Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 


AERIAL – Activities of Daily Living (Kool Kat Musik; aerial.bandcamp.com)

Hailing from misty Scotland, Aerial sing songs that are bright and sunny, in direct contrast to their homeland’s reputation for clouds and drizzle. This new LP comes an entire decade after their last release, 2014’s “Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak at School?” The eleven tracks here are loaded with earworms that’ll stick in your brain, with most of the tracks being bright upbeat power pop. The title track, for example, uses sparkling keyboards and close harmony in the backing vocals to add a sparkle to a somewhat melancholy melody. I really like “Pixelated Youth,” which has a powerful pop punk feel, but with a poppier power pop melody, plus those great harmonized backing vocals. And “Bad Tattoo,” about having an embarrassing tattoo that you try to keep covered, is a fun one that many can related to. A few tracks are more ballad-like and don’t do much for me. “Hollywood Ghosts” comes across as an AM radio bubblegum tune, and is a bit too slick to my ears. “Run These Lights” sounds like the dreaded “adult contemporary” genre. And in unfortunate album tracking, “Debutante” comes immediately after. It’s another quiet ballad, featuring piano, cello, and strings (or string synth). This one’s pretty enough, but coming right after another ballad gives the album a long lull in the action. The album ends with another pair of ballads, “Silversand Beach” and “Far Away July.” Overall the album is a mixed bag for me. When Aerial focuses on upbeat power pop they’re a lot of fun to listen too. But too much of this album is filled with dull AM pop ballads for my tastes.

ANNABEL – Worldviews (Tiny Engines, www.tinyengines.net)

Annabel is another band that’s returned to activity after nearly a decade on hiatus. The Ohio band has a core of brothers Ben and Andy Hendricks (and, as the PR materials say, as long as they have each other we’ll always have Annabel). This new LP, coming nine years after their last, explores how the world has changed during their absence. The dozen tracks on offer generally have an indie-emo sound, indie rock with a dreamy yet emotional aura. Vocals are delivered with passion while the instrumentals present an ethereal wall of sound. The opening track, “Another World,” explains that the band has “A new start” yet they still feel “young at heart,” that “I fear what I am, but not enough to change,” and that the changes around them make them “feel like I’m from another world.” The songs are lush, with wonderfully ambient shimmering background to the jangly guitars that swell and fill the speakers, the bass providing a simple yet profound punctuating sound. Songs are sometimes urgent, like “All the Time,” giving a harried frantic feel. Others are more subdued, like “We Are Where We Are,” a commentary on the numbing and isolating qualities of mass media and social media. I love the quietly gorgeous “Every Home Needs a Ghost.” The delicate song features scratchy guitar tone, giving the song the sound of aching age, while the lyrics speak to the need for us all to have voices that tell us when it’s time to move on and make changes in our lives. “A ghost lives in my home / And told me I should leave / ‘You’ve been here long enough’ / And I agree.” The upbeat “Dog” is about how many of us are like the infamous dog in the fire meme, always saying everything is fine while everything is collapsing around us. If you were a fan of the indie-emo sound from the late 1990s and early 2000s, this is for you. It’s quite lovely.

HOTLUNG – In Spite Of (Sell the Heart Records; hotlung.bandcamp.com)

HotLung are a band from the seaside community of Santa Cruz, in Northern California, and “In Spite of” is their debut LP. The band calls themselves “post-hardcore,” but they’re more than a simple 90s genre tag. Their music is more melodic than such a simple category would imply, and has more varied textures. They’ve got the angular rhythms and crunchy aggressive instrumentals, to be sure, but the tracks are more tuneful than the prototypical post-hardcore bands like Quicksand or Refused. And the general tone has a wider dynamic range, too, from brutally hard to smooth and silky. There are elements of grunge in here, too, as well as pop punk and indie rock, making HotLung’s sound somewhat unique. You can hear this right off the bat in the opening track, “Never Home,” which has a pop punk melody over some smooth yet aggressive instrumentals, and has a heavy powerful post-hardcore breakdown toward the end of the track. “El Dorado” has a rich, thick, bass-heavy tone right out of the grunge playbook, but also has a creamy indie melody, providing a tranquil contrast to the gritty instrumentals. “520 Taylor” goes deeper into grunge territory with the dark heavy vibe, while “Sweet Warm” is a lovely indie ballad with growling grungy bass underneath a poppy melody. At the end of the LP, after the final song, “Vines” completes, there’s a luscious “hidden” track, an experimental piece that’s dreamy, chaotic, noisy, and provides a sense of confusion. It’s a masterpiece to cap a nice debut.

MARCEL WAVE – Something Looming (Feel It Records; marcel-wave.bandcamp.com)

No, this isn’t a record about a 1920s hairstyling technique, it’s a UK that band play quirky pop music that mixes German minimalism (think Neu! and their repeated musical riffs) with the indie pop of Stereolab (think lithe French-style pop) and with a heavy dose of English post-punk tossed in. Guitar bass, drums, and a prominent synth mix with Maike Hale-Jones’ lead vocals that are equally sung and spoken. “Bent out of Shape” is a bubbly way to open the LP. The guitar and bass have a Devo-like angular refrain, as the song bounces between bright and dark. “Barrow Boys” uses deeply buzzy synths as the base for a rip on gentrification, speaking about “city boys” moving into a neighborhood that’s undergoing rehab, pushing out the titular barrow boys – the working class folks who sell fruits and vegetables from a wheelbarrow for a living. You’ve never heard a protest song this bouncy, though. I love the frantic sounds of “Mudlarks,” which uses buzzy synths and dramatically dissonant sounds and angular melodic lines. It’s the most “punk” track of the album. “Where There's Muck There's Brass” has a great deadpan spoken word storytelling sound in the vocals with jumpy instrumentals behind, while “Discount Center” has the same vocals but bight bell-like synths. In “Where There’s Muck There’s Brass,” “muck” refers to a fucked up situation and “brass” refers to fat cat corporate executives. It tells the stories of redevelopment plans that go wrong, like plans to build a shopping mall in the center town, but after excavating a giant hole in the ground it never gets built. Or building cheap houses that end up collapsing and killing their inhabitants. It’s an old story, rich people screwing everyone else and getting away with it. “Idles of March” is another raucous one that’s a favorite, using a quicker pace, plenty of noise, and dissonance to great effect. The song is very simple, with a chorus shouting “Beware the Ides of March,” and I don’t know the intent of the meaning of the song, but it’s a great one. It’s also the shortest track at under a minute and a half, alas. Original and unique barely scratch the surface when trying to describe this band. Good stuff.

THE RATCHETS – "Hurricane Condition" EP (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

The Ratchets are back with the third installment in their series of standalone singles, each accompanied by a unique remix of the song. Each time has felt like a different band is recording the music, with one single sounding like “New Age” era Blitz and another sounding like swaggering street punk/Oi. This time out, The Ratchets give us an 80s new wave meets post-punk tune with subtle hints of funk beneath the song. While I loved the previous two singles instantly, this one’s taking me a little longer to warm up to. The remix on this outing is provided by Strawberry Zaiquiri and is noted as the “Washout Party” remix (the name coming from lyrics in the song’s chorus). It’s got a nice chill vibe on top of a solid dance beat, taking the funky new wave guitar riff of the original and making it a prominent feature, adding synth flourishes and drum machine rhythms. Vocals take awhile to come in, and are lifted directly from the original recording but pulled back in the mix, sometimes adding vast amounts of reverb on the repeated line from the chorus, “Gonna be a washout tonight.” This is first of the three where I like the remix more than the original version.

WALT DISCO – The Warping (Lucky Number, www.luckynumbermusic.com; waltdisco.bandcamp.com)

This is my first exposure to Walt Disco, and I am floored. This is, perhaps, one of the most unique albums I’ve ever heard. It defies simple categorizations, but it’s certainly very theatrical. Listening to this album is like going to see a stage musical. You get beauty, you get tragedy, you get love, and you get heartbreak. It’s everything you need in good story-telling music. The album opens with a short overture called “Seed,” a minute-long instrumental that’s absolutely gorgeous, with full orchestral introduction: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion playing a lovely fluttery melody. It rolls right into “Gnomes,” the first proper song. Jocelyn Si’s lead vocals are ready-made for off-Broadway, and they’re joined by a full choir of backing singers. The song goes from introspective to bold and triumphant and back again in the space of three and a half minutes. Following this is the 80s new wave disco funk tune, “Come Undone,” about unexpectedly falling for a one-night stand. The title track brings in influences as disparate as ABBA, Duran Duran, and David Bowie, while “You Make me Feel So Dumb” is a breezy tune that speaks to the awkwardness of one-sided relationships and unrequited love. We get a lounge-like song of loneliness in “Pearl,” in which we’re told that it’s known ahead of time that a relationship won’t work out and “I’m gonna end up living on my own.” I think my favorite track of the album, though, is “The Captain.” It’s just plain glorious. It’s a huge epic number, starting out with the sound of a big folk tune, and, in defiance of expectations, it gets bigger and bigger, with trumpets joining in, giving the feel of a huge Broadway showstopper or finale. The actual finale, though, is “Before the Walls,” and it’s got an exotic tone to it, and it’s perhaps the most experimental track of the album. It’s interesting, but sort of fizzles out at the end, rather than ending with a bang. Maybe that’s because it’s what life really is like. The common theme that seems to run through these songs is the constancy of change in our lives, and the need to deal with those changes head on, wherever they lead us. It’s certainly the most fascinating record I’ve heard this year.

BODY FARM / DRY SOCKET – Body//Socket Split LP (blindragerecords.com)

Two hardcore bands with somewhat different sounds share the stage on this new split LP. Body Farm are an East Coast band, split between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Columbus, Ohio, while Dry Socket are a West Coast group out of Portland, Oregon.

Body Farm plays speedy, angry hardcore with song topics including trans and gay rights and the evils of Western capitalism. Their side of the LP opens with a clip of Tucker Carlson saying, “Respect my pronouns or I will stab you.” Thus starts “Trans Day of Vengeance,” a chaotic track with vocals that channel the late Poly Styrene, angrily shouting with a high pitch. The drums pound furiously, as do the guitar and bass, with little organization holding it together until the song slows down. It all coalesces into a tribal rhythm, with a throbbing bass and screeching guitar, punctuated by lyrics like “We can burn it all down.” This is righteously angry stuff. “I Was Born Into Capitalism” is a spoken word piece with guitar harmonics and a weary monolog about daily life in a country in which laws are constantly being passed against us and people we love, while we’re expected to face every day with a smile and subservience, and while fascism becomes more real every day. Daydreaming about the future we want is the only way to make it through. I love the angular riffs of “Endless Psychosis,” and the anarchic pandemonium of “Fuck You Pay Me,” the latter of which opens with a clip asking, “What’s the most attractive language a man can speak?” “Money” comes the reply. The song decries our society’s obsession with material things and wealth at the expense of the well-being of all of us.

Dry Socket’s music is thicker, heavier and grungier, with more rhythmic shifts between slow loping sections that are almost metallic and breakneck, crunchy hardcore. One of my favorites of their tracks is “Abomination,” which starts out with a slow bounce in the drums, bass, and guitars, and vocals that are a high-pitched frightening growl. Then, suddenly, the song speeds up by like three or four times and all the instruments and vocals join in a frenzy for this bridge, before the slower tempo returns to finish things out. And “Banking Hours” is frantic for its first half, then slowing with a riff that reminds me of a Mission Impossible film with Tom Cruise as a headbanging spy.

The tracks on this LP are short, as all good hardcore songs are. Not a one even reaches two minutes long, with most around a minute and many even shorter. The entire split is 17 bitter tracks in 21 anger-filled minutes. This is modern hardcore, kids.


BIG LIFE – If You Like Bad Ideas, It’s a Very Exciting Time (Setterwind Records, www.setterwindrecords.com)

Astute readers of Jersey Beat will be aware of my love for all things Dischord Records and all things DC music. They will also be aware of my review of Big Life’s recorded debut last year, and how I likened it to the 1980s Dischord output of bands like Gray Matter, Dg Nasty, The Faith and more. Well, this Midwestern band which includes Ryan Allen, better known for his excellent power pop records under the name Extra Arms, returns with their sophomore offering, a six-song EP, and damn this stuff scratches my DC punk itch like few bands have done outside of that place and that time. This time out the band gets even harder and tougher, channeling the likes of Government Issue, Swiz, and Ignition. Especially on the a couple of the tracks, like “Bias for Action” and “What Doesn’t Kill You.” These hit hard, with powerful lyrics and instrumentals, and vocals that are shouted as if they’re a vital message that has to be conveyed urgently. And so it is; “Here for a Moment,” for example, demands that we live for now, because “We’re only here for a moment and then we’re gone.” “Adds Up to Nothing” is almost as edgy as the other tracks, but it’s a little more melodic, more like some of those Revolution Summer bands started doing, still with a hardcore sensibility mixed in. The only other band I can think of that comes this close to the 80s DC sound is Chicago’s Wrong War. Wouldn’t a tour with these two bands be perfect? I love this stuff.

COUCH POTATO MASSACRE – Died of Dysentery (Outloud! Records, outloudrecords.bandcamp.com)

Couch Potato Massacre are a pop punk band from Minneapolis and they say that they sing songs about movies, TV shows, and video games. And that indeed, is what we get. Even the title and cover art are a reference to an old video game, “The Oregon Trail,” in which dying of dysentery was a very real possibility (just like in real life). Sound clips from the movies and TV shows are used liberally throughout this, the band’s debut full-length LP (they previously released a pair of EPs). The music here isn’t breaking any new ground, but the band play it proficiently and enthusiastically, which is was really counts. And it’s all tongue in cheek stuff, which makes it a lot of fun. The album opens with a song referencing the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie franchise, called “Never Sleep Again.” After a clip from the film we get a bouncy song about using every stimulant readily available to stay awake and avoid a run-in with Freddy. Guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards join together in a frantic ruckus behind urgent vocals. We get songs about the movie “Candyman:” (“The Hook Brings You Back”), the TV sit-com “That ‘70s Show” (“Down in the Basement”), “Teen Wolf” (“Michael J. Teen Wolf”), “Law and Order SVU” (“Benson and Stabler”), and more. The audio clip that starts “Benson and Stabler” is particularly hilarious. And especially relevant lately (due to a recent film release) is “Do, Re, Egon,” the title coming from the “Ghost Busters” clip that opens the track. This track is harder and edgier rock and roll than most of the songs, with less pop and more down and dirty rocking out. Another song that differs from the rest is “Ned Ryerson.” It’s a solemn acoustic tune with sad lyrics about being stuck in a rut (as in the movie, “Groundhog Day”). It opens with one of the best lines of the movie, in which “Phil,” played by Bill Murray, tells “Ned,” played by Stephen Tobolowsky, “I’ll give you a winter prediction. It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.” It’s an amazing poetic metaphor for the daily struggle through life, and this song conveys the depressing feelings of desperation. It may actually be my favorite track of the album. In one sense, Couch Potato Massacre remind me of Vista Blue, another pop punk band that do a lot of theme-based tongue-in-cheek tunes. CPM are less buzzy, though, and a little bouncier. CPM are certainly a lot of fun, especially for fans of pop culture.

HOTBODS (Loud Circles Vinyl, www.loudcirclesvinyl.com)

Hotbods have been around awhile, but not very active. That’s changing now, with their debut LP. Featuring musical luminaries of the Sacramento, California area, Hotbods play a brand of music that mixes grunge, indie, and pop punk. The resulting ten songs on this LP are driving, gruff, yet quite melodic. It’s a compelling sound. Right out of the gate, with “Insects,” you can hear the power, with vocals belted out with gritty determination, the drums pounding furiously, and the guitar and bass playing with a frenzy. Beneath this rough exterior are smooth silky backing vocals, making for quite a start contrast. “Disorder” has some Nirvana in its DNA, but it’s incredibly bouncy and reminds me somewhat of Awesome Fest style pop punk, making it an instant favorite. Another favorite is “Bend and Bow,” with the rhythmic and melodic feel of a Rocket from the Crypt song (minus the horns), The rasp of the vocals and instrumentals is again countered by those angelic backing vocals. “Bread of Heaven” is the lone ballad of the LP, and it’s a quiet affair with vocals and piano. It’s recorded to sound old and scratchy, and it’s fine, but feels out of place. “Nothing,” which immediate follows, is the opposite; it’s loud and raucous, grunge-filled, melodic, and with some cool call-response vocals reminding me of NOMEANSNO. Hotbods demonstrate some very disparate influences, then blend them together into something new and gripping. Solid.

LATE SLIP – I Love You (Party Mermaid Records, www.partymermaidrecords.com)

Late Slip presents their debut recording, but is it an LP or an EP? It has eight tracks but lasts only 22 minutes. Who cares, let’s talk about the music! If the songs sound somewhat familiar, that’s intentional; Late Slip reach back in time for inspiration. There’s a vaguely retro rock and roll quality to the songs here, sometimes with hints of country twang, sometimes deeply in doo-wop territory, sometimes with a whisper of surf, always with a sense of fun. Late Slip’s lead vocalist Chelsea Nenni’s, vocals are crystal clear, very pretty, and have plenty of swagger. The opening track, “I’ll Be Okay,” will bring up memories of sock hops with The Shangri-Las or The Ronnettes, and so will the title track, a song of heartbreak and sorrow. “Tidal Wave” has the feel of a surf tune of the 60s, but the Beach Boys were never like this! This tidal wave is gonna “kn-n-n-n-n-nock you out” with its sassiness and toughness. You ain’t even gonna see it coming, babe! “Mind Your Business” reaches even further back in time and mixes the sound of head bobbing ‘50s pop with even earlier honkytonk and Tin Pan Alley music. We get “Love Me True,” an old timey honkytonk tune that twangs with an oompah bass and the tinkling of piano. The record ends with a cover of Blondie’s hit, “Heart of Glass,” and it’s unlike any cover you’ve heard before. In place of the new wave meets disco intensity of the original we get a fun countrified version worthy of the Grand Ole Opry. You can almost hear Reba McEntire in those vocals. The thumpity thump of the drums, the simple twang of the bass, and the hillbilly guitars will get you up and stomping a two-step in no time. Late Slip? Better late than never! This is a hell of a fun record.

MATT HUNTER & THE DUSTY FATES – Reindeer Soul (Dromedary Records, dromedary-records.com)

The Dusty Fates is a fairly new project, formed just before the pandemic. It was envisioned as a vehicle for Matt Hunter to begin making music again, and it features a rotating cast of other members, because, as Hunter says, “I love the idea that a band’s dynamic can constantly be in flux, based on whoever’s around, who wants to play at a given time, and who might be best for a particular song. It means that your songs can be completely different every time they’re performed, and you have to be ready for that. I find that thrilling.” This is Hunter’s first release under the Dusty Fates moniker, and features an interesting blend of the odd, the dreamy, and the indie. The opening track, for example, “Sandcastle Row,” is sparsely arranged, but sounds huge and epic, nonetheless. There’s big reverb and the gently jangling guitar gets louder and richer, become almost a clarion that demands our attention, particularly when the chords go incongruously minor and sinister. I really like this sort of sound, though Hunter’s hushed vocals are barely sung and sometimes veer off key. “Morning Light,” on the other hand, is a lovely light indie tune with a dusty sound. Acoustic and electric guitars mix, again in a minor key that shifts to major, the acoustic guitar taking the lead and a violin joining in to provide a hint of Americana. It gives the feeling of the darkness of night giving way to the joyful light of morning. In these tracks are various versions of indie rock, sometimes with quirky cool bits of songwriting. The arrangements are subtle and thin, but sometimes sound lusher than they have any right to be. “Franz” is a favorite for driving rhythm, alternating dark and bright vibes, and cool arrangement with fun backing vocals and synths. “Night Cattle” is another that sounds so much bigger than it is, with only guitar, bass, and vocals. The reverb provides a quite expansive sound, and the fiddle returns to interject some lines. The song is dreamy and gorgeous. Speaking of dreamy and gorgeous, the instrumental track, “Weed Garden,” is just that, and may be my favorite track of the album. Overall, the songwriting, arranging, and variety are spot on in this album. The one part I have a hard time with is those shaky lead vocals.

SKYWAY – Never Disappear (www.skywaypunk.com)

Skyway are a punk trio out of Buffalo, Mew York (although there are a number of Skyway bands around the world, so an internet search is made difficult). And though “Never Disappear” is only the band’s second EP, they sound like seasoned veterans; the performances are tight and cohesive. This is a band that knows who they are. And that’s a 90’s style pop punk band that focuses on the songs, not on theatrics. There are five songs here, and they’re at once crunchy and poppy, aggressive and bouncy. The opening track is a good example of this, with a great pop melody accompanied by ferocious instrumentals. Lead vocals have the perfect sort of “nerd-punk” tone and are backed up on the chorus by harmonized “whoa-ohs.” “Swear Jar” is the band’s nod to skate punk, with a speedier pace in the rhythm section and soaring vocals, the closest the band gets to stereotypical 90s pop punk. For that reason it’s my least favorite track here, though the band avoids the metallic vibe a lot of that genre is guilty of. The lyrics, though, are something we can all relate to: it’s an exhortation to be yourself and not let the haters win. “The Longest Line” has more of a loping pace, loads of bounce, and sentimental lyrics about the journey that is life. I especially like the traded lead vocals at one point in the song when the topic turns to the importance of the company we keep along this journey, and how the things we do and see together are what give meaning to the journey. The EP is rounded out by “Misplaced and Rediscovered” and “Don’t Want to Party.” The latter is a particularly fun, combining powerful gruff instrumentals with a pop melody and lyrics about aging punks who want to stay home and going to sleep early instead of going out with younger friends. Plenty of us relate to that! Solid release.

ULTRABOMB – Dying to Smile (DC Jam Records, app.dcjamrecords.com)

Ultrabomb, for those not in the know, is a punk rock power trio, featuring Greg Norton (best known from Hüsker Dü), Finny McConnell (of The Mahones), and Jamie Oliver (from the mighty UK Subs). They’ve been together a while now, and “Dying to Smile” is their second full-length LP, their debut having come out last year. And Greg might get a little miffed by this, but to me, a lot of the songs sound similar to his more famous band. But that’s a great thing, because Hüsker Dü is one of my all-time favorite bands. From the guitar tone to the rhythms to the sort of backing vocals used, and even in the chord progressions, this reminds me so much of that beloved band. McConnell’s lead vocals are grittier and scratchier than Bob Mould’s, but the bulk of these songs are a little bit frantic, loaded with pop melody and treble-heavy guitar, and backing vocals singing “ahhhhhs” that follow the chords, just like many Hüsker songs. “Doggo” is one such track, and it opens the LP with a bang. It’s a fairly simple song, but it’s glorious. “It’s Now,” too, has the same great sound. I love “Sleep Tight,” too. It’s got that frantic Hüsker sound, simple melody, broadly sung backing vocals, trebly guitar, and big lead vocals that are a bit pulled into the mix. Norton’s simple bass line hearkens back to early hardcore days. “West in the Summertime” is another, and except for the lead vocals and guitar solo you would be excused if you thought you were listening to a lost Hüsker Dü track. My favorite track of the album, though, has to be the manic “Rage Bomb.” The guitar jangles furiously, while the rhythm section propels the song forward at a quick and deliberate pace. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are songs different from the Hüskers, too. “Never Better” has more of a rock and roll jam feel, complete with guitar solo. And though “Isolation” has some of these elements, it’s a ballad with a completely different feel from the rest of the album. McConnell’s vocals are much more prominent in the mix and the guitars sound dreamy. “Woke Wars” has more of a garage rock feel. And “Just Cut” is a solid indie rock anthem. The whole album is certainly solid, and evokes more than just nostalgia. Excellent stuff here.

