Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 


THE BROKEDOWNS – Sick of Space (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

The Chicago area’s Brokedowns are kind of a throwback. They’ve got a solid Midwestern punk sound, very workman-like without being too light or poppy, yet not too hardcore and stern. The tracks are edgy and angular while still maintaining a strong sense of fun. Vocals are pounding and powerful. Every track is a satisfying listen. Right from the start, “The One True Freak,” you know you’re in for something special, as powerful guitars, bass, drums, and vocals pummel your ears. It’s a short yet perfect introduction to the album. “Trauma Czars” alternates between retro post punk and modern pop punk sounds, with an angular loping sound. The title track is a favorite, with rumbling bass a la Big Black, strong a Chicago guitar sound, and lyrics decrying urban sprawl and the ever-present shopping centers and malls. The close of the track features vintage Chicago TV ads, including Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet and Empire Carpeting, staples of Chicago local TV in the 70s and 80s. And when you think things can’t get more intense than that, “Shitty Little League” smacks you down to prove you wrong. “Cave Trash Dumpster Embassy” is a short bluesy punk track that’ll stab you through your heart; that’s how sharp it is. “Kings of the Dust” is probably one of the poppiest tracks of the album, but it’s still hard-edged, even with the definite sing-along vibe and ever so slightly jangly guitars. This record is very different from Red Scare’s usual pop punk fare, but it’s a strong, compelling release that’s recommended.

CALEMBOUR – Let The Wind Lead Us Home (StandBy Records, www.standby records.com)

This four-song debut EP comes from an indie-folk outfit out of Turin, Italy. And it’s gorgeous. Acoustic guitars, keyboards, banjo, upright bass, and harmonized vocals blend together to create a glorious sound. The title track starts quietly and solemnly, but slowly builds into a real stomper. “I Call Your Name” is a pretty twangy ballad that uses the banjo differently than you usually hear (I’m used to the rapid bluegrass style of banjo, but here it provides quiet, lazy twang). “Away From You” is another pretty track, in 12/8 time. It’s another one that starts quietly and builds, but this time into a big ballad sound, the banjo plucking away at triple the rate of the vocals. “Yours & Mine” closes the EP, this time featuring organ rather than piano. Again, the song starts quietly and solemnly, and builds, sounding almost like a gospel song. Two thirds through, it changes into a loping feel, with huge organ in the background and the banjo up front, with a feel of meandering down the road. Beautiful stuff.

ELWAY – For The Sake Of The Bit (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Elway is one of Red Scare’s bands that’s a little different than their normal pop punk fare. Elway tends more toward the indie rock side of things, and I like that just fine. The songs are a little more mature, with a stronger melodic content than a lot of pop punk. Some of the songs have lush guitars that fill out the sound really nicely, almost bordering on dream pop at times. But have no fear, pop punk fans. There are still fun sing-alongs, too, like “Hold On.” The chorus is tailor made for big beer soaked sing-alongs in dive bars, yet the arrangement, especially the beautiful open chords in the guitars, is more reminiscent of indie pop. “Hold On” moves back and forth between hard-edged and softer indie sounds, with pretty climbing guitar lines. “Paper Guitars” is another one that teeters on that edge between pop punk and indie, with huge whoa-oh backing vocals, but also with huge dreamy guitars. I love this song, especially toward the end, a recording of a woman’s voice in the background and the guitars seeming to move to another plane of existence. Overall, this record does a great job of staying punk enough to please old fans and being indie enough to gain new ones.

FOUR LIGHTS – Kobayashi Maru – (Bomb Pop Records, www.bombpoprecords.com)

Double pun time! The band’s name refers to the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Jean-Luc Picard is tortured by the Cardassians, while the title of this sophomore LP references the Star Fleet Academy test that Captain Kirk cheats on in order to graduate. In Star Trek lore, the Kobayashi Maru is the no-win scenario, something we can all relate to. The album, building on the success of the band’s debut LP Death to False Posi, starts strongly with “Bent Outta Shape” and “ComRAD” pounding your ears with a wall of guitar sound, but caressing them with super poppy melody and mutli-part harmonies in the vocals. After that, things slow down a bit. “Again and Again” slows and quiets things down, with echoes of 60s pop blended with Teenage Bottlerocket ballads. “Jimmy’s Song Part 2” is very different from anything I’ve heard from Four Lights before. It’s an outright epic ballad, more of an indie rock song than pop punk. And “Let’s Burn Burn Burn” is a loping mid-tempo track that simmers more than burns. “We Got Em” cranks up the tempo again, and has a spectacularly powerful chorus. “Characters” starts out with a vintage recording of ambient music and a vintage rock and roll drum beat. The doo-wop-like song slowly morphs into a more modern pop punk sound. The song’s tempo picks up the arrangement gets thicker, and the chorus’ whoa-whoa backing vocals make this a classic. As the track abruptly closes, we hear that ambient music from the start slowly fade away. “Scene of the Crime” also has a retro vibe to it, like what pop punk would sound like in the early 60s. And that short guitar solo! Such a huge surf sound! The Kobayashi Maru may be a no-win situation, but this album is a winner.


THE COMMON COLD – Shut Up! Yo Liberals! (Action Records, www. actionrecords.co.uk)

The Common Cold reminds me of the highly creative post-punk movement of the late 1970s and into the 1980s. It was a period of intense experimentation with how to make music, and explored outside cultural norms. The Common Cold have that same spirit, making music that no one else is making today. There’s a strong sense of rhythm in many of these tracks, and they’re also minimalist, in the sense that there are repeating lines and rhythms. The songs seem to be part dance pop, part punk, part dream pop, and part R&B. Vocals are super lo-fi and mostly spoken rather than sung. For example, the opening track, “Stop The Traffic,” is primarily a single rhythmic line repeating over and over, lyrics mostly consisting of shouts of “Stop the traffic!” and meandering synths whirling around above this. “Napoleon’s Index Finger” is a pretty cool track; at the halfway point, the droning rhythms and vocals pause momentarily, and like the sun shining through an opening in a dark cloud cover, brilliantly sparkling electronics shimmer clearly and starkly. But the moment passes, the clouds close back, and the dark rhythms return. But I think my favorite track is “Low Winter Sun.” I love the melodic hooks – yes, hooks – and the light glittery feel to the song. It’s so very different from the others (which I like too, but in a different way). Just listening to this record makes me feel like I’m back in a dark, smoky club in the early 80s, the room throbbing to the beat, the mass of arty punks in the room bobbing around.

THE CREEPS – Beneath The Pines (It’s Alive Records, www.itsaaliverecords.com)

Four long years. It’s been an agonizing wait since “Eulogies” came out, The Creeps previous LP. Their style has evolved somewhat over the years. The tempo here is a bit more laidback, the arrangements are less in your face, the sound is cleaner, and the overall feel is dreamier. But this is not dream pop, not by a long shot. These songs are more driven by melody than anything The Creeps have done before, and that gives the vocals a chance to shine in the spotlight. The feel remains dark and sad, maybe even more so than in the past. From the very start of the album, you can tell this is a different sort of Creeps record. “Shimmer” is a favorite track for its strong vocals and distinctly bright vocal sound over a morose melody, the harmonized backing vocals and heavy reverb add to the glum feel. Another favorite is the downright indie-pop track, “Even.” It’s got jangle unlike any you’ve heard before – because the jangle is in the vocals more than the guitar. I like “Superstitions,” too, perhaps the bounciest track of the album. If I have one thing I would change on this record it would be to introduce a little more variety from track to track. The tempo and feel of the songs is pretty consistent, more than in the past. But that’s just a minor quibble. These tracks successfully blend pop punk and indie pop to produce what is probably my favorite Creeps LP to date.

MOJAVE NOMADS – Phases (Standby Records, www.standbyrecords.com)

Blending danceable synth-pop and an indie pop sound, Utah’s Mojave Nomads create a fairly unique sound. While most indie rock outfits using synth today are creating a dream-pop sound, Mojave Nomads use it like synths were uses back in the 80s new wave days. Equally unique is the vocal style of singer Tyler Harris, a throaty sound that is slightly reminiscent of the late Amy Winehouse. There’s a strong soulfulness to these six tracks, and Harris’ vocals have a lot to do with that, and his range is quite wide, sometimes going up to falsetto. My favorite track is probably the opener, “G I R L.” It’s am up-tempo number that blends in a power pop feel with the synths. The other tracks slow things down and crank up the soul. As the record continues, the reverb comes on, giving things a dreamier sound – but this is never dream pop. If you’re a fan of some of the better 80s synth pop, check this out.

PINNED IN PLACE – Rubbernecking at the Gates of Hell (pinnedinplace. bandcamp.com)

Two years on from Pinned In Place’s wondrous debut, “Ghostwritten By,” the LA band is back with their sophomore effort. There is no slump here. Indeed, if anything this release is stronger than the previous LP, showing us a band that has grown stronger and more confident. The math rock influence is even stronger here than on the debut, yet it doesn’t overwhelm the songs. They still have the same easy, breezy quality as before. And there’s still the underlying intensity, despite the easy feel. The album’s overarching theme is dysfunction. The songs cover self-doubt and attempts at recovery, and especially familial dysfunction.

The album opens with “Codependence Day,” an ode to the disarray of pretty much every family. It’s the perfect intro to the album, a short minute and a half blast that includes many of the elements that make Pinned In Place such a great band. Gorgeous melody, swirling guitars beneath an intense wall of sound, shifting time signatures, and beautiful backing vocals. “Won’t someone clean up the mess that I am,” begs the opening line of “Citizen Kane in the Basement,” one of the mathier and janglier tracks of the album. The wall of guitar is traded for a somewhat sparser sound, as the lyrics speak to well-meaning friends who try to offer advice that doesn’t really help. I adore “Linking with a Vampire,” a song more at the indie end of the spectrum. The fuzzy guitars and intense vocals contrast with the pretty melody and keyboards, while the bridge gets much softer in feel, while calming backing vocals glide underneath the guitar lines that meander and wind. But “Vanilla” may be my favorite track of the LP. The song has an epic feel in parts, contrasting with the quieter parts that feature dueling guitar and keyboards, chasing each other around in circles. The closing title track seems to be a song about how lost faith brings freedom. It’s beautiful, both musically and lyrically, distorted guitars blending with smooth vocals, guitars and keyboards dancing together in waltz time – ironic because all ecclesiastical music in the Middle Ages was in ¾ time to praise the holy trinity. And at nearly three and a quarter minutes, it’s the longest song on the record. Which brings me to my only beef with the record – many of the songs are just too short! Ramones songs are perfect for two minutes, but these melodies are just too nice to be over that quickly!



ARCHIE AND THE BUNKERS – Songs From The Lodge (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Dirty Water Records just keeps finding cool bands and churning out great garage rock records. Archie and the Bunkers hail from Cleveland, Ohio, and consist of brothers Emmett and Cullen O’Connor. Yep, it’s a duo. Emmett is the drummer and Cullen plays organ, and they both provide vocals. This has a classic garage rock sound…sort of. There are no guitars and no bass – the organ and drums are the only instruments. So the overall sound is a bit thin in comparison to most garage bands. It doesn’t have the rawness you find in most garage bands, but the pair make up for that in sheer intensity, particularly in the vocals. Favorite track: “Riot City.” It’s probably the most raucous of the bunch. And “Lost In Today” has a great angular feel. I can’t help but feel, though, that something is missing. A guitar and bass would really fill out the sound. With just the organ and drums, the sound just isn’t gritty enough, though the vocals are.

BUCKLEY – Las Cruces (Rum Bar Records, rumbarrecords.bandcamp.com)

This new release from the nice folks at Rum Bar Records is quite a bit different from their usual fare. Thy generally put out some of the best power pop records, but this isn’t power pop. The word “Americana” usually conjures images of a blending of the Nashville sound and indie rock, yielding twangy edges to alternative sounds. But Nashville is only one corner of the United States. The vast deserts of the West might not be conducive to growing crops, but it can provide fertile ground for musical inspiration. Buckley’s new LP focuses on the Americana of the desert: lonely sounds, deep guitar tones, and plenty of reverb. The somewhat higher register of the vocals, and the quality of the singing, plus that lonely west Americana sound show the influence of artists like Neil Young have had on Buckley. The opening track, “Bakersfield,” encapsulates the album in that single song. All of the loneliness of being on the road out west can be heard in this microcosm of the album. “Old Glory” is a straightforward rock tune right out of the 70s that could have come right off a CSNY LP. I love “Devil Slide,” a quieter, more solemn sounding track. It opens with acoustic guitar, and then electric guitar, slide guitar, bass and drums come in, but delicately. “Three Chiefs” has a strong ZZ Top sound, especially in the guitars. “Downtown” has a rock’n’roll era Bob Dylan feel to it. This is not the kind of music I go out of my way to listen to. And it’s not the kind of music that I’ll personally keep coming back to. But if these descriptions sound like the kind of music you would like, check this out, because it’s pretty well done.

DUSK – The Loneliness of Pain (Goes On And On) b/w Go Easy (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

Dusk was formed in 2014, and readers of Jersey Beat may be most interested that this band features Amos Pitsch of Tenement. This sounds nothing like Tenement. Begun as an informal project, the band serves to satisfy the country rock cravings of Pitsch and Colin Wilde (drums). This single serves as sort of a teaser for an upcoming album, though these songs are newer than those on the LP. “The Loneliness of Pain” has a rockin’ bluesy feel, most of the “country” sound coming from the steel guitar. This ain’t your granddaddy’s Nashville country sound; this is rock’n’roll with a twangy accent. The B-side slows things down somewhat, and has more of an easy rock sound that was popularized in the 70s, albeit with a twang. I’ll be honest, I don’t care for “Go Easy;” it sounds too on-the-nose commercial rock from the era of bell-bottoms, long hair, love beads, and bushy moustaches. But that A-side rocks.

