Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 


ST. LENOX – Ten Hymns From My American Gothic (Anyway Records, www.anyway-records.com)

Last year, St. Lenox’s debut LP, “Ten Songs About Memory and Hope,” floored me with its soulfulness, its truth, and its beauty, and it made my list of top records of the year. I couldn’t imagine that Andrew Choi, New York attorney and the alter ego of St. Lenox, could ever top it. This year, Choi is back with the sophomore St. Lenox release, and this time it’s personal. “Ten Hymns From My American Gothic” was created as a gift to Choi’s father on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Choi’s father emigrated to the United States from South Korea, which is a topic touched on in a some of the songs on this album. The debut LP was certainly autobiographical in nature, but this album seems to be even more deeply personal and cohesive, focusing on the immigrant experience in America and attempts at chasing the elusive American Dream.

Opening the album is an old recording of “We Shall Overcome,” the hymn made famous during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This then launches us into “Fuel America,” a glorious song that celebrates every corner of this country, from Midwest childhood games of street hockey and kick the can, to moving the New York City to chase the American Dream, to heading to the West Coast, all the good, and all the bad about this country, and how that American Dream never quite seems to be attainable. “Thurgood Marshall,” a track for which a video was released before the album dropped, is an ode to the former Supreme Court justice, from the perspective of someone who practices law, someone who has been losing faith in the system and needs some inspiration from a great man. A poignant spot in this song comes when Choi sadly predicts his own future, with “Someday in the future I’ll have whiskey and fine cigars / I’ll have a favorite steak restaurant down on Wall Street / I’ll done club a young seal pup for the corporation and I won’t know what to do with all this viscous grime and blood on my hands.” He continues to plead, in the chorus, “Thurgood Marshall won’t you help me out / ‘Cause I’ve been slowly fading away this year / Thurgood Marshall don’t you let me down / ‘Cause I want to be inspired and mystified by the law.” “The Public School System” tells the tale of cliques and the economic and social divide of life in public schools, in the form of an acoustic folk song. I adore “Nixon,” with its beautiful saxophones and its imagination of what happened to Richard Nixon after he was forced to resign the presidency in disgrace. “Conspiracy Theories” is a breezy track that sounds like a cross between island calypso and African folk music. It’s an exploration of the sort of people that populate the backwaters of the country, with some interesting backward thinking.

Similar themes run through the remaining songs on the album, about experiencing American life as the child of immigrants. The two most touching songs come toward the end, “People From Other Cultures” and “What I Think About When You Say South Korea.” These are both quieter, with the first finding Choi’s unmatchable vocals singing about conversations with his mother, who’s “from a different world” and “from a different generation.” “She doesn’t understand why I’m always fearful of the dangers of the world,” he explains. Choi goes on the sing about how, when his mother was a child, presumably in the 1950s during the Korean War, “they had to hide in caves and hush the babies so the enemy could not find them.” So she became accustomed to living in danger, and can’t understand why her son isn’t. The striking differences in the experience of growing up in a war torn country and growing up in America are laid bare, with a growling bass line underneath, muted drums, and jangly keyboards alongside Choi’s deeply soulful vocals. The second is all about his father, and the stories he would tell about Korea when Choi was young, stories about being conscripted into the army, about attending the university in Seoul, and about when his parents first met. Choi explains that it’s hard to talk to his father about these things lately, as if h’s losing touch with his cultural heritage, but it’s what he thinks about when people mention South Korea, and it makes him want to go visit there some day. The song is just Choi’s emotion-filled voice and electric keyboard, and faintly in the background you can hear a TV playing, and it evokes an image of the family living room, with dad sitting in the easy chair. This one brought tears to my eyes.

The ten songs on this album are touching, emotional, and they’re beautiful. And even though occasionally the synthesizer and drum machine do sound just a bit cheesy, I’ve fallen in love with St. Lenox all over again.

PANSY DIVISION – Quite Contrary (Alternative Tentacles, www.alternativetentacles.com)

Psssst! Wanna know a secret about Pansy Division? You know them; Pansy Division were pioneers of the queercore movement back in the day, an openly gay pop punk band singing explicit songs about explicit lives. They were out, they were proud, and it was energizing and liberating to a generation of queer punks. But you know what? They were frauds. No, I don’t mean they weren’t gay or they were the pink Milli Vanilli or anything like that. Think about it. How many thousands of rock bands have sung songs about love and sex? The only difference between Pansy Division and those other bands are that Pansy Division are guys singing about other guys. But it’s all still about love and sex, same as all those other bands. The only thing controversial about Pansy Division is that anyone would find them controversial. Love is love, after all, and sex is sex. And we all age, and as we do, our priorities change. And Pansy Division, releasing their first new album in seven years, have experienced this, as well. They’re still making great catchy pop songs, but lyrically, they’re examining what it means to be an aging gay man. As they sing on the song, “Love Came Along,” “I once wrote a song about being a slut / Nothing meant more to me than busting a nut / Now I’ve grown older and that life ain’t making the cut / I’m willing to follow my gut and admit I was wrong / Because love came along.” I mean, seriously, how is that any different from the guy who hooked up with dozens of women for one night stands until he finally found the right one and love hit him? Even those hook-ups you meet have suffered the ravages of time, as in “He’s Trouble,” when talking about the guy that was met at a party, “He wants to model again when he loses 10 pounds / But the 40s he’s drinking in the park are weighing him down / He’s always wearing that same old hat / His hair is receding, he’s touchy about that.” “Kiss Me At Midnight (New Year’s Eve)” is a wistful song about the passage of time, and though the lyrics are pretty simple, the song brings a lump to the throat. Growing old together is not controversial at all, whether it’s a man and woman or two men or two women. “I’m The Friend” sounds like it could be from a musical, so distinct is the story it tells, about the guy who’s always the person who’s there to help his friends, including emotionally, but who’s never “the one.” Musically it can fit in that genre, as well. An outlier, topic-wise, but one of the standout tracks of the album is “Blame It On The Bible,” all about the hypocrisy of the religious right. It’s a bouncy and fun mid-tempo track with great lyrics that are humorous because they’re accurate. The album closes with another sad song, “Something Beautiful.” The song looks back at the ending of significant relationships and takes a cynical look at people, saying that “people always let you down.” The arrangement is lush and there’s a somber feel to the song. In between all of these are other catchy songs that are all fun, sad, humorous, pretty, bouncy…it’s so nice to have Pansy Division around again. And they could be more important than ever in this new era of Trump/Pence, to show just how uncontroversial they really are.


[Jersey Beat editor Jim Testa chats with Pansy Division's Chris Freeman about Quite Contrary and the band's remarkable career on The Jersey Beat Podcast.]

BABY FIRE – Gold (Off, www.off-recordlabel.blogspot.com)

Upon first listen I was struck by the unconventionality of this album, but after repeated listening, I have mixed feelings. Certainly, some of the tracks on this, the third full-length LP from Baby Fire, are quite unique and interesting. There’s a grittiness to the music along with a dark, yet smooth, sound to the vocals. There’s a passive aggressiveness, where you can feel it at a subliminal level, even if it’s not overt. The record has a heavy goth-punk feel, like a thick deep red velvet curtain is surrounding everything. But many of the tracks have too much similarity, and the aggressiveness is often buried too deeply. The songs drag too much, where they should be propelling me forward. Diabolita’s vocals are quite compelling, though, alternately sweet and breathy, and then somewhat snarling and tough. I do like the opener, “Burning Body, Burning Bed,” which has an edgy sound, as well as “Tiger Heart,” which is a cool off-kilter track in an unusual 6/8 meter. And “How Do I Love Thee” is a wonderfully twisted waltz with a dark sound and a dark subject: murder. The bass lines are gorgeous on that one, and I’m not sure exactly what other stringed instrument that is intertwined with the bass, but it has an unusually present sound. But there’s just not enough for me here.

CASH REGISTERS – 20th Century Eyes (Million Dollar Records, www.cashregistersnyc.com)

A year after the band came out of “retirement” and released “Context Demos,” Cash Registers are back with a new full-length LP of fun pop punk. As with their previous release, some of the songs are super tight and bouncy, while others are more of a sloppy punk sound, purposely a little off kilter. All of the songs are a blast of fun, funny, unpretentious DIY punk music. One highlight for me is the Rolling Stones meets garage punk song, “Xbox Is Down,” a song of heartbreaking loss. Another is “Dad Can’t Hang In The Pit,” which has shades of early Screeching Weasel mixed with first wave punk and telling the tales of family members sustaining injuries while enjoying a punk rock show. “Working Poor” is an ode to the plight of the working class of America and has a great guitar hook that reeled me in. Similarly, the verse of “Daddy Was a Militia Man” invokes memories of 80s hardcore punk, while the bridge is much more melodic and modern sounding. And “Beer Bottles From Heaven” could be the theme song from a punk rock western movie. Another enjoyable release from these guys.

JACUZZI BOYS – Ping Pong (Mag Mag Records, www.jacuzziboys.com)

Last year I reviewed this group’s EP, “Happy Damage,” and at the time I commented that the band played some solid garage punk plus some not so great 70s jam style songs. My suggestion to them was to stick with the more garage sound. They didn’t take my advice (no!). In fact, they went the opposite direction. The album features noisy dream pop and 70s-style jams, with only a couple of the songs bearing any kinship to the garage punk I enjoyed from them last year. One of those tracks is “Refrigeration,” and the start of it has some great jangly guitars, but once the song gets past the intro, it falls apart and becomes bland and repetitive. “Can’t Fight Forever” tries hard to be hard, with noisy guitars and a semi-intense feel, plus some snarly vocals, but the tempo drags and there are some (hopefully) intentional dissonances and out of tune moments that rub me the wrong way. “New Cross” is musically the best track of the album, at least on first listen, but the whole thing is just so repetitive, simplistic, and, well, dull. Nearly the entire minute and eighteen seconds of the song consists of the same couple of chords over and over, with “New Cross” being sung over and over. And “Zoo” was unlistenable, with a sparse drum beat, lots of noise, out of tune vocals, and odd electronics. This was a disappointment.

POOR LILY – Dirt On Everyone (TV Mayor Records, www.tvmayorrecords.com)

This 30-minute blast of mayhem brings to mind bits of The Dead Kennedys and NOMEANSNO, blending together frantic political punk and funky syncopation. The vocals sometimes bear a striking resemblance to those of Jello Biafra from those early DK releases. Some of the tracks diverge into more of a noise-punk sensibility, such as “Traitor,” which, up until the last minute of the song, is a somewhat grating number, purposefully minimalist. But that last minute turns into a full-on hardcore punk blast right out of the early 80s. Lyrically, the record focuses on mass surveillance and the NSA, and the album artwork was made by cutting up and rearranging secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden. I’m a sucker for mathy stuff, so “Swarmingtechees” is a favorite track, with its non-traditional rhythms and minimalist repetition. “Nowires” is a jazzy track, sort of in that post-rock Tortoise sort of way, but with a noisier guitar sound in places. Overall, the high level of creativity and originality in this record reminds me so much of what was going on in the underground music scene in the early 80s. Poor Lily is a breath of fresh air in a music scene that stinks of the pollution of sameness and boredom.

THE POP GROUP – Honeymoon On Mars (Freaks R Us, www.freaksrus.net)

In 2010, The Pop Group awoke from a thirty-year slumber and began performing, with an ATP festival appearance. In 2015 they released “Citizen Zombie,” their first recorded output since they packed it in back in back in 1981. The album seemed to pick up right where they had left off, with the same vibe. Now, nearly two years later, “Honeymoon On Mars” is a mess. It would have been better if the band had done “Citizen Zombie” as a one-off reunion thing. The arrangements sound woefully thin, and the vocals are mostly off key and sound pained. As difficult as most of this record is to listen to, special mention must be made of “Michael 13,” which is a truly horrendous mélange of awful lead “vocals,” mistuned backing vocals, buzzy electronics, and thin guitar. All is not totally lost, though. “Zipperface,” though plagued with Mark Stewart’s vocals, at least has a sense of urgency to it, some semblance of the Pop Group’s original mission. And the closer, “Burn Your Flag,” is maybe the only track that approaches the worthiness of the name “The Pop Group.” Produced by Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad, noted for producing some of Public Enemy’s best records. Overall, though, this is a huge disappointment.

STALINS OF SOUND – Biology Museum (Volar Records, www.volarrecords.com)

Blending the nihilism of early punk, the fast’n’loud ethos of 80s hardcore punk, the synth sensibilities of new wave, and even the thundering power of a speed metal band, Stalins of Sound play a pounding powerful music. Think of mixing The Spits with Devo. There’s the noisy guitar and shouted yet deadpan vocals, like the Spits, and the buzzy synth and attitude of Devo, plus a robotic drum machine keeping the time. The sum is a full, powerful sound assaulting every one of the senses from start to finish. “Functional Regressive” opens the album with a super fast track that has a dark feel, while “Execution” has a distinct Ramones meets Devo sound. “Prison Planet” is hardcore punk mixed with speed metal, and I love the bright jangle of “Raining Acid,” and the juxtaposition of that brightness with the lo-fi vocals. The urgency of “Sputnik High School” is a highlight, too. In fact, all of the tracks are pretty great.

SURPRISE VACATION – Stealing Office Supplies (surprisevacation.bandcamp.com)

Surprise Vacation is a band that’s hard to pin down with a single label. And that, to me, can be the best thing for a band. Though they hail from Los Angeles, the band wears its east coast and Midwestern influences on its sleeve more than anything else. Think blending Dischord era post emo with Chicago’s no-nonsense punk sounds (Dag Nasty meets Naked Raygun) and mixing in heavy doses of indie rock and earlier punk rock, as well. Right from the get-go, you can hear that DC post-punk sound evident in the opening title track, though on the chorus it harkens back to earlier punk sounds. Likewise, “Kill Us” alternates between shouted verses with strong melodic post-hardcore instrumentals and more DC emo-like jangled guitars in the chorus. The album is chock-full of muscular guitar sounds, powerhouse drums, and prominent bass, familiar to fans of the Chicago sound made famous by the late great producer Iain Burgess. This is most overtly on display in the album’s closer, “The Kids Don’t Know What They Want,” a track that may be my favorite of the album and one that leaves me homesick for the Midwest. Though the band has been in existence for the past four years, this represents their debut full-length LP (they previously released an EP). And it’s a strong one.

TOY – Clear Shot (Heavenly Recordings, www.heavenlyrecordings.com)

Hailing from the seaside resort town of Brighton, in the United Kingdom, Toy have been around since 2010 and have released a number of LPs and singles, but this is the first one I’ve heard. Upon starting the first track, my immediate thought was that it sounded like Mission of Burma. But that soon changed. Several times. Toy are hard to pin down, but there are definite influences from indie-rock, psychedelic music, Krautrock, and dream pop. On that first track, the title track, it’s not until more than two minutes into the slow jangly ballad that the tempo picks up and the synth joins in with some awesome lines, punctuated with dissonance that adds tension before resolving. “Another Dimension” follows, alternating between nice indie pop and dreamy lush synth pop. “Clouds The Cover The Sun” blends a psych feel with dream pop instrumentation and Krautrock minimalism, and “Dream Orchestrator” effectively blends that chugging Krautrock feel, with repetitive lines, along with a deep psych pop sound. And the closer, “Cinema,” is an epic track with off-kilter psych at the forefront, but with a dream-pop instrumentation and texture. There are a few tracks that are a little slow and bland for my tastes, such as “Fast Silver,” which have less variation, but overall this is gorgeous stuff.

VISTA BLUE – October Days (and October Nights) (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)

Nashville, Tennessee based Vista Blue has been very prolific lately, releasing a stream of seasonally themed EPs. Their latest celebrates the autumn, with five songs of crunchy pop punk. Buzzy guitars and a steady beat are prominent features, along with beachy surf-like harmonized vocals. The music brings to mind greats like Mr. T Experience or The Parasites, but with noisier guitar tone. The same melodic pop sensibility is there, with a punk edge. Examples of the autumn theme include a tribute to the “Nightmare on Elm Street” horror movie franchise on “I Can’t Stay Up All Nite” or a warning to Trick-or-Treaters on “Trick ‘r Treat.” “Haddonfield Memorial” is more than a hat tip to The “Halloween” franchise, which are set in Haddonfield, Illinois. Crunchy, bouncy fun.

RED RUMSEY / TEACH ME EQUALS (Exotic Fever Records, www.exoticfever.com)

RedRumsey is the project of Vern Rumsey, who was part of the groundbreaking Unwound. Teach Me Equals is the duo of Greg Bortnichak (Sparta Philharmonic) and Erin Murphy. Bortnichak and Murphy found themselves in Olympia, Washington, after touring around the country, and decided to settle there, striking up a personal and working relationship with Rumsey. The collaboration is so deep that the two bands are really the same three people. RedRumsey features Rumsey on lead vocals and guitar, Bortnichak on bass, cello, and percussion, and Murphy on guitar, vocals, and mellotron. Teach Me Equals sees Bortnichak contributing to the vocals and handing off bass duties to Rumsey. The sounds from the two bands, though, are quite different, which is understandable as RedRumsey’s writing is done by Rumsey, while Teach Me Equals songs are written by Bortnichak and Murphy. RedRumsey’s A side of this split EP has three songs. “Big House” is a rhythmic track primarily featuring acoustic guitar, bass, and vocals. It’s got a real rockin’ quality, and I can envision this one done with electric guitars, but the acoustic gives the song a homier feel. “Prime Numbers” is a dark track, with heavy reverb, mellotron, and cello providing a gorgeous backdrop over which pounding drums, feedback laden guitar, and Rumsey’s subtly sinister sounding vocals are laid. And “Three Part Pharmacy” is an instrumental track that blends clear bright acoustic guitar with noisy fuzzed out guitar growling along to create another track that quietly rocks hard as hell. The two songs from Teach Me Equals on the B side are “Judas Goat” and “PCiii.” The former has a dark lounge feel to it, with cool effects in the percussion, tons of reverb, and fuzzed out guitars. The latter has more of a dream pop sound, alternating sparse instrumentation with drums and bass with lush synth and vocals. Speaking of those vocals, Erin Murphy’s voice is simply beautiful. She’s got an ethereal quality in her singing that lends itself very well to these two songs. Recommended.


ANAKIN – Radio Transmission Failure (Spartan Records, spartanrecords.limitedrun.com)

Anakin is a four-piece from...wait, where? San Diego? I am completely unfamiliar with them, and haven’t encountered them at any shows or seen them in show listings. They play a smooth sort of shoegaze music, with tempos and vocals all kept very even. It’s like the easy listening version of shoegaze music, a style that’s already very laid back. On top of that, there’s a synthesizer that sounds pretty cheesy. The totality may be coma inducing.

ARMS ALOFT – What A Time To Be Barely Alive (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

I hadn’t heard Arms Aloft before this. They don’t make it out to the west coast very often, if at all. Plus, I missed their debut LP when it came out a few years back. Nevertheless, I had heard good things about this band, and so was anxious to give it a spin when I received it. And it definitely lives up to expectations. It’s got that cross between big sing along and emotionally charged pop punk, sort of in the vein of Off With Their Heads, or maybe Western Settings with a bit harder of an edge. Big, gravelly vocals take center stage in these songs that range from mid-tempo loping numbers to faster, more aggressive tunes. The album opens with “We Have Nothing To Lose But Our Chains…” which starts quietly, with just guitar and vocals, with almost a folk song quality. But it soon explodes into a rockin’ track, with those gritty vocals, alternating between a loping feel and more of a harder edged chorus. “The Truth Is Out There” has an almost Americana sound, as do several of the tracks on the album, to the point where I think they would work equally as well as acoustic songs, always a bonus. “Voyage of the Dawndreaders” is another great one, probably the one that made me think of Western Settings the most (except for the keyboards at the end). And like Western Settings does, the song flows smoothly into the next, which is the title track. The too short “Howllowlujah” has the great sound of a demo track recorded in a bedroom, with just guitar and relaxed vocals. I think my favorite is the seventh track, “Untitled.” It’s the most raucous of the album, and I love the use of harmonics on the guitars. “…And A World To Win” is the bookend to the opener, with a similar feel, but a bigger sound. It’s a perfect ending for this record. Punks who like to crowd the stage, pump their fists, and shout along to the songs will love this record. Who wouldn’t?

BEACH SLANG – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (Polyvinyl Records, www.polyvinylrecords.com)

“Beach Slang fucking sucks.” So says one of my friends in a Facebook post on the day of the release of this, the second full-length album from the Philadelphia quartet. Another friend replied, “I can’t recall ever seeing a band everybody loved right out of the gate, but then turned on so quickly, despite them not really changing direction.” Beach Slang has become a polarizing band, that’s for sure. They have gained legions of followers, some of whom are so rabid that they tattoo the band’s lyrics on themselves. But they have also turned off large numbers of people who accuse them of being “boring,” playing the same song over and over, and, most damningly, fake. How can people in their 40s, after all, write and sing songs about the teenage condition? It’s true, front man James Alex has been around for a while, as have his band mates. But, let’s face it, every 40 year-old still feels like a teenager inside. Most of us don’t have the luxury to live like one, though, and many might feel resentful toward those who can. Do Beach Slang have a “sound?” Well, yes, they do. But so does most every other band out there. And in some cases, the band takes the “sound” to a point where every song sounds the same. Does Beach Slang suffer from this extreme type of sameness? Yes and no. Their debut LP, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, certainly felt a lot like their EPs. But, while the new LP shares qualities with the earlier releases, and some songs sound strikingly similar to earlier songs, there’s more variation on this LP than in even the first pair of lauded 7”'ers. “Atom Bomb,” for example, while retaining a recognizable Beach Slang quality, is probably the most raucous track they’ve ever released, pounding harder than the skeptics would expect. “Wasted Daze of Youth” has the Beach Slang sound, but the song structure feels different (though the lyrics aren’t). “Young Hearts” is an actual ballad. And the closer, “Warpaint,” is a pretty abrasive, jerky sounding song – in a good way – something that’s completely unexpected from a band known for their flowing songs. On the other hand, tracks like “Spin The Dial,” “Art Damage,” and “Punks In A Disco Bar” do sound nearly identical to tracks from previous releases. And while a song like “Hot Tramps” bears a lot of resemblance to previous tracks in some parts, in others it’s very different. To my ears, there’s enough familiarity to keep me comfortable and enough difference to keep me interested. And, without a doubt, the energy is certainly there. While you won’t find me in a tattoo parlor getting lyrics inscribed on my skin, count me in the camp of the believers.

CASKITT – Old Fires New Frontier (La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

Coming about a year and a half after their debut full-length LP, “This Machine Kills Sadness,” “Old Fires New Frontier” represents a dramatic shift for the band. Maybe it’s the dispersing of the band across Southern California. Maybe it’s the lack of San Diego influence, since they moved away. But, where previous releases were more focused around a pop punk sound, with great melodies and hooks, but with added complexities and edginess, the new album eschews any pop qualities for a harder and even more complex sound. This is more melodic hardcore than anything else. The recording quality is pretty slick and professional sounding. The band members get to really stretch their legs, too, with some incredible precision guitar playing from Steffen Long, some thundering bass from Jesse Hernandez, super smooth backing vocals from both of them, and powerful drumming and strong lead vocals from the front-man-from-behind, Matt Caskitt. This new direction is sure to attract more attention to the band. The skate punk melodic hardcore style they exhibit on this record is something that’s gaining a lot of popularity again, lately, and they’re doing it quite well. But they may be leaving me behind. This sort of style is one that I can listen to and enjoy now and again in smaller doses, but it’s not really my thing. I know I’ll get some heat for saying this from a lot of friends, but I prefer the sound of their previous releases.

CRUZ RADICAL (Sex Sheet Records, www.sexsheetrecords.com)

Now we’re talkin’! Cruz Radical is a band hailing from San Diego, featuring an all-star cast of musicians, with members from bands such as The Night Marchers, Crumbs, and Vena Cava. This album rocks fucking hard! It’s hardcore! It’s rock’n’roll! It’s garage punk! It’s all of that and more! I can’t tell you what any of the songs are about, because they’re all sung in Spanish, but this record rules! It starts fast, loud, and hard and never lets up. Ace tracks in an album full of perfection include “Cruz Radical,” “Suenos De Ayer,” “Vamos,” and “Ya Basta.” It’s like crossing Radioactivity with DFMK. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

FASHONISM – Subculture Suicide (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Holy shit! This is power pop with a vengeance! Back before new wave took the 80s by storm, there was a brand of pop music made with guitar, bass, and drums. These songs had hooks and melody like no one’s business, and it was the melding of this “power pop” with punk rock’s edge and energy that gave rise to what we know as pop punk. Fashionism are a throw back to those glory days of power pop, offering up three songs of some of the strongest melodies you’ll hear all year, packed with danceability and full of fun. If these tracks don’t you up off your ass and jumping around, you’re already dead. I especially love “Nun of That,” the closer, which is super bouncy. Great stuff.

FATAL JAMZ – Coverboy (Lolipop Records, www.lolipoprecords.com)

The project of Marion Belle, Fatal Jamz blends elements of glam-pop, romantic 80s pop, and new wave. A lot of the songs remind me strongly of bands like Simple Minds and The Cure, with the thick synth sounds and sappy melodic lines. Whereas other retro glam performers like Bobby Conn are over the top in their personas, they root their music more in the present than the past. Fatal Jamz goes all in on the retro feel, and this album will pull you right back to the 80s. It sounds like the soundtrack to an unreleased John Hughes film, quite honestly. If that’s your thing, go for it. You can tell the care that went into making this record, which reportedly took a couple of years to do. It’s pretty meticulous. And Belle’s passion for the project certainly comes through pretty clearly. It’s not the kind of stuff I, personally, would listen to on a regular basis, but I can appreciate the work that’s gone into this. One track that stands out as very different from the rest is “Nikki Sixx,” a track that also has its sound rooted in the past, but in this case it’s the sort of guitar-driven rock’n’roll that was being put out in the 80s that wasn’t quite punk, but wasn’t particularly mainstream, either.

GREAT APES – California Heart (Asian Man Records, www.asianmanrecords.com)

I’ve been following this San Francisco band for the past few years, and each time they put out a new release I get more amazed. Last year’s EP, “Playland at the Beach,” was pretty great, but too short to satisfy my cravings, so I was ready for a new full length. And these guys keep getting better and better. Like “Playland,” “California Heart” is a themed album. In this case, the theme is about coming of age as an outcast, dealing with issues of bullying, drugs, boredom, and a growing cynicism. Lyrically, this is an incredibly strong yet depressing record. Listening to lyrics, such as from the title track, you get a sense of hopelessness that a kid in a boring town with nothing to do and no future in sight might feel. “Maybe we’re just a chemical mess brought here on a comet from the sky / The failed experiment of an accident – maybe we’re just born to die.” Musically, the album continues to be Great Apes’ unique blend of pop melodies and powerful punk, with some songs leaning more one way than the other. “Saint Brasher,” the third song in, is packed full of more literary and musical references than should be humanly possible, and it’s done set to a raging track that’s aggressive and fantastically melodic at the same time. It’s one of my favorites on the album. Even more aggressive is “Prom Com,” a hardcore track about the superficial nature of so-called “dating” apps. “Chukchansi’s Complacency for Beginners” is one hell of a depressing song. It’s a fantastic grunge-like dirge, with lyrics about the masses who have dreams in life, but never reach for them, instead settling for mediocrity. That’s most of us, which is the depressing part. And “Shut In with the Burden” blends Chicago’s muscular guitar sound with Washington, D.C.’s post-punk emo style to craft an effective song. Great Apes continue to amaze.

LOW CULTURE – Hard To Stay b/w Lonely Summer (La-Ti-Da Records, www.latidarecords.com)

Perhaps it’s Low Culture member and Dirt Cult Records boss Chris Mason’s personal tastes bleeding into the song writing. Or maybe it’s the influence of Joe Ayoub, who also plays/played in The Marked Men. Whatever it is, I love the direction Low Culture has taken lately, moving further away from straight pop punk and more toward garage and power pop. The A-side of this 7” is a pretty rockin’ garage track, but with a great melody, and tons of jangle. The B-side harkens back to the days of good old guitar driven pop music, done the Low Culture way.

LOW CULTURE – Places to Hide (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

Low Culture is experimenting with different musical styles. And that’s a great thing! Variety is the spice of life, they say, and stagnation is anathema to growth. So it’s awesome to hear, not only the garage pop punk sounds that Low Culture have perfected, but other styles, as well. Cases in point: “Slave to You” has a great retro-rock feel through most of it, and the bridge harkens back to top 40 pop of yore, but with a garage twist. “Hate Me When I Go” is pretty straightforward power pop with little punk influence. “Lonely Summer,” which also appears on a 7” single also reviewed here, is a slower track, just good guitar driven pop music, but with Low Culture’s unique lo-fi feel. And “Shake It Off” is a great 70s rock jammer. The rest of the tracks are just what you would expect on a Low Culture LP – plenty of great lo-fi garage punk, some faster crunchier, in the vein of the Denton style of bands like Marked Men, and some with a bit more of a pop edge to it. Recommended.

MISS LONELYHEART – Ordinary Living EP (Molecular Laboratories, misslonelyheart.bandcamp.com)

This band from the outskirts of the Washington, D.C./Baltimore metro area had been asleep for some ten years before reforming in 2014 with original members. This 3-song 7” EP is their first release in fourteen years, and the wait was worth it. “Empty Space” opens things out with a great sound reminiscent of Mission of Burma, except with a slight ska feel, interestingly enough. The title track is a slower one, with a bigger, sweeping feel, with lyrics that speak to the pervasiveness of corporations in our lives and our society. The final track, “Call,” is a rocker that has the feel of the great protest songs of the 60s, but within more of a DC post emo sound. Welcome back, guys! It’s good to have you back.

THE MR. T EXPERIENCE –
King Dork Approximately: The Album (www.facebook.com/The-Mr-T-Experience-1026092854070299/)

The Mr. T Experience defined pop punk for many in the 1990s. I know I gobbled up as many of their albums as I could, back then. But lately Dr. Frank has been content to write books and to do occasional shows playing the old “hits.” Until now. This is the first new studio album of new Mr. T Experience songs in some twelve years, and all I can say is, “it’s about time!” The album comes as a free download when you buy the new paperback edition of Dr. Frank’s book, “King Dork Approximately.” And, while some of the songs may not be quite as lively as back in the day, Dr. Frank still knows how to write a damn good pop song. Not only are there full band songs here; Dr. Frank gives us a taste of the sort of solo acoustic shows he’s done over the years, too, with the amazingly fun “O’Brien Is Tryin’ To Learn To Talk Hawaiian.” It sounds like the sort of old timey song you might hear in a folk music coffee house. And there’s also “Robot Rag,” which is just what the name sounds like: it’s a ragtime instrumental on acoustic guitar. A great song, lyrically, is “High School Is the Penalty for Transgressions Yet to Be Specified,” which details the lovely horrors we all face(d) during our formative years, all sung to a bouncy happy song that sounds like it could work equally well on a kids’ record, with as simple and fun it is. There are two title tracks on the album, “King Dork Approximately” and “King Dork Redux.” The former is a loping number with a pretty simple melody, while the latter has a 50s doo-wop sort of feel. Favorite songs: “Sadistic Masochism” and “Down With The Universe,” because I’m fucking old and nostalgic and those are the most up-tempo and most similar to the old MTX on the album. Welcome back, MTX, welcome back.

MV & EE – Root/Void (Child Of Microtones, mvandee.blogspot.com)

Droning and meandering electronics, acoustic guitar, and dueling vocals are the main features of this full-length album of psychedelic folk, heavy on the psychedelic, as in acid has been dropped. Heavy reverb gives a distant sound, and off-kilter – even out of tune – vocals irritate. The music doesn’t really ever go anywhere; it’s just there. Often the music changes from somewhat melodic to random combinations of sounds that usually clash. All this adds up to something that’s not very listenable – and I love weird experimental stuff!

NATO COLES AND THE BLUE DIAMOND BAND – Live At Grumpy’s (Rum Bar Records, rumbarrecords.bandcamp.com)

I first saw Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band perform live at Awesomefest 4, some six years ago. Nato immediately struck me as the consummate showman. That set, and every live set I’ve seen them perform since has been energetic and entertaining. And now you can hear what they sound like live, thanks to Rum Bar Records. The Blue Diamond band play a great working class sort of rock and roll. In that respect, Nato and the boys are similar to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, except they really are working class stiffs. From the opener, the BDB’s most recognizable song, “You Can Count On Me Tonight,” to the closer, a cover of Cortez The Killer’s “I’m A Shark,” this is pure rock and roll. Whether it’s a cover, like “Coffee Cup,” from The Radio Faces or a new original, like “Standing On The Corner Alone,” this is entertainment. Recommended.

NAVY GANGS (www.facebook.com/navygangs)

The New York quintet offers up four tracks on their debut EP. The tracks range from the breezy indie pop of “Instant Play” to the mid-tempo jangle of “Mondays” to the blend of grunge and dream pop of “Special Glands” and the closer, “That Party Sucked,” which varies between a grungier sound and breezy indie pop, but at a slower pace than the opener. The variety is welcomed in an era where too many bands seem to play the same song over and over. I think my favorite of the bunch, though, has to be “Mondays,” which covers the mundane lives we all lead. I’m looking forward to more.

PAMPHLETEERS – The Ghost That Follows (www.facebook.com/pamphleteers.band)

This Chicago trio harkens back to the days of post punk and new wave, exploring a variety of styles from the 80s, but with their own modern twist. Their debut LP features sounds that are reminiscent of bands such as X-Ray Spex, The Go-Gos, Joy Division, and even Chicago’s art-wave band of yore, Algebra Suicide. Rebecca Crawford’s vocals are straight out of the 80s, including the little high pitched flourishes she adds at the ends of phrases. The song writing is pretty solid, with a mix of modal key sounds, bits of jangle in the right places, and minimalist repetition. This results in music that simultaneously throbs and jangles, which is a neat feat. Highlights include “Bloodshot,” the track that brought Algebra Suicide to mind the most, with it’s bright melody and strident yet jangly guitar sound. “My Lipstick Stain” has a big surf guitar and reminds me of some of the great west coast punk sounds, kind of like Dead Kennedys’ sound. And the closer, “It’s So Much More,” has a great garage feel to it.

SONIC AVENUES – Disconnector (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

Montreal’s garage power-poppers are back with a new album. This time around, there’s a heavy 80s new wave element to their sound on some of the songs, too. My favorites are the ones that stick pretty much to a garage and power pop feel. When the synth gets heavy into the act and the melody gets more retro, Sonic Avenues starts to lose me. For example, “Monotonic” is a favorite, with its pretty straightforward garage punk sound. Its rapid fire beats and simple melody sound like something that could have come out of a Denton, Texas band. And the opener, “Future,” has a great jangle in the guitars, superb power pop hooks, and a relentless beat. On the other hand, “Burn Like Fire” sounds pretty much like a lot of bands were sounding back in the 80s. Same with “Dancing In The Sun” and “Tunnel Vision,” too. And “Where No One Falls” sounds very much like New Order’s “Blue Monday.” I think, in a lot of cases, the guitars, vocals, bass, drums, and melodies are all pretty great – the synth spoils things on some of the tracks. It makes it sound like a cheap post-new-wave band.

STEEL CHAINS (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Four tracks from this Portland punk quartet. The songs are dark sounding, crunchy, and simple. I love the rolling bass lines, and the very forward vocals. Favorite track: “Counting Waves,” for its great martial feel and its very unorthodox ending, with dueling vocal lines.

SUBURBAN LIVING – Almost Paradise (6131 Records, www.6131records.com)

Synth pop has been making a comeback over the last several years. For the most part, synths are used in dream pop, that is, indie pop music that has a dreamy quality, but is still firmly rooted in the modern indie aesthetic. Suburban Living, however, are looking to the past for their synth riven dream sound. The end result sounds more like easy listening music than anything else. It’s pretty bland, to be honest, and “Suburban Living” is an appropriate name for the band, in that sense. Every song seems to flow into the next, with little variation. Everything is buried under a layer of reverb and layers of flittering and flowing electronics. This did little to interest or excite me.

UNWELCOME GUESTS – Anything You Want (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

On this, their third LP, Unwelcome Guests eschews the punkier aspects of their previous release, and focuses on more of an indie pop and power pop sound. This time out, there’s more consistency in the basic sound of the songs, and the songwriting is pretty solid. The songs are bouncy and fun and the melodies are hook laden. The arranging could use some improvement, though, as sometimes the sound was too thin. Even with two guitars, the rhythm guitar seems to be too buried in the mix and doesn’t fill out the sound enough. There are a few edgier tracks on the album for those of you who like their music a bit harder. “Handle” is a faster one with noisier guitars, “Don’t Remind Me” is a garage-like track that hits pretty hard, and “Nothing Better” has some grunginess to it. Favorite tracks include “Villain,” which has lyrics that give them album its title, and has tons of jangle, and “Come On Back,” which starts with pretty acoustic guitar, has perhaps the fullest sound on the record, and a gorgeous melody with complex rhythms.

WARSONG – Control (Sabotage, www.sabotagerecords.net; Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

This record was released in Europe over the summer and Dirt Cult is now handling the US release. Warsong hails from Spain, and so sings all of their songs in Spanish. I can’t tell you what the songs are about, but melodically, this sounds like a cross between some of the dark post punk stuff that came out in the 1980s and the Descendents. I wish there was more variation from track to track, because I like what I hear, but most of it is pretty much the same.

WOLVES & WOLVES & WOLVES & WOLVES – The Cross & The Switchblade (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

I think the first thing that strikes me upon listening to this sophomore release from the Winston-Salem band wolves & wolves & wolves & wolves is how warm the sound is. Though the powerful lead vocals are gritty and grimy and the music pounds and pummels, the melodies are inviting. The band’s emotions are palpable throughout the record, with every song dripping with feeling. The intensity never lets up, driving the album forward, on and on, just like the train that we hear at the very start of the first song. I think my favorite track is the title track. It starts with a simple acoustic guitar, which is soon joined by organ and then the full band and vocals. The song almost sounds like a hymn, but it’s one of lost faith. Even through the powerful instrumentals and gravelly vocals, the gorgeous melody shines through, and the heart-tugging lyrics are simultaneously sad and triumphant. Lost faith and moving on to new and better pastures seem to be common themes throughout the record, too. “Hallelujah” is another favorite, with an almost DC post hardcore sound. Its lyrics are also triumphant in nature, reveling in newfound freedom from something holding us back from truly being ourselves. “More Than Sand” and “Old Blood” seem to be about conversations with others who haven’t achieved the same realizations and are still stuck in the past, trying to pull us back. The one track that I have mixed feelings about, in an album full of strong songs, is the closer, “Cathedral.” Musically, it’s the sort of rapid-fire skate punk that’s seen a resurgence in popularity that I just can’t get into anymore. But lyrically, it’s a powerful damnation and a perfect capper to this album. “Empty hymns hollow verses / Recite them all in vain / Singing love and acceptance / but all I hear is hate.” The hypocrisy of organized religion, particularly of the evangelical variety, and of its practitioners is condemned in no uncertain terms.

THE WYTCHES – All Your Happy Life (Heavenly Recordings, www.heavenlyrecordings.com)

The Wytches hail from the English seaside resort town of Brighton, so one might think they sound bright and sunny and, well, beachy, right? Wrong. The Wytches have a tough abrasive sound. The melodies are angular, the guitars grind, and the vocals alternately smooth and breathy and harsh and edgy. Keyboards also alternate between a calm, gliding sound and a heightened sense of tension. “Ghost House” has to be the favorite track on the album, for its creepy, yet not really goth sound. It’s got Black Sabbath-like lines, but it’s not metal. It’s anxiety inducing, yet offers cathartic release. The contradictions in this band are compelling. “C Side” is another great track, so attracting yet so unbalancing as it is. “A Feeling We Get” is a lot calmer of a track, but I love the chord progressions in this song. This is a band that’s hard to pin down, and that’s something that makes it extraordinary.


BAD FUTURE (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

I normally like pretty much everything Dirt Cult Records releases. Label honcho Chris Mason’s taste in music is quite good, and he’s managed to chalk up a lengthy string of excellent releases. But I just couldn’t get into Bad Future’s sophomore LP. For the most part, Bad Future plays music that’s more plain old rock and roll than it is punk or garage. And the songs have a sameness to them, to the point where it was hard to tell sometimes when one ended and the next one began, except for the brief silence. Loud, raucous guitars, shouted vocals, and melodic lines that might have come from the Rolling Stones, had they been even edgier are what I hear. I mean, it’s not really as dire as that. There are some flashes of inspiration here and there, meandering into more of a grunge style, but this sort of music just doesn’t do it for me.

BIG BAD BUFFALO (bigbadbuffalo.bandcamp.com)

This is the San Diego band’s sophomore full-length LP, and one that sees changes, both in their lives and in their musical approach. As the trio exit their teenage years and head off to jobs and college, the growth in their lives is reflected by the growth in their music. Their youth has always belied their musical maturity and ability, and this new album is just more evidence of that. The growth since the debut LP, “American,” is astounding, and so it’s appropriate that this should be their self-titled LP. The opener, “Bedhead,” sort of sums up this point of transition in their lives. “I am not who you think I am / A buzzard who swims in the sand / And you are not who you once were / Who are you and what have you done with her?” The questioning of identity is spot on, not only in this stage of life, but as the band experiments with different styles of music on this album, in an exploration of future possibilities. Mostly gone is the math-rock influence of the past, in favor of simpler songs, but with stronger arrangements. The sound is big. Bigger than you would expect from a trio. The indie rock sometimes borders on emo, sometimes on grunge, but the songs and vocals are way more melodic than emo or grunge. Besides that opener, highlights for me include “Thank You Friends,” a track that reminds me a lot of a favorite band from the Midwest, The Poster Children. “Mad At The Word” is the band’s voyage into garage and surf sounds, and is so different from anything else they’ve ever done, and I think that’s what I love about it. “Sensibility” is another highlight, with a slightly jazzy feel, and more questioning for the future: “I’m so scared for / My future and plans.” The only track that seemed out of place was, “Somewhere To Be.” It’s slightly Beatles-esque, with just piano and vocals. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album, and there’s a bit of struggling with the bare-naked vocals. The rest of the album is quite strong, however, and this album is recommended.

BRAT KINGS – Hypnopedia (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Dirt Cult’s been really getting into the garage punk scene lately, with a string of such releases. Label boss Chris Mason must be in a struggle with neighboring label Dirtnap for the title of king of the garage punk world. Brat Kings’ debut full length LP is another notch in their belt of garage punk domination. Hailing from the greater Toronto area (yet another Canadian band that rules!), Brat Kings pay a brand of garage punk that’s rooted deeply both in the past and present. Think 60s garage mixed with 70s punk mixed with a modern indie flair. I kind of liken this band’s sound to being a bit like Marked Men, only slowed down a bit and with a dose of funkiness added into the mix. “Burning Books,” the third track on the album, is a perfect example of this sound, which may be a little bit more Bad Sports than Marked Men, come to think of it. “Relax” is an awesome song, one that makes it impossible to do just that. My legs go into involuntary spasms, in tandem with the rhythms from the record. The intense, angular melody goes right for the jugular, with guitars screaming behind the angry vocals. “Nervous, Inc.” is a great title for the closer, a track that feels like it’s on the edge, all jittery and edgy. Pretty enjoyable stuff.

THE COSMONAUTS – A-OK! (Burger Records, www.burgerrecords.org)

Talk about interesting combinations! The Cosmonauts take good ol’ garage rock and put a dream pop spin on it, creating something wholly unique in the process. The resulting music is hypnotic and primal. The title track opens the album with jangly guitars recalling the 60s sound. But the feel is dreamier. There’s a Beatles-esque rock raga feel to the track, in the way that the band did after George Harrison’s sojourn to India, and that adds to the hypnotic feel. “Doom Generation” reminds me a lot of old Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized stuff, with tons of reverb and minimalist repeating melodic lines, but The Cosmonauts are a little edgier. It’s that garage rock sound that does it. “Shortwave Communication” is one that has interesting modulating electronics in the background, with repeating, throbbing lines. The song seems to actually undulate, and has a beautiful glistening soaring quality. “Party At Sunday” slows and quiets things down a lot, with a more sedate, relaxed sound. And “Discophilia” is another slower one, with some spots of sparkling sadness, though this track drags just a bit for my tastes, and at more than seven minutes might be a bit longer than it needs to be. The record as a whole, though, is just right.

EARTH GIRLS – Wanderlust (Grave Mistake Records, www.gravemistakerecords.com)

Here’s that old music review saw, coming to cut you a new one: What would happen if Denton, Texas’ fast’n’loud garage punks Radioactivity had a baby with Wisconsin’s power-pop darlings Sugar Stems? Why, Earth Girls, of course, duh. You get rapid-fire garage punk playing, but with sweet power pop melodies. Some of the tracks lean more toward the pop punk side of the family, like the first pair of tracks, “I Thought You Knew” and “Don’t Let Go,” which have an obvious lineage leading back to The Ramones. “Gaslighting” is another fast and loud one, though with those understated vocals, so smooth and beautiful, a delightful mismatch for the raucous pop punk going on. Then there are tracks like the back to back “Say Goodnight” and “Not Prepared for Love,” which favor the power pop side of the family, with more jangle in the guitars than you can shake a stick at and so full of hooks that you’ll think you’ve fallen into a giant tackle box. Individually, each one of these songs is a pop gem. Together, the dozen songs do suffer from a case of the sameness. As gorgeous as the vocals are, there’s little variance in the vocal quality and sound. The tempos of all of the songs are also pretty close, and so the songs start to feel too much the same after awhile. This is the kind of album that works great in shuffle mode, more so than as an album unto itself.

EROS AND THE ESCHATON – Weight of Matter (Bar None Records, www.bar-none.com)

After making a major move from North Carolina to Colorado and a major expansion from a duo to a five-piece band, Eros and the Eschaton are back with their sophomore full length album, their first since 2013’s “Home Address for Civil War.” The band has a gorgeous sound, blending indie pop and electronics to create something that’s not quite dream pop, not quite electronica, not quite indie pop, but somewhere in the middle. I love the sound of the opener, “OMG, I AM,” which features breathy vocals, an insistent rhythm, and electronics providing rhythmic embellishments. The toy piano is a very cool touch, too, giving the ending of the song a slightly Chinese sound via the non-Western sounding tuning. “The Way I Feel Tonight” has an awesomely wobbly feel, a little less on the electronics here, more on the dream pop, heavy on the fuzzed out guitars, and with a an uneasiness coming from background keyboards with heavy vibrato and reverb that makes it feel, well, wobbly. “Long Shot” is another notable track, with acoustic guitars and those breathy vocals over quietly undulating electronics. It’s very calming sound. Then there’s the new take on the old Johnnie Ray classic, “Cry.” It sounds somber and uplifting at the same time, with a solid dance beat, but haunting vocals, and I can’t tell if it’s heavily processed guitars or electronics, but the distance, heavy reverb sound between verses is downright eerie. It’s very effective. The title track is a slower track, and has a sweeping epic feel to it, bringing to mind early period OMD with its glorious electronics. This is beautiful stuff.

EZRA FURMAN – Big Fugitive Light (Bella Union, www.bellaunion.com)

Ezra Furman, hailing from Chicago, that city of Broad Shoulders, has been knocking around for several years, playing his unique brand of indie music blended with psych, country, and show tune esthetic. In this respect, he’s got a lot in common with another Chicago musical eccentric, Bobby Conn. But, while Conn’s music can go deliciously and completely over the top, Furman holds back just enough to appeal to a bit wider of an indie audience. The six tracks on this EP range from funky to quietly introspective, and there seems to be no cohesion to the EP, which makes sense, as Furman has described these songs as leftovers from his previous LP recording sessions. The lead single appears first, and announces Furman’s readiness to rock and roll. “Teddy I’m Ready” stars out slowly and quietly, and then builds in intensity, until the end of the track explodes with saxophone. The track blends old time rock and roll with a country ballad and has a plaintive feel, even as the sense of excitement and anticipation builds. “Hally’s Comet” is a favorite, with a cool surf guitar sound, a theatrical melodic line, and a good dose of psych and indie. “Little Piece Of Trash” has a great fun sound, but awfully self-deprecating lyrics. “I’m a little piece of trash / Somebody dropped in the street / I’m a little cigarette, I’m a wrapper that used to hold something sweet.” The back three tracks are the more introspective ones, acoustic tracks that seem to be more personal. These tracks are absolutely gorgeous, complete with Furman’s cracking voice and acoustic guitar. “Splash of Light” adds piano embellishments, while “The Refugee” examines Furman’s Jewish roots, and, in particular, his grandfather’s experiences during World War II Europe (“the Jew who refused to die”). This haunting track adds violin and clarinets to provide an old world feel. Odds and ends, this EP may be, but it’s a great listen.

FIELD MOUSE – Episodic (Top Shelf Records, www.topshelfrecords.com)

Another band this month expanding from a two to a five-piece, Field Mouse also has made some adjustments to their sound since their 2014 release, “Hold Still Life.” Where the earlier release was a little dreamier, a little more shoegaze, the new LP has songs that are brighter, more guitar focused, and maybe a bit poppier. Right from the start, the opening track, “Mirror,” exhibits more of an indie-rock focus, with strong melodic hooks, tougher vocals, and raging guitars. “Half-Life” is next, and moves between an indie-pop sound with a bit of dreaminess on the verses to one that borders on grunge for the chorus, making for an interesting and effective counterpoint. “The Order of Things” is downright jangly, while “A Widow with a Terrible Secret” has a classic indie pop sound blended with a bit of grunge. A few of the songs meander a little too much into an almost easy listening sort of sound, like “Accessory” and the closer, “Out of Context,” sounding a little too smooth, a little too “adult contemporary.” But overall this is a really nice indie-pop record.

FOUR LIGHTS – Death To False Posi (Bomb Pop Records, www.bombpoprecords.com)

Think of the best pop punk bands you remember from the 90s. You know, the ones that were more pop than punk and had the best pop hooks and awesome harmonized vocals. Yeah, you remember. That’s exactly the sound Four Lights brings to bear on their debut LP. The sounds of bands like The Mr. T Experience or The Parasites are what immediately come to mind, except maybe more refined and more mature. The band’s philosophy is probably summed up best by the title track: “What is it that you want to hear? / Another song about growing up and conquering fears? / Pretend that it’s all OK / We’ll sing along to every word / and hope that gets us through another fucking day.” And the chorus: “I don’t want to change the world / I’m just looking for a way to get the girl. / I don’t want to change your mind / Love’s the only thing I need to get behind.” This isn’t a political social commentary. It’s fucking pop music! And great pop music, it is. These tracks put the power in power pop, but with enough of a gritty edge to satisfy the most jaded punker. Songs like “White Girl Wasted” sound plenty pop punk on the surface, and the lyrics are certainly nihilistic enough. But there’s an undercurrent of just good ol’ rock’n’roll there, too, especially in some of the guitar licks. Some songs have elements of the more emotionally edged form of pop punk favored by many bands from the Pacific Northwest, where these four boys make their home, but still always with a lighter pop character blended in. Then there’s “Whiskey Whoas,” which has a solemn sound, almost like a hymnal. This band has been together less than a year, yet they sound so polished, so mature. They effortlessly blend a variety of styles into something so coherent and musical, and they make it their own. This is an outstanding release.

FUTURO – Hábitos Ruins (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Angry retro Brazilian punk music! This reminds me, in some ways, of The Proletariat, of 1980s Boston punk fame. There’s the same melodic punk sound, the same angry shouted female vocals. But this sounds even angrier. There’s the modality of the key, neither major nor minor, like The Proletariat. I can’t tell you what the songs are about, because they’re all in Portuguese, but I can tell you that they’ve got a great sound. These eight songs are tracks that have instrumentals that chug along, gliding evenly, and vocals that bite and claw. The instrumentals have some reverb and occasionally have a pretty distinct surf sound, but I wouldn’t call this a surf record, at all. “U Ultima” has an interesting sound, transitioning from a super buzzy sound at the start to a super jangly sound. “Ossos,” is an outlier, being more of a fast’n’loud track than the others, more raucous and more, well, punk. The whole album, though, is a fantastic throwback to a sound that I thought was long gone, but Futuro make it relevant again.

HEROES OF TOOLIK – Like Night (www.heroesoftoolik.com)

Well, it’s not quite a super-group, but it’s made up of musicians that have been a part of the significant history of Northeast and New York music, having played in bands like The Modern Lovers, David Johansen’s band, the Glenn Branca Ensemble, Band of Susans, Television, and others. So, it would be reasonable to expect something exciting and innovative, right? What we get, though, is soft rock with just a little bit of weirdness. It’s like the great avant-rock of the 80s has gone to the retirement home and is sitting in a rocking chair, reminiscing about the good old times, while the other residents are nodding off. The music has elements of psychedelic folk, jazz, and rock, but it’s so laid back and smooth, like you’re listening to the smooth jazz or soft rock radio station. Even the bits of unconventional instrumentation (trombone and violin), which normally adds a great element for me, fails to liven up this snoozer. I normally love all the different kinds of music that influence the sounds made by Heroes of Toolik. But they soften and smooth these styles so much as to take all the energy out of them.

KINDLING – Everywhere Else (No Idea Records, www.noidearecords.com)

Wow! This is an incredible departure from the No Idea Records I remember from the 1990s and 2000s that focused pretty exclusively on various forms of punk. But this is not punk, not by a long shot. This is shoegaze. This is droning, heavy, fuzzed out guitars and lithe vocals deep in the mix, with plenty of reverb to go around. And I love me some good shoe gaze as much as the next guy. Bands like My Bloody Valentine had a special place in my heart. But Kindling just doesn’t have the same appeal to me. Maybe it’s just time and my changing musical tastes. But I think it has more to do with the sameness there is to the songs on this debut LP. It was hard to keep my attention to this music, because there was so little variation from song to song. It was just droning to me.

MAPS AND HIS MOTHBALL FLEET – Fighting Season (Azteca Records, www.aztecarecords.com)

This album sounds so much like the personal recordings of a single person. Which makes a lot of sense, since Maps And His Mothball Fleet is the project of Philadelphia musician Matt Wanamaker. To be completely fair, it’s more than that. Some people who have toured as Wanamaker’s backing band contributed overdubs and backing tracks for the basic tracks he laid down. The songs sound like assorted odds and ends recordings, and that, too, makes sense. He wrote and recorded some 50 songs, which he sent off to his friends to add to. This was culled down to fifteen tracks, mostly focused on the indie pop and folk sounds, though some of the tracks veer off into a more country sound, and others sound like soft rock. But most of them sound like quiet, introspective bedroom recordings. Which is quite a feat, because these were recorded under extreme opposite conditions. Wanamaker recorded these songs on a phone and handheld recorder while deployed in Afghanistan. The songs run the gamut from upbeat, pop tunes to morose acoustic ballads, and for the most part, they’re pretty OK. The overall feel is too smooth for my tastes though, and I find the songs to be too introspective and not particularly exciting.

SEAFANG – Motorcycle Song b/w Summertime (Elephant Stone Records, www.elephantstonerecords.com)

On the A-side, tough garage rock blends with ethereal harmonized vocals to create something that’s not shoegaze but not garage. It’s something pleasantly in between. The B-side is more of a power pop track, but with reverb to make it sound dreamier. It’s a shame they did that, because with clearer more present production, this would be a pretty damn good song, worthy of being the A-side of this pair.

SHALLOW CUTS – Empty Beach Town (No Idea Records, www.noidearecords.com)

Unpretentious is the first word that comes to mind when listening to this debut full length LP from Shallow Cuts. The band formed a couple years ago while drinking, and Matty (Dan Padilla, Madison Bloodbath, Tiltwheel), J (Dan Padilla), and Brad (Dear Landlord, Gateway District) found themselves in a band with two homes. J and Matty are on the west coast, while Brad hails from the Midwest, so that must make for interesting band practice. Nevertheless, the trio sounds like they’ve been playing together for years and years. Well, Matty and J have, true. But there’s such an understated ease to these songs. I hear influences from each of the bands these gentlemen have been in, plus sounds as disparate as Latterman and Hüsker Dü. There’s even hints of Americana here, and maybe a bit of the Boss tossed in, in the sense that you get a clear feel of a working class no nonsense rock band. The songs are generally mid-tempo, nothing flashy. They’re just good punk-edged pop tunes. I particularly love “Common Theme” for the very Bob Mould-like vocals, and the title track is just a great power pop track. These are songs that are great for getting the whole room singing along after drinking several PBRs, or just for listening to by yourself at home.

SPC ECO – Anomalies (Saint Marie Records, www.saintmarierecords.com)

Super chill-out music. This is way laid back, with minimalist electronics and ethereal vocals with plenty of effects. It’s slightly dancey, with a definite beat, but it’s more for standing in place, staring at, well, your shoes. Danceable shoegaze? I guess so. The songs are also sort of like torch songs, slow and quietly intense. Too quietly. The ethereal vocals aren’t engaging enough for me, fading too far into the background of the alien landscape sounding instrumentals. If you’re looking to mellow out, I guess this is the kind of music you would do it to. But I prefer my music to be more engaging physically or mentally. This is the sort of music for disengaging. And why would I want to do that?

SQUARECROW – Rammi Jamms (La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

It’s been nearly two long years since the last Squarecrow album, “Oh, Ramona.” In the intervening time, bassist Ryan Murphy was replaced by Kevin White, White moved away from San Diego to Florida, then returned a year later. The band picked up where they left off, minus the second guitarist they had picked up along the way. Once again a three piece, they’re back, more active than ever, and have released this new LP chock full of brand spankin’ new songs. One thing that’s always struck me about Squarecrow, besides Todd Allen’s unique, untraditional punk songwriting (OK, so there’s two things that strike me), is how much fun they seem to always be having when playing live. Front man Allen gets the wildest expressions on his face, and bassist Kevin White is always in motion. Drummer Daniel David Riveroll flails about with a determined purpose, and the whole thing just seems so fun! That feeling translates really well to these recordings, through Allen’s intense vocals and his slight tremolos he tosses in here and there. Now about that songwriting. Never one to conform, Todd Allen’s songs have always been a little different from the pop punk norm. Some of the songs he’s done in the past have sounded more like punk show tunes than something from a pop punk band, and it’s always endeared the band to me. The songwriting on this album, though, is light years beyond anything the band has done in the past. There’s a strong maturity to these tracks, both musically and lyrically. These songs are emotionally charged, and you can hear how personal these songs are to Allen in his strongly emotive vocals. “Sarasota” opens the album with maybe the most straightforward modern pop punk track, and one of the strongest songs of the album. There’s something Chicago-like in parts of the song, and I think I attribute it to the strong bass presence in the mix, and the muscular sound of the guitars. “Right On” has a grunge feel, almost Nirvana-like, and some of the tracks have the post-punk feel of a cross between 90s Dischord and 90s San Diego sounds, like “Afterwards.” The album has a variety of sounds, but is consistently good.

TOYGUITAR – Move Like A Ghost (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Of all the bands that toyGuitar front man Jack Dalrymple plays in (others include Dead To Me, One Man Army, and Swingin’ Utters), I think this one could be my favorite. Sure, it’s hard to compare, because these bands are so completely different. But, as good as those other bands are, there’s just something about toyGuitar. Perhaps it’s the sunny feel. This is garage rock’n’roll mixed with surf, mixed with a bright beachy summer day. Perhaps it’s the sense of fun you get from the music. This is completely danceable, gloriously bouncy stuff. Perhaps it’s how genuine and nice the members of the band are. Or, perhaps, it’s all of these. On this, their third outing, toyGuitar offers up six tracks that are a natural follow-up to 2013’s self-titled EP and last year’s debut full-length. The same basic sound is there, making you want to get up off your ass and dance around. But this time out, the songwriting seems to focus more on the melody than ever before. Rather than just being fun sunny garage music, they strive to be great pop songs, too. No song on the EP demonstrates this more than the title track. It’s a great power pop tune, laden with hooks, and Dalrymple’s vocals are just so perfect for this kind of song. “Stoned Under a New Moon” is another favorite of the EP, also slowed down a bit, and a more focused pop song. The one track I couldn’t get into was the closer, “Turn It Around.” It’s a slower track, ballad-like, and completely different than the others. It seems to share some qualities with 80s arena pop rock, and that’s just not something I’m into. But the other five tracks are all gems.

VISTA BLUE – At The Summer Olympics (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)

Always ready with topical sports songs (see the baseball themed records the band released just in time for opening day this year), Vista Blue is back with a single, just ahead of this year’s summer games in Rio. The title track is a Beach Boys inspired tune, full of surfy goodness, all about wanted to compete for the good ol’ red white and blue, while the B-side, “I Don’t Want the Zika!” is a grungier instrumental track. The latter doesn’t do much for me, and is out of character for the normally full-on pop punk band, while the former is cleaner and poppier than their normal fare. So I guess it balances out!

THE RAGING NATHANS / WONK UNIT – Split 7” (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Raging Nathans front man and Rad Girlfriend Records label boss Josh Goldman doesn’t believe in record reviews. So he doesn’t send out records or even downloads to media outlets for review. Well, the joke’s on him, because I bought this brand new split 7” from him during Awesomefest, and it’s getting reviewed, anyway! This transoceanic split features Ohio’s Ranging Nathans and the UK’s Wonk Unit, two bands with very different takes on the pop punk sound. The Raging Nathans feature a crunchy big guitar sound, fast and loud, very Midwestern, a direct descendent of bands like Naked Raygun and Pegboy. The band’s “Good For You” is their second song on this split, and the better of the pair, in my opinion, mainly because “Minneapolis” has some metallic guitar solos I could live without. The songs, otherwise, both feature a huge buzzsaw sound with the deep bass that’s a Midwest signature. Wonk Unit is a little bit more laid back, with a janglier feel. “Candy” is a really nice pop tune, while “We Came Together” has a slight ska feel. Wonk unit is a little harder to pigeonhole, which, I think, is one of their appeals. Together, these two bands provide a nice contrast of pop punk styles today.


THE ANDERSON COUNCIL –
Assorted Colors
(Jem Records, www.jemrecordings.com)

Who remembers Jem Records? OK, everyone who’s raising their hand, you’re old! Jem was the label from my youth that released all sorts of records that were otherwise unavailable in the US. Jem Imports brought us all manner of foreign artists, and. more importantly, releases from American bands that were only available overseas. Decades after the operation went belly up, co-founder Marty Scott resurrected the label in 2013, to both release music from new artists and the license older recordings. And this release would fit right in with the Jem back catalog. It’s got a definite retro flair, ranging from the 60s through the 80s, with elements of psych, power pop, and garage rock. The album begins with a great, jangly track, “Sitting On A Cloud.” This one could have come out of the 60s, with the psychedelic pop sounds that were in vogue back in the day. Other tracks have that same sound, with some hinting at a British Invasion sound, like “Girl On The Northern Line.” It’s bright and sparkly, happy and fun. “I Never Feel” has more in common with early Elvis Costello than it does with any modern indie artist. Some of the tracks channel bands like Cheap Trick or Yes. So this runs the gamut of retro rock sounds. It’s a fun take on the past.