45 ADAPTERS – Unstoppable (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

New York’s 45 Adaptors proudly call themselves “Oi & B,” a melding of street punk and R&B, I guess I don’t get that. I do hear street punk vibes pretty heavily, and bits of power pop and rockabilly. Sometimes I even hear Bad Religion influence. But R&B? Nah. As I commented in my review of their previous release, the 12” EP “Now or Never,” the band are a lot more melodic than most Oi bands, with more jangly guitars and less tough guy attitude. And now, after some fifteen years releasing EPs, singles, and splits, 45 Adapters are finally releasing their first full-length LP. The opening title track is, perhaps, the most “punk” and the most Oi, with the most attitude and the biggest gang vocals. And it’s fine, but the next track, “Coming Up Empty,” is miles better to my ears. It’s a little smoother, a lot more melodic, but no less energetic. The guitars jangle more, the beat has a lot more bounce, and this one blends in loads more power pop than street punk. If you’re a fan of Bad Religion, you’re going to enjoy “86400.” This song has a strong BR vibe mixed in with street punk gang vocals and a dark sound. And right after this is the bright poppy “Save the Day,” with a retro rock rhythm that’s sure to get your head bobbing and your toe tapping. I love the jangle of “Guilty by Participation,” and especially the power pop meets garage rock sound of “Colder.” And “Refuse to Die” has a hint of Madness-style two tone to it, with song lyrics about skinhead culture, making it a fun one. Did I say fun one? Hell, it’s fun twelve for the number of tracks here! After a fifteen-year wait, this is one hell of a debut LP.


BATS & MICE – PS: Seriously (Lovitt Records, www.lovitt.com)

Originally formed more than 20 years ago by three of the members of Sleepytime Trio, Bats & Mice last released music in 2010 after several line-up changes and before life took over and the band went into hiatus. Children were had and families raised, but now the band is back with a brand new full-length LP, only the second of their career. There are seemingly two very different bands on this LP – not literally, but stylistically. Some songs are loud, raucous, and very punk influenced. Others are quiet, relaxed, and subtle, very unpunk but very indie. For example, “Out of Line,” which opens the album, is smooth and a little dreamy, full of reverb and vocal harmonies. “Buried Just Beyond,” too, has a relaxed indie feel, with a lovely melody and nice jangles in the instrumentals, though the harmonized vocals sometimes get a little insistent and the guitar tone gets a little grittier partway through the track. But then there are loud raucous tracks like “Space Race,” the guitars screaming out, the drums and bass pounding away more insistently, though the vocals are still smoother and harmonized. “Never Break Again” is even more on the punk side of the scale, with not just furious instrumentals, but with angry shouted vocals. The melody is more straightforward, too, like a good punk song should be. Toward the end of the album, the two “bands” start to merge with songs the blend the two disparate styles together. “Staring Straight” has a sense of urgent alarm in its opening, and the song seems to try to bridge the two sounds on the album, with smooth vocals and a lush melodic line, but with loud buzzy guitars, bass, and drums. And “Wash Our Bones Out” has a dirtier guitar tone and insistent gang vocals shouting out, but the melody glides dreamily. The album took me on a wild ride between two extremes, and everything meets in the middle by the end. Welcome back, Bats & Mice. It’s nice to listen to ya!

BED MAKER (Dischord Records, dischord.com)

Bed Maker are a newer Dischord band and that immediately gets me excited. More than any single label, I’ve been obsessed with the music coming out of the DC scene, and in particular with the bands on Dischord Records. Bed Maker features Amanda MacKaye (formerly of Desiderata and Routineers), along with veterans of multiple bands Jeff Barsky, Arthur Noll, and Vin Novara. The eleven tracks on this LP have a recognizable DC post-punk sound, but one unique aspect is that some of the instrumentals are a little bit jazzy, with a nice groove, sometimes heavy, sometimes breezy. MacKaye’s vocals, too, are instantly recognizable, with her way of emphatically both singing and speaking the lyrics at the same time. One of those heavier tracks is “Two Left Feet,” the opening track. The heaviness comes from the prominent bass and its veritable growl to match the growl of MacKaye’s vocals. The guitar lines in many of these tracks are minimalist, with short repeating phrases, sometimes shifting key, sometimes not. You can hear this featured in a track like “Artful Dodger.” I love how at one point of that song, the instrumentals are used in a chime-like way, with the bass quietly playing the four beats of a measure, then the guitars and drums loudly striking four in the next measure. “Loops/Holes” features arty angular minimalist lines in the bass and guitar and MacKaye’s emphatic spoken-singing vocals, making it a favorite. I love the jazzy drum lines in “Candy Striper’s Confession,” even as the guitar, bass, and vocals are very post-punk minimalist. It gives the track a cool pulse. Sometimes the guitars go “off script” into some free-form noise, which gives the songs a nice tension. This is evident on “Ballad of Tokitae,” a lead single released before the LP. Tokitae may refer to a captive female orca that died of renal failure before she could be released back to the wild. But it’s the first track the band ever released as a single, two years ago, “Miss Dickens,” that really hits the sweet spot. It reveals Bed Maker and Amanda MacKaye to be our generation’s Beat poets,” with crazy free-jazz music and stream of consciousness-like poetic lyrics. Some punks of the past have been experimenting with playing music with fewer constraints. Mike Watt is one, and Bed Maker is another. It makes for exciting listening.

THE COVIDS – Banned from the USA (Wap Shoo Wap Records, www.wapshoowaprecords.com)

The COVIDS were supposed to go on a US tour. I was planning to see their show at San Diego’s Tower Bar. But there were visa problems for two of the members, and not only were they refused entry, they were banned from even trying again. The two members who were allowed in used the their time here to sulk, drink, and plot with Nestter Donuts, the Spanish-born one-man band and friend. They found themselves at LA’s Savannah Studios, and wrote and recorded the blistering attack on mindless bureaucracy “Banned from the USA.” After returning home, they excitedly went back to the studio with the rest of the band and recorded the song again. The two tracks are presented now on a 7” single, the A-side containing the full-band version and the B-side having the Nestter Donuts version. The full-band version, of course, has better production quality and a fuller sound, but both are gritty driving garage rock and roll with an appropriate bluesy chord progression. The lyrics are simple, with cries of “I wanna go to the USA,” “I wanna go to LA,” and “I want to do it.” The B-side is thinner and tinnier sounding, and it’s also a little more relaxed. I think the bitterness of the experience comes through better in the full-band version, but both are excellent examples of the modern garage rock movement, from Amsterdam’s finest.

DISTANTS (distants.bandcamp.com)

After several years of kicking around and releasing a handful of EPs and singles, Distants are at long last releasing their debut full-length LP. The band was originally from Chicago, though over the years they’ve slowly spread out among various Midwestern states. Nevertheless, their Chicago roots are still worn with pride, with a tough muscular guitar sound. That they’re scattered around the upper Midwest is noted in the title of the first track, “Great Lakes Paving Company.” Distants’ music is best described as broad, soaring pop punk. Their songs have distinct indie rock melodies, but rather than being rooted in simple bouncy power pop, these tracks are huge and emotionally charged. That first track is about getting tired of being stuck following the previously paved paths of others, “the same old questions” that lead to “the same old answers.” It celebrates those who “still got a thirst” for more and blaze their own path. It’s an upbeat hopeful song in an album of songs that mostly deal with more depressing topics. For example, shit jobs are the topic on “Jolly Good.” Front man Alex Angus sings of “staring at a blank white wall,” dealing with a “seven hour struggle.” And on “Grinding” he sings of low-paying work, the “existential dread” of a “month-long sleepwalk,” and that the “paycheck’s a middle finger.” Isolation is the topic in “Mirror Year,” a gruff, gritty song with harmonized vocals that sings about losing yourself in loneliness. It asks if you barely speak over a long period of time, “Will I remember how to sing?” With the end of the song comes realization that it’s all self-imposed, and that it’s been a waste of time,” I’ve got forever to stay alive.” I love “Heuristic,” especially the gorgeous bass on the opening of the song. When the guitars come in, they’re very insistent. And the closing track, “Plateaued,” seems to speak of aging and illness, and of trying to make the best we can in the face of oncoming oblivion. Throughout the record, the counterpoint of solid rhythm guitar and bobbing and weaving in the lead guitar are emblematic of a melodic emo style that originated in the Midwest in the late 80s and early 90s, a sort of mixing of west coast pop punk and east coast early emo. It’s a style I’ve loved for a long time, and hearing it on Distants’ LP makes me happy.

MANTAROCHEN – In The Badgers Cave (It’s Eleven Records, www.itseleven-records.de)

Mantarochen hails from Leipzig, in former East Germany. And after a series of digital single releases over the past year and a half, this mini-LP (six songs in sixteen minutes), this is their “debut” release. The name translates to manta ray, but don’t fear their sting. They’re a throwback to the 1980s, goth post-punk with a strong dance beat and a dark mysterious aura. The music is synth heavy, with a prominent rapid-fire bass complementing the simple drum (or is it a drum machine?), and the keyboards provide plenty of spaced-out ambience for the anguished yet dreamy vocals. The guitar is subtle, adding texture more than melody, and its tone is very trebly, such as was common in goth post-punk back in the day. Many of the songs tend to sound somewhat alike, with little variance in tempo or tone. One exception is “Jaguar,” which opens with a catty “meow,” and has a bit more aggressive of a garage-goth sound, the vocals being a little more emphatic, too. If you’re into that dark nervous sounding German synth-punk from the 80s, check this out. It’s a little too same-same for me, though.

POLKADOT - …to be crushed (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)

Polkadot is a new band for Count Your Lucky Stars. The band’s earlier releases have been digital EPs, and their debut full length was a cassette available from Lava Socks Records. Hailing from San Francisco, the band are proponents of the indie pop sound of the 90s, with lovely twee melodies and sincere lead vocals. The guitar and bass tones are loud and fuzzed out, providing a nice contrast to the crystal clear vocals. They’ve got wonderful dynamic range, with quiet touching moments that give way to explosive power and back again. But it’s not “emo,” it’s lovely indie pop. The opening track, “Left Behind,” starts out with just bass and lead vocals, and then harmonized backing vocals come in, and the result is absolutely beautiful. The full band doesn’t come in until halfway through, the gorgeous bass tone joined by jangly guitars, piano, and lithe drums. The song finishes out as a pretty instrumental. The next track “New Friends,” couldn’t be more different, with a loud wall of fuzzed guitar, bass, and drums against those sparkling lead vocals. The ferocity in the instrumentals is something to behold and unusual for indie pop, but it works magnificently. Some songs, like “If There’s Nothing left to Say” or “Crushed,” hew more toward the “traditional” indie pop sound, with pretty jangly guitars and charming vocals. These songs are perfectly fine and I enjoy them, but the songs that are a little different with those bigger contrasts and dynamics are the ones I really love. I especially love the dark closing track, “This Year.” It features dissonant guitars that provide palpable tension amidst the hazy melody and pained vocals. This is a solid sophomore LP that I heartily enjoy.

RAD OWL – Rage Gracefully (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Engineer Records, www.engineerrecords.com)

Rad Owl have been around for several years, but the Minneapolis band is new to me. Apparently the band features former members of bands such as Samiam, Jon Snodgrass, Align, and more. Their music is strongly influenced by 90s west coast melodic punk, such as played by ALL, Big Drill Car, and the like. They would have fit in perfectly on the Cruz Records roster back in the day. The songs are speedy, eminently melodic, but with a nice aggressive edge. Close harmony is generously used throughout the songs, and the musicianship is top notch. Jeremy Jessen’s vocals are belted out with power and the instrumentals from the guitars (Jessen and Ryan Tate), bass (Jeremy Bergo) and drums (David Jarnstrom) are tight. One dangerous trap of 90s melodic punk too many modern bands fall into is getting too metallic with too many technical licks. Thankfully Rad Owl don’t fall into that trap, and their songs are still raw, yet tuneful, energetic, and compelling. Right out the gate this album comes on strong and never lets up. “Doppler” is one of the strongest tracks, with very Descendents-like chord changes and the most awesome epic bridge. “Checkers” is played at a more leisurely pace than many of the tracks, but it’s a favorite for its relaxed feel and gorgeous melody and harmonies. Bergo gets to start the track with a cool solo bass line, and he does a bang-up job with a line that meanders around throughout the track. I love “Bock Szn” for its wonderfully angular chord changes and its hardcore power and urgency. I love the indie rock sound of “Always Eyes,” with the lyrics bouncing around between lead and backing vocals. It’s cool hearing a more relaxed indie rock tune played with that buzzy trebly guitar tone and the ALL-like bass line. The closing track, “Quiet While You’re Ahead,” just sounds so bright and hopeful, too. The melody is poppy, the pace is quick, and the whole track just feels so optimistic. So many bands try to play 90s melodic punk these days, and end up sounding like a metal caricature. Rad Owl are the real deal and bring back so many fond memories. Aces!

RAISED ON TV – Make Time to Make Time (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

Raised on TV, hailing from Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, are not typical Sell the Heart Records fare. I said as much when I reviewed their previous LP, 2023’s “Strangers in Pictures.” The band doesn’t play the emotional sort of punk more familiar to label followers, instead playing breezy jangly indie rock. This time out the band drives more toward a power pop sound than a dream pop feel, perhaps due to the production. There’s less reverb and more focus on the jangle. It gives the nine songs an edgier feel, which I appreciate. Keaton Rogers’ vocals are a smooth and lush baritone, a welcome respite from gruff or screechy singing in many punk or punk-influenced bands these days. And though the band plays indie rock, they’re definitely punk-influenced. Listen to the noisy guitars on “Without a Care” for a good example. “Back in the Sun” is a perfect title for this next track, because it’s got a bright, pretty indie pop sound, the guitars jangling with a cleaner tone, and the melody is so bright and bouncy. Raised on TV change things up, too, with “Road Dogs,” a grittier, darker tune with more of a garage rock and roll sound. There’s more fuzz in the guitars, and you can almost smell the dust in the air from cruising down the back roads. And the track immediately following could not be more different; “The Wonder of Things” is soft and delicate, reminding me of French indie-pop. “Take Me Home,” which closes the LP, has the gorgeous sound of singer-songwriter fare, with a lovely somber storytelling feel. While I enjoyed and recommended their previous LP, I like “Make Time to Make Time” even more – so this gets another strong recommendation from me.


DRUNK UNCLE – O, Brittle Weather (drunkuncleatx.bandcamp.com)

When last I encountered Drunk Uncle, they were preparing to release their excellent debut full-length LP, “Look Up,” just about two years ago. In the interim since that LP, they isolated themselves in an East Texas cabin to work on this follow-up. “O, Brittle Weather,” and the resulting songs are lusher yet more subtle. The band displays plenty of 90s Midwest emo influence from bands like Braid, and Cap’n Jazz, featuring a huge dynamic range, mathy meandering guitar lines, and impassioned vocals. Some unique touches include keyboards on some songs, and sometimes adding trumpet into the mix. In particular, the song “Thundercloud” makes good use of keyboards and gang vocals to give the song a feeling of intensity. The song ends with some lovely guitar strums and the sounds of friends talking and laughing, lending a relaxed feel to it. And the trumpet makes a strong appearance on “Cabin,” the opening of which has a powerful jazzy vibe. I love how the two guitars wind around each other and I adore the gigantic dynamic shifts the track makes, from massive and fully charged to nearly silent and introspective. “Knees (Buckling)” is very pretty, making generous use of guitar harmonics and hushed simple guitar and bass lines that play against each other. Vocals are whispered as much as sung, with a sense of emotional pain coming through. The song builds and builds as it evolves, getting bigger, grinding harder. Before the song ends, we hear the sound of a Bugs Bunny cartoon in the background. Then everything goes quiet again as the track ends. It’s one of my favorite tracks of the album. And the pair of tracks, “Shell” and “Piano Song” roll one into another, joined by a particular riff on the electric piano. The former has lovely delicate vocals and instrumentals, and the latter is a brighter indie song. The debut LP was recommended. This sophomore LP is even better.

FVRMN – Back to the Whip (fevermoontokyo.bandcamp.com)

FVRMN is the new moniker for a Tokyo-based band previously known as Fever Moon. I guess they’re allergic to vowels. But in any case, the band’s lineup rotates through the nine tracks here and includes Chris Broach (of Braid fame) and Mike Watt (of The Minutemen, fIREHOSE, Mike Watt and the Missingmen, and more), as well as Motoharu Fukada (formerly of Soil), Christian Madden (of the Liam Gallagher Band), and many others. The band is fronted by Jay Holmes, who reportedly wrote the songs on this album after falling ill. His vocals are rough and scratchy, an interesting match for the instrumentals, which are lush and airy, but at the same time recorded with plenty of distortion. It’s almost as if The Jesus and Mary Chain were playing songs with a stronger beat and more bounce. This unique sound makes the band a real standout, with poppy melodies and a melancholy essence. The title track, which opens the LP, is a great example of this. The melody and beat are bright, but the arrangement and production cast a pall over that. “Raleigh” will appeal to a lot of fans of pop punk, because it’s got the sound of one of those slower pop punk story-telling songs, but it’s also got the same thick distortion; you can hear the guitars shimmering beneath the static and it just sounds so cool. “Into the Earth” is a gritty doo-wop song, theatrical in its execution and arrangement, with plenty of interesting sound effects and instrumentation. Its quirkiness makes it a favorite and it’s sure to be a favorite among others. I adore “Wig,” which has the sound of something from the child of Dinosaur Jr. and Jesus and Mary Chain. The melody shines triumphantly while the fuzzy production softens and saddens it. It’s a beautiful contrast. This album is so good and so different from anything else out there today. I strongly recommend it.

GOLDENBOY – Qualmbum (peerecords.bandcamp.com)

Now this is a truly international effort, released by five different labels in different markets around the world. Goldenboy is a pop punk band from Norway who have been around quite awhile – twenty-five years, in fact. They’ve teamed up with labels from Norway, the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia to release this, their fourth full-length LP. The album is an emotional rollercoaster, with many of the songs having been written in the wake of the death of singer Torkel’s newborn son due to fatal hospital mistakes. The opening track, “My Name is Dad,” is so very different from the rest of the LP, with acoustic guitar, piano, and strings. It’s a song to his son, about all the things he had been looking forward to as a father, and how all he wanted was to be called dad. It’s very melancholy and very moving. As a bookend, “Qualm” ends the track and also references the deep sadness of losing a child. “Every other night I cry,” the song begins, “trying not to stay awake.” But ultimately it’s a song of the slow, bumpy process of healing, as in the chorus we hear, “Yes, there will be rainy days / And the sorrow fades away” but also references wounds not healing and not being able to carry on. The music slowly builds throughout the track, representing the emergence from depression, and ends feeling quite triumphant. Beside sadness, another emotion that arises is anger, directed at those who caused the pain. “Please Hold” addresses this, and it’s an aggressive track, with a big wall of guitars and irate lyrics about the uncaring nature of those who hold people’s lives in their hands. The musicianship and songwriting on this LP are top notch, with songs having the perfect balance of melody and power, punk and pop, always sounding tight, but never sounding overproduced. There are a couple of other standout tracks to note. I love the use of the circle of fifths chord progression used in parts of “Empty Handed.” And “Rain On My Parade” is a solid song that gets better toward the end, as there’s a big emotional swell of strings. And I love the bounciness of “In That Bottle.” The fact is, actually, that there isn’t a bad track on this album, which I highly recommend.

LAVA FANGS – Sub Auroram (lavafangs.bandcamp.com)

You’ll be forgiven if you aren’t familiar with Lava Fangs; they’re an Australian band that rarely plays live, let alone tours. But the members of the band are apparently veterans of the Melbourne music scene. That shows in the level of musicianship on display and in the quality songwriting. The band plays a mix of power pop, pop punk, and garage pop, with some songs leaning more heavily one way or another. The result is bouncy fun, especially when the band plays around with edgier fare in the punk and garage sides of the mix. “Anticippointment” is one such great track, with a quicker pace and Buzzcocks meets Ramones vibe. The song is poppy but powerful, bright musically, darker lyrically (the song about looking forward to being let down yet again). Some tracks are heavily Beatles influenced, such as the loping power pop tune, “Photograph.” Other tracks are more “tongue in cheek,” like the novelty tune “Dancing for Satan,” with its mock garage pop music with organ and surf guitar, and silly lyrics. Or 60s AM pop like “Take Him Apart,” with trumpets in the mix giving the song the feel of mixing in some Herb Alpert, with cool bass tone and a strong backbeat. “Make Up Your Mind” has a tougher garage sound, but tempered with plenty of power pop and a 60s Beatles-like melody. To continue demonstrating their disparate influences and styles, “Want Me Need Me Love Me” is more classic rock like, with both latter period Beatles and Rolling Stones influence and a bluesy rock and roll sound. This is one of those “something for everybody” sorts of records.

MODERN SHAKES – A Bolt from the Blue (fondoflife.bandcamp.com)

Modern Shakes are a newer band, hailing from the UK and formed just seven years ago. “A Bolt from the Blue” is the band’s debut full-length LP, and it’s filled with a particular brand of emotionally packed pop punk. There’s a lot of technicality, too, in the guitars, and in this aspect the band reminds me somewhat of San Diego’s late lamented Caskitt, particularly their later material. Check out the guitar lines in “Ask the Dust,” as the two guitars trade off lead lines and weave around each other. Even as they do this, the songs are eminently melodic and tuneful, and the vocals are sung in a heartfelt baritone, clean and clear rather than gruff and gritty. They can’t be described as “bright;” they’re not bouncy and happy sounding. But neither are they dark and gloomy. I guess that means they’re more modal? Definitely played with passion. Well, I take that back a little bit – “Lucky Shoes” is certainly a brighter song, both in melody and in words. It has lyrics about looking to the future: “Tie your lucky shoes,” it sings, “Welcome to the future, one step at a time.” “It’s a glorious time to be alive, I wish you well.” It’s not often you hear punk bands singing songs with optimistic outlooks, but the music and words here sound so hopeful. Overall, while Modern Shakes’ style does sound similar to what many other bands are doing, they play with proficiency and with passion, making them stand out from the crowd. Solid debut.

VARIOUS – Acoustic Revolt Dreadnought: Live Sessions Vol. 1 (acousticrevolt.bandcamp.com)

Acoustic Revolt has been a long-running series of shows in San Diego, put on by Kevin White, himself an acoustic performer. The shows have occurred in various clubs around town, but most frequently can be found on a Friday night every month or two at Rosie O’Grady’s in the city’s Normal Heights neighborhood. It’s often hard for touring solo acoustic performers to find shows, but White has provided an opportunity for them, and a chance for locals to see these acts where they might not otherwise. And these showcases also provide a space for local musicians, often who play in bands, to play some songs that might not fit with their group, as a solo performer.

White’s developed quite a reputation supporting acoustic performers, and decided it was time to put out a compilation of some of the acts he’s worked with. One really nice thing about this comp is how it was recorded. These are all studio sessions, but recorded “live,” with songs being done in one take with minimal editing to preserve the integrity of the performance. These are all just as you would hear them at Rosie’s. And for this first volume, White called on a number of locals and a few out-of-towners who were coming through to provide tracks.

Some people don’t “get” acoustic, because it’s not “punk” enough or because they’re expected to pay attention instead of chatting (shouting) with their friends over the loud music at a typical show. But to me, acoustic shows are awesome. Stripping away all the other instruments allows me to hear the lyrics and to hear the musician, the person, what they’re trying to tell us, and what emotions they’re trying to convey. Acoustic performances can be more passionate and intense than a full band show. And you can hear that in this comp.

