.
SLANG – Cockroach in a Ghost Town (Kill Rock Stars, killrockstars.com)
If music was on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, Slang would definitely be an extrovert. This debut LP is bold and outgoing, loud and proud. So it should be, because Slang is a “super group” of sorts, made up of Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Wild Flag), Drew Grow (And the Pastors Wives, Careen), Kathy Foster (The Thermals), and Anita Lee Elliot (Viva Voce). Also appearing as guests on this LP are luminaries such as Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Mary Timony (Helium). The nine songs here have a glam feel, but in an indie rock mode. The opening track, “Wilder,” even has industrial underpinnings, with big buzzy guitars and huge backing vocals on the verses, while the chorus drips with dreamy sensuality. I really like the bouncy “King Gunn,” a song that has a pop sensibility, even as it still has a tough exterior from crunchy guitars. Some of the songs have an epic cinematic quality, like “In Hot Water,” a song that feels like it could be the theme to some movie, probably one about the difficulties of relationships. “Wrong Wrong Wrong” is a fun one, with loads of modern glam and more than a nod to Iggy Pop style garage rock. The title track is a little experimental, a little Tom Waits, and a little Bowie, making for a song that’s eerie and soars at the same time, with vocals somewhat gritty and very emotional. This is a lesson in how to do a debut LP.
WALKER BRIGADE – If Only (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)
This is the debut full-length LP from LA’s Walker Brigade, and full-length is an understatement! The CD release contains not just 13 tracks, but also has seven bonus cuts, for a total of 20! It’s nearly an hour of punk and grunge inspired power pop with a heavy dose of glam pop. The music is loud and brash, and the pop filled melodies and brightly harmonized vocals remind me of The New Pornographers. There’s a lot of retro inspiration on this album, too, with sounds from the 60s through the 90s. “Tower” is an amazing song that alternately feels like 60s pop music and 90s grunge, while “No,” which immediately follows, has a blend of 70s acid rock and 90s grunge. “Fancy Boots” is a favorite track, with a strong 70s mix of proto punk and garage rock, with a dose of R&B. I love its urgent feel, as if the Stooges and Rolling Stones met in a dark alley. One thing about Walker Brigade is that some of the songs sound like they might be even better live, where there’s more of a raw performance. Some of these studio recordings feel a little smoothed over, and I think adding some rough edges would increase the excitement and intensity level even over what it has now. The main LP itself has a couple of covers, and there are a few covers amongst the bonus tracks, as well. The band do a great cover of Wire’s “Sand In My Joints.” It’s even more manic and jangly than the original, and another favorite of the album. “I’m Tired” is a song written by great Mel Brooks for the film, “Blazing Saddles,” where it’s performed hilariously by the late Madeline Kahn. The Walker Brigade’s version is louder and brasher (and more in tune!). There’s an Only Ones cover, of “Lovers of Today,” which is fairly faithful to the original, but maybe with a more wistful feel in the vocals. There are a couple of Soft Boys covers, as well. The classic “I Wanna Destroy You” is here, but somewhat subdued in comparison to the gloriously huge original. And the album closes with a live recording of the inane jam, “Rock’n’roll Toilet.” Though it’s a bit long, Walker Brigade acquit themselves well on this first outing.
BISHOPS GREEN – Black Skies (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
Street punk? Pub rock?
Canadian Oi? All terms that could be used for Bishops Green, the quartet from Vancouver, BC. There’s
lots of rock and roll with a punk edge. There are gritty guitars and gravely vocals. There are a lot of fist
pump inspiring gang vocals. And a lot of darkness in the sound. If you’re a fan of the genre, by all means,
give this a spin. To me, though, the seven songs all sound too much alike, all the same tempo, all the same
volume level, all with the exact same tone and feel. Unlike most bands that play this style of music, the
songs are not short and biting – they’re long; not a single one is under four minutes, and a couple are longer
than five minutes. It’s all a bit too much of sameness for me. The musicians are obviously talented, but I
just wish they had more variety in these songs.
BOOZE & GLORY – Raising the Roof (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
More street punk
from Pirates Press Records, the main proponent of the genre these days. Booze & Glory is a long-time Oi
band from London with international connections in Poland and Sweden. They play modern English Oi,
replete with huge sing-along vocals and punk-influenced arrangements. These are raging party songs, with
the title track being an ideal closing track to a live set. It’s big and glorious, and sure to get the whole
crowd singing and fist pumping. All four of these songs, really, have a big sound, with lots of encouraging
lyrics and punked up rock and roll guitars. The songs do have some variety in sound, though, with “C’est
Le Vie” featuring darker verses and big bright choruses, and even a hint of ska-punk rhythm. This is how
modern Oi should be done.
BOX ELDER – Minimums (linktr.ee/Boxelder)
Wyoming’s Box Elder’s sophomore release is a six-song
EP full of pop hooks and dripping with emotion. The music is expansive, taking in elements of dream pop,
yet also informed by emotional pop punk of bands like Spanish Love Songs and Western Settings. The
arrangements are thick, vocals soar, and guitars jangle. The title track that opens the EP has a bounce to it,
yet has an immense sound. “Bug” has a lovely pop lilt set against gritty guitars, while the humorously titled
“Chucklefuck” is a striding insistent track. “Keeper” is the obligatory ballad, but it never feels bogged
down; rather it soars. It’s the kind of song that will make you want to pull a lighter out of your pocket and
wave it in the air. I like the mix of indie pop and shoegazy wall of guitars on “Gothling,” and “Salt” closes
the EP with dreaminess and a dash of 80s new wave pop. This is good stuff.
FORMER LIVES – Ceremony of Leaving (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings,
Shimmering guitars, glistening synths, and melancholy vocals make up the
components of the five songs on this EP. The sad melodies contrast with the bright instrumentals, and the
warm analog synths produce sounds that you just don’t hear that often anymore in this digital age. ‘80s new
wave is echoed in the instrumentation in songs like “Cordon Sanitaire,” though the melody feels more like
modern indie, with an almost Stereolab-like ethereal feel in the vocals. The closing minute of this track will
surely make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, sounding like it comes from some misty dream or
a past life. This leads into “Opportunity Dead On Mars,” a short interlude that sounds very otherworldly.
An out of tune piano is a bold choice to introduce the cleverly titled closing track, “Dear In Headlights,” the
grittiest track of the EP, with dissonant guitars and spacey synth sound effects. What a different and unique
record! This is going to stay in rotation for a while.
NO TRIGGER – Acid Lord (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
New England punk band No Trigger
had most of their activity two decades ago, but they’re still around and stirring again, after five years of
recorded silence. This new EP for Red Scare features five songs that range from hardcore to pop punk,
some of it tongue in cheek funny punk, like the opening title track. It’s a raging metallic hardcore track
complete with amazing sound effects and production. “Ah, hey, Bones! How big of a middle finger can I
create with words?” is the question at the start of the track, and the answer comes back in the form of the
song. It’s speedy and pounding, and obviously the band are having a great time playing it. “Antifantasy” is
an excellently executed song about the decline of the nation, the rise of neo-Nazi fascism, and the political
correctness and virtue signaling of the rest of masses. “Brainwashed” is a fun ska pop-punk song about the
right wing’s active implementation of indoctrination in our schools. Anti-drug education and pushing
Christianity while ignoring core education are features of their agenda that many of us had shoved down
our throats. Red Scare’s been on a roll lately, and this EP continues the streak.
OMNI OF HALOS – Care Free (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
Take one part heavy rock, one party
dreamy alternative, toss in a large spoonful of pop sensibilities and a pinch of country twang, and that’s
Omni of Halos, the alternative rock band from Gothenburg, Sweden. This four-song EP represents the
band’s recorded debut, and it’s a sign of great things to come. Growling fuzzed bass and guitars combine
with pop-filled melodies, recorded with the quiet musings of a steel pedal guitar, and painted over with a
lo-fi brush, adding a haziness to the proceedings. The title track is a favorite, with a stronger rhythm and
melodic sense. But I also like “Out of Control,” with its epic nature, rising notes singing out from the steel
pedal guitar and an old school 90s emo sensibility in the bass and vocals. The overall effect is very unique,
like being in the middle of a swirling storm, but there’s a strange sense of order to the chaos. I really like
SEMANTICS – Paint Me Blue (SideOneDummy Records, sideonedummy.com)
This is a very promising
debut LP from Australian indie-pop-punks Semantics. For the most part the music is bouncy and fun, like
the opener, “Carousel.” After an angular dissonant start, the song instantly turns into a fantastic pop punk
tune, up-tempo, with a great melody, some crooning in the vocals, and an insistent rhythm. “Didn’t Wanna
Hurt You,” too, is a driving song, with broader vocals and pounding rhythm. The gang vocals and poppier
melody on the chorus is a nice contrast to the darker sound of the verses. But Semantics can get wistful,
sometimes, too. “This Love Could Kill You” goes for a grungier sound, with heavier guitars alternating
with a lighter sad sounding song, and an alt-rock melody. “Lighter Grow” goes deeper into dreamy ballad
territory. And the appropriately titled “Sad Songs” is a quiet acoustic track, with passionate vocals. The
album seems to be reasonably split between pop punk and introspective indie, and keeping things varied is
always a key to success. Like I said, this is a very promising debut. Keep an eye out for this band.