THE BARREN MARYS
(thebarrenmarys.bandcamp.com)

The cover photo is that of a nun in her habit pulling a frontside invert on a skateboard. She’s wearing a muscle t-shirt with an inverted cross with a B and an M on either side, the band’s logo. Catholic school experiences obviously play a big part in the lives of this southern New Jersey trio. One of the tracks is even titled, “Catholic Guilt.” The songs on this album are distorted punk fun, mid-tempo mayhem, sharing more in common, for the most part, with 80s SoCal punk and 90s Midwest pop punk than it does with modern punk from the northeast. “Wanna” is a really cool track that is pretty simple, but has a great power pop melody. D.I.Y. is totally retro 80s SoCal funny punk, while “Peter Criss” is a more serious, modern sounding track. At places I hear hints of RVIVR. And “Sober” is a great track, the most modern pop punk sounding track of the bunch. Honestly, there aren’t any songs that I don’t at least like. The energy and enthusiasm of the band come through clearly in every track.

BREAKLIGHTS – Instructed To Fail (breaklights.bandcamp.com)

Four-piece band Breaklights hails from Austin, Texas, and plays primarily mid-tempo songs that hover over the border between pop punk and alternative commercial pop punk. Produced by Stephen Egerton of Descendents fame, the four songs are well polished and tight. They’re melodic, too, with just a hint of emo. My favorite of the quartet of tracks has to be “Drag Me Down,” the most up-tempo on the disc. It sounds like a song that could come right out of the Descendents’ catalog. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, nothing electrifying, but it’s decent enough.

THE HAMILTONES (More Power Tapes, morepowertapes.bandcamp.com/music)

Surf’s up, dude! This tape has six short sonic blasts right out of California’s past. They’re all instrumentals, and they’re all short, with the longest track clocking in at 2:41 (“Monstraphobia”) and the average being about 1:30. So authentic sounding are these tracks that if I didn’t know that The Hamiltones were a current band from Tampa Bay, Florida, I would swear that this is an old 60s recording. They’re all fun, but I think the simple melody of “Dracula vs. Godzilla vs. The Hamiltones” is my favorite. If you like hangin’ ten, or even if you just like old style surf rock, this is for you.

 

MASKED INTRUDER – Love And Other Crimes (Pure Noise Records, www.purenoise.net)

Scene: Fat Wreck Chords headquarters. Enter, stage left, Fat Mike, dressed as a prison guard. Guard is making the rounds at lights out. Upon discovering an empty cell, he cries out, “Masked Intruder have escaped!” He blows a whistle, and the alarm is sounded. Sirens cry out, and searchlights start scouring the area around Fat Wreck Chords Prison. Dogs are set loose to catch the scent. Scene switch: Pure Noise headquarters, across the bay, with Masked Intruder seated around a big mahogany desk, with Jake “Boss” Round seated behind it, a big cigar in his mouth, leaning back in his oversized leather chair. “Boys,” Boss Round says, “bustin’ you outta Fat Prison was the best thing I ever done. We got big plans for youse, starting with an EP for the label. Vans Warped Tour is starting soon, and we’re gonna put youse to work rippin’ off the kiddies all over the country.” The boys from Masked Intruder all start laughing and nodding in agreement. Fade to black. And with that, the four crooked pop punkers, convicted of grand theft heart, made the move from Fat Wreck Chords to Pure Noise. The new EP, “Love And Other Crimes,” is six tracks of Ramones-core style sweet pop punk, just as you’ve come to expect, but there’s some flim-flam, too. “Take What I Want” is the opener, and it’s more rock’n’roll than anything these guys have stolen, er, written before. Harkening back to 70s and 80s blues-inspired arena rock, the track may be my least favorite of anything they’ve done. I grew up with this kind of music, and it almost put me off rock music, permanently. But “First Star Tonight” more than makes up for it, with some of the band’s biggest hooks yet, made for grabbing us around the neck and pulling us in. It’s all about everything we wish for, to make our lives better, and maybe make us not so lonely. “Beyond A Shadow Of A Doubt” is a love song, wherein the perpetrator, er, protagonist, professes his love for a woman who apparently has a restraining order against him, because, as he sings, he knows he has to stay at least 100 yards away, and begs her not to call the cops. Lovely. The music is wonderfully bouncy, but the lyrics may be taking the running gag a bit far. “Running From The Cops” is another classic track, with one of the best melodies yet from Masked Intruder. “Still Always On My Mind” is a throwback, an updating to the 60s pop-doo-wop sound made famous by The Beatles, a fun soulful track. It’s also got some questionable lyrics, though, with the singer professing his love to the woman who had him hauled away by the cops and locked up by the courts. “If Only” is a wistful track, thinking back to how things could have been, if only bad decisions hadn’t been made. Now this one is a real winner, and could be my favorite of the EP. It’s even got great “Boy Meets World” references. Bouncy and fun, with reflective lyrics about regret. That’s a winning combination. I still love Masked Intruder, and this EP doesn’t change that. I don’t even mind the gag, and the songs about stealing hearts. But, in these days where rape culture is excused by the media and in the courtrooms, maybe it’s time to tone down the stalking aspect of the joke. Because it’s not really a joke, anymore.

THE POP GROUP – The Boy Whose Head Exploded (Freaks R Us, www.freaksrus.net)

The Pop Group, formed in 1977, was a pioneer of the first wave of post-punk. Wikipedia comments that they were inspired by the energy of punk rock, but turned off by the “musical conservatism” of it, meaning the sameness and simplicity. They drew on a wider variety of influences, incorporating aspects of funk and black dance music, Avant-Garde, and art rock. This two-disc set features, on disc one, ten live tracks recorded at shows around Europe in 1980, while disc two is a DVD that has a video recording from a live set, also from 1980. The music was groundbreaking for its time, and influenced a generation of musicians that followed. The great thing about this release is that you get a feel for the energy and originality of The Pop Group. There was nothing quite like it. You hear the pounding percussion, the syncopated rhythms, the wailing saxophone and funky guitar and bass. You hear the whoops of the audience. But the bad thing is the sound quality. This doesn’t sound like a soundboard recording, it sounds, rather more like a recording made by an audience member. It does make it difficult to listen for long periods of time. The dynamic range is pretty narrow, there’s plenty of distortion and muddiness, and it sounds like you’re listening to the music through an ancient transistor radio. Most of the tracks are live versions of songs from the band’s second album, “For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder,” with the exception of a previously unreleased song, “73 Shadow Street” and “Shake The Foundation,” a cover of the Glaxo Babies song. Disc two was a serious disappointment. Billed as archival footage from Don Letts, prominent British film director and videographer of The Clash, co-founder of Big Audio Dynamite, and video director for Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, and Psychedelic Furs, among others, I was expecting a great video of the whole set, recorded at an outdoor festival. What we get, instead, is seven minutes of grainy clips, much like you get when your friend posts 30-second videos to Facebook from some dingy club. The good part is the visual representation of what I was talking about in the audio disc: the sheer unbridled and youthful energy, the experimentation with song structures (or lack thereof). It’s a marvel to behold. But it’s so difficult to watch, unless you’re suffering from ADHD and can’t focus on anything for more than 30 seconds. At least give me a few whole songs, please? And why waste an entire disc for seven minutes? If you’re a completist, by all means, go get this. But if you’re more interested in listening to the awesome experimental music of The Pop Group, go get their studio albums instead of this.

THE TELEVISIONARIES – Freezing To Death (More Power Tapes, morepowertapes.bandcamp.com/music)

Simple, basic instrumental surf-rock, heavy on the reverb, with pounding drums and manic guitar. Some of the tracks are a little out of the ordinary, like “Baby Buzzcut,” which is just all over the place. The tempo changes, the dynamics go from quiet burner to out of control rager, and the whole thing seems to careening out of control at times. Some tracks are a bit too confused and muddy sounding, like “Glasstron.” I don’t know if it’s the recording quality or the song, but, despite the quick tempo, things just got bogged down in the mucky sound. I like good classic surf rock, but this was a bit too loose for me.

YEESH – Confirmation Bias (Tiny Engines, www.tinyengines.net)

Confirmation bias is defined as the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirming beliefs one already holds. And this album confirms my belief that bands from Chicago produce some really good music. This is some of the strongest post-punk music I’ve heard in awhile. Angular intervals, generous use of overtones, minimalist melodies and repetition, are the tools used in constructing the ten songs on this, the band’s sophomore full-length LP. The songs are powerful and edgy, loud and insistent; they’re Chicago tough. It’s a toughness that belies the fact that this is only a three-piece; it sounds much bigger. Sometimes it reminds me a bit of Circus Lupus, the Washington, DC post-punk band of the 90s. There’s that same urgent feel to the songs, propelling them ever forward, the same shouted but not quite shouted vocals, done in a loud yet deadpan style. But the heaviness of the songs is not so heavy as to bog them down. Instead, there’s an unexpected bounciness to them, so you can get your dance on at the same time as you enjoy the creativity in the music.

BURN BURN BURN / …WHATEVER THAT MEANS – Blowing Minds and Melting Faces split EP (burnburnburn.bandcamp.com)

Two bands, five songs. Four different pop punk sounds! Burn Burn Burn offers up two tracks of really fun sing along pop punk, fast, loud, and with lyrics about frustrations, relationships, drinking, and how those things always seem to go together. Of the two tracks, “Maps Of Brick Walls” and “Drink It Away,” I think I like the latter better (though they’re both great fun). And …Whatever That Means seems to be experimenting with identity. The first track, “Can’t Take It,” is a quick blast that sounds sort of like Bad Cop/Bad Cop, with snotty female vocals and a rapid-fire punk rock melody. “This Betrayal” slows things down a bit, and reminds me somewhat of early Green Day. “Just Another Day” is the one I got into the least of the record, though, with more of a 90s Fat Wreck Chords skate punk sound. Which isn’t a bad thing. I used to love that stuff. But I don’t understand the current resurgence of that style. It’s done and gone, leave it be. Create something new, bands! Regardless of that, this is a pretty solid split.

VARIOUS – 3 Way Split
(burnburnburn.bandcamp.com)

Three bands contribute a single song each on this 7” compilation. I know it’s called a “split,” but, to me, two bands make a split, more than that is a comp. American Dischord is first up, with “B&E,” a pretty traditional sounding punk track about making one’s living via alternative methods, shall we say? It’s kind of dark. OC45 gives us “S.C.A.B., a track reminiscent of hardcore punk from the early 80s. And Burn Burn Burn’s offering is one of their more mid-tempo cuts, “Chasing Hornets,” a track that blends pop punk with a more emotionally charged punk style that’s associated with bands like Bastards of Young or Western Settings. All three of the tracks are listenable, even good. Burn Burn Burn’s song, though, is definitely the standout to me, because it’s got a more modern, forward thinking sound to it.


MARTHA – Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

A small village in the far northeast of England seems like the least likely place to breed one of the most exciting bands today, let alone a vegan queer-anarcho-indie-punk band. But when the town is called “Pity Me,” it starts to make sense. Pity Me is a former pit settlement, the sort of village that sprang up around the coalmines all over England. With nothing else to do, kids had to make their own fun. So, starting your own band seemed like a natural thing to do. And with nearby Durham known as a punk and hardcore hub, playing in a punk band was just logical. With no venues and no scene to speak of, DIY was the way things got done. So that’s Martha, in a nutshell. The band’s songs range from the political to the personal, also with an air of uncertainty and often teetering on a sense of resignation or even despair, but sometimes with bits of hopefulness. The music, on the other hand, is almost universally sparkly and optimistic. It’s right on that border between pop punk and indie pop, with more hooks, complexity, and gorgeous melodies than your typical pop punk song, but with more edge and less self-conscious grandiosity than many indie-pop songs. The music pulls you in, with its bubbly qualities, so that you hear the lyrics, sung in a deep northeastern English accent, and that makes you think. “Precarious (Supermarket Song)” is a great example of the fusing of typical indie-pop song type with pop punk and gender politics. It’s a bubbly sounding track, seemingly a song about going to the supermarket and seeing someone working there who’s cute that you want to ask out, but you’re too shy and tongue-tied to do it. But then, you work up the courage to ask, “Oh-oh, when you gonna get off work?” So far, pretty ordinary, right? But then, “But there’s something you’re too shy to say / We can go somewhere more private / If you’re scared of what might happen / You won’t know until you’ve tried it / I’m a person, you’re a person / Nothing else is really certain / The night is still so young / Let’s get out of here, let’s have some fun.” Notice this isn’t a “boy meets girl” song, or even boy meets boy or girl meets girl, for that matter. It’s all left ambiguous, because, as the song implies, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Gender identity is something imposed on us by society, replete with behavioral expectations. Fuck all that, just be who you are and go have some fun.

The album title comes from a lyric from a song titled, “Ice Cream and Sunscreen,” This is also a poppy bouncy sounding track with darker lyrics. “The autumn forecast is looking abysmal again / This year I’ll spend November in my house / August sort of stifled your potential, didn’t it?” and “I know you wished for fireworks to light your July sky / I was the dampest box of matches you could ever hope to find.” This dichotomy of happy jangly music and serious, downbeat lyrics is part of the genius that is Martha. They can take the darkest topics and set them to the sunniest melodies, so you don’t know whether to jump for joy or sink into despair. Maybe that’s the lesson of the album: you can’t have one without the other. For every bit of happiness we have, there’s going to be some sadness, too. And, no matter how bad things might seem, there’s always something to learn, and things will get better.

Perhaps my favorite track on the album is the one that’s the most understated, the one that sounds as solemn as it is: St. Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive).” The song closes the album, and is a nod to Paul Westerberg, and the band The Replacements. Though it uses different lyrics and the whole feeling of the song is different, the sentiment remains the same as in the song, “Bastards of Young,” that of a generation feeling displaced from the larger society. It goes farther in blaming the previous generation for making a mess of the world. “Blessed Mother what a mess / The broken ladder of success” referring back to The Replacements’ “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success / Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung,” seems to say that it’s not just a struggle to find your place in the world anymore, it’s become impossible. The song is short and quiet, yet very moving.

Every single song on this record is just about perfect. Really. It’s a great listen, both for the fun music and for the meaningful lyrics. This is sure to end up on many top 10 lists, come December.

VARIOUS – Mild In The Streets (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

This isn’t going to be for everyone, not even the rabid fans of everything Fat Wreck Chords puts out. This ain’t no punk rock record. This is more like folk music and show tunes and sometimes Gypsy punk. It’s the milder side of Fat, those songs that are acoustic, or at least more sedate than the typical Fat Wreck punk song, most previously released, some not. The contribution from Swingin’ Utters is “Fruitless Fortunes,” from the album “Five Lessons Learned.” Guitar, banjo, fiddle, acoustic bass, and minimalist percussion conspire to give us the sound of punk rock that might have been made in the old Wild West. Sam Sadowski, of Closet Fiends, offers up “Herionsomnia.” Sadowski sounds like a cross between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, with guitar and harmonica accompanying his gravelly voice that sounds so laid back and sort of inebriated. Morning Glory’s “Care of Me” comes from the album “Poets Were My Heroes,” and is a pretty track, with piano and vocals. Anti-Flag offers up the most raucous track of the album, their song “One Trillion Dollars,” which is one of their more laid-back numbers. Yotam Ben Horin of Useless ID sings “State Is Burning,” the acoustic track from their EP “We Don’t Want The Airwaves,” with acoustic guitar and tambourine yielding a surprisingly intense track, like the best protest songs of the 60s. I am in love with Karina Deniké (of Dance Hall Crashers) and her song, “Musée Mécanique,” which sounds like something that might have been performed on “A Prairie Home Companion,” with its old-timey feel. Of the few unreleased tracks, I think my favorite might be the ultimately cheesy cover of Olivia Newton John’s “Xanadu,” from Uke-Hunt (Spike Slawson, of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes). It’s got the disco feel of the original, plus the breezy island feel that can only come from a ukulele. Two of the tracks that are the strangest and the ones that are actually rearrangements of the originals include Matt Skiba’s version of Alkaline Trio’s “Continental,” and BAZ’s symphonic rendition of NOFX’s “The Decline.” Skiba uses acoustic guitar and synth to stand in for the full band, giving “Continental” more of an 80s sound, sort of like The Cure. And BAZ gives “The Decline” the full symphonic treatment. It’s twenty minutes of glorious music, more worthy of New York’s Lincoln Center than it is a punk album. Like I said, this isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you like diversity in your music, give this a try. You might be surprised how cool acoustic can be.

A CAST OF THOUSANDS – Sub Rosa (www.acastofthousands.net)

Culled from a live show at SubCatStudios in Syracuse New York, back in December of 2015, the ten tracks here don’t sound like a club recording. The sound quality is incredibly good, and the music ain’t too bad, either. It’s fairly basic guitar/bass/drums indie pop with pretty vocals, mostly female. There’s no new ground broken here, no big revelations, but it’s just plain good music. The guitars jangle just right, and the vocals are gorgeous without being saccharine. “Our History” is a standout track, to me. I love the lines and the delicate guitar. “A Stake” has a nice power pop feel to it, and “Andy Said” has a cool energy to it. Like I said, no new ground, but this is pretty enjoyable.

CHANDELI’ERS – Breaker (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Remember when power pop was king? Before all the crazy synth and electronic-driven music of new wave and modern pop music, guitar-driven pop music ruled the airwaves, with bands like The Beat, The Plimsouls, The Knack, The Romantics, and many others. Well, there seems to be quite a resurgence of power pop bands lately, and Brooklyn’s Chandeli’ers are one of today’s proponents of the sound. Chandeli’ers are at their best when the two vocalists are working together. A great example is the first track; “Moving Parts” is the perfect way to open this album, with tons of hooks and loads of energy. The dual vocals work really well, and you can’t help but dance around when the song plays. “Wayfarer Shades” is another good one, with prominent organ and those dueling, harmonizing vocals. A few of the tracks don’t work quite so well, and those are mainly the ones with the saxophone, like “Brand New Wolves.” It’s got a pseudo old-time rock’n’roll feel, but the sax just sounds a bit awkward to my ears. Then there are tracks like “Ferdinand,” which are in-between. I really like the sound and feel of this one, and the trumpet actually works well in the track, but it just seems to lack a little bit in the energy department. Inject a bit more power into the power pop and this one would be a real winner, too. This is a band worth watching – they have a lot of promise.

DIRECT HIT! – Wasted Mind (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Up until recently I’ve viewed Fat Wreck Chords as been mostly a nostalgia label. They released a lot of great pop punk music in the 90s, and, over the years since, focused mainly on releases from their core bands and very similar acts. But Fat Wreck’s been on a tear lately, snapping up a lot of the best pop punk bands making music today. No longer are they just resting on their laurels; they’re branching out, musically and giving exposure to some really great bands. Their latest signing is the Midwest’s Direct Hit! And, as expected from the band (and the label, lately), this is a solid release. The songs are somewhat poppier than those on previous releases, and the production is certainly a lot slicker. The arrangements are denser and more complex, too, some with instruments that are not usual to Direct Hit, like synth, piano, and saxophone. A couple of the tracks trade the poppiness for a harder edge, like “Paid in Brains,” which is one of my favorites of the album. It’s got a soulful R&B feel underneath the hard punk edge. Also “Do The Sick” has a great rock’n’roll edge that reminds me of The Jim Carroll Band. “Promised Land” is another favorite among the poppier tracks. It’s got a great melody, and the use of piano is really nice, and the sax pretty much rages. “Another Dimension” also adds tons of pop and a really great arrangement, with synths set to sound glockenspiel-like. I love the waltz time “Infinite Pills, Infinite Alcohol,” a track that takes a serious subject and makes it sound like a fun dance party. In fact, the whole album is a serious subject, as this is a “concept” album, dealing with topics of substance abuse and addiction. Fat’s got another winner on its hands!

FAYE (Tiny Engines, www.tinyengines.net)

Faye are a three-piece from Charlotte, NC, making their recorded debut with this five-song EP. The thing that strikes me the most is the vocals of singer/guitarist Susan Plante; they’re just about perfect. The vocals are pretty, but with an attitude that’s just right for these indie-pop songs with a fuzzy edge. I also really like the tone coming from Sarah Blumenthal’s bass. It’s got tons of treble in it, with a heavy dose of fuzz, and it’s pretty present in the mix. I think my favorite track of the EP has to be the closer, “Ancient Bones.” It’s a slow burner, nicely understated. The other tracks are a little more sparkly, with the opener, “Yellow Canary,” being a nice standout of those. I also like “Teacups,” the second track, a song that seems to be talking about women being judged by their looks, and how some women try hard too hard, rather than just being themselves. If there’s one complaint I have on this first effort, it’s that drummer Kristen Leake seems to struggle in places to keep the time. Perhaps it’s the over-reliance on heavy reverb that makes it seem so, but it’s particularly notable on the otherwise pretty song, “Vowels,” during the instrumental breaks. There’s nothing groundbreaking in this record, but it’s a nice listen.

JAPANCAKES (Darla Records, www.darla.com)

Active from 1999 to 2007, Japancakes has seen many changes. This, their first record in nine years, sees half the band living in LA, new vocals from Carrie Clough, and a new direction in sound. The current trend of a return to heavy use of electronics, popular back in the new wave 80s, is evident here. Today’s electronic use is more to create an atmosphere, but Japancakes blends the new wave sound with today’s ambience, to create something sort on between. Personally, I could do without the new wave dance rhythms, but I love when they bring in the cello and other strings in the more ambient tracks. Like “Time Travel,” which features gorgeous strings and a slower pace, these ambient tracks really complement Clough’s beautiful voice. “Second Sun” is a truly wondrous track, though it’s too short at only 1:42. It’s so pretty, and listening to it is like floating above the earth, lazily floating away. Likewise, “We’re Awake and Floating” is perfectly named, with synths, flute, and strings carrying you away through the clouds. “Sleeper” is a little different, in that it’s got a bit of a beat, and it’s heavy on the synths rather than the strings, but it’s grandiose, and the vocals are spot on. On the other hand, though, the tracks that rely on the new wave dance beat, with rigid drums and heavy synth rhythms are not that interesting to me. Like “Spies,” even with the great vocals, the dancey beat just doesn’t get me interested. Then there are the tracks that are in between, like “Destination Mining.” It’s got a dance beat, but the layers of sound are pretty cool, with electronics and strings, backing vocals and lead vocals, all creating a feel that’s ethereal yet grounded. It’s a mixed bag, but I would say that overall, this is a good release.

THE MANX – Voyage In Bad Taste (themanx.bandcamp.com)

After existing for a number of years and releasing a series of EPs, LA’s weirdest, coolest musicians are releasing their debut full-length LP. The Manx have been described by many as “Gypsy punks” or “folk punk,” and that’s a reasonably apt description. The attitude in their music and their performances is definitely in line with that of punk. But the instrumentation has less to do with punk than just about anything else. Mandolin, accordion, banjo, upright bass, and drums make up this quintet of misfits, thus the association with folk and Gypsy music. The album also includes trumpets, violins, piano, and other interesting instrumentation. And, while their past recorded output has been pretty much in the folk punk tradition, this latest effort is more adventuresome and diverse. There certainly is folk-punk here, but there are also songs that are more pop-like, those that are more cinematic, and those that are like fun cartoons. Which makes a lot of sense, since some members of the band work at Cartoon Network in various capacities. Adding to the fantastic oddness are vocals that range from the aforementioned cartoon voiceover sound to death metal and everything in between. As good as the previous EPs have been (you did read my review of their “Blood Chronicles” EP a few years ago, didn’t you?), “Voyage in Bad Taste” is more than a step up. The musicianship is top notch, the arrangements are engaging, the recording quality is superb, and the writing is awesome, leading to a listening experience that’s just plain fun. The Manx have even managed to recruit a couple of notable guests for the album. “Rainbow Hammer” features The Melvins’ King Buzzo, while “Fruit Bats” features narration from artist Gregory Jacobsen. Both are standouts. But, then, all the songs are standouts. “Rainbow Hammer” is just so manic and fast moving, but then it will suddenly stop for this slow bit, and then just start up again, tearing at a frenetic pace. And what’s this lyric about being a couple of lesbians? “Fruit Bats” is an epic track that is screaming for an animated video treatment, because it’s so visual and just feels like a dark cartoon. Then there’s “Transmediterranean Slander Fucks,” which shifts around like crazy, it gets me so dizzy, what with the vocals bouncing back and forth. And then, when it gets all quiet, except for Tommy Meehan’s banjo…the chorus comes in, punctuated by the most evil sounding metal vocals that send a chill through my spine. The closer, “Nightmare…” is absolutely gorgeous, with its orchestral opening and close, sandwiching a real tour de force of a track. This album has been quite some time in the making, but the wait was well worth it. Highly recommended.

MYSTERY LIGHTS (Wick Records, www.wickrecords.com)

Garage rock has made a huge comeback in the last few years, to the point where it’s not just the occasional band playing the style, anymore; there’s a whole scene out there, with many bands in each local area that are deeply rooted in, well, roots rock music. This is what underground music was like back in the day when bubblegum pop ruled the airwaves. So, in a way, this is the original “punk” music. Loads of reverb and creepy sounding keyboards feature prominently, and the vocals are just oozing attitude. The music is very soulful, very intense. “Flowers In My Hair, Demons In My Head” is a real stand out track. It’s a slow burner, but it’s so intense, and the guitar flourishes kill. “Melt” is a powerhouse of a song, with pounding drums and bass, and lyrics that slay, delivered with a knife blow to the gut. The end of the song is just as cool, with an echoy metallic noise, followed by an eerie, low hum that sounds alien to the ears, plus the sort of sound you woul hear from dust in the grooves of a record. And “What Happens When,” the album closer, is another stand out. This is probably one of the better bands playing this style of music I’ve heard lately, and if you like garage rock, definitely give this a spin.

RADIOHEARTS – Tell You (No Front Teeth Records, www.nofrontteeth.co.uk)

This is band that’s really well named, because they play the sort of music that was prominent when radio was king. This 7” contains four tracks of pretty great power pop music. These tracks are bursting with energy and enthusiasm, and they’re very catchy. There are hooks galore and vocal harmonies, making this a fun EP to listen to. And they’re from Long Beach, California, but I’ve not heard of them before? And it took a UK record label to put this out? I sure hope this gets them the exposure they deserve. It’s hard to pick a favorite track, because they’re all really good, so pick this up and decide for yourself.

SWANS – The Glowing Man (Young God Records, www.younggodrecords.com)

This is a bittersweet release. Sweet, because it’s a new Swans album! Bitter, because it’s the final release for this incarnation of Swans. Ever since Michael Gira reformed the band and, in 2010, released “My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, I’ve been awed by the direction the band had taken. With each subsequent album, there were new revelations, as the band evolved. So, excited to get my ears wrapped around this latest sonic blast, I began to listen. And there’s another bitter in that bittersweet mix. The album doesn’t stack up to previous releases. In place of the intense crescendos of sound and extended assaults on our senses, we get long drones and ambience. Instead of songs that unexpectedly pounce, we get sonic meandering. Rather than aural explosions, we get swells and ebbs. And, at a minute shy of two hours in length, it comes across as rather self-indulgent. Even when there’s an exception to this rule, and we get an explosive moment, it quickly turns into just a loud drone. There’s really very little in the way of variation, over the long haul, on this record, and it’s a disappointment. I’m used to Swans being a challenging listen, something that’s not for everyone, with dissonance and dynamic changes that are exciting to hear. But the only challenge in these 15, 20, and nearly 30-minute drones is trying to keep attention on the music. I never thought I would say that I was bored listening to a Swans album, but I was.

TENDER DEFENDER (Dead Broke Rekerds, www.deadbrokerecords.com)

If the amazingly soaring anthemic pop punk sound of this self-titled “mini-LP” is more than a bit familiar, that’s because this band includes three of the members of Latterman: Mattie Jo Canino, Phil Douglas, and Pat Schramm. The dual vocals, the sparkling arrangements, powerful and sweaty, the fist-pumping sing-along choruses, it’s all there. After that band’s split, back in 2007, it was hard to imagine that powerful sound and its attendant feel-good positivity ever rising again – but it did. RVIVR and Iron Chic are two bands that formed in the wake of that break-up, and they’ve carried on the sound and tradition. Now, Canino, Douglas, and Schramm are back together, giving us more new, beautiful songs. They sound just as urgent, meaningful, and special as did Latterman those many years ago, ready to inspire a new generation of fans. The five songs flow one into another, without break, just as might be done during a live set, inviting the listener to stay for the whole EP, rather than pulling up individual songs. And while the songs sound familiar, they are still sound fresh. It’s good to have these guys back together, playing new music.

TOP SHELF LICKERS – Heartbreak City (thetopshelflickers.bandcamp.com)

Chicago’s Top Shelf Lickers are back with their first recorded output since 2014’s “Heart Beats Brain” EP. The five songs on this EP remain pretty true to the Lickers’ tradition, with edgy rock’n’roll with bits of punk rock influence. “Vinyl” is a track many of us can relate to, about the addiction that comes with buying vinyl records. This one is perhaps, the punkest track of the bunch, sounding more like a modern day Orange County, California band than one from Chicago. The title track is next, with a strong roots rock sound, while “Hidden Inside” starts out with acoustic guitar and a very quiet heartfelt feel, but soon enough gains the electric guitars. This one is more of an alternative rock sound, like you might hear on commercial radio. “Rest of Us” crosses the alternative with rock’n’roll and hints of The Doors, even, in the slow, quiet bridge. And the closer, “For Rock n Roll,” is a sad lament to trying to make it in the world of rock music. If you like the punked edge pub rock music sound, and you’re going to be in the Chicago area, check out Top Shelf Lickers, because they do that sound pretty well.

TRASHCAN SINATRAS – Wild Pendulum (www.trashcansinatras.com)

This long-running Scottish group is back with a new album, their first since a series of live recordings six and seven years ago. And this latest effort is quite unique. It features a sort of psychedelic indie-pop easy listening music, if that makes any sense. The songs are relaxed, just like your grandpa’s favorite easy listening records from back when you were a little kid. Gone are the guitar-based indie songs. The arrangements are more psychedelic in nature, and the song structures more indie pop. All sorts of interesting instruments not normally associated with a pop band are included, adding to the uniqueness, and there are samples galore, many of which are from 50s and 60s lounge music. The resulting tracks are thick and lush, gorgeous to listen to, and are the sort of tracks you can listen to over and over and keep hearing new things. Standout tracks for me include “I Want To Capture Your Heart,” “All Night,” “I’m Not The Fella.” The first has the qualities of a romantic crooner of a song from way back when. The second has awesome Latin music samples, and the third is another old-style crooner, this time in waltz time. Honestly, most every song on this record is pretty damn cool, with only a couple I wasn’t crazy about.

VISTA BLUE – Pray For Rain (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)

Nashville’s pop punks are ready for the new baseball season with this four-song baseball themed EP. The songs feature buzzy guitars, multi-part harmonies, and the sort of lyrics you’ve come to expect from great melodic pop punk bands. “Striking Out With You” opens the EP with a slightly slower than mid-tempo track, and I don’t think the striking out has anything to do with baseball. “We’re Gonna Homer (Off of Homer Bailey)” is next, and it’s a fun up-tempo number, pretty lively. “Somebody Put Something In My Gatorade” is another raucous one, while the closer, “Davey Got Drafted,” slows things back down a bit. The songs are super melodic and the harmonies are spot on. This is a fun listen!

VARIOUS – Love Cats: A Tribute to the Cure (Reimagine Music, www.reimaginemusic.com)

Reimagine Music’s mission is to take the music that many of us grew up listening to and have many of today’s indie acts create modern interpretations of these songs that influenced our lives. This particular album has bands such as The Hoteliers, Dowsing, Tancred, and others providing their versions of songs from the 80s band, The Cure. Some of the results are better than others. The Hoteliers’ rendition of “Doing The Unstuck” is probably the best of the bunch, giving the song a thoroughly modern sound. The song has tons of jangle, and sounds like it could have been written in the last month, rather than many years ago. The version of “Push” offered up by Dowsing, likewise, has a very fresh take. Grace Kelly gives us the title track, “Love Cats,” and it’s a fun version. Tancred’s recording of “The Figurehead,” on the other hand, is less successful, with a sound that sort of drags, while The Crookes’ “Boys Don’t Cry” cover doesn’t really distinguish itself enough from the original, other than having a sparer sound. Minipop’s version of “Pictures of You” doesn’t excite, with it’s very ambient sound. The Worm Is Green does a version of “Close To Me” that starts out very promisingly, with an ambient feel, leaving out some of the cheesier synth lines. But they do include those as a bridge between verses, which ruins it for me. Other tracks, similarly, fall somewhere in the middle, providing a different take than the original, but not necessarily an exciting one.


THE ALL-ABOUT – Be Safe Goodbye (theallabout.bandcamp.com)

Recorded at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, this latest release from The All-About features a country-tinged sound, adding steel guitar and mandolin on some tracks. Gone are the synths and the layers of sound and noise, replaced by piano and organ. What’s still the same, though, are the honest songs and honest vocals. I’m particularly taken by Gabby Ambrosio’s gorgeous, sparkling clear vocals, as she’s given more room to stretch here. And, with the more stripped down instrumentation, the vocals have to carry more of the emotional load, and both Ambrosio and front man Zac Coe do just that. Coe’s vocals remind me a bit of another singer that sings in a way as to make you feel like your drawn into his life, and that’s Jeff Berman of Divided Heaven. The title track opens the album with a great piano and acoustic guitar sound and dryly produced vocals. It’s a very homey casual sound that sets a perfect tone for the songs to come. “History Of Everything” has elements that remind me a little bit of The New Pornographers’ “Twin Cinemas” album, one of my favorites of the last decade. The piano, the melodic line, the way the vocals are recorded, it all adds up. “Haley’s Comet” is a pretty great song too, sounding sort of like a fuller, funkier Tris McCall song. The piano plays a major part in this song, which is part of that, but the melody contributes in a strong way. I also enjoy “With You All The Time,” another track where the piano plays a dominant role, and the vocal harmonies bring to mind those of The New Pornographers. Honestly, I could do with less of the steel pedal guitar (I’m not a big country fan), but other than that, I’m kind of in love with this album.

BASTARDS OF YOUNG – White Knuckles (La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

Named for the Replacements song, Bastards of Young play an emotionally edged brand of rock’n’roll, one that loosely falls under the pop punk category these days. The Sacramento quartet’s songs have a soaring quality to them, with a big guitar sound, gruff lead vocals, and powerful gang chorus vocals. The dozen songs feel more emotive and introspective than the usual sing-along pop punk fare. Less fist pumping and more heartfelt, the songs pull on your heartstrings, with lyrics that speak of self-doubt, personal shortcomings, and resignation. My personal favorite tracks include “Boys Like Us,” “Good Grief,” and “Like Nails On A Cross.” “Boys Like Us” has a great melody, uplifting even, while the lyrics seem to speak to the broken promises and broken hearts that afflict us all. “Good Grief” has a great gritty edge and a cool bridge that gets quiet, down to just vocals and a muted guitar, then builds to a huge finish. And “Like Nails On A Cross” adds organ for a nice soulful feel, and has depressing lyrics that I can relate to (“I’m only happy when I’m sad / I’m always happy to be sad”). This album can be exhausting to listen to, in a good way. I can even see this album, with the right push, getting it in front of the right people, having broader crossover appeal with the “alternative” crowd, so maybe expect bigger things from these guys.

BULLNETTLE (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Annie Saunders, formerly of This Is My Fist! and Manipulation, has relocated to Urbana, Illinois and formed a new band, where she’s writing, singing, and playing guitar. The music here isn’t quite punk, but isn’t quite indie rock, either. It’s the sort of music that permeated college radio stations about fifteen years ago, with great jangly melodies, punk noisiness, and lo-fi sounds. On my many listens through the album, the track that most stood out, each time, was “Inside Fight.” I can’t exactly put my finger on why; it’s a simple song, really. But it probably has to do with the awesome melody, and the passion that comes through in the recording. “Burn” is probably one of the more punkish tracks on the album, with a tougher sound than other tracks, while “Tread Lightly Friend” doesn’t tread lightly, at all. It’s got an intensely heavy feel, sometimes almost grunge-like, on the extended intro, before it breaks into something a little more punkish, with sections that have cool Mission of Burma-esque chord progressions. I honestly can’t say there’s a single song on the album I don’t like.

DFMK – 7 Canciones Sobre Un Indivdualismo Radical (La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

The title translates to “7 Songs About Radical Individualism.” Why in Spanish? Because DFMK is from Tijuana, Mexico. They’re possibly the hottest band coming from south of our border right now. The seven songs on this piece of 7” vinyl are short and to the point. Rock’n’roll, baby, rock’n’roll! Fast, loud, and intense, these songs don’t even give you a chance to breathe. Front man Jorge Zepeda Martin is a natural, belting out the lyrics with authority, Alexis Diaz’s lone guitar has a huge sound, Marco Martinez punches you in the gut with his powerful bass attack, and Alex Martinez Cota drives the whole thing forward from behind the drum kit. “(Pre)Tension” opens things up with a tension-filled intro that bursts into some classic old-style hardcore punk rock, with speed and power galore. The record doesn’t let up for a second, with most tracks clocking in at under two minutes, some reaching one minute. Only “Sin Control” (“Out Of Control,” for you gringos) is longer, falling eleven seconds short of the three-minute mark. There’s tons of energy here, and raw rock’n’roll spirit. Highly recommended.

DIVERS – Achin’ On b/w Can’t Do That (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Portland, Oregon’s Divers play a brand of rock’n’roll that’s equally influenced by punk rock as it is by The Boss. Coming hot on the heels of last year’s “Hello Hello” LP, this single features two tracks, “Achin’ On,” a track that lopes and jumps, and “Can’t Do That,” a cover from Portland’s Dead Moon. The latter is completely unexpected and amazing. It’s beautifully quiet and understated, until the very end, when it explodes into an epic conclusion of the song. I really like that one.

EAST OF VENUS – Memory Box (Omnivore Recordings, www.omnivorerecordings.com)

East of Venus is a Hoboken super group of sorts, featuring members of various influential indie bands, including Michael Carlucci (Winter Hours), Glenn Mercer (The Feelies, Wake Ooloo), Stan Demeski (The Feelies, Luna), and Rob Norris (The Bongos), though Carlucci, quite sadly and quite suddenly, passed away late last year. This debut album has been dedicated to his memory. The music on this album blends indie rock and Americana sounds, with tons of jangle and plenty of country-tinged twangs. Seven of the ten tracks are original material, with the remaining three being covers, including “Jane September” (Red Buckets), “Reason To Believe (Tim Hardin), and “Citadel” (The Rolling Stones). While this is not the sort of music I usually go out of my way to listen to, I’m glad that our fearless editor passed this over to me, rather than reviewing it himself. The songs have an easy quality to them. There’s the feeling that you’re listening to the soundtrack to life, more than to just an album. I am particularly in love with the aforementioned “Jane September,” which I think is superior to the original recording. There’s more jangle than you can shake a stick at, and Carlucci’s vocals are very Lou Reed like. The opener is “Let’s Find A Way,” and when I first listened to this, I was taken aback by the heavy country rock feel to the guitars, but after multiple listens, it’s wormed its way into my heart. The melody is so catchy, and the vocals are so honest. “Who’s To Know” has a sort of Beatles vibe to it in sections, to me, at least, and is another favorite. The recording of “Citadel” here is grittier than the original Stones cut, but still with a psychedelic tinge to it. The title of the album comes from a lyric in the song, “Wishing Well.” “The memory box it’s full of pain / Ten years later we remain the same. / When I hear your name, begin to fall / ‘Cause there’s no one else I’d rather call. / I try to find you just to tell / I left it all just to say farewell.” Sometimes songs take on new meaning than the one intended when written.

THE MAXIES – Nuuk ‘Em All (Rock Ridge Music, www.rockridgemusic.com)

The self-proclaimed “best band in the world” has been working hard lately, touring more than ever, and the hard work has paid off with a signing to Rock Ridge Music, home to frequent tour mates, Reel Big Fish. It’s been over two years since the band’s last release, a split EP with Japan’s Kingons, and a full seven years since their debut full-length LP, “Greenland Is Melting.” So, they were overdue. Probably busy clubbing baby seals. As they sing on “Baby I Love You” (a rerecording of the version from their 2013 split EP with The Paul Collins Beat), they want to write songs that have the best goddamn melodies and hooks. And they succeed, admirably. The songs are catchy, bouncy, and tons of fun. Blending pop punk and power pop melodies, strong lead vocals, harmonizing backing vocals, and some of the funniest, most politically incorrect lyrics around, they make their Greenland home proud. Given the length of time between releases, some of the songs here are already old favorites of their live sets, like “Happy Birthday” and the aforementioned “Baby I Love You.” But there’s a ton of new songs here! In addition to pop punk and power pop sounds, The Maxies have incorporated elements of doo wop, such as on “The Girl With The Horn Rimmed Glasses” and “Seal The Deal,” ska, like on “Weekend in Greenland,” and reggae on the opening of “I’m Punk.” Yes, the Maxies have shtick. No, the songs aren’t profound. But, dammit, Maximum Maxie can write some great melodies. He wrote most of the songs on this new record, including standouts like power pop gem “Anne Marie” and “My Girl Is A Lesbian” (which is also a very clever music video, produced by Chris Graue). But, lest you think the other Maxies are only good for winter activities, like polar bear riding, that’s not the case. Problem drinker, All The Way Jay Maxie (fuck you, Jay!) co-wrote “Seal The Deal,” one of my favorites, while Mad Maxie and Chrissy Pissy Maxie were major contributors on “Weekend in Greenland.” They’ve got a cover here, too, in “Bye Bye Baby,” the Ramones classic. Guest vocalist Kelsey Dyer makes an appearance here, and it’s very well done. As I write this, I’ve probably listened to this album about twenty times, and it just gets better each time. The production is top notch, and the Maxies have never sounded better. Recommended.

MEAN JEANS – Tight New Dimension (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Yes! A brand spankin’ new Mean Jeans full-length album is here! Mean Jeans, if you’ve just crawled out from some deep, dark hole, are tight Ramones-core with a distinct humor. They’re fast’n’loud pop punk, and they’re a hell of a fun band. It’s been nearly four years since their last proper album, “On Mars,” was released. Last year Dirtnap Records put out a compilation of their 7” and comp appearances, but now they’ve signed to Fat and are back with a slew of original songs. “Long Dumb Road” is the sort of track that made them “famous” in the pop punk world, a pretty rip-roaring track, straight out of the Ramones playbook, but with the addition of simple guitar solos and, wait, what? Keyboards? Yep there’s some synth on this album, but before you panic, I’ll let you know that it’s very tastefully done. Just like on “Croozin’,” another Ramones-like track, plenty full of rough and ready pop punk, but with short bursts of guitar and synth solos. The tightest track on the album has to be the hilarious “Michael Jackson Was Tight,” a track that perfectly encapsulates the Mean Jeans’ aesthetic: fast, tight, funny pop punk with heavy guitars and simple, effective hooks. “2 Far Out For Me” is a punk rock doo-wop track that’s, of course, a lot of fun. I could go on and on, mentioning all the great tracks, but then I would be listing pretty much the entire album. “4 Coors Meal,” “Allergic to Success,” they’re a strong bunch. As a matter of fact, there’s only one song on the record that isn’t up to the standards of the others, in my opinion. “Are There Beers in Heaven?” is a mid-tempo track, with a cheesy synth opening. This album closer just seems to lack the energy of the rest. But the rest more than make up for it – this is a really strong release.

PINNED IN PLACE – Ghostwritten By (Razorcake, www.raorcake.org)

Once upon a time, there was a band called Summer Vacation. They were a SoCal staple, playing indie music that bordered on pop punk and had hints of emo. It was beautiful. Then the band had some kind of falling out, and one of the members left. The remaining members changed their name to Winter Vacation, and continued to play. The first time I saw this “new” band was at a show at VLHS, an awesome SoCal DIY venue. And, they were OK, but something seemed to be missing from the songs. I couldn’t quite put my thumb on what it was, though. Time passed, and another new band played a show at VLHS, called Pinned In Place. It included Sean Arenas, who had been the member of Summer Vacation that left the band. As soon as I heard the songs they played, it hit me: it was Sean that had been missing from Winter Break! Pinned In Place has that key ingredient that made Summer Vacation so special, at least to my ears and tastes. The eleven songs here have that same quality that so endeared Summer Vacation to so many. The opener, “Built to Chill,” and the song “Deadlifts” were previously released as live recordings at a local LA radio station, but the other are all new. The songs have a really easy quality to them, yet with an underlying intensity that comes from the wall of guitar sound. There’s a plentiful dose of math-rock, here too, which is something I’ve always enjoyed. And I really love the contrasting loud/fuzzy and quiet/clean/jangly sections to many of the songs. This is a great debut, and I’m looking forward to more!

SHONEN KNIFE – Adventure (Good Charamel Records, www.goodcharamel.com)

Shonen Knife has been around a long time, thirty-five years, to be exact. I’ve never been a big fan, and it’s been many years since I’ve heard any music from this trio of Japanese women, so this review can be considered pretty close to being from a fresh perspective. Shonen Knife mostly plays music that blends pop and bubblegum with a little bit of punk. I say “mostly” because they also play grunge inspired music, too, and fairly straightforward rock’n’roll, but it’s all watered down. The songs kind of drag, too. I would have thought there would be more up-tempo songs and more energy, but I guess the band has been operating for thirty-five years, so maybe they’re just slowing down. The quality of the musicianship isn’t all that great, either, sometimes bordering on amateurish sounding. Like on “Rock’n’roll T-shirt,” the second song of the album, that sounds like it could have been played at the local high school battle of the bands. It sounds more like a part-time metal cover band than a group of professionals that have been at it for decades. “Hawaii” is a sad Beach Boys rip-off track that, even with the three part harmonies in the backing vocals, comes across as more than a bit forced and awkward. “IMI” seems to be trying to channel Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” but it’s also watered down, though it’s probably the most energetic song on the album. Honestly, this was a major disappointment.

BRUISER QUEEN / THE GIRLS – Split 7” (www.bruiserqueen.com, www.thegirlsbang.com)

Bruiser Queen are a garage rock duo from St. Louis, Missouri, while The Girls! are a six-piece power pop outfit from Columbus, Ohio. Each band contributes two songs to this split. The Bruiser Queen tracks are deeply retro garage rock’n’roll. “Rise And Fall” sounds like it could have come right out of the 60s, with its raw guitar and drums and vocals. The minimalist guitar solo even has a 60s psych edge to it. “Black Coats, White Fear (Lost Sounds)” has a garage sound, too, but is much heavier, like the hard rock of the early 70s, but blended with a bit of more modern punk sensibility. Flip the record over, and power pop reigns supreme. Front woman Jessica Wabbit has an angelic voice, perfect for this style of music. “Meet Me By The Pool” opens the side, with a mid-tempo track, Ryan Vile’s keyboards prominently in the mix, set to an organ-like sound, providing a melancholy feel to this song. “All For You” is a bit quicker in tempo and more raucous in feel. Wabbit’s vocals are still gorgeous, but she adds quite an edge to this song of the sacrifices we make for love. The pair of bands couldn’t be more different, but both have much to offer. I’m particularly in love with The Girls! and their modern take on the classic power pop sound.

THE LOBLAWS/VISTA BLUE – Split LP (Radiant Radish, radiantradish.bandcamp.com)

Some time ago, the late RTTB records wanted to put out some tracks from New Orleans, Louisiana band The Loblaws. The band was short-lived, existing around 2008-9, and releasing only a scant few songs on Mutant Pop Records, so the chance to get the songs rereleased on CD was appealing. Sadly, RTTB went under before the CD could come out. In the mean time, Mike Patton, the driving force behind The Loblaws, moved from NOLA to Nashville and formed a new band, Vista Blue. So the idea to release a split, with tracks from the old and new bands was a natural. Radiant Radish is his own imprint, with which he released some records in NOLA about ten years ago, so it was revived for the occasion. First, these Loblaws tracks are amazing. They were recorded in the studio by Wyatt Funderburk, and sound great. This is mid-tempo pop punk with sweet sweet harmonies. It’s Ramones-core, slowed down, with gorgeous vocal harmonies. It’s super melodic, bouncy, and fun! They remind me somewhat of the sort of music Masked Intruder are doing, particularly on the song, “It’ll Take A Lot.” They do a fantastic cover of “9:15,” the old Beatnik Termites track. Vista Blue has a very similar sound, but crunchier and noisier, perhaps because these were self-produced in a home studio. The songs are still very melodic, with those perfect harmonies. Vista Blue also adds a buzzy synth into the mix here and there. I think “When She Cries” may be my favorite track of this side, with a Beach Boys sort of melody on top of the buzzy noisy guitars. “Jamie Lee” is another great one, with a bouncier feel, but always with those awesome harmonies. Seven tracks from each band are here, and, you know what? It’s not enough! I am crying that there won’t be any more Loblaws tracks, but I can only hope that there will be more Vista Blue releases. This was an awesome surprise.

 


 

ADULT BOOKS – Running From The Blows (Lolipop Records, www.lolipoprecords.com, Burger Records, www.burgerrecords.org)

Orange County’s Adult Books releases its debut LP (their previous release was a cassette), and already they’re having an identity crisis. While there is a common thread of sound through all the songs, it’s simply that of being deeply rooted in the past. There’s a definite early 80s theme going on here. But beyond that, there are significantly different sounds vying for attention, to the extent that it sounds more like a split album than a single band’s release. The album opens with “Casual Wrecks,” a cool garage punk track with perfect deadpan vocals. This track sounds like it’s an homage to Joy Division, with a dark melody, deadpan vocals, and deep single note guitar solo. “I Don’t Think I Can Stay” is a harder track, a bit more punked, but still very laid back, in the sort of way the Ramones might have been as a California beach band. But tracks like “Firewalking” are more reminiscent of 80s synth pop, and not in a good way. It’s got a pop sound, but it’s very sparse, and the vocals are too abruptly sung. “Lobby Talks” is possibly the best song of the album, with some cool noisiness and stabbing guitar sounds in the intro, before it turns into a great, fuzzed out garage track, with thick, gorgeous layers of noise. “Silverlake Goths” may be the worst, sounding a bit sloppy and out of tune. I wish Adult Books would figure out who they are, and I hope it’s a band that plays those edgier tracks. Because that’s the one I want to hear more from.

BENT SHAPES – Wolves of Want (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecords.com)

You know how you can sometimes predict if you’re going to like a record based on the label it was released on? This is the case here. I’ve been a fan of Slumberland Records since the very beginning, inherently trusting label chief Mike Schulman’s taste. This is no mere accident. When he started the label back in DC in the 90s, I was already a fan of the bands he was putting out. He cultivated a particular indie-pop sound, and I was never disappointed in a record he released. Bent Shapes is a continuation of that tradition. This record has a great jangly pop sound, clear, ringing vocals, and a light yet driving beat. “86’d In ‘03” is a fun bouncy track, with trippy bent notes and bubbly harmonies, and is a real standout. I enjoy the jangled up power pop of “Realization Hits,” with its male-female vocal interplay, and the piano riff that ends the track is a hoot. “Xerox Voids” is a little different from the rest, with a noisier, more distorted mix, a more manic approach, and a more glimmery feel, thanks to the heavy reverb use. It’s a track that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the songs, but it’s one I really like. Actually, I like virtually all of the tracks on the album. There’s one that doesn’t quite work for me, though: “USA vs POR,” which has a sort of soul-doo-wop-light feel, and the spoken part with the backing singers part kind of turned me off. The last track, on the other hand, is gorgeous. “Intransitive Verbs” is quiet, opening with just guitar and crooned vocals, then joined by bowed bass and plunked piano. It’s really pretty. As is the album, as a whole.

THE DUDIKOFFS – Sweet Nothings EP (thedudikoffs.bandcamp.com)

It’s too bad that this Inland Empire pop punk trio doesn’t play out very often and that they never tour. More people need to hear them. They play classic modern pop punk that’s fast, funny, melodic, and crunchy. There are six rapid-fire blasts here, with only one track breaking the two minute barrier. That track is “Burrito Party,” a song that’s either about meeting the love of your life at a party or about the formation of the band; I’m not sure which. But, in either case, singing about burritos and extra hot sauce on the side is pretty perfect for the SoCal scene. The title track is the shortest, at a mere thirty-five seconds long, but it’s a perfect opener, setting the tone for the EP. “Tonight” is a great showcase for Alex Steele’s strong singing ability, while “The Worst” features his ability to sing very rapidly – it’s a fast’n’loud one! And “Danny’s Shirt” is pretty much classic SoCal hardcore punk music like you might have heard back in the 80s, and could be my favorite of the EP. Seriously, these guys need to get out more, but you can hear how good they are by picking up this EP.

FREE KITTENS & BREAD – American Miserablist (www.facebook.com/kittensandbread)

A band that’s been sort of knocking around since high school, Free Kittens & Bread took their name from a sign, and, yes, people were giving away kittens and bread, an interesting combination. This Austin, Texas band first came to my attention last summer, when they ended up on a bill with my friends The Plurals and San Diego locals A-Bortz. More indie than pop punk or punk, FK&B made an impression, and I picked up and enjoyed their EP, “Puppet.” Now, they’ve released a full-length album, and I couldn’t be happier. There’s a range of styles here, from energetic guitar-fueled tracks to Americana-laced songs to nerd-pop. Vocalist Chase Spruiell has a voice that reminds me somewhat of John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. He’s got that laid back, slightly nasally, slightly nerdy quality to his vocals, though he can get into those more intense, soaring vocal stylings, too, when the song calls for it. The arrangements are thoughtful, with judicious use of backing vocals and even horns, to add the right flavor to the song. Such is the case with “Winners & Losers,” a track that has easy, quiet sections featuring Spruiell’s deadpan vocals, guitar, and trumpet, interspersed with louder, fuller sections that rise to some pretty big heights. “How To Be Alone” has a sort of doo-wop feel mixed with its indie-pop, and it builds in intensity, with some great backing vocals adding to the emotional intensity. “Pity” is a great rocker, the closest this comes to punk, with aggressive guitars, more intense vocals, and a dose of whoa-ohs. And the song that was the album preview release near the beginning of the year, “Brainless,” is just awesome. It starts out simply enough, with a guitar riff, then vocals coming in. More guitars join in with high hat, then bass drum. The song builds with backing vocals added with reverb, until we reach the halfway mark, and there’s an explosion of sound that goes right to the center of your soul, with tons of reverb, keyboards, and intense vocals. I have to mention the song writing here. It’s really really good. The lyrical content, the melodies, the arrangement – it’s all top notch. If there’s any justice in the world, this album is going to get FK&B a lot of well-deserved attention.

FUCKO – Dealing With The Weird (Black Numbers)

Who remembers the glory days of 90s indie-pop? I know I do. Remember those Shredder compilations of little unknown bands from around the country that were making the best indie-pop and punky-pop music of the day? I miss those days, because I loved that stuff. Well, now I don’t have to miss it anymore, because Boston has a great trio called Fucko, and they’re playing that sort of music today! Solid female lead vocals with occasional harmonies, easy tempos, fuzzed out guitars and bass – it has a pop punk edge without being too punk, and it’s indie-pop without getting too sappy. It’s got just the right balance. Those vocals come courtesy of Sarah Desmarais, and I love her voice. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out who she reminds me of, and I think I’ve got it. There was a band from the early 2000s called “The Eames Era,” and Desmarais’ vocals sound pretty much like Ashlin Phillips from that band, and they were a band I loved, so this is a high compliment. The strongest segment of this fine album has to be the trio of songs that start at the seventh track. “August” is a fun, bouncy track, while “Sewn Seeds may be my favorite track of the album. Its melody is so pretty, the vocals so passionate, and the guitars have just the right fuzz and jangle. “Shitty City” is a slower number that really showcases Desmarais’ powerful voice, and “Whatever Floats Your Boat (Sinks My Heart)” is a great doo-wop-ish track that reminds me a bit of when French Exit did something similar a few years ago. If you’re an indie-pop fan (and you must be, since you’re reading Jersey Beat!) I pretty much guarantee you’re going to fall in love with Fucko.

JAPANESE BREAKFAST – Psychopomp (www.michellezauner.bandcamp.com)

This is the debut full-length for Michelle Zauner’s side-project (she fronts Little Big League), though she’s released cassettes of material under the name before this. It’s an album full of gorgeous, synth-driven indie-pop, soaring and sad, sparking and sorrowful. The album opens with a classical piano flourish, that’s then joined by sparking bells and upbeat guitar and synth. Zauner’s vocals join in stark contrast, with lyrics of loss and mourning. The song is “In Heaven,” and its ethereal feel is spot on, and the transition to “The Woman That Loves You” is seamless, through the intro. After the vocals come in, though, this proves to be the weakest track of the album, in my opinion, with more of a disco feel than the other tracks. The absolute highlight has to be the pair of tracks in the middle, the title track and “Jane Cum.” “Psychopomp” is a short, pensive instrumental track that ends with a recording of Zauner’s mother, presumably (who is the subject of the first track), saying “don’t cry, honey, I love you.” And “Jane Cum” displays its solid Japanese roots in its melody, a track that simply soars. This one sends chills through me. “Moon On The Bath” is another short, meditative instrumental that flows into the closer, “Triple 7.” It’s another quieter, more emotional track, with vocals that end in a whisper. Beautiful.

MEAN JEANS – Nite Vision EP (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Fat recently announced the signing of pop punk favorites, Mean Jeans, to the label, with a new LP forthcoming. To tide us over until the LP comes out, Fat has offered up a three-song EP, anchored by the mid-tempo title track. It’s not the usual fare for Mean Jeans, slowing things down from their usual frenetic pace and having a touch of retro garage feeling to it. To my tastes, the other two tracks are the better ones, with a more typical Mean Jeans sound. “Now I Wanna Be Yr Dogg” is not a cover of the Stooges classic. It’s classic Ramones-core pop punk with plenty of bounce and great hooks. “69 Tears” is a bit dialed back from that one, with a smoother melody and, maybe, even s touch more creativity. It’s a great teaser for even greater things to come when the LP arrives.

MIND SPIDERS – Prosthesis (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

What happens when you take the high energy garage punk that comes out of Denton, Texas and combine it with 80s synth post-punk and Krautrock, with bits of The Fall, Wire and Devo tossed in? Well, you get Mind Spiders, the project Mark Ryan started when Marked Men went on hiatus. Through the years, Ryan has recorded and performed with a rotating cast of Texas luminaries. On this, Mind Spiders’ fourth album, pounding drums, repetitive melodic bits, guitars as percussion instruments, distorted vocals, dark buzzy synths, and angularity aplenty are the main features of the eight-song blast. “Rip It Out” starts things out, with a steady thump of the bass drum, then synths striking an ominous tone, with the guitars and bass right behind. The distorted, angry vocals come next, shouting over repetitive musical lines, perfectly setting the tone for the seven songs that follow. “No Filter” has an intensity that pierces me right through me, with syncopated rhythms and piercing bent guitar stabs. And my other favorites are the ones that have a sparser sound, like the title track. Its lo-fi dissonance, dark modality, and the very unorthodox intervals are so unbalanced – but the musical tension that results is incredible. “Split In Two” comes right after, and has an awesome retro feel, bringing me right back to some of the most creative music that was being made in the 80s. “Nothing Without It” has a synth line that sounds right out of an early Devo recording, and the vocals are channeling a youthful, more energetic Mark E. Smith. I also enjoy the fuller, richer sound on “Running,” the longest track of the album. The deeper vocals have hints of Swans vocalist Michael Gira in them. “Ulcer” closes things out with a great, throbbing track, synths, guitars, bass, and drums all pulsating in lock step. Recommended.

PEARS – Green Star (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Opening with the innocence of a child’s Christmas, playing with a new toy that shows objects and names them, including blue triangle, red square, and the titled “green star,” this sophomore release from NOLA’s hardest band charges forth with more deliberate pop punk and hardcore music than before. Where 2014’s debut, “Go To Prison,” was “thrown together,” according to vocalist Zach Quinn, “this, we slaved over it.” The time and attention certainly shows. The songs rage as hard as ever, but they show more cohesiveness than the debut. Where the songs for that first album were constructed by piecing together fragments, riffs that they thought were cool, these songs were created as, well, whole songs. They definitely sound like they’re more complete ideas, and there are some really cool melodies on some of the tracks that are pretty out of the ordinary for a hardcore band, That cute intro track? Baby Zach gets all excited about the green star, as his mother tries to remind him whose birthday it is. There are some really cool touches on this album, such as the sudden shift to acoustic guitars toward the end of “Hinged by Spine,” the siren effect on “Cumshots,” the guitar processed to sound like harmonica on “Flu,” and the processed backing vocals that sound like kids singing on the re-recording of “Anhedonia,” a track that was released in demo form last year on a 7” from Fat Wreck. Speaking of Anhedonia, when that single came out, it was my favorite track of that month – but this rerecording for the LP is even better! It rages even harder, if that’s even possible, those creepy “kids vocals” effects add a nice touch, and the closing of the song smooths out into something pretty epic. “Flu” is one of my favorite tracks of the album, maybe because it’s somewhat different from the rest of the tracks. It’s also probably the oldest song of the sixteen tracks. It was written by Zach when he was only fifteen years old and performing with a band called FOI. It’s short and to the point, has a much darker feel than a lot of Pears songs, and is a lot more hard rock than hardcore pop punk, and that makes it stand out pretty well on the album. “Partridge” is another favorite, with a much more power pop sort of melody than usual. It’s a way too short track, at under a minute, and has an awesome “Day Tripper” lick tossed in at the end, right before it goes completely bonkers. “The Tile of St. Steward” has a really cool center section, where everything gets quiet, and eerie percussion and whispered vocals appear, and the final breakdown at the end of the track has an awesome melody. “Doorbell” also features a melodic line that you wouldn’t expect out of a hardcore or pop punk song, but it works really well, and the macabre ending is really creepy and cool. “I Love My Kennel” was the first track to be demoed for the new album, and it seems to be the closest to the feel of “Go To Prison,” in that it seems to be a few distinct ideas pieced together, yet it’s also got one of the coolest breakdowns of the album, right before the ending (which references that album with its lyrics). This album has tons of surprises, and one of the biggest surprises comes from Quinn, in the form of two piano tracks. “Dizzy Is Drunk” and “Jump the Fuckin’ Ship” are both quiet respites from the controlled chaos of the rest of the album, revealing a side to this maniac front man that we hadn’t seen before. “Dizzy Is Drunk,” in particular is a very reflective sounding piece, and I hear blending of classical music with New Orleans jazz in this very short one. “Great Mt. Ida” closes the album with an appropriately epic track that’s also very unexpected from this band. The sound gets so huge at the end, and steel drums in the mix are not out of place at all. “Go To Prison” was a really good album, and made my “Best of 2014” list. But, where that album was more homogenous, this one gives the band an opportunity to stretch themselves a bit, and the result is both surprising and exciting. Highly recommended.