San Diego local Jonny Wagon opens the comp with a pair of tracks, “Take Me Home” and “Ride,” that have plenty of twang revealing his Tennessee roots. The former is a down home lament about moving away and drifting from those roots and longing for the comforts of family and familiar surroundings. The latter is a quieter and more delicate song of searching that gets more and more passionate as it evolves.

San Diego’s Johnny Giles offers a pair of songs, as well, “Lottery” and “Moral Treatment.” Coming from the DIY punk world, Giles’ songs are a little more frantic and his vocals are appropriately gravelly.

I am always astounded when I listen to the solo songs of Cameron Flynn, who goes by the moniker “Plants.” He’s another San Diego local, and the first of his two songs is gorgeous. “Counting Days” has a softer indie sound, and his vocal dynamic range is fantastic, the anguish palpable. And in particular, on his second track, “Better Man,” you can hear the frustration with trying to be the person others expect him to be, both in his playing and his singing.

Next up is a pair of tracks from LA’s Bradley Riot. His songs are among the most raucous of the comp, with “Like a Fire” speaking to loneliness and isolation. Rude Boy Beto (Romberto Rojas, out of Yuma, Arizona) gives us two songs that are almost as manic as Bradley Riot’s, but with a smoother surface to them. The first one is gets a bit political; “Halluci-nation” is about the façade of America’s “greatness.”

Jonny Cuz is better known as one of the two front men of crusty pop punk band Se Vende, another local San Diego act. His single offering, “Thinking,” is quite a frenzied affair, speedy both in the music and the vocals. Jonny’s vocals are wonderfully rough and gritty. From way out in Austin, Texas, Half Man is Chase Spruiell of the band Big Loser. Coming right after Jonny Cuz, it’s quite a contrast, because the guitar is delicate and so are the vocals. “So Unhappy” is a commentary on consumer society and how things you buy can’t make you happy. I particularly like the lines so appropriate to modern society: “And everywhere you go you bring your phone / And your overwhelming fear of ever being alone.” Too many of us replace real relationships with social media, calling people we barely know our “friends.” Spruill’s voice is buttery smooth, and so full of melancholy.

Not everything is technically acoustic. The last two tracks feature solo performers with electric guitar. Build A Rocket is Jen Carlson, an early member of pop-punk band Bad Cop/Bad Cop, and it’s appropriate that Build A Rocket was born out of trip to the desert, because “Take My Call” has a lonesome, dusty desert sound.

Another Bad Cop/Bad Cop alum, Jennie Cotterill, closes the record with “One Size Fits All.” It’s a great indie rock tune about how we’re all different, leading different lives, wanting different things, and we shouldn’t be forced to settle for a “one size fits all kind of life.” And neither should you settle for a one size fits all sort of music. Expand your horizons. There are plenty of awesome acoustic performers in your town making awesome music like that on this comp.


THE ANTI-QUEENS – Disenchanted (Stomp Records, stomprecords.com)

Almost five years have elapsed since The Anti-Queens released their self-titled debut LP. And they’ve used the time wisely. The baker’s dozen songs on this sophomore LP are punchier, poppier, and stronger. The Anti-Queens play rock and roll music with a punk edge, and there’s a ton more urgency in the sounds here. The songs are hard, edgy, and filled with snarl. Lead vocals bear an even stronger resemblance to Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s Stacey Dee, and the band seem to have adopted some of Bad Cop’s attitude, mixing it with the likes of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and L7. Every track on this album is stronger than the last, and there are some real standouts here. “Bulldozer” is an instant favorite, from the growling bass in the intro, to the thundering drums and the growling guitars. The lyrics are about someone who’s unthinking in dealing with others, acting like a bulldozer, pushing everything and everyone out of his way. There’s a wonderful moment in the bridge where the guitars get quiet and there are some wonderful ambient sounds from what I assume are keyboards. “Dirty Girl” is a slower track dripping with attitude, sounding like what would be playing in a movie when the protagonist enters a dark seedy bar in a bad part of town. I love the bright sound of “Doomed Again,” perhaps the closest to pure pop punk on the LP. And “Overthinking” just sounds fun, with a bubblegum power pop meets pop punk and grunge sound, ebullient yet heavy and crunchy. But perhaps the best is the defiant anthem, “Owe U Shit,” with a chorus that declares that “I don’t owe you shit.” Their debut LP was OK, but nothing special. “Disenchanted” is miles better and gets a recommendation from me.

REGAN ASHTON – Infinite Pest (reganashton.bandcamp.com/)

Regan Ashton is best known for two things: for being the front man of the band Problem Daughter and for writing and singing depressingly self-deprecating songs. But after a move across the country from Utah to Chicago for a relationship that didn’t quite pan out, Ashton’s latest solo LP is downright cheerful and positive, or as positive as Ashton can get. I mean, the opening track opens with a scratchy recording of a woman reading a darkly bright poem called “Résumé,” from which the song takes its title, that goes, “Razors pain you, rivers are damp, acids sting you, and drugs cause cramps. Guns aren’t lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful, you might as well live.” It’s a doleful commentary that’s a desperate plea for happiness from someone who feels he doesn’t deserve it, and on suicidal thoughts that lead to one conclusion: living is better, as hard as it sometimes might be. There’s still plenty of self-deprecation on this album, but it’s less of a surrender, and more of a challenge to be overcome. Ashton goes full-on country on many tracks, with banjo and fiddle, and loads of twang, such as on the loping track “Tumble Weed,” which is less about physically rolling around in the wind and more about being alone with no aim in life and no one to hold you to a personal center. I love the bluesy flair of “Poorwill,” which includes mandolin and steel guitar in the arrangement. It’s also got a cool ethnic folk vibe to it. Some (or most) of these songs tell very personal stories, such as the shortest song of the album, “Your Side of Montrose.” The song, less than a minute long, refers to that failed relationship, Montrose being a main street in Chicago, on one side of which Ashton lives and the other, his ex. The brief memoir snippet relates the sadness Ashton feels and how he avoids being on that side of the dividing line. The closing track, “You Gotta Cherish It,” is downright celebratory. “Don’t need a drink / Fuck a bar / I wanna hold your hand and drive in your car,” are the opening lines, and the song sings the praises of the person of Ashton’s adoration, and how, as long as this person is there, he doesn’t need or want substances to dull the pain of life. It’s a fitting end to an album that traces Ashton’s journey from rock bottom to, if not joy, at least acceptance. And that’s a start.

BERMUDA SQUARES – Outsider (Feel It Records, feelitrecordshop.com)

No, there’s not a new mystical place where planes disappear, it’s a band from Minneapolis! And, while calling it a “supergroup” might be a bit of a stretch, it does feature luminaries from the Minneapolis underground music scene, including Tony Milek of Retainers, Annie Sparrows of The Soviettes and Partial Traces, Pat Dillon of Citric Dummies, and A.J. Olmscheid of Color TV. Together, this quartet play powerful garage punk, filled with plenty of distortion and fuzz and loads of bouncy melody. This is punk music to pogo to, like in the old days. Listening to these songs is like being at a wild party. The opening track is titled “Boring,” but it’s anything but. It’s exciting, loud, and raucous. As is the entire LP. “Work From Home” is a real standout, with a super fast pace and cool angular chord changes, reminding me of early hardcore punk. “Don’t Go Outside,” too, has an early hardcore feel, but it’s way more melodic than any early 80s punk. It has some great rhythmic shifts, and the lead and backing vocals are layered on top of each other. Tracks like “Basement” have more of a loping pace and a deep garage sound. The album closes with “Car Accident,” one of the album’s pre-release singles, and it blends cool 80s new wave in with the garage punk distortion, making it a real favorite. This is how you do a debut, folks!

BLITZEN TRAPPER – 100's of 1000's, Millions of Billions (blitzentrapper.bandcamp.com)

Blitzen Trapper is a prolific band with some sixteen or so previous albums to their credit over the twenty-four years of their existence. Front man Eric Earley says of this latest LP, “this whole project grew out of a box of four-track tapes from the 90s that I found recently. The tapes were full of songs I’d written and recorded back when I was 19 r 20 years old, and the sound and spirit of those recordings got me excited to start writing music again, to go back to working the way I did when I was first starting out.” The album title was born out of Earley’s fascination with Buddhist texts (the phrase appears multiple times in the Mahayan sutras), and the album’s bent toward psysch-tinged folk rock is a bit reminiscent of some of the music of the 70s that was also inspired by Eastern spiritual philosophies. The album opens with the somewhat distorted sound of a wobbly organ, as if to represent the unsteady foundation of traditional Western religion. It then breaks into a track with hints of southern rock, folk, psych, and a bunch of 70s pop. The unusual arrangement alternates between soulful and down-home. That’s the basic sound of the dozen songs, with some variations. For instance, “Dead God of the Green Arising” leans more heavily into psych with its hypnotic swirliness, though it’s still rooted in folk rock. And “Cosmic Backseat Education,” with piano and harmonica in the mix, along with the cool dissonant electric guitar jabs, has a bit more of a modern indie feel. “So Divine,” on the other hand, is straight up power pop, but with a more complex and interesting arrangement. I love the delicate “Planetarium,” which features violin and banjo in the arrangement that also includes plucked guitar, and lovely vocals singing abstract lyrics that are focused inward. The end of the song devolves into some glorious experimental sounds, too. And speaking of experimental, the opening of “Hesher in the Rain” is just that, with mysterious spaced-out sounds in the opening seconds of the track, before the song begins in earnest and becomes an elegant, airy song. Another graceful song is “View from Jackson Hill.” The plucked guitar is gorgeous, and there is ethereal and otherworldly ambience throughout the song. This is an interesting and unique record, subtle in its execution. Lovely.

MICAH SCHNABEL – The Clown Watches the Clock (micahschnabel.bandcamp.com)

Micah Schnabel is our generation’s beat poet laureate. He’s been the front man of pop punk band Two Cow Garage since the band formed some 21 years ago, and over the past dozen years he’s explored the life of a solo performer. His records mix songs and spoken word that often come across as stream of consciousness, but like Ira Glass (of NPR’s “This American Life”), his words are carefully chosen and reflect his life experiences. He also has become an author, and his second novel was released in December 2023. The book and this record share their title, and Schnabel says they were written at the same time and can be seen as a single large work. “Together they make up a snapshot of a point in time in my life where I was struggling and then learning to embrace the complete and total loss of hope,” says Schnabel. Schnabel’s songs generally provide a sense of desperation in the struggle to survive in modern American society, where money is a necessity and real art is devalued, and “The Clown Watches the Clock” is no exception. The album opens with “4 Vignettes from an American Strip Mall,” one of those stream of consciousness pieces that talks about goings on at seedy strip malls that cover expansive parts of America, full of run-down establishments that echo the decay of American life in general. “My heart is a strip mall,” cries the chorus, “and it’s going out of business.” The music is raucous and exuberant in contrast to the topic of the lyrics. Other song topics include the desperation of “get rich quick” schemes, and wanting to chuck it all and sell out, go back to school and get into the 9 to 5 “real job” life. Eking out a life hustling tourists is likened to a theme park called “The Land of Impending Doom,” in the cool acoustic track of the same name. And “COINSTAR,” a song titled for those machines you find at grocery stores, comments on how drug dealers are often the people who earn the most money in certain neighborhoods, and the wish to not be poor anymore comes from the daily battle called life. A favorite is “Real Estate,” a jaunty funky track with spoken word lyrics about the ridiculousness of applying for minimum wage jobs like washing dishes and having to go through a drug test and background check and answering stupid questions on the application (like, “Are you a team player?”), and “thinking about sobering up and getting into real estate” to “take six percent off the top of everything you got.” If’s a commentary on how people just trying to get by are viewed with suspicion, but those who are the real thieves seem to get a pass. “White Roses” speaks to how the moneyed class in America sets things up to pit neighbors against each other over petty things that don’t really matter, keeping people’s eyes off them in the process. Once again, Micah Schnabel produces a record that sounds bouncy and fun, even as it presents a message of despair. Which, I suppose, is all we can do: grin and bear it and try to get through life as best we can. Micah is a real winner, even if he doesn’t believe it.

THE SECOND SUMMER – Undertow (Kool Kat Musik; koolkatmusik.com)

The Second Summer are from Chicago, but they don’t sound like it. Most bands I know from Chicago are gritty with big muscular sounds, but The Second Summer is light and lively. It’s power pop, but it’s mixed with 90s indie pop, luscious harmonies, and it’s silky smooth and gorgeous. The band’s been around a few years now, but “Undertow” is their debut LP, and it’s a perfect introduction to their sound. The songs are bright and bouncy, but the lyrics speak more to the trials and tribulations of making it through life, and the ups and downs of relationships. Like the wonderful opener, “Reason,” a song about taking beatings from life, trying to get back up again, and the fear of confronting issues holding us back – and blaming others for our own problems – until the end of the song is the revelation that maybe we’re the reason. I love the sparkling jangle in the songs, the luxurious sounding vocals, and the buttery harmonies. Another example of a downer topic is the slower pop rock tune, “Never Not Forever.” It’s almost, but not quite, a ballad, and sings of a deteriorating relationship and how procrastinating in addressing issues can result in it being too late when you’re finally ready. A favorite is “Undefeated,” a marvelous indie-power-pop tune about people who think they’re always right and never apologize for anything. It has a nice layered arrangement to it, giving it an almost dreamy feel, even as it’s got a nice poppy bounce. “Wonder Why,” too is about relationships; have you ever felt inadequate and wondered why your partner hasn’t left for someone “better?” This song is for you. Hell, all these songs are for all of us. Solid debut!

SLUDGEWORTH – Together Not Together (Red Scare Industries; sludgeworth.bandcamp.com)

A couple of years ago, Red Scare reissued the long out of print “Losers of the Year,” a collection of the band’s tracks that was released in 1995, after the band had already broken up. And though they claimed at the time that they weren’t getting back together, they changed their tune when an offer came to play Riot Fest that summer. But, still, they insisted this was a one-off, and no new shows or new music would be forthcoming. But as the band were jamming at rehearsal, some ideas came out for…wait for it…new songs! Later, some of the band members were toying around with the ideas and sent them to singer Dan Schaefer (better known as Dan Vapid). As he listened, lyrics began popping into his head. And these songs are the outcome. And these songs are unmistakably Sludgeworth. The band played a pretty unique style of pop punk, heavy on the melody, with more interesting indie textures than most pop punk bands were playing at the time. They sort of bridged the gap between punk and the new brand of indie rock sprouting up back then. And that’s what we get on the pair of tracks on this new 7”. The title track is a rollicking tune, with big jangly guitars and big broad chords, and a gloriously triumphant melody. The B-side, “The Foundation,” is more relaxed, melodic, and even smoother than any past Sludgeworth song, with an epic open feel and shining backing vocals. Vapid’s lead vocals have just a hint of edge, contrasting nicely with the backing vocals, and the song gives a sense of a new beginning. A new beginning, indeed. Let’s hope that’s what this is, and the band continues to record and maybe even tour. I would love to see them live again. It’s been 30 years.

THOMAS NICHOLAS BAND – We’re Gonna Be OK (SBAM Records, shop.sbam.rocks)

SBAM is best known as a label for melodic hardcore and skate punk. But a recent signing, Thomas Nicholas Band, is neither, instead focusing on pop music that sometimes has some pop punk elements. Thomas Nicholas is perhaps best known as an actor, and had his breakthrough as a child in the films “Rookie of the Year” and “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court.” He’s had a long career in film, and still acts today, but somewhere along the way he got the bug for music. His band has released a handful of albums over the years, and after 15 years of playing and recording, we have the incongruous signing with SBAM. The songs are deeply in the pop music camp, with some of the songs having pop punk elements. It’s good to hear pop music made with guitars, bass, and drums, because so many pop artists these days are backed by nothing more than keyboards and computers. “Tomorrow’s Gonna Hurt” is the opening track, and one of the better ones – though it’s got a distinct pop melody and song structure, the instrumentals are solid and worthy of an indie rock band. Nicholas, who I recall as being the timid geeky kid turned hero in his movies, turns out to have a pretty good singing voice, well matched to the song style. “We’re Gonna Be OK” has a pop punk melody, but it’s played at a slower tempo and with a lighter instrumental arrangement. I bet if this one was played a little more briskly with the guitars less restrained this could be a worthy pop punk track. Some songs are quieter and more pure pop, like “Same Kids,” with acoustic guitar, piano, and strings. Or “Better than Home,” with jangly guitars and keyboards, and lyrics about a rough home life that was escaped from by going out with friends. There’s reference to punk bands playing, which is ironic because this song as about as far from punk rock as you can get. “Never Enough” opens with a reference to Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and is a ballad that ebbs and flows, getting bigger and quieter, smoother and gruffer, Nicholas’ vocals sometimes getting downright soulful. I dunno, I’m conflicted on this one. Some of the songs are pretty good, well written, and well performed. Some of them are a little too much like commercial pop for me.

TRASH SOUND CONGLOMERATE – “Miracle of Science” b/w “History Class” (Top Drawer Records, tdrecs.com)

Each year at the Seattle Pop Punk Fest, Ean Hernandez, the organizer of the festival and legendary member of Sicko and The Subjunctives, chooses who he feels is the best new band there and invites them to put out a record on his Top Drawer imprint. This year it was Trash Sound Conglomerate that caught his ear. The band ranges from sweet poppy punk to raging hardcore, and we get both in this two-song 7” single. The A-side is sugary pop punk, with lovely harmonized vocals that glide above tough gritty guitars, while the drums pound furiously. I love the way the song ends, with a the reverb turned up, a simple guitar solo, and glistening synth, The B-side is quite a contrast; it’s speedy hardcore, with the drums violently smashing out the beat, the guitars and bass sounding irate, and the lead vocals are belted out gloriously. Halfway through, the song slows and transforms into a powerful post-punk meets grunge rager. I can see why Ean chose this band; they’re great! Recommended!


ARMADA – Tales of Treason (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

Not to be confused with The Dominican Republic La Armada, a tough gritty hardcore punk band that relocated to Chicago, Armada is a Brazilian pop punk meets street punk band. Their previous LPs were released in Brazil and sung in Portuguese, but now the band is ready to meet the world, and the world better be ready to meet Armada. As such, these songs are sung in English. Many of the tracks are big and broad, crunchy and poppy, like “Bullet Through the Heart,” which opens the LP. The title refers to the perils faced by democracies in this day and age, where authoritarian leaders are taking control of so many nations. In this case they’re singing about their own country, Brazil, which had far right Jair Bolsonaro as president for a number of years. The song speaks of growing up in a city known as a “jewel by the sea,” (Rio de Janeiro), and seeing the sight of Christ the Redeemer watching over them (the famous statue that sits atop a mountain overlooking the city). The title “Bullet through the heart” is what went through “the heart of a young democracy,” the sad state of affairs as Bolsonaro tried to dismantle the nation’s democratic institutions and silence opposition. One of the best of these big pop punk tunes has to be “Wrong Side of America.” It’s a little speedier, and speaks to the deterioration of modern society, and is sure to become a rousing anthem at live shows. Halfway through the album, the tone changes somewhat, from big punk to swagger-filled folk punk, complete with banjo and accordion in the arrangements, “Battle Drums” is the song that gives the album its title, and it opens with acoustic guitar and a sea chantey style song. “Tales of Treason and piracy / Mutiny upon the high sea sinking ships,” the song opens. Then the banjo comes in, followed by the full band. It’s a fantastic song, possibly my favorite of the album, with its mix of punk rock attitude and seafaring song. Right after this is “Last of My Kind,” which has a similar swagger, accordion, and banjo, plus huge gang vocals. After these two songs, the band returns to broad and crunchy pop punk for the last few tracks, which include an ode to São Paulo, the band’s current hometown, and the jaunty “A Nation Divided,” which opens with whistling! Armada may be one of Pirates Press’ best signings to date.

EAT DEFEAT – My Money’s On Me (Uncle Style Records, www.unclestylerecords.com)

It’s been awhile since I reviewed Eat Defeat’s music. Close to six years, in fact. And what a difference the march of time has made! While I enjoyed their previous releases well enough, they were primarily poppy versions of speedy skate punk, at least to my ears. These days, though they retain some speed, they appear to be focusing more on pop punk melodies and arrangements. The songs have an aggressive edge without sounding overly trite, and the arrangements are very well done, including some great multi-part harmonies and tasteful keyboards. Vocals and instrumentals are equally passionate, and the whole thing comes together really nicely. And in an age where pop punk bands’ lyrics are often real downers, Eat Defeat is unrelentingly positive. The instrumentals are bright enough to match lyrics that offer hope. I mean, the title should clue you in there. Every song is a banger, but some stand out from the rest for various reasons. “Much More Than I Wanted” has some cool ska punk breaks and toward the end of the song there are competing vocal lines playing against each other. The lyrics seem to speak to frustration with life and relationships out of control, and then finding a new partner and feeling much better (even though it risks the cycle repeating). There’s a wonderfully hopeful feel to “Giving Up (on Giving Up).” “We Live In a Society” is a real standout for a melody that features some interesting chord changes, close vocal harmonies, and lyrics about the importance of learning self-restraint to live in a society that includes others. The a cappella intro to “Everything Is Broken” is truly awesome, as is the whole song. “Everything is broken, but I’m not,” is the declaration. It’s a song of surprising triumph that, while things keep going wrong, we can still stay centered and be OK. And “Forever” is a real surprise; it’s acoustic and gentle, with guitar, glockenspiel, and subtle trumpet. This is the best Eat Defeat record I’ve ever heard and, so far, one of the best records of the year.

THE EMBRYOS – Selling What You Want to Buy (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

When the first track, “The Embryos Live,” began playing I thought I was in for something out of the ordinary for Kool Kat, a label that focuses on power pop and similar music. There was a deep fuzzed up bass, and I thought I was going to get some rough and tumble, something grungy and gruff. But Instead I got, yup, jangly power pop mixed with 80s new wave guitar pop. Kool Kat does focus on a certain range of the genre, and they’re very good at finding excellent bands within that lane. The Embryos, hailing from Chicago, do a yeoman’s job keeping the power pop flame alive. The members of the band have been playing together in various bands for decades, and it shows, as they’re in perfect sync with each other. They formed this particular band in 2017 and have a slew of releases to their name. I do enjoy power pop, jangly guitars, and solid guitar-driven melodies, and this record has it all in abundance. “Fortunes” is a favorite track, with a nice bounce and sparking sound, and there are keyboards providing a nice ambience in the background. There’s a subtle sense of Americana in “Frozen City,” a song that features acoustic guitar in the mix along with electric guitars providing a hint of twang. And there’s an elegant twang to “Desiree,” too. “Do the Donkey” is a little different, with a retro 50s or 60s rock and roll sound, and “Somehow She Knew” has a little bit of Beatles influence in the chorus. Solid light power pop record.