FASHIONISM – Smash Singles LP (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

FASHIONISM – Come On Baby 7” (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)
I dare you to listen to these records and not get up and dance. Go on, just try it. You can’t do it, can you? Fashionism describe themselves as “the bubblegum glam of the early ’70s played by people who like late ’70s U.K. punk so much that it has poisoned everything we do in the best possible way.” It’s an apt description. They play some great, punky power pop. Their four previously released 7” singles and EPs have been out of print for some time, so Drunken Sailor Records has corrected this injustice by rereleasing all of these songs, along with a brand new single. Of the songs on Smash Singles, two of my favorites come from the Subculture Suicide 7” released by Dirt Cult Records back in 2016. That record’s title track has the hugest hooks and hints of retro 60s rock’n’roll. “Nun Of That” from the same record is just a blast, with rapid-fire lyrics and an Art Brut feel. “We Got It Wrong” comes from 2015’s “Quit Looking At The Time” and the chorus alone, with a three-way vocal duel is worth the price of the album. That brings us to the new single. “Come On My Baby” is a briskly paced, bouncy power pop track that stacks up well against the best of the previous releases. The B-side brings a “That Thing You Do” sort of surprise. It’s “Baby She’s Gone,” performed at a loping place. It’s a pleasant enough track. But on the Smash Singles LP there’s another recording of the same song at a brisker pace. And, like in the classic Tom Hanks film about the music biz, that makes all the difference. In that form it becomes another favorite cut. If you’re a power pop fan, and especially if you missed out on those limited pressings of earlier vinyl, this is a must.

FREAK GENES – Quak Quak (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords. co.uk)

Freak Genes take disparate influences and blend them together into something quite unique. The overall feel is 80s guitar and synth-based post-punk. The music isn’t loud or full – the arrangements are quite spare. But there is a bit of a manic feeling in a lot of these tracks, a sense of urgency. There’s also a hint of 70s psychedelia and weirdness, as if Syd Barrett had a hand in writing some of these songs. I also hear the influence of Art Brut here, who play a similar style, sans electronics. Some of the songs, like “On The TV,” have more of a punk or power-pop sound, eschewing the keyboards and following the lead of pioneers like The Buzzcocks. “Give Way” uses synths and drum machine as the primary instruments under the vocals, and has a gloriously dark late 70s post-punk sound. I like the mechanical, repetitive sound of “Romford,” with its shouted vocals and dissonant keyboards. “Layers” could have come right off a Syd Barrett LP. “7 or 9” is a fantastic old school British power pop track, with jangly guitars and rockin’ hooks. “Vermillion” has a cool shifting time signature that leaves you feeling off balance. And “It’s Not There” uses dissonance and very bare instrumentation to create the feeling of anxiety. The LP closes with “Drainage,” another early punk and power pop influenced track. While there’s a bit of a split personality shown by Freak Genes on this record, every track is worth listening to.

THE FUR COATS – Milkdromeda (thefurcoats.bandcamp.com)

Hell yes! The Fur Coats are back with another EP. But where recent releases from this band have explored a poppier punk sound, Milkdromeda is a return to the harder-edged angrier sound that front man Marc Ruvolo was known for back in the day in Chicago. The lyrics, too, are less straightforward than recent releases; either that or I’m just oblivious. “Edging” is easily my favorite of the five tracks presented. The guitars pound just as much as the bass and drums, providing a dark drone. The song is pretty simple, musically, but its effect is powerful. “Palomino” is a quicker tempo, but just as hard-edged, as guitars are used as percussion here too. The title track appears right in the middle, and is about twice as long as the rest of the tracks. It’s an outlier, for sure, having more of an 80s post-punk sound. “Manta Rays” has a cool B-52s new wave sound, thanks to judicious use of keyboards and a minor key. And “The Charioteers” is the track that shares the most in common with previous releases. It’s got a strong melodic pop streak through the tough guitars, moving back and forth between darker and lighter sounds. As much as I’ve enjoyed previous releases from The Fur Coats, I think this one is my new favorite.

GOD’S CHILDREN – Music Is The Answer: The Complete Collection (Minky Records)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, people were looking for answers in a tumultuous political and social climate. “Music is the answer,” sang Little Willie G, on the title track of this new retrospective collection of unreleased and long out-of-print music from God’s Children. God’s Children came out of East LA in an era when bands were storming the music industry with their soulful music and a message of peaceful revolution, love, unity, and brotherhood. They really believed that music was the answer, that it could change the world. Enter Willie Garcia, Ray Jimenez, and Lydia Amescua, the guiding voices of God’s Children. The melting pot of Los Angeles was prime territory for a cultural crossover group preaching this message, and East LA was the perfect place to birth the vision. The music on this album is soulful, and it’s psychedelic; it’s a cultural mélange that represents Los Angeles and the hope for America as a true melting pot. “I Just Wish” is a gorgeous track focusing on piano and vocals that blends psych-folk sounds with soul. “Dream” is an interesting track, feeling like a gospel tune with country roots. “Brown Baby” shows its jazz and blues influence pretty strongly. There are influences as diverse as Sly and the Family Stone, The Fifth Dimension, Bob Dylan, War, and many others. There’s even a great cover of “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” putting their own soulful spin on the white bread early rock’n’roll classic. With so much soul and love and diversity on display, and the palpable hope in the songs, you’ll believe that, in these days of political strife and division that music really is the answer.

GIUDA – Rock’n’roll Music b/w Born Under A Bad Sign (Rise Above Records, www.riseaboverecords.com)

This five-piece from Rome, Italy sound like they came right out of 1970s Detroit Rock City on the A-side, but on the B-side they’ve got a cross between that, glam, and early English proto-punk going on. The A-side doesn’t do it for me, because I was never into bands like Kiss. “Born Under A Bad Sign,” on the other hand, ain’t half-bad, though the lyrics are pretty basic, limited to a chorus singing the track’s title over and over.


LA ARMADA – Anti-Colonial Vol. 1 (Creep Records, www.creeprecords.com/record-label)

Originally formed in the Dominican Republic, La Armada made Chicago their new home several years ago. They blast out an onslaught of speedy metallic hardcore loaded with cries against political and civil injustice. An instrumental, “Planned Obsolescence,” introduces the album with menacing guitars, a tribal drumbeat, and what sounds like a Central American folk chant. The metal power then flips on, so you know what you have in store for you. Lyrics alternate between English and Spanish. Possibly my favorite track of the album comes early on with “Unquenchable.” Easily the least standard sounding hardcore track, this one might be called mathcore for its constantly shifting rhythms atop the metallic hardcore. The lyrics reference the profit-driven prison industry, especially with the Trump administration’s reversal of an Obama era directive ending the federal government’s use of private corporate prisons. This now extends to the profit motive of detaining as many undocumented immigrants as possible, and of building Trump’s folly of a wall on the southern border. Other tracks, though a little more standard in presentation, are no less brutal. Topics include political and corporate corruption and greed, police brutality, and the Latin American practice of “disappearing” people coming to the Chicago police department in its off-the-books “interrogation” facility, “Homan Square.” “Fire” is a savage hardcore denouncement of the rising fascism in the US, in the form of the alt-right, racists, and religious extremists crawling out of the woodwork under the current political climate in Washington, DC. I adore “A Vision Of Opportunity,” which comes at the album’s midpoint. The ambient post-rock instrumentals serve as a backdrop to competing visions of America. Found sound recordings that sound like they’re from the 1940s or 1950s, describing the United States as a land of opportunity for immigrants looking to escape oppression and slavery are juxtaposed with campaign speech sound bites from Donald Trump calling immigrants criminals, rapists and drug dealers and talking about closing America’s borders to immigrants. This album is another example of the kind of music that I don’t normally go out of my way to acquire and listen to – but La Armada does a great job here, musically and lyrically. This is something I’ll listen to again.

PANDEMIX – Rank & File b/w Second Opinion (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

This reminds me of late period hardcore punk of the early 80s when bands were starting to experiment outside the fast’n’loud box. Where some bands went the metal crossover route, others got a little more creative, slowing things down a bit, adding more melody, maybe getting a touch of goth influence in there. Bands like T.S.O.L. for instance (before they went the full metal route). Pandemix has this sound, especially on “Rank & File.” The music is dark and heavy, with the basic structure of a punk song, but there’s a strong melodic sense to the music, even as the vocals are more shouted than sung. “Second Opinion” has a more “traditional” hardcore punk sound of the early 80s. It’s fast and loud, though even here there’s more melody than usual hardcore. Good stuff.


THE FRITZ (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Who says punk rock is dead? Not The Fritz. The Fritz play music that has one foot in the ‘70s punk sound, one foot in the early ‘80s hardcore punk sound, and another in the classic garage rock sound. Yeah, that’s three feet, but who’s counting? The recording is super lo-fi, and the performances are raw and passionate. Only two of these short blasts exceed the two-minute mark, with most clocking in at around a minute and a half. Favorite tracks include “Stray,” one of the more classic garage tracks, and “No, I’m Not Alright,” for its melodic chorus. “Dramatic Love” has an effective dramatic opening, with the bass pounding away, then being joined by angrily jangling guitar. But all the tracks are sure to get you off your ass and jumping around.

IMPOTENTIE – Demonstrative Opnamens (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Hailing from Montreal, Impotentie play spare, noisy, dirty rock music. The vocals are shouted and the bass and guitar are so distorted and buzzy as to become nearly unlistenable. On top of that, the band isn’t as tight as they could be. The result reminds me more of that new punk band that finally got the opening spot on a show, at which everyone is outside smoking after the first song.

 

MAN MOUNTAIN – Infinity Mirror (Spartan Records, www.spartanrecords.com)

Six tracks normally does not an LP make – maybe a mini LP. But in the case of this debut full-length release from Man Mountain, it adds up to nearly forty minutes, so an LP it is. With nary a single track less than five minutes, and some stretching beyond seven or eight minutes, these aren’t your typical pop songs. In fact, I don’t think they would be considered “songs” at all, since they’re all instrumental tracks. Now, I like I wide variety of music, including instrumental music. Hell, jazz and classical are two forms of music that are predominantly instrumental-only, and I enjoy both. But when it comes to rock music, or post-rock as Man Mountain seems to be classified, the music needs to be really special to capture my attention. Few instrumental rock acts have done that for me. Tortoise is one of the few bands that have really gotten into my psyche, and as one of the pioneers of “post-rock,” bands that follow would need to, in my view, continue to raise the bar. Sadly, Man Mountain doesn’t really contribute anything new to the genre. The music is nice enough. It’s atmospheric, and all. But it just seems to be guitar-bass-drums-keyboards music to me, and it just doesn’t go anywhere. Some of the guitar lines, extracted out and used in songs, could be very effective. But here they get repeated over and over, in a trance-inducing near-ambient exercise in self-indulgence. And even though these are instrumental tracks, there still are what would be considered “guitar solos” in that the guitar goes “off-script” and does some improvisational soloing. Or so it seems. And when that happens, it shares more in common with arena rock than anything indie. I love ambient music, and I wanted to like Man Mountain, but I just don’t.

SPANISH LOVE SONGS – Schmaltz (A-F Records, a-frecords.limitedrun.com)

I first saw Spanish Love Songs when they opened for The Flatliners at Soda Bar, in San Diego. That was nearly three years ago. They impressed me so much that I walked over to the merch table and bought their LP, “Giant Sings The Blues,” which had been recently released. I’ve taken every opportunity to see them live since then. The LA band recently retooled a bit, adding a fifth member, on keyboards, and they announced that they had signed with A-F Records for this, their second full-length LP. Where the first LP was loud, gritty, and intense, the new one is calmer, more polished, and more nuanced. But it’s no less emotionally driven. Lead vocalist Dylan Slocum has gained more dynamic range in his singing, and this amps up the passion in his voice. The keyboards add warmth to the songs. And as strong as the previous album was, the songwriting on this one is up at a whole different level. There’s a maturity to the sound – it’s not just the rousing pop punk the band played before; there’s now more of an indie sound, yet the songs are still rousing. Nowhere is this clearer than in the song “Joana, In Five Acts.” They keys are more prominent here than in most songs, the guitar lines in the opening bars reminding me of The New Pornographers, of all bands, and the bridge is just gorgeous. That leads into the close of the song, which explodes into a massive dream pop feel, guitars soaring like mad. Listen to the guitar lines on “Buffalo Buffalo.” There’s more beauty and complexity than in past SLS efforts, but it’s subtle enough so as to not overwhelm the song – the balance is just right.

Lyrically, the album is an examination of life as one ages. The album opener, “Nuevo,” begins quietly, with damning self-reflection. “Is there any way to give a shit / Wake up in the morning without taking a hit?” the song asks. It reflects on the “wasted time” of youth, moshing with “edge kids” who are now scorned, and the hypocrisy of those days. The song goes on to describe current days, “Now we don’t dance, we sit on our hands” … “and peck at our phones, holding on to what it means to be alone.” In “The Boy Considers His Haircut,” Slocum looks at his life through the criticism of his parents and sings, “My dad says I’d probably have more fans if I could learn to sing about some happier shit instead of wallowing in my shortcomings, my gross insecurities, be less narcissistic, show some humility.” He continues with commentary from his mother, as well. “My mom sighs well from under her breath; she wonders how the hell I can live like this.” “I’m walking backwards” is the refrain in the chorus. Not moving on in life, not progressing as a person, is a fear many have. The song closes with a modest dream for the future. “I wanna wake up and maybe be better, I wanna come through and not be second guessed. I wanna find the money to fix my nose…I don’t wanna be depressed.” That’s not too much to ask, is it?

The song that sounds like it would be the closer is “It’s Not Interesting.” This penultimate track has a huge epic feel, with semi-hopeful lyrics. After singing about how his life isn’t interesting, Slocum declares, “Maybe I should learn to love myself. Maybe I’ll be happy in the end. Should I hold my breath and wait for it?” The song is the hugest sounding of the album and the lyrics seem to sum up everything on the record, with a hint that, perhaps things might get better. But this isn’t the final track. That’s “Aloha to No One.” We hear a crowded room, with many people having various conversations in the background. An acoustic guitar comes in. Slocum sings a depressing song of being stuck in a rut, having done “nothing the past ten years.” In a reference back to the bit of hopefulness in “The Boy Considers His Haircut, Slocum sings in the chorus, “You might wake up but you’ll never be better. You might come through, you’ll always second-guess. You might breathe free but you’ll never stop pacing. You might find love but you’ll always be depressed. You might change your hair but you’ll always look awkward. Your back might heal but you’ll never get your rest. And you might move on but you’ll never feel important. You might be fine but you’ll never be your best.” This song, like the whole album, kills me. I’ll be over in the corner quietly sobbing and rocking myself back and forth. Goddamn if this isn’t a contender for album of the year.