RAY ROCKET – Do You Wanna Go To Tijuana? (rayrocket.merchnow.com)

Well, this is unexpected! Ray Rocket, better known to the world as Ray Carlisle, of Teenage Bottlerocket, is releasing his solo debut LP. It’s an interesting and bold choice, he’s made, playing songs that could well be Teenage Bottlerocket songs, but acoustically. And not just acoustic guitar and vocals – these are richly arranged tracks, with guitar, mandolin, and strings (or string synth?), in some places, bells, harmonized vocals, the whole deal. The album opens with a gorgeously exotic flourish of guitar and mandolin on the title track, before Ray’s fully pop punk vocals come in, singing lyrics that seem to be battling the gorgeous instrumentals. “Do you want to five-oh with Steve Caballero? / Do you want to practice your karate with Mister Miyagi?” aren’t the most profound lyrics, though the song seems to be about someone whose life is a mess, and is being offered advice and an invitation to travel to different places and be different people. “Without You” is, hands down, my favorite track of the album. It’s a song of lost love that’s so sad and so pretty, especially with the female vocals harmonizing on the chorus. There’s a suitably creepy cover of The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” theme, with chimes and strings, sounding like it jumped right out of a movie soundtrack. I enjoy the old timey feel of “Please Feel Free,” with a melody that blends turn of the century piano stylings and 60s Beatles acoustic ballad sounds. Ray’s voice, particularly in the middle part, has just the right amounts of sweetness and angst, like a modern day pop punk John Lennon. “Radical” is another great one, with some cool multi-tracked vocal harmonies, some awesome Latin inspired guitar and percussion, and nice hooks. The closer, “First Time,” is the only non-acoustic track of the album, and is a slow to mid-tempo pop punk tune with a full band. It’s also pretty different from anything I can recall hearing from Teenage Bottlerocket – it’s much more ballad-like, and it’s kind of pretty. This is a pretty enjoyable record.

THE THERMALS – We Disappear (Saddle Creek, www.saddle-creek.com)

I saw the Thermals live once, a few years ago. My reaction was that they had like five good songs – which they played over and over again. It was a dig, you see, that many of their songs sounded pretty much alike, and that angered some of my friends who are fans. I shouldn’t have been so hasty, judging them from one performance. But I can judge them based on this new album. I still stand by that judgment, but these are pretty good songs. A lot of them do sound pretty similar to others, with slight variations, like slowing down the tempo or mixing up choruses or bridges. That doesn’t take away the quality of those songs, though. The songs are rooted deeply in indie rock, with undertones of punk, garage, and psych. The melodies are good, and Hutch Harris’ vocals are strong and confident. I must say, a surprise to me came in the form of a ballad, a track that is pretty much different from the others, and has gorgeous guitars. “Years In A Day” has a deeply sad sound for a sad song of lost love and missing out on life. For the most part, though, the songs have a more joyful sound, which is what The Thermals fans are used to, even when the song topics are more serious or depressing. Like “My Heart Went Cold,” which is a super upbeat song with downbeat lyrics. “Riding The Grape Dragon” is another that’s off the beaten path for the band, featuring less melody and more power and noise, and it’s a pretty good ripper. The majority of the songs on the album, though, do tend to stay within a narrow range of sounds, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It lends itself to predictability. But it can also lend itself to stagnation. Luckily, there are enough things different from the “norm” to prevent that.

DAN PADILLA/PRINCE – Split EP (Dead Broke Rekerds, www.deadbrokerecords.com)

Having this record come in the mail makes me happy and makes me sad. First, the happy part: this split has been years in the making, and I’m excited to finally have it! Two tracks from Dan Padilla grace one side, while the flip is two songs in one track from Prince – the pop punk band from Texas, not the pop singer from Minneapolis that changed his name to a symbol for awhile. Dan Padilla offers up “Florandia” and “Sit Around.” The first is a loping track that brings to mind mid period Husker Du crossed with San Diego’s Fluf, especially with the deep bass carrying some melodic lines. The second is almost a ballad, with a strong Americana feel. The two Prince songs are pretty damn exciting, too. “How Ya Been Feelin’” is an up tempo song with tons of pop punk hooks, power pop melody, and rock’n’roll attitude. “More Of This” leans more solidly to the pop punk side of the equation, and the chorus is simple, yet pulls you right in. All four songs are really, really good. Now the sad part: This is Dan Padilla’s final release. They’re calling it quits, though they’re going out with a bang. Not only did this record finally make it out, but they’re putting on a huge show in San Diego, with friends’ bands coming in from all over the country to participate in the celebration of Dan Padilla (the band, not the man). Dan Padilla had been playing out less and less in the past few years, and in the last year or so, they didn’t play at all, not even at Awesomefest. It’s good that they’re leaving with this record to cap off their legacy.

KARBOMB/SEAGULLS – Tag Team Champions Split LP (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

KarbomB is from Athens, GA, and Seagulls are from Atlanta (it’s not the same Seagulls who released the album “Great Pine” that was recently reviewed). The common thread, besides home state, is that they both play a brand of music that’s infused with metallic hardcore. KarbomB offers up six tracks, blending 90s skate punk in with the hardcore, and it doesn’t convince me. I’ve never understood metallic hardcore – to me it’s just metal. And 90s skate punk can be OK in smaller doses. Putting them together just doesn’t work for me. They cap things off with a metallic hardcore skate punk cover of Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” I didn’t like that song when Aerosmith did it, and the treatment given the song here doesn’t make it any better. I will say that if this is your thing, KarbomB is pretty tight, music-wise. It’s fast, loud, hard, and crunchy, and they’ve got pretty good harmonization going on in the vocals (though the gritty vocals don’t really lend themselves to harmonizing very well). Seagulls contribute five tracks to the album, and these work a little better, focusing more on hardcore blended with sing-along pop punk rather than 90s skate punk. I love good sing along pop punk. Being up front at a show with everyone fist pumping, pushing forward to sing into the mic, it’s pretty fun. Seagulls are a little too metallic for my taste, though. And, while gruff vocals certainly are a staple of the genre, the vocals here are so gritty and gravelly as to be distracting. Musically, it’s not that bad, though if they toned down the guitar solos and flourishes, I might like it better.


 

BLODAD TAND – Control Alt Delete (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

On a day I was discussing questionable Swedish tastes with a co-worker (lutefisk, surströming, salt licorice, and the Chicago liquor, Malort), I received this EP from Swedish band Blodad Tand. Assured by Dirt Cult’s staff that the band was not smelly, nor was their music, I went ahead and put it on. The verdict? Not smelly at all. What this is, in fact, is pissed off, angry hardcore music. At least I think it’s angry. The vocals are sung in Swedish, but it should sounds angry. Of the five tracks here, I think “Köttskalle” is my favorite, with its fuller sound, angular melodic lines, and the powerful vocals. The bending notes of the title track are pretty cool, and the almost jangly guitars of “Livsförnekelse” juxtaposed with the rage of the vocals is an interesting blending. The last two tracks, “Utgift. Börda. Svulst.” and “Sökes: Välvilja,” don’t work quite as well for me, being a bit sparser and simpler sounding, but that’s just me. Who knew the Swedes could do anything besides black metal?

CHAPELL – The Redhead’s Allegations (www.thisischapell.com)

You would think that with the involvement of music luminaries such as producer Jerry Harrison (The Talking Heads) and musicians Prairie Prince (Journey, The Cars, Todd Rundgren) and George Marinelli (Bonnie Raitt’s band) that this would be a pretty rocking album. You would think. To my ears, though, this is pretty middle-of-the-road. There’s no edge here, and the songs sound very safe and inoffensive, like something you would hear on adult contemporary radio or a variety TV show. The production is nice and slick, the vocals are perfect, including “soulful” backing vocals, and the instrumentation includes electric organ and horns aplenty. There’s just no heart to this. It might be a little too good to book as the act in your new lounge you’re opening in the Holiday Inn, but it’s in that vein.

DMA’S – Hills End (www.dmasmusic.com)

Much has been said about DMA’s, the Australian trio, the influence that Oasis has had on them, and Noel Gallagher’s (non) reaction to them. I never listened to Oasis, so I can’t comment on that. But, back in the day, I did listen to other Brit-pop. A couple of bands that I enjoyed were Boyracer and Blueboy, so, I can say fairly conclusively that, yes, DMA’s has a distinct 90s Brit-pop sound. But it also seems to owe a debt to other 90s bands, like REM. The opener, “Timeless,” is a particularly good example of this sound, in melody, vocal quality, and thick, rich instrumentation. I also particularly like the song, “Delete,” for the intensity of the vocals, the insistence with which the song is sung, and the quiet intensity of the backing instrumentals. The songs here are pretty and the arrangements are intricate underneath the fuzz, a nice combination. Also nice is the use of acoustic guitar, blended with the electric instruments, like on “Blown Away,” a lonely sounding track, with reverb underneath in the percussive beats and in the morose vocals. I like this.

DEFECT DEFECT – My Life Is Like Death (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

This 3-song EP is probably the final release from Portland’s pissed-off hardcore band, Defect Defect. After announcing their break-up, they received an offer to tour Japan. So the break-up was postponed, the tour was planned, and this EP was recorded. The songs are raw, yet amazingly catchy. The title track reminds me of something out of the Chicago hardcore heyday of the 80s, like something Naked Raygun might have done in their early existence. “Wrong With Me” reminds me of a blend of Chicago and San Diego styles, but maybe that’s just me – because there’s something wrong with me. And “Glass Crass” is pretty unique. It’s too bad this is a farewell, because it’s pretty good stuff.

THE DIRTY NIL – Higher Power (Dine Alone Records, www.dinealonerecords.com)

I first learned about this trio from Dundas, Ontario, when visiting Toronto a year and a half ago. I was looking for a show to see, and a new friend recommended The Dirty Nil, who were having their record release show for a brand new 7” single on Fat Wreck Chords. While they don’t share anything in common with other bands on that label, they completely blew me away with their high energy, manic presence, and wild, raucous rock’n’roll music. Fast forward a bit more than a year, and there’s the announcement that they’re finally releasing a full-length album on Dine Alone Records, after more than a decade as a band. They teased us with the video for the first track, No Weaknesses, which I declared to be my favorite new song of last November. What I said about that song then applies to pretty much all of their music: “It’s just rowdy, raucous rock’n’roll music, loud and furious, ready to fuckin’ punch you in the jaw then in the gut with a one-two combination that you’ll never see coming. Luke Bentham’s vocals are ready to rip you apart…” The next two tracks are re-recordings of previously released material from their EPs, “Zombie Eyed” and “Wrestle Yü to Hüsker Dü.” Of the new songs, I think my favorites are the ones that are a little more melodic. “Friends In The Sky,” “Violent Hands,” and “Bruto Bloody Bruto” all have a great quality to them, with Bentham’s vocals floating and dive bombing over the rocky terrain of the guitar, bass, and drums, talons extended to shred anything in his path. The short guitar solo at the end of “Friends In The Sky” is pretty awesome, too. “Fugue State” is an interesting outlier for the band, as a short blast of real punk, full of fury. The 45-second song is fast’n’loud, and hits hard with its simple, repetitive lines, just like hardcore punk of the heyday of the 80s. “Lowlives” is a sonic assault, fueled by bass and drums, and should really satisfy the fans of a more metallic-edged sort. I think it’s the best of these “harder” tracks. In fact, all of the tracks here are really good. This gets a strong recommendation!

THE GUESTS – Red Scare ’15 (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

The press material describe The Guests as being “goth punk,” but I find that they’re neither goth nor punk. Instead, what I hear in the first track, “The Doldrums,” is 80s new wave light, sort of like The Police crossed with whatever other British new wave band of the month you want to pick from the era. “Third Coming” is the best track of the quartet on this EP, but that’s not saying much. It’s 80s new wave crossed with math-like indie. At least it’s guitar-driven. “Sick of It All” is pure 80s MTV sounding guitar-based new wave, but the closer, “Pripega,” is the lamest of synth new wave pop, the kind that was too bubblegum even for MTV. Skip it.

MACHO BOYS – Demo (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Lots of bands have done the retro hardcore punk thing. Lots of bands have tried to recapture the sound of the early 80s. Plenty have tried to recreate the youthful energy and passion. Some have come close, but most have failed in that quest, though some have created something different, and just as worthy. Macho Boys, on the other hand, have invented time travel. From the very first note, this is pure, authentic early hardcore music. Lo-fi recording adds to the authenticity, as do Tekiah’s vocals, not sung, but shouted, yet matching the melodic lines of the music – just like hardcore music from back in the day. Even the song titles and lyrics are right out of the past. “Class of 1984,” a song that tells the teacher “we are the future / and nothing can stop us.” “Papa Don’t Preach Part 2” is about women controlling their own bodies, against the wishes of their fathers. “Stop The Hate” is, well, self-explanatory. The six songs on this demo come from an unlikely combination of players. This is Tekiah’s first band, yet she handles herself like a pro. Chris and Sam from the great pop punk band, Low Culture, join her, along with Samantha, from Portland’s Piss Test. At least Samantha makes sense here, since Piss Test has a sort of early hardcore sound. I’m not sure what the intent was behind Macho Boys. Was it as a sort of musical museum piece? Was it just people who decided they really like old school hardcore punk? Whatever the reason, it reminds me why I fell in love with the music and the scene all those years ago, and why I’ve stayed with it all this time. Bravo!

NADA SURF – You Know Who You Are (Barsuk Records, www.barsuk.com)

Nada Surf have been around awhile, more than two decades. They had a flirtation with wider popularity, ironically, when their song “Popular” became a breakout hit on MTV, becoming known by some as a “one-hit wonder.” The last time they released a new studio LP was way back in 2012. So, when news of “You Know Who You Are” was made public, it got some people pretty excited. I guess I can see why. This is pretty indie music, with lush, yet simple arrangements and multi-part harmonies. The music is breezy, smooth, and soothing. But maybe it’s a little too smooth. It lulls the listener into a sense of admiration, because each song sounds, well, pretty. But, is there anything really exciting that grabs one? Well, not really. There are a couple songs that I did enjoy more than others, so they’re sort of standouts. One such track is “New Bird,” because it’s got a nice bouncy melody, and it doesn’t rely on those multi-part harmonies, and it leaves out the electric organ that appears in too many tracks. It’s just a good guitar-driven indie-rock track. And maybe that’s the issue – a track that’s “just a good guitar-driven indie-rock track” shouldn’t be the standout, but it is. Then there are tracks like “Out Of The Dark,” which has, of all things, horns. It sounds like a track the old 70s jazz-pop band Chicago might have put out, with those smooth harmonizing vocals and horn, all blending together in an easy-listening rock vibe. And “Animal” is a little annoying, because it sounds like vocalist Matthew Caws is trying to channel Bob Dylan. The title track is a good rocker that has a little more feeling than other tracks. But most of the tracks are, well, just OK.

NIGHT BEATS – Who Sold My Generation (Heavenly Recordings, www.heavenlyrecordings.com)

As they say, everything old is new again. And such is the case with Night Beats and their third full-length LP, “Who Sold My Generation.” There’s been a strong resurgence, in the last several years, of garage, surf, and psychedelic rock’n’roll sounds. I’ve written before about one of my local San Diego favorites, Octagrape, and their blending of these and others styles, creating something new in the process. Night Beats opt for a more traditionalist approach, with a record that could have been made back in the 60s. Night Beats make music that includes psych jams that have the smooth, psychedelic influence of Can blended with the hard edge of bands like Hawkwind and the experimental sensibilities of Faust. That guitar sound, though, is pure surf, with tons of reverb. This band loves to jam, too, and there are extended jams throughout. The opener, “Celebration #1,” is one such jam, with some spoken word lyrics in a sort of 60s beat poet style. I think my favorite tracks, though, are those that have a 60s R&B/soul sound mixed in, like “Bad Love,” with its easy, loping feel and crooning vocals. “Right/Wrong” also has those cool vocals, but with more of psychedelic lounge feel. “No Cops” is another good one, with a real 60s rock’n’roll sound, complete with bluesy influence. “Sunday Mourning” and “Shangri Lah” have a cool western sound, and I can almost feel the desert heat, sand blowing at my face as I walk through an old mining town, the locals looking at the stranger with wary eyes. Not all of the tracks are winners, though. “Egypt Berry” seems a bit thin and simple to me, with pounding drums, single note bass line, and single note line guitar. Unfortunately, it’s the album closer, so a good album ends on kind of a weak note. But, overall, this is a winner.

PAPER DAYS – Fun For Family And Friends (www.facebook.com/PaperDaysMusic)

I first saw Paper Days when they opened for Reptar in San Diego last spring. I enjoyed their beautiful, glimmery indie-pop enough to click “Like” on their Facebook page, and it just paid off when I received an announcement of their new EP/album. They’re calling it an EP, because it’s only seven songs, but it’s really good enough in length to be called an album. The seven songs here have a dreamy quality, and the California beach life is evident in the breezy melodies. Guitarist/vocalist Niko Sitaris has a clear voice that drips with emotion, and his range is pretty wide. My favorite track, I think, is the opener, “Kind Guidance,” as it showcases all these best qualities of the band really well. “Sweet Destiny” starts out quietly and delicately, with minimal instrumentation, but when we get to the chorus, Xander Sitaris’ deep distorted bass comes in, completely altering the mood into a huge sweeping epic of a track. And the title track, which closes the album, alternates between having a floating quality and a noisy swirliness. This is really good stuff.

PARTY FLAG – you can’t handle the truth (partyflag.bandcamp.com)

Hailing from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Party Flag harkens back to the heyday of punk rock, with nihilistic songs, simple melodies, and plenty of fast’n’loud crunch. The five-song EP starts out with “Bratwurst? Bratbest!” which seems to be a song of empowerment, about others who try to make us feel less worthy. “Fermentation” is a song of pure nihilism – “I don’t care who stands beside me / You’re the one I want to fuck.” “Teenage Summer” reminds me a bit of the sort of stuff Screaming Females were doing a few years back, and is a favorite song here. “Blue Skies, Black” is a rockin’ bluesy track, and “Up Yr Skirt” closes things out on a high note. Party Flag is the perfect soundtrack for your own party.

RADIATION CITY – Synesthetica (Polyvinyl Records, www.polyvinylrecords.com)

This is both modern and retro at the same time. Portland’s Radiation City follows the modern trend toward dream pop, but does so in a way that takes 60s easy listening and lounge music, adds in some bossa nova rhythms, funk, and disco, and arranges the whole thing with plenty of synths to create something that’s simultaneously old and new. The results, to me, are a mixed bag. For instance, I absolutely love “Sugar Broom,” which has a soaring melody over a pretty modern hip hop beat, plus gorgeous dreamy vocals and electronics. “Come and Go” is pretty nice, too, with an interesting blending of a bossa nova beat with 60s soul and doo-wop sounds. “Separate” starts out as a smooth bossa nova track, but morphs into gorgeous synth-driven, quiet shoe gaze. And “Futures” is hard to describe, but I just know I like it. Too many of the tracks, though, sound too much like electro-lounge music, especially with the subdued funk lines in the guitars and bass. Even in those songs, though, there are qualities I like: the dreaminess, the beautiful vocals, and the glorious pop melodies. But those disco-funk qualities irk me.

SHIVER TWINS – 19 Again Deluxe (theshivertwins.bandcamp.com)

This Seattle-based band previously release “19 Again” as a five song EP a year ago, and are now releasing a full album’s worth of material, by adding four new songs (and dropping one). I previously reviewed the EP version, and enjoyed it quite a bit, commenting that this young band was still finding their voice, the wide variation in the songs being evidence. I think this is still true, to an extent, but they’re getting even more solid and powerful in their delivery. “One Inches” is deeply rooted in the style of their adopted home in the Pacific Northwest, a full-on grunge track worthy of the scene there, all sludgy and dirty. “Little Trigger” is also full of grunge and grit, but with more of a rockin’ garage sound. “Scraps” was released last fall as a single, and it’s quite a bit different from the first two tracks. It’s a gorgeous lo-fi track with all sorts of glimmer in the mix, and is kind of like an up-tempo shoe-gaze track. And the last of the new tracks, “Drained,” is a great indie-rock track, full of great hooks and a downer subject matter. If these guys would get out and tour, I have a feeling they would find a pretty good following, because they definitely have something going on here.

SLOW BUILDINGS – Weapons Against Me EP (www.facebook.com/SlowBuildings)

I like power-pop. I really do. And that’s what this is trying to be. But power-pop, like any genre of rock music, needs some energy and enthusiasm to make it work. And I just don’t get that feeling from this EP. Especially on the song, “Dirt on a Dog,” which just sounds so blah. And the sparseness of the opening of the last song, “I Just Can’t Trust You,” with just acoustic guitar and vocals, makes it plain that Slow Buildings’ vocalist needs some more practice. The song writing is actually not bad; the title track, in more competent hands, would be a pretty good rocker. And I can almost hear a band like L.A. Drugz killing it with “Invisible Kid.” Too bad Slow Buildings doesn’t.

SUCH STRANGE ARTS – Waking The Neighbours (Standby Records, www.facebook.com/standbyrecords)

Do you miss the days when the major labels were releasing slickly produced pop bands and marketed them to impressionable youth as “pop punk?” Me either. But for those who do, UK band Such Strange Arts are there for you. Five songs of slick, sweet pop, complete with harmonized vocals and overproduction fill this EP. If you’re stuck in the year 2000, and you’re fourteen years old, you might enjoy this.

 

TURKISH TECHNO – Number Two (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Yes, the title means that this is their second album. And yes, in true Turkish Techno tradition, it also refers to a bodily waste product. Also in true Turkish Techno tradition, the songs took five years to record and they sat around waiting for another three and a half years waiting for graphics and the like. That doesn’t even include the 5 months it took for the band to listen to the test pressing to approve it. Actually, that’s all false, but taking their time has its benefits, in that this album is truly glorious, in many ways. It’s musically brilliant, of course, full of great pop punk tracks that are begging to be sung along to. But it’s also emblematic of the band’s attitude, of don’t-give-a-fuck fun, doing things on their own terms in their own way. In a way, that’s what many these songs are about – not giving a fuck about consequences, and dealing with life’s wreckage later. These songs are also some of the bounciest the band has ever produced, with fast melodies loaded with hooks and songs just screaming to be sung along to with a packed sweaty crowd in a packed sweaty bar. Bassist Casey Guldberg’s writing influence can be strongly heard on song such as “Boats” and “Finbarr,” with a strong indie streak down the middle of the popped up punk riffs. There’s tons of great sing-along punk songs, like the opener, “Sprinkles,” and a great (and I mean great) cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” which has an intro that provides a deep insight into the digestive system of guitarist Andy Crisis. It’s great finally having songs we’ve come to be familiar with from their live shows on a record, like “DUI” and “Days,” but I think my favorite track has to be “I’m Not Sorry,” a pretty insightful song of a bad breakup. It’s too bad that this band rarely tours, and when they do, it’s pretty limited, because more people need to see them. They’re a true SoCal gem. But now you can get some of their magic on your turntable, and I really think you should.

WESTERN SETTINGS – Old Pain (Creator-Destructor Records, www.creator-destructor.com)

Local favorites and winner of a place on my Best of 2015 list (for their LP, “Yes It Is”), Western Settings, are back with a brand new EP. This time out, they secured the services of Chicken (Dead To Me) to produce, and the results are astounding. Western Settings has always been a good band, and “Yes It Is” was phenomenally good, but this EP is next level stuff. The music is lush and beautiful, Ricky Schmidt’s gravelly vocals have just the right amount of angst, and the guitar solos have such a lonely, sad sound. I honestly want the last thirty seconds of “Champion Schizo” to last forever. The whole song is just great, with an opening that sounds like something from the lonesome desert. But that last thirty seconds sends chills through me. The band also continues their tradition started on “Yes It Is” of including short instrumentals, often used in their live shows to allow band members time to tune their instruments between songs. On the EP, “Swells” is that track, so appropriate on this EP, as it’s the loneliest of lonely sounds, with the howl of the wind and other noise in the background, indistinct voices beneath that, and the saddest guitar weeping an arpeggio, while a synthesizer plays a simple melody. “The Phenomenon” is a hard driving song with a strong rhythm, and the title track builds in intensity throughout to a huge finish. And the other tracks, “Wonderful Multiple Episodes,” “Old Pain,” and “Duncan” are equally good. I honestly didn’t know how they could top “Yes It Is,” but they definitely have. This gets my strongest recommendation, and I predict big things for this band to come.


ANTLERED AUNT LORD – Ostensibly Formerly Stunted (and on fire) (HHBTM Records, www.hhbtm.com)

This has me excited! Why? Back in the late 70s and into the 80s, there was some incredible music being made. There was a veritable explosion of diversity and experimentalism in musical styles in the wake of the disillusionment with arena rock and disco. Punk and hardcore won the day, in the underground, before evolving into somewhat more conventional grunge, pop punk, and indie-pop, but there was that brief, wonderful period where you could buy all sorts of records from bands playing weird, quirky sorts of stuff. And now you can again. Antlered Aunt Lord, the name used for Tunabunny drummer Jesse Stinnard’s solo work, has released an album so different from anything else coming out these days. Reportedly, the nineteen tracks here come from a vast library of recordings Stinnard has stashed away, and it seems that these represent his musical sketchbook, if you will. Some of the tracks are nearly fully realized, if a bit lo-fi in the recording department, while others seem to be ideas that are merely outlines with a promise of what might come if ever filled in. What comes through very clearly, though, is Stinnard’s exuberance; he is very obviously passionate and joyful about his music, and it shows in the recordings. The album opens with “Events of the Future,” itself opening with some noise and guitar doodling and tuning, before bursting into a keyboard driven garage-rock track, with undertones of doo-wop and hints of Spanish bullfights. The birds are singing along on this one, literally. You can hear them quite loudly in the mix. “Abandoned Car” has an awesome minimalist melodic line, super lo-fi recording, and nerdy vocals that you can barely make out. “Monopilot” is an out-and-out psych-folk-rock track that sounds like something out of the late 60s, while “The Beezwax” is a cool, simple nerd-pop track. “Epa” is humorous, with its loping rhythm and non-stop “boom-chick-a-boom” repeating over an over underneath the lead vocals. “Yr Right” is noisy, manic track that sounds like it could be an early pop punk track, heavy on the punk, but super distorted. “Sigil To Noise” may be my favorite track on the album, with angularities that belie the melodic nature, and a throbbing undercurrent that keeps propelling the track forward. The trick is the substantial silence that makes you think the track has ended, but then it bursts back for a powerful conclusion. “Hi Beam Hi Priest (Blinker Fluid) is just plain awesome in its new wave lo-fi pop-ness, with loud/quiet sections and tons of synth. The closer, “Save The Very Best,” is aptly named – because you save the very best for last, natch. It’s a drunken Cajun Irish reel of some kind from an alternate universe that lurches and staggers through to its uncertain conclusion. A few of these tracks have also been made into music videos, which are available on youtube and are just as creative as the music. Recommended!

BUNNYGRUNT – Vol 4 (HHBTM Records, www.hhbtm.com)

OK, folks, if you’re going to put out vinyl records, there’s a critical piece of information you need to include on the label: the speed at which to play the record. This is especially true if the speed is not the “standard” for the size of the record. This 12” album is to be played at 45RPM, not 33. That said, once I found the right speed, I found some pretty damn good lo-fi music that varies from indie-pop to punk to art-pop. Each side has four tracks, and the musical quality improves as the record progresses. The opener is a short, throwaway track that’s pretty much all instrumental, while “Just Like Old Times” is a pretty indie-pop track, as is “Open My Eyes,” though the latter is a little harder around the edges. “Chunt Bump” is the long epic track of the album, and it’s got a cool prog-rock feel to it, especially toward the end, when the strings come in, and it gets a retro 70s feel. The B-side opens with “The Book That I Wrote,” which also has a bit of a retro 70s psych rock feel, while “I Quit, Mr. White” is a nice Replacements-like track. “Frankie Is A Killer” is a full-on proto-punk track that could have come right out of the mid-70s, and the closer, “Still Chooglin’ (After),” is also proto-punk. I like the raw honest feel of these tracks – there’s no pretense here. I just wish the recording quality had been a little better, because these are good songs.

IDIOT GLEE (Hop Hop Records, hophop.bandcamp.com)

Usually, a self-titled album indicates a debut, but Lexington, Kentucky’s Idiot Glee already have four previous albums under their belt. Idiot Glee is the brainchild of James Friley, though when he plays live, it’s with a full band. The music is piano-driven pop music, of a light nature. The most interesting aspects, I think, are some of the minimalist ideas that creep into the music, with repeating lines, plus some of the odder, creepier parts, like on the opener, “Deep Warm Something.” It opens with mysterious, buzzy, swirling electronics, before the melody literally fades in, and then turns into a bluesy instrumental number, though with tons of echo and reverb. “Baby (I Could Be Your Bone)” brings in vocals, with electronics and 70s funky disco guitar, while “What’s That Smell” has more of an avant new wave sound, sort of like 80s Bill Nelson, except with piano. Keyboards dominate this album, be they electronic or acoustic, sometimes both together. Some of the tracks work well, while others come off a little on the cheesy side. “Evergreen Psycho” is one of the latter, sounding more like something you would hear in the background in the dentist office waiting room than on an indie record. On the other hand, “Personal Computer Television” is pretty cool, with a pulsing bongo beat and sparse instrumentals, focusing on piano and vocals. And “The River” is a gorgeous closer, sounding lush, even though the instrumentation isn’t that thick. I think that’s the story here: a mixed bag, with some cool stuff and some cheesy stuff.

JAY ALLEN AND THE ARCH CRIMINALS – Chopped Liver b/w Over And Over (Rum Bar Records, rumbarrecords.bandcamp.com)

Raw lo-fi punk rock is alive and well and living in the Boston area. The music is anthemic sing-along stuff, with the A-side likening lost love to Jewish foods – what am I, chopped liver? The B-side is poppier punk, with even more of a sing-along fist-pumping feel. Both songs have a sort of sloppy punk sound, which is perfect for this sort of band. Party time!

 

MONEY – Suicide Songs (Bella Union, www.bellaunion.com)

The first words that come to mind when listening to this new effort from Manchester, UK’s Money are “absolutely beautiful.” Lush instrumentals ebb and flow, while chill vocals pierce through the music and your soul. Generous inclusion of acoustic stringed instruments of all types gives the music a full, emotional feeling. “I Am The Lord” begins things with a South Asian flare, including sitar and tabla mixed in with more traditional western acoustic and electric instruments. “Night Came” starts without a traditional sense of rhythm, but with a free-form stream of consciousness feeling and gorgeous vocals that soar into the stratosphere, and then dive into the depths of your heart. Eventually drums come in to provide a beat, but the feeling of improvisation continues in the guitars and the trumpets that join in, as the music slowly builds to a crescendo, until the halfway mark, when things pare back down just to vocals, drums, and keyboard, then starts to slowly build back up. The sort of title track, “Suicide Song,” is a simple track, with acoustic guitar, vocals, and beautiful brass choir, simple, yet striking. The closer is “Cocaine Christmas and An Alcoholic’s New Year,” a sparse track with just vocals, piano, and trumpet, and its sad and touching. Such a beautiful album.

OCTAGRAPE – Aural Obelisk (Soundsfamilyre, www.soundsfamilyre.com)

Technically, this is Octagrape’s sophomore full-length release, following 2013’s “Red UFO,” though they’ve released a raft of EPs and singles in the intervening time. It’s about time, too, because they’ve developed a ton of new material since that debut LP. The album recording duties were shared by Chris Woodhouse (Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall) up in Sacramento, and Ben Moore (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, Pinback) right at home in San Diego. Building on the sound developed on “Red UFO” and honed over two years of touring and playing shows at home, “Aural Obelisk” is deeply fuzzed out, lo-fi music, blending influences from psychedelic, grunge, garage, punk, and good old fashioned heavy rock’n’roll, but belonging to none of these categories, really. And, for all the off-kilter characteristics of the songs, the feeling that the band is about to careen out of control at any second, they’ve never sounded tighter than they do here. Clocking in at nineteen tracks and an hour and a quarter over four sides, this double LP is chock full of both brand new songs and those that have become staples of the band’s live sets over the past two years. Some say familiarity breeds contempt, but that’s wrong. Studies show that, with music, the more you listen the more you like. That seems to be the case, as some of my favorite tracks of this epic collection are those that I’ve heard live many times. And then there are the songs that I’ve heard live that are recorded a little differently than I’m used to hearing. Such is the case with “Too Fly,” the second track on the album. Here it’s much thicker and noisier, layered with buzzes and beeps from tweaking pedals and knobs. “Mexican Code” feels more confident than ever before, with a loping swagger that isn’t as evident in live performances. There’s also some electronics tossed in, most likely courtesy of guitarist Jason Begin, who lives a secret life as a creator of electronic music. Begin seems to get the opportunity to mix in some interesting electronic sounds in other tracks, too, like “Dirigibles,” one that’s new for the record. The electronic sounds do certainly add a new dimension, one that adds some interest here. “Hightropics” is a definite favorite, both live and on this record. It’s maybe even more energetic on this album than live, with a sense of forward motion pulling the listener to new places. The super buzzy guitar and bass works really well on this, juxtaposed with the clearer vocals, which are full of reverb to give them a feel of distance. And “Seizures” is solid and full of power. There’s a cover of Swell Maps’ “Vertical Slum” on here that’s pretty twisted and noisy in a way that only Octagrape can do. On the other hand, “Bandaid Licker,” a favorite from live sets, seems to drag in the studio version. It’s played more slowly, and ends up sounding a bit too sludgy. But “One Cyclone” is pretty damn cool on record, just as it is live. Some of the newer tracks that I’ve not heard before don’t work as well for me. “Cameras,” for example, seems to be too noisy and too minimalist, with repetitive rhythms and more improvisation than structure. It seems to be more influenced by no-wave and German noise improv bands like Faust, which is OK, but not what I was expecting. In fact, that track has its best sounds in the closing seconds, when some cleaner electronic sounds come in, sadly, just in time for the fade out. “Difficult To Read” is something I may have to warm to. It’s also pretty minimalist, focusing on buzzy electronics, drums, and vocals. Maybe too minimalist. But I do like the Devo-like angularity of parts of it. A new one that I really like is “Aim Your Heart,” which starts out with a noisy power-pop sound and turns into something worthy of a tougher version of The Fall. The song I like the least and really could have done without is the closer, “Carbonate The Seven Seas,” which is pretty cheesy soft rock music. Overall, there’s a hell of a lot to like here, even if there’s a few bits that I’m lukewarm on. If I have one overall complaint it might be that the heavy buzz and the noise can get to be a bit too much once you go over an hour. Some cleaner sounds mixed in here and there to break things up might have helped when doing a double LP. But overall, I like this.

PAINTED ZEROS – Floriography (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

There’s been a trend developing in indie-rock over the last few years. I guess one could call it “swirl-pop” or something like that. It’s not really a new trend, because it was something that was a pretty big sound back in the 90s. It’s got your typical guitar-based rock band at its core, but often has keyboards, as well. But the main key is the sound: lots of reverb, minimalism in the sort of repetitive melodic line, and loads of, well, swirliness. Painted Zeros fall solidly into this camp, and do a fine job at it. The album opens with a mysterious drone of strings, violins and cellos, which then resolves into a droning rhythm and guitar-fueled swirliness. I love the low, heavy crunch in the forefront of the mix, with the ethereal vocals somewhat hidden amongst the lo-fi noise. That opener the flows right into the second track without skipping a beat, but slowing things down a lot, and cleaning up the sound considerably. “Only You” has a delicate feel, yet still has a swirl, this time via electronics, and the vocals are now the feature of the track. This flows right into “Call Back,” a track with a more minimalist sound, a funky beat, and even more ethereal vocals. “Palm Tree” is an outlier, with a distinct break between this track and its predecessor, and with a harder edge. The deep crunch is back in the mix, and the ethereal vocals are replaced with harder, edgier vocals. I really like “JMZ,” another harder track with a more modern feel. The vocals are again buried beneath layers of loud, buzzy guitars, but the urgency of the vocals beams through clearly. I also enjoy “Swann Song,” the penultimate track, for its quiet acoustic feel, full of echoing and airiness, and I also love love love the transition to the final track, “Closure,” which brings back the crunch guitar work, this time alternating with the quieter sounds. Great stuff.

THE SCENICS – In The Summer (Dream Tower Records, www.dreamtowerrecords.com)

When I saw this described as underappreciated art-punk and power-pop from the late 70s, I got excited. I love that stuff! Apparently The Scenics were a band from Toronto that never broke through back in the day, never achieved wide success on a global scale. I think I know why. Some of the tracks are OK, but some of them just sound off. I couldn’t get into this album. The arrangements are too thin and the vocals too quirky as to sound off key and overly affected. Art is one thing. Trying to be arty is another. The music, itself, does tend to lean more toward the power pop end of the spectrum than the punk end, sometimes with a 60s garage vibe. And, so, for the most part it’s OK. But I can’t get past the vocals. Like on “Gotta Come Back Here,” in which the vocals just sound like someone who can’t sing, and even the instrumentals are sloppy and off kilter, and not in a good way.

TRY THE PIE – Rest (HHBTM Records, www.hhbtm.com)

Try The Pie is the work of Bean Tupou, a Bay Area musician who is deeply involved in the DIY music community. “Rest” is Tupou’s second full-length album as Try The Pie, and consists of a collection of early recordings made in the period of 2006-2008. Acoustic guitar and vocals, including overdubbed harmonies are featured on these lo-fi home recordings, plus occasional ukulele or percussion instruments. As a result, it certainly sounds more like song sketches and demos than a fully realized album, but I think that was the point. As a look into Tupou’s creative mind, it works. You hear all of the ideas, seemingly as they’re forming, and all of the mistakes, too. Tupou has a pretty enough voice, and the songs are sweet and melodic, but they aren’t groundbreaking or revelatory. As a person with a relatively short career (though certainly busy with a number of other projects), I question whether the world needs to have this sort of release right now. I mean, Try The Pie’s debut LP only came out this past spring. I think I would rather hear a regular studio album of fully formed songs that have been honed through live shows. Save the song sketchbook for several years from now, assuming you’ve toured extensively and developed some sort of following.

THE WAINWRIGHT SISTERS – Songs In The Dark (PIAS Recordings, www.pias.com/recordings)

I’m torn. I love folk music, both contemporary and traditional. I love delicate acoustic arrangements. But I also dislike cheesy lounge music. And you get all of these on this new record from these half sisters. Some of the tracks are really pretty, particularly the ones that focus solely on acoustic instruments, the beautiful vocals, and the sometimes dark and twisted lyrics of some of our traditional folk songs and lullabies. Other tracks add electric organ or harmonica and end up sounding less honest. Among the better tracks is “Long Lankin,” a traditional Scottish or English ballad with a tale of revenge. There have been a variety of renditions of this song over the decades, including a folk-rock version by Steeleye Span back in 1975. This one is sung primarily a cappella, and it’s gorgeous. “Our Mother The Mountain” is another great one, a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s song from his 1969 LP of the same name. Here we get just simple acoustic guitar and vocals, and the simplicity is compelling. “End of the Rainbow” is also a pretty one, with acoustic guitar, violin, and piano accompanying the vocals on this sad, sad song. The sisters’ rendition of the traditional Irish song, “Do You Love An Apple” is another favorite from this record. I immediately recognized it as a song recorded by the legendary The Bothy Band back in the 70s, and this version is quieter and more delicate. And the solemn closer, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” a song that may have its origins in colonial times, is sung simply, unaccompanied, with a mournful feel. It works really well. Other tracks don’t succeed nearly as much as these, in my opinion. Tracks like “Prairie Lullaby,” Hobo’s Lullaby,” “Lullaby,” and “Runs In The Family” sounds more like something you would hear pre-packaged for mass consumption on the radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.” The electric keyboard on some of these tracks really hurts things, and some of the vocals on these tracks are less passionate than the others. But those good tracks are really good.

DVD Review:

THE MELVINS – Across The USA in 51 Days (Ipecac Recordings, www.ipecac.com)

What do you do for fun after you’ve been a band for a bunch of years and toured all over the US many times over? You challenge yourselves to play a show in a different state every night, that’s what you do. And you document it on video. At least, that’s what you do if you’re The Melvins. I was never a huge fan of the super heavy sludgy sound back in the 90s. But The Melvins were an exception. I always thought they were pretty great, going beyond typical sludge rock. This tour was actually Melvins Lite, featuring founders King Buzzo and Dale Crover, plus Trevor Dunn playing upright bass. The idea was to tour the US and play one show in each state plus the District of Columbia, all in fifty-one days. So, between the concept and the subject, I was intrigued when this DVD fell into my lap. We can get a glimpse into what it’s like to be on tour in a band! We can get some great live recordings! We can get a sort of travelogue of the music underground all across the country! No, no, and no. The roughly fifty-two-minute video fails on all three counts. First off, how do you cram fifty-one states into a fifty-two minute film? You give about one minute per city. Each stop on the tour is crammed into several short snippets that are slapped together into a one-minute segment meant to represent that location. So much for getting a travelogue. And at only one minute per stop, there’s no decent live footage to speak of; there are snippets of a few seconds, sometimes only of the sound check. Much of this was shot using camera phones, too, so it’s like watching youtube, low quality sound and all. It’s like watching a youtube video compilation of vines, that’s what it’s like. Sometimes the precious seconds for a location are wasted on things like repeating a clip of a toilet flushing a few times, or clips of the guys saying “Omaha” over and over. Sometimes the editing gets things wrong, like when footage of the Leaning Tower of Pisa replica in Niles, Illinois is misplaced as being in Indianapolis. The end result is a mish-mash of fast-paced, meaningless clips that will have your head spinning, so be sure to take your meds before watching. This was really a lost opportunity.


 

BEACH PARTY – Broken Machine
( www.sexsheetrecords.com)

This is melodic emotionally driven pop punk from Portland by way of Boston, indie/alternative with an emo-pop punk influence. “Carelessly Undefined” opens the album with a cool bass line, deep and dirty, promising a rough, grungy track, and then breaks out into soaring guitars and vocals – maybe a bit too soaring. I think the reverb in the mix is a tad too much, and a dryer sound might have been better. The songs are OK, though nothing special. They’ve got appropriate angst-filled vocals and all, but they all end up sounding very similar. I find my mind wandering while trying to listen to this, because there’s not enough to hold my attention. The promise of that opening bass line is, sadly, never fulfilled.

BEACH SLANG – The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (Polyvinyl Records, www.polyvinylrecords.com)

Finally! After releasing a couple of EPs and having songs on some comps, Beach Slang have released their debut full-length LP, with Midwest indie label Polyvinyl Records. The short, succinct, two word review of the album would be “punked shoe-gaze.” But there’s so much more to Beach Slang than that, particularly in the sentiments of the songs. Polyvinyl is a label that’s released quite a number of indie bands, and this band that occupies the space between dark pop punk and shining shoe-gaze indie is very much at home there. There’s tons of fuzz, and glorious singing guitars echoing in the background, like great shoe-gaze, but the music is more up-tempo, aggressive, and raucous than any shoe-gaze band you know. As a result, the music sounds both uplifting and depressing at the same time. Though there seriously isn’t a bad song or even a mediocre song on this record, there are certainly standouts. “Ride The Wild Haze” is one of those, with a more aggressive sound than many other tracks, and a beautiful, simple chorus. It should be the anthem for every pop punk kid. From the opening line, “I feel most alive when I’m listening to every record that hits harder than the pain” to sentiments of being the misfit but not caring, self-medicating only to find it doesn’t change anything, and to wanting to party and rage harder and louder, just to be able to feel…something, this song speaks directly to many of us, as if Beach Slang were there with us all our lives. “Fuck it all,” the song seems to be saying to us, “just get out there and live!" I also like the darkly beautiful “Young & Alive,” one that’s got sections that are loud and intense alternating with those that are quieter, yet still intense. It’s another love song to youthful energy and enthusiasm and living life with abandon. I also love “Too Late To Die Young,” a delicate and touching track, with acoustic guitar and cello, showing the quieter side of Beach Slang. If you like pop punk, indie, and shoe-gaze music, you’re going to love this masterful release.

KURT BAKER – Play It Cool (Rum Bar Records, rumbarrecords.bandcamp.com)

I must admit, before receiving this record for review, I was unfamiliar with Kurt Baker, and equally in the dark about his former band, The Leftovers. I’ve been told they were one of the great bands of the pop punk renaissance of ten to twelve years or so ago. I believe it, after listening to some tracks of theirs. They played great power pop songs with fantastic hooks and tons of energy. So, I was looking forward to hearing what Baker’s been up to with his solo career. And, I have to say, when I first started listening, I was disappointed. The first track should always be the strongest, to hook listeners and reel them in. But “Send Me To Mars” sounds more like a Rolling Stones B-side than something from a great power pop band. “Enough’s Enough” is good enough, sounding more like Elvis Costello with a power pop edge. And it keeps getting better from there. The power pop goodness just builds. “I Got You” is a fun, bouncy track with great edgy guitars that borderline on pop punk, while Baker’s vocals are, again, Costello-like on the verses, but more natural on the chorus and after the half-way mark – which I think is immensely better. The songs tend to be sort of like that, with plenty of Costello influence, but rowdier, with loads of punked-up guitars. The result is some of the best power pop you’ll hear in this modern era.

THE CHILLS – Silver Bullets (Fire Records, www.firerecords.com)

New Zealand indie rockers The Chills have been around a long time. Some thirty-five years or so, actually. And in their storied history, they’ve had multiple line-up changes, to the point where singer Martin Phillipps is the sole original member. Nineteen years after the last album, they’re back with only their fifth. So how do they sound after all this time? I have mixed feelings about this one. One the one hand, the melodies are quite compelling, and Phillipps’ understated, breathy vocals are great, reminding me a bit of the late great Nick Drake. On the other hand, the album just seems too laid back, with too much reverb, too much production, and too much of a lounge-like sound. I think the synth/keyboards is one of the things that makes this difficult for me. The tone selected on some of the songs make them sound like cheesy holiday songs, especially on “I Can’t Help You.” There are some songs I really like, though. The title track is a pretty great power-pop track with some awesome guitar lines, and “Pyramids,” the first half of the seventh track, is an interesting psychedelic throwback, with a sound that makes you grin, but with dark lyrics about income inequality and the growing gap between rich and poor. About the 2:45 mark, it gets really dark, musically, and the lyrics get darker too, talking about the futility of even trying to climb up that pyramid. Then the mood lightens, going back to a folk-psych sound, still talking about poverty, in the second half of the track, “When The Poor Can Reach The Moon.” “Aurora Corona” isn’t bad, with piano replacing the electric keyboards and yielding a better sound. And “Tomboy,” the penultimate track, is beautifully orchestrated, with strings in the mix giving an ethereal effect, and beautiful in sentiment, about owning one’s self, even in the face of name-calling. The children’s choir on the chorus really is a nice touch. Sadly, other tracks aren’t as successful as these, in my opinion, leading to those mixed feelings I mentioned.

CIVIL WAR RUST – Help Wanted (Say-10 Records & Skateboards/Def Cow Records, www.say-10.com)

Civil War Rust have always been known for powerful, melodic pop punk. But their latest album steps it up a notch in the pop department. If there’s any justice in the world, this album will propel them to the big-time. Very seriously, if Civil War Rust weren’t just kids around 20 years ago, on the basis of this album, it would have been them and not Green Day breaking through to mainstream success. Even now, “Upside Down” sounds like something that has the potential to be a break-through to the pop charts. And “Outta My Mind” outdoes anything Green Day has ever done. You can sense the time and care that went into making this album, three years in the making. It sounds very clean and polished, but not overproduced. Sean Stepp’s lead vocals are spot-on throughout, and the songs are so damn catchy! “Bart Cards And Broken Hearts” is a perfect example. It’s the kind of song that you’ll find yourself singing along to after just a few listens. And the closer, “Revenge Therapy,” is a slower track, but that doesn’t mean it lacks intensity, and the guitar licks are pretty beautiful. The song is an ode to San Francisco, even amidst the growing gentrification, where “Giving up is the easiest way to go,” Civil War Rust tell us “there is nowhere else I’d rather go.” And there’s nowhere else I’d rather go than the next Civil War Rust show I can get to, after listening to this album. This one’s sure to make many “best of 2015” lists.

DOUBTFIRE (Jerkoff Records/Ratgirl Records, www.jerkoffrecords.com / www.facebook.com/ratgirlrecords)

What happens when you take Bil Mcrackin and J Prozac and put them into a band together? You don’t get blissed-out eggs, that’s for sure. But the result does have a bit of a split personality. Case in point, “California,” the opener, is easily my least favorite track on the disc. I got very very worried when I heard it, because it’s nothing more than second-rate pop-metal. “Don’t Be That Guy” is a bit of an improvement, heading toward the pop-punk sound, but it’s too overblown in rock anthem style. My depression was setting in – how could these pop-punk veterans put something like this out? – until I got to “Just Maybe,” the third track. YES! Classic pop-punk gold! But, then, “Darkest Hour” casts a, well, darkness, slowing things down and adding too much metallic flair. “Kung Foo Magoo” is a return to the fun pop punk sound, with loads of humor and melody. And on and on it goes, with some great pop punk tracks and some less successful. I wish there was more consistency here, because the good tracks are really good. I would have liked more like those.

DUDES NIGHT – The Arsonist, The House, And The Fire (La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

They don’t tour very much – they pretty much just play Fest every year and occasional shows in the Western US. But I’m lucky enough to live in Southern California, and am able to see them play on a somewhat regular basis. They’ve not had many releases before, either – just splits EPs and comp tracks – but now you have the opportunity to hear them in their full glory, on a full length album. Dudes Night have an unfortunate name. You might think their some sort of bro band, playing cheese pop punk or metallic edged music. But you would be wrong. They have ridiculously named songs, too, like “Tell Me About The Rabbits, George,” and “Dollar Off Packs,” so you might think they’re a joke band playing funny punk. But you would be wrong. Dudes Night play emotionally charged pop punk, with strong vocals full of powerful angst. Make no mistake, this isn’t super cerebral stuff that’s going to make you stand there and think or wallow in self-pity. This is music that you’re going to want to shout along with and push your way forward in the crowd to sing with the band. The dueling vocals of bassist Josh Hastings and guitarist Richie Reyes complement each other, while Saul Ferman’s guitars and Jimmy Gomez’s drums propel the songs with a strength, yet a feeling of lightness, as if the songs are floating and rising. Highlights for me include the aforementioned “Tell Me About The Rabbits, George,” which has a cool travelling and rolling sound in the guitars, “It’s Kinda Like That Scene From The Outsiders,” a track that’s been a staple of their sets for some time, and has finally been captured in the studio, and both “$3.50 Out The Door” and the title track, for their interesting intros. The title track, in particular, starts out slowly and quietly, and simmers, then boils with intensity. All this is to say that you should really give this a spin. It’s available digitally and on CD now, and I think vinyl is coming.

ELECTRIC SIX – Bitch, Don’t Let Me Die! (Metropolis Records, www.metropolis-records.com)

Whatever you may think of any of the other songs on this new album from Detroit lo-fi-rockers Electric Six, the very fact that a song like “Dime, Dime, Penny, Dime” is on it, makes it worthwhile. Some of the songs are a cross between Motown soul and early proto-punk. Think of crossing MC5 with James Brown, and you’ll get an idea: Heavy rock with a strong, soulful sound. “Two Dollar Two” is the perfect exemplifier of this sound, as is “Roulette.” There are other styles represented here, as well. “A Variation of Elaine” has a strong Southern rock sound, while “Kids Are Evil” is a bouncy electro-pop tune loaded with buzzy synth. “Slow Motion Man” is an interesting one, with loads more buzziness at the foreground of a pop tune that blends 80s sensibilities with prog-rock melodic progressions and muzak synth bridges. I guess this release is sort of all over the place, which is always a good thing in my book. Oh, and that “Dime, Dime, Penny, Dime” track? It’s a crazy track blending old school rock’n’roll, 50s R&B, and tons of angularity in the synth. The release is a worthy one, but this single track makes it a must.

GOODMAN – Goodman II (www.facebook.com/musicofgoodman)

Four new songs from New York’s Michael Goodman have found their way onto a new EP, recorded at Brooklyn’s Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen. Immediately upon first listen, I am transported through time, as if I am the Doctor’s latest companion in the TARDIS, to1960s London. Mod sounds abound in the first two tracks, “Lessons Learned In Love,” and “Telegram Girl,” to such an extent that one might think the British Invasion was happening all over again. “Lady In Black” is an instrumental, almost ballad-like in it’s tempo and feel. The electronics dominate, along with lounge drum beats, making it sound like something you might hear at a budget Bar Mitzvah party, and making it the weakest track of the EP. “Movies” closes the EP, starting with a sort of Beach Boys feel, but then the instrumentals get thicker and the reverb kicks in, yielding an ethereal sun-soaked sound. Overall excellent EP, if you can look past the throwaway third track, but those first two are definitely my favorites.

JABBER – Well… Just Jabber (jabberpop.bandcamp.com)

Hooray! New songs from the sweetest pop-punk band around! Though bassist/vocalist Danny Bailey has left the Bay area for colder climes, the band still exists! Just in time for their trip to Fest, the quartet has released a new five song EP in digital form, with physical copies to come later. The songs are all mid-tempo pop punk tunes, with big guitars, great harmonized vocals, and pretty melodies for days. I think “Anymore” is my favorite track, despite that it’s bummer of a topic – telling your ex that you don’t want to be in love with him/her anymore. As a counterpoint to the downer of a subject, the track is the bounciest of the bunch, with gorgeous harmonies. If I have one problem with this EP it’s only that the recording quality isn’t as good as past releases, with the vocals sounding a bit claustrophobic, like they were sung through a glass jar. But the music is great!

THE MANTLES – All Odds End (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecords.com)

This record is full of gorgeous, delicate jangle, with clean strings and fuzzy lo-fi vocals. There’s hints of 60s surf rock, power pop, and psych amidst the beautiful indie pop melodies. Some of that, I think, comes from the rhythm guitar work, and some of it comes from the simplicity of the song writing. One of the things I love most about this record is that, while the melodies are pretty straight-forward, there are these embellishments thrown in here and there, creating luscious contrasts. “Lay It Down” is a prime example, and may be my favorite track of the album. “Police My Love” has a great driving beat and shimmering keyboards, giving it an even more retro garage feel than some of the other tracks, but then again, many of the tracks have that same feel, with interesting variations. “Undelivered” is a slower one, almost ballad-like in comparison to the other tracks, but it’s still got those keyboards echoing in the background and plenty of reverb, making the song shine. The closer is “Stay,” and it’s another one with a hugely driving beat and strong garage feel, yet with a light touch. Great stuff!

MARIANNE NOWOTTNY AND THE SENSORIUM SAXOPHONE ORCHESTRA – Tomorrow Never Knows b/w Strawberry Fields Forever (Abaton Book Company, www.abatonbookcompany.com)

Have you ever wondered what some of the more psychedelic Beatles songs would sound like, if performed by saxophone ensemble? Me neither, but that’s the uniqueness on offer here. Nowottny provides the mysterious, sultry vocals, while the Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra gives us a fluttery, droning rendition of “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the A side, and a morose, yet martial feeling on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the B side. I think I really like the A side better, because the droning quality really seems to capture the intended feeling of this track, while the B side comes across a little too much like a high school band’s arrangement. Listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with baritone saxophone droning a steady bass line, with a counterpoint of butterfly-like soprano saxophones, and altos and tenors in between is truly magical, and makes this limited edition 7” on translucent green vinyl totally worth it.

MOTEL BEDS – Mind Glitter (Anyway Records, www.anyway-records.com)

Opening with mysterious vocals and acoustic guitar, Dayton’s Motel Beds blend 90s indie pop with 80s power-pop. This isn’t evident on that opener, “Open-Ocean,” which eventually brings in electric guitar. It’s a quiet, introspective one, probably not the best way to generate excitement at first listen. But then, the next track, “A.O.O.” is a classic power pop track, with jangly guitars and a great garage feel. The title track is pretty awesome, too, also very power pop inspired, but less garage-rock and more on the classic rock side of things. “Queens for the Summer” is a Beach Boys-inspired indie-pop track, starting out as more standard indie fare, but halfway through going full-on beachy harmonies and woo woo-oohs. I hear some funkiness and hints of reggae sorts of influences in some of the tracks, too, but overall this is solidly in the power pop realm. If I have one beef, it’s that the energy level of the songs is too….consistent? With few exceptions, there’s not a lot of dynamic change from song to song. “Paper Trees” is one of those exceptions, going more for the psychedelic acoustic sound, and the closer, “We’ve Killed More For Less,” is a quiet acoustic piece. I think more of a dynamic range among the songs would add to the strength of this release But it’s a solid effort.

ROTTEN MIND – I’m Alone Even With You (Lövely Records, www.llyrecords.com)

Punk rock music out of Sweden! Usually, Scandinavian music means black metal, and even the punk output from that region of the world, at least back in the old days, was pretty thrashy stuff. But this is pretty great garage pop punk, on a par with lots of your favorite US bands. Include one part Radioactivity and two parts Mean Jeans, then add a pinch of old school hardcore punk, and you might have an idea of what this sounds like. Fast, rough, very melodic, and just a bit dark, the songs are an unexpected and pleasing surprise. The vocals have just the right amount of snot and the tempos are spot on. I do wish there was a bit more variety and fewer guitar solos, though. It’s hard to pick a favorite, probably because of the homogeneity of the album, but I think the closer, “Nowhere To Go,” probably gets that title, mainly for the awesome hooks at the start and near the end.

SEE THROUGH DRESSES – End of Days (Tiny Engines, www.tinyengines.net)

See Through Dresses is a band of diversity. This six song EP, their first release since their debut full-length, starts with “Haircut,” a track that contrasts the lightness and melodic sensibilities of indie pop with the heaviness and raucousness of grunge. I love “Little Apple Rot,” which alternates between quiet indie, driven by a steady bass line and vocals, with guitar playing only a secondary role, and awesomely intense guitar wailing, just building the tension, crying out for release. The title track is a quiet acoustic number, with a guitar line that reminds me of something from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” and it’s just too delicate in comparison to the rest of the tracks. There’s enough good stuff here to interest me in hearing more.

SHELLSHAG – Why’d I Have To Get So High? (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

The amazingly warm and fuzzy duo of Shellshag are back with a new full-length LP, their first since 2013’s “Shellshag Forever.” The normally stripped down pairing of electric guitar and drums is slightly augmented here and there, with the occasional cymbal, acoustic guitar, or overdubbing, and the result is a beautifully varied, somewhat psychedelic mélange of poppy punky music. But among those expected warm fuzzy songs that we all know and love, there are some surprises. “Tiger Stripes” is one of my favorites, for its darkly aggressive sound, and “RIP” is hauntingly beautiful, the heavy reverb and quietly played piano adding to the very melancholy sound. As is frequently the case, though the music sounds so cozy, many of the lyrics are dark and sad, such as “50/50,” a song of a “doper couple” who were caught up in drug use and split up over the lies and issues that come with those problems. “She really feels his chances are more 50/50,” the song says, as she visits him in rehab, but “It doesn’t matter anyway because she’s already started anew.” The track from which the album gets its title, “’90s Problem,” sounds psychedelic and bouncy, but the sentiment, “Why’d I have to get so high?” that’s expressed in the chorus isn’t just about wacky hijinks of doing stupid stuff when too stoned, it’s about a dark period of life, as is made clear when the song reaches its end and goes just to Shell’s deep vocals and quiet piano, singing “We never died of an overdoes / But a lot of our friends did / We thought we walked away unscathed / Just to find we were addicted / To the way it was, the way it should be, the way it could be now. / We’ve got to find a way to swallow down this bitter pill somehow.” Always so many feels with Shellshag. Recommended.

SIC WAITING – Derailer (Felony Records, www.thefelonyfamily.com)

San Diego-based Sic Waiting play a brand of pop punk that blends the sounds from the glory days of 90s skate pop punk with a hint of Bad Religion influence and a slightly metallic edge, to create a style that’s super melodic, super tight, and super crunchy. If you’re into that sound, you’re going to love this album, because Sic Waiting does it really well. I am particularly taken by the awesome vocal harmonies, particularly on the slow burner, “A Red House and Bones,” a track that builds in intensity and emotion. Another favorite is “The Salesman,” a track that they had on their tour EP from some time ago. It’s just got a great, bouncy melody, speedy double-time sections, and depressing lyrics that are quite the opposite of the happy sounding melody. The closer, “Maps,” is another favorite, with its epic-sounding intro, double-timed drumming, and intricate guitar work. This is the kind of stuff I used to eat up, and it’s still rad.

SMOKE OR FIRE – When the Battery Dies (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Say-10 is reissuing Smoke or Fire’s debut LP. Wait, wasn’t “When The Battery Dies” the debut album from Jericho? Well, yes. But after it was released, the band discovered they weren’t alone with that name, so they changed it twice, settling on Smoke or Fire. They eventually landed a deal with Fat Wreck Chords, releasing their third (and likely final) album there. Now that original debut album from 15 years ago is available again. I can’t say that I was ever a fan, of either Jericho or Smoke Or Fire. Frankly, I had never heard of them before receiving this. And, frankly, I can’t say I’m a fan now. Oh, the music is OK. But that’s it; it’s just OK. It’s melodic pop punk, heavier on the punk side, of the sort you would expect to have been recorded in 2000. So many bands sounded very much like this back then, with raucous wall of guitar and vocals very forward in the mix. There’s not a lot of variety on the album, and that’s part of the problem. There are two songs that have a different sound. “Afghanistan,” is borderline emo, but not the DC-influenced kind. And “September” starts out with a bit of a sound like the San Diego 90s band Pitchfork, but then falls flat – literally. The vocals and guitars in the quieter spots seem to be out of tune. I usually like most everything Say-10 puts out, but I can’t recommend this.