STATE DRUGS – Explosions on the Radio (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings,
State Drugs follow up their 2021 LP, “Live, Laugh, Love,” with a new
five-song EP. The band is the project of former hardcore musician Chris Kuhn, who records and plays
under the State Drugs moniker with a rotating cast of friends. The resulting music is deeply rooted in 90s
alternative rock and indie music, with a bit of punk sensibility. The five songs are buzzy and breezy, with a
wistful emotional sensibility. I love the opening track, “Don’t Be Afraid,” which has a warm feeling
courtesy of the subdued electric organ, a driving rhythm, and tense, passionate vocals. “On the Radio” is
another buoyant song, relaxed and easy. I like the tension in the lead guitar toward the end of the song,
when it sounds like a train blowing its whistle is driving right through the tune, though the brief guitar solos
feel a bit thin. Though “The Twelve” is a lonesome sounding ballad, most of the tracks have a more upbeat
hopeful feel. Overall, I like the mix of light pop, buzzy guitars, expressive vocals, and a pop punk heart.
GRADUATION SPEECH – Controlled Burn (jetsam-flotsam.com)
Kevin Day, front man for New Jersey’s Aspiga, also records solo material under the Graduation Speech moniker. “Controlled Burn” is Day’s latest release since last year’s “Private Anxieties” EP. This outing sees Day stripping things back, playing songs that feel more somber and introspective. Where the previous EP featured a full band and upbeat songs, “Controlled Burn” is more acoustic, more melancholy, and more reflective. Acoustic guitar and piano are the primary instruments, with occasional electric guitar. Even with the minimal instrumentation, the songs pack an emotional punch. And as much as I enjoyed the full-band version of Graduation Speech, I think I like this simpler version better. The piano, particularly, gives the songs a pensive feel. My favorite song of the EP has to be “Climb,” which opens the EP. The tentative nature of the melody at the opening is stunning. Even as the song speaks of failure, if offers encouragement: “You can climb your way out of this / I believe in you, I believe in me.” We all could use this sort of encouragement from time to time.
MOONRAKER – The Forest (tinydragonmusic.bandcamp.com/bypolarrecords.com)
Hailing from Santa Clarita, California, just north of LA, Moonraker play huge epic pop punk, with driving rhythms and thick arrangements. Massive backing vocals add to the density, and dueling lead vocals often create variety in the textures. There are creative touches, too, in intros and outros of some of the songs, such as the orchestra tuning up at the start of “Incendium,” the opening track, along with an audio clip about the lies exclusionary people tell us. I love the intro and outro on “Fogdancing.” The track starts with a music box playing a lovely little ditty, and it’s a lost opportunity that the band didn’t incorporate it into the song. The ending, as the punk rock fades, is the sound of a jazz quartet in a hazy nightclub – and this time they do it right, recapitulating the song’s melody. Trumpet, piano, upright bass and drums play it as a lazy ballad, while club patrons have conversations in the background. It’s interrupted by the sound of smashing glass and a car starting – a theft? In between these bookends is a hard driving dark punk song with just enough pop melody and lyrics about living a life of uncertainty. “Autumn,” too, starts out quietly, with pretty violins and subtle vocals, before the full band explodes into a speedy skate punk frenzy. “Vanishing Act” is notable as a great crunchy song, faster and louder, with gritty hardcore influence, but still grounded in a melodic sensibility. And I really enjoy the more relaxed lope of “Soot,” which closes the LP. The tempo may be at less of a breakneck pace, but the song is every bit as crackling as the rest of the album. Solid effort here.
PULLEY – The Golden Life (SBAM Records, sbam-rocks.us)
Everyone who listened to punk rock in the 90s knows Pulley. The band is the epitome of the melodic punk rock of the era, and unlike so many contemporaries, they never got overly bombastic. They were also notable for the day job of lead vocalist Scott Radinsky, who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. While active all along, the band had a large gap in studio recordings, between 2008 and 2016. They’re now signed to SBAM, and put out an EP last year, and are back with their first full-length of new music since their 2016 release. One of the great things about Pulley is their focus on melody and arrangements. Not satisfied with sounding like so many other bands, they have some really creative sounds, with unique arrangements and melodies. Right from the start, “Repeat Offender” gives us soaring backing vocals that act as a clarion call and play against the jangly pop of the verses. Listen to the complexity in the arrangement of “You’ll Be Lonely Someday,” and you’ll hear chord progressions that are more interesting than typical melodic hardcore and punk. These touches make Pulley really stand out from the crowd. “Align the Planets” is a favorite song, starting out as a quiet acoustic song, just guitar and vocals. When the full band comes in it’s with a blend of Latin, surf, and 90s punk, a pretty killer sound. The chorus gets big and wistful, too. On their darker songs they reflect the 90s Epitaph sound – they were on that storied label, after all. But even then, melody and arrangement are all-important. A good example of this is “The Golden Life,” which has a strong 90s/Bad Religion vibe, but even then Pulley do things with the song that make it different enough that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of so many bands trying to get that sound. Pulley does it again!
SAY SUE ME – The Last Thing Left (Damnably Records, linktr.ee/damnably)
One doesn’t expect catchy indie bands to be coming from Asia, but here we are. Say Sue Me hail from Busan, South Korea, and apparently they’ve been around for quite awhile, having released two previous LPs and a plethora of singles and EPs. Most of their releases have been with Damnably, a small London based indie label, but a couple of early releases came out on major label Warner Music. After a subdued instrumental opening, the album features lovely and catchy indie pop music. “Around You,” which was a lead single from the album, is bouncy, breezy, and fun. It’s got a skip in its step, with an infectious feeling of elation, like walking on air. Easy pop tunes abound on the album, like “Still Here,” “We Look Alike,” and the ethereal “To Dream.” They’re exquisite and delightful, especially “To Dream.” It’s lush and gorgeous, combining a delicate touch in the vocals and guitars and a thick full sound. “Photo of You” is a ballad with a retro 60s girl group feel, while the other ballad, “Now I Say,” is acoustic, quiet, and introspective sounding. “No Real Place” takes the best aspects of both types of songs and mixes them to create something that’s lush and dreamy, but bouncy and poppy at the same time. It’s a favorite of the LP. If you’re a fan of indie pop, I strongly recommend this.
JOEL TYLER WALL – F.I.T.H. (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
This is a little off the beaten path for Kool Kat Musik, a label that focuses on pop and power pop records. Joel Tyler Wall plays music that, I suppose, falls into that camp, melodically, but the arrangements are thick and heavy, gritty and distortion-filled. It’s like if pop songs were played by grunge bands on acid. It’s a pretty unique sound, and I have to say, it’s really effective. Wall plays all the instruments and handled all the production himself, quite a difficult time consuming set of tasks. But I think it was worth the effort, because this is a great sounding record. “No Job Nose Bleed” is the opening track, and I can hear what would normally be a sparkly pop tune, but it’s been deconstructed by rough and raspy distortion. Some songs have a cool bass drone that reminds me a bit of Silver Apples, the 60s experimental electronic rock band that was way ahead of its time. “Stranger” is one of these, yet the melody is more akin to 60s pop. “Rescue” is another, and though it’s got a lighter pop melody over the bass, it’s got a trippy retro psychedelic sound. “My Dream” is aptly titled, as behind the noisy distortion and overdriven guitars and bass is a dreamy psychedelic melody. “Problems” is darker garage surf-punk, with 80s no wave vocals, a cool mix. Several of the tracks have a psych bent, but none more than the closing track, which is also the title track. Standing for “Fucked in the Head,” and named for a middle school punk band from Wall’s youth, this song is noisier, punker, and more psychedelic than all the others put together. Vocals are multi-tracked, eerie, and buried in the mix, giving the song the sound of an acid trip. This is one of the more unique records I’ve come across in awhile, and it’s recommended.
THE RUMJACKS / FLATFOOT 56 – Split EP (therumjacks.com/the-rumjacks-flatfoot-56)
Hot on the heels of their recent EP, “Brass for Gold,” Celtic punks The Rumjacks are back, this time sharing the stage (literally – the two bands are touring together) with Chicago’s Celtic punks, Flatfoot 56. Each band contributes three tracks, and though they both play in the same general genre, they have very different sounds. The Rumjacks have more traditional sounds of Irish melodies mixed with raucous pub-punk. The opening track, “Whitecaps,” is a dark song that’s heavy on traditional sounding folk melody but a little lighter on the traditional instrument. They make up for it on “Fifth Ward Firestorm,” a very Irish sounding song, complete with penny whistle on the chorus. Their third song is a loping tune, “What Was Your Name in the States,” a song with a party atmosphere, lyrics referring to people changing their names to hide past transgressions. As enjoyable as The Rumjacks songs are, the real revelation here is Flatfoot 56. Coming from Chicago, they have a pretty solid Chicago pop punk sound, with a big wall of gritty guitars, augmented with Celtic instruments. I love “Mud,” with its striding epic feel; it’s my favorite song of the EP. While “Mud” uses banjo,” “Sorry” has the sound of an Arrivals song played with bagpipes in the arrangement. Did I say “Mud” was my favorite? Sorry, it has to be “Sorry.” “Trouble” closes the EP, and it’s a more loping track, still solid pop punk, but the Irish instruments add a cool effect. I hear bagpipes and I think mandolin on this one. Really makes me wish this tour was coming to the west coast, because I’d love to see these bands live. Recommended.