WILL TO LIVE (Amor Fati, www.amorfati.com)

Originally recorded in 1985 and released on vinyl in 1986, this six-song EP has now been reissued in the oddest format imaginable – on a Blu-Ray disc. The thought is that the sound quality on a Blu-Ray, with its 5.1 capabilities, is superior to a CD or mp3 – and so it is. Amor Fati plans to re-release their entire back catalog on Blu-Ray. Will To Live was a post-punk band in 1980s New Jersey, opening for international acts such as The Fall, The Gun Club, Butthole Surfers, and Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P. Orridge. This is not the post-punk that morphed into “alternative” rock – this is the post-punk that was also referred to as “no wave.” Slower than punk, rejecting many of the tock clichés, no wave made use of atonality, dissonance, and noise. Will To Live may not have been one the better-known proponents of the genre, but as this EP shows, they were pretty decent practitioners. The songs throb and pound, and the vocals cry out. In addition to standard drum kit, the percussion includes something metallic that punctuates the musical phrases. Amor Fati has done a nice job with the release, too, including photographs of the band from a live show they did at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ in 1984. Additionally, there’s about twenty minutes of video from that live performance, and though the video quality is poor, it provides a glimpse into the excitement and awe of a Will To Live show. Hopefully this release will mean Will To Live is forgotten no more.


ANN BERETTA – Old Scars, New Blood (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

After releasing a teaser single late last year, the reformed Ann Beretta has rerecorded a batch of older songs. The band that was born in 1996 and broke up in the 2000s promised a new LP, and I guess this is it. This could go one of two ways: either it could fall really flat and show that these aging punks can’t keep up with their younger selves, or it could highlight how energized they still are. And you know what? This is great! Need I say more? OK, I will. Best way I can describe this is tough pop punk. It’s super poppy, but not saccharine, not light. The music is hard and edgy, yet smooth and slick, but not in an alternative radio commercial way. The music is energetic and vital. These re-recordings also don’t just sound like rehashed nineties punk, these songs sound perfectly modern, reminding me somewhat of the style perfected by Seattle’s Success. I could do without the song “Vengeance,” which is a country rock song, complete with slide guitar. But the other tracks are fun to listen to. But this isn’t the new LP I was expecting. When they released the teaser single, one of the songs was all new. Do that, guys! Write some new songs and release that album.

BIKINI COPS – Three (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Perth, Australia’s Bikini Cops need to get more creative with their records’ names. “Three,” Bikini Cops third record, is the follow-up to 2016’s “Two.” Regardless of the title, the six songs on this 7” EP are pretty rockin’. The overall feel is pretty retro old school punk crossed with good old garage rock’n’roll. “Stupid System” is the closest to classic 80s hardcore punk you’ll find from any band playing today, fast and loud and furious, while “(Not) My World,” “Total Control,” and “Violence” are sort of a hybrid of hard rock and hardcore punk, in the vein of Tijuana’s great DFMK. The closer, “Lost In A Dimension,” is the outlier, slower than the other tracks, and longer. All the songs are pretty short, ranging from about a minute and a quarter to a minute and a half or so, but “Lost In A Dimension” seems to go on too long in comparison, yet it’s only two and a quarter minutes. But yeah, Bikini Cops are rockin’.

BREAKLIGHTS – Don’t Try So Hard (Wiretap Records, wiretaprecords. limitedrun.com)

Wiretap Records continues its winning streak with Austin, Texas pop punks Breaklights. The 12” EP and digital release features six songs of music that’s smooth, poppy, dark, and edgy all at the same time. There’s a strong 90s feel to the songs, as well. The songs are eminently danceable, with bounce aplenty, and the guitar sound has a grittiness to it that contradicts the strong melodies. My favorites of the EP have to be “Waterloo” and “Don’t Try So Hard.” Both are a little more out of the ordinary than the others. The former has some really beautiful harmonization, while the latter has a bit of an angular sound and the chorus has a bit of a Smoking Popes sound. This one is very enjoyable.

CANADIAN RIFLE – Peaceful Death (Dead Broke Rekerds, www.deadbrokerecords.com)

Chicago’s Canadian Rifle hasn’t put out a record since 2015’s “Sexually Fucked” 7” single, and hasn’t put out a full-length LP since 2013’s “Deep Ends.” Talk about keeping us waiting! As a result of these long gaps, the (r)evolution that is Canadian Rifle is made clearly evident. They’ve gradually moved toward a more melodic pop punk sound, though never losing their tough Chicago energy. I think Peaceful Death is their strongest, most coherent effort to date. Fast, loud, powerful songs cajole you with playful melodies, then punch you in the gut at the same time. That energy, that power – it’s non-stop. Every time you think the band has reached its peak, you get belted again. There’s no breathers, no respite from the onslaught, and I love it! The vocals match the instrumentals with their gruffness, and those poor drums suffer massive pounding on every track. The opener, “When in Doubt,” is a perfect intro to the record. I love the calm start and the guitar harmonics. Then everything explodes and the band is racing ever forward. The guitar solo on “Investments” is quite simple, yet very effective. The title track manages to be smooth and melodic while remaining true to Canadian Rifle’s toughness, no mean feat. “Shining Light” slows things down to mid-tempo, and I can see this as CR’s big sing-along number. “Graceface II” is a short instrumental loaded with tension that pushes right into “Less and Less Is Relevant,” a track that oozes grunge from its punk. I guess the thing that really strikes me about this record is that it may be the most “Chicago” record to come out in a long time. It makes me kind of homesick.

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

Imagine taking one of Jeff Burke’s projects, like Radioactivity or The Marked Men, and slowing it down. There’s a dark garage feel to a lot of these tracks, with plenty of guitar jangle, loads of reverb, and some great melodies. “Monophonic” in particular has a strong retro feel, as if the Mamas & Papas had become a garage band – it has the same sort of feel as “California Dreamin’,” only edgier. I really like the soaring energy of “Strangers,” too. And “The Void” is a pounding manic number with a very dark psych streak, as if Radioactivity and Vacation had done a side project together. At only eight tracks and twenty-four minutes, though, it leaves me wanting more. And I suppose that’s a good thing.

COLD LEATHER – Past Remedy EP (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

This Berlin-based punk band sounds like it came right out of the late 70s California punk scene. Moderate to up-tempo songs, full of piss and vinegar, but ultimately very melodic. The three tracks growl and sing in the best way, mixing in a generous dose of garage rock. Best track of the three is the closer, “Hyperactive,” which has a fantastic melody that jangles a little bit when they let it, and about halfway in it gets dark, with modal guitar sounds that remind me tons of some of my favorite early to mid 80s punk sounds. This is the debut release from Cold Leather, not counting the demo they previously did, and it certainly makes me want to hear more.

CVLTVRE – All Life Is // Act 1: An Act of Letting Go (Standby Records, www.standbyrecords.com)

Hailing from California’s Inland Empire, CVTVRE describes themselves as a “music project that is driven by post-hardcore ambient writing with testimony based lyrics.” What?? I think that means that they are post-hardcore influenced, but smoother and less metallic than a lot of post-hardcore bands. And their lyrics are confessional. And this is an apt description, I would say. I normally don’t go for the modern post-hardcore sound, and, indeed, the opener of this five-song EP was not my thing. I was ready to give this a negative review as just another mainstream wannabe post-hardcore band. “Blame” is just so much bland. But then we get “Birthday Song,” a quiet, pretty waltz-time tune (with an intense moment near the end). “Progression” is another slower track with a nice yet simple melody and a power that heats up to a boil. And “Drown” is a gorgeous ballad that alternates between calm and storm effectively. The closer, “Pour These Words,” goes back to more standard fare, but doesn’t descend quite as low as “Blame” in terms of commercial sound. But we get three nice tracks sandwiched between two mediocre ones. If CVLTVRE focused on that successful sound in the middle, I predict some good things for them to come.

DIRGE – Alma | Baltica (Division Records, divisionrecords.bigcartel.com)

I’ve seen this band described as doom and post-metal, but hell, anyone who has been listening to a wide variety of music for a long time will recognize this for what it is – ambient music. Long-form tracks range from four and a half to nine and a half minutes. The tracks are sonic soundscapes, sometimes trance inducing, sometimes melancholic, sometimes menacing. “Alma” is the nearly ten minute opener, and it sets the tone for what’s to come. Close your eyes, lie back, and let it wash over you. You’re transported to somewhere else. Electronics, guitars, percussion, and other sounds ebb and flow. “Red Dawn Tibesti” is dark, with a martial feel. There’s a background of droning, and the percussion and bass at the forefront are angry and hostile. “Black Shore” is very mysterious and alien, while “Baltica (Sine Time Reoscillated)” has a very introspective feel to it. The closer, “Pure,” buzzes and glistens with glorious delight. So put this record on, close your eyes, lie back, and let it all wash over you. Relax, chill, and enjoy.

DRYSPELL – More (Highland Park Records, www.highlandparkrecords.com)

Four songs from Austin, Texas based Dryspell. “You Without Me” is a pretty nice indie pop track with slight undercurrents of grunge. Its lo-fi bounciness is infectious. The remaining three tracks, “Can’t Wait,” “Vyvance,” and “Leaving Town Again,” on the other hand, are rather dull retro “soft rock” tunes. Below mid-tempo, swelling organ, delicately smooth melodies and what sounds like a lounge beat on the drums add up to a snooze. Stick with what you did on “You Without Me,” guys.





HARKER – No Discordance (Wiretap Records, wiretaprecords.limitedrun.com)

There’s a certain sub-genre of pop punk in which every song is an epic. Huge sound, mid-tempo, soaring choruses, and plenty of opportunity for big gang sing-alongs are the recipe. You know these bands, right? Add Brighton, UK’s Harker to these ranks. Booming lead vocals cry out while guitars provide a solid wall with loads of jangle. The bass and drums provide a strong foundation, propelling the songs ever forward. The musicianship is tight, the songs melodic. Favorites include “Black Dog” and “Caught Up.” “Black Dog” has a slightly more indie sound, toning down the wall of guitars in favor of the jangle, and the chord progression is really pretty. “Caught Up” is a little slower, played in waltz time, giving it a somewhat different feel from the rest of the songs. I do like this kind of music, the angst and emotion dripping along with the beer, with the crowd at the live shows wrapping their arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying and shouting. But if there’s one thing that bothers me about this album is that nearly every song is like that. Variety really is the spice of life, in music, too.

HOLLYWOOD SINNERS - Khöme Kakkä (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

The venerable UK garage rock label is moving further afield, this time mining the soundscape of Toledo, Spain. The songs all have the typical garage rock sound, with some veering a little more toward the punk end of the spectrum than others. Like the opener, “Me da Igual,” which has an old school punk edge. “Rama Lama Drama” has a fun loping sound, more toward the power pop side of the fence. “Asuspi” has a hint of surf mixed in. And my favorite track may be the slightly psych “Era Axial.” Plus you have to love a song that’s likely about a skating grandfather, “Abuelo del Skate.” All the lyrics are in Spanish, so I can’t be sure, but I think I’m right here. A definite recommendation for garage fans.

HORROR SQUAD – Death Posi (Black Cats Record Klub, horrorsquad.limitedrun.com)

Once upon a time, there was a magical place called Vince Lombardi High School, or VLHS for short (for history of the birth and death of this sacred place, read this: http://www.jerseybeat.com/vlhs.html). Horror Squad was the VLHS house band. VLHS was, after all, really their practice space, as well as a DIY venue. The five piece pop punk band became a beloved fixture, performing on many of the bills, but rarely getting a chance to venture beyond the warehouse walls. Well, VLHS may be history, but Horror Squad has turned the page into a new chapter of the book, playing shows all over southern California and beyond, and now finally releasing their long-awaited full-length LP. But, as a result of their relative isolation for many years, they’re relatively unknown outside the Southern California pop punk scene. That’s about to change, and as a result, people will be surprised at how seasoned this quintet sounds. Anchored by vocalist Damien Trimbach and with the foundation of former Dude’s Night drummer Jimmy Gomez and bassist Gabe Aguilera, the band is rounded out by guitarists Tim Burkert and Paul Aguilera (Gabe’s brother). The ten tracks on the album range from classic SoCal pop punk to garage, with some doo-wop and early rock and roll sounds mixed in, just for fun. While the songs will be new to most people, many of them have been mainstays of Horror Squad sets for some time. “I Smoke The Blood” is one such track that immediately causes visions of VLHS shows to swim in my head. I really like the feel of “Pints of Blood,” a mid-tempo track with an easy gait. “Aaron Ohio is For Lovers” is named for former guitarist, blogger, and scene hero Aaron Ohio. There are some really fun tracks, like “Love Bug ’68” and “Ghost Teenagers In Love,” with their doo-wop retro rock’n’roll feel. The latter flows directly into “Black Katz Club,” maybe my favorite track of the album. It has a tough angular sound in some places and the retro feel in others. One of the nice touches, too, is leaving in some of the studio banter and laughs. This album is sure to make my best of 2018 list, because it really is that good.

KOLB – Making Moves (Ramp Local, www.ramplocal.com)

Michael Kolb spent his youth training for a career in music at Brooklyn College. You can hear it in his voice and his compositions, which sound more musical theater and opera than indie music. But along the way, Kolb found the New York City indie scene and, well, you know from experience what happened then. The six tracks on this EP have me torn, though. I adore most of the songs and arrangements. They’re very different from most indie music, with unique choices of instruments in the arrangements, gorgeous melodies, and well-used dissonance and dreaminess. But Kolb’s vocals leave me a little cold sometimes. The vibrato is a little fast and heavy and they’re a little too forward for my tastes. That said, the overall effect of the EP is a good one. “Divine Intervention” opens things with a song right out of a Broadway musical, featuring toy piano punctuating the lines. “Car Song” is a bit Steely Dan-like, with a smooth jazzy melodic line. “Pound of Flesh” is a gorgeous dreamy number the flows, rises, and ebbs. My favorite is the beautiful and delicate “Miracles,” a simple song with multi-tracked vocals and acoustic guitar. The instrumental layering increases as the song continues and it grows lusher. “Summer ‘16” is another delicate number with gorgeous melody and minimalist banjo as prominent features. Finally there’s “Bike Song,” which has the feel of Baroque chamber music in the modern indie world. Like I said, the song writing is really good here. The vocals leave me a bit cold.