HANDHELD – Live at 25 (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com / Pink Lemonade Records, pinklemonaderecords.bigcartel.com)

What better way to celebrate a quarter century as a band than to play a sold-out show in a small, sweaty dive filled with your friends and record it all? That’s just what Canadian band Handheld decided to do. The speedy, aggressive, yet poppy punk band ripped through a set list that spans the band’s entire discography, from songs they wrote as teenagers to their most recent releases. You can hear the love in the room, the humor, the passion, and the energy. Oh, the energy! The fourteen live songs they put on this record are powerful, dynamic, and vigorously played, as if they still have the energy of those teenagers that started the band twenty-five years ago. Some have called the band “skate punk,” but they really aren’t that. For the most part their songs are poppier, and without metallic content. One exception is “TV Nice Guy,” which is about as close to stereotypical 90s and 2000s skate punk as the band gets. The rest of this LP is bright, melodic, pop-filled, alacritous, hard driving, and fun – all the things you want in punk rock music. One favorite is “A Day In My Shoes,” one of those earlier tracks written by Andy Dietrich when he was a teen. It was about a grade school bully who was no longer “popular” by the time they got to high school. It starts out impossibly fast, the notes and words flying by at a breakneck pace. Midway through, it slows down and gets even more melodic and a bit wistful and introspective. It’s a nice dynamic and nice contrast. And then for the big finish it accelerates again. I like, too, “Get a Grip,” another supersonic song, with huge whoa-ohs and both soaring and shouted gang vocals. The a cappella vocals at the end are pretty sweet, too. Live albums are often hit or miss. Bands sometimes come across as sloppy and sometimes the sound quality is subpar. That’s not the case here. The band sounds in top form and the recording is crystal clear. And all the energy of the live performance is captured perfectly. A+.

PALM GHOSTS – "Façades 1-Escape " EP (Sweet Cheetah Records, www.facebook.com/SweetCheetahPR / Poptek Records, www.poptek.com)

Following last fall’s LP, “I Love You, Burn In Hell,” Palm Ghosts have embarked on an ambitious plan to release a series of EPs this year, culminating in a two LP package of all twenty songs at the end of the year. They also plan to record a variety of songs that span genres for the project. “Escape” is the first installment, and consists of five songs over 21 minutes, ranging from sparkly dreamy pop to melancholy post-punk, and has sounds from triumphant to despondent. “Another Blind Machine” is bright and poppy, with jangly guitars and sparkling synths, while “Quit Kidding Yourself,” while somewhat up-tempo, is somber sounding post-punk, the song most like that previous LP. “Beasts” is big and grand, the synths simulating a huge pipe organ, and it feels like a song of victory. The bass throbs while the drums provide a slow steady beat, and the guitars resound in huge warbling block chords. “Pulse” is driving post pop, with airy ambient synths and a strong forward motion from the guitars, bass, and drums. The gliding baritone vocals channel the late Ian Curtis, with a timbre that’s both bright and mournful. “Dissonance of Dreaming” closes the EP with a sound that’s tentative, yet hopeful. It starts to get downright bouncy, but ends very abruptly in mid phrase. Is this a message to temper our hopes and dreams with a dose of reality, because they can suddenly stop? Either way, this is an exciting first installment. I anxiously await the next one.

PANTHER STYLE – "Dynasty" EP (Triple Helix Records, pantherstyle.bandcamp.com)

Panther Style, consisting of Jeanne McClure on vocals and bass, Melissa Koehl on guitar and vocals, Al Rodis on lead guitar, and Dan Lutger on drums, haven’t released new music since 2011’s “¡Emergencia!” LP. Now comes a new four-song EP, “Dynasty,” from this Chicago quartet. Four members, four songs, and four styles. The title track is simultaneously edgy and dreamy, with a driving rhythm and bristling guitars, but there’s an ambience in the background and the vocals are ethereal. “Love Removal Machine” is raw rock and roll, in a Rolling Stones meets Joan Jett and the Blackhearts vein, with snarling vocals and gritty guitars. “Fingers Crossed” is my favorite track of the group, and is a pretty indie pop tune melding anxiously buzzing guitars with silky lithe vocals. “Seeing…Just Not Believing” closes things out with some driving indie rock with a strong dance beat in the drums. If it wasn’t for the fact that these four tracks were released together I would swear they were from different bands. Three of the four tracks are definitely solid. I couldn’t really get into “Love Removal Machine.”

CHRIS BROACH/THE 1984 DRAFT-Split-EP (poptek.bandcamp.com/album/chris-broach-the-1984-draft)

Poptek and new label Sweet Cheetah are teaming up on this new split lathe-cut 7-inch record. One side features Chris Broach, known for his work in Braid, SNST, The Firebird Band and more. It offers us “Blood Thicker Than Honey,” a track that blends cool bouncy indie pop with a grunge guitar tone, with distorted guitar and bass that, nevertheless, sparkle and shine. Vocals are shouted and sung with equal measures of joy and alarm. It’s a compelling song that leaves me wanting more. The 1984 Draft’s side is “Holiday Inn,” and was written by front man Joe Anderl on an airplane after the loss of a friend to cancer. I’ve long been a fan of the band’s brand of indie rock, which focuses on story telling. “Holiday Inn” is softer and smoother in its execution than most of the band’s output, with a dreamier and more melancholy sound. It’s solid indie rock with a tough message about the inevitability of death, and a line that likens Heaven with a hotel and says the God “has reservations for all of us.” The two tracks couldn’t be more different, but as Anderl says, “When I heard about Chris’ own recent cancer battle, pairing the songs made a lot of sense.” Though they sound so different, they’re both great songs.


BURNTMILL GHOSTS – Old Records (SBAM Records, shop.sbam.rocks / Double Helix Records, doublehelixrecords.com)

After the global pandemic caused the dissolution of The Fullers, due to two members moving several states way, Pete Vincelli and Ian Egloff began anew, and Burntmill Ghosts was born. The pair had begun working on several new songs already and, eager to get them out, booked some recording time, recruiting Doc Rotten’s AJ Martinez to play drums. Fast forward another couple years, and Justin Rodrigues joined as permanent drummer, the band played some live shows, and in the summer of 2022 and March of 2023, the band returned to the studio, with Pete Steinkopf of Bouncing Souls at the helm. The resulting songs make up this new LP, the band’s debut full-length (two of the songs were previously released as a digital 7” back in 2023). The band either is still searching for their voice or, hopefully more likely, just enjoy playing a lot of different types of songs. Their songs are all basically in the pop punk oeuvre, but just as within that category there’s much variation, there is, too, in the songs of Buntmill Ghosts. We get good-time drunken pop punk in “Another Round,” of the sort that was common in the era of Insub Fest and Awesome Fest, and we get retro doo-wop punk in “The Body” (which has a feel like the song “Stand By Me,” which was used in the film of the same name, which was based on the Stephen King story, “The Body,” so this is very clever). “Paradise” is a dub reggae inspired song and “Springdale Avenue” is a heartfelt emotional acoustic punk song. There’s “Annabel Lee,” a big sea chanty inspired song, full of drunken swagger. And there’s “Maple Place,” a high-energy track with a faster pace and a retro pop punk sound. All these songs and more show disparate influences, but the gruff vocals and solid instrumentals keep things cohesive. So this album gets a recommendation from me.

DEATH THROES FROM A STAR (deaththroesfromastar.bandcamp.com)

Death Throes from a Star are a trio out of Mississippi, formed in 2017. They play music that’s entirely instrumental and sounds much bigger than a mere three people have any business making. The music is huge, reverb-laden stuff, dreamy and spacey. It’s slow, sometimes quiet and understated, sometimes noisy and cacophonous. It’s got a throbbing ebb and flow to it, with a mix of shoegaze and progressive rock. Sometimes there’s an injection of grunge in the fuzzed noisy guitars. And the five tracks here are all extended length jams. They call this an EP, but the five songs add up to 44 minutes, so to me, that’s a full-length LP. The tracks are intense and relaxing, powerful and calming. But they do tend to blend into each other, all played with the same tone and tempo. If your thing is spaced out jams, this is a record you’re going to love, because it can be hypnotic, and the musicianship is top notch. To me, though, there’s too much of the same thing, too little variance.

EXIT ANGLES – Iterate (Intentional Grounding Records, exitangles.bandcamp.com)

Here’s the sophomore LP from Exit Angles, a fairly new band formed in West Virginia a mere three years ago. Exit Angles take an approach to music somewhat different from others, but that’s no surprise given that it was founded by Jay Demko, who made a splash in the ‘90s with Lincoln, the short-lived but highly influential second wave emo band. While that band was at the vanguard of what became known as “screamo,” Exit Angles is much more melodic. Their melodies are rooted in minimalism, with repeated riffs, and the guitar tone is clean and clear. Vocals are reminiscent of early punk singing, loud and emphatic, but it’s singing. And the rhythm section is intentional, methodic, and driving. The songs do remind me a bit of DC post-emo, and even with the minimalism, the guitars sound complex, weaving around. It sometimes makes for a hypnotic sound. This is especially noticeable on the opening track, “From Here,” which has hints of 70s funk-rock, oddly enough. And it’s one of my favorites of the album. It has a slower pace, the rhythm section and rhythm guitar throbbing, the lead guitar using harmonics to create some interesting sounds. And many of the slower songs seem to be favorites of mine; “Sacred Name” has an almost martial rhythm, a big open jangle in the guitars, and some of the most passionate vocals of the album. “Lock & Key,” too, has a steady beat and open sound, and the vocals have a throaty sound like those of the DC hardcore vocalists who transitioned from shouting to singing. One of the brisker-paced songs is “They Want a War,” a song about the military industrial complex and their desire to profit off the deaths of others. It’s an urgent sounding track that reminds me of the more recent efforts of The Proletariat, the storied band from Massachusetts. And while most of the songs are quite melodic, “Sick & Tired,” while having a definite melody, is angular and quirky, a quality that endears me to it. The album closes with the pensive “Stay Wide Open,” a song that exhorts us all to keep our eyes, minds, and selves open to the possibilities of the world. It has a gentle sound, but also hypnotic in a way different from the opener. Exit Angles get me. This is music that moves me. Highly recommended.

EXTRA ARMS – Radar (Setterwind Records; extraarms.bandcamp.com)

The Midwest has, for many years, been the last bastion of great American power pop, with many of the bands coming out of Wisconsin. One of the great bands keeping the flame alive is Extra Arms, from the area around America’s Motor City, Detroit. And the best thing about Extra Arms (besides being proficient musicians and great songwriters) is that they mix things up, including influences from indie, punk, and Americana genres in their power pop base. It’s been some two years since the band’s last opus, “What Is Even Happening Right Now?” mainly because front man Ryan Allen has kept busy with various other projects, including the mighty Big Life. But it’s been worth the wait for “Radar.” You can hear nods to bands like Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello, The Replacements, The Buzzcocks, and many others in their music, giving it a nice sense of variety within the power pop framework. It makes Extra Arms a band that’s very enjoyable and has something for almost everyone. There isn’t a bad song on this record, but there are some that stand out as favorites. “Be Someone Else” is a strong opener for the LP, with hints of Elvis Costello in the chorus. I love the gorgeous pop of “I Don’t Want to Surrender,” with the guitars chiming and jangling like mad. I adore the vibrant indie of “Inflatable Boys.” And “Your Highness” has a wistfulness beneath the wall of guitars. I haven’t yet come across something from Ryan Allen and his friends that I haven’t liked. This latest Extra Arms LP is no exception. Solid and recommended.

THE RATCHETS – "Swagger with Kindness" single (Pirates Press Records; theratchets.bandcamp.com)

Continuing with the release of non-album singles to celebrate 20 years as a band, The Ratchets second entry (after the March release of “Street Manners”) once again features a new song and a remix. And this release couldn’t be more different than the previous one. Where “Street Manners” was a mix of pub rock and street punk and its remix was reggae dub, “Swagger with Kindness” is post-punk indie. Instead of raw crunchy power, we get smooth lush melody. It’s like the difference between the Blitz of “Razors in the Night” or “Never Surrender” and the Blitz of “New Age.” The vocals are clean and clear, the guitars are beautifully jangly, and man, that gorgeous bass has me swooning! The remix, titled “Swagger Thru, Do Si Do,” takes elements of the song (the bass line, the gang shouts) and mixes it with some chill beats, synths, and vocal samples. It has a really nice groove. The second single in the series beats the solid first one, hands down. Now I can’t wait for the next in the series!

STARVING WOLVES – The Fire, The Wolf, The Fang (Pirates Press Records; starvingwolvesatx.bandcamp.com)

Starving Wolves are an Austin, Texas band, fronted by none other than David Rodriguez of The Casualties. “The Fire, The Wolf, The Fang” is the band’s sophomore full-length effort, coming some four years after “True Fire,” their debut LP. The album’s opening track, “Nothing More,” begins with a nod to spaghetti western films, guitars playing a quietly solemn melody, soon joined by subtle drums and trumpets. The whole band comes in, and we hear a martial rhythm and a heroic melody in the horns. Then everything turns into speedy metallic hardcore, vocals raging and big gang vocals singing in unison on the chorus. The movie theme returns, alternating with the chorus, making for a cool and unique listen. The ensuing tracks provide brutal music mixing hardcore and street punk, and equally brutal commentary on the state of the world today. “Burning Stations” expresses outrage at the epidemic of police brutality sweeping the nation, which gets worse every day, even as more attention is focused on it. “Mixed Blood” is sung in both English and Spanish, and addresses racism, particularly that aimed at Latino Americans and rooted in America’s history of imperialism throughout the western hemisphere. And “Please Listen” is an outreach to those struggling with mental health and thoughts of suicide. I particularly like the aggression of “Tracks on the Tank,” one of the faster and more powerful tracks on the LP. And the album closer, “Wildfire,” is firmly in the street punk camp, with those gang vocals and it even has strings in the arrangement, and a cinematic quality, like the ending credits theme for an action adventure movie. With “Nothing More,” it’s a fitting bookend to this album, full of non-stop action and adventure.

VACATION – Rare Earth (Feel It Records; vacation.bandcamp.com)

Ever since their breakthrough album, “Non-Person,” came out way back in 2015, Ohioans Vacation have been a favorite band who I would eagerly see live every time they made it out this way (and sometimes when they played somewhere I had traveled to). Their latest LP, “Rare Earth,” is probably not am homage to the 1970s rock and soul band, but the music on this LP definitely has a more rock and roll feel than their garage and punk efforts of the past. No, it more likely is a reference to the planet we share being rare, the only one we have, and on which our civilization is teetering at the point of oblivion. “Worlds in Motion” is one of those big old school 70s rock and roll tracks, singing the glories of the genre like many songs of yore. “Times are changing,” the song begins, “We want more than rock and roll / But don’t get me wrong / We still need rock and roll / And we still want rock and roll / That comes from deep inside the bottomless hole.” It’s a great driving track about the deeply significant cultural and personal importance of rock and roll music. This album is loaded with great churning tracks, with more of an easy loping rhythm than many past albums, but the lead vocals are just as intense and emotionally present as ever. Maybe more so. While the whole album exceeds expectations (and mine were high), some of the best songs come in the back half of the LP. “Life Beyond Enceladus” is an exception to the “less garage more rock and roll” rule, with a fuzzier grungier garage tone, including both the instrumentals and vocals. Enceladus, to provide a trivia tidbit, is the sixth largest of Saturn’s moons. “Mobility,” too, is different from the rest, with a retro folk rock sound with hints of psych influence. It’s the softer side of Vacation, in a way. “Psychic Gasoline” is probably my favorite track of the album; it’s loaded with quirky dissonance and a jumpy rhythm in the instrumental sections, and becomes explosive garage punk when the vocals come in. “Sanity’s Sake” is another favorite, with a story-telling feel in the vein of some of the 80s post-punk greats. And “Tectonic Rider” has a great power pop vibe to it. I do love me some Vacation, and once again they’re a contender for the best of the year list.

DAVID WOODARD – Get It Good (davidwoodard.bandcamp.com)

After several years of releasing EPs and “mini-LPs,” David Woodard released his debut full-length in late 2022, and I liked it well enough. There were some good power pop songs on it. But several of the songs were a little too “adult contemporary” for my taste. I called it “inoffensive.” This follow-up LP is close to the same. The eleven songs focus more on power pop, though many of them are still a little too gently played to really grab my attention. The title track is an example of this. It’s got a nice power pop melody, but it’s quiet and understated, smooth and placid. If the song was played with a little more power, grit, and an increased tempo I think it would be infinitely better. “Awkward Conversations” is way too soft and relaxed, and “Riptide” is a ballad with electric keyboard, strings, and brushed drums that does nothing for me. Better songs include “Last of the Full Grown Men,” a song with a nice loping tempo, slightly more energetic feel, lots of great jangle and enough “power” to be power pop. I like, too, “I Can’t Make the World a Better Place,” for its modern indie meets garage pop feel, though it would be better if it was a little more raucous too. “I Used to Be Cool” is nice and jangly with a solid 70s guitar pop sound. Bottom line, there are some decent songs here, but the “inoffensive” label still fits.


BACK TEETH (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Little Rocket Records, littlerocketrecords.co.uk)

The four members of Back Teeth, Dave, Lewis, Tom, and Paul, met a scant two years ago at the Punk Rock Holiday festival in Slovenia, and decided to form a band. This four-song EP is their recorded debut, being simultaneously released in their native UK by Little Rocket and by Sell the Heart in the US. Musically, this stuff hits hard – quite literally. The music has plenty of melodic content, but the arrangements are tough and powerful, with impenetrable guitars, bass, and drums, and gruff gritty vocals. There are plenty of bands playing “melodic hardcore,” but that generally means they’re playing something metallic or skate punk or something slick and overproduced. That’s not the case with Back Teeth. These are sturdy muscular songs, of the same ilk as Chicago punk bands of the 80s like Naked Raygun or The Effigies played, or that bands like Hüsker Dü did in the 80s or Jawbox in the 90s. Right from the start, with their song, “Guillotine,” you get the sense that this band doesn’t fuck around. The drums pound relentlessly, the guitars fill every open space, the bass creates an unshakable foundation, and the vocals ring out with a sense of anguished pleading. This is a solid debut that leaves me wanting a US tour and a full-length LP.

DARKO – Greyscale (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com / Lockjaw Records, www.lockjawrecords.co.uk)

Hot on the heals of their “Live at Signal House Studios” EP, UK band Darko are back with a new five-song studio EP. As expected, the production values of a studio recording create somewhat of a slicker sound, but this is only bothersome on the one song shared between the two records, “Aggro.” The “live” version is raw, powerful, guttural stuff. The studio version, to my ears, doesn’t match it, sounding a bit too much like typical metallic hardcore. But that’s the sole disappointment of the EP, and a minor quibble at that. The other four songs demonstrate an incredible amount of creativity for a hardcore band, with amazing rhythmic shifts and powerfully angular guitar riffs. This is very notable at the close of “What I Cannot BE,” which opens the EP. The dueling vocals are still here, too, with gruff rasping vocals contrasted with higher strung singing. There’s some cool progressive rock guitar licks in “Built On Broken Backs,” a song that’s as melodic as it is crunchy. “AUX II,” also, melds primal hardcore with prog-rock sensibilities, and features some smooth calm breaks, but includes some violently stabbing guitars. But Darko saves the best track for last. “Lowest Hanging Fruit” is the best mix of hardcore, melodic hardcore, metal, and prog-rock you can imagine. There are some unbalancing rhythmic shifts, cool arpeggiated guitar riffs that sound almost like 70s computer music, hard rocking licks, and a gorgeous flowing melody. Darko keep getting better and better.

THE GOALIE’S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK – The Iliad and the Odyssey and the Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Count Your Lucky Stars, www.cylsrecords.com)

Nearly four years on from their understated yet sprawling debut LP, the Philadelphia band with an impossibly long name returns with their sophomore full-length. The intervening years have been eventful, with front-man Ben Curttright relocating to his native Nebraska, Ben and his wife, Keely, releasing an LP together, and bassist Mike Foster forming a new band, as well. This new album builds upon the debut, which I said had a quiet lushness to it. This follow-up, too, has a quiet lushness, but it sounds more delicate. And though its songs feel more introspective and less “poppy” than the debut, many also have a joyous quality to them. Maybe because some of these songs were written during the time after pandemic lockdowns, when life opened up again and people began reconnecting. Some songs focus more on acoustic guitar and hushed vocals, like “Leaf,” which opens the LP. It’s a song that speaks to trying to reconnect (“Is this a bad time, can we talk until our lungs give out? / Shutting off the Wi-Fi, and I hid your phone under the couch”), and the end of the track goes from subdued to exuberant, but then suddenly cuts out, as if these tentative steps don’t pan out. But then we get “April 25,” a song of celebration. It’s a quietly bright and warm song about making plans to observe a friend’s birthday, going out and just being together after a “fucked up year.” Thoughtful arrangements include violin, piano, and glockenspiel, giving these songs an intimate feel, and a feeling that these songs are a personal conversation with the listener. There are sometimes unexpected and amazing small touches, such as a renaissance madrigal melody at the end of “Tightrope Walker Stranger in These Dark Times.” And I love the keyboard/vibraphone rendition of Claude Debussy’s gorgeous “Clair de Lune” closes the LP. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but my favorite track of the album is “System of One,” Acoustic guitar, violin, and very pretty vocals combine in a song about the pleasures of being alone or just with one’s love, away from crowds or at least in a place where no one knows you. I think it might be because it feels like an acoustic version of 90s indie pop, a genre I enjoy. Well, I must say I enjoy this whole LP. It’s quiet and calming and beautiful.

KILLER KIN – "Point Blank"/"Mr. Dynamite" (Wap Shoo Wap Records, www.wapshoowaprecords.com)

The energetic rock and roll powerhouse known as Killer Kin are getting ready to set out across Europe and destroy everything in their path. To celebrate they’re gifting the world with this new 7” single featuring two new songs. They’re both explosive, with the title track having more of a driving feel and “Mr. Dynamite” has a faster pace and deeper grunge to the bass and guitar tone. Both are loaded with raw power, and if this is what their records are like, I can’t imagine what the live show is like. Hopefully this East Coast band will take a tour in the other direction and make it out here to the west coast, because I would love to see that.

LEFT CIRCLES – Nothing Is One Thing (Miserable Neighbor, miserableneighbor.bandcamp.com)

Brooklyn, New York singer-songwriter Brian Pluta (of Space Cadet) is Left Circles when performing solo, and “Nothing Is One Thing” is his debut LP. And Left Circles either reveals someone with a wide array of musical influences (or someone with multiple personality disorder). Because the songs on this album have widely divergent styles. There’s a mix of acoustic and electric, emo folk and grunge, sometimes all in the same song, such as on the opening track, “Over Her Range/She Told Me.” And then there’s quirky synth pop mixed with deeply fuzzed guitars and bass of “The Gashouse Gang Is Here,” or the minimalist tribal intro of “One Thing” that morphs into a multi-layered pop song. There are songs that are pure manic grunge and songs that are quiet acoustic with an Americana twang. I like the light and lovely song with a horrific name: “My Severed Arm,” it’s acoustic guitar, bass, glockenspiel (or synth?) and impassioned vocals all mixing together for a light lilting tune. And “Bleed It Out” is a great mix of emo and pop, reminding me a little bit of Spanish Love Songs. This album might be a little schizophrenic, but I love variety, especially when it’s well executed, as it is here.

THE REAL NUMBERS – Thank You (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

This is an album that almost never happened. After a 2015 self-released EP called “Wonderful,” the band began work on a new LP. But after much writing and recording, a hard drive failure caused all the work to be lost. Following this was the global pandemic, and it almost did the band in. But perseverance paid off, and as it became possible, the band reconstructed and re-recorded the songs anew. And the result is bright, bouncy, jazzy, folksy, and poppy. Much of it sounds like stage show music, in the vein of what you might hear on the old Prairie Home Companion show. You can hear this distinctly in the opening track, “Lucy’s In Love,” which has a cool beat, ska rhythms, and a horn section giving it a jazzy pop vibe, like sunshine pop of the 70s. Immediately after this is “I Love to Sing,” with glockenspiel, acoustic guitar, and lyrics about learning to love simple fun songs as a child. It almost feels like a song that Bob would have sung to the kids and Muppets on “Sesame Street,” complete with a down home harmonica solo. “You, Me, and the Sunshine” is another perfect example of the Prairie Home Companion-like material, with acoustic guitar and clarinet in the arrangement. The album also has 70s funky rock with a Beatles influence in songs like “Lydia Pinkham” and “News of the Day.” Some tracks try to be more modern indie, like “Sorry for the Mess” or “Spin,” and these don’t succeed, coming across like an older square white guy trying to be hip and current. And the cover of the “Golden Girls” theme, “Thank You for Being a Friend” could have been left out. The LP ends with “Souvenirs,” a song right out of a sentimental film soundtrack. It starts quietly and builds and swells with an arrangement that includes strings. It’s quite lovely. I really like those stage show and sunshine pop songs. I wish The Real Numbers focused on more of those songs rather than trying to be something they’re not, like indie rockers.