CYMBALS EAT GUITARS / KEVIN DEVINE – Devinyl Splits No. 4 (Bad Timing Records, www.badtimingrecords.limitedrun.com)

Kevin Devine has been releasing a series of split 7” singles with some of his favorite bands, and New York’s Cymbals Eat Guitars are featured on the latest installment. Their track, “Aerobed,” starts out as a gorgeous acoustic track, with a retro pop sound, like something right out of the flower power era, then, right about the halfway mark, the electric guitars explode in CEG style, creating a wall of sound, over which Joseph D’Agostino’s vocals positively fly, even dive-bombing as the end approaches, bring with it a return to the quiet acoustic mien of the song. Devine’s track, “Magic Magnet,” has a slightly retro feel, as well, harkening back to a British Invasion sound, while firmly rooted in a modern indie-pop esthetic. The tracks are very different from each other, but diversity is what makes the world strong, right? This split single is effectively doing its part.

TEEN AGERS / WOLF-FACE- Split 12-Inch (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

The first half of this split features Orlando’s Teen Agers, who play very precise, melodic “pop punk.” I have the quotes there because this is pop punk of the very slick, commercial kind. It’s over-produced, and I don’t know if it’s just the production or what, but some of the vocals really sound a lot like pitch correction has been used. Some of those vocals sound very electronically processed, and it gets annoying. This is MTV-friendly, alternative radio-ready stuff. The flipside belongs to Wolf-Face, who offer up music that is emotionally much more honest. And it’s not just the rougher gruffer vocals. The music isn’t any less precise than Teen Agers; on the contrary, the musicianship on display is damn fine. It’s that the music doesn’t seem contrived or formulated to appeal to a mass market. Of their five tracks, the closer, “I’m So Much Better,” is by far my favorite. This song rages like mad, propelled by a driving bass line and pounding drums. The guitar lines are simple, yet crisp and clean, in contrast to the raspy vocals. The whole thing sounds…urgent. I’ll take more Wolf-Fave and less Teen Agers, please.



CHAPIN SISTERS – Today’s Not Yesterday (www.thechapinsisters.com)

The last time the Chapin Sisters released an album of original material was about five years ago. In the interim, they released a collection of Everly Brothers covers back in 2013, which was generally well received. But Chapin-heads have been hankering for new music for too long, and the trio have obliged. The dozen tracks on this album feature the soft sounds of folk, country and pop-rock. And, while past efforts have also had the pretty harmonies and delicate touch, I think this new album is a little too soft, and has a little too much country twang to it, at least for my tastes. The heavy organ and slide guitar just don’t do it for me.

DANGER, INC. – Enjoy Your Cat And Your Loneliness (dangerinc.bandcamp.com)

First off, this is the coolest CD packaging I’ve seen in a long time. Hexagonally shaped, the cover features awesomely drawn caricature style pictures of the three members of Danger, Inc. Three “arms” of cardboard are tucked into one another, and when pulled apart, opens to review the CD inside, along with more drawings of said sad-looking cat, its litter box, and photos of paper block-shaped members of the band – and the cat. There’s also a slip of paper with cut and fold instructions to make your own cat. OK, cool packaging is one thing, but what about the music? Awesome, raw pop punk is how I describe it. Jessica O’Toole’s vocals have gotten bigger and stronger than the last album, and the music sounds more urgent than ever. I really love the raw power of “Something Else,” and “Wasted” is a favorite for its poppy bounce. “Somebody” is a slower track that really showcases O’Toole’s vocals, while “Flames” is an outlier for this album. It’s a gorgeous, slow, indie-pop ballad, another showcase for O’Toole. “White Room” shows how much the writing has matured since the first album. The closer is a cover. A Harry Potter themed cover from a Harry Potter themed band, Draco and the Malfoys. The song is “My Dad Is Rich,” and it’s a pretty rockin’ cover, way better than the original lounge version. Overall, a great effort, and closer than the first album to capturing the energy of Danger, Inc.’s live shows.

DAYCARE SWINDLERS – Reradiate (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Daycare Swindlers are a little hard to pin down. Which makes for a more interesting listen. The predominant sounds are big 90s pop punk sounds, with skate rock influences. But then there are the ska-punk songs like “Bad Luck,” and the ska-hip-hop of “Bicycle Seat” to mix things up. And “Page Full Of Names” blows me away, with its intense old-school hardcore sound. It’s easily my favorite track on the album. And then there’s “El Coliche,” a cool track that shares more with indie rock than punk. “Spread Thin” is more than a bit influenced from DC post emo bands like Fugazi or Soulside. “This Town” has a bit of country twang to it. But it’s that solid pop punk sound that carries the day, with standouts like “Telephone,” and “Deep River.” Good stuff.

EARTH GIRLS – Someone I’d Like To Know (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Hailing from Chicago, Earth Girls play a bouncy, bubble-gum garage-like pop punk sound. The title track opens the four-song EP with gorgeous harmonies and a hooky melody. “Bad Intentions” slows things down a bit, but still is loaded with bubbly goodness. “Room to Breathe” moves things into a bit more of an indie-grunge direction, and is probably the only track I couldn’t get into very much. “Code Switch” closes things out with a return to rapid-fire pop punk, providing a great bookend to an enjoyable EP.

THE HUM HUMS – Back to Front (Waterslide Records, facebook.com/ WaterslideRecords)

I first saw The Hum Hums about a year and a half ago. Frequent readers of Jersey Beat may recall that I went on tour with The Maxies to Japan and wrote a tour diary that was published here (www.jerseybeat.com/maxies.html) . The Hum Hums were one of the bands playing in Tokyo on the last night of the tour. As was the case with every Japanese band on every night of the tour, they were great! Fast forward to several months ago. The Hum Hums posted on their Facebook page that they were looking to do a US tour, but needed help figuring out where to go and in planning shows. I quickly got hold of Maximum Maxie and told him he needed to grab the opportunity, and so was born a short Hum Hums tour in Southern California and the US Southwest. They’re touring in support of this brand new album. Their sound is the Beach Boys crossed with The Ramones. It’s classic guitar-heavy pop punk, but with amazing multi-part harmonies. The tracks that most demonstrate this include “I’m Not The One,” which starts as a great Ramones-core track, but in the chorus, you hear classic Beach Boys vocal stylings. And “All Over Again” has Beach Boys ballad written all over it, but with extra jangly guitars. There isn’t a bad track on the album, but particular favorites include “Introvert,” “Starway,” and the crunchy “Cyndi Is A Punk.” Oh, yeah, though they’re from Japan, they sing in English pretty well. This is very recommended!

THE INTELLIGENCE – Vintage Future (In The Red Records,
www.intheredrecords.com)

The album starts out with a definite garage feel. But it quickly changes into something more angular, something with more than hints of retro proto-punk and post-punk sounds. “Sex” is that opener, and it has a deep garage sound in the opening couple of phrases. But it then gets very sparse, with non-standard melodic lines, sharp angles, and plenty of distortion. The dark, noisy synth and drum machine of “Cleaning Lady” is very reminiscent of early eighties post-punk music. “Whip My Valet” is another super angular one, with cool, weird interval chords from the rhythm guitar providing the beat, as well as the off-kilter feel to the track. I love “Dieu Merci Pour La Fixation De La Machine A Coudre,” with its acoustic guitar, violins, and Spanish flair. The title track closes things out, and may be my favorite on this album. Again, it’s the off-kilter synth at the beginning and near the end that makes this track, I think, particularly contrasted with the more standard guitar/vocal part of the song. This is something different, off the beaten path. Which makes it something worth listening to.

JACUZZI BOYS – "Happy Damage" EP (Mag Mag Records, www.jacuzziboys.com)

Jacuzzi Boys play pretty solid garage punk. I particularly like “No Sleep,” the second track on this six-track EP. It has a loping feel that reminds me of a bit of The New Pornographers “Twin Cinema,” a favorite track from 2005. And the title track is a good one, too, up-tempo, raw, raucous, and ripping. Other tracks are equally enjoyable, with “Electric Days” being one of the better ones. It’s got a driving beat, plenty of distortion, and great sing-along sections. A couple of the tracks, though, don’t work so well for me. “Sun” just kind of lags, feeling sort of tired, while “Platform Licks” sounds too much like a 70s jam for my taste. If they stick to the garagier stuff, this would be great. It’s not bad, as is.

PEARS – Letters to Memaw (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Pears tease us with a new 7”. With only a mere two songs, Letters to Memaw is intended to hold us over for a few months until the new full-length album comes out. The A-side is “Snowflake,” which appeared on the Fat Wreck compilation that just came out (the review is in this column, below). “Anhedonia” is completely new, and, I think, my favorite of the two. Both feature Pears’ unique blend of hardcore, and pop punk, with the B-side including an extra dose of grindcore for good measure. That extra hardness makes the song stand out, I think. These songs come from some hastily put together recording sessions that formed the outlines for the new LP, and they really make me impatient for that release to get here already! Oh, and who is “Memaw?” Well, it’s a southern name of affection for one’s grandmother. I assume this is a reference to vocalist/lyricist Zach Quinn’s memaw. And if this is the sort of letters she likes to get, she’s one cool grandma!

PHYLUMS – Phylum Phyloid (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

Phylums is an unabashedly garage rock band. And this is a genre that seems to be seeing a resurgence recently, with many bands playing some great garage music. But within that genre, Phylums explore variations, with hints of psychedelia, punk, surf, and pop tossed in. “Can’t Get Through” is a throw-back to earlier days of rock’n’roll music, raw, yet eminently bouncy. Of the two beverage-themed tracks, “Bottle of Wine” and “Cold Coffee,” the former has the raw garage rock’n’roll sound, and is one of my favorites of the album, while the latter has more of a 60s psychedelic rock sound blended with modern indie-pop. “Crummy Side of Town” is a great raucous track, with a beautifully sparkly bridge. “I Gotta Know” is a great track with a surf guitar solo that soars over a sea of pure guitar noise. If you like garage rock, this is an aces example to check out.

THE RECORD COLLECTION – Revolutions (Coin Toss Records, www.cointossrecords.com)

Virginia-based The Record Collection is described by their label as being a cross between Gaslight Anthem, Bruce Springsteen, and Social Distortion. I kind of get that. There’s the emotional feel, and a definite rock’n’roll vibe. I also get a strong sense of “alternative” rock sounds from the last decade on this four-track EP. This oddly named band sounds like it would be more at home opening for a big name rock act at a large club than it would be on your local pop punk or indie rock club.



SPANISH LOVE SONGS – Giant Sings The Blues (spanishlovesongs.bandcamp.com)

I had never heard of this LA band before seeing them open for The Flatliners a few weeks ago. I was pretty impressed with their live show, and happy to find that they had a recently released album for sale at the merch table. They play big songs, with the energy of Red City Radio and the heartfelt introspection of Divided Heaven. I think “Nervous People” is my favorite track of the album, with a sort of emo-tinged sound. The song is so expansive, as it is on most of the tracks. I can even hear some of these tracks done as acoustic songs, because Dylan Slocum’s vocals are so full and emotive. But the full band is perfect, with the guitars equally noisy and jangly. “Mexico” and “Vermont” are two songs that perfectly demonstrate what I’m talking about. So is the closer, “Bright Day,” which is an acoustic number, with just guitar and Slocum’s huge voice. Even with the big vocals and huge instrumentals, I think the secret to Spanish Love Songs is that they make their songs sound so…intimate. It’s hard not to get sucked in.

THE STOPS – Nameless Faces (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com, Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

Slightly retro, in the sense that it sounds sort of like some of the post-punk music that was coming out in the mid-eighties. It’s got lo-fi female vocals, a driving beat, and modal melodies – that is, not really major or minor keys, so they sound kind of cold and edgy. The first few songs are pretty awesome, with the opener, “Black & White,” pretty much raging hard and bringing me back to the time I lived in Boston and saw bands like The Proletariat perform. “So Still” is another good one, with cool chord progressions and great guitar hooks. Actually, taken individually, all of the songs on this album are pretty good. The issue the album suffers, however, is that there’s too much of a sameness to most of the songs, so that after the first few, they all start to blend together and fade into the background. Changing up the song writing a bit would definitely improve that. But these songs will be welcome into my iPod’s shuffle mode, for sure.

VACATION – Non-Person (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

I recently had the great fortune to catch Vacation on their recent west coast tour with label-mates Screaming Females, not once, but twice. After the first show, for which I travelled some hour and three quarters, it solidified my resolve to go to the second show, close to home, even though it was on a weeknight. The second show convinced me I absolutely had to buy this brand new LP, to have for myself, and to sing the praises of to you. Their live show is something not to be missed. They seem to be a band teetering on the brink of collapse, with so much chaos, both physical and musical. It’s like an out of control locomotive that keeps going faster and faster, bits of the machinery flying off, and always in danger of careening into who knows what. But it never does! In that tension is where genius lies. Musically, they blend garage, punk, and psychedelic sounds, sort of like The Treasure Fleet, but harder and faster on some of the tracks, like Marked Men was thrown into the mix. Fuzzed out guitars with purposeful distortion coat the mix, with clear jangly back-up guitars providing a sweet counterpoint. The biggest outlier is probably the opener, which has sections that are pretty much like 80s hardcore punk, fast and loud. In an album full of standout tracks, there are a few that even go above and beyond. “Decaying” has a great melodic line, and awesome, sparkly sounds. “Every Direction” is a driving tune, always moving forward, ornamented with tension inducing feedback from the psychotic guitars. Two of the strongest tracks are just past the halfway mark. “Wish I Could Be Someone Else” is a spastic anthem of self-dissatisfaction with a strong backbeat, while “Like Snow” is a seemingly simple, raucous track with a glorious bridge the shines like the sun, glistening off the mounds of snow on the ground in the winter. I’ve said this before a number of times this year, but I think we have another contender for the year-end best releases here.

VARIOUS – Fat Music Vol. 8: Going Nowhere Fat (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

When people turn 25 years old, they’re usually starting to get set in their ways. Things that were enjoyed in younger days become embedded into their personalities. Exploration of the new is usually tapering off. Not so for Fat Wreck Chords. The venerable punk record label that championed a particular style of hard-edged pop punk in the nineties is still kicking. And more importantly, it’s not staying stagnant. Rather than sticking with the tried and true formula that made them successful, Fat has been exploring the new. And it’s resulted in them signing some exciting young bands that are somewhat to very different from their traditional sound. To celebrate a quarter century of Fat punk, the label is releasing volume 8 in its Fat Music series of compilations, the first in five years. It includes, of course, 25 songs, one for each year. Yes, all the old favorites are represented here. But so are some of the newer crop of Fat punkers. And, while I remember being a big fan of the Fat sound back in the nineties, it’s these “youngsters” that steal the show here. Masked Intruder may have their shtick, but that doesn’t take away a single bit of the incredibly sweet, yet strong, poppy pop punk sound. Smooth harmonized vocals, hooky melodies, and fast, raucous Ramones-inspired instrumentals add up to one of the most fun bands of the genre today. From “M.I.,” their most recent album, “Most Beautiful Girl” is their worthy representative here. My last column (check further down the page) included a review of Fat’s reissue of Pears debut LP, “Go To Prison.” Their blend of rapid-fire hardcore, melodic pop punk, and intense grindcore styles makes them a true standout band today. “Snowflake” is a previously unreleased track that will give you a good idea of their intensity and will whet your appetite for their new releases coming soon. “toyGuitar” provides “When It Was Over,” from their debut LP “In This Mess.” They have a great garage-like sound, infused with an incredible sunniness. Night Birds’ “Left In The Middle” is previously unreleased, and represents a much edgier and more spastic style of punk that will punch you right in the gut when you’re not looking. And, of course, Bad Cop/Bad Cop is here, with “Nightmare,” the opener from their debut LP “Not Sorry.” The blend of sweet vocals, snotty lyrics, and poppy yet edgy punk music wooed me from the first time I heard them. Probably the most non-Fat sounding band on the comp is Old Man Markley, a band from LA that combines bluegrass instrumentals with punk song structures, and it works really well. Of the bands that have been with the label for the long haul, I must admit I haven’t been following most of them over the past twenty years or so. So there were some surprises. Lagwagon was one of my nineties favorites, with a great bouncy pop punk sound. But “Cog In The Machine” is a darker, heavier, almost metallic track. It’s good to see bands that don’t stagnate. NOFX contributes the demo version of “SF Clits,” and is exactly what you’ve come to expect from the longest standing Fat band, mid-tempo melodic punk with enough snot to clog up the noses of half of the country! Strung Out’s “Rats In The Walls” features the band’s trademarked metal-tinged melodic punk, with double-timed rhythms under floating, harmonized vocals. And Leftöver Crack’s track, “The Lie of Luck,” just rages with power, speeding its way through this melodic anthem that’s not available elsewhere. The album closes with a track from Fat Mike’s musical, “Home Street Home.” The track is “Monsters,” and features Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s Stacey Dee on vocals. Bottom line? This CD is a great summary of where Fat Wreck Chords has been, where they are now, and where they might be headed in the future. Here’s to another 25 years!


WORRIERS – Imaginary Life
(www.dongiovannirecords.com)

Lauren Denitzio, more commonly known by the moniker, Lauren Measure, of New Brunswick’s
late, lamented The Measure (SA), has been pursuing a sort of “solo” project the past
few years, releasing a few EPs. But “Imaginary Life” represents the debut full-length LP from Worriers. I say “solo” in quotes because Denitzio takes sole esponsibility for the song writing, but recruits various friends to fill out the band. On their most recent tour with the UK’s Caves, members of that band performed as Worriers, but on this album Denitzio is joined by Rachel Rubino (Each Other’s
Mothers, Troubled Sleep) and John McLean (Dead Dog, Todd Killingz) on lead guitars,
Audrey Zee Whitesides (Mal Blum, Little Waist) on bass, Mike Yannich (The Ergs) on
drums, and Lou Hanman (Caves) on backing vocals. To produce the album, Denitzio
recruited none other than Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace. The end result is one of
the strongest albums of the year, so far, in my opinion. The music is true to its
pop punk roots, but doesn’t hesitate in presenting a more mature indie-pop side, as
well. “Jinx” opens the album with a short, sweet, quiet song that sets the tone and
lets us know this isn’t just another punk record. “Parts” has a nice melodic line
and a great bounciness, but it’s the full-sounding backing vocals that really make
this track. The doo-wop sounds of “Life During Peacetime” are perfect for this song
that picks apart the American Dream that was promised back in the post-war days of
the 1950s, but never quite fulfilled. My favorite track, and a nominee for best song
of the year, in my book, is “They/Them/Theirs,” and not just for the incredible
melody and great hooks. The sentiment of the song, if I interpret correctly, is
about gender identity and our desire to label people, even if they don’t want to be
labeled. “You’ve got a word for one / so there’s a word for all. / The smallest
things have become / which side are you on? / What if I don’t want something that
applies to me? / What if there’s no better word than just not saying anything,
anything?” And later, “Neither nor, both and me, in between, in between.” This album
gets a very strong recommendation.

THE BOMBPOPS – Can of Worms (www.thebombpops.com)

The Bombpops, originally from North San Diego County, now in LA, are a band that I’ve watched grow by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years. They have super-tight, super clean pop punk sound, with the awesome harmonized vocals of Jen Razavi and Poli Van Dam front and center. I’ve mentioned before that I feel that some of the best pop punk bands operating today are either all female or female fronted, and The Bombpops are no exception. Jen and Poli not only provide the vocals, but also are the band’s two guitarists, with the rhythm section that keeps things driving forward consisting of bassist Neil Wayne and drummer Josh Lewis. The two songs on this single are a perfect representation of their current sound, tight, bouncy, poppy, with a full sound. The title track is more of a mid-tempo rocker, while “Breathe” has a double-time pace in the instrumentation, with more of a straight time in the vocals, floating above. Great stuff.

CANADIAN RIFLE – Sexually Fucked b/w You Are My Junk (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Wow, I’m listening to this new 7” back to back with their LP of last year, “Deep Ends,” and there’s quite a contrast. I described that album as being really crunchy, melodic hardcore. It has a heaviness to it, a deep-throated quality. This new single is much lighter in character, with more of a garage-pop feel to it. The addition of female vocals on the A-side certainly adds to that lighter feeling, smoothing out the gruff edges of Jake’s vocals. The B-side, “You Are My Junk,” is a little more like the Canadian Rifle of familiarity, but even this track is smoother and more melodic than the LP tracks. Dare I say, it’s a bit poppier? And to me, this is a good thing. As much as I enjoyed the LP, I really like the new direction being taken on this single. Here’s hoping it continues into another full-length.

CASH REGISTERS – Context Demos
(www.cashregistersnyc.com)

Active in 90's New York City, the Cash Registers were known for playing a melodic garage punk style of music. They’re back now, and are releasing a new CD of demos. The recording is kind of lo-fi, having been recorded on a 4-track Tascam, but the musicianship is top-notch for the genre. John Bendik’s vocals, at times, are reminiscent of those of another New York band’s vocalist, Alice Donut’s Tomas Antona. There’s that weird, throaty sound that slides around and adds a dirty tremolo to great effect. On some songs that band is tight and fast, and on others they’re purposefully sloppy, as the song dictates. The songs are short and to the point. For example, one of my favorites of the disc, “Who’s The Latest Serial Killer on 7”” is merely twenty-six seconds long, yet packed with fast’n’loud melody, while “Break Up” clocks in at a scant thirteen seconds, Bendik snottily and gutturally releasing the lyrics, “Break Up” repeated a few times. “Kojak” is a simple surf-rock song, with a basic chord progression (the same exact one as the more famous “Wipeout,” actually) all about the lollipop-sucking TV police detective. The longest song is still under three minutes, “Losing World, at 2:47, a garage power-pop track with an easy lope. “Vampire On My Block” is a great track that’s silly and rocks like mad, again, very much like Alice Donut. This is energetic and fun!

DETACHED OBJECTS – Detached Objects (Gilgongo Records, www.gilgongorecords.com)

Holy shit! Featuring, among others, Mikey Henson and Matt Dobbins of Rumspringer, this Arizona outfit couldn’t be further away from the melodic indie-pop-punk sounds of that trio. Rumspringer drummer Henson moves to the front on guitar and vocals, while Dobbins rotates from bass to guitar. This five piece is rounded out by a third guitarist, James Fella, a bassist, Chad Knap, and drummer Roger Kalamiao. The six songs on offer present, not melodic pop punk, but modalities, darkness, and noisiness. “Smell It” opens the EP with an ominous throbbing bass, and soon, a guitar joins in. But then the track virtually explodes with energy, a piercing, noisy melodic line repeating over and over, while Henson’s vocals pound out the lyrics with a fury hitherto unknown. “Hay Maker” closes the EP out with a hypnotic track that has elements of surf style rock, but is eerie and mysterious in a way no surf rock track has ever been. In between these two? “Forced Hand” reveals Henson to be the madman that he is! And the music sounds like something out of a Tarantino film, only more manic. And I love “Look Away,” with its grunts in the chorus, and the primal, guttural “Who do you think you are” coming out of Henson’s mouth is delightfully unexpected. If you see this advertised as including “members of Rumspringer” and expect something similar, you may be disappointed. But if you’re open to something offbeat, something different, and something a little dangerous and nihilistic, then you’re onto something. And so is Detached Objects.

THE FUR COATS – Short Brain EP (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

The Fur Coats is the current musical vehicle for Marc Ruvolo, Johann’s Face Records boss and former No Empathy front man. And while Ruvolo no longer lives in Chicago, his music still has a classic Chicago sound to it, no matter how much poppiness he adds. And there’s plenty of pop in this pop punk 7” EP. “One More Shot” probably has the most classic Chicago guitar sound of the tracks, with a thickness to it, and a start-stop in the lines. The songs have Ruvolo’s typical biting lyrics, too, and I love the doo-wop-pop-punk of “Idling Engines,” the record’s closer. Plus, I really enjoy the contrasts on offer in “Fathom,” a track that alternates between crunchy Ramones-core and more introspective indie-pop sounds. Another winner.

HOME MOVIES – Hell (Animal Style Records, www.animalstylerecords.com)

Formerly known as Stanley and the Search, a fresh name change and a new label signing are bringing about new things for this LA band. Steeped in a blend of pop punk, emo, and a bit of a harder edge, this band plays an updated version of these 90s stalwart styles. The five tracks on this EP are straight out of the old Fat Wreck Chords playbook, and fans of their back catalog will probably enjoy this. The band's performance on the tracks is tight and sounds very professional, and they play music that I was way into twenty years ago. And, while I can appreciate the music these days, it’s not really what excites me anymore. While I probably won’t have it on heavy rotation on my iPod, if this style is something you enjoy, then you should give this a try.

 

MEMBRANES – Dark Matter/Dark Energy (Metropolis Records, www.metropolis-records.com)

What? New music from the Membranes? Yes, this legendary UK post-punk band has released their first new studio album since 1989’s “To Slay The Rock Pig.” The reunited way back in 2009, so this album is, I guess, overdue. Which might explain why it clocks in at 14 songs and an hour and nine minutes, as they likely had plenty of material to record. The Membranes were known, back in the day, as pioneers of the “Avant noise” sound, and were cited as influences of Big Black, Sonic Youth, and others. The album, overall, is pretty much what you would expect from this band. Some of the tracks are a little less edgy than those of the past. And there are certainly some tracks that are much more “orchestral” in nature than stuff they’ve done before. Some tracks are trying too hard to be arty. Some are the equivalent of post-punk easy listening. But when it works, it works really well. “Do The Supernova” is as noisy and restrainedly manic as can be, with pervasive tension aching to burst, as it does on the chorus. “If You Enter The Arena, Be Prepared To Deal With Lions” is intense and rhythmic without ever breaking out into any sort of melody. But, for the few tracks such as these, there are more tracks like “21st Century Man,” which is little more than rhythmic noise and shouting. Or “Dark Matter,” a quiet, smooth bit of pulsing electronica that meanders to nowhere. Or “In The Graveyard,” which is an overly long, noisy, wandering dub track. I might keep those few interesting tracks in rotation on my iPod, but not most of this album.

NEW SWEARS – Junkfood Forever, Bedtime Whatever (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

OK, I’m tired of writing about how much Dirt Cult is branching off from their core pop punk sound. Because when every release sounds different from the others, you’re not just branching out anymore, you’re just diverse and cool. And Dirt Cult is also becoming the best Canadian record label based in the United States – because New Swears, based in Ottawa, are yet another Canadian band seeing a US release via Dirt Cult. It continues the theme of awesomeness coming from north of the border that I’ve noted before, too. While still rock music based, New Swears are more indie nerd-rock party animals than they are punk. The tone is set at the very start of the first track, with just the words “fun boy clubhouse.” Song lyrics make reference to smoking weed, drinking too much booze, and having sex. And New Swears doesn’t limit themselves to just the indie nerd-rock sound. Though that’s the core, they include elements of pop punk, country, and other genres within the album, leading to something that sounds cohesive, yet diverse, making for an excellent listen. I think “Cool Aid” is my favorite track, due to the retro-ish doo-wop like feel in this up-tempo poppy track, and mostly the awesome instrumental hook-laden ending. “Day Dreaming” is another fun one, with big sing-alongs and a breezy melody, sort of like poppy indie-punk moving to the islands. Lyrics are about how there’s shit going on in your life, like you can’t pay the rent, but you’re day dreaming all your worries away, about just having a good time and not giving a shit about the bad stuff. This is the good stuff.

NORTHBOUND – Death of a Slug (Animal Style Records, www.animalstylerecords.com)

Blend self-indulgent emo and 90’s “alternative” commercial pop punk sounds and you’ll get an idea of the sound Northbound is going for. The songs are uniformly mid-tempo, and the lyrics are pretty much downers. Yet the chord progressions are much poppier than that would suggest. The vocals are overly deliberately sung, with each syllable seemingly carefully emphasized, as if to prove how meaningful the lyrics are. It’s almost as if the band tried to take all the different genres that created popular “alternative” bands, created a formula to average them together, and figured it would create a “sure-fire” hit sound. But in this case, the result is less than the sum of its parts.

PEARS – Go To Prison (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

OK, yes. This album came out nearly a year ago. But Pears recently were signed to Fat Wreck Chords, who are now re-releasing it. Jersey Beat didn’t get around to reviewing it the first time, so we’re making up for lost time. Let me start by saying, if you haven’t yet seen Pears live, go do it as soon as humanly possible. Yes, they live up to all of the hype. Front man Zach Quinn is simply one of the most energetic performers in the scene today. The music blends the speed of hardcore, the gut-wrenching power of grind-core, and the melodic sensibilities of pop punk, and includes backing vocal harmonies on some tracks! This album, while not quite capturing the incredible intensity of their live shows, is something that floored me so much when it came out that I put it on my top albums of 2014 list, a list I normally reserve strictly for albums I’ve reviewed. Hey, since it’s getting a re-release, maybe it can make my list again this year! OK, there isn’t a bad track on the album, but I feel I should point out a few standouts. “You’re Boring” is the opener that will knock you on your ass. It’s super-fast, hard, melodic, and angular, all at the same time. Seriously, it will kill you if you’re not careful. “Victim To Be” is another killer track, so tight, so crunchy, so melodic, and so angry. “I am not a toy / I am a man I am a man!” is the lyric everyone burns into their memory the moment it happens at the live shows. “Sycophant” is a crazy one that grinds you so hard, yet manages to toss in some country-like rhythms in the middle of an insane hardcore song, one with an evil grind-core breakdown at the end, too! “Terrible” isn’t at all, and “Judy Is A Punk” is the band’s tribute to Ramones-core. Hell, every track is a standout. Most fun moment of the album? The Descendents shout-out at the very end. Seriously, if you’ve been living under a rock, go order this from Fat right now. You’re welcome.

THE PLURALS – An Onion Tied To My Belt (GTG Records, www.gtgrecords.net)

The new full length from Michigan’s The Plurals opens with “Prolly Knot,” prolly the strongest track of the album – always a smart move. The two-minute track starts with a few strums on an acoustic guitar, and then explodes into psychedelic garage punk, featuring drummer Hattie Mae Danby’s breathy vocals and Tommy Plural’s manic guitar. The tracks on the album range from the rockin’ garage punk of “Facebook” to the fun, noisy, sloppy punk of “Oh Yeah” to the pretty indie rock of “Fine.” “Compass” is probably the closest thing to traditional “pop punk” on the album, and it’s a pretty great track, with a simple melodic line, powerful guitars, and some good sing-along parts. I think the tracks with Hattie Mae singing are may favorites, because they tend to be a little less rough, a little more indie-pop sounding. “Dunwanna” is a good example of that, as is the closer, “How About The Weather,” a rerecording of the track that appeared on a split 7”, but done in a smoother, cleaner way on the LP. Good stuff.

THE REGRETS – Ex-Boyfriend (the-regrets.bandcamp.com)

Out of Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, this 4-song EP starts out with a song that would go really well with The Stupid Daikini. “Enough” is a short indie pop song that tells the titled ex-boyfriend that “you really oughta leave me alone,” or else “I will make you pay.” How? “I’ll cut your dick right off.” No vagaries here. The music is urgent and insistent. I suggest you leave her alone, dude. Really. The song is short, but sweet, in jangly sound, if not in sentiment. “Wish” is a song that has a happy sound, but another sad sentiment, with lyrics of self-deprecation. I appreciate Olivia Russin’s unadorned vocals, stark and laid bare, just like the emotions of the song lyrics. This is an enjoyable EP.

THE STUPID DAIKINI – Everything is Fine (thestupiddaikini.bandcamp.com)

As much as I fell in love with their debut EP last year, this new album has just made me love them even more. The sound is fuller, thanks to the addition of bass and multi-tracking on the ukulele, with undistorted strumming complementing the wall-o-noise uke that underpins everything. Melissa Zavislak’s vocals are as gorgeous as ever, and Brittany Hartin’s drumming has matured, too. Richer and fuller, rather than stripped down and primitive, the songs are still as angry and dark as ever, which makes my heart sing with glee. The contrast between Zavislak’s happy personality and the bitter lyrics of her songs is one of the things I adore about The Stupid Daikini. There’s also much more diversity in the feel of the songs, which is always a good thing in my book. “5150” has a sort of retro doo-wop girl group sound to it, sort of like something you would have heard back in the 60s, except a little dirtier sounding and a lot more angst-filled. “Anger Management” has a 70s soul feel; I just rocks like crazy. The lyrics are about keeping your cool, you “put on a real good disguise” in the face of crap like a break up, watching your ex with another person, to hide your true feelings. The saddest song has to be “Baby.” It’s also the creepiest. It’s certainly the quietest, as the only track without the distort-o-uke sound. I will not reveal the topic, but trust me; this is one that is the stuff of nightmares. I didn’t think they could ever top the debut EP, but they have. This one is highly recommended.

THE SUNBATHERS – Dreamin’ Of You (thesunbathersct.bandcamp.com)

The Sunbathers present a mix of 60s inspired power pop, country twang, and R&B. Early Beatles is an obvious influence. When it works, it’s decent enough, though pretty lightweight. The opener, “There’s Nothing Better,” is an example. It sounds like a modern rendition of early Beatles tracks, with hints of countrified R&B. But it lacks the depth, soul and energy of those Beatles tracks. A few of the tracks are a bit different, such as “All I’ve Got,” which has sort of a 60s folk-rock flower child vibe to it. “In the Morning, By the Door” is a pretty acoustic track, in the style of “Blackbird,” and is probably my favorite of the album. It’s a sad song of lost love. I do enjoy “Your Love’s a Show,” with another strong Beatles-esque sound. The songs are nice for some quiet background music, but, overall, it’s pretty much insubstantial.

ZOMBIE GARDEN CLUB (Bongo Boy Records, www.bongoboyrecords.com)

Zombie Garden Club is the creation of Johnny Douglas, a performer and songwriter whose credits include writing songs for the likes of Gregg Allman and others, and whose songs have appeared in various TV shows, such as “Shameless,” “Smallville,” and Beverly Hills 90210.” Douglas has performed with such musical luminaries as B.B. King, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Garcia. For this solo effort, Douglas decided to focus on the garage rock’n’roll sound. And, on a few tracks, he’s succeeded, to an extent. The opener, “Call It Love,” is a pretty raucous tune that harkens back to the glory days of the bluesy garage sound. And “One Step, Two Steps, Three Steps Gone” has that great eerie sound of the electric organ playing in a minor key that was so hip back in the day. And “Hey Little School Girl,” besides having a creepy title, has a great retro garage sound. But, for the most part, the album is full of songs that sound, well, like the sort of stuff that would appeal to mass audiences of popular TV shows or commercial pop rock music. Some of them just sound like the sort of white-boy blues rock you might expect. Some sound like the sort of southern blues-rock ZZ Top might have played. And there’s even some faux jazz-rock in the track “Diamond Daze,” which sounds like something you might hear performed at a shopping mall at lunchtime (well, the mall near where I work has live music at lunchtime sometimes). And “Calling Andromeda” is sort of electronic easy listening pap that’s the stuff of the Eurovision song contest. To me, the ten of eleven tracks of blandness can’t redeem the three or so tracks that are good. And, let’s be honest here, if you really want to hear great garage rock, there’s plenty of the real deal out there to choose from.


SWANS – Filth (Deluxe Edition) (Young God Records, www.younggodrecords.com)

Swans released their first full-length studio LP, Filth, way back in 1983. Now fully remastered and available on vinyl for the first time in years, Filth is also being released in a deluxe three CD edition. Disk 1 contains the original album, plus some live recordings from The Kitchen in New York City in 1982; disk 2 features the “Body to Body, Job to Job” material, and studio out-takes and live recordings from 1982-85; and disk 3 has the Swans’ 1982 debut EP plus various live recordings from the 1982-84 era. Swans were a reaction to the then dominant punk music of the underground, with its three chords, fast songs, and fairly standard melodic song structures. While punk music was meant to be an anti-establishment movement, Swans felt that it was part of the same thing, musically. They set out to destroy all musical conventions, creating music that was heavier, less structured, and didn’t rely on any, let alone, three, chords. This is Swans at their original, raw, powerful strength. It was no-holds barred, no fucks given music. If all you are familiar with is their most recent three albums, released after a long hiatus, be prepared. While the new stuff is challenging enough, the old stuff is not for the weak-hearted. Pounding, grinding, repetitive noise is what you get. The live tracks on disk 1 include “Strip/Burn,” “Heatsheet,” “Blackout,” “Clay Man,” “Stay Here,” and “Weakling.” And, given how long ago they were recorded and the type of source material, the sound quality is pretty good. And, while the music is primal, there is a sort of groove to it. Underneath Michael Gira’s shouting, below the growling basses and pounding drums, there’s a sense of rhythm and energy that pulses. Disc 2 will take most people a lot of fortitude to get through. If disk 1 is raw, disk 2 is still alive, and fighting back. Unrelenting, grating noise, shouts, and pounding beats assault your ears. “Seal It Over” is an interesting one, with the title of the track being repeated over and over as the “lyrics” of the track, and a sort of art-funk feel to the bass heavy track. What sounds like horns seals the deal for me on it. And, while I am a fan of the experimental and different, including noise, a few of these tracks are even a little much for me – something I think Gira would appreciate and feel as a sense of accomplishment. The tracks from the original EP on disk 3 are a revelation, because I had never heard them before. Before the noise and grind, Swans was playing…well…songs! For sure, they’re different. Very “no wave,” which is a term Gira frowned upon, apparently. But here are four tracks with a beat, and, dare I say it, a sort of melody? I really like these! The live tracks on this disk are, to my ears, even more difficult than those on disk 2. The fidelity is low, and the tracks are loaded with purposeful feedback and atonal noise, with tinny sounding pounds and clangs. Nevertheless, this three CD set is a must for all real Swans fans and art-noise fans.

SMALL FEET – From Far Enough Away Everything Sounds Like The Ocean (Barsuk Records, www.barsuk.com)

Hailing from Sweden, indie trio Small Feet are releasing their debut LP. Front man Simon Stålhamre seems to be channeling Neil Young, his high register vocals and quavering quality sounding like it comes right from the 70s. That, combined with the delicate, folksy, dreamy rock music gives the whole album a feeling of being from another time, long ago. But, to me, that’s not really a good thing. I wasn’t into that whole post Woodstock hippie rock thing back when it happened, and I have no nostalgia for it. Granted, Small Feet’s instrumentation and sound is light years ahead of what technology could offer in the 70s, and there’s much more of a spacey quality here than could be achieved back then. But that doesn’t change the fact that, while listening to this, I expect to smell the aroma of burning cannabis wafting through the air, and to see long-haired men and women with flowers painted on their cheeks and beads around their necks walking by. Not my scene, man.

THE STEWART DOLLY – Wonderful (www.thestewartdolly.com)

Coming five years after their self-titled debut LP, and taking three years to make, due to life getting in the way via school, work, and line-up changes, New Jersey’s The Stewart Dolly have finally released their second full-length album. I’m not sure if the passage of time and line-up changes were the cause, but there’s an interesting range of styles evident on this release. One thing is for sure, the time enabled them to craft a mighty fine album. The overall sound is sort of nerdy indie-pop. But there are harder-edged songs, pop-punk songs, emo-ish songs, and more folksy songs along the way, too. The opener, “Jerkstore,” is a solid track, with a great, full guitar sound and plenty of jangle. It’s clearly evident that the band is having a great time playing, from the joyful shouts you can hear in the background. “Almost Carmen” is another one of the more raucous of the tracks, bordering on pop-punk, and it’s a definite favorite. I also enjoy the noisy guitars contrasting with bouncy melody and light-hearted lyrics on “Banana Peel,” a definite throwback to 90s indie-pop. “Running Into People I Don’t Want To Talk To” is a cool track, with buzzy electronics to match the buzzy guitars. “Forty Beers,” the closer, may be my favorite track, with its combination of poppy noise, nerdy melody, and fun lyrics. And you can, again, hear the whoops and hollers in the background, indicating the band loves what they’re doing. When the band loves it, it makes it so much easier for us to love it. Recommended.

BAD COP/BAD COP – Not Sorry (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that I first heard this foursome at Awesomefest 7, nearly two years ago. I declared them to be one of my revelations of that year’s fest, a band I hadn’t heard before, but instantly fell in love with. And, as I mentioned just over a year ago when I reviewed their previous release, the four-song EP, “Boss Lady,” apparently I wasn’t the only one. None other than Fat Mike of NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords heard the band and instantly decided he wanted to put the on his label. Now, just over a year later, here’s Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s debut full-length LP. It’s thirteen tracks chock full of snotty pop-punk awesomeness. One of the standout features is the beautiful three-part harmony. And just like fashion designers on “Project Runway” always like to talk about blending “the hard and the soft” in their designs and fabric choices, that’s an apt description for Bad Cop/Bad Cop. The beautiful melodies and harmonies are juxtaposed with harder, edgier, and grittier music. And Jennie Cotterill’s smooth, sweet vocals blend with Stacey Dee’s tough, snotty vocals in ways that defy expectations. Even if you’ve not heard this band before, if you’re a Fat Wreck fan, you may have heard Dee’s big voice on the recent release of Fat Mike’s musical, “Home Street Home.” There isn’t a bad track on this album, but I do have some favorites. The opener, “Nightmare,” perfectly sets the tone for the album. The lyrics are self-deprecating and sweet (there’s that hard and soft again), talking about all the person’s faults, but her significant other is her dream come true, and how she’s trying to be a better person. “Anti Love Song” alternates between a cool doo-wop sound and BC/BC’s great pop-punk. “Sugarcane” is a song of empowerment in the face of abuse, and it’s got the catchiest, hookiest melody, too. “Rip You To Shreds” is a song that blends retro touches of 70s girl-group pop and modern pop-punk sounds, and I really enjoy that. But like I said, there isn’t a bad track in the bunch. Fat Mike, himself, produced this album, and he did a fine job – this is one of the strongest debut LPs I’ve heard in a long time. I said this before, and after hearing this record I’ll say it again: Bad Cop/Bad Cop is in for some big things. Highly recommended!

BELLS ATLAS – Hyperlust EP (www.bellsatlas.com)

Containing four new songs form one of Oakland’s more original groups, Hyperlust features a blend of jazz, R&D, funk, and dreamy pop music. Distorted drums and bass back smooth vocals and bouncy, lilting keyboards blend together in harmonious synchronicity. “Sugar For The Queen,” the second track, may be my favorite, because every time I listen to it, I can’t help but move around to the beautiful beat. And “Bling,” the closer, is another great standout. If you like indie dream pop and jazzy music, try this out. I like it.

BLANK PAGES – No Reception b/w Golden Chains (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

The release of this single is bittersweet. It’s sweet, because it’s more dark garage punk from Berlin’s Blank Pages. Bitter, because the band announced that they’re breaking up, so this will likely be their final release. When their self-titled LP was released in the US about a year ago, I mentioned that they sort of sounded like they could be from Denton, which is still true. They have that cool, gritty, garage-punk sound, but at a slightly less manic level than a band like Radioactivity or Marked Men. The two songs here are a good representation of the sound that will be missed.

DAILY RITUAL (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

How many punk bands have you heard that come from Singapore? I’d be lying if I said I had ever heard one before this. But Daily Ritual are, indeed, from Singapore. German label Sabotage Records has scoured the globe in an international effort to bring punks everywhere some music that they would otherwise be unable to hear. Daily Ritual play a very melodic, yet heavy sort of music. It’s clear that this is rooted in the world of punk music, but it’s hard to just call it punk. Maybe melodic post-punk with garage-like influences? The rapid fire guitar strumming reminds me somewhat of Radioactivity, that near legendary band from Denton. But then, sometimes the slower tracks have a sort of post-punk/goth-punk feel, a la some of the stuff TSOL was doing back in the mid eighties, but with a harder edge. Occasionally I hear hints of early Bad Religion, too. I guess what I’m trying to say is that The Daily Ritual is hard to pin down and classify, which is always a good thing in my book. In any event, the eight tracks on this album are always high energy, even though the pace isn’t overly frenetic. This is something I’ll listen to again, for sure.

DER FADEN – Best Guess b/w Filament (Dirt Cult Records,
www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Well, this is certainly a different sort of release for Dirt Cult Records. Normally putting out releases from bands that play music ranging from pop-punk to garage-punk, this is outside those parameters. German for “The Thread,” Der Faden are from Canada, and play a blend of indie rock and power-pop. This new single from Dirt Cult Records features two songs loaded with hooks, with sections sounding more modern indie, and others sounding more retro power-pop. The bold, distinctive guitar sound and harmonized vocals sound like something right out of the late 70s and early 80s. And the bridge on “Best Guess” is killer. I’m really enjoying this, and can’t wait to hear more!

JEREMY LOOPS – Trading Change (Barsuk Records, www.barsuk.com)

While Jeremy Loops’ debut full-length LP saw release about a year ago in his native South Africa, it’s finally getting a US release this summer from Barsuk. Loops and the album have already won accolades, and deservedly so. The music blends familiar South African sounds with even more familiar country and folk sounds, plus a healthy dash of pop music. The whole is much greater than the sum of these parts, with a truly uplifting, joyful sound. “Sinner” opens the album with a beautiful choral sound, and then launches into up-tempo acoustic music, with guitar, bass, and harmonica. Shortly after banjo joins in, and the instrumentation gets thicker and thicker, but always with a loping bounce and relaxed feel. Other stand-outs include “Dynamite,” a totally bouncy and mostly acoustic track, “Skinny Blues,” a track that blends acoustic and ethereal electronics, and the glorious closer, “Basil.” “Lonesome & Blue has beautifully delicate dueling and harmonizing male/female vocals in a softer track. There’s even a few rap tunes here. “Down South” doesn’t quite work for me, sounding a bit overblown and a bit forced. “Running Away” and “My Shoes” blend rap and country blues, and sounds pretty cool, but they have misogynistic lyrics that bother me a lot. But overall, this is an enjoyable release.

KID WAVE – Wonderlust (Heavenly Recordings, www.facebook.com/HeavenlyRecordings)

The UK’s Kid Wave are a throwback, of sorts. They play a blend of indie-pop styles that were pretty big back in the 90s. Jangly and melodic, yet dreamy and fuzzy, Kid Wave have a lush shoe-gaze sound that’s got a little more oomph to it than the typical shoe-gaze band. The album opens with the title track, and immediately it’s a blast from the past. Big, fuzzed out guitar chords greet your ears, along with a ton of jangle. The guitars quiet down enough for the beautifully ethereal vocals of Lea Emmery to be introduced, then come back with a vengeance, and intertwine with Emmery’s vocals in a fuzzy bliss. I enjoy the easy quality of “Best Friend,” a track that provides the feeling of gliding along through an open countryside. And “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” has hints of 60s female doo wop, giving it a cool retro aesthetic, while staying firmly rooted in that indie/shoe-gaze sound. Nice.

L.A. DRUGZ – All Burned Down (www.facebook.com/L.A.DRUGZ)

L.A. Drugz has released some new music, digitally and physically in digital format. There are two new songs on their bandcamp site that are the first two tracks on this new CD that they’ve been selling on their recent tour. There are six songs, on the CD version, from their “Outside Place” 12” EP, released in 2013. And there are two acoustic tracks that are only available on this CD. The title track is a raucous rock’n’roller. I hesitate to pigeonhole it into garage rock or power-pop. This is raw, fast’n’loud, underground rock. “Runnin’” harkens back to the early 70s, and its sort of psychedelic sounds of protest and revolution. I won’t even comment on the middle six tracks, other than to reiterate what I said when the EP came out, that they are super energetic and are awesome, raw, powerful roots rock’n’roll. The final two tracks are “Alright With You,” and “Summer Shoes,” and seem to be front man Justin Maurer demoing some new songs with acoustic guitar. The former is the better of the two, with a cool retro 60s garage pop sound. The latter is still good, but is more of a 70s jam tune, less my thing than the other tracks. If you missed out on the limited vinyl run of the EP, I recommend trying to get in on this.

PINS – Wild Nights (Bella Union, www.bellaunion.com)

Pins are a four-piece all-female band from Manchester, in the UK. Wild Nights represents the band’s sophomore release. Their sound harkens back, in a way, to Manchester’s heyday in the 80s, when bands like New Order, Happy Mondays, and the like were making blissed out underground pop music. No, this doesn’t sound exactly like those bands; it’s more the feeling. PINS leans more heavily on a guitar sound than those bands did, back in the booming days of synth pop. But the danceability is there, and a sort of modern psychedelic edge is there. I think my absolute favorite track of the album has to be “Young Girls,” which has a fairly simple melody, but the jangly guitar combined with high pitched vocals in the instrumental parts just hit me the right way. I also like “Dazed by You,” another jangly one that has retro surf sounds in the rhythms and guitars. “If Only” has a nice retro doo-wop like feel, and “Molly” is dark and mysterious, also with a retro garage-like undercurrent. One song that I feel could use some improvement is “Too Little Too Late.” It’s dirge-like, and just feels like it drags a bit, and the treatment is heavy, but not as heavy and hard-hitting as this song needs to be.

VOMITFACE – Another Bad Year (Boxing Clever Records ,
www.boxingcleverrecords.com)

What would happen if you combined the dirtiest grunge band with the nerdiest indie pop band? You’re about to find out, because that’s Vomitface, a trio out of Jersey City. “Never Make It,” the first of the five songs on this EP is sort of an outlier, with bits of funk mixed in, but the grungy noise permeates everything. I’m really in love with the fourth track, “Did She Come Alone.” It’s the noisiest, geekiest pop song I’ve heard in a long time, it’s got tons of bounciness, and is just a lot of fun. “Luckiest Man Alive” is so schizophrenic, it’s a blast. This is originality and wonderfulness all together! Recommended.

VVHILE – More (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Wow, Dirt Cult is really branching out from their core sound. VVHILE is pretty far from pop-punk. VVhile is from Belgrade, Serbia, and plays music that blends shoe-gaze, indie, surf, and Manchester post-punk sounds together. This makes for a style that’s, at once, familiar and unique. “VVhile Things” is easily the most raucous track of the album, the closest thing to “punk” the record comes. Think of My Bloody Valentine, but louder and much faster, with a sing-along chorus. The bridge changes mood, briefly, getting very delicate, but then it’s right back to the fast’n’loud stuff. The waltz time “Soon is Never” is a favorite. It’s got a very dark, creepy quality to it, with grinding noise always present in the mix, sometimes in the forefront, sometimes lurking beneath the floating, haunting melody and vocals. “Change” is an interesting track, in that it’s got the repetitive minimalism of Krautrock, but it’s much more restrained, with the bass thrumming along quietly with chugging drums, while a single guitar plucks out a repeating line sans chords. “My More” is like a noisy, echoy European surf track, and it’s pretty killer. “Unacceptable” is another favorite, with an urgent feel and plenty of tension. Dirt Cult has another winner on its hands.

WALLEATER – I/II (Tiny Engines, tinyengines.limitedrun.com)

Tiny label Tiny Engines has signed Leeds, UK based Walleater, and are releasing the band’s first two EPs as an album. I has been previously released, but II is all-new. Usually, with repeated listens, even a marginal record might start to grow on me. With this record, though, the opposite seems to be true. Upon first listen, my immediate thought was, “oh, cool, some noisy pop music.” I don’t pay really close attention on the first listen; I just get impressions. I heard some deep, melodic, noisy guitars with some quiet, smoother sections, and though it was pretty OK. But on repeated listens I delve a little more deeply, with more attention paid. And with this album, I’m less enthralled with what I hear. The album starts strongly, with those melodic noisy guitars, but quickly resolves into something smoother and gentler, and less interesting. The noisy sections that follow seem to just sound like some contemporary alternative music, but with less enthusiasm. And the process repeats itself, with dull, smoother sections alternating with dull grungy noisier sections. Sorry, I thought I was going to like this, but I can’t recommend it.

WHITEWASH – Shibboleth (whitewashmusic.bandcamp.com)

Overall, I like this new album from New York City’s Whitewash. The songs are, at once, both expansive and intimate. There’s a huge sound, as if the band is in a large space. But, at the same time, it feels like I’m right there, alone with the band, in that large open space. The music is light, lithe indie-pop, with a hypnotic feel. I like the opener, “Hunger Strike,” with it’s shimmery feel in the guitars. “Pantomime” has a cool minimalist repetitiveness to it. But halfway through the album, things take a turn for the worse, though. “Dissociative Episode” is more of an easy listening jazz-rock number than anything else. Think Steely Dan’s “Aja” album. “Neon Loveseat is even worse, being a full-on easy listening instrumental track. “Tentacle” gets things back on track, with a nice noisy jangle. And the closer, “Reagan’s Death Star,” is an odd art piece that I don’t quite get. It’s got traffic noise, a cheap synthesizer beat, and found sound recordings. Mixed, but promising.



TODD ALLEN – Awkward (toddalso.bandcamp.com)

Todd Allen, formerly of Beside Myself and sort of formerly/currently of Squarecrow, has released a solo album of sorts. Here, he plays acoustic guitar, but on some tracks has backup musicians playing drums, bass, and cello. And, while most of the tracks are reminiscent of Allen’s past projects, with an emo-edged pop-punk sound, “So I Ever Cross Your Mind” is notable for its very traditional folk music sound, and I really enjoy that. “Static” opens the album, first with just acoustic guitar, but soon enough, electric guitar, bass, and drums join in, and the pace is set for the album. Slightly better than mid-tempo, this is the sort of blend of emo, Americana and pop-punk that a lot of bands have taken to recently. My favorite track may be “Quarters,” a very sad, lonely song. Sonically, the harmonized chorus of whoa-whoas is particularly striking, and what caught my attention, but it’s the lyrics that really got me. “I don’t know where I am going / Or where I will lay my head next / But I will keep on dragging on / ‘Cause this is all that I’ve got. / I’ve been in this van since 10am / And I don’t know if I can get back to you / And when I reach into my empty pockets / I don’t know if I can get back to you.” And the last two tracks couldn’t be more polar opposites. “Ramble” is a quiet, delicate track, while “Bargain Bin” is a huge, noisy track with tons of echoing, booming sound bouncing all over the place. Solid effort from a solid guy.

DAMAGED BUG – Cold Hot Plumbs (Castle Face Records, www.castlefacerecords.com)

Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer is a busy man. Not only is a new TOS album out, but he’s also releasing a new album of electronic-driven pop music under the Damaged Bug moniker. This follow-up to last year’s “Hubba Bubba” features fourteen tracks of music that’s, at the same time, spaced-out, buzzy, funky, and smooth. I have kind of a weird relationship with Dwyer and Thee Oh Sees. I think some of the stuff is brilliant, and some of it is just mediocre. And that’s how I feel about this new album. The first track is a short intro that blends right into the first song, “What Cheer,” and it’s an awful way to start the album. The vocals seem to be off key and completely lacking in energy or conviction. On the other hand, I like “Jet In Jungle,” with its buzzy arpeggiating electronics and driving drum beat, and its blissed out vocals and high-pitched single note synth embellishments. It’s got a very futuristic feel, as seen from the 70s. The short 28 second transitional track, “Structure Image Exterior,” has that spacey sound, too, and I wish there had been a bit more exposition on this sort of theme on the album. “Grape Basement” immediately follows, and goes back to those out of tune vocals, sung in an almost deadpan falsetto that makes it sound like they would rather have been anywhere but in the studio. “Cone” is a study in dichotomy in one song, with urgent, energetic, buzzy electronics pushing ever forward, but lackadaisical vocals trying to pull things down. Mixed feelings abound.

DISAPPEARS – Irreal (Kranky, www.kranky.net)

Disappears recently released this new album, the follow-up to 2013’s “Era,” and are touring in support. I caught them at San Diego’s Casbah the other night and decided to pick this up. The last album of theirs I reviewed was 2011’s “Guider.” At the time I commented on the minimalism and repetitive lines, but the music then was much more pop-oriented, and I compared them to both The Fall and to Neu and other Krautrock groups. They’ve evolved considerably since then. In a world of bland alternative rock trying to fake indie cred, it’s a rare thing indeed for a band to swim so completely against the current and create music that is, essentially, cubist artwork made with sound waves. Guitars are used more as percussion instruments than to provide a melody. There’s a definite sense of minimalism, with repetitive sounds replacing the more traditional verse/chorus/verse pattern of pop songs. And the vocals are offered in a deadpan monotone. The resulting sound is one of definite structure, but an otherworldly, yet rigid structure, with an abstract sensibility. This is not musical diversion; this is art that demands attention. “Guider” made my top releases list of 2011. Will “Irreal” make this year’s list? It’s too early to tell, but it’s a contender, for sure.

FLESH WORLD – The Wild Animals In My Life (Iron Lung Records, ironlungrecords.bigcartel.com)

Upon first listen, this reminds me of some of the earliest post-punk records from way back in the early 80s. Bands like Boston’s The Proletariat. And even bands like Washington, DC’s Strange Boutique. Those are two very different bands, but imagine blending together the hard-edged Proletariat with the lo-fi gothiness of Strange Boutique, and you’ll start to understand the sound of Flesh World. Right from the start, “To Lose Me” is an excellent opener to this album, and made me feel like I had fallen through a time warp back to 30+ years ago. “Shaved Head” is another like this. These tracks are lo-fi, guitar intense, but with sort of a smoothish sound, and sort of a darkly bright jangle. “Poolside Boys” is the most Strange Boutique-like, with tons of reverb, and an expansive sound. “Here in the Dark” closes the album, and for most of its six plus minutes, it’s a generally good track that fits in well with the rest of the album. But it ends on an incredibly intense, but beautifully dissonant note. Enjoyable.

THE FUR COATS – The League of Extraordinary Octopuses (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Well, I am very embarrassed. This record came out several months ago, but it got lost in my inbox until just now. This never happens, but I guess it does. And, as the saying goes, better late then never. If you’re looking for a serious musical commentary on politics of the day, or a deep emotional exploration of modern life, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for a fucking fun record from a fun band, you’ve found it. The band introduces the album with the ska-like fanfare title track, then dives right into a baker’s dozen more songs full of pop-punk goodness. The band blends Chicago’s big guitar sounds with a Bay area funny-pop-punk sensibility. It sort of makes sense, because the front-man of this band is none other than Marc Ruvolo, he of No Empathy and Johann’s Face Records fame/infamy. One of the funniest songs has to be the one which has lyrics describing all the awful things the person has done, with a chorus that states, “I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror / And saw myself for what I really am / Goddamn Goddamn Goddamn I’m a handsome man!” I really enjoy the 50s doo-wop inspired “Ipso Fatso,” with its dark lyrics about leaving to restart life, and asking those left behind to “Please pretend that I was good, that you were my friend.” “Tiny Fists” is a great track that has hints of 80s dream pop in it. The chorus, “Raise your tiny fists and take a poke at the world,” may be a reference to the futility of trying to affect change. “I Drank a Beer” seems deeply steeped in the Chicago sound, and I was trying to figure out why, when it hit me. Ruvolo’s spoken vocals on this track seem to be equal parts Jeff Pezzati (Naked Raygun) and Josh Caterer (Smoking Popes), with a tough, sardonic attitude and smoothed out edges. Oh, and the buzz saw guitar doesn’t hurt, either. “Don’t Make Me Beg” sounds like it could be part of the score of a pop-punk musical. It has a really strong “stage presence” feel. The musicianship on this album is top notch, with tight arrangements and expert performances, as one would expect from veterans Ruvolo, Devon Kay (who also plays in Direct Hit! and Devon Kay and the Solutions), and Davey Houle on drums. This is a really fun album, and I wish The Fur Coats would tour to the west coast so I can see a live show. And it makes me kick myself for not having listened to it when I first received it, as I’ve denied myself the pleasures all this time.

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLOOD –
Used Books And Guns
(itsaliverecords.com, laescalerarecords.com)

Finally! After a couple of split 7” records, GPB has finally released a new album with their three-piece line-up of the past few years. Three piece? Worry yourself not! The sound is bigger and thicker than any three-piece you can imagine. The music this band plays is generally classified under the category of “pop punk,” but that’s too broad a category these days, including everything from the fast, loud, and light poppy punk of bands like Lipstick Homicide to the more edgy Americana sounds of Dan Padilla. GPB plays something in the middle, more of a blend of power pop and punk sounds. It’s edgy rock and roll music that lives in the DIY punk camp. Todd Smailes’ guitars are simple, but huge. He doesn’t rely on technical wizardry, providing enough sound, though, to fill out the band and then some. His vocals are equal to the task, with just the right amount of gruffness to match the toughness of the music. Jason Gentile’s bass provides a solid foundation, and Michael Spaid’s drumming propels the band ever forward. Gentile also provides lead vocals on a few tracks, most notably on “Mahogany Monotony,” a track that I’ve heard in demo recordings before, but never quite like this. It’s faster and louder and more urgent sounding than previous versions. “Slacktivism” is a new track that I really like. It leans more toward the power pop end of the spectrum than other songs and has some great harmonized vocals. Dare I say, it has a bit of an early, best-era Green Day sort of feel? Other tracks that I really love include the martial-like “Let It Sink” and the crowd pleasing “Paper Lions.” But, honestly, they’re all great tracks.

LA URSS – Maravillas Del Mundo
(www.sabotagerecords.net)

Truly an international effort, Sabotage Records, of Bremen, Germany, is releasing a new album from Spanish punk band La URSS. Hailing from Granada, La URSS channels the sounds of late 70s UK punk mixed with the early 80s SoCal surf-punk sound. While not original, they play it well. I particularly like the tracks that provide a heavy does of surf jangle, like “Ataúdes de Plástico” (Plastic Coffins). Listening to this one can imagine being back in that era, in Orange County, California, being at the beach all day and going to shows at night. It’s a fun blast from the past from a modern punk band.

LYSOLGANG – Bang
(lysolgangforlife.bandcamp.com)

Originally released digitally several months ago, Lysolgang’s “Bang” EP finally saw a limited vinyl release just this year. And Lysolgang may just be the missing link between old school hardcore punk and modern day pop punk. They play fast and loud, with more energy than the San Onofre nuclear reactor ever put out, yet they do it with gobs of melody. “Hi-V” starts things off at a furious pace, with hardly time to take a breath. Patrick Jam’s guitars are in a frenzy, while his gritty, gravelly vocals tear the song to shreds. “Behind a Smile” is a bit less frantic, and more modal, and I hear some early Social D influence here. “Summer Came” may be the only track that feels out of place, because the easy, loping power pop music doesn’t blend as well with Patrick Jam’s gruff vocals as the fast’n’loud stuff does. But overall, a good effort.