K7S – Take 1 (Rum Bar Records, rumbarrecords.bandcamp.com)

K7s are a band from Madrid, Spain, made up of front man Luis Sanchez (guitars and lead vocals), Jose Andres Albertos (drums), and American ex-pat Kurt Baker (bass and backing vocals). The record takes all the best parts of 90s pop punk, mixes in a heavy dose of 80s power pop hooks and Ramones sensibilities and the result rocks like crazy. Some of the tracks lean more toward one sound or another, but every damn one is jumpin’. Dancing is mandatory! I’ll think my favorites may be the ones that lean a little more toward the power pop side of the spectrum, like “Every Night,” a mid-tempo number that’s bouncy as hell, and those harmonized vocals are killer. But then I hear the Ramones inspired “Never Ending Love,” and the bounce gets harder, the harmonies stronger, and the hooks sharper. And “She’s Leaving Tonight” is beyond belief, so poppy and sweet, so hard rocking, so tight. Well, so is every track. This is some of the best pop punk/power pop I’ve heard in a long time! Highly recommended!

LEMURIA – Recreational Hate (Asian Man Records, www.asianmanrecords.com)

Lemuria’s been around since 2004 and are a pretty popular band. Nevertheless, the first time I ever saw or heard them was a scant year and a half ago at Awesome Fest 10. Most of their career has been during the virtual music blackout period in my like when I stopped going to shows and listened to precious little new music other than what I received to review in the pages of Jersey Beat. So please excuse me for a moment while I go off to the corner and kick myself for a while. Because this is a ridiculously beautiful record. Lemuria typically gets lumped into the DIY pop punk scene, but this music is more indie pop than pop punk, but it’s got a strong DIY streak running through it. Bouncy poppy songs featuring superb harmonies are abundant on this record. The vocals are undeniably luscious. “Sliver of Change” is a great example of this sound, delicate and pretty, even when the bigger guitars join in. But it’s the surprises that I really love here. After a few tracks like this, we get “More Tunnel,” a track in a non-traditional time signature, harder and edgier than anything else on the album, and a favorite. The trumpets on “I Wanted To Be Yours” add a really nice touch, and “Kicking In” goes through multiple transformations, making it a pretty cool song from where I sit. Those are kind of outliers, though. Most of the tracks are quiet, understated, and beautiful. Recommended.

THE LOONS – Blue Ether b/w Saturday’s Son (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtwaterrecords.co.uk)

San Diego’s The Loons have been around for over 20 years, and in that time have released four full-length LPs and now eight singles. The two songs are true to the Loons’ style, 60s retro rock and roll in the vein of The Doors. The songs have a dark urgency to them, and you can almost envision vocalist Mike Stax strutting on stage as he sings. Though both tracks are good, I think of the two, I like the B-side a little better. “Saturday’s Son” has a more primal feel, I think.

MARRIAGE MATERIAL – Making the Worry Worth It Part I (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

No, they are not brothers who were raised by their father who taught them their instruments, despite what Dirt Cult’s f”ake news” release says. But it is an LA-based trio made up of members of Spokenest, God Equals Genocide, Summer Vacation, and Pinned In Place. The music here is modern punk rock, not pop punk, though there’s plenty of melodic content. There’s a hard, angry edge to these five tracks, even the ones that slow things down, like “Soggy Sock Town” and “Someone Else,” which are mid-tempo. The bookend songs, “What Can You Say” and “Seasons,” have a distinct retro-punk feel, as if they could have been recorded back in the late 70s or early 80s. But my favorite track is probably the too short “Left Me Waiting.” This minute and a third song has a kind of Mission of Burma feel. I really like this strong debut, and look forward to hearing more.

POLUX – 1984 (www.facebook.com/polux1984)

Polux is a band from San Diego that plays dream pop with a dance beat. It’s less shoe-gaze-like and more something that will get you moving around, “1984” is the band’s first single. The lyrics are sung in Spanish, but music is the universal language. Think a cross between modern dream pop and 80s new wave and you’ll have an idea of the sound this trio is going for. It’s a promising beginning.

 

RED CITY RADIO – SkyTigers (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Everyone who’s into pop punk knows who Red City Radio is, right? They’re that band that plays those big intense sing-alongs, yeah? Gruff vocals, big guitars, beer soaked melodies, it’s the stuff we all love. Well, forget about those guys. They’re gone. At first, I thought I was in for another classic RCR EP, when I heard the opening bars of “If You Want Blood (Be My Guest).” It starts out quietly, with single string guitar and Garrett Dale’s perfectly gruff vocals. Dallas Tidwell joins in tapping away at the rim of his snare and the edges of his cymbals. Then the whole band comes in and things pick up – and this includes keyboards. Yes, RCR is another band that’s gone the route of adding keys. It can add warmth and be very effective when done right, and it certainly fits right in here. Everything is going well so far, even though the production is quiet a bit slicker than past recordings. They lose me at the guitar solo, though. Sure, guitar solos are OK, but this turns arena rock on us. Remove the guitar solo and this is a pretty damn good RCR song, if a little over-produced. “I’ll Still Be Around” exhibits a similar split personality – the great quality song-writing we’ve grown to associate with Red City Radio, but with slick production, guitar solos, and arena rock arrangements. “In The Shadows” dives even more into the sea of commercial rock, especially at the bridge’s guitar solo that goes full-on hair metal. The a cappella harmonized vocals of “Rebels” confirms the new direction, reminding me of big city radio tuned to commercial radio stations of my youth. The EP closes with the title track, which goes back to the way the EP opened, a recognizable RCR song with slick arrangement and production. At about the halfway mark, Charlie Chaplin’s big speech from the movie “The Great Dictator” is heard, with its uplifting message to match the uplifting sound of the song. Red City Radio may be moving toward the sounds of an arena rock band, but I’ll be damned if they’re not the best arena rock band ever.

RICKY HAMILTON & THE VOIDBOYS – Hell Is Real (Quality Time Records, qualitytimerecords.bandcamp.com)

I’m very confused by this record. First of all, the tracks and promo material call them Ricky Hell & The Voidboys, and list this as a self-titled LP. But the website calls them Ricky Hamilton & The Voidboys, and title the LP “Hell Is Real.” The track order that comes up from the download is different from what’s on the website, too. And then there’s the split personality in the songs themselves. Sometimes it sounds like Ricky and the band want to be a punk rock band, other times a post-pop band, and other times still they sound kind of like Stereolab minus the electronics. I like diversity, but this is a bit odd, even to me. There’s diversity in styles, but not in tempo. Every track is pretty much the same exact mid-paced tempo. It’s like they used a metronome to keep time, but it was broken and could only go one speed. Because of the widely disparate styles and uncompromising tempo, there are tracks I like a lot, others I find a bit dull, and others that leave me conflicted. “I Love It,” for example, is a very punk sounding track, but the buzzy swirly sounds and the clarinet fluttering around are off-putting. If not for that, it would be a solid track. Likewise, “Apartment 9” has a droning guitar, shouted nonsense lyrics, and the clarinet, and it’s a mess. “The Feeling Is Alright” has the minimalist Stereolab cum Krautrock thing going on, which I like. “Amphetamine Girl” has that same sound happening, and even uses the clarinet, but subtly in the background, so it works. “Streets of Fear” have a Mark E. Smith Fall thing going on, but with weird electronics and the clarinet. It kind of works. But I think the boring and confusing tracks outweigh the good ones here.

SARAH MCQUAID – If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous (Shovel and Spade Records, www.sarahmcquaid.com)

I’ve died an gone to heaven, I’ve fallen in love, and any of a million other things I could say to let you know how good this record is. Sarah McQuaid was born in Spain, raised in the USA, and currently lives in rural England. This diversity in her life experience is reflected in the quiet, contemplative music on this new album. The music is deeply rooted in the folk tradition, but there are mixtures of influence and style. Sometimes electric guitar is used, others it’s acoustic guitar or piano. The title track borrows heavily from the blues, featuring electric guitar and a subtly funky feel, but it’s the acoustic tracks that I think work best. I must say I’m enamored with “One Sparrow Down,” a track that features percussion and vocals, telling the story of a fatal encounter between a sparrow and a house cat. McQuaid’s cat Nightshine provides guest vocals. The medieval Gregorian chant, “Dies Irae,” sung in the original Latin, sounds dark and ominous, befitting the subject of the chant, in which the “day of wrath will dissolve the world in ashes.” In a brilliant twist, McQuaid’s arrangement steals the opening melodic line from the preceding song, “Forever Autumn,” to tie the two together. “Cot Valley” blends the story of Cornish children who run and play instead of working in the mines, as they did in centuries past, with music that comes straight from the American heartland. The acoustic guitar instrumental, “New Beginnings,” is pretty as can be, and was written as a wedding march for a friend and collaborator. The string quartet on “Time To Love” is achingly beautiful. The album closes with the sad, depressing “The Tug of the Moon.” It relates, in personal ways, how the moon’s gravitational pull is slowing earth’s rotational speed, but also sending the moon spinning faster and further away from us, and how we don’t even notice. I’ve noticed now, Sarah. And I hope many more will, as well.

THE SCANERS (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Hailing from Lyon, France, The Scaners (not a typo, there’s only one n in the name) play garage punk in the vein of bands like The Spits and The Ramones meet the Dickies meet Devo. Simple, fast and loud songs with guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard. Lo-fi is a must for this style, and these recordings are pretty lo-fi. This is a concept album, too. With song titles like “Abduction,” “Spacecraft,” “Checkpoint Planet,” “We Want To Talk To Your Leader” and more, you know this is about aliens from outer space. The keyboards at the start of “The Dries” sounds like an eerie European police siren, alternating between two fuzzy notes. The pace speeds up, and the band launches into an almost Dickies like song. I love “We Want To Talk To Your Leader,” a super hectic track that reminds me a lot of The Spits and the late, lamented Stalins of Sound. “Video Tape” is another favorite, with tons of peppiness and energy. This is a great debut!

SILENT ERA – O Horizon (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

Back in the mid and late 1980s there was a movement within the hardcore punk scene that was adding loads of melody to the songs, and actually singing instead of shouting lyrics. Bands like M.I.A. and others from the Washington D.C. scene, too were doing this, and sometimes the songs had a slightly Goth edge to them. It was the beginning of a change in punk, not quite pop punk but not hardcore punk anymore, either. Songs tended to be less about politics and were more personal. Things weren’t black and white anymore. Silent Era, hailing from the Oakland/San Francisco area, brings that sound back to life. The album starts out strongly, with “Groundswell.” Repetitive guitar strumming resolves into a steady beat, with drums joining in, then a subtle higher pitch in the background, before the vocals come in, not quite soaring as insistently hammering at the melody. Guitars shred beneath the vocals in a nod to modern metallic hardcore. The title track is my favorite of the album. The quiet guitar intro is gorgeous, but when the full band comes in, it’s the beautiful melody and powerful vocals that just kill it. The chunka chunka guitars push the song forward like a train speeding down the tracks. “Borrowed Time” is great for its huge guitar jangle, reminding me a bit of Hüsker Dü, and those same monstrous vocals. “Powers of Ten” blows me away in the same way. The odd man out on the album is the mysterious instrumental, ”Void of Course.” It’s an interesting track, but I’m not sure it fits in here. The album closes with “Big Swim,” a track that slows things just a bit to a loping feel for the first third, then takes off like a rocket. Good stuff.

SPRING – II (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

Here are five tracks of raw hardcore punk rock from northern Germany. This cassette tape comes on the heels of a previously released demo, and features mid-temp tracks of angry, dirty punk rock. Vocals are shouted over a brutal onslaught of guitars, bass, and drums playing songs with little in the way of chord changes. You want melodic punk? Don’t look to Spring to deliver that. There’s very little variation from track to track – every song sounds pretty similar to the previous one. I never was really into the mid-tempo sludgy punk stuff back in the 80s, and it still doesn’t do much for me.

SRIRACHA-CHAS (Girth Records, www.girthrecords.com)

What happens when you get some aging punks together with nothing to do? Besides sitting around drinking beer. Well, if they’re in upstate New York, they might form a band. And, while they probably aren’t ever going to tour the country or headline Punk Rock Bowling, it gives them something fun to do. This, then, is the Sriracha-chas. The songs are mostly about the experience of being aging punks. Being “Older Than Punk,” wanting to beat down “My 13-Year-Old Self,” these are the things old punks think about. Also having “Barbed Wire” in their underpants seems to be a hot topic. Socio-political topics do pop up, like in the song “Patriarchy Is For Dicks.” The songs are pretty simple, the lyrics are simple, the chord progressions are minimalist, and these guys aren’t likely to be packing in the crowds at the House of Blues, but it’s nice to see that life for a punk isn’t over after you hit 40 or even 50. Drop the long jams, though (“We Can See You Coming, over eight minutes long of slowness), OK guys? No one wanted to hear that in the 70s and no one wants to hear it today.

SYNDROME81 – Beton Nostalgie (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

Eighteen songs in forty minutes! And seventeen of those songs are old school hardcore punk. All you need is some guitars, a bass, drums, knowledge of a couple chords, and how to shout – instant punk band. Just like in days gone by! Syndrome81, from Brest in France, shout out their anger in the best tradition of hardcore punk bands that have come before them. This is raw, angry rock and roll music, and sometimes it reminds me of one of my favorites of the current crop of this sort of band, DFMK from Tijuana, Mexico. But where DFMK are faster, tighter, and more powerful, Syndrome81 falters a little bit. The songs seem like they want to be played faster, the drum rhythms sounding a little hesitant. But when they get it right, it’s really effective. Like on “Cercueil d’Acier,” a track that’s a shade more complex than most of the others, a little faster, and much more listenable. “Brest La Grise” is a favorite, pulling together all of the elements of classic hardcore punk so well that this sounds like it’s 1983 all over again. “Pas Besoin De Toi” is another rager that pummels the listener with tons of raw energy. But for every one of these great tracks there are a couple of those slower more awkward songs. And then there’s “Pulsions Electriques,” a track that is completely out of place on this record. I thought I was listening to a different band. This track is 80s synth-wave pop music, complete with drum machine. It’s not cleanly recorded, having the same distortion is the punk tracks. I have no idea why a band that plays the sort of music Syndrome81 do would record something like this. I don’t know about this record.

TAGGART – L’Maskin (taggart.bandcamp.com)

The record starts with a delightful song called “Humpty.” It begins lightly and delicately with acoustic guitars jangling away before the electric guitars come in. The song is sort of power pop meets indie pop, and it hits all the right notes. I thought I was in for a treat with this record. But then “Stock” played, and I was downhearted. Generic rock music! Blandness! Arena rock star lead vocals! I thought I was doomed. But then, “Butterfly” came next. And the rest of the album proved to have more in common with the first track than the second. Taggart, from Philadelphia, play pretty solid indie-rock. It reminds me of the sort of music that was all over college radio back in the 90s. Which, coincidentally, is when Taggart formed. They’ve been kicking around Philadelphia for around 20 years. My favorite songs are the ones with the nice clear, jangly guitar tone. That opener, of course, but also the 50s rock’n’roll inspired “Infinite Space” has it (plus it has a simple yet pretty guitar solo). “Shattered Leaves” has a slight psychedelic edge to it that adds a nice retro flavor. Taggart isn’t breaking new ground here, but it’s a solidly listenable album (aside from the one track).