SNOW TRAIL – Abandoned Capsule (itselevenrecords.bandcamp.com)

Remember when some punk and hardcore bands in the mid-80s started experimenting with other styles of music? Remember some of them tried a Goth-like post-punk style, particularly TSOL? This is the sort of sound you’ll hear from Snow Trail, a band from Jena, Germany. The music is reverb-laden and the guitar tone has a treble-filled surf tone, with vocals emphatically spoken with great intention and ire. There’s a definite retro vibe going on here, and the bulk of the LP is this style. Hypnotic rolling bass lines, a strong snare and high hat dance beat, and big sustained guitar notes are de rigueur. It’s well done stuff, and if you’re a fan of the genre it’s a must, but for some people it may be a bit much. I like it, but the tracks I like best are the ones that deviate a little bit from the standard sound. The rolling bass and mesmerizing rhythm of “Fragments Repeated” are, well, mesmerizing. The most interesting track of the LP has to be “Murky Acrylic Windows,” which features saxophones in the arrangement, particularly strongly in the intro and on the bridge. The song ends with amazing jazzy keyboards and the saxes. I like the ethnic influence of the mainly instrumental “Global Village” (there’s some periodic spoken vocals), and “Gravity” is sort of a noisy ambient track. And I love the grandiosity of “Infinity,” another instrumental and the penultimate track of the LP. One great thing about this album is that upon first listen it sounds fine, but maybe too much of the same thing. But upon repeated listens, you can hear more and more interesting intricacies in the arrangements. That’s the mark of a good record.


CASH K. ALLEN – One Year Hence (https://linktr.ee/cashkallen)

Cash Allen may just be a sixteen-year-old high school student, but he’s got an old soul, as evidenced by the three songs on this new EP. Allen says he was inspired to take up solo acoustic after seeing Tim Barry perform live. He says he was “drawn to the honesty and vulnerability of seeing one person command a crowd with an acoustic guitar.” The EP title refers to the amount of time that has elapsed since he released his debut demo, “Four Songs and a Cover,” and it highlights how his music has evolved since then. Allen’s vocals croon gorgeously, reminding me a bit of Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes. The music is subtle and lovely, with Allen singing of the ache of lost love, fighting to retain one’s sense of self when others are trying to change you, and the mindless small talk that replaces meaningful discourse when there’s been emotional separation between people. Amazingly, Allen wrote and recorded the three songs here in his living room while his parents were out. Yeah, the kids are alright.

STEVE CONTE – The Concrete Jangle (Wicked Cool Records, wickedcoolrecords.com)

Steve Conte is a prolific New York musician who has played in a lot of bands, including one later version of the New York Dolls. He’s also released material under his own name. “The Concrete Jangle” is his latest solo effort, and it’s firmly in the power pop camp. Songs hearken back to late 70s and early 80s rock music, all with plenty of jangle and, well, poppy power. The opening track, “Fourth of July,” is a favorite and one of the strongest of the album, with big vocal harmonies, solid bass lines, a hint of prog rock, and loads of jangle in the guitars. There’s quite a bit of variety within the genre, and this album offers much if it. Some songs have a bluesy pop feel, like “Hey Hey Hey (Aren’t You the One).” Some songs have the trappings of glam rock of the era, like “We Like It.” I like the 60s mod-inspired and cleverly titled, “Decomposing a Song for You,” with its hint of British invasion and strong Broadway influence. And some songs have a rich sound that reminds me of the music Bill Nelson was making in the 1980s and 1990s, like “One Last Bell.” The song has a softer feel, with lush keyboards and trumpet fanfares, the vocals sounding almost dreamy. All of these songs are pretty rockin’ – well, almost all. “All Tied Up” is a softer tune, something suitable for the “adult contemporary” radio station, and not my thing. But if you’re a fan of classic rock and roll of the late 70s and 80s, check this out.

DAVE COPE AND THE SASS – Hidden from the World (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Dave Cope and the Sass play a wide variety of music, from power pop to folk pop to alternative rock and everything in between. This is all on display in the dozen tracks on this, the band’s sixth LP. The love of 70s radio is very evident, too, not only in the music, but also in how the album opens. We hear someone scanning through the radio dial, stopping periodically. There’s a news broadcast, a weather forecast, sappy pop music, and then the radio settles on the first song, “All Alright.” It’s a 70s rock and roll jammer that sings the glory of rock and roll radio, like a lot of songs of the era. Big guitars and powerful harmonized vocals abound. Some of my favorites are the quieter folk-pop tunes. “Just a Dream I Had of Lizzie” reminds me so much of Nick Drake, with its quiet acoustic guitar and breathy vocals. It’s soft and lovely. Another folk-based track is the delicate “I Wish I Had a Garden,” this one with falsetto vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, flutes, and a subtle Americana twang. And “West of the Setting Sun” is pure folk, in the tradition of the singing cowboys of yore. The song features acoustic guitar, piano, and strong crooning vocals. But it’s the 70s pop rock that’s the main feature here. “One Hell of a Ride” is very 70s AM radio pop rock, from the bouncy power pop melody to the big harmonized vocals to the enormous guitar power chords. In a similar vein, but with a bit less bubblegum is “Next to Nothing,” a solid power pop tune with an effervescent melody and rockin’ guitar licks. “Precious Heart” has a 60s pop feel, with jangly guitars and chimes in the arrangement, but the melody is more modern indie rock sounding. “The Soldier” uses sitar and violins to create some cool Eastern pop music that has a cinematic quality to it, like it could be from the soundtrack to some sort of spy movie back in the 70s. And the closing track, “Settle Down,” reminds me of a 70s collaboration between Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, with its soulful chorus and power pop verses. The album is rooted in the music of the past without feeling overly sentimental or nostalgic, which is a nice accomplishment.

HALF PAST TWO – Talk Is Killing Me (Bad Time Records, www.badtimerecords.com)

Who doesn’t like Orange County ska and ska punk? Okay, okay, pipe down. I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but a lot of people like it. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many successful, bands playing the genre. Half Past Two have been around nearly two decades, and recently signed to Bad Time Records after contributing to the label’s 2020 “Ska Against Racism” compilation, which came out in the wake of the George Floyd murder at the hands of police. The band’s style blends ska melodies, rhythms, and instrumentation, a pop punk sensibility, and pop arrangements. The result is something that could bring ska music to a wider audience. The production values are certainly very commercial sounding, and Tara Hahn’s vocals are very Taylor Swift-like. Some songs lean harder to the ska and punk side of things, like the opening track, “Barrier for Entry.” It has big ska horns and gritty melodic punk guitars, bass, and drums. “Curse the Universe,” too, mixes aggressive OC punk and ska, even adding in some slower reggae sounds. Some songs blend ska with pure pop, like “Lie to You,” or the reggae-inspired, dreamy (no pun intended) “I Don’t Dream Anymore.” And then there are songs like “Dominoes,” which feature ska rhythms and pure pop everything else. The music is well executed, and fans of the sound will certainly enjoy it, but it doesn’t do a lot for me. Oddly, my favorite song is not ska, not punk, not pop. It’s “Our Playlist,” a quieter more intimate sounding song with a lovely melody and an arrangement that features acoustic guitar, violin, synths, and toy piano.

NEW AGE HEALERS – The Spin Out (newagehealers.bandcamp.com)

What happens when you mix shoegaze and psych genres? You get New Age Healers’ latest release, “The Spin Out.” It’s a “mini-LP,” featuring seven songs across twenty-five minutes. Minimalism abounds, with repeating hypnotic riffs. The music is smoothly aggressive on many songs, with powerful emphatic instrumentals and ethereal vocals. “Dying Moon” and “Spark Up” are good examples of this, with almost grunge-like guitars revealing their Pacific Northwest origins. I love the sense of urgency in “Operatic,” a track that feels like it has no choice but to keep moving ever forward. Some tracks are big and swirly, and nowhere is this more evident than on the gloriously epic title track. Huge guitars and keyboards ring out, billow, and flow, endeavoring to induce a trance-like state in all within hearing distance. And the entire album succeeds in doing just that. Give this a spin and it will use its mystical powers to suck you in. My sole complaint is that it’s too short and leaves me wanting more.

OMEGA GLORY – Offerings (council-records.bandcamp.com)

Omega Glory are a fairly new band, and “Offerings” is their debut full-length LP. They state that “go into every practice, every show, with one thing in mind: destroy everything in front of them.” And listening to this LP, I believe that. The sixteen tracks here are brutal. This is heavy 90s metallic hardcore, with monstrously crunchy instrumentals and evil, guttural vocals. The noise and dissonance are overwhelming, resulting in an album of sludgecore. It’s heavy grinding stuff, and it all sounds the same, possibly with the exception of “ALMS,” the opening track. That song is still massive and chaotic, but there’s a semblance of melody in the guitars. The rest of the album consists of short blasts mostly between one and two minutes long, of chaos, angular stabs, noise, and shouting. I guess some people are into it, since there’s a whole scene of bands playing this kind of music, but I never understood the appeal.


BAD BAD HATS (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

Bad Bad Hats are a pop band from Minneapolis, a place not commonly known for sunny music, but here we are. The music is sparsely arranged, allowing more space for Kerry Alexander’s gorgeous vocals to shine. The arrangements, though fairly thin, are nevertheless quite engaging, with quirkiness that will put a smile on your face. The result is ten bright pop tracks that, for the most part, are immensely enjoyable. Some of the songs do veer a little too strongly into commercial pop sounds, such as on “Lime Green” or “Bored in the Summer,” the latter of which has some riffs that remind me of The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” But those are an exception. Most tracks could be considered indie pop with modern production values. I love the opener, “Let Me In,” a bouncy song with a deep fuzzy bass and clever layering of samples and beats. Synths buzz, shimmer, and shake and Alexander’s ethereal vocals match the mood perfectly. “TPA” is another favorite, with angular dueling guitars creating some interesting dissonance, cool interjections from the synths, and hints of new wave fun. There are lyrics that reference a strip mall with a nail salon and quirky hardly covers the description of this track. Other tracks, too, insert synth blasts and samples to great effect. Even an understated ballad like “Lay Low” feels stronger from these production tricks and arrangements. But I think it’s the closing track that I love the most. “Happy” is quieter, with acoustic guitar and synths that sound like a choir of clarinets. Alexander’s vocals on this one sound so relaxed and laid-back, and the whole song feels very intimate. This LP is a nice listen.

COCK SPARRER – Hand On Heart (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com / Cherry Red Records, www.cherryred.co.uk / Randale Records, www.randaleshop.de)

After more than fifty years, it’s finally come down to this. Cock Sparrer was formed in London’s East End way back in 1972, and though they never achieved huge commercial success, they became widely known and highly influential in the world of punk rock, being one of the UK bands that created the Oi subgenre. It’s fair to say they’ve achieved legendary status at this point, and so many better-known bands just wouldn’t exist if not for Cock Sparrer coming before them. But now they’ve decided to say farewell (at least to releasing new albums) with this eighth and final studio LP (or at least that’s what they say now. They said the same with 2017’s “Forever” LP, so we shall see). And this not some sad goodbye from a bunch of aging has-beens; Cock Sparrer play with the same fury and energy as they have throughout their entire existence. There are ten new tracks here, every song a glorious punk rock anthem, full of spit and vinegar, huge gang vocals, fantastic melodies, and tons of passion. Particularly from Colin McFaull’s lead vocals. He sings as if his life depends on it, and it’s infectious, the rest of the band playing with urgency. These feelings spill out of the speakers and into listeners’ ears. And while every song on this record is enjoyable, there are some favorites. I love the power-pop meets street punk meets glam rock in the aggressive “Mind Your Own Business,” with a grittier, darker sound. “Rags to Riches” is a fun bouncy track, almost pop punk, that will get your head bobbing, and lyrics about making the best out of life when you’ve got no money. I enjoy the enormous melody of “Take It On The Chin,” a song about making the best from what you’re given in life. “One Way Ticket” has a wonderfully wistful sound. And “My Forgotten Dream” shows the softer side of Cock Sparrer (is that an oxymoron?), featuring acoustic guitars, synths, strings(!) and an almost a crooning pop sound. The song has a distinct feeling of nostalgia, and the lyrics look back at the past, the chorus including a line “That’s how it used to be in my forgotten dream.” But they save the best for last. The huge closing track, “Here We Stand,” is the band’s final word on unity, a recurring theme throughout the decades of Oi and street punk. The verses speak to how different segments of society have always looked down on punks, but that we’ve always been there for each other. The chorus reminds us, “When the world does too much too ya, and everyone’s preaching at ya / when you’re reaching for a hand / Here we stand.” The band says they’re just not going to release more LPs, and that they’re still going to be playing shows. Let’s hope that when we’re reaching for a hand, there they stand.

FAULTY COGNITIONS – Somehow, Here We Are (Cercle Social Records, cerclesocialrecords.bigcartel.com)

A year on from the band’s demo, they’re back with their debut full-length LP. And, my, how they’ve grown in a year. The band consists of Chris Mason (Low Culture, Shan-a-Lang), Yole Centeno (Nocturnal Prose, Sacred Games), Nick Obregon (Nocturnal Prose), and Mike Nira, and they play music that, while rooted deeply in the pop punk tradition they all come from, also boasts some great indie and retro sounds. The album starts strongly with the loping song, “Sun Sun Go Away,” Mason belting out his vocals with power. Even when the full band comes in and things get raucous, there’s still a sense of melancholy, in the way that 80s shoegaze bands did it, with plenty of noise and a downcast feeling. Some songs are familiar territory, like the wonderfully pop punk “Roller Skating and the End of the World,” which bounces and jumps with simple riffs, and especially “Las Cruces,” which made an appearance on the demo, and is an ode to Mason’s former home town where Low Culture was formed. This new recording, though more polished than on the demo, evokes warm memories of Awesomefest, the late annual pop punk fest in San Diego that ran for eleven years. “Your Inheritance” reminds me a bit of Pegboy, mainly due to the broad melody and the huge vocals, plus the muscular guitar and bass on the chorus. “Sad Sack” fits this category too, and I particularly like Obregon’s bass playing; it’s got a lot more to do in this band than simply adding to the rhythm section, supplementing the melody. This song, too, includes piano in the arrangement, adding another dimension to the sound. “All Alone,” also originally released on the demo, has a solid street punk sound, with gang vocals and everything, yet it’s got a fantastic indie jangly guitar. One of my favorite tracks has to be “Crisis of Faith,” with dark urgent verses and a bright poppy chorus. I like, too, the bright sunny garage punk of “Let the Kids Have the Scene,” which reminds me of San Francisco’s t0yGuitar. This album has variety and it sounds fresh, yet also familiar. This all makes for a solid debut LP.

HOOD RATS – Crime, Hysteria, and Useless Information (Dirt Cult Records, dirtcultrecords.com)

Hood Rats have been kicking around for a few years. Formed in 2017 in Montreal, Canada, the band previously had released a handful of singles and demos. This LP, though, represents their full-length debut. The album leads off with a classic speedy 80s hardcore track that even has lyrics right out of that era. “Fuck the Police” could be an anthem of any of the great hardcore bands from back in the day. A simple melody, minimal chord changes, shouted lyrics and plenty of bitter sarcasm are key features of the song and the genre. “Deception,” too, is a fast’n’loud hardcore punk track that feels like it comes to us directly from 1983. Other songs range from hardcore to street punk, from hard rock to garage punk. I like the gritty garage punk of “We Can Be Zeros,” a song with vicious sounding vocals. It’s one of my favorites of the LP. Another good one is the dark “Occupied Territory,” which is somewhat slower but still feels like retro hardcore. It’s a song with a tribal rhythm that was written after the discovery in Canada of mass graves of native children at a school run by the Catholic Church. And “Repo Man” reminds me somewhat of the Chicago 80s punk sound, with big muscular guitars and a strong melodic sensibility. There’s a bunch of really good songs here for fans of 80s punk and garage, but I’m generally not a huge fan of 70s acid rock and heavy metal, so it comes as no surprise that “Get Out of My Head,” which channels that style, is my least favorite track of the LP. But I’m not going to let one song ruin my good time – and you’ll have a good time listening to this LP, too. It’s solid.

MASONIC WAVE (War Crime Recordings, warcrimerecordings.bandcamp.com)

Masonic Wave is a new Chicago band consisting of Bruce Lamont (of Yakuza, and also War Crime Recordings boss) on vocals and saxophone, Fritz Doreza (who replaced the late Pierre Kezdy in Naked Raygun when health issues prevented him from touring) on bass, Clayton DeMuth (of Sybris) on drums, and Scott Spidale (God Damn Your Eyes) and Sean Hulet (of Land of the El Caminos) on guitars. For the most part, this debut LP is filled with classic muscular punk-influenced sounds. Even as the music is tough and gruff, it also remains eminently melodic, a hallmark of the Chicago sound. The opening track, “Bully,” is a perfect example of this. It has a grandiose sound with massive guitars and soaring vocals, and it became an instant favorite. “Nuzzle Up,” too, has a huge and study sound. There’s some Big Black inspired edginess on this album, too, in songs like “Tent City” and “Mountains of Labor,” with guitars pounding along in one-note rhythmic lines along with the percussion, plenty of dissonance, and controlled shouting in the vocals. There are some songs with less of a punk sound on this LP, such as “Idle Hands,” with an almost 70s rock and roll ballad feel. And “Justify The Cling” reminds me of recent Swans. It starts out calm, smooth, and darkly mysterious. A third of the way through the track the intensity level starts to ratchet up, until just past the half way mark it explodes in cacophony, the vocals literally shouted as the instruments pound away. The album closes with a six and a quarter minute manic epic called, “Bamboozler,” that melds the Chicago punk sound, 70s rock and roll, and 90s emo. I can imagine if the band is this intense on a studio LP what their live shows must be like. Solid debut.

SCHEDULE 1 – Crucible (Council Records, council-records.bandcamp.com)

A little more than two years on from the band’s debut EP, Schedule 1, hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, return with their debut full-length LP. Their music is still deeply rooted in retro goth post-punk, featuring plenty of reverb, dark tones, and lots of ambient sounds hovering and simmering in the background. Vocals are spoken emphatically instead of being sung, and I can still hear the same level of passion as I did in the EP. I do hear a bit more variety in this LP than I did in the EP, which is good. I hear more hardcore influence and more emo in some of the songs. One favorite is the opening track, “Drifting,” which has a driving beat and solid melodic sensibility, amidst all the reverb and guitar jangle. I like, too, “Nothing At All,” for its hard driving hardcore bass that I find effective in the verses, but then the sharp goth-toned guitars begin ringing out, completely changing the tone of the song on the chorus. And “Forgotten Ones” has the feel of a big street punk song, except the arrangement has that big goth punk sound. But then there are also songs I couldn’t get into, such as the title track, which has a pop melody trying to break through the gothness. “No Grace” is pure 80s post punk goth, from the bass tone to the guitar tone, from the tribal drum beats to the vocal stylings. And “Travesty” sounds like an arena rock song played in a goth style. So, on the one hand, there’s more variety here, but on the other hand I couldn’t get into half of the record. But, hey, if you like the 80s post-punk goth sound, check this out, because the band nail that vibe.

SPELLS – Past Our Prime (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, linktr.ee/snappylittlenumbers)

This latest release from Spells sees them presenting music that, while it still blends a melodic indie sensibility with an aggressive punk aesthetic, it’s more punk, less indie than past releases. A perfect example is the opening track, ”A Different Kind of Broke.” It opens with a powerful NOMEANSNO-like bass line and proceeds with vocals shouted and spoken, and when the guitars come in the song is a blend of funk-punk and youth crew hardcore, a pretty unusual and awesome thing to listen to. There’s a bunch of garage influence here, too. “The Sound Remains” is sure to get you off the couch and dancing around the room with a retro rock and roll vibe and vocals that ooze sensuality. The title track is an easy favorite, with a great melodic sensibility mixed with an 80s indie feel, sort of like when Youth Brigade became The Brigade. And that’s a lot how this album feels: the punker side of things, with more aggression and less smooth indie than their earlier releases. Listen to the darkness of “Lost Summer,” with grittier vocals and belligerent instrumentals, but still with an indie melodic heart. And “Nightmares” is perfectly titled, because it sounds evil and dangerous, like good rock and roll should. The lead vocals are downright manic, veritably roaring out the lyrics, and the instrumentals grind out the notes in a menacing manner. Spells call themselves “vacation rock,” and yeah, I can hear them having a good time playing these songs, and I can imagine listeners will have a good time listening (I did), but that label sells the band short. They’re a solidly reliable band, and this LP is among their best releases.


DRACU-LAS – Fall Asleep When I’m Dead (Power Trash Records; thedracu-las.bandcamp.com)

Jersey City rockers Dracu-Las return with their second release, this time a three-song EP. Overall the band can be classified as a post-punk indie rock band, but they’re much harder to classify than that would imply. The title track has a retro 80's vibe, mixing post-punk pop and a dark 80's pop aesthetic. I love the surf guitar solo toward the end and the song’s lyrics about insomnia, sleep deprivation, and other sleep disorders. “It” is the most raucous track of the trio here, with a sort of Go Go’s thing going on, just with more of a raw sound, except for that lead guitar that keeps sounding very surf-like. The lyrics on this one are about obsession, wanting “it,” everyone having “it,” and ultimately being disappointed when you get “it.” The final track, “Nervous,” is a mix of garage rock and jangle pop and sings about an easily relatable topic: insecurity. It’s about being self-conscious in social situations, wondering how one is perceived by others, and feeling you’re making a fool of yourself. The song is pretty bright and jumpy, in contrast to the inward looking lyrical content. The last two tracks are my favorites of the trio. I find the title track to be a little too pedestrian pop for my tastes, but these other two are pretty great.

EWY – With Your Body Beside Me (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

It’s great to see Say-10 expanding their repertoire, this time with a folk-punk performer from North Yorkshire. Ewy is a non-binary queer folk-punk musician whose influences include Jeff Rosenstock, as well as Midwest emo bands like American Football. The music they play is primarily acoustic, but the arrangements are fuller and richer than one would expect. There’s an emotional weight to the vocals, even as the instrumentals are sometimes quirky and unconventional. Music ranges from the subtlety of “Bus Stop” to the edgy raucousness of “Love That You Required,” to the hectic pop of “Oh What a Shame!” to the playfulness of “A Joke That You're Not In On.” “Bus Stop” has understated vocals, somber acoustic and electric guitars, and ambient backing vocals. “Love That You Required” is a solid indie track with plenty of noise and frantic vocals and instrumentals. There’s even a bit of quirkiness in the arrangement, with different voices grabbing lines at times. “Oh What a Shame” features Martha-like poppy folk-punk, with an accordion in the mix with very broad singing. And “A Joke That You're Not In On” moves suddenly from a 4-4 time signature to a 3-4 waltz, with a fun arrangement that includes piano and glockenspiel, giving it the sound of a show tune. The dynamics on the song range from a quiet whisper to a huge yawp and everything in between. It all adds up to being my favorite song of the record. “Cold Arms” is a very pretty acoustic track, with fluttering guitar and synths that mimic bowed cello, along with Ewy’s melancholy intoning of the lyrics. Two of the shortest tracks, too, are the most fun. The minute-long “Drum Song” features a sound that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen or attended a drum circle. And “Breakcore Song” is 43 seconds of awesome remixed beats and edits that remind me of Cold Cut and other masters of plunderphonics. Ewy presents a gorgeous album that defies musical norms, which endears me to them even more.