THE DROWNS – Lunatics (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
The Drowns have been having a good time with genre bending records lately. The band that made their bones with a couple of solid street punk albums have been rocking out on recent singles and EPs, and this newest EP shows they’re still having a blast. The six songs on “Lunatics” are joyful and moving, literally and figuratively. “Live Like Yer Dyin” opens the EP with a 50s rock’n’roll jam, raucous guitars, keys, drums, bass, and vocals over a blues chord progression played like a speedy punk rock tune. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and the sentiment in the lyrics is something we should all heed: live life to its fullest every day. Another rocker is “She’s The Knife,” continuing the band’s exploration of the world of classic rock. I like the moving “Look What We’ve Become,” a song that starts out with acoustic guitar and Rev’s gritty vocals. As the song evolves, more and more of the band joins in, as Rev sings about the strife and division that have torn our country apart. Two of the tracks, “Lunatics” and “Tokyo Red Alert,” are poppier, yet still have a street punk quality to them, like some of the great pub punk of the 80s out of the UK. But I think it’s “The Working Dead” that I love the most on this EP. This is an Andy Wylie jam, and it mixes power pop and pop punk in perfect proportions, topping it with clean clear vocals about the daily grind of thankless work. This one reminds me of bands like Odd Robot and even The Smoking Popes, a bit. If you think music should be fun, you should be listening to The Drowns and pick up this EP.
NIGHT COURT – Nervous Birds Too (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)
Hot on the heels of “Nervous Birds One” which came out a mere few months ago (check further down this column for my review), this newish band is back with the second installment from their recording session. Apparently, after recording too many songs that were all keepers, they made the decision to split them between two LPs. Canadians Night Court play music that blends power pop, garage, indie, and just a dash of punk to create music that’s very listenable and enjoyable. But listen carefully, because the thirteen tracks blow by in a mere twenty minutes, each song flying by in an average of a minute and a half. These songs are certainly gems deserving of your attention. There isn’t a bad track here, but a few are notable standouts. “Shitty Confidential” is heavier on the garage side, but has a great pop melody. I love the swirly sounds of “Titanic,” and “Brighten the Corner” is a slower, less raucous track, but is an absolute favorite. It’s the longest track, too, at two and three quarter minutes, but the melancholy loping feel and epic shining guitars are irresistible. “Surfin Iona” has a B-52s vibe, in the melody and rhythm, and especially the vocals, though it’s not a new wave track. The shortest track, clocking in at a mere 49 seconds, “sticksrtrees,” is outsized bouncy indie pop fun. This album is an unexpected surprise of the best kind.
PARADE OF HORRIBLES – Listen In (paradeofhorribles.bandcamp.com)
Parade of Horribles is a two piece, featuring Jason York on bass and vocals and Chris Mazzola on drums. Their music is rooted in skatepunk and hardcore, but they inject a dose of funk to create a hardcore-punk-funk sort of hybrid. The music is manic and intense, and the growling bass has a full enough sound and gives the proceedings an almost industrial air. There’s even a strong beat, good enough to dance to, if that’s your thing. The genre-spanning music keeps things lively and interesting for those who listen to music with their heads, while the intensity will keep the adrenaline flowing for you pit junkies. “Keep It Going” is a track that goes through multiple changes over its two and a quarter minutes. Starting with a jazzy swirling bass, it soon turns into raging hardcore alternating with a spoken word art-punk thing, vocals switching between talking and shouting intensely. There’s a smooth jazz break, too, which threw me for a loop. The lyrics seem to reference friends working together toward a goal, but there’s a falling out. The others “keep it going,” though, and remain hopeful of the return of missing comrades. This may be a reference to the Punk Rock Food Drive, an annual fundraising program that Parade of Horribles runs each year. It’s not just a fundraiser show – they work with local restaurants to donate a portion of their proceed on certain days, and recruit a plethora of local vendors to sell merch in a fair-like atmosphere that the actual show is. It all raises money to help those in the community who need a hand acquiring food for their families. I love the funky bass lines in “Doing the Work,” an otherwise gritty song about life in the corporate grind. “I got spreadsheets to track my spreadsheets / A thousand things left to do / I’m gonna craft the most beautiful email / To craftily be ignored by you,” the song declares. The title track is an intense hardcore rager about the isolating influence of social media addiction. “Holding Pattern” mixes grinding growling bass with jazzed up funk via syncopated phrasing. But this one is likely the heaviest and hardest hitting track of the EP. The lyrics appear to speak to being paralyzed, waiting for the “perfect moment” for something, yet ending up going nowhere. The EP ends with “Better Without You,” a song with mathish rhythm changes, power-laden verses, and a poppy chorus. Parade of Horribles call themselves “experimental, and I can see why they might say that. They do defy genre categorization, so let’s just agree to call it good music.
TONY JAY – Hey There Flower (Mt.St.Mtn., www.mtstmtn.com)
Upon listening to the first track, “The Rain Drops,” I was certain I was in for a strange experimental sonic journey. The track is eerie and mysterious, loaded with trepidation and uncertainty. And, in some ways, this is such an exploration, but the remainder of the album is less eerie, but more melancholy. This is lo-fi pop, and it has an air of hazy dreaminess about it. Breathy vocals add to the feeling of unreality, that you’re visiting someone’s dreams. The persistent hiss in the recordings adds, rather than detracts, from the songs, especially on the gorgeous “September Skies.” A simple guitar and female vocals provide the feel of girl group songs of the 60s, but slowed down and stripped back. The dark emotions of those sorts of pop tunes are brought into clear focus through the haze of time. That’s a common theme through these songs; it’s like listening to someone’s misty thoughts, at twilight, with the fog rolling in. These songs would be right at home in a David Lynch/Twin Peaks world. The title track is the most upbeat, but even that track, loaded with reverb, has an otherworldly feel. Listening to this may warp your sense of reality. I highly recommend it.
THE WILFUL BOYS – World Ward Word Sword (Big Neck Records, bigneckrecords.com)
When I began listening to the first track of this third LP from The Wilful Boys, I though I was in for some noisy metallic grinding shit. Thankfully, I was wrong. Though The Wilful Boys do focus on noise, this is the noise rock of the 90s. Through the chaos and insanity, there’s melody and order, too (once you get past the opening track). The lead single, “A Watched Pot,” mixes 90s noise and 70s hard rock. It’s got the blood and guts of hard rock and the distortion, angularity, and vocals of the 90s. This track immediately got my attention, no longer dismissing this record. “Classic Action” rages with NOMEANSNO funk-bass intensity, but has more of a hardcore intent, even as the guitars ring out. Even more hardcore is “Silly Season,” with raging guitars and shouted vocals, but it still has a melodic sense. “Heaven” is darker than one might expect from a song with that title; feedback and dissonance clash with the melodic intent, and vocals teeter between blasé and ireful. Guitars scream and jab intently.” Horrible Way” is not horrible at all. It uses repetitive lines effectively and regularly injects massive angularity played heavily. Imagine early Black Sabbath as a math-noise band (!). The bridge gets chaotic, and the outro speeds up like an out of control locomotive about to run off the rails. If you’re a fan of hard driving rock and 90s noise, get on this. It’s one of the tastier releases I’ve heard lately.
CHUCK YOAKUM – Paisley Garden Project (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Paisley was a popular pattern for clothing in the 1960s, with its psychedelic style. It went with the love and flowers pop music of the time, which often had hints of mod and psych. Chuck Yoakum does more than pay homage to that era, he dives in and makes himself at home in it with this LP. It’s chock full of the sort of music that was all the rave back then, especially in England. Vocals are subdued, while the music is sweet and moody at the same time. Think about the earliest Pink Floyd albums, loaded with psychedelic pop, but then smooth out the rough Syd Barrett edges and you get an idea. One of the really nice touches on this album is the use of orchestral-like arrangements, including lush strings, and even piccolo trumpet here and there. “The Sky Is Blue Hello Good Morning On With The Show” is a favorite, for its clever arrangements, including the aforementioned instruments, plus piano and harmonica, harpsichord, French horns, and even a rooster! The track, which is really three or four songs in one, has a lilt to it, a bounce reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper era Beatles. “How To Do It” has a familiar 60s pop liveliness to it, feeling almost theatrical with its insistent beat provided by the piano. “Let It Go” blends the orchestral pop of the mod era with sitar and back-masking of the psychedelic era, to create a track that’s both freaky and poppy. Juxtaposing the two genres of the era is quite a clever thing to do. This is an interesting journey into our collective musical past.
BRING ON THE STORM / CALL IT A DAY – Through The Distance (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
This new split, uh, I guess I’ll call it a full-length EP, contains four songs from each of two bands, Canada’s Bring on the Storm and France’s Call It a Day. So, each contributes an EP’s worth of material to make up a full-length release. Both bands play what would loosely fall into the skate punk camp, but the two approach it from different directions. Call It a Day focuses on the speedy melodic hardcore end of the spectrum, while Bring on the Storm focuses more on metallic flourish; their songs are played at a more moderate tempo, and they’re more melodic and way more metallic. Both bands acquit themselves well, though I prefer Call It a Day’s tracks, as being more punk. Bring on the Storm is more metal and less punk, sounding like they’re trying to be a big arena band (or what we used to call a “hair band”), and it’s just not my thing. Metal fans will likely disagree, and may enjoy it. Skate punk fans will enjoy both bands.