TELEVISION PERSONALITIES – Beautiful Despair (Fire Records, www.firerecords.com)

This isn’t quite a new Television Personalities record, no. It is, however, a “lost” album that was recorded back in 1989-90. Many of the songs were later re-recorded for the album “Closer To God,” released a couple of years later, but there are some songs that were misplaced for decades. Front man Dan Treacy has a unique approach to his songs, reminding me of a blend of Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett and The Legendary Pink Dots’ Edward Ka-Spel. The songs are sung with a delicate, very English accent, and the songs and arrangements are somewhat quirky, just like those two disparate yet similar performers. “Razor Blades and Lemonade” is a perfect example of the Barrett end of this spectrum. The song is simple and kind of off-kilter, like a bizarre children’s song. It’s played with zither and sung in Treacy’s inimitable style, and I love it. “How Does It Feel To Be Loved” follows, and is more on the Ka-Spel side of things, with dark electronics a distinct post-punk feel. The title track is halfway between, utilizing the zither in the arrangement, but it’s more of a standard pop tune, using electronics in the background. “Have A Nice Day” is a very English, very mod pop song. I like the version of “I Don’t Want To Love This Life,” a song that was later released on the “Far Away & Lost In Joy” EP. It’s much simpler and darker, as befits the subject matter. But my favorite track of the album has to be “My Very First Nervous Breakdown.” Also released in a re-recorded version on “Closer To God,” the version here has a more mysterious feel, sort of like a Spanish bolero in its rhythms, but with Indian instruments humming in the background.

It’s clear that many of the songs on this album are sketches, hastily put together songs that represent more of the idea of the song than a fully realized one, like “I Get Frightened Too.” It sounds more like a demo than a recording for an album. Other songs are pretty glorious in their minimalism. Both represent Treacy and his songwriting pretty well. It’s interesting to hear the differences between these tracks and on the tracks that eventually made it onto “Closer to God.” For example, “Goodnight Mr. Spaceman” is a fully realized pop song on “Closer,” but here it sounds more like a children’s song, with toy piano, heavier bass and quirky vocals. And “This Heart’s Not Made of Stone” is much thinner here, to the point where Treacy turns his voice into an instrument toward the end of the track to trumpet out the melodic line – but I like this lonelier sound than the overly orchestrated version on “Closer.” Comparisons are great, but an album should stand on its own, and this one does, and not just as an historical document.

TURNSPIT – Desire Paths (Dodgeball Records, www.dodgeballrecords.com)

Chicago’s Turnspit announced this new record, their debut LP, and their signing to Dodgeball Records all in one fell swoop. Before one could take a breath, the record burst forth. It contains an even dozen tracks of music bordering between alternative rock and pop punk. One of the first things you’ll notice on this LP is that there’s not a single front person – those duties are shared between Gillia McGhee and Jason Swearingen, sometimes taking a song to themselves, other times trading off or singing together on a track. I like this, as it adds to the diversity in the sounds – and diversity of sound is key to Turnspit’s success. Not wanting to get pigeonholed as “that” kind of band, they play different styles of music in the same album. From the straight-forward modern pop punk of “Home Is Run No More” to the sing-along fist-pump style of “Midsentence,” to the delicately moving “Invisible,” and the full-on alternative rock of “Breath Taking” (complete with guitar solo)” Turnspit show a dexterity that’s pretty rare in modern bands, and that’s something I appreciate greatly. Favorite track may be “Skin,” which starts out delicately, with acoustic guitar and McGhee’s vocals, before the full band comes in and McGhee’s vocals get snarly and angry – the song is about a history of sexual assault and is very timely. “Some may say to let it go / They were young and just didn’t know / But they were wrong and I’ve been fighting since five years old / To reclaim this sack of skin as mine.” This is a very strong debut – I predict big things for Turnspit’s future.

UNITED DEFIANCE – Safe At Home (uniteddefiance.bandcamp.com)

The Bay Area’s United Defiance are an unapologetic honest to goodness melodic hardcore band. In an age where bands in this thing we call a “scene” either gravitate toward pop punk, alternative rock, or metal, it’s nice to hear bands like this sometimes. From the very first track on this album, United Defiance hits hard and doesn’t let up. And lest you think United Defiance is a one-trick pony, no. Some of these tracks would fall into the “skate punk” category, while others are more straight-ahead punk or hard-hitting hardcore. One of the tracks isn’t my favorite and falls a bit flat. I’m not crazy about the laggy “Lost at Sea,” a slower track that just drags.
Favorites are The “Lesson” and “Faded Dreams,” two of the harder edged hardcore punk tracks. Of special note is the closer, “Happily Forever After,” which starts out as a gorgeous acoustic waltz time before exploding into a glorious melodic hardcore finale. United Defiance, in my opinion, is one of the better bands playing this style of music these days.

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

This is a very unusual release for our friends at Dirt Cult Records. They typically specialize in lo-fi garage punk and pop punk. Yes, they released their “Wavering” LP back in 2014. But this LP is somewhat different than that one. For one thing, it’s much more consistent than the previous LP. This record is really good indie rock, never really getting close to punk or Americana as the previous record did. This record is, dare I say it, more mature sounding, and though I love pop punk, I adore this LP. The writing and arranging have a richer sound, less manic and more thoughtful. “Villain” is a standout track, with some great hooks and thin guitar jangle. I really enjoy the breezy feel of “Handle,” as well. It’s a simple song, but it has a great forward motion sort of sound, like a train song. And “Come On Back” is my favorite track of the album. It’s got a delicate sound, with acoustic guitars and clarinet, and the feel of a gospel hymn. Like I said, this is so different from anything Dirt Cult has released before – and I hope they do more like this.

THE BARREN MARYS / TEENAGE BIGFOOT – Political Party Split (https://thebarrenmarys. bandcamp.com/album/political-party-split-w-teenage-bigfoot)

Whoa-oh! Two songs from The Barren Marys, plus three from Teenage Bigfoot equals one great EP! The tracks from The Barren Marys are the harder, faster punk tracks. “Dumb” is a rager about the religious right’s tendency to dismiss real science and use their faith as an excuse to discriminate. The song reminds me of some of the great hardcore punk and Oi bands that came out England in the early 80s, like Blitz and others. “Nothing’s Gonna Change” is about how politicians make all sorts of promises they never keep, and it’s great old school hardcore punk, tough and mean, with tons of whoa-ohs. Teenage Bigfoot is much more a pop punk band, with a lighter touch than Barren Marys, more complexity and melodic content. “Vagrant” is about the joys of not having any responsibilities, sleeping under the stars. “Gringos” is a fast one that reminds me somewhat of one of the great pop punk bands, Lipstick Homicide. And “Inkstains” is a fun folk punk track, complete with banjo and what sounds like washtub percussion. Philadelphia is so far away; I wish these bands would come to the west coast sometime, because this is some great stuff.

VARIOUS – Our Voltage (Girlsville Records, www.facebook.com/GirlsvilleRecords)

Our Voltage is a benefit compilation, the proceeds of which will be dedicated to anti-racist activities and to open a community self-defense gym in Chicago, called “Haymaker.” And, oh my! This comp sounds like something that might have come out from a label like Recommended Records back in the 80s. The music here is varied, much of it has very sparse arrangements, and the music has the off-the-wall creativity that was happening at the time. The bands on this comp come from all over the country, and some bands from outside the USA, all of them previously unknown to me. Every single one of these fourteen tracks is a gem that really must not be overlooked. Olympia. Washington’s UK Gold opens the comp with “Off Duty Nuns.” It starts with a tribal rhythm on the drums, then the bass comes in, and then angular guitar stabs present a minimalist line and the vocals join in, half shouted half spoken. The Buzzards, out of Detroit, contribute a great lo-fi garage punk tune, “Tennessee.” I love Germ House’s “7 Into 7,” a minimalist lo-fi post-punk track that warbles as much as it jangles. The Myrmidons are veterans of the early electronic pop wave movement from back in the day, and offer an excellent cover of Siouxsie & The Banshees’ “Christine.” John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees contributes a track called “Pilot’s Pipe,” operating as Damaged Bug. The song is classic synth-based post punk, and could have come right off the Television Personalities’ “lost” album “Beautiful Despair,” reviewed above. I could go on an on, listing every track, but you need to discover this on your own. Please trust me, this is probably the best, most creative compilation LP I’ve heard in years. Very highly recommended!


THE ACRYLICS – Structure b/w Gluttony (Drunken Sailor Records / Iron Lung Records, drunkensailorrecords.co.uk, ironlungrecords.bigcartel.com)

WHOA! Take fast and loud hardcore music, mix in a ton of avant-garde attitude, crank up the reverb, and you get The Acrylics. This is some of the most original music I’ve heard all year. The A-side is fast’n’loud throughout, while the B-side starts out slower, then moves into a mid-tempo trot, and finally to a breakneck run. Angular intervals stab through the songs into your ears, demanding attention, or else. You’d best yield, if you know what’s good for you.

ATTIC SALT (Dodgeball Records, www.dodgeballrecords.com)

Attic Salt is a quartet from Springfield, Illinois – not normally known as a hotbed of indie-rock. Yet here we are, with a debut LP chock full of great melodic poppy music, laden with hooks and harmonies. The band is right at that point where indie rock and pop punk intersect, with huge guitars, gorgeous vocals, and beautiful melodies. I love guitarist Alyssa Currie’s vocals, as they give the tracks an even brighter sound. Favorite tracks include “Arms Length,” “Weird Science,” “Hometown,” and – oh, wait, I’m starting to list every track. Each of the ten of these songs is a gem – the band reminds me a little bit of another great central Illinois band, The Poster Children. I think it’s the 90s indie sound in the mix, though it’s updated a bit here. Recommended!

BEE BEE SEA – Sonic Boomerang (Dirty Water Records USA, www.dirtywater recordsusa.com)

I’ve come to look forward to receiving promo materials from Dirty Water Records USA, not because they specialize in these sorts of sounds, but because they find and put out records from consistently good bands. And one of the most recent is from Bee Bee Sea. Do they surf in Italy? I guess so, because this band specializes in a mix of surf, garage and psych. What strikes me most is the exuberance with which they play. The songs just feel packed with fun and sun. “I Shouted” is an interesting outlier, sounding more like an indie-pop track with nary a spec of garage or surf in it. It’s one of my favorite tracks, though, because you can just tell how much this band loves playing it. It’s a slower song that lopes and jangles, and the unison vocals soar. I really enjoy “This Dog Is The King of Losers,” too. It’s a simple track, but it’s got so much bounce that it reaches through the speakers and starts to bounce the listener right along with it. The chorus is kind of dumb but so fun, and the guitars have a great sound here. “No Fellas” is a pretty intense one, too. The album closes with “I Shouted II,” another more sedate track that has a real beachy feel. Dirty Water has another in its winning streak.

CITY MOUSE – Get Right (It’s Alive Records, www.itsaliverecords.com)

FINALLY! City Mouse has been a thing for a long time. Years and years. They’ve had numerous personnel changes and released several singles, but they’ve never had a full-length LP – until now. The one constant of City Mouse is Miski Dee Rodriguez, guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. She’s got an amazing, powerful voice and she writes songs that showcase it. If you’ve heard City Mouse before, you probably think you know exactly what this album sounds like. And for the most part you’re probably right – they have a pretty distinctive sound, with pop hooks and room for big vocals. But Rodriguez has a couple of tricks up her sleeve on this album. “A New Dawn” is a harder and edgier song than you’ve ever heard from City Mouse before. “Back Issues” delves into indie rock sounds. And “Don’t Stop” has more complexity and emotion that the usual City Mouse fare, and is one of my favorites of the album. The rest of the songs are pretty much what you expect from City Mouse: solid, poppy, fun music.

CORNER BOYS – Just Don’t Care (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

You know those bands that can’t really sing too well, and the music isn’t as tight as a lot of other bands out there, yet the songs are so damn catchy and fun that those other things don’t matter? Corner Boys are one of those bands. The three tracks on this EP are loose, and the vocals are spoken, rather than sung. But, hell, I like this! I especially like the references to the 1960s TV show “The Prisoner” in the middle track, “Be Seeing You.” And “Joke of the Neighborhood” is a great power pop track, though the attempts at singing do hurt it a bit.

DEAD HERO – La Vida Continúa (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

Dead Hero are a punk outfit out of Bogota, Columbia. The songs are all sung in Spanish, so I can’t tell you what they’re singing about, but what I can tell you is that my immediate reaction is that this sounds like some of the Oi punk that was coming out of the UK in the 80s. My mind went to bands like Blitz, especially on the first track, “Mtl Bta” and on the title track, which closes the album. Vocalist Paula Suarez shouts out with intense confidence and power, and the music is energetic and tight. This band would be right at home on a bill with another Spanish-language band, Tijuana’s DFMK. And as that band says, this is rock and roll, baby, rock and roll.

DECENT CRIMINAL (Dodgeball Records, www.dodgeballrecords.com)

Decent Criminal are one of the most exciting bands to come out of California over the past couple of years. Singing in three-part harmony, these four gentlemen evoke hints of doo-wop, grunge, and power pop. The music isn’t fast or flashy, but it’s solid, and it makes interesting use of non-standard chords and progressions on some songs. Right from the start, with “Cold,” Decent Criminal make a musical statement that they’re not just another cookie-cutter California punk band. The track is fresh and mysterious. The harmonies come on strong, and while most of the track is pretty solid wall of guitar, there’s a bridge in the middle that gets all jangly. “Still” slows things down a lot, to almost ballad proportions, mixes in a dose of grunge and gets all anthemic on us. Get ready for a sing-along! I love the pretty guitar work on “Pretender,” and the 60s pop feel of “Melt” sounds like taking classic Beatles tracks and updating them with a more modern sound. I could go on and on about every song, but suffice it to say that there are fresh and unique things about each track, and the closer, “Deviant,” is truly brilliant. Recommended.