F.O.D. – The Once A Virgin Club (SBAM, shop.sbam.rocks / Double Helix Records, doublehelixrecords.com)

No, this isn’t the Philadelphia 80s hardcore band, this is a Belgian band that plays top-notch Fat Wreck style pop punk, with tight harmonized vocals and energetic, poppy instrumentals. It’s been four years since their last LP, “Sleepville,” which came out at the height of the pandemic. The songs on this latest LP are speedy, melodic, and crunchy. And while it doesn’t have a concept tying the album together, like “Sleepville” did, it nevertheless is an exciting, explosive, and cohesive LP. I hear shades of Bad Religion, but with a brighter sound, more optimistic than that band. Check out “Close to Me,” and hear the harmonized speedy song with angular chord changes, similar to BR. I also hear some awesome shades of progressive rock, with more complex chord changes than most punk rock bands could ever muster, such as on the song, “Left.” Listen to the band run through a circle of fifths on the chorus! It sounds almost like classical music played by a punk band! A lot of the songs, too, have chord changes that are more involved and creative than typical pop punk, making F.O.D. a real standout in the punk world. And listening to the album straight through, you’re going to wonder how the band can possibly have the energy to play a full set. These songs are so fast and loud and powerful it’s got a take a lot out of them to play these. This is an outstanding record from start to finish. Highly recommended!

THE PHASE PROBLEM – The Power of Positive Thinking (Brassneck Records, brassneckrecords.bigcartel.com)

Talk about an all-star lineup! The Phase Problem is a fairly new band who released their self-titled debut LP a year ago, and now they’re back with their sophomore effort. The band features Flav Georgini (of Squirtgun fame), along with John Bonnar (Haiver, Piss Bath, Paws), and Alex Keane (Murderburgers, City Mouse, Roach Squad.) The album includes an array of special guests: Fraser Mudderbang (Murderburgers, Wrong Life), Heather Tabor (Teen Idles), Matt Hart (Squirtgun, Nevernew), Bruce Stuckey (Toxic Reasons), and Vess Ruhtenberg (Toxic Reasons, Zero Boys, Lemonheads). With this sort of personnel, high expectations are set going in. I was not disappointed. Of course, Ramones-core is featured in the bulk of these songs, tight pop punk with simple melodies and chord changes. But there’s also rock and roll influence, as well as surf stylings a la The Beach Boys. The opening track, “Flying Saucer U.F.O.,” features all of these, with simple three chord pop punk, basic retro rock and roll chord changes, and tight vocal harmonies. I love the retro rock meets pop punk sounds of “Demon Girl,” a track that’s firmly rooted in the 1950s but pulled forward through time 40 years to the 1990s. You can smell the hair grease and exhaust fumes of the ’57 Chevys, while pogoing to lyrics about the “queen of the underworld.” “A.D. 2024” reminds me of a mix of mid ‘80s California punk, 90s melodic post-hardcore/skate punk, and rock and roll, with a dark edgy sound. The Ramones-core idea is taken to the extreme with a song called, “Middle Aged Lobotomy.” It’s a funny spoof on the Ramones’ classic “Teenage Lobotomy,” of course, and though it doesn’t steal the melody of that song, it’s very simple yet powerful pop punk in a similar vein. “Fallen Apart” has a sweeter pop punk sound, more like Squirtgun’s classics. And we get the simple hardcore influenced “Stupid Thoughts” near the end of the LP. It’s a short sonic blast with lyrics that consist simply of “Stupid thoughts are in my head,” over and over. It’s nice hearing how these somewhat disparate styles can blend together so seamlessly. The Phase Problem aren’t breaking new musical ground, necessarily, but this particular blend is pretty fresh sounding.

THE SOFTER SIDE – Deathbed (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords.bandcamp.com)

The Softer Side are a Florida band that have been around awhile, since 1999. “Deathbed” is a six-song EP and represents their first new recording in ten years. Their name is pretty apt because, though their primary influence is melodic skate punk, they play it with a softer sound. They temper the metallic tendencies of the genre with plenty of pop melodies, soothing tuneful harmonized vocals, and acoustic instruments in the arrangements. They also see to have an obsession with Orson Welles, because they use multiple sound clips from the actor. The album opens with Welles speaking about General George Marshall in an interview. “"He was a tremendous gentleman, you know, an old fashioned institution which isn’t with us anymore." With that, the band jumps in with lively melodic poppy skate punk on the song, “Don’t Forget Me.” The backing vocals give the song a warm, light feel. The lyrics are a wish to live in the moment, and to leave a legacy behind when we’re dead and gone, that people will remember us. Orson Welles reappears on “Saint Philomena,” with a brief few words at the start of the song, and the full clip at the end. Welles asks Marlene Dietrich to read his future, and she tells him he doesn’t have any, that his future is all used up and he should go home. They really live up to their name on “Every Choice Has It’s Own Price,” as well as the closing track, “Wishing Well.” The former is one of the poppier tracks of the EP, with a smoother lighter touch to the skate punk instrumentals. It has an amazing harp in the arrangement at the end of the track that really makes the whole thing for me. The latter has an arrangement featuring acoustic guitar and piano, and an ethereal pop melody. I’m generally not a big fan of most modern skate punk, because most of it is just too metallic for my tastes. But The Softer Side use great creative touches and more calming arrangements to produce some excellent music.


BITTERS AND DISTRACTIONS – The Home that Procrastination Built (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

Bitters and Distractions are an acoustic punk duo from suburban New York City, featuring Jeremy Quitko and Travis Johnides. The four songs here are, as they call it, “proper punk,” but done acoustically. They’re solid sing-along poppy punk tunes, done on acoustic guitars, minus much of the singer-songwriter angst we usually associate with acoustic music in the punk scene. The opening track, “The Ballad of Brendan Frye,” a melodic punk tune that might reference the protagonist of the film, “Brick,” or it might be about the guy who plays saxophone in Atom Age, or it could be someone else. Either way, it’s a jaunty head-bobber with gang vocals galore. “Rocky and the Other Guy” features Matty Lupinacci of Whoopie Cushion on guest vocals on a song that’s a little slower and has a strong storytelling vibe. “The Expression Left Your Face” (featuring Will Romeo of Neck Scars) is about the division in the country, according to Johnides. “So much time is spent defending our own opinions and putting others’ opinions down. We have stopped listening to each other,” he says. The song is the most raucous of the EP, the one with a modicum of angst and darkness, the most “punk.” The EP closer is “Mermaids,” and it’s the sole ballad here, the one track with a folksy singer-songwriter vibe, even as the gang vocals try to keep it in the acoustic punk lane. Acoustic isn’t for everyone, and some people actively avoid it. But I’ve been getting exposed to a number of acoustic performers from the punk community over recent years, and I’ve been learning to love it. Bitters and Distractions is a welcome addition to my own personal catalog.

JAY ALAN KAY – Songs Before Work (Setterwind Records, jayalankay.bandcamp.com)

Yeah, it’s Jason Kotarski, the guy from Singing Lungs, and this is his debut solo LP. And if you’re thinking you’re going to get the sort of gritty angsty pop-filled punk of that band, you need to adjust your expectations and open your mind. Kotarski, over the course of thirteen songs and 43 minutes, gives us very personal glimpses into his life, markers for how one lives and experiences existence and interaction with others. The songs have a distinct Americana feel, but with enough of a punk edge to keep from going full country. They range from “full band” (Kotarski played all the instruments himself) to solo acoustic, and all have a lo-fi home recording vibe (likely because he recorded them in his basement on a vintage Tascam recorder). We get a jangly song about buying and driving old minivans (“Minivan”) and an indie song about the first time seeing Guided By Voices perform live (“I saw GBV”). There’s a wistful song about the next generation of up and coming musicians and bands, worrying about their anxiety and lamenting, “I wanna buy their records even though they won’t buy mine.” There’s the pop punk light song of encouragement, “Give It a Go,” and the down home “A Loyal Friend,” with a southern-fried rock and roll vibe. I enjoy the winsome sounds of “Anywhere,” a song about “not being from anywhere,” feeling like you don’t fit in. The instrumentals and melody are simple, but the guitar shimmers and shakes in a lovely way. “New Year” is a favorite, too. It’s a simple arrangement of acoustic and electric guitar, and lyrics about the passage of time and wondering about one’s legacy, wondering if “I’m enough.” The electric guitar tone has that shimmer again, and it gives the song a very introspective feel. Just from listening to this album, I feel I personally know Kotarski. And I think that’s about the biggest compliment you can give to a singer-songwriter.

THE RATCHETS – Street Manners (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

The Ratchets are celebrating 20 years as a band by releasing a series of non-album singles over the coming months. “Street Manners” lopes nicely, with a mix of pub rock and street punk. The lyrics take swipes at advertising, our consumer society, and economic inequality perpetuated by the wealthy. “Manners Avenue” is a dub remix of the song, with a smoother, slower sound, plenty of electronics, and a cool island vibe that comes from the percussion. A good start – let’s see where this series takes us.

NEW JUNK CITY / RUTTERKIN – Split (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

We get four songs each from these two pop punk bands on this new split mini-LP from the folks over at Say-10. New Junk City’s contributions are, as expected, poppy, bouncy, and drive pretty hard. In “Dr. Friedman” I hear shadows of early Green Day, but edgier and more emphatic. I love the sound of “Roots,” which punctuates the choruses with bright keyboards, and the melody is catchy as hell, making the song a favorite of the batch. Rutterkin’s sound tends toward the more emotional side of pop punk, in a vein similar to RVIVR, Iron Chic, and Latterman, but a little heavier on the pop side than those bands. They have the same breezy style, and the sort of introspective emotional content that was popular in West Coast pop punk bands in the 2010s, and they also hit a little harder than those bands. My favorite of their batch of songs is probably “Metamorphoses,” which has a 50s doo-wop sort of rhythm, but huge plaintive vocals and a modern indie rock meets pop punk melody. It’s also got massive dynamic changes, going from a shout to a whisper and back again. In “Roman Catholic Holiday,” I hear hints of the controversial band, Beach Slang, but again, edgier and harder hitting. The two bands are a good match, and I know I would go to a show with them both on the bill. Solid split.

VARIOUS – Wax Donut Presents: Goat (Wax Donut, blackdonut.bandcamp.com)

I don’t know about you, but living in Chicago through the 90s, I was a fan of The Jesus Lizard. The band was incredibly influential in the world of indie rock and roll, and their sophomore full-length LP, “Goat,” was a landmark of the underground music scene. Needless to say, when Wax Donut began contacting bands to gauge interest in appearing on a Jesus Lizard tribute to reimagine the songs from that seminal album, the response was very positive. All nine tracks from the original LP are here, plus one that appeared on the deluxe remastered version that was released in 2009. Bands from across the US and Europe are represented and acquit themselves quite well on their renditions of these noise-rock tracks that spawned an entire sub-genre. Neon Kittens (from York, in the UK) start things off with their version of “Then Comes Dudley,” the track that opens “Goat.” Neon Kittens’ sound is fuller, less spare than the original, with an ever so slightly faster tempo and vocals that are more deadpan, less intense than the original, but add a dose of meaningful confusion by layering multiple voices together. Trigger Cut (from Germany) are next in the album order, with “Mouth Breather.” This song was originally released on a 7” picture disc before appearing on “Goat,” and Trigger Cut gives the song their unique touch, overloading it with noise and distortion, vocals screaming out with intensity. “Nub” is tackled by Night Goat (from Akron, Ohio), who do a fairly faithful rendition of this classic, complete with snot-filled vocals, buzz saw guitars, and tribal beats. Wipes (Allentown, PA) bring us their rendition of “Seasick,” the album’s fourth track, and while the vocals are slightly more restrained than the original (but still pretty intense), the instrumentals are brasher, louder, and more powerful. “Monkey Trick” is covered by alternative metal three-piece Bovine Nightmares (Bethlehem, PA). They surprised me because their version doesn’t sound like “alternative metal” at all, and rather sounds quite faithful to the original masterpiece of restrained intensity, always seething just below the surface, occasionally exploding, though the vocals croon a bit more than David Yow’s. Kuhn Fu (Berlin, Germany) cover, “Kaarpis,” manages to take a mysterious sounding tune and make is even more arcane and enigmatic, the bowed bass at the end giving it a marvelous touch. The frantic “South Mouth” is given a down home twang by Dead Mammals (Rochester, UK), though it’s the dirtiest noisiest twang you’ve ever heard, the gang vocal shouting sounding like something from an Oi band. The Kronk Men (Bend, Oregon) are at position 8, where “Lady Shoes” sits, a manic track featuring crazed vocal shouting from front man Yow. The Kronk Men’s version is speedier and pounds more intensely, the guitars wailing and screaming more franticly, but the vocals sound saner and angrier than Yow’s. The original release of the LP closed with “Rodeo in Joliet” (Joliet being a far southwest suburb of Chicago, where Statesville Prison is located). The original is probably the most measured and controlled song of the album. Sinking Suns (Madison, Wisconsin) do a version that’s just as controlled, but sounds fuller and richer. And the bonus, “Pop Song,” which was added when the album was reissued in an expanded version, has a great funk-punk sound in the original, with an urgency to both the instrumentals and vocals, like they’re playing as if their life depended on it. The cover, here by Prosthetic Bung (Toronto, Canada) is nearly as frantic, with more distortion in the vocals and instrumentals. It’s clear that these bands truly love The Jesus Lizard, and they pay homage in the best way. These are great versions of great songs.


THE CHILDREN... – A Sudden Craving (Erototox Decodings, www.erototox.com)

“A Sudden Craving” is the group’s second LP, and it contains ten tracks of mysterious experimental folk music. Delicate acoustic instruments combine with electric instruments in untraditional arrangements, featuring falsetto vocals intoning lyrics. The band calls what they do gothic blues ambient, and it’s a reasonably accurate description. There are certainly bluesy and funky elements, some verging on spiritual. Particularly on “Gelded Half Moon,” which has an old timey feel in the acoustic guitar (played as if it’s a hammered dulcimer), a story-telling melancholy in the vocals, and tons of noise and feedback. And the darkness on many of these tracks nods toward the gothic. Ambient, though? The songs have more dissonance and noise than what I associate with “ambient” music, but it certainly has the same smoothness of ambient music. The mix of acoustic and electric instruments, guitars, percussion, synths, strings, and wind instruments creates hypnotic arrangements. A couple of tracks need to be called out as favorites. Dueling acoustic guitars open “Second Hand Embrace,” and continue through the track. Whispered vocals are reminiscent of David Tibet of Current 93, the folksy guitars melding with classical sounds of strings/synths, and the gritty noise of bass synths and the screeching strings and pounding percussion add to an eerie feeling. And “WHY SILLY,” a silly title in all caps, is the darkest and most mysterious track of them all, tribal drums banging away, a piccolo playing a mesmerizing tune to rival the Pied Piper’s, and both brass and vocal choirs in the background deepening the enigmatic gloom. The Children... doesn’t have the quite explosive noise of Swans or the industrial rhythms of Cop Shoot Cop, but they do carve out a niche for themselves and present a record to challenge our preconceived notions of what music can be. Recommended.

COFFIN PRICKS – Semi-Perfect Crimes (Council Records, council-records.bandcamp.com)

Coffin Pricks were a Chicago band, active for a short time in the early 2010s, formed by Ryan Weinstein (Cavity, Red Eyed Legends), Chris Thomson (Circus Lupus, Red Eyed Legends, and others), and Jeff Rice (Ottawa, Cavalry, Daylight Robberty). They added Chay Lawrence to play bass on live shows soon after forming, but only released one single. They had a full album’s worth of songs, and though some were recorded, they were never properly mixed and mastered and never saw the light of day. That is, until Council Records boss Matthias Weeks pestered them enough, and their recordings were handed over, remastered, and now released for all to hear. On the studio A-side of the limited vinyl release, we get seven tracks for a total of twenty minutes of frantic hectic rock and roll music, and the B-side has another seven live recordings from a show the band played a decade ago. Fans of Circus Lupus and similar bands with a more melodic approach to post-hardcore that maintains a hard hitting edge and a snotty attitude will love this record, as it features raw, powerful music and biting vocals. Every song throws punches to the gut, but a couple stand out among the standouts. “Only Flesh Wound” has a great melody, urgent guitar riffs, and a pounding rhythm. I love the minimalism and drive of “Cielo,” with a vocal melody that swirls around with the instrumentals. And the title track is probably my favorite of the bunch, with a gorgeous bass playing the melody in the chorus with the vocals, sounding like an amped-up punk rock Joy Division. On the live B-side, the recording fidelity suffers, but the energy level does not. The band sounds looser, more frenzied. Only one of the studio tracks (“TV Detention”) sees a repeat from studio to live, with the other six not showing up on the studio side. The studio version of “TV Detention” is a bit slower, but richer and more powerful. The live version, though, is thinner, higher strung, and twitchier. As with the A-side, the final cut is my favorite. “Worn Out Thunder” features steady pounding from the drums and vocal lines that match the beat. The simple melody and driving rhythm make for some extreme tension that doesn’t resolve until the song ends. Both sides of Coffin Pricks have their merits. The studio recordings are more expertly done and have a denser sound, but the live cuts are more primal. Both are exciting and intense. Coffin Pricks may have been a flash in the pan primarily isolated to the Chicago area, but now the world has an opportunity to hear how good they were.

DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN – Breathe Beneath the Waves (deweydefeatstruman-sd.bandcamp.com)

Dewey Defeats Truman, the San Diego band that was active more than 20 years ago, then reformed shortly before the pandemic and issued a gorgeous new EP and played a number of shows locally, entered a quiet period as one of their members relocated across the country to the East Coast. But after issuing an EP of covers not long ago, they’re back again with a new stand-alone single, “Breathe Beneath the Waves,” and they promise more new music is coming in the future. This single is a rare instrumental track for DDT, and it’s dreamier and more sedate and introspective than most of the band’s output, which tends toward more upbeat indie rock. “Breathe Beneath the Waves” is gentle, and it flows like a quietly babbling brook in the woods on a cloudless day, the sun filtering down to the ground through the canopy of trees. It’s five minutes of transcendence, a wonderfully soothing track. It certainly whets the appetite for the promised new songs, and I can’t wait for more. Beautiful.

GHOST WORK – Light a Candle for the Lonely (Spartan Records, spartanrecords.com)

Returning nearly four years after their debut LP, Ghost Work presents their sophomore full-length LP. The “super group” that features former members of Seaweed, Snapcase, Minus the Bear, and Milemarker still has a sound that’s well-polished without sounding slick and overproduced, but this time out the arrangements seem fuller and thicker, the playing more aggressive. It’s like big emo mixed with huge dreamy rock music, and it’s truly glorious. It’s sort of like taking a band like Interpol, upping the tempo just a tad, pumping up the volume, and then throwing some sand in the grit up the sound. As big and thick as the song sound, melodically they rely on minimalism, with simple riffs repeated. There’s no snobby technical flourishes or egos here, just simple straightforward music with an enormous sound and an enormous heart. Just listen to how cavernous “Godspeed on the Trail” is, with its simple guitar and bass staying in lockstep with the drums – but with production that sounds like it could fill a stadium show. “Earthquake” is a particular favorite, for its fragmented melodic and lyric lines and a sound that seems influenced by 90s Dischord bands. “Grapes and Chrome,” too, has an east coast 90s vibe, but with a dreamier reverb-laden sound. My favorite track of all of them, though, has to be the manic “Conjured Leverage.” It’s got the same big emo dreamy sound as the other tracks, but as it evolve it gets more emphatic, both in the instrumentals and especially in the vocals. Ghost Work’s debut was good. This follow-up is better.

TORREY (Slumberlandrecords.com)

I’ve always thought that Slumberland boss Mike Schulman had good taste in music, and his latest release, Torrey’s self-titled sophomore LP, doesn’t change a thing. Lush shoe gaze with indie pop melodies is the takeaway for the baker’s dozen tracks here, with thick fuzzed up guitars and keyboards, and ethereal vocals that glide and soar. The sound envelopes you as you listen, carrying you off to other places, even as the melodies give you a bounce, tope tapping and head bobbing non-stop. “Rain” is a good example, with jangly distorted guitars and keys and an easy poppy melody, the vocals subdued, almost like they’re just part of the background. “Bounce” has a gorgeous indie pop melody, with bright synths, while the reverb-laden guitars continue to create the impenetrable wall of sound. My favorite tracks, though, are the ones that use noise and dissonance in the arrangements. “Happy You Exist” starts off with a dark dirge-like sound, then adds 80s string synths, and then becomes a bright poppy tune. As the song evolves, more and more dissonance and outright guitar noise are injected into the mix, and the resulting track is a marvel of growing intensity and ferocity. I also love the cavernous pop sound of “Really AM,” especially how the noisy guitars get louder and scream more ferociously as the song evolves. The manic energy of “Hawaii” makes it a real winner, too. A couple of tracks don’t work quite as well to me, sounding more like the shoe gaze equivalent of easy listening music. “Slow Blues” falls into this category, even with the noisy discordant part, coming off like a lounge song. And “No Matter How” has the lounge-like melody of a Burt Bachrach song done with a shoe gaze arrangement that doesn’t quite work for me. But overall, this is a great sophomore LP.


BROKEN HEARTS ARE BLUE – Meeting Themselves (Council Records, council-records.bandcamp.com)

Broken Hearts are Blue are contemporaries of the 1990s Midwest emo scene, popularized by bands like Braid, The Promise Ring, Christie Front Drive, and Gauge. After releasing but a single album, they disbanded, but in 2018 they came together again and have since released an EP and two more LPs. And now, their fourth LP, “Meeting Themselves,” finds the band in fine, wistful form. Not a band to repeat themselves, their output tends to evolve with each new record. While their previous LP, “Dark Whimsy And Soft Surrealism,” featured a clean indie-pop sound, “Meeting Themselves” has more of a distinctly melancholy sound. The songs are primarily ballad-like, slow and thoughtful, and the dynamic range is huge; the band can go from a whisper to tumultuous cacophony and back again before you know what’s happening. One favorite is “The French Major,” a song that drips with both distortion and jangle and has hints of retro doo-wop lament. I like, too, the torch song, “Hot Pink & Tussock,” a song with a jazz ballad feel from the piano, the light touch on the ride cymbal, and the crooning vocals. Also with a bit of a jazzy beat is “To Be Seen By You,” a song with a strong back beat, prominent bass line, and boogie piano riffs. The most raucous tune of the album is the moderate tempo, “Rocket Was a Pony,” and it’s the closest to the previous LP we get. It’s got a poppy melody, but instead of a clean indie sound we get a gritty garage sound from the guitars. It reminds me a little bit of The Vertebrats, a 1980s garage power pop band from the Midwest, though this song has the inescapable emo elements mixed in, too, giving the song somewhat of a soaring sound. The ten songs here are varied yet cohesive, poppy yet dark and brooding. Broken Hearts are Blue are not only back, they’re better than ever.