DEAF LINGO – Lingonberry (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
As I began listening to the “Intro” track, I thought to myself, “oh, this is going to be some weird wanky experimental stuff on guitars.” But thankfully it was just an intro, because BAM! The band launches into “Summertime,” and it’s like listening to a less tense version of Radioactivity or Marked Men, and mixed with loping pop punk. This stuff is fantastic! “Sleeping” mixes the sound of those Denton bands with plain old rock and roll, and includes some cool hard metallic bits and surf guitar jabs. It’s a mélange of genre bending that’s pretty damned cool. “Push It” is ace garage punk with loads of power and infused with musical tension. As the album evolves, the songs inject more pop goodness and strip away only a tiny bit of the power. “Friends” is a great bouncy pop punk track that still has a sharp edge, and “Antisocial” slows things down a bit without losing any of the other strengths. It even has some jangle and whoa-ohs in the backing vocals. “Reception” has an amazing post-hardcore feel, completely different from the other tracks. “Cars and Houses” and “Lingonberry” are indie rock bangers. This album is like having three or four EPs from different bands that all feature the same members. There’s variety and there’s consistency of quality. Where is this band from? Are they Texas compatriots of the Denton crowd? Nope. They’re from one of the world’s fashion capitals, Milan. Yes, Deaf Lingo is an Italian band. And this album is a candidate for my Best of 2022 list.
DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN – The Way You Shatter (Silver Girl Records, www.silvergirl.com)
I last reviewed music from Dewey Defeats Truman way back in 2000, when their sole full-length LP was released. The band was mainly active in the early 2000s, but have recently come out of hibernation, releasing a 7” in 2018 and a new five-song EP now. I caught them live at the Casbah, very recently, opening for June of 44, and I really enjoyed their set. Much of their set came from this new EP, the songs of which fall solidly into the indie rock camp. The band is only a three-piece (Mark MacBride on vocals and guitar, James Reader on bass and vocals, and Scott Frazier on drums), but their sound is a lot thicker and richer than you might think. The songs have a wonderful mix of indie pop jangle and more introspective indie-emo that really hits the sweet spot. The songs are emotive without being overly emotional; vocals ring out rather than feel strained, and instrumentals are evocative without feeling bombastic. I can hear a lot of Jawbox/J Robbins influence in a number of the songs, which makes it even better (since I’m a big Jawbox fan). One of my favorite tracks of the new EP is “Slow Reaction,” which opens the EP. It’s the perfect embodiment of the Dewey Defeats Truman sound, and I hear plenty of Jawbox influence here. The song has a sort of broad post-emo sound, but tempered with the jangly pop guitars. “The Tower,” especially, has a late era Jawbox sound, especially in the vocals. When they get to the chorus and its vocal layering, the influence is undeniable. Between these two songs we get the straightforward indie-rock of “Serpent’s Kiss,” with a great rumbling and rolling bass and more than a hint of pop bounce, the edgier “Less Than One,” with grittier guitar sound and an almost power pop melodic line, and “Subtract Yourself,” another straightforward indie rock tune, but with gliding vocals, The digital release includes two bonus tracks, “Better During” and “Shots Taken.” The former has a more rocking vibe (within the confines of the band’s genre), but with thick and dreamy guitars, while the latter is a big, broad, epic track, the closest you’ll get to a ballad. I was very pleasantly surprised to see Dewey Defeats Truman last week at the Casbah, and even more pleasantly surprised that they’re releasing new music. Recommended.
MARKET – The Consistent Brutal Bullshit Gong (Western Vinyl, westernvinyl.com)
Market’s latest LP is their first with Western Vinyl. The Brooklyn band, spearheaded by songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Nate Mendelsohn, primarily gives us relaxed, understated indie. But there’s more going on here under the surface, when you listen closely. Lyrics touch on topics of growing up and learning to be an independent adult, the difficulties we encounter and the mistakes we make along the way, and how we often end up being just like our parents, despite our attempts otherwise. “Scar,” one of the lead singles, includes country rhythms, but also explores dreaminess and the avant-garde. The song has a unique arrangement, interjected sound effects, start-stop performance, chaotic noise, and juxtapositions smooth gliding vocals against the aforementioned mash-up. It’s so different from anything else out there, and is a favorite just because of the oddness. “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” has less to do with the historic battles and more to do with the battles we fight with our friends and ourselves. “When am I gonna stop writing songs about being an asshole to my friends / and just start never being an asshole to them?” the song asks. At nearly six minutes, it’s the longest song of the album, but it’s also the prettiest and most introspective. The guitar line is vey simple and subdued, as are the vocals, and you can hear the anxiety and regret. I especially love the ending of the song, when a chorus of woodwinds join in, giving the whole thing a nostalgic feel, a yearning for simpler times before life got shitty. I enjoy the math-like meter shifts of “I Would Do That,” a song with off-kilter guitar jangle and those easy vocals singing about difficulties dealing with change, including in relationships, and how it’s hard to act differently than what we’re used to, even in the face of different circumstances. The music may (mostly) be relaxed and restrained, but the lyrics are full of turmoil and doubt. This is a really nice record.
PERSHAGEN – Hilma (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
The press materials that came with this release mentions “dreamy and cinematic instrumental music,” where “psychedelic rock intertwines with post-rock, and Scandinavian gloominess melts into colorful moments of bliss.” This is a pretty darn accurate description of the third full-length LP from the Swedish quartet. The music is lush and meandering, presenting sonic landscapes. In my mind’s ear, the opening track, “Klangskog,” is a winding river, a pastoral scene with tall grass blowing in the wind and butterflies and bees floating around the flowers. In contrast, the grittier “Hilma” provides a soundtrack to a sunny day in a bustling city. There are grungy guitars playing off other guitars that ring out, clear as a bell. It’s like the sun reflecting off the windows of the skyscrapers, compared to the grime concealed in the shadows below. Steel pedal guitar sings out the silent sadness of the people. At least this is what I envision when I close my eyes, listening to these tracks. I really love the interwoven folk melodies in “La°ngt bort na¨ra,” which translates to “Far Away Near” and in “Alla minns den sista ga°ngen,” which means “Everyone Remembers the Last Time.” Sometimes Pershage gets into jam territory, such as on “Karelia,” which is where the psychedelic descriptor comes in. Have you ever heard steel pedal guitar in a psychedelic jam? You will here! I think my favorite track may be “Ofog i dja¨vulens sa¨llskap” (Insult in the Company of the Devil). It reminds me of the sort of electronic post-industrial music made by Future Sounds of London back in the day. There’s some minimalist repeating lines and rhythms and a thick layering of sounds from guitar, bass, drums, and synths. I don’t normally go in for instrumental rock music, but this stuff is very evocative, and I like it.
BLEEDING HEARTS – Riches To Rags (Bar None Records, www.bar-none.com)
Some love Record Store Day, others hate it. What began as a way to promote independent record stores in the days of waning vinyl sales has been usurped by major labels and chain stores as a way to rake in money from limited colored vinyl reissues of records that already had seen sales in the millions years ago. But, for those faithful adherents, there are still real gems to be found from indie bands and labels, music that was lost or forgotten or never saw the light of day. Such is the case with Bleeding Hearts, a Minneapolis band that time has forgotten. The band included Replacements co-founder Bob Stinson, and it was the last band he played in before his untimely death in 1995. The band was the idea of singer/guitarist Mike Leonard, and also featured drummer Bob Herbers and bassist Rob Robello, with Stinson filling out the band. “Riches To Rags” was recorded in 1993, but shortly after, the band broke up amidst rancor, and the recordings sat unreleased for nearly 30 years. The 41-minute album features thirteen tracks of power pop, poppy alternative rock, and good time rock and roll. Though not everything here is to my taste, it’s all energetic stuff. One favorite is the title track, which opens the LP. It’s very much a nod to power pop of the previous decade, with gritty guitars playing a bouncy melody. I enjoy, too, the breezy “100 Ways,” that uses an acoustic and electric mix to create an easy feel while still remaining lively. “Gone” is one of the edgier, quicker-paced tunes, with a simpler garage-punk feel. “Happy Yet” blends garage-punk, power pop, and just a hint of twang, to create a fun track. “Know It All” lopes along with a power-pop/indie rock mix that’s easy on the ears. And “Right As Rain” is, perhaps, the favorite of all, with the strongest indie sound of the album. The melody is nice and poppy, while the guitars jangle and growl in just the right way. Some of the tracks that didn’t quite do it for me include the Rolling Stones influenced “Imagination,” and the hard blues-rock “What Do You Want?” The latter uses hard rock licks and harmonica. The short-lived band may have broken up due to personal clashes, but it’s clear from these recordings that they were having a lot of fun playing these songs. You probably will have a lot of fun listening to them.