DEMONS – Embrace Wolf (Spartan Records, www.spartanrecords.com)

I have only listened to the first track, as I write this, and I can wholeheartedly endorse this record and recommend it. That first track, “Always Your Own, is angular muscular music with buzz saw guitars that’ll tear through you in seconds. The chorus is a shout-along bit reminiscent of something Western Settings might do if they played louder and angrier. Whew! And that’s just the first track! Things don’t let up at all, with “wish” combining a big emoish vocal sound with slow, grinding, gnashing instrumentals. “17:9” competes with the best grunge out there, sounding like a super heavy Nirvana. Some of the tracks do drag a little bit, and “Dig” might be a bit long at over seven minutes, but of you’re a fan of heavy music, check this out, because You’re likely going to love it.

DIRECT HIT! / PEARS – Human Movement (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Direct Hit! and Pears toured together for the first time a few years ago, shortly after they both had signed to Fat Wreck Chords. They immediately hit it off and came up with the idea of doing a split LP together. Thankfully, Fat agreed to release it and the result is now available. Each band gets six songs, one of which is a cover of one of the other’s songs. Direct Hit! starts things out with a very un-Direct Hit! like song, “You Got What You Asked For.” It sounds like it might be the Pears cover, but it’s not. Hard driving, powerful, speedy hardcore fills the air, while vocalist Nick Woods screams the lyrics in a way that sounds right out of the early 80s hey-day of hardcore. Without a pause, they then launch into “Blood on Your Tongue.” This one is more what we expect from Direct Hit!, a great pop punk melody with just the right amount of power and energy to propel the song. “Open Your Mind” has a great loping feel and plenty of bounce. “Shifting the Blame” is rapid-fire pop punk, tight as hell and crazy fast. The Pears cover comes next. And it’s “You’re Boring,” from Pears’ debut LP “Go To Prison.” The Wisconsinites do the song proud, staying pretty true to the original, sounding so damned evil. I love the huge guitar sound they get in the chorus, too. Closing out Direct Hit!’s side is another raging hardcore track, “Nothing.” The diversity, melodies, tightness, and sheer power coming from Direct Hit! is simply their best work to date. Pears are going to have to raise the bar even higher to compete! So let’s check them out.

Hell yes! Pears do it! This is their best work to date, too! And they’ve got “Easter eggs!” If you remember some of the fun they had with their sophomore LP, “Green Star,” tossing in little references to other songs, they do that here, too. “Misery Conquers the World,” a particularly brutal track, even for Pears, has a point where vocalist Zach Quinn shouts out, “Let the bodies hit the floor,” and is answered by a chorus of boos. “The World is Ending,” the Direct Hit! cover, features Maura Weaver from Mixtapes and Boys singing some lines from Masked Intruder’s “Heart Shaped Guitar” (she sang the same part on Masked Intruder’s debut LP) and it slots in perfectly in this most melodic and calm track from the NOLA crew. And the other tracks? “Hey There, Begonia” opens the side with a track that blends the melody and hard driving grindcore that Pears are known for even more smoothly and effectively than any other track before it. “Mollusk’s Mouth” rocks harder than anything they’ve done before, and includes a break with some amazing guitar work that borders on dream-pop. “Arduous Angel” may be the most fun track on the album, with some gorgeous melodic lines. “Never Now” closes the record with more brutal hardcore loaded with tons of melody, in true Pears style.

Lots of times split LPs, like split 7”ers or compilation contributions, are tracks leftover from recording sessions that didn’t make the cut. Yet here, these songs are the best ones yet from both bands, and this record is sure to make my best of the year list.

DIRTY FENCES – Goodbye Love (Greenway Records, greenwayrecords.bandcamp.com)

Dirty Fences, hailing from New York City, are a solid power pop band in the great tradition of bands like The Nerves, The Beat, The Knack, Cheap Trick and others. The music is bright and bouncy, the vocals are harmonized, and the songs are up-tempo and eminently danceable. Some of the tracks lean more toward classic rock’n’roll sounds, while others more toward the New York early punk tradition. “All You Need Is A Number” opens the album, and is one of those rockin’ tracks. “911” is a favorite track, jangling like mad and reminding me of a cross between toyGuitar and The Marked Men. I enjoy “Teen Angel” (not the 50’s doo wop hit) for it’s excellent pop hooks, the rapid-fire pace, cool rhythm changes and nice guitar work. “I Cant Sleep At Night” is another favorite. It’s a very simple track, with only a few chords, straightforward rhythms and basic lyrics. But the end result reminds me of Radioactivity, one of the great bands out of Denton, Texas. “Love For Higher” pounds its way into your brain with its strong rhythms, and the end of the track goes all glorious with reverb laden backing vocals. “One More Step,” features Christina Halladay on vocals. The track slows things down and adds a heavy dose of soul. I know what band I want to see the next time I’m in New York!

ENAMORADOS (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

Enamorados is a new band out of Barcelona, Spain – so once again the songs are in Spanish. The tracks are lo-fi and raw, but bouncy and fun. “Esa Penumbra” is super poppy, while “La Misma Piel” slows things down to a nice lope. “I really like “La Verdad,” too, for it’s bright sounding guitars. Some of the tracks have more of a garage sound, like “Rompe Mi Enterior.” But one thing that unites all of these tracks is the unison singing. No harmonies, just two voices singing the melody together. Good stuff.

 

ESCOBAR – The Biggest Sound (Dirty Water Records USA, www.dirtywater recordsusa.com)

Dirty Water is expanding beyond their core of garage rock into the realm of grunge. Escobar is from France and are apparently a duo. How they get this huge of a sound from just guitar and drums escapes me, but this rocks! The intensity is palpable, reaching through the speakers and grabbing hold of you. There’s a sense of urgency from every track, and it just builds and builds with each song. The arrangements are incredibly tight and powerful, while still remaining grounded with a solid melodic sense. The title track is worth noting for its hypnotic qualities, with repetitive lines that pound into the brain (but never sound monotonous). And the closer, too, “Drifting,” which calms things down a lot, moving the guitars to the background and the vocals to the front, eschewing the drums completely for a chill, lonely sound. Dirty Water’s wining streak continues.

FUCK! (IT’S PRONOUNCED SHIT) –
It’s Still Pronounced Shit
(www.itsvpronouncedshityouidiot. bandcamp.com)

FUCK! (It’s Pronounced Shit) is Fraser of The Murderburgers’ other band. It’s the band he uses to play songs that are less pop punk and more skate punk/hardcore. The seven tracks here are ridiculously short – the first six are all between 25 and 45 seconds long, while the closer is a mere minute and a half. As a result, some of these seem like mere song fragments, ideas that need fleshing out. But whether he’s doing straight up pop punk or more hardcore stuff, Fraser’s a fine songwriter. These tracks are melodic and tight. And, given the more raw production than most skate punk bands utilize, it sounds more approachable than a lot of skate punk, which often comes across as too slick and overproduced.

FUEL ON FIRE – Think EP (www.fuelonfire.com)

This is the stuff of guilty pleasures. You know those records that you think you shouldn’t like because they’re too commercial, too slick, and not what you ordinarily listen to? But there’s something about them that pulls you in. Fuel On Fire is definitely going after the commercial sound, and the production and arrangements are very slickly done. But there’s some intangible quality at work here that just enamors me. The arrangements, while slick, are really clever and well done. The music is exciting and uplifting. Some of the tracks are misleading, starting out with interesting experimental sound collages, but quickly transition to more standard song structures. I think the things that most attract me to these songs are the precision, the ability to rapidly change the feel and back in short spans of time, and the atmosphere they get from the variety of electronics they use. The transition from “Days Gone By” to “Diamond Masters” slays me. The sounds gets all muted, like the door was closed and you’ve walked down the long hallway in the studio. Then brilliantly bright synths begin ringing out as the new song begins, and those are quickly muted, too, to allow room for the vocals. “Timeless” is the closer and has a theatrical quality to it, especially when it goes into waltz time. This song has drama. Yeah, Fuel On Fire is my new guilty pleasure.

THE GUESTS – Red Scare (Sabotage Records, www.sabotaagerecords.net)

The 1980s have returned via Philadelphia’s The Guests. Remember the synth-pop of the day? Remember the sub-genre of dark goth synth-pop? Yup, that’s what The Guests offer up on this eight-song LP. There is one difference, though; The Guests make liberal use of guitars in their arrangements, along with the synths. The songs jangle darkly, the vocals are deep, the reverb is heavy, and the feel is very retro. The drums push the beat in a very understated manner, and the synths provide atmosphere. I wasn’t crazy about this sort of music in the 80s, and thirty intervening years hasn’t changed my mind. The one track that’s different from the others in a significant way is “Have U,” the one track that has a happy sound and no synths. It’s super jangly pop, and is probably the one track I can get into. I wish the reverb wasn’t so heavy, though.



THE HARMONICA LEWINSKIES – Bring Back Bush (theharmonicalewinskies. bandcamp.com)

Those who have read my reviews in the past know that I love music that is diverse and can’t be simply classified. Therefore, I immediately fell in love with The Harmonica Lewinskies. This band from the greater New York City area are a member of the Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen family, and they play a mix of indie, folk, gospel, psych, jazz, and blues. They describe themselves as “the illegitimate children of later day saints and troubadours creating harmonies following the trend of decades before them.” Sounds about right! The album opens with the meandering “I Wanna Laugh,” a track that’s as disorganized as it is ethereal. “I wanna laugh/I wanna cry” are the lyrics, repeated over and over by a passionate choir, amidst tambourine, electronics, bass and reverb. It’s a glorious hymn to the multiple personalities of the Lewinskies. ‘What Is It You Want Now” is a raucous rock’n’roll track (well, as raucous as the Lewinskies get), and “My Babe” starts like a traditional folk song, with banjo and harmonizing vocals, but then it turns into a huge gospel tune, with bluesy horns and all. “My Little Girl” is a nice indie track telling a Lou Reed-like song about a girl who’s both brilliant and a junkie, but who doesn’t return our protagonist’s love. “Rufio” is a nice, smooth jazz track that has big emoish moments mixed in with the horns, so it sometimes even borders on a sort of ska-punk sound. And so it goes, with a wide variety of sounds, The Harmonica Lewinskies have won me over.

HIGH – Evil Gene (Wiretap Records, wiretaprecords.limitedrun.com)

GODDAMN! First of all, outside of Pears, who’s ever heard of a punk band from New Orleans? Yeah, yeah, sure, there are some, but not a whole lot of them have gotten out of NOLA and spread their goodness around the country. Hopefully High will follow Pears’ lead and start touring incessantly, because the world needs to hear this band! The band is hard to quite pin down into a genre, but they’ve got elements of power pop and pop punk, mixed with a flair for the theatrical, great harmonies, and a hint of melodic emo. The title track is easily my favorite; it glides beautifully, with soaring guitars and driving drums. “Low Life” oozes it’s dark power, also favoring big harmonies and blending in a garage feel. “Scotfree” has those harmonies, but mixes in a bit of mathishness. Plus, they’ve got the best cover of Meat Puppets’ “Look At The Rain” that you’ve ever heard. It captures the essence of the song perfectly. It’s got a great party atmosphere – “I don’t give two fucks, I just wanna have a good time. I may be broke, but I can still do that.” This album came out late in the year, but it’s certain to find its way onto my best albums list for 2017.

THE HOLY DARK – Pretty Little Bird (Dodgeball Records, www.dodgeballrecords.com)

For the most part, I’m digging this folk-rock based album from Portland’s The Holy Dark. Most of the tracks have a delicate feel, focused on acoustic guitar, light touches of glockenspiel, and pretty harmonized vocals. When the formula sticks to this base, the songs work really well. When things deviate from this into a fuller, more commercial sound, the result ends up sounding too generic to me. Favorites include “Poison Oak,” with its fluttering acoustic guitars and relaxed vocals, “Backfire” for its dark feel, “Up and Around,” for a strong focus on acoustic guitar, the gorgeous waltz-time “Sleeping In,” and “Almost Certain.” The track that didn’t do it for me was “Lit By Lantern,” which just was way too overproduced. This is a nice change of pace from all the punk. There’s a sense of sadness that permeates the album that’s haunting and hard to shake.

MEAN MOTOR SCOOTER – Hindu Flying Machine (Dirty Water Records USA, www.dirtywaterrecordsusa.com)

Mean Motor Scooter brings us psych and garage sounds from deep in the bowels of Texas, and from deep in their twisted imagination. Songs have titles like “We’re Not Alone,” “Sea Serpent,” “Lizards Men,” and the like. There’s also a reference to a famous William S. Burroughs character, Doctor Benway. The album starts with a two-minute intro that consists of a fake phone call about an alien landing one month into Trump’s term as president. From there the music launches. And it’s reasonably decent music, though nothing spectacular our groundbreaking. It’s just your average psych garage acid rock. I’m used to Dirty Water releases being at least a notch or two above this.

MUSKETS – Chew (No Sleep Records, www.nosleeprecordscom)

Grunge was born in Seattle, but it emigrated far and wide. In the case of Muskets it took root in the UK. And they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s so, then the surviving members of Nirvana should be very flattered, indeed. The songs on this record could have been made twenty-five years ago, thousands of miles from the resort town of Brighton that Muskets calls home. Taken individually, any one of the ten songs on “Chew” is a decent enough listen for fans of the genre. Taken as a full-length album though, it just gets to be too much. The songs are uniformly loud, fuzzed out wall-of-guitar and the tempos don’t seem to vary much, if at all. The vocals never stray from center, either, and the resulting LP seems like one very very long song.

OH MY SNARE! – Murk Matinel (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

I loved this Canadian band’s 2015 debut LP, “Høyeste Gang,” especially for the palpable passion for making music that was evident in every track on that record. “Murk Matinel” doesn’t lessen that a single bit. The eleven tracks on this album are glorious to listen to. The hard edge that I noted on the debut is still there, but there’s maybe a bit more pop mixed in on this sophomore release. I got a little nervous at the start of the opening track, “You Can Always Tell a Milford Man,” because it started out sounding like a dream pop number, something I wouldn’t expect or want from OMS. But, fear not, it launched into a powerful, uplifting pop punk track, ripe for sing-alongs. “The Subtle Art of Transmuting Gold Into Lead” is a real standout, for it’s slightly mathish feel and gorgeous melodic lines. “The Depixel Dance of Death” is a slower number that’s huge, and will certainly shake the rafters at any club it’s played at. “L’Arbre Blanc” reminds me of some of the best melodic post-punk of the 90s. I love “Quantum Entanglement” for its interesting arrangement and quiet intensity that builds. The album closes with the schizophrenic “The Stelazine Stomp,” careening back and forth between quiet piano and vocals and huge full band. It came out toward the end of the year, but Oh My Snare! is a definite contender for a place on my albums of the year list.