DEZ DARE – A Billion Goats. A Billion Sparks. Fin. (God Unknown Records, godunknownrecords.com)

Dez Dare is the project of Darren Smallman, an Australian ex-pat now living in the UK. He’s self-described as neurodivergent, on the autism spectrum. His songs are often about living on the spectrum, dealing with a neurotypical world, and combatting misinformation about neurodivergent people. To convey his message he plays music that blends new wave electronics with grunge and 70s acid rock. The guitars and bass have a deep distortion and fuzz, the keyboards and drums presenting it all with a jumping danceable beat. Vocals are deadpan, spoken matter of factly or shouted emphatically, but never sung. When I first started playing this and heard the lithe synths and strong beat on the intro to “Got a Fire in my Socket,” I thought it was going to be just another new wave dance sort of record, but when the guitars and bass came in, laden with fuzz, and the incongruous vocals began, I knew I was in for something different, something unique. And that’s certainly what Dez Dare is: unique. When “Matter vs. Matter” started, it sounded like I was listening to a contemporary of The MC5, but then the guitars gave way to a tribal drum beat and the vocals helped to throw me off the scent. “10,000 Monkeys + An Argument With Time” has a hilarious title and a wonderfully confusing mix of 70s distortion and 80s electronic art punk. Then there’s “No One Wants to Hear It,” which mixes in a dose of industrial dance, with mechanical rhythms and the chaotic clanging of the factory. “Entangled Entropy” has an 80s Joy Division/New Order sort of sound, with loads of reverb in the vocals and an emphasis on electronics and a steady beat that’s definitely for dancing, but the song itself doesn’t seem like a dance tune. “Josephine Says Explode” is a real favorite, combining the hard-edged tension of acid rock distortion and the soft caress of flute-like synths. There’s variety here, and unexpected juxtaposition of genres. That always gets a nod from me, and Dez Dare is a worthy listen.

THE FOLLIES – Permanent Present Tense (Feel It Records, www.feelitrecordshop.com)

The Follies are a New York City band with an almost manic edge. The songs span multiple sub-genres of rock and roll, but they all have an abundance pent up energy that you can feel in the upbeat tempos, the frantic jangle of the guitars, the furious drumming, and the frenzied bass. I hear glorious indie-pop, I hear wondrous garage, brilliant power pop, and dazzling bubble gum. The one exception to this rule is the relaxed “Bad Habits,” which is a slower, more relaxed song with crooning vocals and a blend of island ease and Americana twang. Hold on tight for the rest of the songs, though, because it’s a crazy ride! “I Idled” starts the album out with bright shiny indie pop, guitars jangling madly with complex riffs and subtle yet rapid fire drumming under smooth and lovely vocals. This is the way to attract and keep attention on a new LP! “Square Peg Round Hole” has a mix of indie and power pop with a jazzed up rhythm and a melody that flows with speedy ease. “Not Here,” too, features a mix of indie and power pop, with impossibly fast and labyrinthine guitar riffs, and urgent vibe in the instrumentals mixed with a more placid sensibility in the vocals. “Brick by Brick” even has an early punk sound to it, with amped up power pop instrumentals, a simple garage-like melodic line, and emphatically spoken vocals. My only complaint about this album is it’s too damn short! The ten tracks add up to only twenty-seven minutes and leave me wanting more. Recommended!

GAB DE LA VEGA – Life Burns (Sell the Heart Records, selltheheartrecords.com / SBAM, shop.sbam.rocks / Epidemic Records, www.epidemicrecords.net / Overdrive Records, www.over-drive.it / www.motorcityproduzioni.com / gabdelavega.bandcamp.com)

Gab De La Vega is an Italian punk who’s spent time raging on stage and screaming into the mic on vocals. But after he picked up an acoustic guitar he began to write songs with a softer, emotional, and more melodic sound. There’s still a poppy punk sound in many of the songs, like the excellent opening track, “To Live Is To Survive.” It mixes early Green Day pop punk with retro rock and roll. “Preaching To The Choir” is another punked up pop tune, with a sense of urgency to it, and even some big gang vocals. “Adrenaline Rush” is appropriately named, loaded with pop punk energy and a cool grating guitar tone. And the closing track, “Markham City Limits,” is remarkable for how much like a Green Day song it sounds. But some of them are quite a shift for De La Vega. “Rock Bottom” is a smooth, pretty indie pop mix of acoustic and electric, with more of a singer-songwriter feel. “A Face in the Mirror” is an out an out easy ballad with a 70s AM pop bent to it. I love “Northern Lights,” another ballad, this time with a smooth jazz thing going on, loaded with reverb and including horns in the mix on an amazing instrumental ending. “Rabbit Hole,” too, has a funky jazz-rock vibe. This album is not what I expected, but it’s varied enough to keep things interesting and the songs are well written and performed. Solid stuff here.

GRADUATION SPEECH – Arcane Feelings (Protagonist Music, protagonistmusic.bandcamp.com)

Starting out as a solo project for Aspiga’s Kevin Day, Graduation Speech has evolved over its few releases, and now emerges as a full-time full-blown band. Still remaining, though, are the heartfelt indie songs for which Graduation Speech has become known, now a bit softer and more emotionally informed than earlier full-band efforts. These are warm, understated songs, with clear open instrumentals that soar, while Day’s restrained vocals intone darker lyrics. The arrangements are certainly stronger and richer than Graduation Speech’s past full-band efforts, with a blend of jangly pop and ethereal dreaminess. I particularly like the lonely sound of “09-12-20,” with a slow, deliberate rhythm from the drums and bass, simple guitars with a modulation in the tone that makes them sound wobbly, and a subtle chorale of backing vocals. “Follow,” which closes the six-song EP, is the most upbeat sounding song, with more jangle in the mix of acoustic and electric guitars, and a brighter sounding melody. Graduation Speech’s evolution continues on an upward trajectory.

INSANE HABITS – How To Grow Up and Fail Miserably (www.insanehabits.at)

Here’s a new EP from the Austrian punk trio, Insane Habits. There are seven tracks but really five songs, the opening and closing tracks being an alarm clock and a short ditty about wanting ice tea (a “hangover” remix of one of the other songs), respectively. In between we get a wide variety of sounds, sort of like the band is channeling different punk sub-genres. “12 Hours” has a metallic melodic 90s punk sort of sound, and lyrics about the daily grind, wanting to do well and be productive, but getting ground down by corporate politics and shitty bosses. “For No Reason” is a bouncy pop punk song about hanging out with friends and having a good time. “She’s Out” mixes post-punk and grunge to create a powerful ode to the strong women of our society. “Iron Ice Tea” is a one-minute old school hardcore punk blast (that also includes a ska-punk bridge) about a particular cocktail. And “So Easy” is a relaxed indie rock song that’s got a dark jangle to it and darker lyrics that focus on failure, depression, bad relationships, and everything that makes daily life…not so easy. Insane Habits isn’t going to set the world on fire with this EP, but it’s a solid punk rock effort.

JADE DUST – Grey Skies (Council Records, council-records.bandcamp.com / Extinction Burst, extinction-burst.com / GGT Records, ggtrecords.limitedrun.com)

Jade Dust, hailing from Portland, Oregon, sounds more like they’re from the middle of the east coast, in our nation’s capitol. And though they formed in 2019, they sound more like they fell through a time warp from the late 1980. They’ve got a distinctly Dischord-like sound, playing melodic post-hardcore along the lines of many of that label’s storied bands. They even cover one of those bands, with their rendition of Ignition’s “Anger Means.” This version is a little looser and flows more freely than Ignition’s edgy intense original. The 8-song mini-LP closes with another cover, this time reaching even further back in time to the early 80s, with Articles of Faith’s “What We Want Is Free,” a song the Chicago band closed their debut EP with. Where the original is a fast’n’loud hardcore anthem, Jade Dust slows it down, giving it a melancholy later era Ramones sort of feel, much more dirge-like and wistful. The other six tracks are Jade Dust originals, and of these, “Cast in Shadows,” which begins the record, is my favorite. It, and the other original tracks, meld east coast post-hardcore emo and Bay area poppy punk in a way similar to Chicago’s Gauge did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating the “Midwest emo” sound that was expanded upon by the likes of Braid, Cap’n Jazz, and many others. “Forget” is a less emo and more pop, leaning more toward the Bay area influence, with a great bounce to its soul. Other songs tweak the formula, some favoring the emo influences more, others the pop punk. This sort of band and this sort of record hit me square in the sweet spot. Awesome!

TRASHED AMBULANCE – "Kentwood" Single (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

To prepare for their upcoming Japan tour, Alberta, Canada’s Trashed Ambulance has released a new stand-alone single, “Kentwood,” featuring guest vocals from Amanda Sousa (from Death Cassette). And if you’re a fan, this is an essential listen. If you’ve never heard the band, but you like the melodic pop punk sound, a la bands like Pulley or The Flatliners, you need to check out this band. While this single is a little slower and more relaxed than a lot of their songs, it’s bigger and fuller sounding, too. The great harmonized vocals are still there, and the band is tight and powerful. I count myself as a fan, and you will, too, after listening.

WASHING MACHINA – The Spontaneous Splendid (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com/)

Washing Machina is a Swedish band formed amidst the great pandemic, initially exchanging musical ideas. They’re informed by 90s indie rock and pop, as well as modern dream pop, with songs that swirl with lush guitars and big emotions. “The Spontaneous Splendid” represents the band’s debut full-length LP, after previously releasing a pair of EPs. And it’s a solidly strong debut LP, at that. The combination ethereal vocals, the thick instrumental arrangements, and the 90s indie melodies is compelling. I like the industrial percussion used in “Daydream Team,” a song with a noisy aggressiveness in the instrumentals, though the vocals still glide as smoothly as ever. But I think it’s the bouncy, poppy, noisy, and complex “October” that’s my favorite track of the album. It combines all of the best aspects of these different genres into something that’s danceable, enjoyable, and has dueling melodic lines and a wonderful cacophony of guitars. But, honestly, every track on this album is quite good, and this is strongly recommended, particularly for fans of indie rock and pop.


JAGUAR 777 – “Danger At My Heels” b/w “Death Ride” (Khannibalism Records, khannibalism.bandcamp.com)

Cleveland’s seedy underbelly of rock and roll, as represented by the duo of Kacie Marie and Emmett O’Connor, presents a two-song 12” single, with the A-side dripping with unfulfilled desire and the B-side taking you on the titular trip. “Danger At My Heels” uses dark synths and drum machine, along with Lynchian surf-psych guitar, and vocals that provide the sound of a slow burning thirst. It’s smooth, suave, and subdued, simmering under the surface. “Death Rise,” on the other hand, is grittier, more of a dark garage rock tune full of menace. The limited edition vinyl also includes instrumental versions of each song. But be forewarned: this appears to be the only available Jaguar 777 record. If the darkness envelopes you, you may hunger for more.

THE MOCKS – Do You Want Me Too? (wapshoowaprecords.bandcamp.com)

If you’re a fan of 60's pop rock and garage, this debut LP from Dutch band The Mocks needs to be on your listening list. They’re touted as the youngest 60's influenced band in the Netherlands, and they certainly have the 60's youth sound down solidly. Many songs on the album have a distinct early Beatles influence, though they show other influences, as well. “Do Me Good,” for example, is primarily a great bubblegum pop tune, with classic harmonized vocals, but it’s got some awesome gritty bass and guitar sounds a la MC5. And “Find Her” is, likewise, a really bouncy, head bobbing, jangly pop tune, but there are some cool angular guitar licks that give it an interesting edge. “One More Chance” and the title track both fall into this category, too, with a poppy melody and grittier 60's garage sounds mixed in. Other songs, like “Tell Him,” have more of a 50s doo-wop pop sound, and we also get a mysterious sounding instrumental that could have come from a cloak and dagger movie soundtrack, called “The Spy.” The Mocks must have old/young souls to nail the 60's sound so well.

NIGHT WINDOWS – In Memories (nightwindows.bandcamp.com)

Night Windows is primarily the work of Ben Hughes, a Philadelphia musician who’s been releasing music under this moniker for the better part of a decade. Prior to “In Memories” he’s released two LPs and a handful of EPs, evolving the project from a solo effort into a full band. On this, his third full-length, Hughes provides vocals, guitar, and keyboards, and is joined by Tad Lecuyer (drums and vocals) and Adam Smith (bass and additional keyboards). The music is quite introspective and personal sounding, with a firm foot in the acoustic singer-songwriter tradition. Dry production and studio banter among the musicians left at the start and end of some tracks give the songs a sense of presence and immediacy, like you’re there as the songs are being performed and recorded. This is particularly heard on “Annapolis Rd,” a song that features only Hughes’ acoustic guitar and vocals (and the sounds of an occasional car driving by). Other songs feature piano, acoustic guitar, and vocals, such as the very pretty opening track, “(Not) The Only One.” When the band goes full electric, like with “Broken Glass,” they do have a fuller sound, but even then it’s restrained lushness, maintaining an intimate feel. And there are songs like “She,” with a relaxed indie rock feel. A very nice listen.

RICH ARITHMETIC – Pushbutton Romance (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Rich Arithmetic is the stage name for Richard Horton, a performer and songwriter out of Seattle (who also operates the Optional Art record label). After releasing his own music for a while, “Pushbutton Romance” is his second LP for Kool Kat Musik. And it’s a little hard to pigeonhole Rich Arithmetic, because it spans multiple genres, including 60s British Invasion pop, 70s power pop, baroque chamber music, folk, Americana, psych, surf, and modern pop. There’s even literal chamber music on this record, including the short opening track, “An Introduction to An Introduction,” and in “A Teenage Hymn, Pt 3: An Introduction to the Parents.” Strings and harpsichord play lovely classical melodies, and within the context of the other songs, these fit in perfectly. The jangle of electric and acoustic guitars together on songs like “When You Want Somebody (To Make Love To)” give them a great 60s mod-psych pop sound, and I love the complexity of the off-kilter rhythms that give them that “chamber pop” aesthetic. There are fun songs like “Battered and Broke,” which has a hopping Western swing sound, and there are twangy Americana-tinged tunes like “Moral Blight” and “Up to You,” which are both folksy and power pop at the same time. There’s a relaxing instrumental track, “Saving Sunset,” which has a smooth lounge-surf sound. And there’s even a Beatles-influenced track “You Are Always Right,” in keeping with the 60s and 70s influences. While Rich Arithmetic is firmly rooted in that retro vibe, there’s an incredible amount of variety here, even as the album remains eminently cohesive. Solid.

MARY TIMONY – Untame the Tiger (Merge Records, www.mergerecords.com)

If you’re reading Jersey Beat, I sure hope you know who Mary Timony is. She played in the short-lived but influential Washington, DC band, Autoclave. She also was in the even more influential band, Helium, as well as Ex Hex, Hammered Hulls, and more. She’s also had a solo career, recording and touring under her own name. “Untame the Tiger” is Timony’s fifth solo LP, and her first as a solo artist in some fifteen years. The songs were written during a time in which she was acting as primary caregiver for her ailing parents and in the aftermath of their passing, as well as during the ending of a long-term relationship. The ensuing emotions drove many of the songs, none more than “No Thirds,” the track which opens the LP. It’s a song about losing everything and everyone, but having to continue yourself. "I wanted the verses to sound like a wide-open barren space, like driving across a desert, because that is what the song is about—losing people and the feeling that your future is a giant, wide-open blank space." Timony achieved her goal, the blend of electric and acoustic instruments providing a desolate empty sound in the verses, and the use of strings and wind instruments in the instrumental bridges conjuring images of an open future ahead. One of the more hopeful tracks of the album has to be the psych-influenced “Looking for the Sun,” which focuses on acoustic guitar, with bass, drums, and what sounds like harpsichord, but may be another guitar. The verses speak to the darkness and loneliness we experience in our loves, but the choruses brighten up, telling us “We’re all looking for the sun;” we want to keep moving forward, away from the darkness and toward the goodness of the light. The melody is light, lithe, and lovely. “The Guest,” which immediately follows, is the polar opposite. It’s a twangy, dusty sounding song about being trapped in feelings of loneliness despite our attempts to escape it. Another favorite is the eerie, “The Dream,” a song with a mysterious sound, sparse in the verses, with Timony’s crooning vocals singing a tale of a dream where “nothing was really real.” The choruses are lush, yet no less mystifying. The lyrics and instrumentals convey a feeling of unease, yet as the song concludes it feels almost triumphant, with the vocal refrain “I don’t wanna undream the dream.” But the clear best song of the album, at least to my ears, is the title track. It’s bouncy and loaded with great riffs, as Timony sings more lyrics about a troubled relationship that’s hard to erase: “Now I got a dragon in my mind / And I’m staring into space / All I ever do is talk to you / In my imagination / Do you believe in a brighter day? Well, I can’t find my faith / Want to know where this feeling goes, don’t wanna walk away,” while the closing line of the verses is “What do I get from loving you? Just this song about the pain.” It’s clear that, as she enters her fourth decade of making music, Timony is still able to craft songs that are beautiful and moving.


PAUL COLLINS – Stand Back and Take a Good Look (Jem Records; paulcollinsbeat.bandcamp.com)

Back at the start of the pandemic, Paul Collins, like many artists, did several live streams from his New York City home, playing acoustic renditions of many favorite tunes from his back catalog. But as the weeks wore on to months and longer, Collins grew weary and began to question whether he had anything more to say and whether it was time to hang it up. Thankfully, it’s clear he has plenty more to say. And he’s got plenty of friends to help him along the way. On his past albums he’s been joined by the many musicians who have accompanied him on tours and acted as his band, The Paul Collins Beat. But on this album he decided to call on his many friends with whom he hadn’t previously recorded. And to his surprise, they all said yes. He’s joined by the likes of the late Dwight Twilley, Ronnie Barnett (The Muffs), Richard X. Heyman, Charles “Prairie” Prince (of The Tubes), and members of Shoes and 20/20. The LP contains nine new original Paul Collins songs, two covers by former bandmates from The Nerves (the title track was written Jack Lee and “Will You Come Through” by Peter Case), and one song written by Collins’ brother Patrick (“One Hill and I’m Home”). One favorite is “I’m the Only One for You,” with a classic Collins power pop sound and a great bass line. I love the delicate and emotional “In Another World,” with its big, open, jangly 80s sound and especially for its harmonized vocals on the chorus. The Peter Case tune, “Will You Come Through,” was originally performed by The Nerves but never recorded outside a gritty live recording released in 2009, and it shows what a great songwriter he is. Many of the new songs seem autobiographical, such as “Liverpool” and “Under the Spanish Sun.” The former is a British Invasion mod sort of song, all jangly, telling a story about visiting friends and seeing Beatles sites while on three days off of a tour in Liverpool. The latter references Collins’ penchant for spending winters in Spain, playing music with friends, and touring. It’s a more relaxed folksy sounding song, with delicate acoustic guitar. Collins has written and recorded a number of Americana songs, and he revisits this period in his life in the twangy, “You Can’t Go Back.” The lyrics of the song refer to how time passes and things change: “You can’t go back and expect everything to be the same,” the chorus declares. It’s a real down home tune with a wistful feel. The big surprise of the album is Paul’s brother’s song, “One Hill and I’m Home.” Patrick Collins played with his brother in The Beat for a while, but I never knew he was a songwriter, as well as a guitarist. His song is played on acoustic guitar and has a singer-songwriter feel, with lyrics about the anticipation of reunion with loved ones after a long time away. It’s absolutely lovely. The whole album is, really.

THE DROWNS – Blacked Out (Pirates Press Records; thedrowns.bandcamp.com)

Seattle’s rock and roll kings are back with a new full-length LP, their first since 2020’s “Under Tension.” In the last three years the band has transformed themselves from a street punk/American Oi band into a rock and roll band through a series of EPs, split singles, and multiple tours. This new LP shows the band fully in the glam and power pop genres of rock and roll. And a couple of the songs here have seen release over the past year or so. “Just the Way She Goes” is a banger of a power pop tune, previously released as a single with “1979 Trans Am” (which also appears on this LP), and it’s still one of my favorite newer Drowns songs. It’s catchy, energetic, poppy, and a ton of fun. Another fun power pop tune is “Wheels,” a song about the joy of driving cars “until the wheels come off.” More than about the ’69 Charger mentioned in the chorus, the song is about living life to its fullest, and the joy of life is mirrored in the song. The bulk of the songs, though, are firmly in the glam and good ‘ol rock’n’roll camp. Like “Banger,” which opens the LP with an appropriately brash glam tune that exhorts us to all “make it fast, make it loose, make it loud, make it roar.” And that’s just what The Drowns do over the course of the next 35 minutes. The benefits of recreational drugs are sung in the rocking and rolling song, “Ketamine & Cola,” and the age-old rock and roll topic of sexy women is presented in “Dynamite.” The title track is one of the most fun of the rock and roll songs, and “All Charged Up” directly channels the spirit of classic rock and roll. The closer, “Born to Die in NYC,” is different from the rest; it’s a solemn acoustic number, featuring piano and Rev’s gruff vocals singing about the hard life of the Big Apple’s early punk rockers, the drugs, the poverty, and the early deaths. It’s a downer of a way to close an otherwise hell of a fun LP.

GENTLEMEN ROGUES – Surface Noise (Double Helix Records; gentlemenrogues.bandcamp.com)

Austin, Texas has long been a musical center, and they’ve produced a number of notable bands. Gentlemen Rogues are certainly counted among the best to be produced from the storied scene. Their music is solidly rooted in power pop, but they have a pop punk aesthetic, too, with thicker richer sounds and riffs than traditional guitar pop offers. The ten songs on the album are impossibly catchy and will sound awfully familiar even on first listen, but on subsequent listens they become old friends you’re happy to see. Especially the opening track, “Do The Resurrection!” It’s got a big thick wall of guitars and awesome power-pop-punk vocals that could have come from an early Green Day song. Another one in this vein is “Involuntary Solitary,” likely a pandemic reference. High energy vocals and instrumentals combine with lyrics that say that, though “I used to like being by myself,” this is no longer the case, because “I don’t want just anybody / I don’t need no antibody / I wanna be infected with your affection.” “Never The Bride” blends a poppy punk melody with simpler, harder-edged grungy guitars for a tougher sound than most of the tracks – but it’s still a bouncy good time, and it’s got a mysterious David Lynch-esque dreamy ending. And “Francy” has the power and energy of a Ramones tune, but with smoother and slicker harmonized vocals. Though this is a thoroughly new LP it comes across like a greatest hits collection, because every track is so damned catchy. Solid!

RIVER CITY REBELS – Pop Culture Baby (Screaming Crow Records; river-city-rebels.bandcamp.com)

Vermont’s River City Rebels, formed in the late 90s and active through the 2000s, called it quits more than a decade ago. But front man Dan O’Day decided it was time for a new edition of RCR. He recruited new members Marc Conti, Izzy DeSimone, Kody Sanborn, and Adam Allard, and they’re now releasing a new four-song EP. Longtime fans of RCR will celebrate the four short blasts of old school punk rock with raucous songs covering self-abuse, racism, pop culture, and the evils of fundamentalist religion. This is the real deal.