THE ONE2S – EP 2 (www.theone2s.com)

Take one part shoegaze and one part indie-pop. Blend well using guitar, bass, and drums. Bake at One2 degrees. Be cool for five songs. The first of the five songs is “Blank Stare,” a slow, mostly spare track. Sadly, to me, it’s the weakest of the bunch. The vocals are just slightly off, and the loud screaming parts don’t do it for me. I keep saying this over and over: Bands, put your best track (or close to it) first. It will grab listeners’ attention and give them a much more positive attitude toward the rest of the songs. Anyway, things improve dramatically, with “Cryer,” which opens with some great guitar chords and a strong beat. It gives the track a strong foot stomping feel, with ethereal vocals providing a very nice counterpoint. “Gazed Out” is two minute instrumental that tries to be arty, but just comes across as a bit self-indulgent. “I Can See” alternates between jangly guitars and full-out fuzz, with a lilting melody sung in those ethereal vocals. And the closer, “Pop The Ripper,” switches up the guitar and vocal stylings, with the vocals being on the indie-pop side of the fence, and the guitars wafting in the ether, alternating with raging pop. In my opinion, it’s the best track of the EP, and a nice closer, Three out of 5 for the One2s.

SCIENCE CLUB – Marathon EP (scienceclub.bandcamp.com)

Last December, Philly punk band Science Club released a teaser for their full-length LP, Day Job. Calling this an EP is a stretch, since it’s two songs, making it a single. But that doesn’t take anything away from the quality music. This is high energy stuff, with tons of jangly guitars, backing vocals with lots of whoa-whoas. “A Drunken Sleaze Party” opens things up with typical pop-punk fare, a song about a relationship that fell apart. The title track is another great one, with fast and loud parts, simple melodic line, and plenty of opportunities for crowd shouting and fist pumping. I believe the LP already came out before I received this for review, so if the other songs are as good as these, it’s something worth checking out.

SECRETS – Renditions EP (Velocity Records, www.velocityrecords.com)

Secrets is a band that I’ve never heard of, though they claim San Diego as their hometown. Some research revealed why. It’s not the sort of band I go out of my way to see. They call themselves a “post hardcore band,” but really play commercial alternative and screamo metal. But not on this four-song EP. Here, they perform acoustic versions of three of the songs from their second full-length album, “Fragile Figures,” plus one new song. These tracks sound nothing like their usual sound. They’re stripped down and spare, with much less of the rock star attitude of their regular releases. But rather than coming across as more honest, it sounds more like a boy band, complete with delicate harmonies and high register vocals. In either form, I’m not really into it.

THE SPLITS – LP II (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

Finnish band The Splits is releasing their second full-length LP, but this time a whole new audience can discover this band, courtesy of Dirtnap Records. Four women from Helsinki performing garage punk tracks? Why, yes, that’s exactly what this is. It’s pretty raw stuff, harkening back to the 1970s LA underground rock and roll sound. “You Don’t Get My Love” may be my favorite of the album, with a fantastic early LA power-pop sort of sound that could have fit right in with bands like The Nerves. It’s loaded with jangle, plenty edgy, and makes good use of horns! “Melody” is a super raucous track with an intense buzziness about it, and a bit of darkness to it. And I like “Two Faces,” a track with a cool garage rock hook and plenty of attitude. Kiitos, Splits!

SUCCESS – Radio Recovery (Red Scare, www.redsare.net)

I just saw Success perform the night before writing this review, I think for the first time, and I literally could not stop smiling the whole time. I instantly knew I had to buy their new album, released just a couple weeks ago. The music is so joyous and uplifting! Hailing from Seattle, Success play a variety of emotionally charged pop-punk, but more deeply rooted in the traditions of fast and loud than a lot of bands in this sub-genre. The album opens with a shout that references the lyrics of the album’s closer, “Calling all mistakes, this is Radio Recovery!” and then launches into “Believe In,” which sets the tone for the whole album. A surprising new addition that some “punk purists” might decry is Sean Lovett’s keyboards. But I think it adds a great new element to the band, and should not be so flippantly dismissed. Especially on the song, “Flowers,” where a certain part of the track has some awesome choral vocals that resolve into the keys and Rev’s vocals, it gives it a very solemn feel. The song that really got me jumping around the most at the show is on this album, and is definitely a stand-out among stand-outs. “Head For The Hills” is an amazingly blazing track with more than a hint of twangy bluesy rock, and is about leaving behind everything you know to go for it, to make your dreams reality, and make a difference. “Lives That We Deserve,” is an anthem that, as lead vocalist/guitarist Aaron Rev said during the show, is something he wrote for his grandfather, a man who worked hard all his life to provide for his family. “I work these hands until they hurt / I drag these legs down through the dirt / Because we work, we work to build our lives into lives that we deserve.” The penultimate track, “The Impossible Truth,” is a track that makes great use of the keyboards, with acoustic guitar and keys providing a reflective mood. The lyrics are pretty profound, about living a tough life, with everything going wrong that can, yet keeping a positive outlook (We can’t change where we came from / But we can always change where we go to). It’s an example of the great song writing from Rev, with lyrics that talk about all of the crap that life can toss at us, yet we always have that choice of making what we can from life and keeping it positive. It’s a great message. I mentioned the closer at the start of the review. “Resignation” is a bit different from the rest of the tracks on the album in that it’s very a very dark song on a dark topic. It has a sound of defiant triumph, though, and is a perfect end to this strongly recommended album.

TERRIBLE FEELINGS - Tremors (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

I have some very mixed feelings about this release. Some of the tracks start out really good, and I feel like this is an awesome record while I’m listening to it. But then, suddenly, it takes a turn for the worse, and it sounds like some bar band from the suburbs. The musicianship is great – it’s the songwriting that’s hit or miss, sometimes with the whole feel of the song changing within a single track. The album starts out strongly, with a great dark surf track, “Cold Eyes.” Then “Black Water” starts the weirdness. After a cool keyboard intro that made me think I was going to get more surf rock, I got some power-pop mixed with plain old rock’n’roll. It’s weirdness because I’ve rarely heard songs that have sections that are just brilliant, along with other sections that are pretty bland. But most of the songs on this album have this sort of split personality. The strongest tracks are the aforementioned “Cold Eyes,” and the closer, “Vulture’s Lament,” interesting bookends to an album of uneven songs.

TURBO FRUITS – No Control (Thirty Tigers/Melvin Records, turbofruits.com)

Tennessee rockers Turbo Fruits have grown up, sort of. This, their fourth album, eschews the reckless abandon of previous releases and replaces it with more of a smooth power-pop. Songs about relationship problems take a front seat instead of those about drugs, booze, and trouble. There are still undertones of their garage-rock past, but singing replaces shouting and moderate tempos replace mania. The opener, “Show Me Something Real,” is even a slow burner of a track, with dripping psychedelic sounds. The tracks that are a little livelier, like “Favorite Girl” and “Need To Know,” are classic power-pop “hits,” with tons of hooks and gobs of melodic rock’n’roll. A couple of the tracks, though, just seem to lag a little too much. “Worry About You” just seems like it wants to be faster and louder. It’s a mixed bag, but decent enough.


HAPPYNESS – Weird Little Birthday (www.facebookcom/Happynessmusic)

Here’s a mix of lo-fi and hi-fi indie-pop sounds, with some of the vocals recorded with some distortion and effects, and the instrumentals with a nice clear sound. With seventeen songs, and1 hour 5 minutes of time, it makes great demands on one’s time. But it’s certainly worth the investment. This is gorgeous stuff. …… About midway, what’s sort of the title track is a quiet little bossa nova-like song, called “Weird Little Birthday Girl,” which just puts a smile on my face. The opener, “Baby, Jesus (Jelly Boy),” is so quiet and understated and delicate, that it sets the perfect tone for the whole album. “Pumpkin Noir” is sort of Beatles-esque, in the best way, but is a slow ballad with a gorgeous melody and a bass line that will pierce your soul. The “outlier” of the album is “Anything I Do Is All Right,” with a slightly edgier, grungier sound, though still with a light touch in comparison to the real grunge world. This is a perfect lazy Sunday sort of record, and it gets my recommendation.

LADY – Washer EP (ladytheband.bandcamp.com)

Recorded at Brooklyn’s Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen before the great flood, and then mixed and finished after the rebuild project, Lady presents a six-track EP of East Coast shoe-gaze rock. The tracks have a nice jangle hidden under the layers of reverb and guitar distortion. The vocals have a distant quality to them, both in the production work and in the minimal emotional inflection injected, as is usual in this style of music. What’s different than the usual shoe-gaze is the increased sense of jangle, as well as the harder, edgier guitars on some of the tracks. “On My Mind” is a standout, particularly in the back half of the song, with the guitars alternating between super fuzzed out note bending and noisy jangle. I also like the bright feel of “Chuta.” It’s at a slightly quicker tempo, and the sound is kind of sunny. The layering of noise over jangle is particularly evident on this one, too. Good stuff.


AFRAID OF BEES – Oosik (Not Art Records, www.notartrecords.com)

Part dream pop, part math rock, part easy jazz, this one isn’t easy to classify. And that generally is a good thing and leads to a more interesting listen. The five-song EP opens with “Anything But Redemption,” with a very spacious, airy, dreamy sound, with Eleanor Bostwick’s unique, high-pitched, throaty vocals piercing the veil. About three quarters of the way through the track, when the guitars come in in earnest, we start to get a sense of more complex rhythms wending their way through the cloud-like atmosphere. “Here, Not Just For Now has a thick mix, with the vocals buried under layers of guitars and electronics, but still cutting through. Half way through, the guitars get edgier and move back to a more complex time signature, giving a more urgent sound to the song. “Nineteen-Seventy-Two” adds in a jazziness with the math sense of the guitar , while the vocals provide an interesting contrast. Throughout the EP, there’s an interesting high-pitched trilling electronic sound that reminds me of cicadas on a hot summer day, which gives the songs a bit of an itchy, odd sensation, which is kind of cool. The final track, Registrar, is the jazziest of all, and leads me to think Afraid of Bees has invented a new genre called “dream math jazz.” Whatever it is, it’s a good listen.

CASKITT – This Machine Kills Sadness (caskitt.bandcamp.com)

Caskitt is a three-piece outfit from here in my adopted hometown of San Diego. Having released an EP a bit more than a year ago, they’re now releasing their debut full-length album. The title, of course, is a play on Woody Guthrie’s guitar, which had “This Machine Kills Fascists” emblazoned upon it. In this case, drummer and lead vocalist Matt Caskitt has had “This Machine Kills Sadness” across the front of his kick drum for the longest time. The music is powerful melodic pop-punk influenced stuff, with quite an emotional punch. The production is really good, with the vocals crystal clear and up front. The musicianship is top notch, especially Steven Long’s incredible guitar wizardry. He adds some perfect flourishes to the songs without going over the top into wanker territory, and the tone sounds just right. Standout tracks include “Friday Night Lightweights,” which rages pretty hard. The lyrics hit pretty hard, too, for what, on casual listening, sounds like a party song. It’s the last bit of the chorus that gets me. “I wanna sing, I wanna dance, I wanna clap my hands / I wanna fuck, I wanna fight, let’s do it all tonight / I wanna scream, I wanna shout, I wanna get drunk and loud / I wanna be someone else / I wanna be someone else.” As good as it is, it turns up a notch after the acapella chorus just past the two-minute mark. In the last 30 seconds, Long’s guitar work shines through, and the harmonized vocals above the sing-along crew is just perfect. The opening of “Midwest Summer Nights” is stunning, with the guitars and bass literally vibrating intensely. The rest of it is pretty damn great, too, with lyrics I can relate to, having grown up in the Midwest, and with more examples of the magnificent musicianship of this band. Tight drumming matches up to the jumping and bouncing guitar lines. And I also enjoy “Mama Says,” a track that flows sort of like a road song, which is actually sort of is, with lyrics about leaving home at a young age with nothing, and travelling to the West Coast to build a new life. Besides these three, there are seven other tracks that are equally good. Truly. Recommended.

CAFEINE – New Love (Indica Records, indica.mu/en)

Both the album and the artist are recent imports to the USA. Cafeine, Otherwise known as Xavier Cafeine, moved from his native Montreal to Los Angeles, while the album, previous released in Canada a year ago, is now seeing its first US release. Cafeine’s bio says he was “firmly entrenched in the Quebec underground punk scene,” however, I can’t quite see that. The music shares about as much with punk as Billy Idol’s 1980s MTV hits. OK, so it’s not punk. Is it any good? Some of it is damn good. “I Love You” is a tough, raucous track, about the closest the album comes to punk, but crossed with a bubbly 80s new wave feel. And “Love Disease” has a soaring, epic, glorious sound. Some tracks fall a bit flat, though, and end up sounding sort of like 80s commercial pop stalwarts like Midnight Oil or Men in Hats. The title track is a good example of this, as is “Electric.” And tracks like “Left for Dead” feels more like Billy Joel than anything punk-like. Yes, there’s a definite 80s feel to the whole album. Some of it is pretty much retro commercial pop, but when the music is edgier, it tends to be better. Sadly, there’s not enough of the edgy tracks.

CHASER EIGHT (chasereight.com)

While this is Chaser Eight’s fourth album to date, it’s the first studio full-length from these alt-rockers. The music is power-pop with undertones of classic rock, country, and soul influences. There’s a bluesy rootsy feel to the songs, and the lyrics can get downright nasty, too, like in “On Top,” where vocalist Audra sings “It’s a message I send you / I wanna feel you inside” and “I wanna be on top.” There’s certainly plenty of passion in the music, and if you like this sort of sound, you’re going to love Chaser Eight. At first, some of the more commercial sounds rubbed me the wrong way, but after repeated listens, it’s growing on me. The dark opener, “Lead Me Down,” still bothers me, for its overly commercial sound, as does “Just Ride,” but I like “Major and Minor,” with a more straight-forward power-pop sound, slightly tinged with country, and the power-pop ballad, “To Find Him.” It’s a mixed bag for me, with some good and some dull.

DEAD DADS – Space Camp (Hella Mad Records, www.hellamadrecords.com)

I was fortunate enough to recently see Sacramento’s Dead Dads perform twice in one weekend. And it didn’t take me long to decide that I was going to buy their brand new album and write a review. They play an interesting blend of harder edged punk, but with tons of melody and pop sensibility. There’s times when that hard edge even gets close to metallic, but the poppiness prevents this from going over the edge. In some ways, Dead Dads reminds me of Bad Religion, but with a rawer, more honest feel. Part of it is the harmonized vocals, as well as the strong use of melody. “We Belong Here” is the perfect short opener to introduce this record, with heavy metallic vocals, but drifting into nice melodic sounds. This flows right into “New Life,” a rapid-fire track that perfectly represents the sound of Dead Dads. “Love On Mars” is the most different of all the tracks, and another favorite, with a slower, more indie rock sound, yet still with a strong pop-punk feel. “Family Band” may be my favorite of the album, with a more moderate tempo, cool stop-start guitar work, an almost jangly feel, and some great lyrics about missed life goals, but being more than OK with it. Sort of. And the album closes in epic style, with “Wasted Breath.” This is a seriously great album that I recommend heartily.

EVANS THE DEATH – Expected Delays (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecords.com)

Some of the words that come to mind when listening to this album are energetic, flowing, aggressive, and smooth. The songs are all performed with a great level of energy, so you know that the band loves what they’re doing. The songs give the sense of flowing, like you’re speeding along in a powerboat over a sea that has great rolling waves that move you up and down. Aggressive in the strong, guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards that power the songs. And smooth in the gorgeous vocals. Katherine Whitaker’s singing is the perfect complement to the instrumentals, providing a nice finish to the harder edged instrumentals. The album opener, “Intrinsic Grey,” is a great example of what I’m talking about. It begins with those pretty vocals and an acoustic guitar, but then the rest of the band explodes with powerful noise, those sweet vocals still shining through. “Sledgehammer” is a standout track, too, for the same reasons, and its great melodic hooks. And “Bad Year” has enough jangle in the guitars to keep you dancing for ages. In an odd contrast to the tremendous upbeat sound of the music, the song titles and lyrics reveal darker side. Besides the aforementioned tracks, there are songs with names like “Just 60,000 More Days ‘til I Die,” “Waste of Sunshine,” and “Don’t Laugh At My Angry Face.” Great stuff.

THE FLATLINERS – Resuscitation of the Year b/w Fangs 7” (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

What can I say? You know the Flatliners, don’t you? Don’t you? If not, deduct 20 punk points, and please do educate yourself. The band is from Canada (natch! Where lots of great bands come from!), and has been pumping out tight, melodic punk music since 2002. This new single features one old song, off their 2013 album, “Dead Language,” plus one previously unreleased track, “Fangs,” from the recording sessions for that same album. “Resuscitation,” the opener from the album, is a beauty of a track, powerful, fast, tight, and very melodic. The new track is a little edgier, harder, and darker. It sounds a bit more emo-metallic than the A-side, and it hits hard. In a way, I kind of dislike the idea of re-releasing a track on a 7” with another unreleased track, though, because you end up paying for something you already have. For completists, of course, it will be worth it. And the new song is decent enough. But, if you’re just a casual fan who already has Dead Language, is it worth it? Maybe not. You already have the better of the two tracks.

NIC HESSLER – Soft Connections (Captured Tracks, www.capturedtracks.com)

Nic Hessler started recording ten years ago, under the name Catwalk. By age 18 he had a record deal and some buzz. And then he was stricken with an illness that left him partially paralyzed and unable to play guitar. His career was over, right? Wrong. He beat the disease and is now back, with a full album, released under his own name. In a way, this is his debut, as the early recordings were released in very small quantities, and as singles. This is his first album, first release under his own name, and the first recordings since his recovery. The album is well titled, as what we get is pretty, soft, guitar-based pop music. The music is very sweet sounding and light, and strong on the backbeat, just like all good pop music. The vocals have a modern-day crooning quality, and match the music perfectly. Many of the songs are just nice to listen to, if a bit dated in their sound. “Permanent” may be my favorite of the album, reminding me of some of the indie-pop I loved listening to in the ‘90s. I also enjoy the album’s opener, “I Feel Again,” with its blend of indie-pop and power pop sensibilities, harkening back to some of the music of the ‘80s, as well. And “Expel Me” has a nice jangly lope to it. But then there are tracks like “Hearts, Repeating,” which veers too far into adult contemporary soft rock radio format, and “Do You Ever” is just a bad disco track. It is kind of a mixed bag, with a number of the songs teetering between indie pop and a more commercial sound, but I think the good stuff outweighs the bad.

REPTAR – Lurid Glow
(joyfulnoiserecordings.com)

Reptar continues their new wave fueled electronic pop experiment on this, their second full-length album. The tracks are heavily laden with electronics, sometimes light and lithe, but more often funky and bouncy, like something right out of a 1980s MTV music video. I hear quite a lot of Bill Nelson influence in this sense. The coolest is when these different sounds merge, like on “Ice Black Sand,” a track that alternates between the light and the new wave funk. In between are some darker, more twisted bits, and some Talking Heads-like pop-rock. “Cable” has an awesome Eno-esque angularity to it, alternating with some great funky music, complete with horn section. “Sea of Fertility” may be my favorite track of the album, with a pulsing minimalism underneath, a la Phillip Glass, and a cool chorus that’s punctuated by muted trumpets and fluttering flutes. “Amanda” is beautiful in its simplicity, with arpeggiating marimbas providing the musical backdrop underneath plaintive vocals. Horns and electronics come in to provide a very somber mood. I like how he songs have that retro new-wave feel without sounding old and dated. Good stuff.

SYSTEMATIK – Bondage (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

Brutal hardcore music hits you square in the face, all the way from Vancouver, BC. Put this album on, and fast, loud, and thrashy music that could have been made back in the 80s spews out of your speakers. The angry vocals are practically spit into the listeners’ faces, as the drums, bass, and guitar create an impregnable wall of strength. I’ve heard my share of hardcore bands over the years. And a lot of the current crop, frankly, sucks, thinking that all they need to do is be fast, loud, and sloppy to be a hardcore band. But sloppiness usually doesn’t work. Systematik is anything but sloppy, with tight arrangements and rapid-fire musical attacks. The band certainly plies their craft well. One suggestion I would make would be to work on the song writing, to make sure the songs have some differences. Because the eight songs that are presented over the course of 18 minutes tend to blend into each other and sound the same. Same tempo, same pounding drum beats, same guitar licks, and same vocal qualities. If there was more variation in the songs, this could be better.


ST. LENOX – 10 Songs About Memory And Hope (Anyway Records, www.anyway-records.com)

Google the word “soulful.” I’m pretty sure you’ll find a photograph of St. Lenox’s Andy Choi, and a download of this album. Choi belts out the vocals with a power and intensity that reaches right through you and grabs your inner being. It’s a huge, throaty, tenor blast that jets over electronic instrumentals that are, contrastingly, light and lithe. The lyrics seem autobiographical, focused on remembrances of youth, so much that the songs seem less like songs and more like a musical conversation about times gone by. I don’t know if the songs are based on Choi’s actual childhood or not, but the passion with which he sings is so strong that he could sing about growing up as the first Asian teenager elected President of the United States and I would believe it. There are several really strong tracks here, and I’ll start out by giving a shout-out to what has to become a “standard,” if there’s any justice in the musical world, “You’re Not Here.” It has that quiet jazz ballad feel, with just Choi’s gigantic presence and electric piano. “I Still Dream Of The ‘90s” is the album’s opener, and the one that grabbed me right off, with Choi’s glorious vocals and the glimmering electronics. “To Be Young Again,” with its slice of life as a teenager in the Midwest 20 years ago, and cool editing techniques with the electronics makes this a standout, and maybe my favorite of the album. The lyrics aren’t really profound, but the song sure sounds profound. This one gets my highest recommendation, and will certainly be atop my end of the year list.


LAZYEYES – New Year
(www.lazyeyesnyc.com)

How appropriate that this five-song EP, given its title, has come out at the beginning of the year. The Brooklyn-based band plays a type of indie rock that has become quite the thing lately, exchanging punk-like power for more of a dream-like feel and tonal quality. That’s not to say that the band lacks energy – quite the opposite. There’s a definite verve in the tracks. I think “Islip” is my favorite track, with a retro post-punk, post-new wave feel, from the opening pounding bass line to the angular, jangly guitar sound. Sadly, the title track may be the weakest, but only because the vocals seem a bit off in places. But if you’re a fan of the dream-pop movement, you’ll enjoy this.

THE POP GROUP – Citizen Zombie (Freaks R Us, www.freaksrus.net)

This whole punk nostalgia thing has been on my mind a lot, lately, what with more and more old bands of the past reuniting and touring, and even new albums being released. Add to the list post-punk pioneers The Pop Group. Citizen Zombie represents the group’s first new studio album in thirty-five years. Just let that sink in for a moment. The last time they released a new studio album Ronald Reagan was campaigning for his first term as President of the United States. But, going by the sound of this album, it could have been just last year, because the Pop Group hasn’t missed a beat. This album is just as creative as anything they did all those years ago, and still has the same sort of vibe. This album has plenty of distortion, plenty of beats, and plenty of electronics, just as in the days of yore. “Mad Truth,” the second track on the album, is a sparkly, fuzzy, funky track that harkens back to their days of disenchantment with the punk scene of the late 70s, and their drawing in of influences from a variety of genres. If this track doesn’t get you off your ass and dancing, you’re may be dead. And if the sentiments expressed don’t move you, you may as well be. “The Immaculate Deception” is a favorite, consisting of very repetitive lines, heavy on bass and percussion. And the angularity of “Box 9” is really cool, with discordant jangling of guitars and keyboards. If you were a fan back in the day, you will find much that is familiar and enjoyable about this album. It might sound quite similar to what the band was doing at the time of their last studio album, but it still is different from anything else out there, different enough to be refreshing, if slightly dated.

ROY ORBITRON – Elston Allen Gunnn (www.royorbitron.org)

Another in this band’s series of homages to The Traveling Wilburys, the famous super group of the late 80s that featured George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. The records take their names from members of that group, with this one referencing the initial performing name used by Dylan. Like that band, the songs on this album are pretty laid back, sort of gypsy rock, tinged with elements of country, if you will. It, therefore, really doesn’t do much for me. Though, if you enjoy that sort of music, the musicianship here is quite good. Probably the song that I can most get into has to be "Brimstone Suckers," which has a manic edge and a retro rock’n’roll feel, with some nice, soaring fiddle. Overall, though, this is quite a bit outside the realm of what I like to listen to – and I listen to quite a large variety of stuff.

VASHTI BUNYAN – Heartleap (DiCristina Stair Builders, www.midheaven.com/label/dicristina-stair-builders)

Quiet, serene, contemplative, beautiful. This third album from British singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan is rumored, sadly, to be her last. It’s understandable, I guess, given that her first album was released in 1970, and the second in 2005. One wonders what could have been, if Bunyan had been a bit more prolific, but we must be satisfied with what has been presented. And on this album, we get quiet, minimalist music, understated vocals, and true beauty. The music shimmers and glimmers, with delicate melodies played on piano, acoustic guitars, violins, and electronics. The vocals are almost ethereal, with a quaver that lives just barely above the surface. And there’s a sense of calm throughout. The music does seem to come from another time and another place, but one you can’t quite put your finger on. And that’s just fine with me.

BIG DICK – Disappointment (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

This has got to be the most inappropriately titled album of the year. Because the follow-up to their 2013 self-titled debut is anything but a disappointment. Who else can take nothing but a bass and drums and turn out a truly melodic pop punk album? True, the harmonized vocals help, but it’s amazing what they can do with that bass, through all the fuzzy distortion. The powerful bass spews out some really great melodic lines, growling all the way, while the drums pound out strong rhythms. Of the fifteen tracks, my favorites include the opener, “Let Down,” which sets the perfect tone for the rest of the album, “Up A Step,” with its very “traditional” pop punk feel with the unique instrumentation, and the angular, post-punk-like “Give Up.” “Young Love” has a cool, eerie circus sort of feel, and “God’s Teeth” is an awesome rager. No, not a disappointment at all, not one bit!

CAPITALIST KIDS – At A Loss (It’s Alive Records, www.itsaliverecords.com, Toxic Pop Records, www.toxicpoprecords.com, Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Well, this sure is pop punk, no doubt about it. The musicianship is top notch, and the sounds are bouncy and catchy. I want to like this, but I think the band has to like what they’re doing first. Sadly, it sounds like they’re going through the motions, rather than being stoked to be in the studio. Which is a huge disappointment, because I generally love everything put out by all three of these labels. The vocals on “Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet,” for example, come across pretty lackadaisical, to the point where there are a couple of places where the pitch is kind of off. If the energy level and enthusiasm were higher, this could be a good record. But, as it is, it’s just not terribly inspiring.



CROW BAIT – Separate Stations (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Three songs? Three measly songs? Yeah, that’s all we get, but what it lacks in quantity, the EP makes up for in quality. In somewhat of a departure for Dirt Cult Records, Crow Bait focuses less on noise or garage punk and more on the sounds of rock and roll crossed with post-punk. The title track is a mid-tempo track with a backbeat that drives the song with a nice loping feel, while the instrumentals and vocals give it a more urgent, emotional edge. “Gran-Saloon Pt. 2” has a touch of country feel. And “Lost & Never Found” has a harder feel than the other two tracks, more pounding, with that rock/post-punk blend. This is good stuff. But, really guys, only three songs?

DIAMOND RUGS – Cosmetics (Sycamore Records, www.diamondrugs.net)

Diamond Rugs is an indie super-group, of sorts, featuring members of Six Finger Satellite (Bryan Dufresne), Los Lobos (Steve Berlin), Deer Tick (John McCauley and Robbie Crowell), Black Lips (Ian St. Pe), and Dead Confederate (T. Hardy Morris). The music offered up on the band’s sophomore release blends classic power-pop and new wave sounds, with hints of psychedelia and Americana. I really enjoy the opening track, “Voodoo Doll,” with its angular new wave sounds, baritone sax injections, and even the cheesy synth. And I can’t help but like the fun, bouncy melodic lines on “Couldn’t Help It,” a track that shows plenty of early rock’n’roll influence. But, ultimately, Diamond Rugs suffers the same fate of many a “super-group,” in that the songs, while well done and professionally performed, seem like just that – a professional job, rather than an energetic, passionately done album. Many of the songs just feel kind of phoned in. “Meant To Be” has a tired classic rock feel that probably would have come off much better with a brisker tempo. “Live And Shout It” sounds more like they’re mumbling it. This was a bit of a disappointment, honestly.

FAT MIKE & FRIENDS – Home Street Home (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Well, he’s gone and done it. Fat Mike, he of NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords, has jumped on the Broadway Musical bandwagon and written a musical titled “Home Street Home.” And that’s what you get here. It’s the soundtrack from a musical, not a pop punk album. If you’re expecting NOFX, forget it. If you like musicals and you also like pop punk, well, then you may be in for a treat. The musical, scheduled for a small number of stagings in San Francisco, tells the story of Sue, sixteen-year-old runaway who gets involved in some bad shit, but also finds a new home in the streets and a new family. And, for the album, Fat Mike’s “friends” include some pretty great talent. We get to hear vocal performances from the likes of Matt Skiba (Alkaline Trio), Frank Turner, Stacey Dee, the late Tony Sly, and performances from members of bands such as The Descendents, Old Man Markley, Lagwagon, and others. Fat Mike wrote all the music, and worked with others on the lyrics. The result pretty well captures the feelings and emotions the songs are trying to convey, and I imagine work well to move the story along. Some standout tracks include the punked up bluegrass tune, “Fecal Alcohol Syndrome,” with full-on banjo twang and rapid fire pop punk instrumentals, “Gutter Tarts,” a punk track about street kids prostituting themselves for money, and “I’m Suicide,” with super tough vocals from Dee, vocalist for Bad Cop/Bad Cop. “Let’s Get Hurt” is a very non-punk track, and a very disturbing one, reflecting low self-esteem and a willingness to accept physical and mental abuse in return for “feeling wanted.” It’s sound is very fun and upbeat, in stark contrast to the dark lyrics. “Safe Words” has to be the funniest track, all about, well, safe words. I enjoyed this, considerably. But it’s certainly not going to be for everyone.

HYSTERESE – Hysterese (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Well, one of the odd things about this band from Germany is that both their debut LP and this sophomore release have been self-titled. That’s not confusing at all. This LP originally was released in Europe back in June of last year, but it’s just gotten a US release, courtesy of Dirt Cult Records. And while I listened to the first couple of tracks, I thought, “Well, this is decent enough, if unremarkable.” The songs started out as mid-tempo, somewhat dark and slightly gritty punk, not unlike Boston’s The Proletariat or Chicago’s The Effigies. But when the third track, “Cancer and Cake,” came on, whoa! The track is a lot more complex, yet more raw than a lot of punk music these days. Fast, and hard guitars and extreme vocals bring to mind the hardcore punk of yore, yet the intricacies of the melodic lines are awesome to behold. And “Deadlock” keeps it going in high gear, with pounding guitars and intense vocals. The balance of the tracks aren’t as intense as these two, but they’re pretty damn good, sometimes reminding me a bit of an edgier Mission of Burma, particularly on “Straight Faces.”

MEAN JEANS – Singles (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

At long last, a collection of Mean Jeans singles and comp tracks, all in one place! There’s a massive twenty tracks in forty-five minutes on this album, and the sounds range from sloppy silly punk to tight bouncy pop punk to raging garage punk. This covers pretty much all of the bands career to date, with tracks from all of their singles and compilation appearances, with one bonus track never previously released. If you’ve heard those singles, then you know what this sounds like. The Mean Jeans are great. There’s a strong Ramones influence on the earliest tracks, most evident on “Total Creep,” a simple, bouncy pop-punk tune. And now I hear where Low Culture gets a lot of their influence from, because there’s a strong resemblance, though Mean Jeans are a lot more “jokey” than Low Culture. Some of the best tracks they’ve released come close to the rapid-fire garage sound that’s coming out of Denton, Texas these days from bands like Radioactivity. Tracks like “Cool 2 Drive” blend that garage sound with the Ramones pop-punk sound really effectively. There are a few great covers on here, too. White Wires’ “I Remember How” is better than the original, with tons more raw energy. And “Forever Young,” originally done by Sparks, is a lot of fun, though no one could match the campiness of the original. Big Eyes’ “Since You Left” is a great track from the split the two bands did together a year or two ago. If you’re a fan of the Mean Jeans at all, or even if you just like pop punk, you need to get this. Some of the band’s best work came out on 7”ers.

OH MY SNARE! – Høyeste Gang (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years, it’s that Canada produces some excellent bands. The Creeps, The Dirty Nil, Pins//Needles, Steve Adamyk Band, Big Dick…the list goes on. Add to this, Montreal’s oh my snare! The first thing that comes to mind when listening to the tunes on this album is the amount of passion that comes through, in the music and in the vocals. I can feel how important this is to the band and how much they love playing music. If you just look at the song titles, you might write this off as a joke band, but you would be wrong. The least joke-like song title is the album opener, “Unforetold Hands and Voices,” a hard driving track with angular rhythms and snarling vocals. “Hearken Unto My Behest, Biatch, For Thou Hast Boobies,” is more typical of the titles, and the track has dueling male and female vocals over a powerful pop-punk melody. “If Krillin Came Back From The Dead Like 3 Times, I Think We Can Do It Once,” is maybe the best title, and one of the strongest songs, as well. Its starts out with a sing-along pop punk feel, but then moves between that and raging post-hardcore sounds. Toward the end, the two styles merge in what sounds like a chaotic drunk orgy of sound, and it’s glorious. “All Sauron Needed Was A Little Love,” is worth noting for how different it is from the rest of the album, with quiet electric guitars echoing in the background beneath some intense vocals. And “If You Smell Flowers, Look Around For The Coffin” starts out with another post-hardcore rage, but then, about two minutes in, it shifts to waltz time, with a twisted circus feel, then back to edgy rock. This is an excellent release, and is highly recommended.

SEAGULLS – Great Pine (Yellow K Records, www.yellowkrecords.com)

Seagulls put this out digitally last year, but this debut LP is finally getting a proper vinyl release. I think the first four tracks are my favorites of the album. The intro track is a nice, shimmery instrumental that sets the very mellow mood for this debut album. The second one is a very quiet indie-spiritual hybrid, and the next two are sort of laid-back, spacey, shoegaze meets doo-wop meets surf. The resulting sound is lush without being overbearing, and Matt Whittle’s vocals have a relaxed, sleepy, dreamy quality that perfectly matches the music. The remaining tracks are more of an indie-folk-rock sound, but with songs that seem to come out of that space between waking and sleep, where reality ends and dreams begin. I particularly like “Thirteen,” a very minimalist track that seems to go perfectly with this rainy day on which I am listening. In summary, this is beautiful.

THE SHIVER TWINS – 19, Again (www.facebook.com/shivertwinsmusic)

There are no twins in this band from Seattle via Juneau, Alaska. The band grew up in our 49th state, and even began the recording process for this self-titled debut EP, but recently relocated to Seattle to be able to play to wider audiences and, hopefully, tour. As a young band, I think they’re still searching for their voice, as evident by the variation in styles heard on this EP. But it seems that they’re getting there. The opener, “Favorite Child,” has a bit of the glossy, noisy, glimmer sound that’s in vogue these days, especially for bands back East. I think it’s the huge amount of reverb in the sound, and the distortion in the instrumental mix that gives that impression. But the band’s focus on grunged up and punked up indie rock is also evident here, underneath it the distant, echo-filled vocals. The other track that’s a little different than the others is “Dog Daze,” with a jangly doo-wop sound. The other three tracks are more clearly grounded in the solid, hard-edged indie rock sound. Of these, I think “Fine” may be my favorite, with a very Seattle-like sound and strong edgy vocals. What I hear on this EP certainly shows much promise, and makes me want to hear more. I hope they manage to tour down the west coast soon, so I can see them live.

TOYGUITAR – In This Mess (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

This was one of my most anticipated new albums, after hearing this band at Awesomefest last Labor Day weekend. If you read my review of that annual pop punk extravaganza, you’ll know that toyGuitar was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. And the album strongly supports my feelings about this band. The songs are best described as melodic garage rock’n’roll. There’s tons of jangle with just the right amount of distortion in the guitars, and Jack Dalrymple’s gorgeous vocals have just the right amount of attitude. The tracks are bursting with energy, and there’s a shining feeling evident throughout, as if the band has captured the sun and packed it into every track. Even tracks that aren’t manically up-tempo, like “Static Attraction,” exude a power and intensity, and a glorious feeling of fun. If I had to pick a single track as my favorite, it would be difficult. But I think “Is It True” might be the one I would choose. It’s got tons of bounce, awesome melodic lines, and Dalrymple’s vocals just drip with coolness. This sort of melodic garage sound had a huge amount of commercial popularity a few years back, with bands like The Hives and White Stripes. If toyGuitar had been around back then, they would have hit the big time and put all those other bands out of work, because this is so much better than the output of those bands. Highly recommended!

THE TREASURE FLEET – The Sun Machine (Recess Records, www.recessrecords.com)

It’s an album! It’s a short film! It’s two releases in one! Well, the short made its debut at Raindance this past fall, but the album is due out in February. And the music? Well, imagine putting a bunch of punks from various Chicago bands (Arrivals, Lawrence Arms, Smoking Popes, Sass Dragons) into a time machine and sending them back to the late 60s. Then imagine them dropping acid and listening to a mix of early Pink Floyd and Yes, then writing this album. The opening track, “The View From Mt. Olympus,” has been released via a music video taken from the film, and it’s the era of love and psychedelic rock music all over again. The next track, “Max 1,” seems a bit cheesy to me, with too much of a novelty feel. But “Max 2” rocks pretty hard. I particularly like “The Mushroom Hunt,” with its quieter, yet driving feel. “Sirens of Titan” sounds like it came from the soundtrack of a science-fiction film, which makes sense, as “The Sun Machine” is, apparently, just that. The first half of the track is incidental background music sort of stuff, before it opens up into an expansive 70s space opera sounding folk piece. This isn’t going to be for everyone, but I enjoyed it.

WASTED WINE – Wasted Wine Vs. The Hypnosis Center (Bear Kids Recordings, www.bearkidsrecordings.com)

Good god, this is odd! And I love it for that! The overall effect is weirdo gypsy music crossed with pre-war cabaret music, with the accordion, violin, and drama. But the songs have the strangest lyrics, and there are intros and outros to the tracks that seem to be taken from old movies or something. The album opens with “Instructions,” a track that literally instructs the user, via found sound recordings, on how to listen. An extract reads, “You must try the full recording before you can understand it. And like everything else in life, the results will be in exact proportion to the sincerity and diligence with which you approach your task.” Never was a greater truth told. This flows into “Fall Upon Me,” a track heavy with violin, in waltz time, that’s just beautiful. “The Strangest of Eyes” is a track that’s seen release before, online, as a live recording from “The Gin Sessions” album. And, while this studio version is great, it can’t match the haunting quality of the previous version. “The Post Office” has a great droning feel, and an ethnic flair that can’t be pinned down. “M/F/R” is a bit raucous, while “(Shoreline Again)” is a low dirge of accordions, with quite the opposite feel. I can’t wait for a tour to catch this band live! Recommended.

WESTERN SETTINGS – Yes It Is (La Escalera Records, Dying Scene Records, dyingscenerecords.bandcamp.com/ album/yes-it-is)

I’ve watched this band from their first show at the Tower Bar in San Diego, barely more than a year ago. It’s hard to grasp how good this band is, and how rapidly they’ve come to be one of the best bands of their genre. And what that genre is, is hard to say. The band most often gets lumped into the category of “pop punk,” but that’s a category that I can’t quite fit this band into. Maybe if we create a new genre, called emo-pop-punk? These songs have up-tempo, bouncy parts and sing-along, fist-pumping parts. But the songs are so much more mature and filled with feeling than typical pop punk. Everything about this album is strong: Ricky Schmidt’s slightly gruff vocals, the vocal harmonies on “Dying Without Children” featuring Jen Razavi from the Bombpops, the instrumental arrangements; it’s all extremely well done. So many things were very thoughtfully done, too, like the glockenspiel on “RevHead,” the seamless transitions between some of the songs, and the interludes, “Table For One” and “Bricks,” they just add a really great touch, making this a strong early contender for my best albums of 2015 list. I am not going to list any standout tracks, because they all are. Seriously, this is damn excellent stuff!

IRON CHIC / LOW CULTURE – Split 7” (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

When I first heard that this record was happening, I had really high expectations. And those expectations have been exceeded. These are two bands one would not normally pair. It’s like trying to drink a classy chardonnay with that juicy filet mignon. But, who cares about that shit? I like what I like, and I like both of these bands. Iron Chic’s two tracks are gloriously expansive, just as you would expect. “L’Esprit de L’escalier,” or “The Spirit of the Staircase” (I hope – I had to depend on Google Translate) is a wide open, soaring track, with massive guitars and triumphantly shouted vocals. But it also has moments of quieter reflection. “Subhumanoid Meltdown” is a track that has its quieter moments, but seems to glow through the fuzzy, yet jangly guitars. The Low Culture tracks are a great cross between tight pop punk and distorted garage punk, with rapid-fire melodic lines shooting with precision. “Not a Machine is intense, fast, take no prisoners stuff, while “Oh Jazelle” is about the most laid back I’ve heard this band be, but it’s still a driving track. The pairing might be odd, but the result is sure to please.

MIXTAPES / JABBER – Split 7” (Asian Man Records, www.asianmanrecords.com)

Seven months in the making (vinyl pressing plants are really backed up!), this split 7” has finally come out in a limited edition of 600 on translucent green vinyl – but, sadly, after Mixtapes broke up. This makes this their final release, and a good one it is. Mixtapes lived right on that border between indie pop and pop punk, and that’s what their two songs here are like. Both tracks move between quiet indie-pop and raucous pop punk, with some great sing-along parts. Jabber’s two tracks are a bit of a departure from their debut EP, “Too Many Babes.” Their first track, “200 Days,” has less of the multi-part harmonies and a slightly darker edge than the sweet sounds of the debut. “Poolside” has the beautiful harmonies, but it’s a slower, quieter song than anything I’ve ever heard from this band. And different can be a great thing, because it’s always nice that a band challenges itself and expands its range.




Film Review:
Records Collecting Dust (Riot House Pictures)

My name is Paul, and I’m a vinylholic. There, I’ve said it. I can admit it now. I started collecting records back in the 1970s, first dabbling in jazz albums that I would have signed by the musicians when I saw them at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase. Then, in college, a record changed my life. It was “Talking Heads ’77,” and I had never quite heard rock music sound so different, so creative. It was my introduction to new wave and then punk. After college, a co-worker at my first place of employment took me to Newbury Comics in Boston and showed me the punk records section. That was it. For me, the jazz records were like trying a bit of pot, but then when I found punk and hardcore records, it was like I was mainlining heroin. I was at the record store as much as I could be, and spent much of my extra money on records.

By the time I moved back to Chicago and got involved at free-form radio station WZRD, I branched out from punk into experimental industrial records, world music, indie-pop, and everything that was out of the mainstream that I could get my hands on. Records started piling up in my house that I had no time to listen to. It was getting out of control! I even started my own record label and started selling records to other addicts. In the mid 90s, I quit cold turkey. I didn’t sell off my records, but I basically stopped buying new ones. Though I might buy one here or there, I stayed mostly clean for a good long time, almost twenty years. But in the last few years, I’ve relapsed, and the records are, once again, piling up in my house.

Does any of this sound familiar? As a Jersey Beat reader, you’ve probably been afflicted with this particular “disease” to one extent or another. And so have lots of other people. And that’s what the new film, “Records Collecting Dust,” is about. Filmmaker Jason Blackmore talks to musicians, record labels owners, and other music lovers about the music and records that changed their lives.

Punk music icons such as Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Off!), Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, SWA), and Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys, Lard, Guantanamo School of Medicine) are interviewed, and post-punk pioneers like John Reis (Pitchfork, Rocket From The Crypt, Drive Like Jehu), David Yow (Scratch Acid, Jesus Lizard), and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, Off!) talk about their records, as well, as do many others. Over thirty people were interviewed for the film, which runs just short of an hour long. The film begins with revelations of the first record owned by the interviewees. In many cases these were records from bands like Kiss, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, or the Beatles. Dukowski admits that his first record was a Donovan single, but funnier yet is Reis’ passion for the Jackson Five. Reis seems to be the films comic relief, as some of his musical revelations are just too hilarious.

It’s interesting to see the record rooms of some of these fellow enthusiasts. Morris’ collection, in particular, reminds me of my days at radio station WZRD in Chicago, with the home-made wooden shelves going floor to ceiling, and the door covered with show flyers and band stickers. This gives a bit of an interesting look into the private lives of these semi-famous people. Also interesting is some of the discussion of what got people to buy particular records. I related quite a lot to Reis’ descriptions of literally judging a record by its cover. If the cover looked cool, he bought the record. There was no Internet with bandcamp or youtube back in those days, so you had to take risks sometimes. Sometimes it paid off, sometimes not so much.

Interspersed with the interview footage is live video footage of bands that some of these people are in. Missing are recordings of the records and songs being discussed. Yes, in most cases, getting the clearances for everything would have been a logistical nightmare. But it would have been really nice to hear at least some of the music that these people are so passionate about.

What this film is, is people talking about records that they liked, records that had an impact on their lives, the music they listened to, where they bought records, and so on. What this film is not is a documentary about record collecting. The closest it gets to that is Jello mentioning that he only buys records he intends to listen to, and he has no desire to buy records for their future value. There’s no “story” here to follow, no beginning, middle, or end. Don’t expect to hear anything about record rarity or colored vinyl pressings or how much the records sell for on eBay. It’s a nice, casual conversation with a bunch of music lovers about the music they love. Will it change how we see records and record collecting? No. But it does offer a unique insight into the lives of some of the people who make the music and records that we love.

If I could change one thing about this film, I would have tried to make it less Southern California centric. Yes, Blackmore is based in San Diego, and it’s really easy to talk to people you know in San Diego and LA. But I think the extra effort to travel to other parts of the country and talk to other people that built the music scene we all love would have paid off by adding different perspectives, and could have made for some interesting contrasts.

“Records Collecting Dust” is set to premiere in San Diego the weekend of January 9-10, and screenings will take place around the country in the weeks that follow. Check out the website www.recordscollectingdust.com for more details and the schedule of showings.

SWANS – Oxygen (Young God Records, www.younggodrecords.com)

The Swans, who resumed recording and touring a few years back after a long hiatus, keep pumping out the best music of their career. This EP contains four versions of the single track, “Oxygen,” taken from the most recent full-length album, “To Be Kind.” The opening “edit” version, created by Mute Records’ founder Daniel Miller, is nothing short of amazing. It’s so different for the Swans, but so damn fucking good. It combines their trademark minimalist repetitiveness, a bit of chaos and noise, and NOMEANSNO style funk-punk, and instantly has become one of my favorite songs of the year! Next up is a live recording of the song, recorded at Primavera, and it’s a little more than twice the length of the edit version, and at a somewhat slower tempo. As a result, it has more of a droning, pounding, tribal quality. You can hear it’s the same melodic line, but it almost sounds like a different song, though it’s the most akin to the album version. The third version is labeled “Early Version,” and as more like the acoustic dark country stuff Swans have been doing of late. Recorded at Gira’s home, the lyrics are front and center, here, in Gira’s clear, edgy voice, with the guitar providing the pounding beat. The final version is listed as “Acoustic,” and so it shares that quality with the “Early Version,” but this one is a slow dirge that showcases Gira’s vocal gymnastics. It truly is amazing that these are all different versions of the same song, and they’re all excellent. Although this is just four new versions of a track from their last album, I sure hope this is a teaser for a new full-length, because it sure whets my appetite in a big way.

TY SEGALL - $ingle$ 2 (Drag City, www.dragcity.com)

One thing is for sure. Ty Segall loves noise and distortion. Every track on this collection of leftovers from the past four years or so is steeped in it. Take the opener, “Spiders.” It’s little more than an exercise in distortion, with a touch of grunge thrown in. “Hand Glams” isn’t much better, as a trance-psych tune that’s overly distorted beyond recognition. “Cherry Red” is where things change up a bit, with a great soulful garage rock number. “Children of Paul” is another standout, with a retro 70s hippy psychedelic groove going on. Many of the tracks have a cool feeling of being in the past, whether it’s garage or psych or trippy folksy hippy songs, but all with a very noisy lo-fi 4-track quality. I like that quality, but many of these tracks would probably sound better if the recording was somewhat cleaner. The jangliness of the guitars would shine through, and I think that would really make some of these tracks. They get a little too bogged down in the fuzz. The penultimate track is worth special mention. “Music For A Film” has a tribal beat and an incredible tension in the guitars that pulls at your psyche until it almost reaches the breaking point. The closer, “Pettin The Dog,” is sort of like the first, in that it’s more an exercise in noise than an actual song. Some good stuff here, but also some stuff I could have done without.

ACID BABY JESUS – Selected Recordings (Slovenly Recordings, www.slovenly.com)

This has a blend of classic psychedelic sounds and more than a hint of a Mediterranean flavor. That makes sense, since Acid Baby Jesus hails from Athens, Greece. And it does make for some interesting music. It’s kind of like if a 60s psych band made the soundtrack for one of those sword and sandal epic movies. Lots of droning, slow tempos, punctuated by booming percussion, oddly eastern sounding guitars, you know? The very thing that makes it interesting, though, starts to get a little grating after a few tracks. It’s constant slow droning, leading to an album that fails to inspire. I think the lone exception might be “All of Your Love,” the closer, which is the only up-tempo track on the album. It’s an instrumental track that blends country and psych, if you can imagine that, and bounces with plenty of fun. But it’s not enough to recommend this album.

THE BLIND SHAKE – Breakfast of Failures (Goner Records)

Noisy, frenetic, precise garage-punk-grunge music with a fucking attitude! This is the kind of music that pummels you until you’re a sweating, slobbering mass, then takes a breather and stares at you with a sneer. As soon as you begin to recover and try to get up, BOOM! The pummeling begins anew. Case in point: The first two tracks, “Old Lake” and “Parachute,” are relentless. “Parachute” is a favorite, with its organized chaos and razor sharp licks. But then, the third track, “Dots in the Fog,” is calmer, with a loping feel, though just as fuzzy, and you can feel the attitude oozing from the music. I also like “Pollen” a lot, with its angular lines and nervous edginess. “In a Trance” has a retro grunge feel and pounding drum and bass that don’t let up. And the whole album is pretty damn good.

THE EX-GENTLEMEN – Better Late Than Never (www.facebook.com/theexgentlemen)

What happens when you blend equal parts of 80s power pop and classic 70s punk rock? You get the Ex-Gentlemen, hailing from Los Angeles, a city more known for awful commercial pop since the collapse of the real punk and hardcore scenes of the 70s and 80s. But the Ex-Gentlemen completely make up for that with great, hard-edged guitar-driven pop music. This five-song EP is full of rockin’ tracks, reminiscent of a smoother, slightly slower Ramones, blended with solid working class rock’n’roll a la The Boss and Cheap Trick. “Make You Love” and “Brazen Bets” are more on the power-pop side of things, while “Judy is a Slut” leans more toward the punk side of things, and is probably my favorite track of the EP. Pretty solid record.

GAZER – Fake Bulbs/Phone Commercial (Phratry Records, www.phratryrecords.com)

Noise, glorious noise! Noise is best when there’s melody and strong beats, and we get that aplenty, here. The guitars and bass are tuned to provide maximum buzz saw sound, and the drums pound with a relentless military precision. The album starts off slowly before it gains momentum. “A Nurse for a Human” begins with distorted zither, a slower tempo, and more of a deliberate pounding, plodding feel. But then “Defex” launches into the theme of the rest of album, with an onslaught from all angles. Angular guitar lines, rapid-fire drum beats, distorted vocals, and those loud buzzsaw guitars assault you without pause. The shouted, fuzzed out vocals have an incredible sense of urgency about them, as if they’re pleading for the most important thing in the world. I really like the rough gliding feeling of the incongruously titled, “Bloat.” The guitar line bobs over the noisy, choppy sea of distortion. “I Passed the Bar” has crazy manic feel that makes it one of my favorites of the album. As the album progresses, the tracks get more manic and more urgent, reaching a peak with the finale, “Monolith,” which feels like it wants to jump out of the speakers and physically assault you, pummeling you into the ground. Fucking A!

THE OFF WHITE – The Off White EP (theoffwhitemusic.bandcamp.com)

Four songs are offered up on this debut EP from The Off White, hailing from Long Beach Island, NJ. There’s some variety to the tracks. The opener, “Let’s All Move to Mexico,” is a doo-wop inspired tune, While “Diner Babes” has more of a 60s garage sound crossed with a bit of R&B. “Jaguar Jay Shot the DEA” is a straight up punk rock tune, just like you would have heard from your local punk show opening band back in the 80s, and the closer, “All My Own,” has a sort of jangly power-pop sound. While the styles of these tracks vary, there’s one common element to all of them: they’re all sloppy and lo-fi. I understand wanting a lo-fi sound, but there’s so much distortion in the recordings here, that it obscures the music. And the playing sounds too much like that high school band that just started playing their instruments a couple months ago and they rushed into the studio way too soon.

VARIOUS – Without Each Other We Have Nothing (La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

It’s more than a compilation title. It’s a way of life for the La Escalera family of bands. And it is a family. Here, La Escalera casts the net ever wider and “adopts” not only bands on the label, but bands with whom the bands in the family have toured or played. This massive download of a comp contains 41 tracks in all, from an astonishing 41 bands. And it’s all free! But is it worth your disk space and the time to download it? Hell yes! Core La Escalera bands, like Western Settings, Success, Bastards of Young, and Payoff are represented here, but so are tons of other great bands, like Gentlemen Prefer Blood, DFMK, Dudes Night, American Lies, and many others. It’s astounding how Will Castro manages to corral so many excellent bands, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Like I said, everyone is treated like family, so, of course all these great bands are going to want to contribute. Some of these tracks have been previously released on other EPs or albums, and others are new. It’s hard to pick out standout tracks, because they’re all so good. But pick, I must. Seattle’s Success has a great track in, “Sooner or Later,” a fast-paced melodic track that I really like (and apparently Red Scare likes them, too, as they were just signed by the label). Tijuana’s DFMK has been taking the SoCal scene by storm recently, and their track, Mentira, is an excellent example of why. Their powerful, fast, edgy punk rock rules. I always love me some Western Settings, and “Brain Wars” is a winner of a track, which will also be on their forthcoming full-length album. It’s a powerfully melodic track. The Shell Corporation contributes a strong track, as well, as do SoCal buddies Dudes Night, American Lies, and Gentlemen Prefer Blood. I’m in love with Mercy Music’s track “Repeat,” complete with keyboards and soulful rockin’ sound. “Dicen Que Estoy Muerto” is a gorgeous melodic track from Tungas, a band from Mexico City. The most unique track has to be the one from Absent Minds. “Autotune This!” has violin and cello! It’s a blend of folk music and punk, with intense vocals and a rapid fire pace. It’s classy and rough and tumble, all at the same time! I could go on and on, but you get the idea. This is a great comp, and it’s free, so go download it now from La Escalera’s bandcamp site!


ALLO DARLIN’ – We Came From The Same Place (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecordscom)

Wow. Just…wow. This band has been around awhile, apparently, but this is my first exposure to these Aussie ex-pats who moved to the UK and then dispersed into other parts of Europe. This brings to mind the absolute best of indie pop of the ‘90s, with its simple guitar-bass-drum arrangements, sweet melodies, and sincere vocals. Even when the instrumentals include slide guitar (giving it a very country feel) and ukulele (giving it a sort of island feel), the overall result is pretty awesome. I love the clean, clear production, a nice change from the muddy distorted sound so many bands go for these days. The music is bubbly and uplifting without being sappy, and it just makes me happy to listen to it.

ARIEL PINK – pom pom (4AD, www.4ad.com)

This “double album” is credited as a solo album, but Pink says it’s the least solo album he’s ever done, he says. In any event, it’s not your typical indie rock album, being full of wacky sounds and melodies. “Plastic Raincoats in The Pig Parade” opens the album, sounding like the theme song to a PBS kids show crossed with British Invasion 60s mod rock. “White Freckles” is a fun one, with a definite 80s synth rock feel, but with enough curveballs thrown at you to keep you off kilter. “Dinosaur Carebears” is the most ridiculous thing you’ll hear all year. It starts out with a Middle Eastern vibe, then shifts into something from an acid-trip cartoon, then a chill-out reggae dub sort of song. Damn, that’s odd and fun! Much of the album is like this, a pastiche of synth-based styles, seemingly mocking many of these styles, or at least having fun with them. A few of the tracks don’t work quite as well, but overall this is a fun album.

THE EARTHNOID FEDERATION – I Did It (facebook.com/theearthnoidfederation)

Coming to you straight out of Japan, The Earthnoid Federation play pretty fine pop punk, in a simple Ramones-core style. Of course they’re good – I’ve yet to come across a bad Japanese band. This four track EP is bouncy and poppy and loaded with juvenile humor. A song like “D.I.C.K. (I Need a Dick Like a Space Shuttle)” is pretty self-explanatory. The songs are all pretty mid-to-up-tempo, all the same beat, just like the Ramones. I would like to see a little more variety in that respect, but this is decent stuff.

ENTROPY – All Work, No Plagiarism (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Take the best qualities of the East Coast hardcore sound of the 90s to imagine the sound of this band. Fast, hard, and crunchy are some adjectives to toss around. A humorous moment occurs on the track “Pay Me,” when there’s a false start to the song that they left in the recording. “Nailed it!” is cried out, and then the song starts in earnest. The most surprising track has to be the last one, “Crazy Eddie’s Business School,” because it’s, of all things, a ska-punk track! And I happen to really like ska-punk. This one’s pretty fine. Another humorous element to this album is the song titles. “War, On Drugs,” “Back Off Man, I’m A Scientist,” and “Strange Things Are Afoot At The Circle K” are just a few of the songs, with that last one being, of course, an homage to Bill and Ted. What’s not funny is how hard this music rages. It takes me back to an earlier time (not quite my youth). “Pipe Down, I’m Trying To Watch These Broads Work Out,” while a bit misogynistic in title, is one of my favorites, moving faster than humanly believable. Who says real hardcore music is dead? Not me. Not when Entropy is still making awesome music like this!

FERAL TRASH – Trashfiction (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Garage punk has certainly been seeing a resurgence in recent years, and Feral Trash is right there. Hailing from Moncton, New Brunswick, in Canada, they sound more like they could be from Denton, Texas, so strong is the garage punk sound coming from those environs. And this album rocks pretty hard. “People I Knew” could have been a Marked Men tune, and is my favorite of the album. It’s interesting how “Dead Weight” runs right into “Loser,” because it highlights the one criticism I would levy against this band – some of the songs song a little too much alike. And, particularly, those two tracks have very similar melodic lines and perfectly identical rhythms. One track that stands out as quite different is “Beth,” with its darker feel and the piano in places. “Ghost In You” brings female vocal leads to the forefront, a cool change from the typical garage punk outfit. Fine stuff.

GREAT APES – Playland at the Beach
( www.asianmanrecords.com)

Coming after last year’s full-length, “Thread,” Great Apes had a lot to live up to. So, when I heard that a new set of recordings was due to be released, I got excited with anticipation. And now, it’s here, though only in the form of a five-song EP. But what a five songs they are! Great Apes are a step above the typical pop punk band, blending in strong indie rock elements and creating effective arrangements and strong melodic lines. And on this EP, they tie the songs together with a singular theme: the past, present, and future of their hometown, San Francisco. The EP explodes right at the start, with “New Rough, Old Diamond (A Conversation Between Vesuvio and Specs). It’s probably the most retro punk track ever from the band, and it drips of raw rock’n’roll energy. This one tells the story of a couple of longstanding bars in town. “Go Niners (As Told By Telegraph Hill)” is the story of two gold rushes – the one that brought the initial burst of population to the west in search of gold, and the second “gold rush,” the rise of the technology industry, bringing with it strong trends of gentrification and a skyrocketing cost of living. The music and vocals here are more emotional and plaintive. “Milk: It Does a City Good (Civic Center Steps)” is a hard driving track that tells the story of the great work of Harvey Milk, and Dan White’s trial for his murder. The track is appropriately raucous and filled with tension. “Paint Job (The Lament of 1492 Valencia Street)” tells the story of a changing neighborhood, and specifically the apartment building over the Dovre Club in the Mission District.” It’s an appropriately quieter, more introspective sounding track, heavier on the indie sound and much less on a pop punk sound, but it’s also one of my favorites on the EP. It’s got an awesome feel and a beautiful melody. The EP closes with “Whitney’s Playland At The Beach (By The Dutch Windmill Of Golden Gate Park)” is an anthem of change, reflection of the past, and an embracing of the future, whatever it may hold. And it’s appropriate that this track is the one that is the most “anthemic” in sound and feel, and you can imagine this one being played in a packed club with a ton of people pressing to the front and singing along, fist pumping in the air, and bodies surfing above the crowd. This EP packs so much goodness into the five songs that I can overlook that it’s only five songs!

THE GROMBLE (www.thegromble.com)

Named for the headmaster in the cartoon, “Real Monsters,” The Gromble’s debut EP is anything but monsterly. It’s pretty mild indie rock, chock full of keyboards and reverb. Which made it difficult for me to warm up to this, at first. Particularly, the first song, “Desole Pt. II” is too much like an 80s synth rock track for my tastes. “Slam” improves things by varying the textures a little more, and having an improved, updated melody full of pop hooks, but the synth is still a little too heavy when it’s in string mode. Where things kind of really got going for me is on “Creepy Jr.,” the third track. It’s more delicate, and has a sort of late period Beatles quality to it. I love the use of acoustic guitar here, and the string-like synth actually finally sounds at home on this one. “Don’t Stand a Chance” has hints of funkiness in there that make it interesting, amidst the reverb and synths. But the final track, “You Don’t Know,” may be my favorite. It’s got the same delicate quality that endeared me to “Creepy Jr.,” but it adds actual strings and horns here, which gives it a richer sound. It has some interesting use of dynamics, building up to a crescendo, suddenly dropping to nothing, pausing, and then exploding with sound again. And I love the effect of making the acoustic guitar sound lo-fi at the start, to give it a scratchy old sound. At times it reminds me of a Queen ballad, of all things, but this is where The Gromble is most effective in their song writing and arranging, and I would love to hear an album full of stuff more like this. Skip the 80s disco-dance synth rock stuff, and do more like “You Don’t Know,” and you’ll have me hooked for life.