JEANINES – Don’t Wait for a Sign (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecords.com)
Slumberland brought us Jeanines’ debut LP back in 2019, before the pandemic changed the world. Now they’re back with Jeanines’ sophomore effort. Just like the debut, words like “gorgeous” and “lovely” don’t do it justice. This is simple, jangly indie pop, played by the duo of Alicia Jeanine and Jed Smith. Since the debut, the pair have become separated geographically and via the isolation of the pandemic. As a result, the music has a more melancholy feel, even as the guitars jangle in an effort to put on a happy face. Alicia’s vocals feel even more influenced by the singers of the 60s and 70s folk music movement, like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell. There’s a psych-folk feel to the songs, a haziness that overlays the music. “Through The Vines” is a good example of the melancholy feel; it’s a song of romantic troubles and dichotomous feelings. “I want you, I want you all the time, all the time, even through the heartbreak,” Jeanine sings. The guitars jangle and the multi-tracked vocals harmonized with mixed feelings. You can hear the happiness and the sadness in the same song. One of the happier sounding songs is “Gotta Go.” It ha a quicker tempo and big 60s R&B girl group vocals on the chorus. I really love the opening track, “That’s OK,” with its bouncy feel, gorgeous harmonized vocals, and hopeful lyrics. “If you don’t know by now, that’s OK, that’s OK / if you can just hang on another day, another day / You may think you’re not growing / But a part of it’s not knowing / One day it’ll all start showing its face / You’ll find your way / You’ll find a way / You’ll find your way someday.” The song is about feeling uncertain about life and the future, but offers the reassurance that things will work out. It sort of goes with the encouragement of the album title: don’t wait for a sign. Go make it happen. Another encouraging song follows immediately, with “Any Day Now.” This one has a strong psych-folk influence, particularly in those beautiful vocals. One thing to note is how short these songs all are. There are thirteen tracks in a mere 21 minutes, something I would expect out of a hardcore punk band, but hardly from an indie pop band. I like these songs so much that I wish they were a bit longer that Beauty doesn’t have to be rich and lush; simple and stripped down can be so wonderful, and so it is here.
OV STARS – Tuesdays (ovstars.bandcamp.com)
Best known as the former Psychic TV bassist, Alice Genese has teamed up with South African ex-pat musician Shaune Pony Heath to form Ov Stars, and “Tuesdays” is the duo’s debut EP. Don’t expect anything approaching the sounds of PTV, though, as Ov Stars is their own thing, with a very different sound. The music is much more relaxed, with a strong folk and singer-songwriter vibe. There are hints of Americana twang, and steel guitar shows up in some of the arrangements, but the arrangements are much richer than that description would imply. The tracks are both lush and delicate, a balancing act that should be credited to Jeff Berner, another alumnus of Psychic TV, who produced, engineered, and mixed the EP. Four of the five tracks are emotion-laden ballads, and if you aren’t moved by these songs you have no heart or soul. And even the one that isn’t, the track which shares its name with the band’s. is moving. It starts as a folksy track, with jangly plucked guitar and subtle percussion. Genese’s voice is made for singing songs like this, with just the right mix of pain and hope. As the song evolves, more instruments join in, including full drums, bass, and organ, and the track goes from downcast to uplifting, with a lush 80s inspired arrangement. I adore “Crying Time,” a track that drips with desperate passion. The angst carries over from Heath’s vocals into the guitar tone, and you can feel the pain and hurt through the speakers. The song tells the story of lost love, and the chorus makes it plain: “I can’t hold you anymore / Without losing my mind / Love don’t live here anymore / Now it’s just the crying time.” The EP closes with the wistful “Better Things,” a song that seems to be saying that, while it’s nice to remember the good times of the past, we shouldn’t live there because you can’t go back, you can only move forward. What a beautiful, moving EP.
THE SLACKERS – Don't Let The Sunlight Fool Ya (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
After teasing us with singles over the past year or so, The Slackers have finally released a new full-length LP, their first in seven years. The Slackers focus mainly on rock steady and reggae beats, but they branch out quite a lot at times, making this album varied. That’s always a great thing, because the songs hold your interest when they aren’t all the same. In this new album there’s a nice dose of R&B in some of the songs, none more than “Sleep Outside,” the melancholy track about homelessness. Providing the LP’s title, the chorus pleads, “Don’t let the sunlight fool ya / It’s cold outside.” It speaks to the difficulties of life on the street, and in particular the mental health issues facing many of the unhoused. It still has the reggae beat and guitar, but the soulfulness makes it the most different and most interesting track of the LP. Another notable track is “They Are Losing;” it’s a bluesy track with a samba beat and vocals that rival Tom Waits for sheer amount of gravel. The lyrics are about class struggle, and how the old rich guys in suits are resorting to desperate measures because they know they’re on the losing side of history. I love the jazzy tenor sax solo and the dark feel of this song. I really enjoy “Shameboy,” which blends rock steady and 60s pop; imagine the Beatles playing rock steady and you get the idea. “Statehouse” is a more traditional reggae sort of tune for the Slackers, but it’s the most political of the album. It references the removal of Confederate memorials and flags from statehouses in southern states, and it even references the January 6th insurrection. “Boogie Nowhere” is a mash-up of boogie and rock steady, a unique combination. And “Time Won’t Set You Free” closes the album with reggae mixed with a 70s psychedelic sound in the vocals. Of course, the album also contains the previously released and excellent rock steady single, “Nobody’s Listening,” as well as the fun “Windowland.” I don’t regularly listen to this sort of music, but The Slackers’ penchant for genre cocktails is a lot of fun.
FLEXURHEAD II – 2 Song Demo (flexurhead2.bandcamp.com)
If you can’t tell from the title, this is a two-song demo, and it was recorded on the spur of the moment. Felix Reyes (Lifes Halt. Big Crux, Please Inform The Captain This Is A Hijacking, and more) was in Los Angeles for a funeral, and visited with Daryl Gussin (Spokenest, God Equals Genocide, Ah Fuck, and Razorcake Magazine guy) on a Saturday night. This led to drinking and an idea to grab a couple acoustic guitars and head to Razorcake’s podcast studio and make some music. The end result was called “Flexurhead” mainly for the resemblance to mid ‘80s DC Revolution Summer music, the sort that came out of Dischord Records and bands like One Last Wish, Red Emma, Rites of Spring, etc. Except it’s acoustic. The first song is “Impulso,” and is sung in both Spanish and English. It has some great intricate lead guitar work, and a feel that starts out light and gliding, and gets more emphatic as the song evolves. The second track, “Distance,” is somewhat simpler, but has an even stronger DC sound, and if I had to pick a favorite of the pair, this would be it. This era of the Dischord sound has long been at the top of my list of favored music, so I’m a sucker for this. I offer the suggestion that Felix and Daryl recruit a couple more people, write some more songs, and record an EP in a real studio.
MEAN JEANS – Hits From The Bog (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)
It’s party time, the Mean Jeans are here! Hits From The Bog (where’s that missing ‘n’??) is a surprise digital release that contains three unreleased songs from the “Tight New Dimension” LP, Mean Jeans’ Fat Wreck debut. Of course you already know what to expect from these miscreants. I don’t know why these songs got left off the album, because they all rock. My favorite is probably the opener, the pop-filled “Mind Fulla Slime.” It’s got some more interesting chord changes tossed in here and there to give it a slightly different sound, and it has great use of dynamic changes and competing lead and backing vocals. It’s just plain good time fun. “My Body is a Wasteland” is the most standard Ramones-core track of the three. And the ending track, “Twistin off a Cliff,” is bubblegum punk all set for party time. Which, if you know the Mean Jeans, is all the time! So get ready to party and download this digital EP!
TINY BLUE GHOST – The Underneath (Count Your Lucky Stars, www.cylsrecords.com)
It’s been three years since Tiny Blue Ghost released anything, so here they are with a new five-song EP. They can’t be pinned down to a single genre, but the music is lush and dreamy, with glimmering synths and meandering bass. Vocals remind me of torch song singers of yore, singing with passion and a haunting sense of loss. The opening track, “We Intertwined,” is mostly instrumental with just a short vocal section, and it has an intensely spiritual feel. It’s in 3-4 waltz time, starts quietly with just guitars, and gets bigger and bigger. In some ways it reminds me of a Christmas song. “Stone Balloon” starts out with a funky bass and drumbeat, but the entire character of the song changes when the synths and vocals come in. The synths ring out like bells, while the vocals sensually rise and fall. “In Blind Sight” is notably the edgiest track of the EP, with an almost punk like feel in the spoken lyrics and gritty guitars. It still has a rich backdrop of synths, but it’s the lone track of the EP that lacks a dreamy quality. This is beautiful stuff.
WARREN FRANKLIN – Second April (Count Your Lucky Stars, www.cylsrecords.com)
Formerly known as Warren Franklin and the Founding Fathers, they’ve dropped the cumbersome part of that moniker. The band retains its indie sound, but it’s got a lovely lightness to it now. Franklin refers to it as acoustic layering, though the band is still mostly electric. There is some acoustic guitar and piano, but it’s the layering of these sounds I think he’s referring to. Though layering like this would normally make music feel heavier and ponderous, the four songs here are airy, with plenty of room to breathe. Even as the instrumentals have gotten lighter, they’ve also gotten lusher, while Franklin’s vocals are as emotionally intense as ever. The music seems to glide, and it’s quite soothing and relaxing to listen to. It’s only a four-song EP, and I sure could have used more of these songs. It’s a welcome change from a lot of the harder heavier stuff I’ve been listening to lately.