PROMISE OF REDEMPTION – Before & After (Know Hope Records, www.knowhoperecords.com)

This record was released without any advance notice, as a surprise for Shane Henderson’s fans. Henderson sings with Valencia, but Promise of Redemption is his solo project. The six tracks on the album are primarily acoustic, with guitar and piano as primary instruments. You can hear these songs as being able to be performed by a full band, though. Especially on “Let The Waves Crash Down,” the most raucous song of the half dozen. It’s the second track, and it follows the pretty, delicate waltz-time “Hunter” which opens the EP. “Hard Times” is the ballad of the record, trading guitar for piano as the dominant instrument, and almost burying the vocals. The back three return to guitar and to emotionally driven tracks that would translate well to full-band. If you like Valencia, if you like emo post-hardcore as translated to acoustic, you’re going to enjoy this record.

PURA MANIA – Cerebros Punk (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords. net)

More Spanish language punk rock, this time emanating from Mexico City. The eight tracks are fairly straightforward punk’n’roll, snotty as hell, with gang shouted vocals, buzzy guitars, and pounding drums. The recording is pretty lo-fi and loaded with reverb, making the sound somewhat muddy – but I can’t understand the lyrics anyway. The music here is certainly energetic, even though played at mid-tempo instead of breakneck pace. The vocals are somewhat sloppy, lacking in melodic content. They’re a bit out of place with some of the melodic riffs the guitars, bass, and drums lay down. It gets grating after a bit, but this band has some potential.

PUSSYCAT AND THE DIRTY JOHNSONS – Ain’t No Pussy (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

What a name! It’s a name guaranteed to get the band negative attention from the more conservative elements of society. The music is raw rock’n’roll, and guitarist/vocalist Puss Johnson sings with fury, her voice oozing with equal parts grime and sex. The intensity never lets up through the eleven tracks. Lyrics are equally raw, like in the title track when Johnson sings about the uselessness of the person she’s singing to, and shouts, “I’m gonna suck on your balls” and “I’m gonna put you in your place.” The roaring lion at the start of the track, as well as a clip of actor Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith in the TV series, “Lost In Space”) crying out, “Oh the pain!” at the start of the track, “Pain!” are nice little touches. Highlights include the 50s homage, “Suneal,” with it’s kazoo solo replacing the guitar solo, and “Sylvia,” the most intense, heaviest track on the album with it’s droning lines and shouted vocals about the titular character, judge jury and executioner, reminding me at times of a heavier Big Black. But every track on the album rocks hard as hell.

THE ROUTES – Dirty Needles and Pins (Greenway Records, greenwayrecords. storenvy.com)

One thing I learned a few years back, when I went on tour to Japan with Greenland’s finest pop punk band, The Maxies, is that there is no such thing as a bad Japanese Band. The Routes continue to prove my point. The Routes play really good retro garage/psych. I like the keyboards on “All I Find,” and the guitar solo near the end of “the track is pretty damn great, being loaded with harmonics and sounding like a coded message heard over shortwave radio. All of these tracks are loaded with hooks, and you can almost see the psychedelic flashing colored lights. The one small issue is that this style of music is so well-tread, some of the songs sound like they might be covers, so familiar are the lines. But, hell, nearly every song owes something to some song before it. And this is executed so well.

THE SHE’S – All Female Rock And Roll Quartet (Empty Cellar Records, www.emptycellarrecords.com)

This sophomore album from San Francisco’s The She’s is deceptively simple. Simple pop songs, understated melodies, and a feeling of ease contribute heavily to the overall sound of the record. The album was produced by the band, under the tutelage of Merril Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, and that’s evident in the slightly home recording feel, the intimacy of the sound, and the quirky bits scattered through some of the songs. The record seems to lose a little steam at the midpoint, with back-to-back instrumentals “Local Favorite All Female Garage Rock Quartet” and “Eva’s Interlude,” But the other tracks more than make up for that. Like the glorious harmonies on “Anywhere But Here” that take my breath away. Beautiful.

SHOWOFF – Midwest Side Story (Dodgeball Records, www.dodgeball records.com)

Showoff is a band based in the Chicago suburbs that’s been around, on and off, for the past two decades. The band flirted with the majors in the 1990s, signing to Madonna’s Maverick Records, but after years of ups and downs, they’ve released their latest LP on Dodgeball Records, co-owned by front man Chris Messer (along with Mike Felumlee of The Smoking Popes). The band plays a style of alternative music blended with pop punk that’s been on and off the music charts over the past twenty or more years. To me, the style is just too watered down and generic. There’s nothing here to distinguish the band from any of the dozens of others that play this exact style of music. The production is overly slick, and it just feels, well, soulless. I can see why Madonna’s people were interested in the band all those years ago. It’s got a very “popular music” sound that would appeal to the masses. But it’s pretty uninspiring.

STERILE MIND – Lift the Mask (Sabotage Records, www.sabotagerecords.net)

This is a brutal onslaught of hardcore coming out of Oakland, California. Fast, loud, pounding music, vocals that are roared more than shouted, modal chord changes. It’s all here. The band is super tight and the recordings are well done. If you enjoy thrashy, noisy hardcore check this out. At eight songs and twenty minutes, it’s a bit more than I can take in a single sitting, but that’s because this isn’t normally my thing. It all blends together in my head, and gets a bit tedious.

 

THOR AND FRIENDS – The Subversive Nature of Kindness (Living Music Duplication, www.lmduplication.com)

Every once in awhile, Jersey Beat receives a record that makes you wonder, what were these people thinking, sending this record to a publication that covers punk and indie music? But I’m really glad they did. Thor and Friends is the avant-garde chamber ensemble put together by Thor Harris. Besides Harris, the group includes Peggy Ghorbani and Sarah Gautier, and the album includes several other guest performances. Together, Thor and Friends create gorgeous soundscapes in the minimalist tradition. As I listened to “Swimming with Stina,” hearing the warbling sounds, before I even looked at the song title, I had an image of someone or some creature under the water. “Standing Rock” features what sounds to me like Tuvan throat singing, with impossible vocal harmonics being generated within the throat. “90 Meters” is the classic minimalist sound, with melodic lines that repeat over and over, with a lush arrangement of marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, strings, and various percussive instruments and vocals. The sound is evocative and emotional. “Dead Man’s Hand” has a particularly Asian feel to it, while the minimalism is strong on “Grassfire,” a track that uses vocal noises to great effect. No, this isn’t an album you can dance to or sing along to, but this is an album that’s going to take you to different places. It’s stunning.

VISTA BLUE – Scary Songs to Sing in the Dark, Christmas Sounds, Yer So Bad b/w My Little Blue One (wearevistablue. bandcamp.com)

I never get tired of listening to the very prolific beach-pop-punk band from Nashville, Vista Blue. They release new music to go with the seasons and to celebrate holidays and notable events. Here’s we’ve got two EPs and a single released for Halloween, Christmas, and to honor the late Tom Petty. I hope, by now, you’ve checked them out and know what to expect. Buzzy guitars, mid-tempo pop punk songs, with a heavy Beach Boys vibe. “Scary Songs” has songs that remind us to always check the back seat, about the fear of yetis, and more. “Mary’s Face” is a rare acoustic track that warns us to only say her name twice, at most. “Christmas Sounds” has four tracks about the holidays, all about presents and the greed of the season (and the presents we don’t want), as well as all about the Christmas star that guided the magi. The final release of this trio is a covers single, with Tom Petty’s “Yer So Bad” on the A side, and Cowboy Mouth’s “My Little Blue One” on the B side. It’s kind of nice hearing Vista Blue stepping a little outside their normal comfort zone and playing music that doesn’t entirely have their signature sound. One “Yer So Bad,” the sound is somewhat tamed from their usual fare, but is still a little fuller and noisier than the Petty original. Cowboy Mouth’s “My Little Blue One” brings back the buzzy guitars, but the track has the bounce of the original with no beachiness mixed in. Like I said, I never get tired of listening to this band.

WILD EVEL & THE TRASHBONES – Digging My Grave (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

We think of garage rock’n’roll as being a uniquely American art form. But we’re wrong. From the very beginning of rock music, it spread all over the world. And the retro sounds of 60s garage live on here and abroad. Wild Evel & The Trashbones are Austria’s version of a garage rock super group, featuring members of the Staggers and the Roadrunners. Listening to this album, you can be forgiven if you think you’ve fallen into a hot tub time machine and been whisked fifty-some years to the past. Wild Evel & The Trashbones have such a strongly authentic sound; it’s raw, it’s soulful, and it rocks hard. After the opening instrumental, “Der Bucklige” (c’mon, don’t put filler as your first track, jump right into the good stuff!), the hits come one after the other. Favorites include “Bugs On My Back,” “The Mess I’m In,” and the jazzy “Coyote.” The vaguely ethnic vocals on “Gotta Leave Town” give it a sense of urgency, and “Fried Chicken Legs” has a deep blues sound. The song “Why Can’t We Be Like The Satelliters” is a tongue in cheek song of self-deprecation. The Satelliters are another well-known European garage rock band. But I think Wild Evel & The Trashbones are every bit as good as them. Of all the tracks, though, I think my number one favorite of the album may be the excellent cover of the Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf classic, “300 Pounds of Joy.” Here the song is sped up and given the rock’n’roll treatment, and it’ll knock your sox off. Now, who the hell are the Satelliters??

A CAST OF THOUSANDS – The Fifth (www.acastofthousands.net)

What happens when you blend ‘70s pagan-inspired folk music, indie rock, a dose of laid-back hippie vibe, and psychedelic rock? A Cast of Thousands explore this very question on their latest LP, The Fifth. It contains a whopping sixteen songs in fifty-four minutes. Most of the songs on this record previously were heard on A Cast of Thousands’ live LP, “Sub Rosa.” The studio versions of the songs have the same exact feel as the live LP, but the control of the studio environment yields recordings that are just a touch tighter. The album opens with “Our History,” a favorite track on the album. The melody and chord progression are so simple, yet so pretty. The even keeled vocals are perfect for this song, which has such a retro feel. “Way of Life” is another with the hippie folk-rock sound, with guitars jangling like mad. I also enjoy “Andy Said,” an up-tempo track with the same simple formula, but a bit snappier. Things go along in a similar vein, with easy, relaxed tracks that sound like the flower children are back, until it gets to “Roundabou,” (not a typo) the penultimate song, which shares more in common with punk music than anything else on this album. The melody simplifies, the arrangement gets more bare bones, and everything gets raucous. It’s like listening to a different band! A couple minutes and it’s gone, though, as “Bread and Circuses” closes things with a simple acoustic guitar and vocals. It’s a stark commentary on the state of the nation today, referring to the way the Roman emperor and Senate controlled the masses (give them bread and circuses – make sure they have food and diverting entertainment). It’s the same thing that is happening today, with our political argument devolving into Internet memes and shouting at each other instead of listening to each other. A Cast of Thousands may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do enjoy the chill vibe with biting commentary.

CELL – Demo EP (Drunken Sailor Records, www.www.www)

This is absolutely brutal stuff. Loud, noisy, and distorted guitars, bass, and drums pound incessantly while monotone vocals are sung in what sounds like falsetto. There’s little variation in the three songs on this “demo” 7” EP, but it hits hard. This debut is metallic, hardcore, and punk all at once. Those vocals really creep me out, too, in a good way. They sound really spooky.

 

 

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

I don’t know if Portland is big enough for both Dirtnap Records and Dirt Cult Records – that’s a lot of dirt! It’s also a lot of lo-fi music influenced by garage, punk, and power pop. We will never know whether it is big enough or not, though, since Dirtnap has relocated back to its native Wisconsin, but Dirt Cult continues to grow in its adopted Pacific Northwest home. There never was really a rivalry, though, because Dirt Cult’s releases have always been a little more poppy and melodic. Such is the case with the debut LP from Minneapolis’ Chinchees. Their big, distorted sound belies their small size as a mere trio, emitting a sound that’s simultaneously full and chaotic. The band consists of the rhythm section (Bill Roha on bass and Mike Cranberry on drums) from The Blue Diamond Band, Minnesota’s premiere working class rock’n’roll outfit, plus Tyler Walters on guitar. Favorite tracks include the rolling and rollicking “You’re Gonna Get Stung,” the bouncy power-pop “Gosling,” and the super fun “Melting Foam,” which has machine gun guitars while remaining eminently melodic. When it goes into a higher octave at the bridge, my heart swoons. “Everyone Knows” has a bit of a psychedelic feel, sort of reminding me of The Treasure Fleet a bit, as does the sparkling closer, “Your Life Is A Waiting Room.” Dirt Cult continues their winning streak with this release!

CHOKE UP – Stormy Blue (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

This record is a surprise, coming from Say-10. The record label and skateboard company is more known for hardcore and punk, but this record is gorgeous indie, way more melodic than anything they’ve done before, to my knowledge. It may be the best record they’ve ever released. “Stormy Blue” comes some two years after the Boston quartet’s debut LP, “Black Coffee, Bad Habits.” While that record was a pretty good representation of the modern melodic post-hardcore sound, “Stormy Blue” shows a new sense of maturity. Quietness is used as a tool, and harmonized vocals are abundant. Intensity can be found in these, not just in hard-edged raucousness. It’s a concept album, too, something not often seen in the world of “punk rock.” It’s a memory of idealistic youth, of wanting to leave everything you hated behind and creating a life for yourself and your partner, and the realities that end up resulting from that decision. The album opens in calm beauty, with “Saturday Night,” a song rooted in the present that seems to acknowledge that they’ve grown up, speaking of “dead poets and pissed off kids” who “haunt the highways, plaintive clichés longing for glory days that never came.” It’s a tough admission that ones youthful ideals were, perhaps, wasted time. The song ends in building intensity and launches into “Joyride.” This song moves from post hardcore to a modern doo-wop sound, and makes use of that quietness I mentioned, with a beautiful guitar break. The painful song begins by referencing “surrender to the binds of our parent’s lives” and slipping “under the covers and let history become us overnight.” The song is the transition from the depressing present to the memory of earlier times when we think we’re going to live forever and rule the world. It’s a desperate cry to remember these times as we grow old and lose our younger selves. The songs continue to tell the sad tale of the protagonist and his girlfriend Jenny, as they run away and try to fulfill their dreams of building a life together. “Borderland” is my favorite track, musically. It’s an upbeat track with gorgeous melodic lines, glorious sing-along parts, and it’s the song that lays out all the hopes and dreams of the kids as they begin their journey together. The brightness of the music matches the brightness the future seems to have, before the rest of the album gets depressingly real. Their lives go downhill, though the music remains top notch. “Arcade on the Pier” is a quiet ballad that blends the sadness of Americana with sunny Beach Boys surf sounds, appropriate since the pair in our story find an apartment near the water, which they wanted, but it’s a dingy basement in an old woman’s home. As their lives descend into exactly the sort of despair you might expect, the music ranges from an update to classic rock’n’roll sounds to emo-tinged pop punk to a folksy ballad. The bookend to this album is “Sunday Morning.” Back to the present, like waking from dream, there’s a sense of quiet contentedness, or at least acceptance. “Sunday morning left me an orphan / Of one ways and borders and false ideas of fortune.” We age and wake up from our false idealism. The last verse seems to sum it all up, echoing lines from “Joyride,” where the doomed journey began. “White knuckles and torn blue jeans / Your hair an auburn storm in the passenger seat.” But the truth is that all we need is each other to be happy. “I found my place in this sad country / Next to you and those stormy blues.”