HELEN EARTH BAND – We Fucking Quit (Youth Conspiracy Records, (youthconspiracy.bigcartel.com)

This is an interesting blend of post-emo, post-math, and commercial alternative rock sounds. “Anchors” opens the album, with a math feel, chock-full of time signature changes and stop-start sounds, and a big guitar sound. “Call Out” is a little more typical of the tracks, though, with that emo-lite and alternative blend. It’s a sound that’s a little bit unsettling. I can hear some good song-writing here, with nice melodic lines and interesting left-brained creative touches. “Remind Me Why” is a good example, with pretty guitar embellishments, a lilting, rolling feel, and a pretty solid melodic line. But the delivery comes across as just a touch too smooth and slick. I think if Helen Earth Band ditched the “professional” sounding recording studios and went for an edgier, rougher mix, especially without that touch of reverb in the vocals, it would go a long way to making this a top-notch act.

LACE CURTAINS – A Signed Piece of Paper (Female Fantasy Records, lacecurtainsband.tumblr.com)

I feel like I’m listening to multiple bands here, so varied are the sounds coming from Michael Coomer and his “solo” project. From the 70s funky groove of the opening track, “The Fly,” to the Burt Bacharach-like stylings of “Wilshire and Fairfax,” to the moody indie-pop of “Pink and Gold,” there’s quite a lot to take in. “Saint Vitus” is probably a favorite, with its noisy, raucous instrumentals contrasted with its more droll sounding vocals. “Boardwalk to the Alps” is pretty cool, feeling like the song is telling a story. It’s got an easy gait and a dark, yet casual feel, courtesy of the keyboards. Some of the tracks don’t work quite as well, such as the aforementioned “The Fly” and “Wilshire and Fairfax,” but that could just be me, because I was never a big fan of 70s pop music. Much of the music seems to be “just there,” sort of passionless. “Saint Vitus” is the standout exception. But that’s not enough for me.

NEW COLONIES – EP
(newcoloniesphx.bandcamp.com)

This four piece, out of the greater Phoenix, AZ area, features members of Rumspringer and Seas Will Rise. Their debut EP just came out as a free download, and has a heavy, gruff sound. “League of Extraordinary Failures” launches the EP with a raging buzz saw of guitars, reminiscent of Naked Raygun’s heyday. As the vocals come in, a bit more pop punk sensibility invades the melodic lines, but the heaviness remains. The next few songs have the sort of sound that’s sort of in the vein of Hot Water Music or Off With Their Heads, tight, heavy, loud music with a punk edge. The last two tracks are very different from the first four, with more of an indie rock quality. “Beneath My Blood” is a fine example of what taking a step back and being more introspective can be like for a band like this, and I think its one of the strongest on the EP. The closer is a perfect pop-punk sing-along sort of track, and I can just close my eyes and feel the press of the crowd toward the stage, fists pumping in the air, everyone trying to grab for the mic. Pretty glorious stuff.

SCARS ON 45 – Safety In Numbers (Nettwerk, www.nettwerk.com/label)

Nettwerk is one of those labels that started life as an independent label, to put out the music they loved. However, due to some initial success with early releases in Canada, a deal was quickly done with Capitol Records for wider distribution. Ever since then, Nettwerk has been releasing albums that share more in common with mainstream music and record labels than with their indie roots. Scars on 45 are a perfect example. This is the epitome of the modern soft rock band. Sweet melodies, male-female vocal harmonies, piano and synth-string-ensemble orchestration, and emotional tearjerker sounds and songs are all there. Just like you would hear on your local adult contemporary radio station. Sadly, that’s the nicest thing I could think of to say about this album.

SINGLE MOTHERS – Negative Qualities (Hot Charity, www.hxcreordings.com)

You know, I like simple, loud guitar-based music with a garage-like feel as much as the next guy. Shouted vocals can be effective, too. But, damn, this band seems to be a one-trick pony. The instrumentals are decent enough, with an urgent, manic feel, and blending garage, indie rock and emo styles. But the shouted vocals get pretty grating after a few songs. They sound a little too snotty and sassy, like a whiney brat shouting at his mother and complaining about his older brother looking at him or something.

TVFORDOGS – By Chance (Wampus Multimedia, www.wampus.com)

What are some of the things that come to mind while listening to “By Chance,” British band TVFORDOGS’ fourth album? Jam-band, party-band, smooth, slick, commercially viable. None of what would make this an interesting release that you might want to listen comes to mind.

VORTIS – Safety First (www.facebook.com/vortisrock)

Now in its third iteration as a band, Vortis is releasing its sixth album of classic punk rock music. And you can’t get more classic than this, complete with most songs clocking in at under two minutes, and lyrics decrying war, government oppression, and corporate greed. From the opening track, though, one can tell that this is a Chicago band, with it’s big Chicago buzz-saw guitar sound. “Free the Detainees” is just what it sounds like, a plea to release the detainees – a reference, no doubt, to Guantanamo and the “enemy combatants” that have been held for years without trial, without presenting evidence of guilt. There’s a song about “All-American Drones,” that has a great spoken line that says, “During World War II, Hitler tried to level London with unmanned rockets. During World War III, Obama does the same thing using robot drones.” “Cosmos” is a rip at the creationists and religious right, another favorite target of old school punk. The title track closes the album with a song about the stupid things people do to try to feel “safe,” such as buying guns, using pills, building walls, and starting wars. Through it all, the music is the epitome of old school punk: fast, loud, passionate, and, maybe, somewhat less than slick and perfect. I didn’t think anyone was making music like this anymore. It’s good to see I was wrong.

VARIOUS – Space Jamz: 5 Bands 1 Practice Space (Sniffling Indie Kids Records, snifflingindiekids.bandcamp.com)

As you might guess from the subtitle of this album, it’s a compilation, featuring five bands that happen to share a single practice space. What isn’t evident from the title, however, is that this is not an album of space jams. Quite the contrary, it’s an album of pretty damn fine indie pop. Each band contributes one track to this EP, starting with HOLY CITY ZOO, who offers up, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s No Problem, Man.” This track is loud and chaotic, while remaining structured. It’s indie-pop, but probably the closest to a pop-punk track on the EP. “Chelsea Rising” is up next, from ALL SENSORY VOID. It’s a more traditional indie-pop track, with a very bouncy, melodic line. Clean guitars mingle with heavily distorted guitars, providing nice instrumental textures. “Scoundrels, from FRANCE (the band, not the country) is the outlier, with a sort of funky feel, rather than the more traditional indie pop sound of the other bands. LAKE EFFECT is next, with “Sally,” which is again more of a traditional indie-pop track. Closing the disc is NGHTCRWLRS, another one of those bands that doesn’t like vowels. Their track, “Lt. Dan,” is a beautiful shoegaze sort of track, with gorgeous fuzzy guitars, soaring melodies, and an epic, yet introspective, feel. This comp is a good one.


BABY GHOSTS – Maybe Ghosts (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Baby Ghosts? Maybe Ghosts? No, very real, and very good. From the very start the music is strong, with awesome female-male harmonized vocals with a lo-fi vibe. The octave difference in the vocals gives the harmonies a really nice effect. The music is right there on the border between indie-pop and pop punk. It’s fast and loud guitar stuff, but it’s super melodic, and despite the fuzzy lo-fi recording, it has a lightness you don’t get with a lot of punk-based music. The album starts really strongly, with “Ghost Boyfriend,” a song that soars and glides. And, I do believe I hear some kazoos in the mix there. “Crash” has a retro 60s girl group sound that’s pretty cool. I really like “MSRPRSNTTN” a lot, too, with its bouncy feel. “Hevy Hed (Heavy Head)” is another good one, this time with a dreamier indie pop sound buried within the cacophony of the guitars, bass and drums. Some of the titles are pretty interesting: “Tumblr,” “alien.edu,” “COMPUTERS,” and “COOKIES” are but a few of the monikers bestowed upon these songs by the young musicians in this band. “Computers” is a pretty rocking track, with a raw, raging guitars. “Oh, A Surprise” pounds, and the shouted vocals are reminiscent of early 80s hardcore bands like SIN34. Pretty damn rockin’ album.

BEVERLY – Careers (Kanine Records, www.kaninerecords.com)

In a way, initially, this reminds me of Stereolab, with it’s smooth, harmonized female vocals, and minimalist melodic lines, repeating hooks over and over. The massive fuzz in the guitars helps with that comparison, as well. But then there are tracks like the instrumental “Ambular,” which totally fuck that vibe over for an intense 80s electro-punk sound, full of buzz and piss and vinegar. That, and the fact that the tracks are somewhat edgier than Stereolab set it apart. Like “Planet Birthday,” which has an awesome interplay of edgy guitars and pounding drums with the smoothy, breezy vocals. Fine stuff, indeed.

PAUL COLLINS – Feel The Noise (Alive Records, www.alive-records.com)

The King of Power Pop is back with another new album of rock’n’roll sounds! Not content to rest on his laurels of being one of the more influential figures in rock music, Collins continues to relentlessly tour the country and the world, and now serves up a new album full of new songs. Well, mostly. There’s a great cover of “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” the Four Tops’ Motown classic. While the original is a soft, soulful tune, this version rocks hard. There’s also a re-recording of “Baby I’m In Love With You,” a track that came out last year on a split 7” with The Maxies. While that version was a delicate, Buddy Holly-esque, jangly tune, this version pounds out a martial tempo. On this one, I think the previous version works better, especially as a love song. The title track opens the album, but it is one of my least favorites, trying to be sort of a grungy tune. When Paul sticks to power-pop, he hits the sweet spot just about every time, like on the second track, “Only Girl,” a song with tons of jangle, with a great hooky chorus. “With a Girl Like You” has a nice beachy vibe to it, sort of like a grittier, less bubblegum Beach Boys. “Don’t Know How to Treat a Lady” is another good one, with a classic power-pop sound, with just hints of a garage sound. “Can’t Get You Off My Mind” is another favorite, starting out mid-tempo, with acoustic guitar jangle, and then adding in the vocals. It sounds fairly delicate, until the electric guitars come in, yielding a track that has a distinct late 60s rock’n’roll sound. While Collins’ years of singing and smoking have taken a bit of a toll on his voice, his song-writing and guitar playing are as vibrant as ever. If you’re a fan of power-pop (and if you aren’t, you should be), this is something you’ll want to get.

COUGAR ISLAND – Conjugal Visits (www.facebook.com/TheCougarIsland)

Garage pop’n’rock, with tons of reverb and very simple, sparse arrangements are the order of the day here. Guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and some glockenspiel (huh?) recorded lo-fi is the basic description. There’s overt surf style, here, as well, which is very interesting for a Chicago band. Some of the songs are pretty tight, like the title track, which opens the album. It’s got an energy about it, and a feel that’s both easy and angst-filled. And “I Don’t Mind” is raucous and noisy fun. Other tracks sound like the need a little more practice, like “Little Kid Blues,” which sounds really tentative, like they were just learning it for the first time. Unfortunately, the latter sound dominates over the former, and the album, as a whole, ends up sounding a bit amateurish.

THE CREEPS – Eulogies (It’s Alive Records, www.itsaliverecords.com)

Now this is my kind of pop-punk album! The Ottawa-based Creeps are back with their first full length in, what, seven years? Thanks be to the universe! Garage-like, lo-fi, and with an edgy pop, the ten tracks on this disc will darken your life. This isn’t your typical love song/lost love pop punk, or even the drunken sing-along stuff. This is classic, straightforward, melodic punk music with more than a hint of 80s power-pop mixed in. “Holding Steady” is a favorite track, with tons of jangle and some great hooks. “Off My Guard” is a raging Ramones style track, with fast, simple melodies and plenty of loud guitar but with a darker tone. “Cancer” is a good song on a nasty subject, with lyrics like, “If cancer’s gonna fill my body / then maybe nicotine / is always the right answer / and I just gave up too easily.” The simplicity of the melody, and the melodic lines, remind me somewhat of The Floor Notes, the San Diego band that Miski Dee Rodriguez (of City Mouse) plays in (but doesn’t tour with). Damn fine album, but next time, guys, don’t make us wait so long!

THE DIRTY NIL – Cinnamon b/w Guided By Vices (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

I happened to be in Toronto a few weeks ago, for work, and discovered that The Dirty Nil was playing a show at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern. Not only that, but it was the record release show for their new single on Fat Wreck Chords, and I managed to snap up the “hot lava” colored vinyl version that the band was selling only at the show (presumably because of limited quantities provided them by the label). Pity it’s only two songs, because I want to have more from this band. The show was incredibly energetic, with a packed house going nuts. On this single, the A side is a mid-tempo track called “Cinnamon.” It’s less punk or pop punk and more of a strong indie rock song with heavy punk, grunge, and power-pop influence. “Guided By Vices” is, in my opinion, the stronger of the two tracks. It’s a manic, up-tempo one that rocks crazy hard, and comes straight out of the garage punk files. Luke Bentham’s vocals are just as crunchy as the guitars, and bend like the bent notes of a pulled guitar string. It’s damned exciting that Fat is branching out from the confines of the Fat pop punk sound, because bands like these Canucks deserve a larger audience. Highly recommended!

GARETH DISCKSON – Invisible String (Sleeping Man Records, www.garethdickson.co.uk)

Containing seventeen tracks of live recordings from performances during 2012 in Caen, Reims, and Istanbul, this is beautiful, delicate acoustic guitar and vocals. Tracks like “Song, Woman, Wine” are just a perfect way to escape the noisy, stressful world, and just float away into a swirly stringed dream world. Some of the tracks were recorded in the lobby of an apartment building in France that had unique acoustic properties, making it sound as if the recording was done in a large concert hall. From the very first track, “This Is A Kiss,” I feel like a burden is being lifted and I’m being transported to another place, another time. God, this is gorgeous. The acoustic guitar is almost harp-like in its delicateness, and Dickson’s vocals are airy and otherworldly. Big thumbs up.

KOOL STUFF KATIE (www.koolstuffkatie.com)

Kool Stuff Katie is a band from Portland that plays songs that range from poppy garage punk, like the opener, “Hard Girl to Know,” through solid power-pop, like “ I Can’t See,” to the shoe-gazish “Show Me,” to the buzzy pop of “Obscene,” and everything in between. It’s invariably catchy stuff. I especially like “Simple,” a retro 80s song, with keyboards that give it that new-wave sort of sound, but in a Devo sort of way. While I’m happy that the band isn’t playing the same song over and over, like too many bands do, this might be a little too varied. But at least the songs are all good, so it sort of sounds like listening to a compilation album.

THE LOVERS KEY – Here Today Gone Tomorrow (Room Records, www.theloverskeymusic.com)

Sort of 70s pop-soul music is what comes to mind when listening to the debut album from South Floridians The Lovers Key. Imagine crossing the Motown sound with the soft pop of Burt Bacharach, and you get an idea of the sound this evokes. This is especially evident on the opener, “Saturday Night,” which sounds like a white Fifth Dimension. “Who’s The One You Love?” kind of sounds like a less chill Doors. The overall result is not soulful enough, and not poppy enough. It, therefore, comes across as kind of a bland compromise, rather than an effective melding of genres.

OCTAGRAPE – Vertical Evasion (octagrape.bandcamp.com)

After last year’s successful debut LP, “Red UFO,” this San Diego band is back. The first in a series of very limited lathe-cut 7” singles, sold at shows, this release features two covers. First up is The Pretty Things’ “Mr. Evasion,” and it’s a retro-60s psychedelic number, recorded in the typical Octagrape lo-fi style. This is the most straightforward, melodic track I’ve ever heard from the band, and they do the song justice. It retains the psychedelic feel really well, but gives it the Octagrape fuzz treatment. The other side is a cover of The Swell Maps’ “Vertical Slum.” And, while the song is definitely still easily recognizable, Octagrape do a little more to make this one their own. Plenty of noisy, distorted fuzz and jams put their own unmistakable stamp on it. You can try to contact the band to see if they have any of these unique Plexiglas hand-made records left, and you can definitely download it from their bandcamp.

OCTAGRAPE – Dial-An-Animal (octagrape.bandcamp.com)

The second in the series of lathe-cut 7” singles, very limited in quantity and sold at a single show in San Diego, this is still available via download (as are the others in the series). The single’s name comes from the awesome artwork, showing various animals on a dial, with the mysterious fish, the spheroid-shaped octagrape, at the bottom, next to the oarfish. Musically, this is classic Octagrape: noisy, grungy, and kind of psychedelic. This one has two originals, including “Bandaid Licker,” a slower tempo track, but heavy as a massive pile of slag. “Ono Cyclone” is a little lighter and even a bit poppier, yet still with the trademark 4-track lo-fi sound. It even starts out a bit gently, before reaching the halfway mark and becoming less pop and more psych. Good stuff.

OCTAGRAPE – Emotional Oil (octagrape.bandcamp.com)

– Originally released as a digital download back in February, 2013, this 4-song EP has finally seen a proper vinyl release, as a one-sided 12”. The B-side features an etched drawing of a person whose brain seems to consist of a band performing. The first song, “Eternal Hair,” is the subject of the band’s first music video (check it out on youtube, for it’s cool integration of footage from another famous band’s rooftop performance). The song has long been one of my favorites of the Octagrape repertoire, and I’m really happy to finally have it in my music collection. It’s a pounding track that beautifully melds powerful noise-rock, grunge, garage, and psych into a cohesive whole. The other three tracks are ones that don’t seem to make it into the set lists at shows anymore. Probably understandably so, as they’re different than the typical intense Octagrape track. They don’t have the intensity or the manic personality that permeates everything the band does these days. These three tracks are somewhat more relaxed, melodic, and even poppier. They’re still good, but not quite what I’ve come to expect from the band these days. To me, it doesn’t matter. It’s worth it to have that first track.

REPLICA MINE – Three Noble Truths (www.replicamine.net)

This one is kind of hard to pin down. It mixes acoustic/folk sounds with electronics. It’s got a quiet, yet urgent sounding vibe to it. The first track, “A Lasting Fate,” even has hints of 80s new wave dance music influence, too. That track kind of soured things for me, as I’m not really big on 80s new wave dance music. But, I kept listening, because everyone deserves full-attention reviews, and I’ve encountered bands that don’t exactly put their best foot forward on the first track of an album. So I continued to listen. And what I heard sounds like it’s trying a little too hard to be “cool.” Some of the tracks are a bit jazzy, some are off kilter. They all have an underpinning of acoustic guitar; all are around the same tempo. The vocals are kind of gruff and raspy, and occasionally the acoustic instruments will be brought up high in the mix for a “cool” little filler. OK, I now have just thought of an apt description: white boy acoustic folk-funk. And it doesn’t really appeal to me very much.

SHARPLESS – The One I Wanted To Be (Father Daughter Records, www.fatherdaughterrecords.com)

Um, hmmm. This is a tough one. It’s kind of odd disco-pop music. The odd part is intriguing. The disco-pop is not. I think the vocals, harmonized in choral style with an attitude, are what give it the uniqueness. But, at the same time, the effects that are added onto the vocals, like on “You’ve Got A Lot Of Feelings,” with the heavy processing and auto-tuning going on here, kind of ruin things and make them sound too much like commercial pop. As the album progresses, this vocal processing gets more and more pronounced, and more and more annoying. Annoying enough that, after repeated listenings, rather than seeming improved, this sounded worse.

MARC SLOAN – Portrait of the Musician as Forever Moonlight (Tree of Nerve Endings, www.treeofnerveendings.com)

How awesome is this? This is well-played performances of acoustic music – of a variety of styles! Folk music, Argentine dance music, blues, even a track that blends African drumming with the sound of an old English sea shanty, it’s all here. This is pretty unique stuff. Highlights include the opener, “Freight Train Blues,” which gives a real feeling of riding the rails, “Faruca Argentine,” a fantastic track with a beautiful melody and awesome violin, and “Don’t Ask Me Two Times,” a track that moves back and forth between a bluesy number and lively country dance. If you like various forms of acoustic and traditional music, try this one out. It’s sure to please.

SLOW CLUB – Complete Surrender (Caroline International, www.carolineinternational.com)

The third album from the Sheffield, UK duo, made up of Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson certainly is varied. The opener, “Tears of Joy,” is a full-on R&B white soul track, while “Everything is New” has plenty of country folk feel. “Suffering You, Suffering Me” moves right back to a 50s R&B/girl group sound, and “Number One” is a simple pop ballad with nice harmonized vocals. The title track comes across as a mild disco number, right out of the era of mirror balls and platform shoes. And that’s how this album goes, moving between these styles. Unfortunately, it’s not quite soulful enough. It comes across as pretty white bread. I will say, though, that the acoustic number, “Paraguay and Panama” is simple, pretty, and sung with feeling by Watson, and right after that Taylor gets her turn on “Dependable People and Things I’m Sure Of,” also a really nice, quiet track. But these two aren’t enough to get a recommendation for the whole album.

THREE MINUTE TEASE – Bite The Hand (Idiot Records, www.threeminutetease.com)

The opening track of this new album from singer/songwriter Anton Barbeau, reminds me somewhat of Chicago’s Bobby Conn, in the sheer theatricality of the song, and, particularly, the vocals. Backed by former Egyptians (of Robyn Hitchcock’s band) Andy Metcalfe (bass) and Morris Windsor (drums), Barbeau puts on quite a show, worthy of at least an off-Broadway production. “MTV Song” sounds like it could have come right out of the glory days of the 80s for the Music Television outlet, so bubbly it is, with a strong backbeat and strong pop hooks. “Beanpole” is a particularly solid track, with definite psychedelic overtones, straight out of the 70s. “Ciao Ciao Chicken” is an awful title, but a great power-pop track. “Coffee That Makes The Man Go Mad” is one of my favorites on the album, with an epic sound and great melody and interesting lyrics. Quite an interesting listen.

LOW CULTURE / NEEDLES//PINS – Split 7” (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

Two-song each from these two bands on a 7” EP! And two awesome bands, at that. Low Culture uses the opportunity for a real departure from their album of last year, and present two of their poppiest tracks yet. “Reservations” is a rockin’ track with more than a bit of a retro-pop edge. “Don’t Tell Me” is even poppier and full of jangly guitars and crooning vocals. “Hateful” is the first track from the Canadian garage punks Needles//Pins. The two tracks, “Hateful” and “Bored,” have the same blend of garage-rock, punk and power-pop as their album I recently reviewed, and the same snotty vocals. If anything, these two tracks are a little more relaxed than the album, with a little more of a story-telling Americana (Canadiana?) feel. In any event, they’re good, and a solid match for split-mates Low Culture.

VARIOUS – Burrito Wars (La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

La Escalera calls this a split. But with four bands contributing, it’s a comp. The four bands in this case include BASTARDS OF YOUNG, SUCCESS, CIVIL WAR RUST, and WESTERN SETTINGS, with each contributing a single song. Bastards of Young start things out with “Boys Like Us,” a mid-tempo track with a loping pace, but a huge melody, especially the chorus and bridge. Success speeds things up with “Ricky and Me,” a rapid fire song with lots of bounce. Civil War Rust gives us “Jump Rope,” another great melodic punk tune with a big sound. Western Settings closes things out with “Brain Wars,” with their signature soaring sound. Speaking of sounds, there’s a definite “La Escalera sound,” and it’s very evident on this comp. It’s a very cohesive set of bands that complement each other extremely well. It’s also one of the best comps I’ve heard in some time, probably for that very reason. The tracks fit together, yet don’t all sound the same. Recommended.

CYMBALS EAT GUITARS – Lose (Barsuk Records, www.barsuk.com)

I was first introduced to what would become one of my favorite bands some six and a half years ago. I was visiting New York City for work, and our fearless editor insisted that I had to go out with him one night to see this young band he had found. And despite the lousy acoustics at the club, I became enthralled at the incredible layering of sounds that came from these musicians.

Several months later, their first album, Why There Are Mountains, was released, and I rejoiced. Dripping with emotion, pulsing with an incredible dynamic range, it became my favorite album of the year. One of my comments about the band was that the layering of sounds made it seem like they were playing multiple songs simultaneously, and that it worked incredibly well.

Some two years later, after a few tours and personnel changes, Lenses Alien was released. It exceeded my expectations, and in my eyes/ears, topped Mountains. Replacing the explosiveness was an intensity that simmered and boiled. Still playing songs within songs, there was less layering of sounds and more shifts back and forth within the songs. The result was a bit smoother and more mature.

Now, three years on, comes Lose. It’s definitely even smoother and poppier than either of the previous efforts, and ditches (for the most part) the idea of either layering or sequencing multiple songs in a single number for a more straightforward pop song structure. That’s not to say that the songs are generic. They’re anything but. And Joe D’Agostino still earns the nickname “Joseph Ferocious” with his enormous vocals that he attacks with glee. His range is still incredible, ranging from delicate to soaring to, well, ferocious. The album has a very large sound, with lots of reverb, fuzz and distortion giving the sense of layering this time around.

The album opens with “Jackson,” a good, strong choice. It highlights all the strengths the band has to offer, with gorgeous melodies and incredible range, from jangle to soaring epic. And it, along with other tracks on the album, offers some of the most personal, heartfelt lyrics ever to come from D’Agostino. At the very start of CEG’s existence, there was D’Agostino, and there was Ben High. They met at a house show, both in separate bands, but soon became the closest of friends. And they formed CEG and recorded the initial demos. But in 2007, as they were working on some of the earliest recordings for Mountains, High died from a heart condition. “Jackson” recalls a time the pair went to an amusement park, and felt the sensation of weightlessness and falling on rollercoasters, and goes on to say, “Now I dream in color of your face / And I see the coast in your mirror shades / Only feel relief when I’m back at home / Falling forward alone.”

“XR” is an interesting one, starting off sounding like a Dylan track, harmonica and all, until Joe’s snarling vocals come in. The track can’t make up its mind as to whether it wants to be a Dylan-eque folk-rock tune or a raging punk-edged one, and I think that’s just fine. It, too, has reminiscences of High, and seems to signal a coming to terms with the loss of his best friend. “Wanna wake up wanting to listen to records / But those old feelings elude me / I raise a toast to the rock and roll ghost / But it ain’t whiskey / It’s Emergen-C / Almost died a thousand times / High is just a tingling behind my eyes.”

“Child Bride” is a beautiful ballad-like one that didn’t quite catch me the first time around, but after repeated listens, the melodic lines are quite nice. But probably my favorite track of the album is the expansive, “Laramie,” which teeters between epic indie-rock and emo-math, until just before the halfway mark. At this point, the whole song shifts (the only song to really do this on the album) to a more standard indie-pop sound. As the track nears an end, it veers into chaotic jam territory, with layered sounds creating a thick tapestry. Lyrically, this one is also about the intense and too-short friendship between D’Agostino and High.

“Chambers” follows right after, and has a marked 80s sound in the opening keyboard notes, an interesting departure from the norm. “2 Hip Soul (Floyd’s Tomb)” closes things out in classic CEG style. It’s a massive track that’s a classic ballad, with strings and all, but crescendos into an epic, loud track full of angst and energy, pounding and crashing, before dropping back down to a whisper, with the final piano notes ending without resolution.

Final verdict? I like this album. A lot. It’s quite different in many ways from the youthful energy of Mountains or the awesome intricacies of Lenses Alien. It’s, as I stated, much smoother and simpler than those previous efforts. But it’s also more from the heart, and more emotionally significant. And that comes across clearly. Will it make my top ten of the year? We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s definitely a contender.

 


APOCALYPSE MEOW – Baseball and Alcohol (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Another super-group, of sorts, Apocalypse Meow (named for a Japanese Manga of the same name, perhaps?) features members of Off With Their Heads and Sundowners. This EP features five tracks of pop-punk goodness. “357” has a great melodic line and one of the hookiest choruses to hit a record in awhile. And the other tracks are just as good, with powerful pop-punk, with big choruses and hooks aplenty. The closer, “Warehouse Heart,” is my favorite of the bunch, I think, with its slight bit of doo-wop influence, but in an up-tempo pop-punk way. It’s pure rock and roll awesomeness.

BLANK PAGES – Blank Pages (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Originally released in 2013 on Euro label Hardware Records, this album finally gets a US release to support their summer 2014 US tour, courtesy of the kind folks at Dirt Cult Records. This Berlin band’s debut was called “the best album of 2013” in Dirt Cult’s press release, and, while that’s debatable, there’s no denying that it’s pretty damn good, and could have made my top 10, had I received it when it was first released. They rip through ten tracks that could give them the reputation of being from Denton, Germany. They have that garage-punk sound, with hints of surf, such as on the opening track, “Shelter,” with its heavy reverb in some sections, giving it that classic surf sound. I really like the garage sound of “”Drained,” the third track. It starts out slow and eerie, but gradually builds, as the guitars and drums get more raucous, and then the whole thing shifts to an up-tempo track that fans of bands like Marked Men or Radioactivity would love. And that’s the whole album in a nutshell. Catch them on tour this August, if you can, and definitely pick up this album.

CANCERS – Fatten the Leeches (Kandy Kane Records, kandykanerecords.bandcamp.com/music)

Lo-fi, glimmery, noisy pop is the order of the day on this debut full-length from the Athens, Georgia based band. Imagine 90s grunge infused with airy female vocals and a bit of indie-pop shimmer, and you get an idea of the sound Cancers is going for. “Liar” is the outlier, with its quiet, home-recorded sound. Yes, home recorded – you can hear the cat in the background. The hiss is a nice touch, giving it an old, DIY sort of feel, and the guitar has an out-of-tune reverb sort of sound. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the disc. “Dig” is probably the heaviest track on the disc, by a long shot, and works well as the closer. Pretty good listen here.

CASPER & THE COOKIES – Dingbats (Stuff Records, www.casperandthecookies.com)

Quirky pop music is the three-word summary. But Casper & The Cookies’ latest LP is so much more than that. It’s a solid confident statement, pushed out into the world with fervor and élan. “Drug Facts” is an awesome track that’s in-your-face odd-pop, with an 80s feel in the tradition of some of the most creative bands of the day. It makes me want to get up and dance, for sure. “Jennifer’s House” is another fun one, with tons of off-kilter pop-bounce. “Lemon Horses” is the weirdest, coolest country-folk-rock track you’re going to hear all year. “Thing for Ugly” has a bit of a progressive jazz-rock feel blended into the odd new-wave feel, and it comes through clearly despite the deliberate minimalism of the track’s arrangement. “Omni” is perhaps the weirdest, noisiest track of the album, with shouted, growled vocals, pounding percussion, and buzzing synth. It’s also one of the most fun. “White Noise” is the real outlier, with more of an early 70s soft-rock feel, and not as exciting to me as the other tracks. The closer, “When the Moon Was In Command,” is also kind of a weaker one, in my opinion, with an almost dirge-like feel. With few exceptions, though, this is a solid album and a great listen.

CHROME – Feel It Like A Scientist (King of Spades Records, www.facebook.com/chromechronicles)

Here comes the fifth Chrome LP. Chrome without Damon Edge? Yes. Helios Creed has decided that he can record under that name, even without Edge. Does that make this a Chrome LP or a Helios Creed LP? Well, kind of both. It’s buzzy and noisy as all hell, but it glows and bubbles, too. The heavy use of synth gives it a real 80s feel, in a German new wave minimalist way. Yet it also still feels modern in structure. Some of it gets downright delightfully weird, like “Slave Planet Institution,” which melds sci-fi sound effects and found sound recordings to provide an eerie soundtrack. To be honest, a lot of the album has a sort of psychedelic distorted sci-fi soundtrack sound. “Lipstick,” for instance, sounds like a disco track for drunken robots. And I mean that in a good way. The vocals are stupid distorted, to the point of non-comprehension. And the instrumentals throb in a sort of stilted dance beat suited for the more mechanical oriented beings in the house. It probably works for drunken humans, as well. “Unbreakable Flouride Lithium Plastic” is a pretty awesome one, crossing 70s punk and stoner jams. The found sounds at the end of the track are quite humorous, as well. The funny track of the disc has to go to “Brady The Chicken Boy,” for both sonic and personal reasons. The sonic reasons have to do with the chicken sounds in the vocals. The personal reasons have to do with multiple friends of the Brady variety. OK – bottom line? It’s a jam album. It meanders. It’s noisy. And it’s kinda cool.

DOG SOCIETY – In The Shade (www.dogsociety.tv)

New York’s Dog Society’s latest LP is an eclectic mix of rock sounds. From the hard, fuzzy grunge-psych sounds of the opener, “Heal Me Friend,” to the softer, folk-rock 70s stylings of “Oleander Girl,” from the 90s indie rock sounds of “Dear Brother” and “Laughing Song,” to the jazz-rock closer, “Our Own Parade.” The band is a little bit all over the place, though the common thread seems to be a solid foot in the past. The sounds have a definite retro feel, from 70s to 90s, though not in-between. “Dear Brother” is sort of a favorite, with guitar work reminiscent of Midwest faves, The Poster Children and their classic “Clock Street.” With repeated listens, I’ve warmed up a bit to some of the tracks, but it does strike me as a bit forced and a bit commercial sounding.

THE JEAN JACKETS – Freeze Out (www.thejeanjackets.com)

The Jean Jackets are dropping the second half their "double LP" six months or after the part one, Field Theory Blues, which I reviewed back at the beginning of the year. This album starts out a little oddly, with a slow underwater-sounding ballad. The vocals are heavily processed with vibrato to give it that sound. Not my favorite of the disc, but things immediately take a turn for the better with “Dead Again,” the second track. I really like the cycle of fifths type chord progression, the mid-up-tempo bounce, and the slightly chaotic, noisy ambience. And, you know what’s odd? It kinda goes that way, where even numbered tracks are pretty damn good, while the odd numbered tracks are, well, odd, and not to my taste, or just OK. “My Marine” is a slower track, and doesn’t move me that much, while “Under Your Wing,” also a slower track, strikes me as a pretty one, with delicate vocals and instrumentals that alternate between delicate and raucous. The title track, sadly, is my least favorite, by far. I would go so far as to say that it really doesn’t belong on this album. It has a 70s lounge-pop feel, and just doesn’t seem to be very well performed. “Vacant Admiral” pops things up several notches again, with a distinctly bouncier, poppier feel. “Too Much (Is Just Enough)” is an acoustic track that has pretty emotional vocals, but doesn’t quite work for me. The vocals don’t flow well enough; they’re disjointed, in a way. “(Many) Returns,” on the other hand, is another one with acoustic guitar, though it also has keyboards, and I really like this slower tune. The interplay between the male vocals, up in front in the mix, and the female vocals, heavy on the reverb to give it a distant effect, works quite well. The resulting track is quite pretty. “Cannon of Sound” finally breaks the cycle, as the second track in a row that I like pretty well. In general, I do like the easy feel that the Jean Jackets bring to their songs. They have a relaxed feel, while having simplicity in the vocals and an underlying organized chaos in some of the instrumentals. I just wish there was more consistency to this album, as there was in the previous one.

RATIONAL ANTHEM – Emotionally Unavailable (Bloated Kat Records, bloatedkatrecords.bandcamp.com)

Damn! I knew I liked Rational Anthem, having seem them perform at numerous shows, and having heard their previous album, “Whatevermind.” But the new album is on a different level. This is the definition of pop-punk. But at 8 songs and 20 minutes, it’s just not enough! The album opens with “Lloyd Christmas,” shooting off rapid-fire, pounding music with tons of catchy melody. It starts there, but it never lets up for the whole 20 minutes. “Pink Triangle Pt. Deux” slows things down slightly. The topic here is lost love, but without any semblance of a happy ending. “No Call / No Show” hits a little too close to home, because there’ve been too many times I was “supposed” to go out to a show or to party with friends, and I just decided to say “fuck it” and stayed home. Too many times I did drag myself off the couch and go out, but wasn’t really into it. I don’t know what the ultimate message is here, but let’s all try and enjoy ourselves, shall we? One way to do that is to get this album and play repeatedly.

THE STUPID DAIKINI (thestupiddaikini.bandcamp.com)

The Stupid Daikini is a duo, featuring Melissa Zavislak on vocals and ukulele and Brittany Hartin on drums. Hartin’s drumming is pretty basic, but appropriate for this stripped down experience. The same goes for the ukulele, which is recorded with ear-deceiving distortion to make it sound bigger than it is. No, the real centerpiece of the four songs of this EP are Zavislak’s revelatory vocals. They shine like a beacon in the night, though they don’t lead to safety. Rather, they sing stories of heartbreak and sadness. That’s the other major piece to this two-piece puzzle. The song-writing is amazing. There’s a combination of indie-pop and 50s doo-wop sounds, blended with island lightness of the uke’s sound quality. The heaviness of the subject matter is punctuated by the pounding of the drums and the matching heavy strumming on the uke. “Landlord” opens the EP, with lyrics like, “I’ll bet you can’t wait ‘til I get home / But I’ll ruin your life, I’ll leave you alone. / I’ll make you cry, make your heart sad. / I don’t know why I like making you feel bad. / And just when things start seeming better / Here I come with nasty weather. / Oooh, ahhh, why don’t you love me?” “Do Your Thing” closes the EP with an uneven rhythm and tons of angst and bitterness. It’s about a break-up that is sung with such passion that my heart is torn to pieces just listening to it. Right now this is just a self-released DIY effort, but I encourage The Stupid Daikini to send this around to the appropriate outlets and labels, because this is way too good to keep hidden.

SUGAR STEMS – Only Come Out At Night (Dirt Nap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

I only discovered the Sugar Stems last winter, when I was in Japan, of all places. We kept hearing the most awesome music at all the clubs the Maxies were playing. The same songs each time. We thought this must be some new Japanese band that was really popular or something. Finally, we asked Chiba, the manager of the Kingons and the person who booked the tour, “Who IS this?” “Sugar Stems,” he replied. “From Wisconsin.” Damn! I immediately got hold of a copy of their previous album, “Can’t Wait,” and played it over and over, swooning every time it played. And I quickly contacted guitarist Drew (who also plays in The Jetty Boys) to find out when they were touring out to the west coast. I was stoked to find out they were going to be out this way this summer, and with a new album to boot! This new album picks up right where “Can’t Wait” left off, serving up a dozen power-pop gems. It’s appropriate that they have “Sugar” in their name, because the music is so damn sweet! The song writing is ridiculously strong, the musicianship is top notch, and the vocals, particularly Betsy’s leads, are spot on. My absolute favorite track has to be “The One,” which started streaming a couple of weeks before the album’s official release. It’s classic power-pop, with a loping tempo, sparkling guitars, some of the best pop hooks I’ve heard in awhile, and Betsy’s awesome vocals. The title track, “We Only Come Out At Night,” is another winner. Well, they all are, but this one is way up there, with more pop melody than you can shake your fist at. “Run Run Rabbit” is an anomaly, but what a great one! It turns off the sweet sugar and turns on the nastiness. This is raucous, raunchy rock’n’roll! The album closes with “Million Miles,” a quiet, ethereal track, with acoustic guitars, electric organ, and a seeming chorus of angels. Those are just a few of the highlights. I recommend you get this to fill in the details on your own. It’s definitely worth your while.

TUNABUNNY – Kingdom Technology (HHBTM Records, www.hhbtm.com)

What an odd, uneven little album we have here. “Airless Spaces” flows with spaced-out vocals and buzzy electronics throbbing over a pulsing drum beat. But the next track, “Canaries in Mineshafts,” is noisy and edgy, with distinct vocals and melody. “Save It Up” is an 80s sounding track with heavy use of synth and clean, strong female vocals. “Power Breaks” has a Euro-minimalism thing going on, with throbbing, repetitive synth, simplistic vocals, and occasional bursts of slightly detuned guitar glimmer. “Good God Awful” is an apt name, as it’s a short, very off-kilter track that sounds sort of like B-52s practicing a rejected song. And “Bag of Bones” has awesome 80s minimalist no-wave synth sounds and beats, but the vocals are kind of lackluster and a bit out of tune. Like I said, uneven. The album is all over the place, both stylistically and quality-wise. The good tracks are really good – spot on. But the not so good tracks are…well, not so good. Overall, though, I think the good outweighs the bad. It certainly is different from most stuff out there, which is always a positive.

THE UGLY BEATS – Brand New Day (Get Hip Recordings, www.gethip.com)

Everything old is new again, and everything ugly is pretty, too. The Ugly Beats are back with a brand new album full of new old style music. 1960s garage predominates, but not in a gritty way. Here, we get jangly tunes with a bit of an attitude. The album starts with “Up On The Sun,” probably the grittiest garagiest track on the album. “Throw Me A Line” is probably my favorite track on the album, reminding me of some the great early power-pop stuff. “Braced For The Fall” is a delicious pairing of the 60s British Invasion with American garage-pop that has some beautiful harmonized singing in the chorus and backing vocals. There’s even a fun cover of “Los Gusanos,” originally performed by Los Flecos, and sung here in Spanish, as well as a country-ish cover of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter.” They don’t appear to be touring yet to support this new release, but I sure hope they do, because their live shows are legendary, and if it’s half as good as this album, it should be pretty damn fine, indeed.

THE VERVE PIPE – Overboard (LMNOPop, www.thevervepipe.com)

Yes, they’re still here and still making music. After around thirteen years, The Verve Pipe are back with a new album of rock music. And it’s independently released, to boot. The album features some well-polished, yet laid-back pop music. It’s the definition of casual elegance: it’s relaxed and comfortable, like that old worn sweatshirt that’s started to go threadbare. Yet it’s crisp and clean, like that white dress shirt, the one with the collar stays and all. “Latchkey Kid” is a favorite, strings and all. Yes, it has strings. But it’s got some beautiful pop hooks and, like several of the tracks, some math-ish rhythms that make it interesting. The title track is ballad-like, with tinges of country, by way of acoustic guitar and western melody lines. But it also blends in hints of a blend of Michael Stipe and Phil Collins, of all things. And yet…and yet…it works. “Hit and Run” is another interesting one, with a sort of eerie, yet bouncy sound. I have a feeling that the cognoscenti would tell me I’m not supposed to like this album, because it’s too slick. But the easiness of the songs, and the beauty of the hooks tell me to tell the cognoscenti to fuck off.



COMPILATIONS/SPLIT RELEASES

AUTONOMY / NO SIR I WON’T – Split 12” LP (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

From the first track I fell in love. Autonomy opens this split LP with “Affect Heuristic,” a track that brings to mind some of the coolest post-punk of the 80s. It’s atonal, noisy, and rhythmic. I’m reminded of one of my favorite Boston post-punk bands, Proletariat. There’s the same anger in the vocals, the same modal sound, and the same sort of energy. The band pounds its way through the far too few five tracks with a zeal that makes me pine for my youth like I haven’t for some time. No Sir I Won’t are a perfect match for the split, with five more tracks of post-punk power, this time fueled with even a harder edge, right out of the politically charged Britain of the era. Damn, this is a good release!

COTTON TAIL / MOON BANDITS – Cotton Tail & Moon Bandits Split (moonbandits.bandcamp.com)

Three songs each from these two bands that are in the “folk punk” genre. Cottontail opens things with their best track, Ownership. It’s tuneful, with dual guitars and beautifully harmonized dual vocals. It’s the sort of track that has the feeling of enough power that it could be electric and work – but it works quite well as a stomping yet melodic acoustic piece. The other two pieces are a little toned down from the first, but are equally tuneful. The three Moon Bandits Tracks feature banjo and fiddle, plus piano and accordion, I think on “Do We Want They’re Giving.” The other two tracks are just Tommy and Astrid, on banjo, fiddle and vocals. I really love these guys, and their songs that are pretty much strong social commentary about living in our current world, stripped bare, yet still full of feeling.

DIRECT HIT! / PRICEDUIFKES – Split! (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Say-10 is back with another winner, this time a split EP featuring Midwest pop-punks Direct Hit! and Belgian punks Priceduifkes. Direct Hit!’s first track, “Wasting Away,” starts off as a typically good pop-punk track, melodic, bouncy, and energetic. As it goes along, it takes on the characteristics of a great sing-along, reminding me of some of the great pub punk of the past. Their other track also harkens back to the ghosts of punk past, as the cover of Priceduifkes’ “I Ain’t Dreaming of a White Christmas” starts out as sort of a cross-over track, slower and heavier, and I was about to write it off. But then it breaks out into a classic 80s hardcore track, fast and loud and furious as fuck! Priceduifkes’ two tracks are solid pop-punk gems. “Boredom Addict,” a cover of a Direct Hit! track, is catchy, fun, and has more than enough whoa-ohs to satisfy the sing-along and fist-pumpers out there. “Getwood City,” is another good one, fast and tuneful through the first half of the track, and then it slows down a bit, and you can just feel the sweaty crowd jumping up and down around you. Great release!

LITTLE BIG LEAGUE / OVLOV – Split (Tiny Engines, www.tinyengines.net)

Two songs from Little Big League, and one from Ovlov. The LBL tracks are noisy, yet quite melodic. Michelle Zauner’s vocals are perfect for this style, bright and present, though a little more subdued than the intensity of LBL’s debut album, “These Are Good People.” The second of the two tracks has even more subdued vocals than the first, with the intensity only occasionally hinted at. Those vocals need to be unleashed! The OVLOV track is a little less successful. It’s mostly an instrumental, with some vocals in the middle. It starts out great, as a noisy up-tempo track, with an excited feel. It takes about 1:45 to get to the vocals, though. And it’s OK there, too, but the song tends to be too long, and the energy seems to wane – or maybe it’s the sameness of the sound. The two LBL tracks are solid, though, and make it worth the price of admission.

AFRO- JERSEY (www.afrojersey.com)

Afro-Jersey is the trio consisting of Terre Roche, Sidiki Conde, and Marlon Cherry. Roche, of course, became semi-famous as one of the trio of sisters known as The Roches. This debut album is a significant departure for her, away from the folksy music made with sisters Maggie and Suzzy, and into the world of World Music. The collaboration began with Wt African drummer Conde, and later added bassist Cherry, and the trio blends the musical traditions of North America with those of the West African Mandinka people. You get music that’s, at one time, jazzy, folksy, and tribal. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and I love the blending of cultures, musical ideas, and sounds. Lyrics are alternately in English and Mandinka. The album closes with a gorgeous rendition of the traditional folk song, “Shenandoah,” otherwise known as “Across the Wide Missouri.” Beautiful.

ALVVAYS (Polyvinyl Records, www.polyvinylrecords.com)

This Canadian quintet offers up their debut full-length of lovely, jangly, dreamy pop music. They pre-released a couple of their tracks on the interwebz, and the opener, “Adult Diversion,” is one of them. It’s got bounce aplenty, and a cool minimalist groove (in that there’s plenty of repetition in the phrasing and rhythms), though it’s got a complex sound, with plenty of reverb and a thick sounding instrumentation. There’s a Stereolab sort of quality to the music, but Alvvays has a softer, smoother sound than Stereolab. This is very evident on “Ones Who Love You,” the third track, which has a beautiful, lonely sound, with the minimalist repetition and bouncy jangle. “Party Police” has a slightly retro feel, with its synth heavy sound, and I both love it, and feel it’s a bit out of place. But overall, the sound here is gorgeous, relaxed, and jangly.

BEACH SLANG – Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken? (Dead Broke Rekerds, www.deadbrokerecords.com)

Beach Slang are a pop-punk band from Philly, and this 7” EP is their debut. The trio is a super-group of sorts, featuring members of Weston, Ex-Friends, and Crybaby. The music produced in the four songs is energetic, melodic, and has an emotional edge. “Get Lost,” the third track, is the slowest and most relaxed track of the four, but may be my favorite. It has an easy gait, yet ever propels forward, and has the most interesting hooks of the bunch, in my opinion. All four songs are worthy of repeated listens, and that’s my recommendation to you.

CRETIN STOMPERS – Looking Forward to Being Attacked (Hozac Records, www.hozacrecords.com)

“Yes.” I could leave the review at that one word, indicating that you need to immediately get this debut album from the Memphis band, but I shall elaborate. This is unique. This is different. It’s off-kilter, in a way. But it’s also very accessible, with well-written pop songs. Some of the songs feature odd high-pitched vocals, and some feature bizarre, noisy, fuzzy breaks. The instrumentation is thick and rich, yet lo-fi and ethereal. An outlier on the album is “Cowboy From Mars,” which is a rockin’ good track, yet still with the interesting lo-fi and ethereal sound. Its odd meter adds to the interest level, throwing my ears for a loop. “Cretin Ate My Neighbor” might be a favorite on the album, with its rapid-fire mayhem. Yes, sometimes it can get a bit repetitive. But it’s unusual, and so stands out in a sea of sameness. Give it a try.

THE DELINES – Colfax (El Cortez Records, elcortezrecords.us)

Oh, crap, this is boring! The songs are universally slow and draggy. The music is a blend of country and jazz, oh the humanity! I like jazz, and some country can be nice, but together? Ugh. Add in a dose of Pink Floyd-like drug-induced coma sounds on some of the songs, and you have the cure to insomnia.

 

 

DENTIST (Good Eye Records, www.facebook.com/dentistband)

Much has been said and written about female fronted bands, good and bad. I don’t care about all that shit. I care whether the band is good or not, whether they “rock” or not. Dentist does. There are plenty of traditional indie-pop sounds, but there are also hints of surf-rock sounds, interesting for a New Jersey band. The opener, “Pretty Lady,” is a cool surf-punk track, with bits of 50s doo-wop sounds. And, as much as I would love more tracks like that one, the others are pretty fine, too. At times, they get a little heavier, like on “Bird in the Cage,” which sounds sort of like 90s grunge, but a little lighter. Nirvana is brought to mind, to an extent. “Retired Lifeguard” is by far the most blatant surf track, both in name and sound, and it’s another winner. Yes, a woman fronts the band. So what? The music is good, and that’s all that matters.

IDENTICAL HOMES – A. Hydrophelia (Parks and Records, www.parksandrecords.com)

Calm, lush, and quiet are words that come to mind. This is to indie-rock what chill-out music is to electronic dance music. It’s less in your face, less hard edged. Way less. This is soft, squishy, peaceful stuff that gives you the feeling of floating away on a cloud. One track that creeps me out just a bit, though, is “Hive Minds.” Or at least the very opening of it, which is a recording of flying insects buzzing around. The album nicely blends guitars and drums with electronics and a beat. I really like “Isolation,” the second track on the album. It’s got a nice indie-pop feel, and rhythm that propels it forward, and such a chill atmospheric sound. “Ever After” has a nice loping sound, and a bit of down home feel, thanks to what sounds like sampled banjo punctuating the background. “The Shape Of” has some awesome harmonies and a pulsing rhythm, but I could have done without the beeping and booping electronics on this one, which detracted from the real music here.

JOLIE HOLLAND – Wine Dark Sea (Anti-, www.anti.com)

So, I’m listening to this immediately after I just finished listening to The Delines (see review above). And, I will admit, there are some similarities. There are no up-tempo tracks here. There are female vocals over “atmospheric” instrumentals, and there’s a soulful sound. But there are distinct differences that make this album fall several notches above the other. That soulfulness is real. There’s much more feeling in the sound, and in the vocals in particular. The instrumentals are more interesting, with more experimentalism, more dissonance in places. Take “Dark Days,” the third track on the disc. It’s a blues song, in waltz time, with tons of soul and loads of noisiness in the guitars. “Route 30” is a good ol’ honky tonk number, oozing with sensuality. “I Thought It Was The Moon” is an absolutely magical track, quiet and sad, with acoustic guitar and bits of noise punctuating the darkness, and Holland’s clear bright vocals acting as a beacon in the night. Each track is different from the others, so the listener doesn’t get bored. Yet there’s a cohesiveness to the album, as well. This one’s a winner.

LIFE – RUDWN? (Urbantone Records, www.urbantonerecords.com)

RUDWN? Are you down? Get it? This is the four-song debut EP from this Hermosa Beach trio, and the influences are obvious. There’s funk, ska, soul, 80s new wave, and rock music sounds in here. But it’s all so watered down and blended together that you don’t get a good, strong identity. The result comes across pretty bland. The musicians are quite competent, and the recording has good quality. But the music they’re performing is just dull. It’s like you don’t get the good aspects from the different types of music coming through – it’s a compromise, and you end up with less than all of them. Synergy is supposed to be greater than the sum of the parts, not less.

MASKED INTRUDER – M.I. (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Those pop-punk criminals are back, still trying to steal your heart. I enjoyed their debut LP well enough, but this album, I think, is even better. It’s still plenty poppy, and still chock full of crime-and-love themed songs, but this album seems to be a little harder and edgier than their previous recorded output. This makes this album seem more like the live shows, which are plenty fast and loud. The disc opens with “I Fought The Law,” but it is NOT a cover of the Sonny Curtis song made popular by The Bobby Fuller Four and also recorded by The Clash. It’s better. “Almost Already In Love” is a cool a cappella track with a retro doo wop feel that’s out of place, but oh so good, with it’s spot on harmonies. “Don’t Run Away” has to be one of my favorites on the album. From its awesome hooks to its cool harmonies and its Ramones influenced drive, it’s such a great track. “Weirdo” is a really good one, too, with an odd march-time and an even more retro sound – think punk rock Beatles. Those of you who may recall my review of the debut LP may remember that I expressed worry that the band might not be able to sustain the shtick about being pop punk romantic criminals, but I guess I was wrong. Get on this.

MISS OHIO – Whippoorwill Road (Pyrrhic Victory Recordings, www.pyrrhicvictoryrecordings.com)

After more than a decade as a band, New Jersey band Miss Ohio has released their fourth recording, a five-song EP. The songs have a definite indie-rock sound, with wall of guitar being a key feature. It’s a reasonably solid effort, though it’s nothing unique or special. Sadly, the opening title track is probably the weakest of the quintet of tracks. It just kind of chugs along, but not with very much energy. By contrast, the second track, “Bobby Fischer,” is probably my favorite. It’s got a really nice breezy, yet noisy, feel, in a 90s indie-pop vein. The rest? It’s OK. If I were grading it, I’d give it a C. Not awful, not bad, but not great or outstanding. Just…OK.

THE MOSTLY DEAD – Wilderness (www.facebook.com/themostydead)

This album comes from the nation’s capitol, and features music that teeters between melodic hardcore and metal crossover. When it’s melodic hardcore, it’s pretty damn good. Fast, crunchy, and powerful. “WEA” and “For Your Health,” the first two tracks, are good examples of this. “Sink/Drain,” on the other hand, is more metallic than hardcore, and so interests me less. Some of the better moments on the album remind me a little bit of Refused, one of the great melodic hardcore bands of the 90s. That’s high praise there. I just wish that Mostly Dead focused more on the melodic hardcore and steered clear of the metal.

THE MOSTLY DEAD – The Day They Turned Us Into Slaves (www.facebook.com/themostlydead)

Originally released way back in 2010, this 6-song 7” has been re-released on beautiful blue vinyl. The songs feature fast, hard, crunchy melodic hardcore, with lots of sing-along chorus stuff. Cool technical, kind of funk-metal sections keep this from being just another hardcore release. At the same time, you can definitely tell this is older material than the album, “Wilderness,” that was just released. It’s rawer, and definitely more focused on the sing-along hardcore sound. Is it better? I think I like the album better, but only the melodic hardcore parts – not the metal parts.

NEEDLES//PINS – Shamebirds (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

From our neighbor to the north comes a Canadian band that’s equal parts retro punk rock, garage rock, power-pop, and pop-punk. The sound is, at once, raw and polished. It’s raw, in that it’s primal music, taking direct aim at your soul. Polished, in that it’s tight and well performed. A few of the songs remind me ever so slightly of Screeching Weasel, but more garagey and less poppy. Maybe it’s the snotty nasal quality in the lead vocals. Though all the tracks are good, there are a few that stand out to my ears. The title track is one, with its upbeat feel that makes you want to jump around. Guitars jangle like crazy, and the feel is retro without sounding passé. “Polaroid” has an even stronger old punk sound to it, and I love it. “Losing Your Mind” is probably the most pop-punk of the bunch, and another awesome track with a great, simple melody and sing-along chorus. “Only Call Me When You’re Drunk” is like a cross between early Parasites and Screeching Weasel, and probably my favorite of the whole album. That’s 40% of the ten-track album right there, all stand-outs. This album is one of my favorite new releases at the moment, and that’s saying a lot.

OBN IIIs – Third Time To Harm (Tic Tac Totally Records, www.tictactotally.com)

Hailing from Austin, Texas, OBN IIIs blaze through eight solid tracks of raucous garage rock’n’roll on this new album. There’s no pretense here, no posing. This is pure fucking rock’n’roll, coming to fuck you up. Just take the opener, “No Time For The Blues.” I’m out of breath and exhausted just listening to it! The vocals are sort of half sung, half not-quite shouted, sort of like The Fall, from back in the day. “The Rockin’ Spins” is up next, with a great hard-edged power-pop feel. There are a couple of relative duds. “Beg to Christ” is a snorer of a wank-fest, more laid back and less boot-stompin’ and raging on this one. “Queen Glom” is another that should have been left off. It plods, like bad 70s acid rock, and is purely instrumental for most of the track, vocals only coming in toward the end. When the vocals come in, things pick up, and the last quarter of the track is pretty decent. But most of this album gets an A+. Overall, a very positive listening experience.

SECRETS – Fragile Figure (Rise Records, www.riserecords.com)

Originally released last summer, “post-hardcore” band Secrets has released their second album in a “deluxe edition,” with three additional songs. And what is “post-hardcore,” as imagined by Secrets? It’s hard alternative rock, that’s what it is. The sort of stuff you might hear on your local alternative radio station. Super slick production meets auto-tuned vocals and hard power chords is what you get. Bad pop-metal comes to mind as I listen to this. I didn’t hear the original release, and I am glad of that, because I can’t imagine any Jersey Beat fans enjoying this release.

SOUNDTRACK TO SLEEP – Sometimes People Don’t Suck (www.facebook.com/SoundtracktoSleep)

Emo-ish melodic pop-punk from the nation’s capitol. Except it’s sort of nerdy, in a They Might Be Giants o or Gentlemen Auction House sort of way. Some of my favorite songs on this album are the ones you might suspect the least. There’s some standard mid-tempo and a few up-tempo tracks, with full-on guitar, sing-along qualities, and so on, but there’s also songs like “Greece Sucks Sometimes,” which is a slow waltz-time song that satisfies the pop-nerd in me. And “All We Do Is Talk” is a beautiful track with plenty of acoustic guitar and emotion-on-your sleeve feel. For all the standard songs that are good enough to say check this out, there are a few gems here that scream “Listen to me!”

STRANGER CELLS – Cave (strangercells.bandcamp.com)

Stranger Cells are from New Jersey, and they describe themselves as “alternative folk grunge lo-fi noise pop.” Well, those are the tags they use on their bandcamp site, anyway. And it’s actually a pretty good description. They remind me a little bit of Octagrape, the most amazing live band out of San Diego in ages, though Stranger Cells is a little more relaxed and a little smoother than Octagrape. Perhaps that explains the “folk” tag. This five song EP focuses on a grungy sound with hints of psych, and some cool rhythm changes and chord progressions. The music is chock full of angularity to keep you trying to regain your balance, and has plenty of melodic lines to smooth the rough grungy edges. I like this one.

 


SWANS – To Be Kind (Young God Records, www.younggodrecords.com)

The Swans are back with another epic-length album full of musical mayhem. This third release since they resumed playing is yet another double CD chock-full of material with which to challenge listeners. And the progression away from pure noise continues, as this album makes more use of minimalism and repetition than noise, confronting the listener is new ways. The music itself is much smoother than both releases of recent years, yet still features unique and interesting sonic explorations.

The album’s first disc opens with “Screen Shot,” a track that uses a minimalist sort of style, with repetitive lines pulsing along, starting with bass, then adding guitar, and finally with jangly yet desolate sounding piano. Michael Gira’s vocals are breathy, yet insistent. There’s a very slow building in intensity, until about the 6:20 mark or so, when things explode a little bit, and the last minute and a half are quite an intense version of what preceded. “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” is next, and starts out really slowly, in a sort of dirge-like manner, with a blues-progression sort of feel. Around five minutes into the track, it starts getting a little weird and twisted, like a musical version of a Salvador Dali painting. There are all sorts of odd interjections, laughs, twisted vocals, and sudden bursts of guitar. “A Little God In My Hands” is the track that was “leaked” prior to the full-album release, and it’s the Swans version of a funk song. It’s got a definite groove going on, but with all of the noise and excruciatingly wonderful dissonance that one expects in a Swans track. “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” is the longest and most challenging track, at over 34 minutes in length. It’s a very slow jam that just sort of lolls about, riding on top of a wave, slowly rising and falling. And then there’s “Some Things We Do,” which is a cool, eerie track that starts with brooding guitar atop the ticking of strings. The vocals describe all the different things we do, good and bad. “We see / We feel / We need / We fight / We steal / We cut / We seek / We love” and so on.

Disc 2 opens with “She Loves Us,” a seventeen-minute exercise in the trance ethic, with repetition and throbbing and pulsing beats, droning vocals, and a Middle-Eastern feel. After about a third of this, the track changes, still with a throbbing, pulsing beat, but now with more of a Talking Heads feel and guitar jangle, and emphatically shouted vocals. The track continues to evolve, getting grittier as it goes, and finally devolving into chaos in the last couple of minutes. “Kirsten Supine” is downright quiet in comparison to just about anything the Swans have put out. It’s 1 ten-minute track that begins with quiet, understated guitar glimmering, and Gira’s deep bass vocals. Some quiet backing vocals and glockenspiel make appearances to punctuate the phrases. At about the halfway mark, the vocals drop out and the quiet instrumentals slowly start to get more menacing. “Oxygen” is a really cool track, with a punk-funk feel, a la NOMEANSNO, but with that same throbbing repetition in the guitar, bass and drum lines, this time, loud and grating. “Nathalie Neal” begins with s an eerie feel, with odd, shimmering vocals and instrumentals. As the tension builds, with the addition of piano to the mix, a lo-fi female voice begins speaking, with a far-away feel, both in space and time. As is usual with the Swans, just before the halfway point, the track changes tone considerably, getting louder and more chaotic, with menacing guitars and vocals. Eventually the chaos resolves to a melody, loud and grating as it is, until the last minute, when all the noise stops, and we get a very quiet, reflective finish. The closer is the title track, which, true to form, changes and evolves. It starts quiet, and at the halfway mark, gets loud and chaotic, and the album ends in a glorious Swans cacophony.

So what’s the verdict? It’s another winner, of course. I still prefer the organized chaos and noise of 2010’s “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky,” but this is still a great album, out of the ordinary, and likely to end up on my 10-best list at the end of the year.