BROKEN HEARTS ARE BLUE – Dark Whimsy and Soft Surrealism (Council Records, councilrecords.com)
We’ve seen lots of pandemic lockdown recordings come out over the past couple of years. Most of them have been lo-fi solo bedroom recordings, but a few have been more professional sounding, with quality recordings being passed back and forth between band members. “Dark Whimsy and Soft Surrealism” is in the latter category. The band that had formed in 1995, released one LP (1997’s “The Truth About Love”), and called it quits all found themselves in the same place in 2018, and decided to record some of the old songs that had never been committed to tape. They wrote a new song, too, and an EP resulted. They had plans to keep things going in 2020, and the pandemic hit. With all plans scuttled, the group decided to spend the time writing, recording, and sending music files back and forth. “Dark Whimsy and Soft Surrealism,” the resulting LP, definitely has a 90s post punk indie feel. It’s mostly big and expansive alt-rock with moments of intimacy and emotion. One favorite track is the opener, “Sentimental Education.” It takes some influence from power pop and 60s rock, but thoroughly updates those sounds and incorporates them into modern indie. I love the quiet “After the World, the World Remains.” Impassioned vocals sing over solo piano that’s been heavily processed with reverb, giving it a sad, introspective feel. I like, too, the big dreamy feel from the huge guitar sound of “Rohmer in the Anthropocene,” If you’re a fan of 90s post punk and emo-pop, you’ll like this. I like it well enough, but feel it’s a tad too long (at nearly an hour), and I would have liked to hear a little more diversity in the sounds. The tempos and textures are mostly the same on nearly all the songs.
GENTLEMEN ROGUES – Fancy (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)
Two new songs are here from Gentlemen Rogues, the Austin, Texas outfit that do a solid job blending indie rock and power pop. This is their first new music since late 2020 and the record includes one original and one cover. The A-side is the title track, and features booming guitars with both jangle and crunch and a gliding poppy melody. The song is about the difficulties of a relationship with a language barrier and the collision of different cultures. The B-side is a cover of They Might Be Giants’ “I’ve Got a Match.” Gentlemen Rogues eschew the light quirkiness of the original and turn it into a fantastic power pop tune. It’s thicker and richer than the original, and sounds more uplifting. There are moments in both songs that remind me a bit of The Smoking Popes, and the short guitar solo in this cover is one. This is a great new single, but after a series of singles and EPs, when do we get a full length LP?
MARK STEWART – VS (Emergency Hearts, www.emergencyhearts.com)
Yes, that Mark Stewart. Member of The Pop Group, and Mark Stewart and the Maffia, and frequent collaborator with On-U Sound’s Tackhead and Adrian Sherwood, Mark Stewart has a new project he’s calling “VS,” in which he collaborates with various other musicians on each of the tracks. While his early career heavily influenced (some would say created) the post-punk genre, he later became intrigued with electronic and industrial music that began flourishing in the 1980s. This album features Stewart’s collaborations with many luminaries of the electronic and industrial genres, such as Front 242, Consolidated, KK Null, and the late Lee Scratch Perry. If you’re familiar with the genre, you know what to expect. If you’re not, you’re in for a treat! The music is hard-edged and trance-like at the same time. It’s got a strong dance beat, loads of ambient sounds, a ton of samples, all put together. It’s cerebral dance music, sharing the experimental characteristics of experimental industrial and the club beats of electronic dance music. All of the tracks are worthy, and bring back memories from the 80s and 90s, when this music was pretty dominant in the underground dance clubs (and I was playing some of this sort of music on the radio in my DJ days). There are some that I’ll highlight, though, as particularly strong. The opening track is called “Rage of Angels,” and it’s a collaboration with Front 242. It mixes the Wax Trax Records industrial sound with dub and spoken word. It’s chill and exciting at the same time. I really like the angular tones of “Ghost of Love,” in which Stewart collaborates with E Random. The powerful beat contrasts with the use of touch-tones, angular synths, and smooth ambience, with vocals digitally manipulated and chopped up. “Outlaw Empire,” a collaboration with Nun Gun, mixes in a reggae dub beat more than any of the other tracks, and is the most chill of the ten. “New Error,” with KK Null, is one of the most “out there” experimental pieces of the album, yet there’s still a discernable song structure and rhythm. It’s more challenging than the other tracks, and one of my favorites of the album. And, as you might expect, the collaboration with Lee Perry, titled “Lee Skratch Perry,” and mixed by Alpha Adrian Sherwood and Peter Harris, is chill industrial dub. If you, like me, were into this sort of mélange of genres, the mix of experimental and dance music, this new project from Mark Stewart will make you happy.
ONE HIDDEN FRAME – I Am Not Here (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
One Hidden Frame is a punk band from Finland, active for the last 20 years. They play fast, thick, and dark punk rock music, bordering on skate punk. You can clearly hear the band’s main influences in their music, Bad Religion and Propaghandi. If you’re familiar with the music those bands play, you’ll know exactly what to expect. There’s loads of multi-part harmony, a focus on melody, hard-edged aggression, and lots of technical guitar work. If you’re a fan of the style, you’re going to love this LP, because it’s flawlessly executed. The band is tight and powerful and the members clearly know their way around their instruments. “Dry Out” is a particularly strong track, as it’s the speediest, shortest, most hardcore track of the record. “Obstacles” has some emotional pop punk mixed in, and thus feels warmer and less aggressive than many of the tracks. To my ears, though, too many of the tracks sound alike. I’m not a huge fan of the sub-genre, but I know a lot of people are. If you’re one of those, I recommend this record, because the recording is pretty strong.
SIMON LOVE – Love, Sex, and Death etc. (Tapete Records, www.tapeterecords.de)
Lovely light pop music with a flair for the dramatic is the key feature in the dozen tracks in this latest LP from the UK’s Simon Love. The title describes the topical content of the songs, which indeed include love, sex, death, and more. The use of the word “Brit-pop” annoys me; nevertheless, it’s descriptive, but in a retro sort of way. I hear loads of 60s glam-pop influence in this album, especially on tracks like the opener, “Me and You,” which might be the most modern indie sounding of the tracks. There are strong glam-pop references, though, especially in the thick orchestral instrumentation, including use of horns and chimes. “L-O-T-H-A-R-I-O” is one of the “sex” songs, and the arrangement with horns and electric organ evoke the transitory period between pop music of the 40s and the pop music influenced by rock that began being made in the 60s. Speaking of 60s influence, “You’re On Your Own” sounds like something that could have come from an early Bob Dylan album; it’s folksy, political, and sardonic, with plenty of twang and loads of attitude. Dylan’s vocal quality is even somewhat mimicked here. There’s country, too, with “I Will Always Love You Anyway,” featuring both acoustic and steel pedal guitar. Love and indifference are covered in “I Love Everybody in the Whole Wide World,” a light pop track that features electric organ and strings. “I love everybody in the whole wide world, except you” is the refrain in this song that reminds me of AM pop of the 60s or early 70s. And death is covered in songs like the 60s tragedy ballad tune, “The Worst Way to Die.” It evokes all those tunes from back in the day that featured a girl singing about her lost boyfriend who died in a tragic auto accident or something similar. In this case, the worst way to die is “without you by my side.” “Au Revoir My Dude” is a delicate song of farewell, just in case “I die before my time.” It provides wishes and advice to others in the event of an untimely passing, and is touching and humorous. If you have a hankering for 60s glam-pop, check this out.
THE SINGLES – L.O.V.E From the Santa Cruz Archives ’82 – ’85 (Kool Kat Musik, koolkatmusik.com)
I’m not sure why a label would want to collect together forgotten recordings from an obscure band that no one ever heard of, but it’s a good thing that Kool Kat Musik has done so. Of the 18 (!) tracks in this collection, only four of them have ever been officially released before (the four tracks from the band’s 1983 EP, “Play It”). If you’re a fan of classic power pop of the ‘70s and ‘80s, this should be a must have. The four-piece never signed a record deal back in the day, but they did win a battle of the bands that featured 70 entrants. They gigged locally in the Santa Cruz area and sometimes ventured out to San Francisco or LA. And though they only ever released the one EP, they continued to record, thus we have this archive. Guitar jangle, poppy melodies, and multi-part harmonies are the main features of these songs, and there isn’t a stinker in the entire hour plus of music. I hear a little bit of Santa Cruz surf influence in the songs, though they aren’t surf music by a long shot. I have a feeling the tracks are mostly arranged chronologically, because I can hear an evolution in the sound, from more classic early power pop sounds to a more commercial AM radio sound as the set of songs plays. The earliest ones are certainly my favorites. The opening track, “Lookin’ Round For You” begins things with a bang. I love the guitar tone, which reminds me a bit of The Plimouls, while the strong harmonized vocals evoke The Beat in their heyday. I also enjoy the upbeat “Just Another Girl,” with the key changes in its chorus, and the guitar licks in “Same Girl” are choice. “Different Shades of Blue” has an introspective feeling and gorgeous lush harmonies, making it a standout. I like the bass recording; I’m not sure it was intentional, but it sounds sort of like a tuba instead of a bass guitar, and it’s kind of cool. “Upside Down” is still plenty melodic, but gets a heavy dose of garage snot, and is a favorite. The album title comes from one of the tracks, “L.O.V.E. (Spells Trouble),” and it’s got some great power pop guitar licks, cool harmonies, and pretty standard power pop lyrics that revolve around love, love problems, and pining over a girl. I’m guessing “Novel of Love” and “No Wasting Time” comes from the later end of the band’s career, as they eschew power pop goodness for a mix of new wave pop and R&B funk that was popular in the mid eighties. Likewise, I’ll bet “Think It Over” is from the later era, too, with a more lounge-like AM radio tone, with hints of R&B influence. These aren’t bad tracks, but they aren’t my favorites. The collection closes with the bright, raucous, and hopeful tune, “Don’t Give Up.” It’s one that’s sure to get your dancing and jumping for joy. As is the collection, as a whole.