CLUB NIGHT – Hell Ya (Tiny Engines, tinyengines.limitedrun.com)

This confuses me. Club Night takes elements of indie pop, dream pop, and club-like dance music and blends it all together into a noisy pastiche. It’s very disorienting and hard to follow. Edgy guitars and pounding drums vie with reverb-laden electronics and layers of distortion for attention, and it’s hard to tell which blends better with the hard vocals. The band seems to thrive on piling in as much as they can to make a sound so dense that it’s difficult to penetrate it and discern any meaning or intent.

DARK/LIGHT – Kill Some Time (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Portland, Oregon’s Dark/Light’s sophomore release is now out, courtesy of the folks at Dirt Cult. The band calls what they play “mutant punk,” but there are no mutations here. This is classic garage punk, sometimes blended with bits of no-wave and sometimes with bits of jangly indie rock. The eight songs fly by in a mere 24 minutes and leave me wanting more. Dueling vocals from Candy and Justin Schramer are the constant in songs that very from straightforward garage punk to indie pop to post goth and everything in between. The purposefully lo-fi recording masks some gorgeous guitar melodies, as much as the shouted atonal vocals pierce through the mind. I hear elements of early Lydia Lunch and Sin 34 in Candy’s vocals, though the angry atonal screams and growling crunch of the bass and guitars contrast brilliantly with the jangly melodies. Though all the songs are good, special mention must be made of the closing number, “Young Habits.” From the opening tribal drumming and harmonic-laden guitar plucking, to use of phase modulation on the guitars, to the chukka-chukka rhythms, the waltz time breaks, it all adds up to my favorite track of the album.

THE DARK RED SEED – Stands With Death (thedarkredseed.bandcamp.com)

The Dark Red Seed is the work of Portland, Oregon’s Tosten Larson, plus other diverse musicians. The three-song EP (it’s very much an extended-play, with the three songs totaling some 24 minutes) features quiet, dark Americana. The sounds are lonely and foreboding, featuring reverb laden guitar, drums and vocals. On the opening track, “The Antagonist,” the drums are played with brushes, adding to the hollowness of the feel. This goes well with the subject of the lyrics; the antagonist is, at best a bully, at worst a gun. “At best a preacher of misery and pain, at worst a politician smiling with disdain.” Dark stuff, indeed. “The Tragedy of Alesund” is another track with a feeling of desperation. Alesund is a town in Norway that has had more than its share of tragedies, from fires to mountains literally falling on buildings in the town. The song tells the story (which may be fictional) of a famine that beset the town, and the men who went out to sea to catch fish for the townsfolk to eat, but died when the ship sank. The vocals have a plaintive quality, a pleading for forgiveness for whatever the town did to deserve such an awful fate. “The Master and the Slave” doesn’t work as well as the other two for me, being a long-form jam song. It’s got a hypnotic pulsating rhythm, but at over nine minutes of sameness, it fell flat. Two out of three is a good start, and I hope to hear more from The Dark Red Seed, along the lines of the first two tracks.

THE DARTS – Me.Ow (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Arizona’s The Darts have spent a lot of time on the road, traveling the world to bring their brand of psychedelic garage rock to the masses in support of their previous EP releases (and the LP compilation of those EPs). They returned home in time to record and release their proper debut full length LP, and though I enjoyed their EPs, the full-lengther is a joy to behold. Gone is the schizo multiple personalities. Instead we get consistent and strong songs. The album opener, “The Cat’s Meow,” sets the tone. It’s a mid-tempo track with that creepy horror soundtrack psych-garage sound that I love so much. “Strange Days” is similar, with a more upbeat tempo. The keyboards are a prominent feature of this sound, and they’re done quite well here. The bass and guitar lines glide along in almost unison, with a retro-sci-fi feel. “Not My Baby” has a distinct soulful flare to it, like something out of a John Waters movie soundtrack. “Get Messy” is a bright, poppy track with a great bubblegum feel, even with the lo-fi distortion in the vocals. This is party time, and it’s my favorite track of the album! “I Made A Wish” slows things down a bit, with a classic blues progression, bright keys, and distortion galore. The penultimate track, “You’ll Bring Me Flowers,” is much slower than the rest, and sounds sort of like a harsh, distorted version of something from Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks repertoire. And the last track, well, it’s a throw-away. “Batteries” is so distorted as to be incomprehensible. It’s the lowest lo-fi recording of acoustic guitar and shouted singing, but it’s painful to listen to. Ignoring that one, this is a banger of an album!

THE HECK – Waiting In Line b/w Why?! (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Culled from their forthcoming full-length LP, The Heck releases the lead single from their collection of manic 60s garage style rock’n’roll songs. The band is from the Netherlands, but you wouldn’t know it from the sound, which is pure American rock, and not of the clean pop sort. This is down and dirty stuff that will have you stomping and shouting. A great tease for the full album coming later in the year!

 

OH! GUNQUIT – Lightning Likes Me (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Dirty Water, operating out of the UK, is the modern champion of garage rock’n’roll. They’ve been putting out a string of outstanding records in the genre. “Lightning Likes Me” is no exception. This London, UK band is sort of halfway between classic noisy garage and the soulful sounds that emanate from another UK band, Jim Jones and the Righteous Mind. The sound here is a bit cleaner than many modern garage rock bands, eschewing overdone distortion for a brighter sound. It’s a little slicker than other garage records, but it’s got super high energy, insistent vocals, and saxophone! I think my favorite track on this album full of great songs has to be “Never Sorry.” It’s got a cool loping bounce, just the right tempo, and the counterpoint between the deep dark bass rumblings and the bright shiny vocals and guitars is pretty awesome. Other favorites include urgent sounds of “Walking The Streets,” and the super soulful “Greasy Moves.” But really, you can’t go wrong here, the whole album rocks hard.

PLAX – Clean Feeling (Super Secret Records, www.supersecretrecords.com)

Taken individually, the songs from this debut LP from Austin’s Plax are each stupendous examples of the art of noisy, grimy post-punk goodness. Taken as a whole, though, it becomes more than a bit monotonous, in a literal sense. There are no melodies, as the songs are droned and the vocals spoken loudly in a flat monotone. And that’s where everything sort of blended together into one big long song and lost me. The album promised an excellent experience, because it’s a “super-group” featuring members of OBN IIIs, Spray Paint, and Skeleton. And the album opens with equal promise, with the rapid-fire “Black and White/Mistake,” a track that conjures up images of early ‘80s shows at smoky clubs, with leather clad punks and violent mosh pits. The energy is palpable in this track, and I was sure this was going to be a winner of a record. But, as each track unfolded I was struck by the sameness and monotony. Each track, on its own, would be a highlight of a compilation. And “Mold,” though lengthy, was a highlight. Imagine a buzzy, noisy monotone post-punk track with a ska rhythm. It’s an interesting combination. But what’s not interesting is an album full of same-same tracks.

THE PLURALS – Swish (GTG Records, www.gtgrecords.net)

The Midwest seems to be the true home of rock’n’roll and power pop these days, what with all the great Wisconsin musicians and bands perfecting a musical style that harkens back more to the 1970s than to 1980s or 1990s punk. Add to this list Michigan’s The Plurals. While certainly influenced by the DIY punk ethic, the band focuses more on solid rock’n’roll loaded with melodies than they do on any punk subgenre. “Swish” is their latest full-length LP, and their best to date. They don’t waste any time getting started, with the raging “Overthinking.” I enjoy the equally powerful ”Be Flat.” Guitarist Tommy Plural’s gruff vocals contrast with drummer Hattie Mae Danby’s smooth pretty voice on this track that blends a powerful sing-along sound with an easier indie-pop sound, and it works really well. I adore “Coke Daddy,” which has a great loping melody, and reminds me a bit of the great Screaming Females, especially in some of the guitar flourishes used. “Colorado Sun” again contrasts those gorgeously smooth vocals from Danby with the rock’n’roll power of the instrumentals, and the guitar solo toward the end, though not as virtuosic as what The Screamales’ Marissa Paternoster would do, still evokes that sound. “Ghoulie” has tinges of psych in the sound, showing its deep 70s roots. I adore “Honey Water,” which may be my favorite track of the album. Again, the contrasts of hard edged music and gruff vs. smooth vocals is amazing. The song also alternates between angular and melodic sounds, which is unsettling, in a good way. I’ll repeat what I said earlier: this is The Plurals’ best album yet. Recommended.

SEE THROUGH DRESSES – Horse of the Other World (xxx records, facebook.com/X3thelabel)

Whoa, this is a completely different sound from what the band released just a couple years ago. Back then I described the band as contrasting the lightness and melodic sensibilities of indie pop with the heaviness and raucousness of grunge. But the band here, while still exhibiting diversity in sound, is much more focused on lightness, atmospherics, and electronics. Lots of electronics. Dream pop electronics. Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark electronics. The songs are heavy with reverb, too. Even when the electronics are replaced by more traditional guitars, bass, and drums, the reverb is cranked up. In a way, this is a disappointment. I commented in the review of their “End of Days” mini-LP that the band had something I wanted to hear more of, but what they’ve given us in this new LP is very different. And the results are mixed. Some of the songs are cool and chill, while others sound too much like adult contemporary. For example, the opener, “Diamonds,” is a lush track, sparkly and dreamy, and “Radiant Boy” is a little more up-tempo, and a little New Order-like. But for every track like these, we get tracks like “Radiant Police,” which sounds like something you might hear in an elevator, or “Light in August,” which sounds like something from a movie montage sequence. It’s about evenly split like this. And even though some of these new songs are pretty cool, I really do miss the old See Through Dresses.

THE SIGHS – Wait on Another Day (www.thesighsmusic.com)

A long time ago, back in the days of prehistory, I lived in the Boston area. Boston was home to some great garage and power pop bands, like The Lyres and The Cars back in the day. And The Sighs, also from Massachusetts, carried out that tradition back in the nineties. After two decades of recorded silence (their last LP was released in 1996), the band is back with a collection of songs that are reworked versions of earlier songs that they found in a box of their demo tapes. Though the band was most active in the nineties, the music harkens back to an earlier day when garage and power pop ruled the airwaves. The title track is a gem of power pop goodness, with guitars jangling for days and a melody dripping with hooks. Other gems are the lead single, “It’s Real,” with a dark, mysterious feel, and “Summertime Roses,” which adds hints of 60s psychedelic glam via trumpet fanfare sounds. One thing many of the songs have is plenty of rock’n’roll attitude, too, with rockin’ guitar licks and solos aplenty. Not bad, guys.

TENDER – Modern Addiction (Partisan Records, www.partisanrecords.com)

Music, like fashion, runs in cycles, these days. We went from pop music being guitar driven from the 50s to the 80s, then the switch the electronics with new wave in the 80s, back to guitar driven, and now, over the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of synthesizers in pop music. This British duo’s debut LP is rife with lazy, laid back electronic pop music. Relaxed, it may be, but it also has a strong beat, as if it was intended to be dance music, though for lazy people who don’t want to move too much. The music is smooth and steady, radio friendly and inoffensive. And that’s pretty much the nicest way to say that this album is pretty dull.

WILD CUB – Closer (Mom+Pop Records, www.momandpopmusic.com)

Listening to this album, the image that it burns into my mind is that of a 1980s teen romantic comedy directed by John Hughes. The songs are nearly universally sunny and bright and upbeat, fully charged with electronics and dance beats. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, if Wild Cub are serious or engaging in parody. I mean, the opener, “Magic,” has toy piano as a key instrument. The rapid-fire beats and kids’ keyboard combine in such a way as to make it sound like the track is being played back at too high a speed. The tracks continue on in a similar cheesy vein until we reach the halfway mark with “Wait,” the lone song that isn’t infected with some kind of mania. Instead it’s an overblown ballad that comes midway through the film when we learn devastating news that affects our acne-prone protagonist. “Mirror” is slightly different from the others, too, with an island feel, but it still is solidly stuck in the eighties. “Rain” fools us into thinking we’ve reached another crisis, with a slow, emotional intro, but it breaks out, soon enough, into an overly sugary uplifting dance number, too. Get your leg warmers out for this one, folks.

THE ZAMBONIS / VISTA BLUE – Songs About Curling (Radiant Radish, radiantradish.bandcamp.com)

Bands have been known to write sports songs – mostly sarcastic or negative. Some bands really like certa n sports – Vista Blue are partial to baseball, it seems. But I think this is the first record to feature songs about curling, that crazy sport that features adults tossing a “stone” down the ice, with a pair of “sweepers” smoothing the surface ahead of the stone, so it travels further than the competitions’ stones. Two songs from each band are featured on this EP. The Zambonis provide the countrified “Sweep Me Over the Hog Line” and the power pop track “Curling Girl,” the latter of which morphs into a sort of doo-wop song toward its end. The two songs from the prolific Vista Blue include “Curling All Around the USA” and “Girl Who Can Curl,” both in their unique style that blends noisy guitars, pop punk esthetics, and Beach Boys melodies and harmonies. A must for any curling fan. And, hey, it’s been a Winter Olympics sport, so who isn’t a fan?



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