7 SECONDS – Leave A Light On (Rise Records, www.riserecords.com)

I haven’t listened to 7 Seconds in a very long time. I remember buying their early records, and loving the energy and power they brought to their songs, and the important, yet simple messages in their lyrics. Then, in the mid eighties, like many other bands, they “evolved” their sound. While some of the early hardcore bands moved into metal crossover, 7 Seconds got softer. Some of their earlier efforts in this direction were OK, but over time, they just got flabby. So I stopped listening. It was, therefore, with much anticipation and trepidation that I listened to this new album. And imagine my delight that these aging punks are raging just like the old days! The tracks are fast and furious. They’re melodic, but still have an edge. The songs are much more “modern” in feel, in that they have more in common with pop-punk being produced today than the hardcore of yesterday. Maybe it’s more of a maturity in the writing. The tracks average around two minutes each, so they fly by quickly, but there are a few exceptions: longer, slower tracks like “Slogan on a Shirt,” which is a mid-tempo track that still has great sing-along parts. The title track is actually the most out of place on the album, sounding more like Kevin Seconds’ recent solo work, all indie rock and all, without a hint of the hardcore punk sounds of most of the rest of the album. There are a few songs like this, but overall, this is a welcome return to classic form.

DANGER INC.
(www.facebook.com/DangerIncMusic)

Here comes a debut CD from this trio from California’s inland empire. It’s fully DIY, but the packaging is pretty damn nice. Hand screened cardboard sleeve with an insert inside containing band photos, song listing, thank-you notes, Internet links, etc. And the CD has a printed label on it! OK, who cares about packaging? How’s the music? Well, to be honest, it’s pretty damn good. It’s an edgy blend of garage rock’n’roll and old school punk rock. There’s not a hint of pop here, it’s all raw, naked, aggressive rock. Jessica O’Toole’s vocals are tough as nails, and her guitar has just the right rough, distorted sound. “Camisa De Barkley” is the third track on the disc, and a pretty damn funny one. It’s got a really stripped down White Stripes sort of sound, and bassist Danny Barkley relating a (hopefully fictional) misadventure south of the border. “3-2-1 Explode!” is another great one, with a super hard garage punk sound. I really like this a lot, and recommend it.

FELLAHEEN – You Either Get Hands or Get Wings (Egads Music, www.fellaheen.com)

My immediate reaction, upon listening to this, is that it’s like a blending of Tom Waits and Man Man. The vocals are raspy, gruff and understated, while the instrumentals are quirky and different. “Your Folly and Mine” opens the album, with a loping feel, banjo plucking, accordion, and an old-timey feel. “Pomegranate Heart” is a pretty nice track, too, with a laid back “jump” feel, but I could have done without the EZ listening soprano sax at the end. The title track is pretty awesome, a waltz with string ensemble backing the breathy gruff vocals. I’m in love with “Air Guitar, With Broken Strings,” a track that features harmonium or some similar sort of instrument. It’s a very quiet, sad sounding track that slowly builds in thickness of the arrangement. A few tracks aren’t my favorites, with more of a plain old country feel. “Kiss You Goodnight” and “Gradually Then Suddenly” have full on slide guitar and everything. But otherwise, this is a pretty original sounding album of acoustic-based songs that is sure to please.

FLUTRONIX – 2.0 ( Flutronix Records, www.flutronix.com)

Flutronix is the project of duo Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull, and “2.0” is, fittingly, their sophomore release. The music is a blend of R&B, hip-hop, and classical. The disc contains sparsely arranged tracks featuring the beautiful title flutes, drum and bass plus synth, and soulful vocals. While most of the tracks are originals, there’s an interesting cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” which is one of the better tracks on the album, leaving out the R&B/hip-hop parts, as the song requires. And right after is “Flock,” which is an instrumental that’s much better than anything else on the album, with its freer feel and fluttering flutes. “Battle” and “Lifelines” are more instrumentals with dueling flutes that work quite well. Overall, though, the smooth R&B sounds that dominate the album just aren’t my thing.

THE FORTY NINETEENS – Spin It (Heyday Records, www.heydey.com)

I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating: Bands, put your best track first, not your worst. The opener on this album sounds like crap top 40 radio pop music of the late 80s, with its cheap synth in the arrangement. Ugh – I almost stopped listening right there. And that’s the danger in doing that – lots of music critics will listen to the first track and decide whether its worth their time to listen to the rest or not. Luckily, I rarely will do that, and almost always listen to an album at least once through before making my pronouncements. Once past this initial dud, you get a series of pretty darn good power-pop tracks, with a garage-rock edge. It’s good ol’ rock and roll stuff, for the most part, until toward the end of the album. “Have a Good Time” is probably my favorite track, with plenty of vibrato in the guitars, a slower pace, and a retro psychedelic feel. The last three tracks, though, go off the rails and into a Rolling Stones faux blues and soul style. The final track is even a Stones cover of “Dead Flowers.” Give me the meaty middle of this one, and I’ll be happy, but trim off that fat around the edges, please.

GUNNER’S DAUGHTER – The Flowers and the Earth (www.dangrecordsmusic.com)

This new album from this Chicago band is a bit of a mixed bag for me. Most of the songs are pretty much alternative rock, while only a couple have more of a pop-punk edge, and a few others have kind of a melodic hardcore sound. This isn’t quite doing it for me, and I think part of the problem is the vocals. They’re just a little bit off on some of the tracks. A little out of tune, sometimes. A little too emo-screamo-hardcore other times. “Prison Wolf” is probably my favorite track on the album, with the most pop-punk feel to it. It’s a mid-tempo track that lopes along with a nice melodic feel and line, with a good sing-along chorus. “To the Lost” is one that goes back and forth – sometimes it has a cool, heavy guitar Chicago sound, and other times it gets kind of wanky with guitar solos and alternative rock sounds. And the vocals are mostly OK, but toward the end change from melodic to shouting, but with a lack of energy. This album has a couple of high points, but it’s a roller coaster of a listen, with too many low points.

THE JELLYBRICKS – Youngstown Tune-Up (Pop Detective Records, www.popdetective.com)

This is power-pop, pure and simple. It’s a little on the slick sounding side, very professional, with tons of harmonized vocals. Most of the tracks are harder edged, but “About The Weekend” is a really nice, jangly one, with a 60s British Invasion via Elvis Costello sort of sound, and probably the strongest track on the album. “In There Somewhere” is also a pretty decent track, with a bouncy Nick Lowe sort of feel. Conversely, “Still Time” is the weakest, I think, with more of a 70s soft rock feel. The rest of the album falls in-between, as just run-of-the-mill bar band sort of fare.

OKLAHOMA CAR CRASH – I Know Better (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

This is a pretty different release for the folks at Say-10, as it’s a lot lighter and poppier than their usual releases. Of the six songs on this EP, only two could remotely be called “punk.” The rest are pretty decent indie-pop. “Bad For Anyone” is the opener, and it could be the only track that could be described as “weak.” It just seems to drag a little bit, to my ears, lacking a certain energy that would have made it better. It’s also four and half minutes long, significantly longer than any of the other tracks on the EP. “Blue Eyes, Blue Water” has some interesting vocal counterpoint to it and some great poppy hooks, with a punk edge and energy. “White Wine” is a jangly song about the differences between us now and us back “when I used to not give a shit and pretend that I was fine,” yet who we really are is never who we project to the world. “I’m Happier Today” is one of my favorites, with plenty of bounce and great harmonized vocals. “Mountainside” is an acoustic number, with very quiet, calm guitar and clear, emotive vocals. “Father” closes things out with another highly energetic song, the other punk-edged pop track, and another of my favorites of the EP. With the slight exception of the opener, this is a pretty fine EP.

EDWARD ROGERS – Kaye (Zip Records, www.ziprecords.com)

This is Rogers’ fifth “solo” album, and solo is in quotations because it’s only listed as such because it’s under his name. Unlike most actual solo albums, Rogers has recruited a bunch of musicians to record with him, including Sal Maida of Roxy Music, Dennis Diken of the Smithereens, Joe McGinty of the Psychedelic Furs, and several others. The songs all sound distinctly English, which makes sense, since Rogers is from the UK. But beyond that, there’s somewhat of a subtle variety to the tracks on this album. “My Street” opens the disc with a southern rock feel. “No Color for Loneliness” has a 70s movie soundtrack feel to it. And “After the Show” sounds very much like a 70s bubblegum pop song, complete with sappy violins. Wait, that’s the common thread! This is 70s retro. The title track is a quiet waltz, “What Happened to the News Today” is a light power-pop track, and so on. If you like eclectic 70s mixes, you might want to give this a try, but if you’re not into that (like me), then you should give this one a pass.

STREET EATERS – Blood:Muscles:Bones (Nervous Intent Records, www.streeteaters.com)

This is maximum minimalism, in the form of a bass and drum duo. Unlike another duo of similar make-up, Big Dick, Street Eaters go for a more melodic vein, including harmonized vocals. Megan March’s vocals are kind of expansive, and remind me a bit of Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster. The bass is big, heavy and fuzzed up, and the drums pound with fury, while the vocals are just a bit softer, in contrast, floating and bobbing above the sea of melodic noise. In terms of esthetic, this reminds me more of guitar and drum duo, Shellshag, than other bass/drum duos, because of the emphasis on trying to remain in a pop-punk vein, rather than giving in totally to the managed noise sound. “Empty Rooms” has a cool modal sound that reminds me a lot of late era Sonic Youth, with it’s hints of dissonance while remaining fully in the melodic camp. As the album progresses, the songs get tougher, and harder edged, with vocals getting louder and angrier sounding. But the sense of pop melody is never lost. This is really good stuff.

SURVAY SAYS! – Observations of the Human Condition (Asbestos Records, www.asbestosrecords.com)

Some people don’t think that punk and ska can blend together in a single band. I disagree. When done well, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And Survay Says! do it really well. The music is bouncy and melodic, and the transitions between purely guitar-based pop-punk and horn-infused ska are smooth and seamless. If I had to make a comparison, I would say that if you took Banner Pilot, injected some extra energy and variety, and added trumpet/trombone/sax, you would get something along the lines of Survay Says! The songs have an anthemic quality to them, with plenty of places for fist pumping and singing along, and the band is technically top-notch. Very recommended!

WESTERN SETTINGS – La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

Western Settings exploded onto the San Diego punk scene in late 2013, and quickly made a place for themselves as purveyors of powerful, melodic music. And now, only a few months into the new year, they’ve already recorded and released a 5-song EP. “Iocane Powder” is the opener, and it has a loping feel, with a slightly slower tempo than the rest of the tracks. The title, of course, refers to the substance Vizzini tries to use, in “The Princess Bride,” to poison the hero, the Dread Pirate Roberts. The song has an ever so slightly “punk Americana” feel to it in some places. Not countrified, but just in the way it lopes. It’s a good track, but not my favorite of the album. I think the tracks progressively get better and better, as the disc spins. The energy level and power go up, and by the time we get to “Back to the Forest,” the fourth track on the EP, it starts to sound downright Chicago-like, with the tough vocals and wall of guitar sounds. It makes me think of a more mature, melodic Bhopal Stiffs. The final track, “Mostly Dead All Day,” gets a little bouncier and a little poppier, in contrast to the song’s title. This is a pretty fine debut from a band full of the nicest people you’ll come across. I look forward to the full-length album they plan for later in the year.



ALLVARET - Tänk På Döden (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Originally released in Germany a couple years ago, this Swedish punk band’s album is finally getting a release in the US, courtesy of the nice folks at Dirt Cult Records. And make no mistake; this is a punk rock record. The female vocals are steeped in angsty anger, or so it sounds, since the lyrics are in Swedish. The music is melodic, not thrashy, but it’s not pop-punk. Some tracks work better than others, like the opening title track. It clocks in at under two minutes, and pretty much rages. You can feel the spit and vinegar flying out of the speakers at you. “Populär” is another good one, with a driving beat, furious guitars, and melodically screaming vocals. A few of the tracks, though, seem to drag a little, and verge a little too close to “rock’n’roll” for my taste. Actually, many of the tracks would benefit from being played a little bit faster. This one is about 50/50 for me.

BAD COP/BAD COP – Boss Lady (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

If you saw my write-up of Awesomefest 7 last fall, you know that this was one of my top bands of the weekend. They’re a band that is “local” in the SoCal area, but I had never managed to catch one of their shows. So I was really happy to find an amazing pop-punk band that’s been in my extended backyard this whole time. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who fell in love with Stacey, Jennie, Myra, and Rinh, because Fat Wreck Chords recently signed them, and this 7” EP is the first fruits of that relationship. And what fruits they are. Multi-part harmonies are featured in the four fast and furious songs. The music is tight, bouncy, fun, and some of the songs have a bit of a dark edge to them. The lyrics are those of empowerment, in a way – not taking shit and claiming one’s rightful place. Which is fitting. I wanted to avoid mention this, because I honestly don’t see bands with females as any different than those with males, but, yes, this is an all female band. And they wipe the floor with a whole lot of other bands out there. It’s only an EP, but I hope it’s the harbinger of many more good things to come for this band, because they deserve it. This will likely show up on my year end list of best releases.

BANNER PILOT – Souvenir (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

This Minnesota band’s latest release is, in many ways, classic Banner Pilot. It’s mid-tempo, emotionally charged pop-punk with gliding, smooth instrumentals and gruff, rough vocals. It’s got a somewhat 90s melodic pop-emo-punk sound, and it’s a sound that I used to listen to constantly, back in the day. There’s wall of guitar noise and an epic feel to the songs. In a way, I’m really surprised that Banner Pilot hasn’t achieved bigger success, because they have that sort of sound that translates really well to commercial alternative radio. If I have one issue with this album, and, indeed with the band in general, it’s the sameness of the songs. They all pretty much have the same sound, the same feel. They’re good songs, but after awhile it starts to numb me. I’ve seen Banner Pilot live on a few occasions, and I know they put on a great, energetic show. It’s just too bad that this doesn’t translate as well into studio recordings.

HAUNTED HEARTS – Imitations (Zoo Music, www.facebook.com/pages/Zoo-Music/173598719341677)

Chill, dreamy, noisy yet smooth. These are a few of the words that come to mind listening to the new album from Haunted Hearts, a side project of Dee Dee Penny, of the Dum Dum Girls. The music has a late 80s/early 90s post-new wave post-punk sound. Think Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized, but noisier, with a throbbing rhythm and buzzy, droning guitars, dark, spacey electronics and dreamy vocals. “Something That Feels Bad Is Something That Feels Good” is probably my favorite track of the album. It’s the bounciest track, and has a sparkly, swirly feel going on in the background. The bass hitting the backbeat gives it that bounce, and the swirly sparkle gives it an uplifting quality. Good stuff.

ODONIS ODONIS – Hard Boiled Soft Boiled (Buzz Records, www.buzzrecords.ca)

Hard Boiled refers to the A-side of the vinyl release, while Soft Boiled refers to the B-side. The first four tracks of the album feature hard-edged industrial rock music, a la such 90s bands as Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and the like. It’s noisy as hell, it pounds, has menacing, growling guitars and snarling bass, and has a definite retro sound. There’s a lo-fi quality to these first four cuts, with plenty of reverb – too much, maybe, as the sound gets somewhat muddy, and the lyrics hard to understand. And then the sound opens up – a bit. The music gets slightly less edgy and hard, softening up to be more like a lo-fi, fuzzy New Order. It’s still pretty lo-fi and loaded with reverb and fuzz, but it’s not as pounding, and has a bit more of a melodic feel. The next six tracks are like this. Then, when we get to the penultimate track, “Transmission From The Moon,” things get all spacey and chill and flowing, but still with a lo-fi noise to it. The last track also flows, but has more of a beat and adds lyrics back in. Overall, it’s an interesting release, but not one I think I would seek out on my own. I think the production technique of reverb and lo-fi bothers me too much.

UNWELCOME GUESTS – Wavering (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

More new stuff from the nice folks at Dirt Cult. I generally trust Chris Mason’s level of taste, and, for the most part, this album is no exception. This band out of Buffalo, NY, though, has a bit of a split personality. It sounds like different people are doing the writing on different songs, because there are distinct differences. The first few tracks are melodic, poppy punk music that bounces and pleases. These first three tracks are quite up-tempo, energetic, and have a great, full guitar sound. The fourth track, “Kick The Beams,” slows things down quite a bit, with a thinner sound, but still packed with melody. Then things slow down even more, with “Flood,” a track that sort of lolls around, with glimmery sounding guitars, rather than the full wall of guitar. There’s a hint of Americana in the song, and it might be my least favorite track on an otherwise good release. “Tattered Old Flag” follows, and keeps the Americana hints, but picks the tempo back up, and reminds me a bit of bands like Dan Padilla. The Americana sound continues on “Peel,” and then “Caution will be the Death of Me” provides more of a classic power-pop sound, full of melodic hooks. “Can’t Get Past” continues the power-pop vein of things and closes out the album. So, in a way, you get three EPs in one album here. A pop-punk EP, an edgy Americana-punk EP, and a power-pop EP. Nice.

WALK THE PLANK / DAYCARE SWINDLERS – Split 7” (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Two bands from the DC area are featured on this split. Walk the Plank has an interesting blend of heavy, gruff, hardcore vocals with more melodic instrumentals. Daycare Swindlers offer up lighter, more fun, poppier skate-punk. “Fear No Man” opens the Walk The Plank side, and is a pretty typical, well done melodic hardcore track, leaning heavily to the melodic, but with raspy, shouted vocals, and is the stronger of their two tracks. One the flipside, Daycare Swindlers’ “Telephone” is bouncy and fun enough, but “Burner,” a more serious sounding track, is by far my favorite of the record, and may be one of my more favorite songs of the year, so far. It’s got a great old-school hardcore punk sound, like you might have gotten from bands in the early 80s, but with more technical precision and interesting melodic lines, as if it was blended with early 90s post-punk sounds.

WHITE HINTERLAND – Baby (Dead Oceans, www.deadoceans.com)

This is Casey Dienel’s third album released as White Hinterland, and I was unfamiliar with her work prior to receiving this album for review. What I find here is pretty, sparse yet lush arrangements featuring piano, electronics, percussion, and Dienel’s crystal clear vocals, often multi-tracked to form multi-part harmonies. The music is alternately ethereal and poppy, and sometimes both within the same song. I hear some similarities to tUnE yArDs in the use of the technique of using repetitive sampling to provide a backdrop to the songs, yet White Hinterland’s tracks are much smoother and less outgoing than Merrill Garbus’ creations. Sometimes the result is divine, such as the opener, “Wait Until Dark,” which features piano and vocals only, and sometimes sounds almost spiritual. I also really enjoy the expansive feel of “Ring the Bell,” which sounds like it was performed in a giant canyon or something, so open and large is the sound. “White Noise” has an almost Caribbean feel to it, a lo-fi quality, and saxophones in the mix, so it’s the most Garbus-like track, yet still has its own identity. Less successful, to my ears, are tracks like Metronome, which is pretty much a very commercial R&B type track. The title track, Baby,” starts out cool enough, with more spiritual choir arrangement, but then launches into another pretty commercial sounding track. Overall, there’s enough good stuff to outweigh the couple of tracks I wasn’t too keen on.



BEAR HANDS – Distraction (Cantora, www.cantora.com)

The sophomore full-length album from this Brooklyn quartet has a well-polished sound, full of hooks and slightly new wave pop stylings. Some of the songs work a lot better than others. Some come across as just too…forced. For example, “Giants,” the second track on the album sounds like a white-boy new wave rap, like they’re trying too hard to sound hip and relevant. The vocals come across really stilted and affected, in a way that doesn’t sound sincere. “Bone Digger” is another one with really odd vocals that sound way too forced and insincere. The music on these tracks and others is decent enough, but I’m having a hard time getting past the vocals. “Peacekeeper” is probably the most successful track, with rapid-fire, pounding percussion via synth, cool melodic lines, and a more aggressive sound, minus the odd vocal affectations. But I have to decline to give this my recommendation, overall.

THE BROOKLYN WHAT – Minor Problems (www.thebrooklynwhat.com)

Our fearless editor is always promoting Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen and the bands that record there. So when this was sent to me, I was anxious to give it a listen. It’s lo-fi, garagy, gritty, and energetic as hell. This four-song EP starts out with “Sledgehammer Night,” a track that begins with a manic instrumental, with rapidly changing meter and a thin yet crunchy guitar sound. Just past the halfway mark the vocals enter, and they’re just as manic as the guitars and drums, with even a hint of old Jello Biafra/Dead Kennedys sound. “Blowin’ Up” is at once both retro and modern, with an old-school punk sound of twenty-five years ago, but at the same time with a fresh feel. “Metropolitan Avenue” is probably my least favorite of the tracks, as it seems to have more of a bluesy and Americana feel than the others, so it doesn’t fit in as well. It’s also more low key than the other tracks. The EP closes out with “Too Much Worry,” an extended cut that full-on rages. It’s sometimes a little sloppy, but always pumping out the energy and intensity. That’s a rare accomplishment for a studio recording. I like this one, and look forward to hearing more!

DIVIDED HEAVEN – Youngblood (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

A few months back I reviewed a live EP of solo acoustic music, featuring Jeff Berman, under the name Divided Heaven. Bob Dylan also started out doing solo acoustic recordings, but eventually went electric, with a backing band and all. So Berman is in good company, as this album is his transition from solo acoustic to full band, in this case a trio of guitar, bass and drums. Still evident is Berman’s honest, plaintive vocals, but now there’s a fuller sound. What sometimes came across as melodic sketches in the solo material now comes across as fully realized songs. This is clear in the example of “Melissa Militia,” which appears on both releases. There’s a good balance between acoustic and electric (even the acoustic guitar tracks have some backing instrumentals), providing an easy transition for both Berman and his listeners. I like the direction this is going.

LITTLE BARRIE – Shadow (www.facebook.com/littlebarrieband)

This UK trio’s latest album features fairly spare, minimalist arrangements with a sound that’s a cross between funk and psych. The third track adds in sort of a 60s British invasion flavor to the mix, and is my favorite on the album. But a lot of this is just too slow and plodding for my tastes. Some of these songs just cry out for a quicker pace, like “Everything You Want.” I can just hear it at a quicker tempo, and it would be so good. It’s kind of like in the movie, “That Thing You Do,” where the band has a song that they play slowly, but when they kick it up a notch it becomes a hit. Do it, Little Barrie! Don’t be that slow stoner psych band; pump some energy into your music!

THE NEW CLASSIC
(www.newclassicband.com)

This is the debut album from a young band out of Tucson, Arizona. I had the opportunity to see them live at a show in LA recently, and was impressed. They had a sound that was energetic, melodic, and had a gliding sort of quality. It had an indie-rock sensibility, but still with an edge to it. It’s a sound that will serve them well in pursuit of bigger things. This album, though, is a bit too produced for my tastes. It’s got a big, epic, sweeping sound, with lots of overdubbed backing and harmonized vocals and reverb in the vocals to give a bigger sound. It’s disappointing to me, because of the promise showed in the live performance. If their goal is to get played on commercial radio and play arenas, then I guess they’re onto something. But I would rethink the producer. The songs, though, are actually pretty good. “Keep That In Mind” opens the album, and I distinctly recall it form the live gig as being one of the standout songs they played. Matthew Graham’s lead vocals have a blend of a crooning and emotive styles, and I love the soaring quality of the chorus. But I really prefer the rawer sound of their live set over this overblown studio sound.

PELOTAN – Lucky Old Sun (Waterslide Records, www.watersliderecords.com)

This is one of the bands I was lucky enough to see on my trip to Japan with The Maxies. They played on the last show of the tour, and I was simply stunned by how good they are. This four piece (guitar, bass, drums and keyboards) play surf-pop-punk, sort of like if the Beach Boys had been a pop-punk band. The album features up-tempo, super poppy melodic punk with gorgeous multi-part harmonies. “Hide and Seek” is a gem, fast and loud in a Ramones sort of way, with great pop-punk hooks.I really like “Trite Riot,” too, with its rapid-fire hooks in multi-part harmony. “Sunny Noon” is the only track that seems out of place. It’s not pop-punk; it’s a Brazilian samba number, with acoustic guitar, bass, very simple drums, and sound effects of waves lapping up on the beach in the background. The rest of the disc is just amazing, though. I highly recommend this. Normally, being a Japanese release, it might be hard to get hold of, but apparently the nice folks at Eccentric Pop Records are distro’ing it here in the USA. Get at them at www.eccentricpoprecords.com. You can thank me later.

THE PLURALS / BLACK SPARROW PRESS – Split 7-inch (gtgrecords.net)

A two-way split 7” release, put out by three record labels. Besides GTG Records, Something Dancey and Minor Bird Records also contributed here. Each side features two songs from one of the bands. Side “P” contains the power-pop tinged pop-punk of the Plurals, with “How About The Weather” and “Clouds.” The first starts with dreamy guitar and Hattie’s sweet vocals, but quickly gets faster and louder and a bit grittier. The second has Tommy doing vocal duties, and has got a great old school post-hardcore sound, with loads of bounciness. Black Sparrow Press slow things down a bit on the “B” side, with “Adult Braces” and “Lady I Love You,” giving more of a pop-punk Americana sound, in the vein of Arliss Nancy. The one issue I have with this split is the lo-fi of the recordings. Some bands use that for effect pretty well, but some bands have lo-fi recordings just because they used the wrong engineer or the wrong place for the lacquer master. This would have sounded better with a cleaner sound. But the music itself is great.

SLOW DAKOTA – Bürstner and the Baby (slowdakota.bandcamp.com/album/b-rstner-and-the-baby)

This is a “concept” album, with the tracks alternating between “Bürstner Speaks” and “The Baby Speaks.” The story starts with parents telling their daughter, Bürstner, that she’s going to have a baby. She chooses not to believe this, and goes about living her life and having a good time, until she finally comes to the realization that the baby is real. She cleans up her act, has the baby, and all is well. The end. I guess it’s a moral tale or something. Slow Dakota describes themselves in tags on their bandcamp site as “alternative Christian.” The music is piano-based, with various vocals and other instruments added in along the way, such as acoustic guitar, trumpet and trombone, mandolin, and even a baby rattle. The songs end up sounding fairly consistent – that is, too much alike. I don’t know, maybe I just don’t get it. But it seems like a simplistic, hit-you-over-the-head message, delivered in an odd way.


ALCEST – Shelter (Prophecy
Productions, www.prophecy.de)

I guess this French band used to do some sort of ethereal electric metal or something. I don’t know, because I am unfamiliar with their previous output, and it is irrelevant to this review, as an album must stand or fall on its own merits. But, in case you were expecting some ethereal electric metal, you’ll be very disappointed. Instead, what you get is ethereal shoegaze music, very smooth, very chill. As such, there’s very little variation in the tracks, within or between. Even keeled bass thrumming underneath, fuzzed guitar droning alongside electronics, and lead vocals that are pretty much chanted over backing vocals that melt into the background. I do like shoegaze, but I like my shoegaze to have an edge to it. This album is just too smooth and, well, inoffensive. It’s too clean and soulless.

BRAIDEDVEINS – Future/Forever (SaveYour Generation Records, saveyourgenerationrecords. bandcamp.com)

Featuring members of The Swellers, this isn’t what you would expect from a poppier band. What you get here is pounding, intense post hardcore music with a math edge. It reminds me of some of the music that was coming out in the 90s. It’s fast, loud, angular, and intense, with distorted vocals. It’s a short seven song EP, but it never lets up. Think of a heavier Circus Lupus. Very cool.

JANE ELLEN BRYANT – Hourglass
(www.janeellenbryant.com)

Cross southern rock and 70s “solo singer” folk-pop music and you’ll get an idea of what this sounds like. Folksy and country and pop-rock all rolled into one. Bryant’s vocals are plenty soulful, but the sound is sort of like what you might get from the house band at some sports bar that has live music on Thursday nights.

 

BENJAMIN CARTEL – Money and Love EP (www.benjamincartel.com)

Half of the duo The Kaiser Cartel, Benjamin Cartel is releasing some solo work. Some is older material, written before the duo’s formation, some more recent. All of it is rather forgettable pop music. The EP is populated by tracks that feel like they want to jangle, but they feel heavy and weighed down. They drag, as if they have a ball and chain attached. The title track is a perfect example of this. From the slightly too slow tempo, to the cheesy electric keyboards this just feels too heavy. Get rid of the keyboards, pick up the tempo a bit, and make this more about guitar and this could be a cool song. Some tracks are beyond saving, such as “Suspicion,” which tries to sound like a bluesy number, but ends up sounding like a really white guy trying to play jazzy blues, but just not getting it. The least offensive track is the closer, “Happy For You,” a simple song with vocals and acoustic guitar. The drawback here, though, is that the vocals are sometimes slightly off key. Not a promising start to a solo career.


CITY LIGHTS –
The Way Things Should Be
( www.invoguerecords.com)

Billed as a pop-punk band, City Lights is really a radio-ready pseudo-pop-punk band with a hard edge. Super poppy songs with pounding guitars and drums more worthy of a melodic hardcore band are over-produced to an extreme level. This is the sort of stuff you can hear on your local “alternative” music radio station (do they even still call it that? After so many years, people have to know there’s nothing alternative about it). This stuff makes Blink 182 sound downright underground. The lyrics for the song “Mistakes” are ironically funny, with a line that says “I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone but myself.” Really? I found this difficult to digest. I almost always listen to a review album all the way through, multiple times. This one was hard to get through once.



EX FRIENDS – Rules For Making Up Words (www.paperandplastick.com)

Fronted by Plow United bassist Joel Tannenbaum, Ex Friends have released their new full-length LP digitally, and the vinyl will be out in the near future. I’m not sure why Paper + Plastick has done this, as it’s kind of lame to make people wait for the vinyl. But the music on this album is anything but lame. The tracks are catchy pop-punk featuring the dichotomy of Tannenbaum’s gruff vocals and the smooth sassiness of those of bassist Audrey Crash. This music packs a hell of a punch! The album starts out the right way, with one of the best tracks of the album, “Dirty Ben Franklin.” It’s got a great melodic line, and some really inventive guitar work. “Kenzos” keeps things going with Tannenbaum and Crash trading vocal duties back and forth, some strong bass lines, and great melodies mirrored in the guitar and vocals. “Fight Like a Girl” is another favorite, for some of the same reasons. The counterpoint between male and female vocals provides a stark contrast, and the guitars move between standard wall of sound and more pointed phrasing. The closer, “Let’s Get Old,” is a rocking track with a modern,yet retro, feel and a great message: “We’re staring down the barrel of the rest of our lives / And there’s only one thing to do / Let’s get old.” Here’s to hoping these Ex Friends will be our friends for some time to come.

THE HAND IN THE OCEAN – Tree/Forts (Save Your Generation Records, saveyourgenerationrecords.bandcamp.com)

Gorgeous acoustic music. Thank-you, fearless editor, for continuing to send me a diversity of genres for review, regardless of my recent immersion into the world of pop-punk. Diversity makes the world go round, in more ways than one. And The Hand In The Ocean’s simple, spare music certainly helps move it along. Banjo, guitar, and vocals are the key elements to this album, along with sparingly used percussion. A couple of the songs feature electric keyboards, and some use other elements, but it’s so subtle, and blends in so well, it may as well be acoustic. This is moody stuff. Listening to this, you can sense the chill in the air, hear the raindrops falling on the rooftop, and smell the smoke from the fireplace.It’s friends gathering on a cold autumn day, entertaining themselves with homemade music. The album starts out with “Moss Wine,” a sort of free-form poetry, sounding like someone just talking to himself, thinking things over. And then the guitar comes in, sounding gently reassuring. It flows easily into “White Noise,” a loping song that brings in banjo and intimate vocals. The album seems to meander, yet it’s always moving forward. I really like this.

THE INSTIGATION – No Way Out EP (www.facebook.com/theinstigation666)

WHOA! Here comes a band from Shanghai, China, of all places, that sounds like a crazy thrashy 1980s hardcore punk band! Lo-fi recording, super fast tempos, and raw primitive punk rock a la Teengenerate are the hallmarks of this 4-song EP. The vocals are super snotty, provided by UK native Simon Cochrane. Drummer Tyler Bowa is a Canadian ex-pat living in China, while Guitarist Tommy Fever and Bassist Toshi are from Japan. Truly an international affair, the band rips through four high-energy tracks, including three originals and a Reagan Youth cover, Degenerated. If this doesn’t get your blood pumping, nothing will!

J PROZAC – Here Is My Heart (Jolly Ronnie Records, www.jollyronnierecords.com)

Jay Gauvin, of the Prozacs, of course, is charting a solo course, and here is the evidence. The result is a mix of pop punk sounds with a dash of classic retro 60s doo-wop. Some of the tracks go partially acoustic, like “Don’t Go,” which even includes organ. Through all of it, though, Gauvin’s vocals retain just the right amount of snottiness balanced with heart-felt emotion. The music has an easy, loose jangle, kind of loping along rather than racing. Actually, it’s a pretty danceable beat, too. A personal favorite is a tender song of lost love and heartbreak. It’s “A Boy and His Bike,” a song about a bike that would “slam me to the ground” and causes “aches and pains that won’t go away.” Very simple lyrics that could also reference lost love of another person – short and simple lyrics with much meaning. Another favorite is the simple but super jangly “Call In Sick,” a song about wanting to do nothing more than just “spend all day hanging out with you.” Isn’t it a basic truth that the simple songs are often the best? Just like the simple things in life can often bring the most lasting pleasure.

ROBOT THE RIVER – Birdsong Sayonara (www.robottheriver.com)

Robot the River is Cory Gehrich, an MFA student in Oakland, California. This is his first EP, self-released. The opener is, by far, the best track on the disc. “Antidepressants and Vitamins” starts out as a quiet acoustic folk track, with banjo, guitar and vocals. A couple of minutes into the track, we start to hear bits of electric guitar at odd moments, and then they come in full force and the track changes completely to a more raucous indie rock track. Electric guitar feedback periodically still punctuates the song, creating a sense of tension. “Searching for the Elephants” has the sound of a novelty country tune and doesn’t have the strength if the first track. “Sometimes” is a waltz with a really laid-back feel. Guitar, bass and super relaxed vocals mix in 3/4 time, and over time an undercurrent of angular electric guitar noise can be heard. Other tracks tend to have the same interesting mix of relaxed acoustic music and dissonant electric guitars. “Oh Lord” kind of stretches things a bit, using weird synthesizer effects over places of an otherwise nice folk-pop song (featuring harmonica, acoustic guitar and falsetto vocals), to the point of annoyance. Overall, though, an interesting listen.

KEVIN SECONDS – Off Stockton (Rise Records, www.riserecords.com)

Do you remember 7 Seconds? Remember all the great, positive punk rock of the 80s? Even the toned-down indie-rock version of the band, remember that? Well, toss all that out the window of your expectations, because this is nothing like any of that. The headline here is “Kevin Seconds Goes Country,” or maybe “Americana,” as country music is called in the indie-underground. Acoustic guitars, along with electric, plus electric keyboards and lots of twangy vocals add up to something that could come out of the seamy underbelly of Nashville. The songs are heartfelt, and sung with plenty of feeling. But I can’t help but think that the end result would have been much better with a more stripped down sound. Even with as little instrumentation as there is, it still comes across as over-produced. The best moments on the album are those that limit things to acoustic guitar, Seconds’ vocals, and even a bit of harmonizing here and there. The electric guitar and organ are just too much. In this sort of music, less is more, Kevin. “O Let Me Try” is a beautiful track, with acoustic guitar, harmonized vocals, and a bit of cello. The closer, “Strip Your Soul,” is another one that simplifies things, stripping the soul of the song, if you will. Acoustic guitar and harmonized vocals is all it is, and it works so much better than the songs that add too much.


SOUTH BAY BESSIE – Too Late
(saveyourgenerationrecords. bandcamp.com)

This Michigan pop-punk band was active about 10 years ago, and broke up in 2006. But now they’re back with a new(ish) 4-song 7”. The songs were apparently recorded back in the day, but word is that they’re going to be playing together again. So, should you be excited? I think so. The songs here are up-tempo, bouncy pop-punk with harmonized vocals and tight arrangements. The first track is “Forced Morality,” which sounds like a classic 90s pop-punk track, fast and furious, with great wall of guitar and plenty of hooks. The shouted backing vocals are a little out of the ordinary, but work. “On Chicago Time” is a little slower, but still packs plenty of punch. The B-side tracks are a little weaker. “Too Late To Turn Away” has a loping tempo, a rougher sound, adds some piano, and is in a minor key, but just doesn’t get me moving the way the A-side tracks do. Finally, “Intru-MENTAL” closes things out with a short throw-away instrumental track. Overall, though, this is pretty good stuff, and it will be interesting to hear what new stuff they come up with after the long hiatus.



THEE OH SEES – Singles Vol. 3 (Castle Face Records, www.castlefacerecords.com)

Since I really enjoyed their most recent album, “Floating Coffin,” our fearless editor sent this third installment of Thee Oh Sees’ singles collection albums my way. But I just can’t get into this the same way I did with “Floating Coffin.” The tracks here are much less cohesive, sounding like a mish-mash of leftovers. I guess that makes sense, being a singles collection, but these sound like the tracks they didn’t want to use on regular albums, so they were available for other uses. The first half of this collection features songs that are noisier, more distorted, and just kind of wankier. It seems more like noise for noise’s sake here, rather than being a crafted sound that adds to the overall effect of the songs. That said, “What You Need,” the fifth track, isn’t too bad, with a heavy 60s/70s progressive rock sound. Right after it, though, “FBI2” is just awful. The clarinets and trumpets sound like they’re in pain. It’s like a grade school band room before the band director walks in. “Wait Let’s Go” is another decent one, and maybe the best of the bunch by a long shot, with its garage feel, but on acoustic guitars. The second half of the album seems to be the better part, as “Devil Again” is what I would expect, cooking along with a nice energy. The last two tracks are extended jams, with live renditions of “Block of Ice” clocking in at just over seven and a half minutes, and “Destroyed Fortress” and “No Spell” in a single, final track of more than ten minutes. Like a lot of singles collections, this is hit-or-miss.

THE WAG – Continuum (www.thewagband.com)

The only difference between this band and that talented-but-boring cover band at your local yuppie bar is that The Wag isn’t a cover band. Generic rock music is played quite competently, including nice harmonized vocals. But ultimately, it’s just snooze inducing. A good example is “Binx,” an instrumental number that’s supposed to be “funky,” I guess. It drags and has no soul. It’s just there: square white bread funk-lite. The whole album is like that – very well played, technically, but boring.

ZAPOTEKS – About Bloody Time (It’s Alive Records, www.itsaliverecords.com)

The title of this album apparently refers to the seriously large gap in time since their last album – 6 long years! Adam Alive describes it as “mixed parts pop punk, classic 77 style, rock n roll, and folk all come together…” and he’s kind of hit the nail on the head. I’m not so sure about the folk part, but imagine blending snotty late 70s Brit-punk with modern pop-punk, and you get a good idea of the interesting sound on offer here.I guess a good way to describe it is what I feel like I am listening to the bastard child of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones who fell through a time warp and was raised by The Slow Death. The beat is infectious as hell.“Acetate” is an odd anomaly, sounding like a 70s easy listening pop tune, with nary a bit of punk in sight. But nearly everything else on this album is pure Brit-pop-punk. “Neu-Isenburg” is a favorite, with tons of bounciness, loads of melody, and just the right amount of snottiness. Good stuff.


THE JEAN JACKETS - Field Theory Blues (www.thejeanjackets.com)

This is billed as the first half of their new double LP. When will the second half come out? Unknown. But let's examine this first installment. It took me a little while to warm up to this band. It took up to the fourth song, "In The 9th Inning," to be exact. The first three tracks just fall a little flat, to my ears, sort of like easy listening pop music. The saxophones on " Tar"  even get annoying, sounding slightly off pitch. But, once we get to that fourth track things get pretty amazing. The loping sound, Christine Spilka's gorgeous, easy going vocals... They add up to a really nice track. "Grey (Under the Sky)" is a ballad that seems to breathe; you can hear the music inhaling and exhaling. The mandolin and horns are a sweet touch. "Morning" is a beautiful, expansive song that starts out simply, but grows and swells into something glorious. Delicate wall of sound chords blend with the vocals so nicely. "Girl/Room" is another track that does this, starting out very quietly, simply, and acoustically, then exploding into an emotional, huge thing. "Shops" is a pretty waltz-time number that closes things out. Overall, very pleasant listening.

SCOTT BARKAN – Flightless Bird (www.scottbarkanmusic.com)

Singer-songwriter stuff here, on the second album from the Brooklyn-based musician. It’s at its best when it focuses on the songs, with arrangements stripped down to just Barkan’s seemingly effortless acoustic guitars and bluesy crooning vocals. Tracks like “Gone Away” are just so simple, emotional, and satisfying. The title track that opens the disc starts out this way, too, with guitars, vocals, and a little bit of piano tinkling. The relaxed feeling reminds me of Tom Waits or Leon Redbone. Even when the electric guitar, organ and drums come in, it retains a jazzy feel, so it’s OK. But when the organ, drums and electric guitars overwhelm the song, it’s just not as effective to my ears. Unfortunately, most of the disc is like this.

CANADIAN RIFLE – Deep Ends (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Damn! I am from Chicago, originally, but these gun-toting Canucks started up after I made my move to sunny SoCal. While I’ve heard talk about this band, I had never listened to them. Until now. And now I regret all the missed opportunities for sonic enjoyment. Think melodic hardcore. This is pounding, hard, crunching music, no doubt. But it also has an incredible melodic sensibility. The nine tracks are unrelenting, pounding, and intense. It’s not pop-punk – it’s too hard and intense to call it that. It’s not hardcore – it’s too melodic to call it that. How about pop-hardcore? I can definitely hear the Chicago sound in here. I am reminded of a multitude of Chicago and other Midwest punk bands of yore. I’m sorry – I am going to stop writing for a bit and listen. I’ll be right back. OK, sorry – it’s so good, I wanted to give it my undivided attention. And, really, so should you. This is recommended!

CULTS – Static (Columbia Records, www.columbiarecords.com)

Super overdone easy-listening music for the shoe-gazer pop generation. There’s sappy female vocals, lo-fi yet slick production, and faux-retro doo-wop girl group sounds. Much is being made in the media about the break-up the former couple that fronts the band and their decision to remain a band. Meh, who cares? It’s happened to other bands before, so not really anything astonishing there. The question is whether the music is any good or not. And again, meh.



DIVIDED HEAVEN – Live at Pinnacle Studios EP (Say 10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Divided Heaven is the solo project of Jeff Berman, who has also spent time with The Statiks, Rites, The Boils, and VPR. In addition to Divided Heaven, Berman currently fronts LA’s Heartracers andalso plays in Florida’s Protagonist. Here we get Berman’s vocals with acoustic guitar. It’s something that’s come to be expected from punk rockers, isn’t it? Sometimes it works really well, and sometimes it’s a little dull. Sometimes it falls in between. Divided Heaven is one of those in-betweeners. Probably the most exciting and interesting track on the EP is “Clean Sheets.” Yep, it’s an acoustic cover of the classic Descendents song. Normally, that would be a strike, but here it actually works. Berman sings with an intensity that makes you feel that this is a personally meaningful song for him. The other cover in this five track EP is “Can’t Hardly Wait,” The Replacements song. Other tracks don’t quite capture that emotion, but are decent enough, if you like the solo acoustic thing.

FRENCH EXIT – Guts and Black Stuff (It’s Alive Records, www.itsaliverecords.com)

A new full-length has finally been issued by this mainstay of the SoCal scene! French Exit is not your typical pop-punk band, blending in big Chicago-style sounds, courtesy of Chicago transplant and front man Tim Stasica. The songs take on an almost epic sound, yet remain eminently melodic. There’s plenty of sing-along, fist-pumping moments here, too, and enough whoa-whoas to make even Naked Raygun a bit jealous. Some of the tracks presented here have long been part of French Exit’s set list, so it’s great to finally have them captured on vinyl and digital file. “Impossible” is one such track, sure to induce plenty of jumping and stomping, so incredibly intense is the backbeat. “Whoa No” (the whoas even make it into a song title!) is another “old” favorite, dripping and pounding with melodic hooks. “When There’s A Fork In The Road, Take It” has a retro 60s doo-wop sort of melody, bit still with the same pounding intensity French Exit are known for. “Statecheck” is a cool track, with a very martial feel to it – marching to the beat of a different drummer, of course.And “Backspace” is probably one of the best ballads you’ll ever hear a punk band do. Recommended!

GALACTIC CANNIBAL – We’re Fucked (Underground Communique Records – www.undercomm.org, Lost Cat Records – www.lostcatrecords.org, Encapsulated Records – www.encapsulatedrecords.com)

Three label collaboration! Galactic Cannibal features Direct Hit! front man Nick Woods on bass and his brother Peter on vocals, amongst the quintet. The music is heavy and raucous, hard-edged, yet melodic. Overall, I like this. But a couple of nits. PLEASE edit out some of the “one two three four” starts to some of the songs. Nearly ever track starts with this shout, and it does get stale really fast. And, while the gruff vocals work in harder, edgier hardcore tracks, something a little smoother works better with more melodic sounds. The tracks are undoubtedly energetic. There’s some great sing-along choruses on several of the tracks, too – a sign of a great live band. The variety, from track to track, though, is a bit lacking.

THE HEADIES – Meta-Pop (Creep Records, www.creeprecords.limitedrun.com / Square of Opposition Records, www.squareofopposition.com)

Funny punk is alive and well and living in The Headies! Think of all those punk bands you’ve listened to over the years, playing upbeat, poppy, sloppy music with humorous lyrics and with songs about good times (or bad times with tongue very firmly implanted in cheek, such as “Please Kill Me”). I hear bits of Ramones, and certainly a dose of Screeching Weasel here. Even a bit of Artless, Mykel Board’s old funny punk band from way back in the day. So it’s a little ironic that they have a song called “Copy Cat,” complaining about someone who’s a copy at, copying everything they do! “Anna Lee” is one of the rare bluegrass/country punk songs out there, and is fast and fun. “Calling Doctor Howard” is a blast, paying homage, as it does, to The Three Stooges. If you like to have fun (who doesn’t?) and you like pop-punk (if you’re reading this, that’s a yes, isn’t it?), you’ll very likely like this!

THE MELODIC – Effra Parade (ANTI-, www.anti.com)

Here comes the debut album from this English folk group that shows as much influence from other parts of the world as it does from its home turf. Pretty much entirely acoustic, the band features guitars, piano, bass, drums, horns, piano, and other interesting acoustic sounds. At times it sounds a bit jazzy, at times sounding like something from the Far East or Africa, this is a pretty eclectic release. The music is undoubtedly very pretty and well executed. “Ode to Victor Jara” has to be my favorite track on the disc. It’s gorgeous story telling through music, plain and simple. The “interlude” immediately after, called “Willow,” is also quite pretty, with it’s a capella vocals. “Lost To You” reminds me of the pop folk songs of the 70s, and specifically like something that may have come from the soundtrack of the movie cult classic, The Wicker Man. It’s an interesting album, but the one thing that holds it back from being really great is that it falls a bit flat. The music is pretty and well executed, but the passion doesn’t seem to quite be there.

OCTAGRAPE – Red UFO (Thing Thing Thing Records, thingthingthing.bandcamp.com)

Properly spelled “octa#grape,” this is a San Diego band featuring Glen Galloway on guitar and vocals, Jason Begin on guitar, Ely Moyal on drums, and O on bass. I’ve seen this band live twice now, and, believe me, theirs is a live show you seriously do not want to miss. octa#grape is probably one of the most dynamic, energetic bands you’ll see. Ever. Fresh off a summer and fall full of touring with the likes of Sebadoh and Pinback, octa#grape have released their debut full-length LP. The sound this band puts out is heavy and pounding, lo fi and distorted, yet lithe and nimble. It snarls at you and bites at you, but isn’t plodding. It’s not particularly fast, but it’s feline in its ability to dart around you. If you haven’t seen this band yet, this album will be a nice introduction. You’ll be impressed with the intensity. I must say, in all honesty, though, that if you have seen them live, you may be slightly disappointed with the studio recording. While still quite good, it doesn’t quite capture the mania of a live show. That said, I must let you know that, while they’re all good, I do have some favorite tracks. “Gold &Free” is a track that has more than a bit of a surf rock sound – fitting for a San Diego band – but it hammers away with a fury few bands exhibit. “Kelpo Kreeps” has a cool angularity to its melodic line. “Trevor Cobalt,” the closer, is another good one (well, they all are, really). Very recommended.

PANTALEIMON – The Butterfly Ate The Pearl (Grass Girl Music, grassgirlmusic.greedbag.com)

This is very dreamy stuff, slow and delicate and ethereal. In small doses, this is really nice stuff, combining elements of folk music and chill-out electronica. There’s a hypnotic droning that pulses through many of the tracks, creating quite an atmospheric mood. But, unless you’re stoned and in the right frame of mind for it, 47 minutes of this spread over 9 tracks may be a bit much.

ST. LUCIA – When The Night (Columbia)

Hey, St. Lucia? The 80s called, and they want their lame pop music back.


STATE FAULTS – Resonate/Desperate (No Sleep Records, www.nosleeprecords.com)

Emo-screamo music is apparently alive and well! I thought this kind of music died out in the 90s. There were so many bands like this back then – playing cool, melodic, edgy music with vocals that would raise the dead. It’s always been quite a juxtaposition, and one that I never quite got. I loved the emo music back in the day. But I never could understand tromping on this awesome, hard-edged melodic hardcore music with vocals that could kill an ox at 100 paces. It’s just…so grating. The music is cool, but the vocals – I just don’t get it. Power chords, soaring guitars, epic sounds from the instruments are there, but the screaming. The screaming.

STRIKE TO SURVIVE – Yesterday’s News (Don’t Look Down Records, www.dontlookdownrecords.com)

One of the few bands that might be called “screamo” from back in the 90s that I enjoyed was Refused. But, unlike most of the bands that got that label, Refused’s vocals were more controlled, with a bit of melody in them, to match the hard-edged melodic hardcore music. Strike To Survive has that sort of feel, too. The second track on the album, “Wide Awake,” is a favorite. It’s hard and pounds relentlessly, but with melodic sensibilities, rather than just noise. The vocals are, yes, shouted, but it’s not uncontrolled screaming and screeching, so it works with the music. The music is hard and heavy, but it’s also fast and nimble – the best combination! Other standouts include “Scapeghost,” “Creature Comforts,” and “Toss/Turn.” “American Bricks” is just incredible for its speed and intensity, while still retaining a strong sense of melody. This is good stuff!

TURIN BRAKES – We Were Here (Cooking Vinyl/Red River)

Turin Brakes needs to make a decision. They play “Americana,” the name being used today for country-rock. Many Americana bands are on the alternative side of things, with a bit of edgy folk-punk influence. Others just go for that commercial sound that will sell records. Turin Brakes needs to make a decision – which do they want to be? Some of their songs are more acoustic, really nice, with a realness about them. Other songs are very slick country rock that you might have heard back in the day when that was a big thing. It sounds more like they’re just going through the motions. Then they try out a smooth jazz sort of tune, with “Guess You Heard.” Normally, I like diversity, but this borders on multiple personality disorder.

XIU XIU – Nina (Graveface Records, www.facebook.com/GRAVEFACE)

Well, it says this is tribute album, featuring the music of the late Nina Simone. And, it sort of is, as much as it can be while being performed by this experimental jazz group. Front-man Jamie Stewart’s deep, breathy, shaky vocals are quite unique, and the arrangements are very spare, consisting of saxophones, guitar, drums, and sometimes piano. Many of the songs come off as pretty sad and a bit eerie. “See Line Woman,” on the other hand, comes off as quite exciting and ebullient. Cool.


PATCHES & GRETCHEN –
Who the Hell is Richard Manuel
(www.patchesandgretchen.com)

Hot on the heels of last spring’s Even Breaks,” the Minneapolis duo are back with another album full of crazy, laid-back, jazzy, bluesy, folksy unclassifiable songs. There’s a strong confidence in the swaggery, near-drunk sounding vocals, and our fearless editor already made the perfect comparison: sorta like a female Lou Reed quality. From the jazzy “All Bibles” to the country-ish “Rollypolly” and to the rockin’ “The Chicken and The Water,” this is pretty unique, interesting stuff. Compared to previous albums, I think there may be a little less variety of sounds going on here, but if you like the off-the-wall, different sort of stuff, give this a try. I think you’ll like it.


CASKITT – Don’t Tell Anyone (www.facebook.com/caskitt)

Three-piece pop-punk band Caskitt, from San Diego California, has digitally released their debut EP, with six songs of melodic music with a punch. The opener, “Agoraphobic,” is decent enough, starting out with some nice math-ish guitar and drum work, before settling into fairly standard poppy-punky music. The next track, though, “Ponzistarter.com,” pretty much rages. Rapid fire, pounding drums, guitar and bass, and vocals conspire together to grab you and make you jump. I hear plenty of influence from another San Diego mainstay of the pop-punk scene: Dan Padilla. There’s that same sort of quality to the music. Full of emotion, and kind of the Americana of pop-punk, if you will. This is a nice debut effort.

FREE MACHINES – Cursive Moon (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

This 3-song 7” from the band from Tucson, Arizona features quite a different, unique sound. The songs have hints of retro 60s psychedelic and 70s progressive rock sounds. What if Genesis had been a punk band? The songs have interesting chord progressions and are more technically complex than your average pop-punk tune. The vocals even sound a bit like Phil Collins. Now, before you get the idea that this is crap to be avoided (really? Genesis? Phil Collins?) it is interesting to listen to. Hell, I’ve played this thing about five times in a row now. Is it going to make it onto my iPod on a permanent basis? Doubtful.

JOAN OF ARC – Testimonium Songs (Polyvinyl Record Company, www.polyvinylrecords.com)

This latest release from one of the more unique musical organizations around came out this past summer in a very limited edition vinyl release. Only 550 of these were pressed, on magenta colored marbled vinyl, with a booklet insert. I managed to snag a copy when I saw the band swing through San Diego on their fall tour. This ever-changing outfit appears on this album in “extended” trio form, with the core guitar/vocals, drums and bass of Tim Kinsella, Theo Katsaounis, and Bobby Burg, plus several additional guests. And where some of their albums are mostly improvised or written in the studio, the tracks here were apparently carefully crafted over a long period of time. This music was created for a very specific event, “Testimonium,” a performance by the experimental theater ensemble, Every House Has a Door. The performance, itself, was an interpretation of “Testimony,” Charles Reznikoff’s work that translated courtroom transcripts of witness and victim testimonies into poetry. The six songs here are primarily (though not entirely) acoustic and angular, mostly calm. They seem to lack the feeling of spontaneity a lot of their other works have – I wonder why? They’re still good, but just not as out there as some of their other stuff. I think my favorite track on the album is probably the longest one, “The Bird’s Nest Wrapped Around the Security Camera.” This one, probably due to its extended length, has the widest range. There’s sections of fairly coherent song, sections of percussive interaction, periods of trance-like music, miscellaneous scratching and picking, and instruments that sometimes seem to breathe on their own. The closer, “Jury Duty,” is probably the most “different” track, in that it’s completely a cappella singing, complete with harmonies. Lyrically, the songs fit in quite well with the theme of the performance.

L.A. DRUGZ – Outside Place (Hovercraft Records, www.hovercraftpdx.com)

Do you like garage rock? Do you like old school power pop? Well, then you’re gonna love LA Drugz. This quartet, hailing from (where else?) LA consists of Justin Mauer on vocals and guitar, Cezar Mora on guitar and vocals, Johnny Reyes on bass and James Carman on drums. I had seen this band at one of the SoCal “DIY Concert Venues,” and instantly fell in love. They’re super energetic and play some awesome, raw, powerful roots rock’n’roll. This 12” EP is pretty limited, I think to about 200 copies, so I really recommend you jump on this fast. There’s a scant six songs on the EP, and, while no studio recording can really do justice to the mania of a live LA Drugz set, this is pretty tight stuff. While there’s no bad songs at all on this slab-o-wax, there’s a couple of standouts in my ears. “On The Streets” and “Ooh Ooh Ooh” are two favorites that pretty much rage. Recommended!

PAYOFF – Throwing Stones (La Escalera Records, www.laescalerarecords.com)

Payoff is a young four-piece outfit from LA. They’re extremely talented musicians with a bit of an internal conflict. They’re part of the SoCal pop-punk scene, and some of the songs they play are energetic, poppy, melodic punk. But other of their songs are edgier alternative rock sounds. This 4-song EP, available both on vinyl and CD, has less evidence of that split personality than the band’s live sets, leaning more toward the edgy alt-rock sound. Of the four tracks, the “A” side are the poppier/punkier. “Over Again” starts out with a very pop-punk sound, nice and up-tempo, nice melodic lines, and a fairly raucous chorus. I think here it’s the production, more than anything, that gives it a polished feel, more radio-ready, if you will. The title track is next, in waltz time, a rarity in the world of rock music. This one, I think, is my favorite on the EP. It’s different, it’s big and bold, and the harmonized vocals between Jen Razavi and Mike Lodevico are spot on. “One More Time For Love” is probably the most pure alternative rock track on the EP, and probably the track I was least able to get into. It just kind of drags a bit to my ears. The closer, “War In My Mind,” pretty much soars through the first half, before it explodes into a epic sound, a perfect way to end. These guys have a sound that could be quite successful, commercially, yet have an edge that keeps them fresh enough for pop punk tastes.

SQUARECROW – B Sides (www.facebook.com/squarecrowmusic)

Another debut from a San Diego band, this time a four-piece, featuring Todd Allen, Jon Hasz, Brandon Bart and Daniel Riveroll. I got a bit of a scare when I first popped the disc in, because the first track was, well, kinda lame. “Dyasania” comes across as sort of a wannabe alternative rock song. It’s a good thing that I’m a thorough reviewer, and usually listen to the whole record or CD. Many years ago, I learned that many music critics will listen to the first track of a release, and if it doesn’t catch their ear, it goes into the trash. ALWAYS put your best track first. Thankfully, once past the opener, things get way way better. “Via Cadore” is a pretty catchy bouncy track, especially the chorus. Hard-edged jangly guitars provide a wall of sound through most of the track. I love the way it goes acoustic for a bit, near the end, with a very “present” sound quality – as if they spliced in an acoustic demo version of the song they recorded in a house somewhere. “Barbra” has quite the retro feel to it, as if this could have been a track the Beatles could have made. “3 Weeks” is a cool, jazzy, jumpy track, complete with horns in a few places. The closer, “Colored Red,” goes back to the alternative rock sound, but it’s not as lame as the opening track – it’s OK. The middle four tracks are solid gold.

WORTHWHILE WAY / MADISON BLOODBATH – The Moon In The Darkness (Eager Beaver Records, eagerbeaver.shop-pro.jp)

Looking at these two bands, you would think, huh? How did this split ever come to be? Madison Bloodbath is a band from SoCal, fronted by the very imposing Matt McCracken, a large man with a large beard. Worthwhile Way is from Japan, and has two men and two women, all very quiet and polite and very clean-shaven. But they’re all the nicest people you would ever want to meet. The first four tracks belong to Madison Bloodbath, and they’re all the sing-along anthemic type pop-punk songs you would expect. They’re massive and fast. Think Husker Du sorta stuff. The interesting thing is the use of organ in the songs – that was unexpected – and only really audible at the end of a couple of songs, as they guitars fade away. Worthwhile Way are a bit lighter. Quite a bit lighter. The music is sweet, jangly, and pretty. I especially love “Golden Sun.” It’s so jangly, bouncy, and uplifting. I love this.


BODY/HEAD – Coming Apart (Matador Records, www.matadorrecords.com)

Formed in the wake of Sonic Youth’s break-up, Body/Head is Kim Gordon and Bill Nace, a guitar duo. This is clearly a return to the more experimental and noise sounds for Gordon, whose former band started their career as one of the more innovative of the “no wave” bands of the 80s, presenting sheer noise and improvisational sonic experiments. Over the years, while remaining somewhat edgy, SY got more and more mainstream as they gained wider popularity. Gone was the freedom of the more artistic side of music. Now free of the shackles of the pop industry machine, Gordon is once again exploring the more creative and artistic side of things. But unlike those early SY ventures, Body/Head is quieter, more meandering, and less noise and more artistic expression. Normally, though I like experimentalism in music, the stuff that’s just meandering improvisation turns me off – it’s just sonic wanking to me. But the sounds on this album are more soothing, yet unsettling at the same time. It’s smooth, yet hard and edgy, sweet, yet menacing. Some tracks are instrumental only, but when there are vocals, they’re Gordon’s trademark breathy vocals. The last two tracks are lengthy, with “Black” clocking in at 13:21 and “Frontal” at 17:15. I think that’s part of the reason they’re my least favorite of the ten tracks on the album. They seem to go on a little too long, losing momentum. At the other end of the spectrum, my favorite tracks on the disc seem to be the shorter tracks. “Untitled” is a scant 1:51, but it consists of one of the most gorgeous guitar loops I’ve heard in some time. Immediately following is “Everything Left,” which is one of the buzzier, noisier tracks on the disc, and makes effective use of tons of reverb. “Last Mistress” has a scaled back version of the famous SY dissonance, along with soring, echoing, guitar noise. It’s an interesting release, and a welcome return from the more commercial endeavors.

THE DISTRESSERS – A Demonstration of Intent (www.facebook.com/thedistressers)

This is a four song CD-EP that was made for The Distressers’ West Coast tour. Lucky for me that tour included Awesomefest 7, which occurred over Labor Day weekend, because I was able to see them and pick up this gem. There must be something in the water in Denton, Texas, because so many good bands seem to come out of there, and The Distressers are no exception. As is the case with other Denton area bands, The Distressers have an intense, tight garage punk sound. The first two songs, “Paranoia City” and “New Money,” are off their forthcoming debut LP, “Viva Wasteland,” while the other two tracks, “On And On” and “Lay Me Down,” are not planned for release other than this CD. Think fast, rapid-fire tunes with a raw edge. This band was one of my Awesomefest 7 highlights, and this CD lives up to the live show. Recommended.

ENTROPY – Out of Spite (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Wow, what a throwback! This is classic 90s East Coast Hardcore, with track lengths ranging from just over 30 seconds to just over a minute and a half. Think Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, and you’ll get an ide of the sound Entropy provides. 10 songs on a 7”! That’s really old school! This thing drops October 15th, so if you like the NYxHC sound, get this. It’s pretty good stuff, though I do wish some of the tracks were just a little bit longer.