EL NO – Hoodlums (Howdy Mouse Records, elno.bandcamp.com)
Mix up electronic, industrial, and indie grunge-punk into one big pot, and you get El No, a band that started as a collaboration between Nate Farley (Guided By Voices, The Breeders) and Craigo Nichols (Bellringer, Fur Coats). One year to the day after their debut LP, they’re back with their sophomore effort. The interesting musical mix begins with “Speed Condition,” a track that starts out with subtle electronics and deadpan vocals, but soon adds noisy guitars, bass, and drums. The vocals get more emphatic, and the whole vibe of the track is very mechanical. The song veers back and forth between these two polar opposites, quiet and chaotic, but always the feeling of being amongst the machinery. There’s a very 90s vibe throughout the album, with obvious influence from The Jesus Lizard. The use of synths in the midst of such turbulent arrangements is unique and intriguing. The title track is one of note, in three-four waltz time, heavily bass driven with intensely processed pain-filled vocals. “Scrape It” is one of the poppiest songs of the album, but still with a hard 90s edge. The vocals sound pained and whiny, though. “Dead Center Blackout” is another poppy song, and it has a strong garage pop flair. ”Séance” has an eerie, off-kilter vibe; it’s a slower quieter song, ballad-like, but with an ambience of darkness and evil. Well, all of the tracks have an off-centered sense about them. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it doesn’t work as well. An obscure band that I’ll have you look up as a comparison is Octagrape, s late lamented San Diego band that did this whole 90s garage pop rock thing, minus the synths and the quirkiness (and I think they were more effective at it). My favorite song may be “Trash and Ashes,” which has moments of DC post-hardcore mixed with 90s garage and post-punk. As a whole, “Hoodlums” has its moments, some enjoyable, some difficult. But that’s true of life in general.
ELWAY – The Best of All Possible Worlds (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
Taking the album title from Voltaire’s “Candide,” Elway returns with a brand spanking new LP. And the album does, indeed, seem to represent the best of all possible punk worlds. Some of the songs have an almost orchestral quality, and others span big sing along pop punk to speed skate punk. There are lots of interesting touches, little audio clips inserted here and there, and wonderfully surprising arrangements and riffs. The end of the opening track, “Pangloss,” includes a snippet from the operetta version of “Candide,” written by Leonard Bernstein, in which the chorus sings that this is the best of all possible worlds. But as they sing, the tape slows and the singing distorts, as if to show that, no, this is, in fact, a pretty shitty world and all of the optimism is misplaced. “Maximum Entropy” opens with an audio clip from Tom Lehrer’s, “So Long Mom, I’m Off to Drop the Bomb.” And “Plastic Bottle Service” opens with a clip I couldn’t identify, but it sounds like it comes from some opera or musical. That opening track starts out solemnly, lyrics referencing death and loss, but that one would trade everything to be back in this life and this time. The title’s meaning is the viewpoint that everything that happens is for the best. When the full band comes in, the music changes from solemn to ecstatic, lyrics providing examples of the thoughts behind that title. “Unclaimed Graves” is sure to scratch your itch for great big sing-alongs, especially when the band tours to support the LP (I like how we can assume tours are coming nowadays, unlike during the past two years). “The Rest is Posthumous” has gorgeous ethereal string synth in the background, giving a heavenly quality to the otherwise raucous track. Another track of note is “Deep Fake,” an otherwise emotionally loaded song that ranges from ballad to rollicking pop punk song, has the cinematic quality of a spaghetti Western during the bridge. My favorite track of the album, I think, is “The Infirm Dreamers Dream.” Like a lot of the album, it’s not ‘just’ good pop punk; it’s got elements of indie, and the changing and varied textures of the track are gorgeous. In a true goose bump raising moment, “Folly After Death” has a bridge that recapitulates the opening moments of the album, repeating the lyrics and melody of those first solemn moments of “Pangloss.” It was unexpected and moving. The power of the songs, the strength of the diversity in melodies and textures, and the excellence of the production add up to a quality release, perhaps Elway’s best.
EMPEROR PENGUIN – Sunday Carvery (Kool Kat Musik, koolkatmusik.com)
London pop band Emperor Penguin’s latest LP is all over the place, musically. The opening track has gritty industrial sounding guitars and a strong beat, and I thought I was in for some Wax Trax like music. But other songs are power pop, indie rock, and almost 80s pop. My favorite song of the album has to be “You Don’t Know What You’re Missing.” It’s got hints of Brit-folk-pop, and I love the quirkiness and angularity of the melodic line. “Sputnik Sweetheart,” at times has the sound of a Duran Duran song, but it’s harder-edged. The lead vocals and close harmonies is what reminds me of the 80s group. “On the Motorway” has the sound of one of those late era Beatles tunes, with a homey feel that becomes orchestral. Here it’s an oom-pah band instead of a full orchestra. “The Ballad of Billy Farthing” is another Beatles-esque tune, reminding me of “Rocky Raccoon,” with the same loping quality and storytelling vibe. There’s breezy jazz-pop on this record, too, in “Let Me Take You On Holiday.” It’s got the sound of a travel ad, so spot-on, there. Besides the opening track, we also get harder manic rock music from “Fran Times a Zillion.” The band’s PR materials cite diverse influences such as XTC, The Kinks, Teenage Fanclub, Mungo Jerry (!!), and AC/DC. I can hear this in the songs, and diversity and variety can be a good thing, but this much results in a disjointed sound. I liked parts of this LP, others not as much.
MINIBEAST – On Ice (minibeast.bandcamp.com)
Minibeast is a three-piece mostly instrumental ensemble, featuring Peter Prescott, formerly of Mission of Burma (both times) and Volcano Suns, providing guitar, keyboard, and vocals, along with Keith Seidel (drums) and Niels LaWhite (bass). Like his former band mate, Roger Miller, before him, Prescott is moving away from standard indie rock and toward more experimental and mind-bending sorts of music. Those vocals are used less to sing and more as another instrument and as punctuation. This is definitely space jam sort of material, meandering on a journey without a set destination. The drumbeats are tribal and the guitars are eerie and spacey, with a Can sort of vibe. I think “Spiral Funks” is my favorite track of the album, as it’s definitely the weirdest, with a Nurse with Wound sort of Dada feel, various found sound samples mixed together, looped speaking, and funky guitars and beat. “A Few Thoughts About Thought Crime in 1969” is interestingly hypnotic, the repeating bass line inducing a trance-like state while Prescott provides a spoken word rant above, below, and around the music. The oscillating sounds near the end of the track are freaky, like something out of a 1950s science fiction film. The album veers into stoner jam realm with the appropriately named “Late Summer Haze,” a track that might be appropriate after ingesting mind-altering substances that leave you in a haze. After awhile, though, these extended jams (most of the tracks exceed seven minutes in length) get to be a bit too extended. The whole album is an hour and six minutes long. As interesting and cool as some of these tracks are, that may be a bit too much.
NO FRILLS – Downward Dog (nofrillsmusic.bandcamp.com)
No frills, indeed. This is minimalist pop music, thinly arranged and lo-fi. The songs are slightly jazzy, slightly lounge-like, and with hints of kids’ music influence, like some of those 70s songs written for Sesame Street film sequences back in the day. Guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards play relaxed smooth jazz-pop, while relaxed vocals sing nonchalantly. Everything feels light and insubstantial. And it’s also aloof and detached. I don’t get a lot of zeal from these songs. Everything is performed very dispassionately, with an even-keeled tone, resulting in little variety. Minimalist and lo-fi can be great, but lack of commitment is a fatal flaw to me, and I just don’t feel this album.
REMINDERS – Best of Beach Punk (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com / Venn Records, www.vennrecords.com)
The other day a friend posted a link to a music video, saying that this was great. I agreed. It was a band I was not familiar with, so I just filed it away. Today I’m paying more attention because that band was Reminders, and the song was “If You Want It (Don’t Let Me Down.” Reminders are from a small corner of the UK, The Isle of Wight, an island off the coast of an island. Formed by teenagers a scant five years ago, Reminders are not quite a punk band, not quite an indie rock band, and instead falling somewhere in the no-man’s land in between. Best of Beach Punk” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to their origins in a small seaside town, and the fact that this is the band’s debut full-length LP, not a “best of” compilation. The songs cover the usual teen angst sort of topics that young bands write about, but the music is joyous. That they do it without falling into the trap of sounding like too many other bands is testament to their creativity. We do get songs that are punkier than others, like the opener, “Post Paris Blues,” which is a raucous good time blending old school first wave punk and gorgeous pop melody, in the way The Buzzcocks did so many years ago. And even rowdier is “Again, Again,” a song that reminds me of earlier songs from The Dirty Nil but injected with an overdose of pop. The lead single from the album, “Carousel,” is a standout, with its gritty guitars matching the dark mood of the lyrics, even as the tempo and melody try desperately to lighten the mood, almost as desperately as the lyrics would imply. “Does the carousel ever stop spinning? / Cause I've been sitting here watching the wheels go round, round and round / Do the losers ever start winning?” This is the way the song opens, and it’s something everyone of us can related to – the feeling that you’re going to come up short no matter what you do. It’s a song about being angry at yourself and at the world for being stuck where you are, like there’s no winning. I truly enjoy the ride that is “Waiting On You,” a song that has sedate wistful verses and a manic chaotic chorus. And the closing track, “Between Now & Six Thirty,” is completely different from the rest. It’s acoustic guitar, brushed drums, and vocals, sounding just as somber as the lyrics. It’s a song of hurt and regret in the instant after the wrong thing is said. The chorus sums it up: “I know you never meant to hurt me / You know I never want to see you cry / Between now and six thirty / I’m bound to have changed my mind.” Oh, and that song that my friend posted the video of? Truly outstanding. It’s packed with passion and despite the title, it’s less hopeful sounding than the other tracks. Sort of like knowing that you will be let down. It’s my favorite of the album, which is saying a lot, because this is an outstanding album, especially for a debut.
SCRUNCHIES – Feral Coast (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)
“Feral Coast” is a great name for this LP, because the music feels wild and untamed. Not in the sense that it’s out of control or anything; quite the opposite. It’s ferocious, though, like this band, despite the cutsie name, isn’t going to take shit and will fight back with zeal, should it feel threatened. The music has a raw quality, coming from a somewhat lo-fi recording, with primal guitar sounds and angry desperate vocals. The band uses clever arrangements, sometimes cutting the guitars completely, leaving just the bass, vocals, and drums, giving it the feel of a primitive war chant. I like, too, the use of shifting rhythmic patterns almost as another instrument in the band, though it never feels like math-rock. No intricacies in the music, just raw power. Even in the quiet sections, you can sense the tension, like an animal about to pounce. I hear hints of mid-period Dischord/DC post-hardcore influence, too, in many of these songs. ”New What” is a standout song, for a couple reasons. One, it’s different from the rest, somewhat more melodic and mostly more restrained. And two, I say “mostly” because it alternates between quiet and lovely and chaotic and noisy, providing some great contrasts and dynamic range. The quieter parts are gorgeous, with a cleaner guitar sound, and that drum-bass combination giving an ominous feel. The chaotic parts are pure nihilism. “Back Egg” is another one that’s got quieter and noisier sections, and the quieter sections have strong melodic content. “Ditch” is another standout track. I love the dark melody and the interplay between guitar and bass in the instrumental breaks. “Feral Coast” represents this Minneapolis band’s sophomore LP. It makes me want to go back and check out their debut.
SUZI MOON – Animal (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
What do we need to say? C’mon, it’s Suzi Moon! As she says herself in the title track, she’s a fucking animal and we’re her little toys. Suzi Moon is all-in no-nonsense rock’n’roll. That title track is the middle of a trio on this new EP, and it’s sensual grunge, if that makes sense. It’s slower, has a tribal beat from the drums, vocals that drip with, well, animalism, and a chorus that goes full-on Seattle. The first track, “Sonic Attraction,” is pure hard rock, a la Motorhead and that ilk, while the final offering, “Gold Record Autograph,” is fun power pop that could have come from the late 70s or early 80s. It’s bouncy and poppy, unlike Suzi’s usual offerings, and it could be my favorite song she’s ever done.
WHIMSICAL – Melt (Shelflife Records, www.shelflife.com)
Whimsical is not an apt description of this band’s music, though “Melt” is a good album title, because the music will melt your cold heart. It’s light, airy, dreamy stuff, with big guitars, floating vocals, and ethereal synths. “Melt” is the band’s fourth full-length LP, and their third since reuniting in 2015, after a 10-year hiatus. “Searching” is, perhaps, the biggest and dreamiest track of the album. It, too, is perfectly titled, with an epic, grand sound, as if on a wondrous journey of exploration. Krissy Vanderoude’s vocals ring out like a bell. The expansive feel of this song makes it an instant favorite. “Gravity” is a good example of what most of the tracks are like: big wall of guitar shoe-gaze, dreamy synths, and those gossamer vocals, so angelic, like something unreal. I’m not as much a fan of the opening track, “Rewind,” as the rest. The opening moments sound like auto-tune or some other vocal manipulation was used, and there are moments of commercial pop in this track that turned me off. While most of the tracks are pretty shoegaze-like, some are not. “Crash and Burn,” though it still has an introspective quality to it, due to Vanderwoude’s diaphanous vocals, the instrumentals and melody have a more urgent feel, with quick tempo and harder edge. It’s not quite bouncy pop, but it’s got a powerful beat and is much more a 90s indie sort of tune than the rest. It makes for a standout. If you’re a fan of big dreamy music with big buzzy guitars, check this out.
BAND ARGUMENT – Cow Tools (Oranj Discs, oranj.bandcamp.com)
Experimental math-pop nerds Band Argument return with their debut full-length LP. Pre-pandemic, the band had released an EP and a single, and I even managed to catch one of their few live shows back then. But, as with everything and everyone else, they’ve been sidelined for most of the past two years. Now that things are opening back up again, though, they’ve managed to release a sparkling new LP and have started to play live again. And, while there are still mathish elements in some of the songs, the quartet have traded in most of their offbeat tendencies for shining and exuberant pop melodies. The opening track is pure pop, bright midi-driven glittery synth tones combined with smooth gliding vocals. The time signature does subtly shift, but that’s not the main highlight of the song, as in past recordings. Melody trumps tricky rhythms on this outing. Most of the tracks are like this: smooth pop out front, more experimental tendencies in the back, quietly supporting the glimmering music. Even on tracks where the off-kilteredness is front and center, like on “Different Kind of Sea Monster,” it’s still smoothed out. Sila Damone’s lead vocals are silky and placid, tempering the effects of any trippy tendencies in the instrumentals. “Full Stop” is a perfect example of this. The instrumentals hop up and down, back and forth. But Damone’s vocals are much more even-keeled, keeping any overboard oddness of the instrumentals from overwhelming the song. There’s always an exception to the rule, though, and “Mango Bug” is it. Though fully melodic and poppy, the power of the shifting rhythms is the most predominant element of this song, even as the time signature remains mostly consistent. This track has the most instrumental diversity of the album, as well, making it a real standout. “Safety Line,” too, has moments where the quirkiness takes over, but other moments where everything gets smooth and sedate. Progressive rock has a long history in music. So does pop. Rarely is there something that could be called “progressive pop.” Band Argument are it. The only suggestion I might offer is to increase the use of dynamics in the songs. There are melodic shifts, rhythmic changes, and tonal shifts in the songs, but not much in the way of volume level. It’s another textural tool to make use of.
GOOD GRIEF – Shake Your Faith (HHBTM Records, www.hhbtm.com)
This Liverpudlian band has been around for nearly a decade, and this latest LP finds them presenting an uneven eleven tracks. Some of the tracks are pretty great indie rock with a poppy edge, while others are closer to bubblegum pop rock sounds. There’s plenty of guitar jangle and some lovely vocal harmonies in some songs, while others have a buzzier edge. Compare the first two tracks. “Metal Phase” is mostly light and airy, with pretty vocals, though the guitar tone is somewhat gritty. And “How Can I Help Falling In Love” is darker, noisier, and thinner sounding. “The Pony Remark” even has the dichotomy inside the song. The verses are great loping power pop mixed with a gritty guitar sound, but the chorus sounds like something from AM radio back in the 70s. I guess a reasonable comparison might be a less full sounding Superchunk; there’s definitely a 90s alternative feel here. “Dimension Jump” is an outlier from the rest of the tracks; it’s a ballad of sorts, but it drags and feels too heavy. It doesn’t have the bounce of the rest of the tracks. But the other ten tracks are pretty darn enjoyable.
NO ONE SPHERE – Isn’t Everything About Something (Broken Sound Records and Tapes, brokensoundtapes.bandcamp.com)
This debut LP from No One Sphere was a long time coming, begun in the pre-pandemic era and taking five years to complete. Dave Mann is the driving force behind No One Sphere, writing the songs, providing lead vocals, and making all the big decisions. Mann would send demos to Jarrett Nicolay, owner of Mixtape Studios, who would track the instruments and turn them into studio recordings. Mann would drop in to record vocals from time to time. The album leans into alternative rock and indie pop, with some strong 80s influences. The opening track, “Twin Coasts” channels power pop and new wave, but tries to grunge it up through use of a grumbling guitar tone. But the melody is too lively and bouncy to be grunge, and the synths add both a sparkle and retro 80s feel. “Where I Was” similarly has an 80s feel; it alternately bounces and glides, with power pop and indie rock trading places on verses and chorus. The synths make me think of the sort of glam pop that was popular in the late 70s. The melding of power pop and indie is most apparent on “Pictures In My Room,” with some of the licks reminding me of Paul Collins songs (The Beat, The Nerves), but the instrumentation is thick and dreamy. It’s a great combination that makes this my favorite track of the album. “Ceiling Fan” is an outlier, and has the sound of a spy thriller soundtrack, with a cool vibe that builds in intensity. It doesn’t feel like it came from the same writer. The album has seven tracks, but six songs. The last track, “Motivation Pt. 2,” is a long piece that exceeds half an hour, an ambient journey in dreamy synths. It ranges from eerie to ethereal, and it’s lovely, but feels even very out of place among the rest of the songs.
YUMI ZOUMA – Present Tense (Polyvinyl Record Co., www.polyvinylrecords.com)
Yumi Zouma hail from New Zealand and play breezy “alternative” synth pop. The music is light an airy, and rather than sounding alternative, it has a distinct commercial pop aura. I could imagine that, with some subtle changes to production, some of these songs could be top 40 hits. Many of them lean hard to “adult contemporary,” very relaxed and easy. The image of the sort of people who make and listen to this music that I have in my mind is guys wearing khaki slacks and white t-shirts, women wearing skirts and sweaters. It’s all very clean-cut and inoffensive. Another image I get is if a movie was made with all those John Hughes teen movie characters from The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and movies of that ilk, and they’re all adults now in their 30s, this would be the soundtrack.
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