 

KICKING SPIT – Negative Feedback (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

Wins my vote for most appropriately named album of the year. Kicking Spit makes plentiful use of feedback and noise in this new LP. The songs include a mix of poppy punk and darker grungier rock, but in all cases, the recording quality is intentionally muddy, distant, and super lo-fi. It sounds like the band was laying down their vocals in a large empty room, and the microphones were placed outside the door. There’s a distant, echoing sound to them. The guitars are loaded with noise and fuzz, just like a shoegazer band would play – but the music here is decidedly not shoegaze. It’s more intense, more up-tempo, less introspective, and, well, plenty poppy in a lot of the tracks. When it stays more in the pop-punk vein, like on “Long Way Down,”Reality Dropout,” or “Cassandra.” But some of the tracks just get too noisy and grungy, and it gets difficult to listen to. “Gone” is just distorted guitars and pounding, with distant echoy voices, and I couldn’t make out a melody at all here. The title track may as well have been recorded by a high school metal band in their garage. It’s so lo-fi, muddy, grinding and, well, unlistenable. Vocals are all over the place on this one, with lots of unsynchronized yelling and screaming going on. “Cruel Horrible World” is aptly titled, as it’s a cruel, horrible song, chock full of nothing but noise and feedback. Truth is, even on the better, poppier tracks, this is hard to listen to.

MUHAMMADALI – Future Songs (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

“Future Songs?” The album opens with “Country Road Mushroom Death Trip Song,” which is chock full of 60s psychedelic references, but updated with Muhammadali’s tasteful level of noise. But, unlike their self-titled debut, this album generally has a lot less of the psychedelic sounds than before. There’s plenty of noise, to be sure. But it’s not just noise for noise’s sake; it’s carefully crafted into super jangly melody. “Its Gonna Be OK” is a great example of the really cool juxtaposition of melodic jangle and purposeful noise that forms the backbone of this album. Halfway through the album is an odd little break, “You Owe Me Money,” which sounds sort of like something you would find on some album of chill-out music for people who like to go to raves. Then it’s back down to business for the back half of the album. “Leave Daddy Alone” is a fast rager, loaded with buzz and fuzz and noise. Think Teengenerate here. “Stars” is jangly as shit, but still loaded with fuzz-noise, and another stand-out here. The same goes for “Lonely,” a track that’s pretty simple lyrically (It’s lonely/I miss her, repeated), but combines jangle and noise effectively. I love the extended ending of this track, where the guitars slowly fade away, as some electronic keyboards fade up, and we hear several voice mail messages. It does provide an isolated, lonely feeling. As does the closer, “Wait,” which starts out with a nice, noisy, pop-punk feel. It’s another track with pretty simply lyrics, and with a sad, lonely feel. “I know it really hurts / I know sometimes it really hurts” is the chorus. This one has another extended ending, with electronics lending that isolated feeling again. This album is pretty different from their last one, and pretty different from a lot of other bands today. And I really dig this.

SUNDOWNER – Neon Fiction (Fat Wreckchords, www.fatwreck.com)

Sundowner is the side project of one Chris McCaughan, he of The Lawrence Arms. Being a solo side project, this is quite different from the resplendent pop-punk emanations from TLA. The music here is more introspective, somewhat more laid back, and partially acoustic. Doing the “solo acoustic” thing has become a “thing” in the pop-punk scene, hasn’t it? Lots of punk guitarists/vocalists seem to be performing solo acoustic sets in clubs and releasing albums. I’ve seen plenty recently, and they’re usually really heartfelt, emotional performances. I even had the opportunity to see McCaughan do such a set last Thanksgiving, at the tiny, intimate Town Hall Pub in Chicago. Here, we get more than solo vocals and acoustic guitar. We get the same sort of folk-punk inspired songs, but performed with a meatier band, including acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums. There are even some multi-tracked vocals on some tracks. The album begins with “Cemetery West,” a darkly jangly song of defiance. “I won’t let the darkness catch me this time” is the refrain here. Acoustic guitar is out front, and the feeling us upbeat.Weirdly, I hear some hints of 80s pop music influence in some of the tracks, such as “Concrete Shoes,” which has a heavy beat and spare instrumentation outside of the relatively noisy chorus.I really like the gorgeous “Grey On Grey,” a waltz-time song with lyrics that really engage the senses and make you feel like you’re really there: “Smelled summer on the breath of the city tonight.” The song seems to be about the uncertainty one has in youth about the future, especially about relationships. The song ends with “Hope you love me the same way / When the colors are grey on grey.” I think this one is probably one of my favorites on the album. “Life In The Embers” is probably the closest thing you’ll get on the album to a raucous track. It has more electric guitar and is a bit more up-tempo than the rest. OK, while I’ve been listening to this, I’ve been trying to pin down the other vocalist that I am reminded of while listening to this. And then it finally hit me – Penguins Kill Polar Bears’ Ben Proudlock! That Scottish band is a whole lot noisier, but the underlying qualities are very similar. Anyway – this review has gotten kind of long without saying a whole lot, so I’ll sum up. This is pretty good singer-songwriter music, but don’t expect The Lawrence Arms. This is quieter and more introspective.

SWEATSHOP BOYS – The Great Depression (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Imagine blending pop-punk, old school punk rock, classic power-pop, and early rock ‘n’ roll. What do you get? Something pretty darn near Sweatshop Boys. This band hails from that hotbed of pop-punk activity, Israel. Yup, Israel seems to be cranking out superb punk bands, with Not On Tour another excellent export. Sweatshop Boys 13-song debut album clocks in at 23 minutes long – that’s an average of a minute and three quarters per song. They pack a whole lot of punch into those short songs, too. Fast and furious, these tunes have a timeless quality to them, like all good power-pop songs, that will give them staying power over the years. They sound fresh, yet they sound classic at the same time. There’s tons of jangle, edgy harmonized vocals, thumping bass and pounding drums propelling this album. Not a bad song in the bunch, and well executed. Recommended!


BIG EYES – Almost Famous
(www.gravemistakerecords.com)

Garage-punk from the Pacific Northwest! Big Eyes, formerly from Brooklyn, NY, but now based in Seattle, have released their second full-length album, and this one has less of a pop sound and more of a garage-edge to it, a grittier sound. Vocalist/guitarist Kate Eldridge shows a strength and confidence in her performance. The songs may be edgier, grittier, and darker, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t catchy and hooky – they sure are. The harmonized and multi-tracked vocals add a bounce to several of the tracks. “Being Unkind” is one of the standouts in my opinion, with a bouncy feel and edgy sound. “Can’t Catch a Break” is misnamed, because this is catchy as hell. “A Matter of Time” has some very cool multi-tracked harmonies that make it work really well. The last two tracks, “Back From the Moon” and “I Don’t Care About Friday Night,” sound like they may have been recorded at different sessions from the rest of the album, because these are so different from the rest – they’re much more poppy, less dark, and totally awesome. Cool album.


ALEX CHILTON – Electricity By Candlelight / NYC 2/13/97 (Bar None Records, www.bar-none.com)

As the title implies, this was recorded live in New York City on February 13, 1997. However, what is only hinted at in the title, is that just as Alex Chilton and his band were getting ready to play their second set of the evening at the Knitting Factory, the lights went out. Not one to disappoint the crowd, Chilton did an off-the-cuff acoustic set, and it happened to be recorded. And the result is this album. What started out as a four song filler became an hour-long set. And, though the recording is pretty poor, and sounds like it was clearly made by someone in the audience, it reveals an unusual intimacy, and an easy repartee between performer and audience. It sounds more like a house party, with one of the friends teasing and entertaining the other partygoers. You can hear people shouting out suggestions for songs, and Chilton making fun of some of them, but play them he does. There are folk songs, novelty tunes, jazz and blues. There’s an audience sing-a-long, there’s country, there’re Beach Boys covers, and there are standards. What it is, in fact, is rare magic. Sometimes, the background noise gets in the way, and sometimes the low fidelity is annoying. But while there was no electricity in the building, there was electricity in the air that night.

CLOUD CONTROL – Dream Cave (Ivy League Records, ivyleague.com/au)

These Aussie folk-pop-psych performers are back with a new album, their second release. The album is a nice follow-up to 2011’s “Bliss Release,” with a dreamier sound than before, and more retro, too. The album starts out with “Scream Rave,” with heavily processed vocals just singing sounds in multi-part harmony, along with blissed-out psychedelic instrumentals that flow. “Promises” is a full-on 60s style psychedelic track that makes very effective use of vocal harmonization. Well, most of the songs have great harmonized vocals. “Moon Rabbit” has a cool vocal effect where they’ve multi-tracked the vocals, but put them slightly out of phase, so there’s a hint of a delay effect. They do this with some of the instrumentals in this track, too. The track also hints at retro sounds, but not completely. Between the cool delay effects and the tottering between modern and retro, it can be very disorienting, in a good way. This would probably be an extremely cool track to listen to when high, not that I would know anything about that. “The Smoke, The Feeling” is a much more modern sounding track, with dreamy pop sounds and the multi-tracked harmonized vocals. “Ice Age Heatwave” is another strong track that’s too hard to describe, with its multiple layers of vocals, instrumentals, reverb, and so on. Good stuff.

GREAT APES – Thread (Asian Man Records, www.asianmanrecords.com)

Great Apes play a great blend of pop-punk sounds and indie rock. There’s a maturity in the arrangements and lyrics not usually associated with pop-punk, and yet the freshness and melodiousness of pop-punk is very evident. This debut full-length album opens with “Seventeen Years,” a song chock full of melody, cool hooks, harmonized vocals, and strong, edgy guitars. “Yellow Ribbon” turns things up a notch, with super heavy sounds and near screamed vocals in parts. “Everything is Everything” is probably the most pure “pop-punk” track on the album, with its great anthemic sing-a-long chorus. I really love “Vial of Life,” a track with a strong melodic line and smooth vocals. Good stuff here, recommended.



KIDS WITH GUNS – Normal Is Nothing (www.kidswithguns.org)

This is the debut album from the New Jersey band, Kids With Guns. This is not to be confused with the band of the same name from Texas, nor the one from Europe. Gets confusing sometimes, doesn’t it? This band offers up somewhat garage-like music that’s not quite edgy enough. Call it garage-lite. Probably the only track on the album that really stands out in my mind is “Shade,” the final song. It’s the only one that seems to really pack a punch and have an “honest” sound.



LIPSTICK HOMICIDE – Out Utero
(Bloated Kat Records)

Hailing from the heartland of Iowa, Lipstick Homicide are simply one of the finest pop-punk bands playing today. They’re fast, tight, super melodic, and they’re downright nice people, too. The three-piece consists of Rachel Feldmann on vocals and bass, Kate Kane on vocals, guitar, and hair flipping, and Luke Ferguson on drums. There is not a single bad track on this album, and there’s not even one that’s just OK – they’re all winners, all pop-punk gold. Right from the get-go, “This Time For Real” is just so catchy, bouncy and fun. It flows immediately into “Hope U Die,” a track that’s just as bouncy, but a little darker, in a minor key. “So Happy With You” is especially fun, due to the meows in the recording (I assume from a kitty named Kiki). “Vampire Club Pt. II” is catchy as hell, especially when the chorus comes around with the dueling vocals. I really like “Who Stole Molly’s Bike,” too, with the cool harmonies and great guitar work. I’ve found another top 10 of the year to add to my list, and so will you when you get this.



LITTLE BIG LEAGUE – These Are Good People (Tiny Engines Records, tinyengines.limitedrun.com)

Another debut album here, from the band from Philadelphia. This is classic, classy indie-pop music in the vein of 90s greats like Tsunami. The female vocals here, though, are less straightforward and more filled with emotion. The music is also a little less “clean” than the bands of old, blending more of a fuzzy shoegazer sound in with the abundant jangle. Highlights include, “Dark Matter,” a track that starts out all nice and calm and jangly, and evolves over time to become fuzzier, more intense and more emotional, and the closer, “Never Have I Walked Away When the Time Was Right,” a strong, powerful song filled with feeling. Very nice debut.



NIGHT BIRDS – Born to Die in Suburbia (Grave Mistake Records, www.gravemistakerecords.com)

Two years on from their debut full length, these New Jersey garage surf-punks are back with a new album, full of rapid-fire rage and reverb. This is classic old-school hardcore punk – the kind that inspires a pit to open up in front of the band at a live show. Sort of like what happened when they played at Township, in Chicago, back on March 29th. I was in town visiting family and took the opportunity to see some friends, drink some beers, and listen to some good punk music. Having been away from Chicago shows for some time, and becoming inured to the more sedate crowds of the San Diego, LA and Inland Empire pop-punk scenes, I was unprepared for what happened. I take a lot of photos at shows, so I like to be up front. Even though I didn’t have my camera with me, that’s where I was when Night Birds took the stage. In fairly short order, I received a body check from behind, and the force knocked my glasses clear from my face. My drunk self panicked, and began trying to clear a space around me to try and find my specs. As this failed, in my inebriated state, I came up with the idea to get the band to stop playing so people would stop moshing, and perhaps my glasses would be found unscathed. I tried grabbing the mic out of the hands of vocalist Brian Gorsenger – and it nearly worked! But realizing I wasn’t about to sing along, the mic was unceremoniously pulled back and the song continued. I actually stepped up onto the stage in my quest to quell the slamming, but it was all to no avail. When the song finally came to and end, someone held up his hand, clutching the trampled remnants of my cheaters, and asked, “Did anyone lose some glasses? My rallying cry became “Night Birds ate my glasses!” Of course, I don’t hold it against them – they were just playing some ridiculously energetic music, and that’s what’s on this album. The band is best when they’re fast and furious, like on the title track, or “Domestic Dispute,” or most any of the tracks on this album. They do have a couple of tracks that I would have left out. “Nazi Gold” is unfortunately titled, and it sort of drags.” Less the Merrier” didn’t leave me very merry. But for the most part, this is a rager of an album.

OVER THE RHINE – Meet Me At The Edge Of The World (Great Speckled Dog Records, www.overtherhine.com)

This new double album comes from husband and wife team Linford Detweiler (piano, bass, guitar) and Karin Bergquist (guitars and vocals). The name of the Ohio-based duo comes from their Cincinnati neighborhood of the same name. Many of these songs have moments of promise, with a nice acoustic sound and beautiful harmonized/overdubbed vocals. But then the country sound intrudes, all full of slide guitar and annoying stuff. Now, I am not opposed to all country music. Authentic country can be really good, but the more modern country sound is not something I am a fan of. These songs could have been so much better if they had stuck to more of a roots and acoustic sound. That said, there are some nice moments. “I’d Want You” is a pretty ballad that does focus on the acoustic, and relegates the electric guitar (without slide) to the background. “All Of It Was Music” is a nice sounding track, with hints of jazz and old timey music. Even though it has the annoying slide guitar and even background strings, it works reasonably well. “All Over Ohio” is another interesting one – it’s best when Detweiler sings the vocals. When Bergquist joins in our takes her own verse, the slide guitar chimes in. Ugh. When Detweiler sings, the vocals are quiet and smooth. Sadly, the good is heavily outweighed by the not so good. “Highland County” is chock full of slide guitar and piano and “down home country” sounds. The album is probably not country enough for real country fans, and it’s definitely way too country for non-country fans.

RUNNING – Vaguely Ethnic (Castle Face Records, www.castlefacerecords.com)

Running is a band from Chicago. Their music is a pure sonic assault that basically screams, “fuck you!” to the listening public. Loads of distortion, feedback, shouting and pounding pervade your every pore as this plays. The album even starts with a track titled with the same attitude, “Thanks for the Input.” The lyrics are unintelligible, there’s tons of distortion, and in there you can even hear a bit of a melodic line. Of particular note is the pair of tracks that blend into one another “Oo0o Oo0O Oo0oOo” and “This Is A You Problem.” The former starts with a pounding and guitar line worthy of the great Flipper, and the half shouted half sung vocals (with no real melodic line to singing, of course) are kind of like a cross between Flipper, Jello Biafra, and the B-52s. Huh? The track ends in massive guitar noise, all distorted, and it just flows into the latter track, another aptly titled one. It becomes a more up-tempo track, vaguely punk-like, but still attacking your very existence on a cellular level. Cool stuff. Very cool stuff. The only issue I might have is the lack of enough variation in the sound, but since the album clocks in at about 20 minutes for 9 tracks, it works.

SAMIA (www.samiamusic.com)

This is the debut self-titled 6-song EP from self-described “openly pan-sexual rock-pop singer,” Samia. I don’t know what her sexuality has to do with anything. So let’s ignore that part and talk about the music and her performance. Well, her performance certainly is soulful, with a strong and confident singing style. And the final track is on a worthy topic – that of marriage equality. But those are the only positive things I can say about this. The music itself is pretty average pop-rock-soul type music, very slick, very commercial, and very boring.

SAVE THE SWIM TEAM – The Big Compromise (Not Punk Records, notpunk.bandcamp.com)

STST is a ska-punk band from the bowels of Orange County, California. They play what are essentially pop-punk songs, but with ska-like arrangements, including trombone and saxophone, and alternating between punk crunch and ska-skank. This latest release is a three-track 7” EP, released in various colors of vinyl with silk screen covers. “The Best and the Worst of Me” is a very slick track, with a schizoid personality, alternating between super hard, crunchy guitars, a skanking beat, and huge horns worthy of the 70s band Chicago. “Song On A Shitty Guitar” continues the theme, mixing pop-punk, with even a dash of emo, with good ol’ ska. “Prescribing Something Stronger” finishes things with another well-executed heavy punk-ska mix. I’ve heard some people say that STST should pick what kind of band they want to be – punk or ska. But I really like this mix. I think they do it well, and this EP is recommended.

THE STARFOLK (Korda Records, www.kordarecords.com)

This is fairly middle of the road stuff, kind of indie chamber-pop. It features the usual guitar/bass/drums, but cello is also prominently featured on some tracks. Many of the songs have a bit of a modern British invasion sound, in the same way that the New Pornographers did on their amazing “Twin Cinema” album. But this album doesn’t have the same punch and impact as that earlier effort. Oh, it’s pleasant enough. But it’s just not all that exciting. Some of the tracks are pretty dull, like the opener, “The Great Unknown.” It just sort of drags, with a folk-rock sort of sound. The opening track should be the one that grabs the listener’s attention the most – massive fail here. There are some reasonably decent tracks, like “Come and Play” and “Into the Clouds,” the tracks that have the most bounce and fun in their sound. “Winterwalk” is a fairly nice acoustic track, sounding like some of the quieter Beatles tracks, in a way. Overall, OK, but not something I would go out of my way for.

STATIC JACKS – In Blue (Old Friends Records, www.oldfriendsrecords.com)

Tons of jangle here. Loads of hooks, too. “Horror Story” opens up with quiet vocals and acoustic guitar jangling away underneath menacing toms, then opens up with a loud chorus, before the menacing toms close out the track. Short, but effective. This leads into “I’ll Come Back,” which just oozes indie-pop sensibilities. Great guitar fuzz, hooky lines, and harmonized vocals abound. “We’re Alright” is another one I like, with its delicate guitar lines and sign-along vocals. “Katie Said” is a nice, jangly track. “People Don’t Forget” has a super distorted guitar and bass sound that reminds me a lot of the Jesus and Mary Chain, with nice jangly vocals on top of it. “Greensleeves” is so pretty, shimmering and jangling from here to next week. Weaker tracks include “Wallflowers” and “Ninety Salt,” which get a little too close to the “alternative rock” sound for my tastes. Overall, a nice effort.

THE SWIMMING POOL Q’S – The A&M Years 1984-1986 (Universal Music Special Markets, www.universalsm.com)

The Swimming Pool Q’s released two albums for A&M back in the mid 80s: Their self-titled album, and “Blue Tomorrow.” The two-CD set contains both of these albums. But there’s also an expanded edition that includes “Pow Wow Hour,” a collection of rarities, and “Auto Zoom,” containing video footage of the band. I must be honest here – I was not familiar with this band prior to receiving this set for review, so I am approaching this without any historical context and reviewing just on the merits of the music, as if it’s a new band. The music is best described as jangly pop-rock. It’s pretty generic non-descript 80s stuff, sometimes bordering on new wave, but the only track that seems to depart from this formula on the first album is “Silver Slippers,” which has a distinct flower child late 60s sound. “She’s Bringing Down the Poison” is actually a pretty good rockin’ power-pop tune, but the closer on the first album, Sacrificial Altar,” is a reminder of the horrors of 80s music. The second album is even a little more generic than the first of the A&M discs, with not a whole lot of standout music to make mention of. I will, however, mention that the title track of this disc is nothing more than bland country-inspired rock. The bonus album of rarities, spanning the period from 1982-1986, features a much more new-wave sound, with lots of synth and strong backbeats, but there’s also some more country inspired pop music. Again, nothing special. One of the oddities here is a cover version of “Tears of a Clown,” made popular by Smokey Robinson, and murdered here in this soulless version. Now I know why the clown was crying. Finally, the video clips feature a mix of live and TV performances, promotional videos, and tour footage. Meh.

TRASH MONSTERS – There’s a Rat in the Tunnel of Love (Heap O’ Trouble Records, www.trashmonsters.net)

Pop-punk and melodic punk from Orange County, California. But after the first few, cool, upbeat punk tracks, things slow down and get more rock’n’roll. Even on the couple of more up-tempo tracks after the first few, there’s more rock than punk. It’s generally not the most inspiring punk music you’re liable to hear.

 

 

WINGDALE COMMUNITY SINGERS – Night, Sleep, Death (Drag City Records, www.dragcity.com)

This here is the third outing from the Wingdales, a group fronted by the likes of singer Hannah Marcus, author Rick Moody, and renaissance musician David Grubbs, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Beautiful, quiet (mostly) acoustic music with harmonized vocals fills this album, yet the genre is hard to pin down. It’s got elements of folk, country, and even gospel, but it isn’t any of those things. “White Bike” is a favorite, sounding so delicate, yet the lyrics are out of skew, all about gritty urban living, traffic, and riding on the titular vehicle through the cold winter streets, leaving your lover behind at home. It’s an everyday sort of scene, but given this treatment, it seems both expansive and isolated at the same time. “Ole Rudy” is another astoundingly good track, with some amazing lyrics. “Well our leaves all turn sometime / and we all fall down. / But it’s good for the soil / And the water and the ground. / For when leaves rot and decay / Something new is born each day. / Happy Birthday Ole Rudy this fall.” Lest you think the whole album is so serious and deep, there’s a pair of songs that lighten the mood considerably. “Never Ever Fall” consists of a series well known advice and admonitions, such as “don’t take wooden nickels,” “don’t golf in lightning storms,” “you can’t wear too much black,” and “don’t even think of parking here.” But the most important piece of advice is “never ever fall in love.” The music has zither and acoustic and electric guitars, giving it a light and breezy feel. And “Hunan #3” has lyrics taken entirely from fortune cookies. The piece is in waltz time, with piano and guitar accompaniment. This is an amazing release – but it’s only available on vinyl or via digital download from the label.


SURFER BLOOD – Pythons (Warner Bros.)

This album starts out well enough, with a couple of interesting, loping, guitar fueled pop-rock tracks. “Demon Dance” opens things up with an edgy track, with a bit of twang, and vocals that remind me a bit of Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes. I could hear him singing this song. It’s a bit overproduced, though. The organ really should have been dropped. Gravity is one of the best tracks here. It’s alternately jangly and tough and edgy. But, it, too, has moments where you can hear the hands of the major label producer, trying to make it sound more saleable. “Weird Shapes” is another one that, underneath the production, sounds like a reasonably solid track. But, like a prostitute that layers on the make-up in order to try and seem more appealing, the excesses of the producer kind of ruin things. These tracks probably sound really good live, but the “studio magic” just hurts the sound. Sadly, things then start to go downhill, as the album progresses. “I Was Wrong” is an example of getting way too far over the line into pure commercial music and super overblown production. “Say Yes to Me” makes me cry, because I can hear this being performed on a small stage in a dingy club in front of a sweaty crowd, but it’s just been ruined by overproduction. It could be such a good song, if only…

ASTRO FANG – Flesh Hand EP
(radgirlfriendsrecords.bigcartel.com)

Wow, this is unexpected from Rad Girlfriend! This is not just pop-punk or power-pop, this is out there, genre busting in your face music! From the non-standard meter to the buzz saw blend of guitars and electronics, this is an amazing release. The A side is “Flesh Hand,” which is angular as hell while still being very rock and roll. “IC U” features distorted vocals and pounding – well, everything! Guitars, bass and drums all synchronously blast away, yielding an intense cacophony. Hell yes!


AXIOMATIC – The Birds of My Senses (Live at the Stone) (MussoMusic, www.mussomusic.com)

I am sure that our fearless editor sent this disc to me for review because he knows I like unique music, stuff that’s not just a rehashing of other stuff. But this album is just wanky improvisational jazz rock. And not very good improvisational jazz rock, at that. Mid-tempo, meandering stuff with no aim, no reason. It thinks it’s being artsy, but it’s just annoying. This is the kind of stuff high school band kids do to make themselves think they’re cool. Really, guys. I love the off-beat. I love different and unique. I love jazz. This sucks.



EZRA FURMAN – The Year of No Returning (Bar/None)

This disc is mellow and rocking at the same time. The instrumentals feature lots of loping arrangements, but there’s an intensity that stabs through it into your heart. The album starts with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a countryish sort of tune, with acoustic guitars and bass clarinet that sounds really cool. “That’s When it Hit Me” is a fun pop tune with a hard, bluesy, garage edge, with the same loping feel. “Cruel, Cruel World” almost sounds like a Bob Dylan tune, with its social commentary on the state of affairs in the world, the blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and, of course, the harmonica. “Bad Man” features just vocals and piano, sounding very intimate and sort of like a nerdier Tris McCall. Solid, decent stuff.


FEATHERS – If All Now Here (NYX, www.nyxsounds.com)

This is a four-piece synth-pop band out of Austin, Texas. This all-female group sounds like they stepped through a time warp, directly from the 1980s. Electronics dominate, with loads of reverb and dream-like vocals. Sadly, the tracks really never seem to go anywhere, never build any energy. They just sort of drift. Hell, one of the tracks is even called “Dream Song,” so I’m sure it’s intentional. But it’s just not the sort of thing that gets me going. Back in the 80s, I did listen to some synth stuff, but it was stuff that packed a punch. This is just kind of weak.

HIGHNESS – Hold (Magic Bullet Records, www.magicbulletrecords.com)

When I learned that this band featured Eric Richter, he of Christie Front Drive, one of the better emo bands from back in the 90s, I was enthused and had high hopes for this disc. Sadly, it doesn’t deliver. It ends up sounding like a million other alternative bands being played on the radio. There’s a lot of mid-tempo, guitar bass drums rockin’. Even when they have some interesting stuff, like “Shroud,” the lead in to and opening part of “You Know Everything,” things go wrong. The whole thing starts sounding very eerie and melancholy, with ethereal voices and electronics, quietly echoing in the distance. It moves closer and slowly builds in intensity. And then, as it makes the transition to “You Know Everything,” it pulls back, as acoustic guitar takes up the line, and quiet vocals join in. Very nice. But then, the alternative rocking goes and spoils everything. And then it gets all psychedelic wanky arty and pretentious. Ugh.

MEAN LADY – Love Now (Fat Possum Records, www.fatpossum.com)

Is Mean Lady the female version of Vampire Weekend? It sure seems that way, if you listen to tracks like “Far Away,” “Why'd'ya Haftabee Sucha?” or “Daisies” on this debut from the Delaware duo. There’s loads of African influence here, only a little more Americanized, smoothed over, and poppified. Yet listening to the opener, “One Big Family,” they seem more like a blend of that band and the even quirkier tUnE-yArDs, but smoother and poppier. “Bop Bop” simply sparkles. And other songs, with their very smooth, almost jazz-pop female vocals, remind me a lot of Estelle, of “American Boy” fame. Ok, so knowing that this sounds like what I just described, would you want to listen to it? I’m still trying to decide.


PRETTY BOY THORSON & ‘LIL HAPPINESS – Grain Belt 7” and Happiness 7” (Rad Girlfriend Records, radgirlfriendsrecords.bigcartel.com)

Here’s a pair of singles from one of the various projects from the front-man for The Slow Death that came out in the second half of last year. This project features less punk sound and more plain ol’ rock and roll, featuring Thorson’s big, gravelly voice and electric keyboards (!), plus guitar, bass and drums. On the first single, “I Ain’t Gonna Beg” is more the rocker, with the keyboards in organ form, while the B side, “Running Back,” has more of a poppy jangle, and a bouncier feel, with the keyboards sounding more bell-like. The second single is more straightforward power-pop without the keyboards. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is almost an old-time pop tune, with an updated rock sound. “Way Out” is my favorite of the bunch, being the closest thing to pop-punk here, and featuring female vocals! Decent stuff, but a little bland for my taste.

RUMSPRINGER – Stay Afloat (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Brand spankin’ new music out of the Arizona desert is more melodic than ever. Up-tempo wall-of guitar sounds are punctuated with off-kilter rhythms and plenty of powerful pop sensibility. Matt Dobbins, Wes Korte and Mikey Wretch simply must have sold their souls to the devil, because I can’t explain any other way they could have put out such a perfect album. “Air Raid Curfew” starts the album out all mellow and jazzy, and then launches into the most jangly, yet noisy pop tune. This is such a winner, and is on my list of best songs of the year, no doubt. And just when I thought the entire album’s load had to have been blown on that first track, the second one takes things up a notch. “Hindsight is 20/20, Foresight is $200 an Hour” just pounds away with its intense powerful pop. “Not the Advice I Was Looking For” is another winner, packing a huge punch of melody, lyrics, and rhythms that are more than just a standard 4/4 beat. I’ve always enjoyed Rumspringer, since first coming across them at my first Awesomefest experience a few years ago, but they’re really demonstrating a wonderful musical maturity here. Just listen to “Duct Tape and Sheer Will” and see if you don’t agree. The songs are so much richer, more complex, and yet so beautifully simple at the same time. Just you wait until the end of the year and count up how many top ten lists or whatever this makes it onto. Most highly recommended. Just buy this. Now.

SAM PHILLIPS – Push Any Button (www.samphillips.com)

This is a tough one to judge. There are some elements in the arrangements that are really unique and cool, but then there are other aspects of these tracks that are pretty pedestrian. Take “All Over Me,” the second track. The bending notes in the acoustic guitar, and the bass drum punctuating the beat is pretty cool, as are the trombones. But the melody isn’t anything that grabs me. “Going” starts out in its first few seconds with a promising guitar pizzicato, in waltz time, but then suffers a similar fate. The arrangement is pretty cool, but the song itself just doesn’t do it for me. “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You,” on the other hand, has a more standard arrangement, but is a really cool song, with hints of 60s retro sounds. “You Know I Won’t” is a throwaway country-ish track that I couldn’t get into. “Speaking of Pictures” again has some cool elements, but the song itself just doesn’t excite me. This is a tough one to judge.


UNDERCOVER MONSTERS / PUBIC
ZIRCONIANS Split 7-inch
(undercovermonsters.bandcamp.com)

Three songs from each of these pop-punk bands from the Inland Empire of Southern California. Undercover Monsters offer a schizoid sense of influence, with a very Naked Raygun-like track in “Black Lung,” followed by more of a drunk-punk sounding “Walter,” and top things off with, “I Don’t Care About You,” a very poppy pop-punk track. Pubic Zirconians provide a more “traditional” modern pop-punk sound with a harder guitar edge. “I Choose Drugs” is a track about someone who lost his girlfriend to meth. “Left Hook” is about a guy whose girlfriend is cheating on him. And “Chatsworth” is about a guy who, despite knowing it’s not the best thing, falls for a girl from Nebraska who moves to Chatsworth to work in the adult film industry. Not the most moving, earthshattering topics, but fun stuff.



BONSAI! / GENTLEMEN PREFER BLOOD – Split 7” (www.ontherealrecords.com)

It’s the Inland Empire vs. LA on this new split out of SoCal. Bonsai! are a powerful band based out of Riverside, featuring tight arrangements, prominent bass, and shout-a-long vocal punctuation. The buzz-saw guitars and strong melodic lines remind me a lot of one of the great Chicago bands of the 80s and 90s, Naked Raygun. Gentlemen Prefer Blood, hailing from LA, while a little less in-your-face powerful than Bonsai, make up for it in the maturity and complexity of the songs. I hear multiple influences here, ranging from Social D to Husker Du, yet the overall result is somewhat unique, and no other band sounds quite like this. I particularly like the vocals from Todd Smailes, featured on the first of the band’s two tracks. They’re solid, on key, and with just the right amount of gravel. So which band wins this battle? You should pick up this 7” and decide for yourself.

THE CREDENTIALS / STEELHORSE – Split 7” (radgirlfriendsrecords.bigcartel.com)

Two songs from each band are featured on this split that came out mid last year. The Credentials offer up manic pop-punk with a wall of sound from the guitars and vocals alike. The songs are pounding, yet offer up some edgy jangle, as well. Good stuff! The Steelhorse tracks are a different matter, though. Besides the really lo-fi poor recording quality (and I can tell it’s not on purpose, it’s just badly recorded), the music is kind of sloppy and sounds a bit amateurish. This one’s a mixed bag, but worth it for the Credentials.


THE ANTICS – Running Faster (www.wearetheantics.com)

This is, without a doubt, the classic garage band sound – except maybe a little cleaner. Hailing from the wilds of Princeton, New Jersey, these denizens of basement shows provide solid, mid-tempo rock’n’roll music, with hints of 60s surf rock. The minor key of a lot of the tracks reminds me of cheesy 60s teen horror films, for some reason, complete with the eerie electric organ sound. “Payday” is a really good example of this sound. The sound is actually pretty minimalist, with just basic guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vocals. Rather than coming across as too spartan, though, the sound is just streamlined. I really like the track, “Overload,” which has a sparse, early 80s sort of post-punk sound, almost Joy Division-like in its pulsating minimalist sound. “I’ll Be Alright” is almost a classic doo-wop track, but it just doesn’t have enough soul, sadly. Overall, this is a decent album, but I really wish that the tempo of the tracks hadn’t been so uniformly moderate. Do some faster ones and some slower ones, guys.

THE CHAPIN SISTERS – A Date with the Everly Brothers (Lake Bottom Records, www.thechapinsisters.com)

More than a tribute album, this was a labor of love for the Chapin Sisters. In addition to lovingly covering these classic tracks from the masters of two-part harmony, they raised the funds necessary to put out the physical release through a Kickstarter campaign. The music is very evocative of the era from which the songs originate. It’s much sweeter and gentler than the rock music that would follow, yet poppier than the R&B and doo-wop that preceded it. This is nice stuff, I guess. But I do question the need for recreating earlier works. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy covers, but I like it best when the band puts their own spin on the song. Duplicating someone else’s work is just theft or laziness. OK, that aside, the quality of the work here is pretty darn good. The arrangements, the musicianship, and the vocals are all top notch. The passion the Chapins have for the music comes across clearly. I particularly like their rendition of “All I Have To Do Is Dream;” it has a very dreamy quality. If you like the Everly Brothers, and you like covers, you’ll enjoy this.

DEPECHE MODE – Delta Machine (Columbia Records)

Those 80s icons are still at it, and with a “brand new album,” as the packaging declares. This, their thirteenth album, brings us more tracks laden with electronics, though they’re a bit grittier sounding than in the band’s heyday. The album is exactly what you might expect from Depeche Mode. And therein lies a real problem. The band is content to stick to what they know and what they’ve sold in the past, and show no inclination to explore or innovate in new musical areas. They try to sound a little tougher and edgy, but still end up sounding like an aging 80s synth pop band. “Brand new album?” More like a variation on a theme, more of the same. One track title seems to some up my feelings pretty well. “Slow.” The album never really goes anywhere, never moves me. It’s just slow.

FLAMINGO 50 – Tear It Up (Rad Girlfriend Records, radgirlfriendsrecords.bigcartel.com)

OK, so this album originally came out in 2006, but is only now seeing release on vinyl, released in the US by Rad Girlfriend Records, and in the band’s native UK by Drunken Sailor. This is awesome power-pop with a punk edge. There’s even hints of 60s garage pop and 50s girl band doo-wop in the mix, too, which gives this a pretty unique sound. “Face the Wall,” the fourth track on the disc, is an absolute gem, with a strong retro feel but a thoroughly modern esthetic. The album opens with “Count to Three,” another strong one, with a sound that reveals their Liverpudlian roots. “Losing Out” is another retro-sounding classic, complete with electric keyboards and full on doo-wop-pop sound. Damn. Every song I listen to is becoming one my new favorites! “Roll On Rolly Wheel” is just a mind-blowingly good power-pop track! The humorously titled, “Velocity Exercise,” is a 46 second long hardcore punk track, good, but sounding out of place here. As a matter of fact, there’s not a single bad track on this strong release, and I heartily recommend picking this up. The sad part of all of this? Flamingo 50 broke up a few years back, so we need to be happy with re-releases like this.

MANDATE OF HEAVEN – Mark Music (Neon Witch,
mandateofheaven.bandcamp.com/)

The album starts out reasonably promising enough, with “Baby Electron.” It has a nice indie rock feel, good and crunchy, with plenty of cool hooks. “Bedroom in the Sky,” though, slows things down, and has a cross between indie ballad and blues-rock, and it just doesn’t seem to work. “Scrappers Blues” has kind of a math-rock feel, but smoother and less angular. Huh? “High Dragonfly” is slow and drags like crazy. It feels lazy and dull. I think it’s supposed to sound bluesy and soulful, but it doesn’t. From here, things just take a turn for the worse, and the tracks end up sounding like any old alternative rock you might find opening for the big name acts at your local semi-large rock venue. Not impressed.

PATCHES AND GRETCHEN – Even Breaks (Sandpaper Tongue Records,www.patchesandgretchen.com)

Whoa, holy shit! This is very different from most anything out there today. Sounding very much like stream of consciousness song writing, Patches and Gretchen meld spoken word, performance art, indie rock, folk/country and western, and bluesy rock to create something completely mind bendingly different and good. The disc opens with “Flowerpots,” a gorgeous waltz, featuring simple vocals, guitar, glockenspiel, keyboards, and tambourine, in a very minimalist arrangement. I love the operatic backing vocals. “The Voot” is a nine and a half minute plus epic track, full of grittiness and humor. “Are You Liquid” is a cool track that’s very angular, and very free flowing. I enjoy “Chart With Stars,” too, for its cool melodic line, so. This is pretty cool stuff.

TIGHT BROS (Rad Girlfriend Records, radgirlfriendrecords.bigcartel.com)

Good, powerful pop-punk, with harmonized and otherwise multi-tracked vocals. There’s a definite Ramones influence here, but the songs are not just plain basic stuff – the harmonies add so much depth to the music. The opener, “Particles,” is a really strong track, with fast and furious music, but gloriously harmonious vocals. “Summertime” is a nicely bouncy, poppy track. “Pig Roast,” is a cool track that starts out as a good pop-punk track, but toward the end starts getting epically psychedelic. “Karaoke” closes the album, and is probably my favorite track in an album full of good tracks. It’s raucous as hell with really cool hooks. Recommended!

WHAT-A-NIGHTS (Rad Girlfriend Records, radgirlfriendsrecords.bigcartel.com)

These pop-punkers from Japan self-released this debut album on CD, and now it’s seeing world-wide vinyl release, thanks to the cooperation of Rad Girlfriend in the US, Drunken Sailor in the UK, and Snuffy Smiles in Japan. This is melodic, rapid-fire poppy stuff with smooth, clear vocals, an aberration in the world of usually gruff vocals in pop-punk bands. Overall, good stuff, though most of the tracks don’t jump out at me as big standouts of the genre. That is, until “Da-a-a-ance,” the penultimate track of the album. This track just bounces and rocks like crazy!

WILD BELLE – Isles (Columbia Records)

This is an interesting blend of reggae, pop and psychedelic music. “Isles” is a good title for the album, because it gives you a feeling of being in the Caribbean. And, while this is, indeed, on a major record label, it doesn’t show the signs of major label production shenanigans. The production is actually pretty sparse and a bit lo-fi, giving it a more “authentic” sound, if you will. The tracks are hooky and Natalie Bergman’s vocals are strikingly seductive. “Another Girl” is probably one of the stand-out tracks, for its soulful feel, sounding a bit like an updating of the 60s Motown girl-band sound. I also am in love with the closer, “Take Me Away,” which has a cool beat and uses zither in the arrangement! “When It’s Over” is probably the weakest track on the disc, likely because Elliot Bergman provides the vocals, and his voice just can’t match his sister’s. Overall, I like the sound here. If I have one complaint, it’s that there’s a little bit of a lack of variety in the sound and feel of the tracks.



THE DEER TRACKS –
The Archer Trilogy Pt. 3
(www.controlgroupco.com)

Well, yes, there was a part 1 and a part 2. They came out way back in 2011, and it’s taken awhile to complete the finale, I guess. This is a very atmospheric album, from the Swedish duo. Lilting vocals float about dreamy electronics. Some of the tracks are practically soundscapes, so atmospheric they are. Others have more of an edge to them, like “Divine Light,” the third track on the album. Some of the tracks are nearly dance club worthy, if they were a bit more forceful – and no doubt some oft these tracks will get remixed for the circuit club scene. “Astral Ship” is one such track, that has a good steady beat, and loads of electronics plus soaring vocals. I kind of like the strings that make it front and center through parts of this track, providing an epic movie soundtrack feel. I dunno, maybe most Jersey Beat readers won’t find this their cup of tea, but, I must admit, I kinda like it.

DREW ISLIEB – Stride (Ernest Jenning Recording Co., www.ernestjenning.com)

Nerd rock, in the best sense of the term! This is easy loping indie rock. Partially acoustic, partially electric, all nice to listen to. This is the kind of music that your best friend would be making in his home studio while you’re hanging out. Very easy and relaxed sounding. There’s even ukulele on some of the tracks. I mean, come on, how more laid back can you get than that? This is just so super relaxed and enjoyable to listen to. Even the most frantic, up-tempo track on the disc, “The Tones,” has an easy feel to it. Cool.

ISOTOPES – Blood Diamond (643 Records, theisotopes.bandcamp.com)

The EP came out as a digital download last spring, but is also now available as a very limited edition 7” on red vinyl. Each one is hand numbered in an edition of 300. And if you like baseball and you like Ramones-style punk rock, this is the record for you! Simple mid-tempo pop-punk is the order of the day here. Two of the songs are originals, “Rule 21” and “Operation: Vamos,” while the third track is a punk version of the old baseball favorite, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Decent fun, if not very original.

LUXURY LINERS – They’re Flowers (Western Vinyl, www.westernvinyl.com)

This is the debut solo project from Carter Tanton. This sounds kind of like what Bill Nelson’s solo stuff would have sounded like, had it been released a couple of decades later than it was. And, though I like the old Bill Nelson stuff, this sound kind of stale and “been there done that.” I dunno, the songs all kind of sound the same to me, sort of retro electronic pop, with no real level of excitement. Meh.

 

 

THE MANX – Blood Chronicles (themanx.bandcamp.com)

I saw these guys last night at a show that I had hijacked to celebrate my birthday. And it was the perfect show for it, because the bands were pretty varied and original, and you regular readers know I love variety and originality. The Manx has it in spades! The Manx are best described as “gypsy punk.” Four musicians, bass, banjo, mandolin, and accordion, belt out some of the coolest music I’ve heard in awhile. The 7” (also available as a digital download) starts out with a manic, rapid-fire track, “Blood Gold.” “Husky Tavern” starts out as an epic sounding slow waltz, and then suddenly breaks out into a darkly joyful 5/4 time tune. It then transitions into a manic, crazy 4/4 time to finish things out. The other tracks follow suit, evolving and changing, being calm and quiet one minute, and off the hook crazy the next. Gypsy music with a snotty punk attitude and edge – beautiful and recommended!

MARINE ELECTRIC – Restrained Joy (www.facebook.com/marineelectric)

This is a bit of a throwback. Marine Electric plays a sort of indie-emo sound that a bunch of bands were playing in the latter half of the nineties. It’s not as hardcore or punk influenced as the earlier emo that came out of DC or the Midwest in the late 80s and early nineties, but it’s also not the “scream” kind of stuff that was around for a (thankfully) short while. It’s decent enough. The musicianship is good, the songwriting is nice, but it just doesn’t have the “oomph” I would want from a band like this. The songs are just kind of there, never really propelling the listener forward. Here’s a hint guys, one I learned a long time ago from some professional music critics: the first track on the album better be the best, and better be a strong attention getter. Otherwise, a lot of critics will stop listening right there, and you might not even get a review written up. “Change Your Mind” is OK, but it’s just not the energetic punch in the face it needs to be. And that’s the failing in the whole album, sadly, because I can see that, with a little effort, this could be a really cool band.

THE RESCUES – Blah Blah Love and War (Red Wind Records,
www.facebook.com/therescues)

The Los Angeles foursome have left the major label world behind and struck out with a new indie release. Problem is, they still sound like a “major label” band. The best way to describe this is “adult contemporary.” Soft pop-rock sounds with “soulful” vocals. Bleah. I usually will stick with an album all the way through, to give it a fair chance, but I really couldn’t stomach this whole thing.




RISK RELAY – After Fake End Times (Ernest Jenning Recording Co., www.ernestjenning.com)

This is cool 90s sounding post-punk, kind of modal, a little jangly, and all pretty much mid-tempo. Think much smoother, poppier Circus Lupus, or less noisy and angular Sonic Youth from that period, and you might get an idea of the sound on this album. Individually, the songs are pretty good. I don’t think there was a single song here that I thought was unlistenable. It’s all good stuff. But the thing that this album suffers from is a severe lack of variety. The songs all sound quite a bit alike, so after awhile it starts getting kind of stale.


RVIVR – The Beauty Between (Rumbletowne Records,
www.rumbletowne.com)

I know, I’m a loser who’s old and behind the times, but it took me until last year to hear my first RVIVR. It was a live show, a special celebration for a good friend, and an occasion that I wrote about in these virtual pages. If you remember that article, you’ll recall that I was gushing about this band, and their incredible friendly attitude, their smiles while playing, and how great the music is. This brand new LP does not change any of my feelings about them, except maybe to like them even more. The music is just so great. It’s an edgy sort of pop-punk sound. I absolutely love “Wrong Way/One Way,” the fourth track on the album. I am listening to this on an airplane right now, and I can hardly contain myself in the seat. This track just makes me want to jump out of my seat and dance in the aisle – but the seat belt sign is on. The music here is very melodic, jangly, but edgy at the same time. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The album starts with “Seam,” a track that kind of noisily meanders for a short bit before resolving into a ferocious melodic pop-punk assault. After a couple minutes of pure instrumentals, the vocals come in, sing-along chorus style, with guitarist/vocalist Erica Freas out front. Erica really shines on this album, with her strong, clear voice. “LMD” and “Spider Song” are both pretty good burners, churning along with great bounce and melody. A couple of the songs start out kind of slow, literally and figuratively, but then they build up steam, the pressure rises, and they explode. Tracks like “Old Dogs” and “Paper Thin” fall into this category. One of the more interesting elements of the album is “The Hunger Suite,” a three track piece that all flows together into one. A little more than half of the roughly nine and a half minutes of the trilogy is taken up by part one, subtitled, “Go Away.” It’s a slower track, almost – but not quite – ballad-like, and has an “alternative post-pop-punk” sort of sound. Part two, “Bleed Out,” is a short, fast pop-punk track, and quickly is followed by part three, “”Hunger,” which slows things back down, in epic fashion. “Elephant Song” is just gorgeous, a short instrumental that has an almost spiritual feel, with lower register guitar sounds. And this flows into the final track, “Party Queen,” and talk about epic. The grandeur just builds and builds. A fitting end to what will surely be considered one of the best pop punk albums of the year.

THEE OH SEES – Floating Coffin (Castle Face Records, www.castlefacerecords.com)

What would you expect from a band that has “Thee” as the first word in its name? You got it; this is garage rock and roll. But this isn’t your usual lo-fi, fast and loud and noisy garage rock. This has a modern pop feel to it, as well, and a really cool counterpoint between the tough guitars and make vocals, and the smooth and beautiful female vocals. Right from the get-go, thing get into high gear and right down to business, with “I Came From the Mountain,” a rapid fire track that’s really tight. Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster” slows things down a bit, with cool heavy guitar sounds against the smooth female vocals, moved to the forefront. The title track has a cool psychedelic edge to it, while “No Spell” is a beautiful floating pop tune, with a honed edge. While I usually like more up-tempo tracks better than slower ones (and who doesn’t?), I find that the slower tracks on this album are just as mesmerizing as the fast ones. “Strawberries 1+2” is a good case in point, blending the best aspects of garage, psych and shoe-gazer to create something pretty nice. “Night Crawler” is another slower track, this time with a heavy, yet spacey kind of feel. The closer is a cool, loping track that adds strings (!!) to great effect. Probably one of the better garage rock releases these days, and recommended.

THINKING MACHINES – Extension Chords (thinkingmachines.bamdcamp.com)

This is an interesting blend of shoegaze and prog rock. It starts out really strongly, with a track called “The Squid.” It shimmers like good shoegaze, but has a heavy guitar feeling like old prog rock, pulsating. At times it almost sounds grunge-like. But the album is kind of uneven, with some of the tracks maintaining that cool balance, and others veering too much into grunge territory. The band is most effective when it maintains that blend, because it’s a cool unique sound that not a lot of other bands are doing. When it focuses more on the heavy grunge guitar stuff, they end up sounding like too many other bands out there. Besides the opening track, “Lunge” is another really cool one, with its indie-pop feel melded with the heaviness and fuzziness. I just wish there were more tracks like these, and less of the purely heavy grunge-fuzz noise ones.

YOUR FUTURE LOVERS – Eat. Play. Leave.
(www.facebook.com/YourFutureLovers)

Oh gawd. Crap pop-rock from LA. The kind that you would have expected to litter commercial radio back in the late 70s. I couldn’t stomach this.


SCREAMING FEMALES – Chalk Tape
(www.dongiovannirecords.com)

Screaming Females are back with a brand new EP, containing seven of the newest offerings from this New Jersey post-punk-grunge band. And, without a doubt, this is the most diverse release ever from the trio. If not for the distinct sounds of Marissa Paternoster’s vocals, one might think these songs came from different albums and from different bands, so varied are the styles. From the album’s opener, “Sick Bed,” you can tell this is a different sort of Screamales release. There’s a distinct divergence from the previous, intense, grunge-punk sounds, in favor of a somewhat lighter, even poppier sound. But, like I said, the songs on this EP cannot be categorized, because they’re so different from one another. “Sick Bed” has a heavy, almost funky bass line, and Paternoster’s double-tracked vocals are sung in a deadpan style to a dirge-march like beat. “Crushing the Kingdom” is a stark contrast, pounding out a rapid-fire, borderline metallic sound. Then comes “Bad Men,” which completely throws out everything you thought you knew about this band, utilizing acoustic guitar to provide a dark folk-rock track. “Wrecking Ball” is an almost experimental rock track, with more of a free-form feel.” “Poison Arrow” is the most “post-punk” sounding track on the disc, in a 90s Sonic Youth sorta way, but with less noise. “Into the Sun” has a mysterious, Middle-Eastern sound, while the closer, “Green Vapors,” is a sub two-minute noisy pop gem, though it’s an odd choice to close, sounding almost like an incomplete track. Probably one of the most unique releases you’ll ever find from this band, and a strong one, at that.

ANCHORS – Lost at the Bottom of the World (Creator Destructor Records, www.creator-distructor.com)

Hang on a sec. Where is this band from? It sure sounds like they’re from SoCal or somewhere in the southwest USA, with their cross between pop-punk and melodic hardcore sounds. But no, they’re from…Melbourne, Australia? Rapid-fire drumming, epic guitar power-chords, and half-sung, half-shouted vocals blend together to create a powerful sound. If there’s one criticism I could level, it would be that about halfway through the roughly thirty-three minute album, the songs start to blend together a little too much. A bit more variety would go a long way, but this is a strong effort.

BIG DICK (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

I’m sure exactly where this Canadian duo get their name, but I like to think it’s an homage to fellow Canucks, NOMEANSNO, who had a great song with that name on their seminal album, “Wrong. Wherever the name came from, it’s good that it’ll be easy to remember – and you should. Because I predict big things for them. Not your traditional pop-punk or melodic hardcore sound that you might expect from the kind folks at Dirt Cult, this is a powerful thrust of in-your-face grunge-punk. Featuring no guitars, just bass and drums, this spunky outfit pound out some great tracks. OK, OK, I’ll quit with the stupid puns (but they’re so easy!). Seriously, you might think that a simple drum and bass combo would be very limited and boring, but nothing could be further from the truth. There’s plenty of lo-fi garage rock and plenty of melodic sounds here in the noisy hammering of the traditional rhythm section. A perfect example is “Antisocial,” which is a downright pop track full of melody. Of course, there are also rapid-fire crunchy tracks, too, like the unrelenting “Mayday,” which just hammers into your skull. On this strong, unique album, standout tracks include “School Yard Violence” and “Medic,” for their cool post-punk vibe, and “Problems,” and the aforementioned “Antisocial,” for being unexpectedly melodic. Very strong debut release!

PETRA HADEN – Petra Goes to the Movies (ANTI-, www.anti.com)

Petra Haden has music in her blood. The daughter of jazz bassist, Charlie Haden, Petra has been a member of bands such as THAT DOG and THE DECEMBERISTS. She’s contributed to recordings from a number of performers, such as Green Day, Mike Watt, Foo Fighters, Weezer and more. But what has really made a name for her most recently is her incredible a cappella singing. She did a track-by-track cover of “The Who Sell Out,” singing all instruments and vocals herself, though that was eight years ago. Now, this album is even more incredible and astounding. Here, Haden provides the same treatment for a number of movie theme songs and soundtrack recordings. Most work incredibly well. The dark moodiness of “God’s Lonely Man” is so well captured, and the gorgeous beauty of “Cinema Paradiso” is, well, gorgeous and beautiful. The main theme from “Psycho” is a lot of fun, and “Carlotta’s Gallop” is a hoot! I love the rendition of the main theme from “My Bodyguard.” Where the album doesn’t succeed as well is on the tracks with actual lyrics, such as “Goldfinger Main Title,” “It Might Be You,” from the movie “Tootsie,” and “Calling You,” from “Bagdad Café.” In particular, the Goldfinger track just can’t come close to the original Shirley Bassey recording, which is such a classic and has such depth and power. “Hand Covers Bruise,” written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose for the movie, “The Social Network” works well, but the closer, “This is Not America,” is another with lyrics that fades in comparison to Bowie’s original. Overall a very cool, very strong, very unique album. And, as a special bonus, there’s an insert with photos of Haden re-enacting scenes from several of the films, full costume and all!

LIPONA – Networks
(disconnectdisconnectrecords.bigcartel.com)

This is a cross between pop-punk, post-hardcore, and wanky alternative rock music. It seems more than a bit overdone and overblown to me, in a sort of U2 kind of way, and is pretty dull. It’s kind of like crossing U2 with Bad Religion, yeah, that’s it.

 

MASKED INTRUDER (Red Scare Records, www.redscare.net, Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Freeze! You’re under arrest for being incredibly poppy! For those of you who don’t know, Masked Intruder are a band of mysterious musical criminals, who are aiming to break and enter your heart. OK, enough of the silly puns. Seriously, Masked Intruder play some of the most poppy pop-punk around today. Bouncy, energetic, sappy and sassy music is the order of the day on this self-titled LP. Some of the songs have a retro 60s pop/doo-wop feel, like “Wish You Were Mine.” After the self-titled track that announces their presence, the band jumps into “25 to Life,” a track that has Ramones-like elements, but loaded up with heaps more poppiness. “Breakin’” has some stalkerish lyrics about “breakin’ in cause you broke my heart.” Lost love and unrequited love seem to be a common theme among the baker’s dozen tracks. “Heart Shaped Guitar” is another stalker song, about a guy who is standing in front of a girl’s house at 3am singing love songs on the aortal stringed instrument, with the girl threatening to call the cops. “Stick ‘Em Up” is a straight up crime song, about a stick-up at knifepoint in an alley. “Hello Beautiful” is a silly fake 911 call, with a woman reporting people breaking into their house. When asked what they’re doing, the reply is that they aren’t damaging anything; all they’re doing is singing. The band is incredibly talented and fun. But I worry that they may end up as a mere novelty act. From the colored full-face knit ski caps hiding their identities (they are Masked Intruder, after all), to many of the songs referencing “crimes” of the heart, how long can they keep this up? The joke could get a little stale after awhile. But for now, enjoy some of the best power-pop being produced these days.

THE PHARMACY – Stoned and Alone (Old Flame Records, www.oldflamerecords.com)

The latest effort from The Pharmacy is, as expected, slightly psychedelic garage-pop. The songs have a pretty laid back quality to them, and a definite lo-fi edge. Some of the tracks have an almost orchestral sound to them, but not in an overblown, self-important or profound way. It’s all just so relaxed and easy sounding. Sometimes the vocals come across as a little too laid back, a little imprecise. Despite the downer of a title, the album has an upbeat sound, bouncy and chill at the same time. Some of the tracks have an almost “island” feel, if you can understand what I mean. While the album, overall, is pretty OK, it’s not something astounding. It’s a nice listen, but most of the tracks are, you know, just OK. The one exception I would make would be for “Pines,” the absolute best track on this album – the one that I instantly connected with each time I listened through the album. I think it has to do with this being the most upbeat, bounciest track, plus it has the coolest electric keyboards.

THE SCOVILLES – Play Seven Songs (Dialed In Rekkids, www.facebook.com/scovillesband)

Guess how many songs are on this album? No points for a correct answer. This seven-song CD EP features mid-tempo garage rock’n’roll. No bones about it, this is garage rock. With a lo-fi sound, fans of bands like White Stripes and the Hives will enjoy this. It’s the same sort of genre, but more stripped down and raw and real, so it’s got that going for it. But with all seven songs all being kind of mid-tempo, the momentum never builds and the energy this should have falls a bit short.

THE SOFT HILLS – Chromatisms (Tapete Records, www.tapeterecords.de)

This is an updating of the seventies groove rock sound. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” comes to mind, as do releases from performers such as Neil Young and Led Zeppelin. But there’s a key difference – this album doesn’t have the soul or the freshness of those bands of yore. There’s just quiet, rolling psychedelic rock ballads, the sort of stuff that kids used to get stoned to back in the seventies – but if they got stoned listening to this, they might just have fallen to sleep instead of enjoying their buzz.

THE SPASTIC HEARTS (www.facebook.com/pages/The-Spastic-Hearts/293415424090397)

Pretty straight forward melodic punk rock and power-pop. The album starts out strong, with “Gimmie Gimmie,” a Ramones inspired track, with fast, loud, simple, poppy power chords and a simple sing-along chorus. The following tracks follow along in the same formula – and that can be a problem. Too much of the same thing can get stale, sometimes. On a number of tracks, the formula works pretty well, but a few of the tracks are somewhat weaker, such as “Wait a Little Bit,” “I Know,” and “Just For You.” But there’s some particularly strong tracks, too, like “Rocket Ship” and “Rock N’ Roll.” Mixed bag.

GREAT APES / KNOW YOUR SAINTS – Split 7” (Say 10 Records, say10.limitedrun.com)

This split came out about two months ago, but I just picked it up at a show last night, and figured it was still new enough to be worthy of a review here. Great Apes are from San Francisco and Know Your Saints are from Oakland, so this is kind of an across-the-bay split. Each band provides two tracks of melodic post-hardcore. Great Apes is up first, with “The Quack and the Leper Master” and “Class(war) Room Master.” They have an almost Chicago-like sound, in their unrelenting massive guitar sound, but the vocals are more gruff while still having a melodic quality. Both tracks are good, but I particularly like the quicker pace, more kick-ass attitude, and politics of the latter of the pair. When did punk lose the social and political commentary it used to have? Thanks for bringing it back, Great Apes! Know Your Saints provide a poppier version of punk, with a gruff edge to it. It’s really good, but also very familiar – it’s pretty much the same exact style you get from Lawrence Arms. So if you like them, you’ll like Know Your Saints.


 

YO LA TENGO – Fade (Matador Records, www.matadorrecords.com)

It’s been more than three years since New Jersey indie-rockers released “Popular Songs” to popular acclaim. They’re back now, with ten new songs. The band continues to evolve, continues to play a wide variety of musical styles, and continues to provide lovely, gentle sounds. The album opens with “Ohm,” a kin of vaguely psychedelic track, with heavy shoegaze overtones. It glides and soars, but also as that drone-guitar sort of thing going on, so you’re kind of standing there, looking down and swaying while you’re soaring – if you can get what I’m trying to convey. “Is That Enough” is a pop ballad in the 70s vein, complete with strings, and slightly country guitar jangle, but with a constant noisy guitar buzz in the background, providing a grating backdrop to the sugary sap of the tune. “Well You Better” opens with an eerie sound for a few seconds, but them immediately launches into a quiet pop tune with electric organ, quiet vocals and a strong back beat. “I’ll Be Around” is a beautiful acoustic track, very simple and lovely. “Cornelia and Jean” is another really nice one, quiet, delicate and lovely, with trombones providing some instrumental élan, along with contrasting acoustic guitar providing a strong beat. About two thirds of the way through, it gets quieter and more introspective, losing the rhythm section, with just vocals and electric guitar for a short while. Probably one of my favorites on the disc is right at the mid-point, track 5, “Stupid Things.” It starts out with a bit of classical style guitar noodling, and then there’s an evil synth that creeps up in the background, and the drums jump in, with a distinct beat, sort of reminding me of German prog rock, but with the beautiful pop stylings that then enter in, it’s more like a calm, quiet Stereolab. Very nice. This is a really nice release, one that I prefer over “Popular Songs,” which was a little too uneven for my tastes.

 

CHRIS STAMEY – Lovesick Blues (Yep Roc Records, www.yeproc.com)

Well, this sure ain’t the dBs, nor is it anything like what I expected. This isn’t power pop; it’s sort of a cross between adult contemporary and singer-songwriter folk music. Some of the tracks border on the almost orchestral, so thick are the arrangements. What you get here is basically easy going stuff. The disc starts out with “Skin,” a track dripping with acoustic guitar and cello, and it really sets the mood for the whole album. Acoustic is a theme with most all the song here. “You N Me N XTC” adds more acoustic instruments, in the form of trumpets and trombones, adding a slight jazzy feel. There’s even toy piano on this one. Throughout, Stamey’s vocals come through crystal clear, and there are all sorts of little ornamentations in the music. If you’re thinking about getting this because you think you’re going to get dBs-like music, don’t. If you’re into nice, calm stuff, a la Michael Johnson, you’ll like this.


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