STATES OF NATURE – Brighter Than Before (Sell the Heart Records; statesofnature.bandcamp.com)

States of Nature, hailing from the Bay area, previously released a couple of EPs and then collected them together into an LP a couple years ago, “Songs to Sway,” a collection of songs I favorably reviewed upon its release. Now in 2024, States of Nature finally brings us their proper debut LP, filled with new songs. The band primarily focuses on powerhouse post-hardcore songs, with a manic energy, but also provide some brighter fare (thus the album title?) like in the shiny rock and roll vibe of “Papered News” and the gloriously lush album closer, “Oh the Light.” But it’s the post-hardcore that dominates, hard-edged and urgent. States of Nature tempers the fury with great melodic riffs and even some poppy hooks. Soaring vocals mix with those that are veritably spit out, recorded with a thin veneer of distortion over them, giving the album a great garage-like vibe. The title track opens the LP, and it pulls no punches; it announces to the world that States of Nature is a force to be reckoned with in the music scene, with its great combination of post-hardcore fury and euphonic melody and vocals. I love the thick guitars and their use of phasing on “Wicked World;” they give the song a full rich sound, even as it maintains a tough edgy sound. And “New Foundations” is a favorite of the LP for mixing in both garage punk and earlier poppy post punk sounds. This is an outstanding debut LP.


FIRE SALE – The Albatross (Negative Progression Records, www.negativeprogressionrecords.com)

Fire Sale is a newish punk “super group” featuring Matt Riddle (of Face to Face and No Use for a Name), Chris Swinney (of The Ataris), Pedro Aida (of Ann Beretta), Matt Morris, and Brad Edwards. They’ve released 7” singles in 2021 and 2023, and in 2022 they appeared on a four-way split 7” EP. So now that it’s 2024 it’s time for a new 7” single. The title track is going to be a hit with Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords fans, with its big melodic 90s punk sound. Power chords glide over drums and bass banging away in double time, harmonized vocals singing about the hopelessness facing kids today, with rampant bullying and drugs, and especially the fear that they might get killed in yet another school shooting. The B-side, “I Remember Damage,” has a more relaxed gliding sound, with big open guitar sounds and a 90’s emo-pop melodic line in the vocals. This is definitely a 90s punk nostalgia sort of record, and if you’re into that sound, this one’s well done.

KILOGRAMS (Asbestos Records, asbestosrecords.bigcartel.com)

Another super group here, this time featuring Joe Gittleman (Mighty Mighty Bosstones), Michael McDermott (The Bouncing Souls, Joan Jett), J. Duckworth (Newport Secret Six) and Sammy Kay. With Asbestos Records specializing in reggae music, you’ll know that’s what’s on offer in this debut EP. And while there’s plenty of reggae and it’s the dominant vibe of the five songs, there’s also a dose of pop and more than a hint of soulful rock and roll. “I Swear,” the opening track, alternates between reggae and rock, while “Can’t Be Beat” has a Bruce Springsteen sort of vibe, particularly in the vocals. “Who Am I (To Say)” is a mix of reggae rhythms and a soul music arrangement. “America in Black and White” and “Dub am I” are the most straight-ahead reggae tunes, with the latter being a dub remix of “Who Am I (To Say)” done by Crazy Baldhead. I think Kilogram needs to decide what kind of band they want to be, reggae, rock, or soul, and work on that, because this in-between stuff isn’t working well enough for my tastes.

THE SLEEVEENS (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com/website)

This debut LP has a fantastic late 70s and early 80s blend of power pop, garage, glam, and punk rock, reminiscent of the sort of music from Stiff Records back in the day, and similar to the music made by the likes of Stiff Little Fingers and The Buzzcocks, but with a distinctly American garage feel. The band is from Nashville, but for their name they chose a slang Irish term for “tricksters.” But there are no tricks here, just eleven solid tracks. The music has a nihilistic streak running through it, with loads of power and unfocused energy, but the band is tight as hell. We get a bluesy rock and roll sound from “Give My Regards to the Dancing Girls,” while “Tales from the Megaplex” and “Metallica Font” are more raucous garage punk tracks, but even better than these are a few of the tracks toward the end of the album. “Full Dollar” is a garage punk masterpiece, with distorted wall of sound guitars and rhythmic vocals. “Glory Holes” is even more so, with a darker sound. And “Get Over You” is a hell of a fun power pop garage tune. This record is pure enjoyment.


BRIGATA VENDETTA – This Is How Democracy Dies (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

This may be the debut LP from a new band, but the people behind it certainly aren’t neophytes. Brigata Vendetta features a group of “saints:” Darrel Wojick (vocals, bass) and Mike Caputo (guitar) are well known from their time with street punk band Harrington Saints, while Brian Zobel (drums) comes from Bum City Saints. So what does the new Bay Area band sound like? In short, it’s old school hardcore punk rock! Though the band started as a side project, once Harrington Saints called it quits, Brigata Vendetta became the primary focus, and classic hardcore became the outlet for their energy, rather than the American version of Oi. And when I say energy, I mean it. The baker’s dozen tracks here are speedy and powerful, full of manic toughness and strength. The LP’s title comes from lyrics in the song, “1,000 Cuts;” the line “This is how democracy dies” makes up the song’s chorus. Lyrics on these songs tend to range from political to personal, with themes of dealing with societal ills, dealing with relationships, loss, grief, and more. It’s the political ones that get me going most, though, because there was so much of it in early hardcore. “Tempers Flare” is one that deals with anger boiling over into violence in the streets, and depending on your point of view either threatening or preserving democracy. The vibe is strongly 1980s hardcore, and it reminds me why I got into punk in the first place. Excellent stuff.

BROADWAY CALLS – Coming After You! (Red Scare Industries, redscareindustries.bandcamp.com)

One new song and three of last year’s singles get packaged into a new EP to kick of Broadway Calls’ 2024 tour schedule. The previously released tracks include the jangly, bright, and poppy “A Little Shake,” the dreamy near ballad “Dreamin’,” and the gritty “Dead Before I Hit the Ground.” But as good as all these songs are, the title song has them all beat. It’s got a cool retro post punk vibe, mixing power pop and dream pop with fuzzed grunge and straight up pop. The lyrics reflect the divide in society, with the two halves at each other’s throats, every act a response to the other. “You bought an island and I burnt the bridge / You made plans for revenge, I took up defensive positions.” This is a solid way to start 2024, which happens to be an election year.

THE COMPLICATORS (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

It was a twisted winding path that led The Complicators to finally release this, their debut full-length LP. Prior to the pandemic, they had released an EP and a split 7”, and then they began writing for this LP. But then the pandemic happened, causing one delay. Then the original drummer moved away. But the band persevered, adding a new drummer once live music resumed. And, just as importantly, preparation for the record resumed, as well, with vocalist Quincy Atkinson, guitarist Matt Garcia, bassist Sean Smith, and new drummer Cameron Wallace making up the band. The Complicators are a good fit for Pirates Press, most well known as the US home for street punk and American Oi recordings. The band blends street punk and hardcore styles, playing mostly mid-tempo to up-tempo songs that pack a gritty punch. The guitars and bass crunch noisily to match the deep grit and gravel of the vocals. The songs blend catchy melodic lines with hardcore gang vocals, too, so it’s not all heavy chukka-chukka stuff, keeping the songs more listenable for people who aren’t necessarily hardcore fans. “Another Round,” for example, is an ode to drinking with your pals, and has an almost pop punk melody played with a big Oi sound and gigantic gang vocals. It makes it a surefire crowd pleaser. With powerful energy, fun melodies, urgent vocals and crackling instrumentals, you can’t go wrong. But there are more complications on the horizon for The Complicators. Smith and Wallace have moved away from the band’s San Francisco base of operations, one across country to the east coast and the other across an ocean to Australia. Will the Complicators remain a viable entity, play more shows, and make more records? Time will tell, but I hope so.

GRAZIA – In Poor Taste (Feel It Records, www.feelitrecordshop.com)

Grazia, the duo of Heather Dunlop and Lindsay Corstorphine, are presenting this, their debut EP. It’s four songs filled with a mix of 80s post punk and new wave sounds with some power pop tossed in for good measure. The songs have a great driving rhythm, deadpan vocals, and impossibly bright guitars. It’s retro and modern at the same time, evoking the best aspects of 80s music but sounding entirely fresh. “Speed Freak” sounds like it’s blending Devo and the B-52s, while “Thistle” has a Stereolab minimalist vibe mixed with 80s pop. “Stupid Paradise” injects a dose of twang and slows the tempo somewhat, but it’s the opening track, “Cheap,” that’s my favorite of the quartet of tunes. It’s the epitome of Grazia’s sound and enough to propel this EP into contention for the “Best of 2024” list.

THE MONS – Axes: Bold as Fuck (Triple Eye Industries, tripleeyeindustries.com)

After a handful of releases in the mid 2010s, including two full-length LPs, Chicago’s The Mons fell somewhat silent, other than playing local shows. That’s now being corrected with the release of the band’s third album, their second for Triple Eye Industries and their first in nearly seven years. For the uninitiated, The Mons features current and former members of Apocalypse Hoboken, The Arrivals, Lynyrd’s Innards, and Mexican Cheerleader. They play a unique style of punk rock that’s part hardcore, part indie, part metal, part catchy pop, and part angular jazz. It all adds up to something you’ve never heard before but need in your life. Lyrics are dark, touching on the hopelessness of life, feelings of failure, the ills of society, and our apathy toward all of it. The songs are short aggressive blasts, wasting no time and cramming loads of musical and lyrical content into less than two minutes per song, on average. Including the “Intro” and “Outro” tracks, the sixteen tracks only occupy 29 minutes of time!

One favorite track is “Iommi Campbell Collective Unconscious,” which starts with heavy metallic riffs, then transforms into an alternation between angular music and speedy hardcore. Lyrics refer to the futility of existence, “Dark days behind us and dark days ahead,” and how we follow the rules and expect some sort of reward but get nothing but being used up and tossed out. I also particularly like “Numb,” about going crazy in the face of the purposeful destruction of our planet in the name of profit, and how much easier everyone says it would be to just ignore it and go along. The mathcore is strong in this, with very off-kilter rhythms, the guitars screaming riffs of hollow terror along with Matt Vecchio‘s vocals. And “Sweet Meteor,” about the end of the world, has a captivating melody, making our ultimate destruction seem something to look forward to. MAGA culture is the target in “Hard No,” which uses a more traditional 80s hardcore punk structure as conveyance for the raw political lyrics, while a more angular approach is used when the MAGA chief clown himself is the topic, in “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Assholes” (though he’s never directly named in the song).

But wait, there’s more! If you get the CD version of this album, you get nine bonus tracks, featuring songs from the Mons’ split with the Fastplants, as well as covers recorded for various comps and 7” records, some of which were never released. That’s an extra 25 minutes of music, all for one low price! One of the favorites of this batch is “Man-Made Monster,” which has an ‘80s sound similar to the NY band, Artless, lyrics about the new dark ages we’ve created through the ascendance of Christian Nationalism, and a chorus that refers to the “man-made monster” and the “man-made God.” It’s a shame The Mons don’t ever get out of the Midwest, because they deserve to be more widely heard and appreciated. Besides a live show, though, an album like this is the next best thing, and it’s very recommended.

THE PROMISED END – For the Buried and the Broken (Sound Investment Records, www.soundinvestmentrecords.com / Gunner Records, gunnerrecords.com)

The Promised End, hailing from Boston, is a new band and this is their debut LP, but the members are hardly neophytes. The band consists of veterans of bands such as Landmines, Tied to a Bear, The Effort, Choke Up, and SkyTigers. The music is, as would be expected, brutally aggressive. I would describe it as a mix of youth crew hardcore and melodic hardcore. The songs have huge gang vocals and lead vocals that are shouted, more than sung. But more than speedy crunchy hardcore, the songs often feature actual melodies, giving The Promised End a unique sound. Unlike a lot of youth crew hardcore of the 90s, which featured lyrical content focused on unity and betrayal, The Promised End takes inspiration from earlier hardcore bands and gives us songs that speak about political and social ills such as our disposable consumer society, the dominance of misinformation in an age of social media, and the epidemic of addiction and overdoses leading to lost lives and lost loved ones. The songs are powerful, urgent, and demand attention, but also offer a sense of hope through melodic lines. Like I said, it’s not something you come across often, because most bands will want to stick within a single genre to define themselves. But The Promised End is not afraid to break through genre barriers, and we’re the better for it. A couple of highlights for me o this ten-song LP are “Breakwater,” which goes further than even the other songs, injecting an almost pop sensibility and a mid-eighties emo aesthetic, and “The Jig Is Up,” which has a fantastic gliding sound contrasting with discordant guitars. But, truly, the whole record is pretty remarkable. Recommended.

J ROBBINS – Basilisk (Dischord Records, dischord.com)

I make no bones about my love for J Robbins and his music. I enjoyed his contributions to Government Issue, Jawbox became one of my favorite bands, whose records I always bought and whose live shows I never missed. And the short-lived Burning Airlines has a special place in my record collection. So forgive me as I fanboy out over Robbins’ latest solo LP. The album opens and closes with songs that are interestingly uncharacteristic of Robbins, with synth heavy arrangements. “Automaticity” begins with an electronic hammering rhythm and Robbins’ distinct vocals, and then the rest of the band comes in, playing a song that blends the bright bounce of power pop and the heavy beat of something more industrial strength. And “Dead Eyed God,” with which the album ends, begins with a buzzy beat, and the whole song has a subdued mysterious and magical quality about it. In between we get more familiar J Robbins fare, solid indie rock imbued with feeling and emotion. Melodic lines and rhythms are often fragments that suddenly shift direction, something I love about Robbins’ songs. And his arrangements are always rich, with the right balance of grit and luxuriance. “Last War” has a wonderful melodic line that slowly rises and falls in the verses as the guitar trembles, making it a stand out. But it’s “Gasoline Rainbows” that really caught my ear, It has the feel of a melody of an old time popular song from 100 years ago, and a hint of wobbliness in the synth strings, lending the feel of age. Robbins’ vocals, too, almost croon like a singer of a time gone by. “Not the End” is another new sound for Robbins; it’s a ballad with hints of twang from a steel pedal guitar (or synth, perhaps). It’s delicate and somber and lovely. And “Old Soul,” too, is more of a slow quiet song, relaxed and easy, with guitars jangling away. “A Ray of Sunlight” is perfectly named, because the song is bright and sunny, bouncy and joyful sounding. And “Open Mind” is the lushest dreamiest of dream pop I’ve ever heard on a record bearing the Dischord label. J Robbins’ music has grown as he’s pushed boundaries, but it’s still recognizable as J Robbins. Outstanding!

RICHARD TURGEON – Life of the Party (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

What do you get when you mix power pop, classic rock, and alternative rock? To know the answer to that question, just pop this new LP on. This is Turgeon’s sixth full-length LP, and his seventh release for Kool Kat Musik (including four of his previous LPs and two EPs). His music has a distinct 80s rock feel, mixing the poppier sounds with a more quintessential guitar rock feel, sometimes updating the melodies with a more modern indie sound. My personal preference runs toward the power pop tunes, like “I’ve Got You Now” and “Without You,” more traditional guitar pop songs about relationships. But I also like the modern indie jangle of “Our Fair City” even more. It’s got big broad guitars during instrumental breaks and chorus, and quiet jangly plucking during the verses, plus a more contemporary indie rock melody. And “Forgiveness blends 80s indie with a garage sensibility, sort of like mixing Mission of Burma with The Lyres. It’s a pleasing sound. But there are also songs that are a little too heavy on the classic rock songs for my taste, like “All Alone,” which opens the track, and “You’ve Moved On.” So overall, it’s a mixed bag for me, but there are definitely some good tunes here.

VALIENT HIMSELF – Crooner’s Jukebox (valienthimself.bandcamp.com)

Valient Himself, of Valient Thorr fame, collaborates with friends from all over the country on this, his very first solo album. It was a pandemic project, and it was decided to make this an album full of covers. Valient Himself worked with such musical luminaries as Ian MacDougal of Riverboat Gamblers, Danny Blanchard of A Giant Dog, William Cashion of Future Islands, his own band mate in Valient Thorr, Lucian Thorr, and many others. In the dozen tracks, recorded in studios all over the country over a long period of time, are covers of very diverse acts like Neil Diamond, Kiss, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, Roky Erickson, Wayne Kramer & MC5, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and more, all with Valient Himself’s own unique take. And that take is a dramatic departure from the rock and roll of Valient Thorr, with fewer guitars, more synths, and more soft “adult contemporary” sound. The Neil Diamond cover, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” is dreamier than the original with more of a dance beat, but both are synth-based. The selected Kiss cover is not an expected metallic hard rock tune, but is the acoustic-based jangler, “Hard Luck Woman,” and the cover hews fairly close to that, with maybe an even folksier sound. I like how Valient Himself takes the scratchy old time sound of Flaming Lips’ “Chewin' The Apple Of Yer Eye” and turns it into a huge dreamy number with Americana twang. It ends up sounding like something Bongwater (Ann Magnuson and Mark Kramer’s project from the late 80s and early 90s) might have done. Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” sounds less spiritual than the original, and more like quirky new wave dance music. “One” is a cover of Three Dog Night’s 1969 hit and it soars higher and sounds lonelier than the original. “Let Me Try,” the MC5 cover, is distinctly less delicate than the original, with has touches of jazz and soul, and a bigger, thicker sound, but it’s less soulful. The closing track, “Baby I Owe You Something Good,” was originally an epic spiritual from Funkadelic. Here, Valient Himself’s version is no less epic, no less spiritual, but there’s an added sense of mystery and experimentalism that’s super appealing, making it my favorite track of the album. If you’re looking for more of the same old Valient Thorr rock and roll from this album, you’re out of luck. But if you’re looking for interesting and fresh takes on old songs, you’re in for a nice surprise.

VIRVON VARVON – Four Bars of Hate (Girlsville Records & Tapes, girlsville.bandcamp.com)

Virvon Varvon is an English band that plays garage punk that’s lo-fi sloppy fun, but at the same time filled with catchy pop riffs. Some songs have a feel of classic garage, like the opening track, “Corner Seat,” with a retro chord progression, lo-fi recording, and shouted distorted vocals. It’s also the only track that breaks the three-minute mark, with most of the songs being short two to two and a half minute blasts of raucous energy. It’s the rich, poppy, almost jangly instrumentals of “Fountains,” though, contrasted with the distorted angry sounding vocals, that represents the peak of this mini-LP, though, at least to my ears. “I’m tired of your fountains of bullshit!” the chorus exclaims, belying the carefree sensibility of the melody. A case where the instrumentals better match the vocals is on the title track, with a dark melody to match the spite-filled singing. Virvon Varvon doesn’t play anything that’s complex or intricate, the recordings are muffled and of poor fidelity, but what they do is effective, energetic, and infectious.


ARMCHAIR ORACLES – Nothingeveris (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Armchair Oracles may not be a household name in the US, but that’s probably because they’re a Norwegian group. “Nothingeveris” is the band’s fourth full-length LP (and their second for Kool Kat Musik) since the band’s founding a decade and a half ago. Their sound is firmly based in power pop, but it’s smoothed over with lovely indie pop melodies and gorgeous multi-part harmonies in the vocals. It’s almost like a melding of late 70s pop-rock and early 90s indie-rock aesthetics. The dozen songs on this LP are mostly creamy and sound effortless, especially in those vocals. A perfect example is the easygoing “Nilsson Wilson,” a relaxed song played in a leisurely manner. The band does rock out just a bit from time to time, too, such as on the opening track, “Neurons,” but this is primarily in the instrumentals; the vocals are always laid-back and relaxed. “Distorting Mirror” may be the most raucous track of the album, channeling hints of a grunge influence, but even this song is soft and smooth, and those beautiful vocals are still like butter, providing an interesting contrast. The band isn’t afraid to veer off into Americana, either. “White Horses” is a lovely folk-pop tune featuring acoustic guitar and soaring vocals. Armchair Oracles aren’t breaking new musical ground here, nor are they going to inspire you to get in the pit and dance around, but they play perfectly lovely songs.

BE SAFE – Unwell (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)

Be Safe is a newer band, though they sound like they came out of the 90s scene, playing a blend of serene of indie rock and emo. The instrumentals envelop you in a warm cuddle, while the vocals quietly tug at your heartstrings. The band is quite capable and they have a mastery of dynamic control, something essential to this style of music. The songs can range from hushed to explosive and everything in between. One note of constructive criticism, though, is that the tempos of the nine songs are pretty uniform, all at a relaxed leisurely pace. Some variety there, too, would be great. Where there is some nice contrast going on is between the pretty melodies and the distortion in the guitars, mixing some grit into the smooth loveliness. The songs are nice enough, and the album makes for nice listening in the background, but after several listens through, I can’t point to any songs that stand out or anything that makes Be Safe unique.

EMPEROR PENGUIN – Gentlemen Thieves (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

When I reviewed Emperor Penguin’s previous LP, “Sunday Carvery,” which came out early in 2022, I commented that I enjoyed parts of it, but that it was too disjointed, with too many different sounds and genres competing for attention. On this latest LP, though they still exhibit a variety of influences, the band sounds much more cohesive. The music is unabashed power pop with some new wave and Brit pop tendencies. They’re at their best when hewing closest to pure power pop, such as on my favorite pair of tracks of the album – which conveniently appear at the start. “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” is a catchy mid-tempo power pop tune, while “Wouldn’t Put It Like That” has an Elvis Costello vibe mixed with the Stiff Records power pop/new wave sound. The latter includes some sparkly synths in the background, enhancing the brightness of the song. Most other songs follow the formula, too: catchy, mid-tempo, power pop, with slight variations to keep things interesting. For example, “Town Called Gone” features an arrangement that often is scaled back with more space for the vocals to sing out, and adds in the feel of a song from a musical stage play. And “You Are My Atmosphere” features an arrangement with competing lines and pretty harmonies, almost like a rock and roll chamber orchestra. That said, a few of the songs do step a little further out than most. “Sonnez Les Matines” has a cool foreign new wave dance sound, “Pipistrelle” has the feel of a grand children’s song (a conversation between a father and his daughter), complete with toy piano in the arrangement, and “The Persuaders” sounds like mid-period Beatles rock and roll. But they’re still distinctly Emperor Penguin. This is a fun, enjoyable record.

FREE SERGIO – Nail in the Coffee (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords.com)

Free Sergio is a hardcore and skate punk band that’s probably not a household name, and that’s because they hail from the unlikely home of Tel Aviv, Israel, a place not known as a haven of punk rock. They play speedy aggressive music (and I mean speedy! Most of the tracks don’t even extend to two minutes, and the entire album is sixteen tracks in 20 minutes) that ranges from 90s style hardcore to melodic punk, from skate-core to ska-punk. The album opens with “Unbearable Place,” a track that ranges from mathish rhythms to gliding post-punk to rapid-fire youth crew hardcore. And that’s all within a minute and a quarter! One of the tracks that includes a ska punk component has the fun title, “I Give Black Cats Bad Luck.” It alternates between metallic skate punk and up-tempo ska punk. “I’m Weird” and “Love Song” are different from the rest of the album, with more of a power pop and pop punk feel, eminently melodic and, well, poppy sounding. Also on the poppier side is the incredibly short, “T-T-T-Tell Your Friends to Leave Me Alone.” At 24 seconds long, it’s the shortest song of the album and its lyrics merely repeat the title. And, while most of the songs are sung in English, one song, “What's The Matter," sung entirely in Hebrew. It’s a more straightforward skate punk tune, with a hard melodic sound, plenty of gang vocals, and a quick-paced tempo. “Nail in the Coffee” is varied, dynamic, energetic, and tough LP.

THE INCURABLES – Inside Out & Backwards (Big Stir Records, bigstirrecords.com)

Hailing from the Detroit, Michigan metro area, The Incurables have been a band seemingly forever. In reality, they formed some three decades ago, as a high school band consisting of cousins Ray and Darrin Lawson (bass and drums, respectively), with their lifelong pals Pat Kelly and Dennis Pepperack (guitars). The Incurables play good time rock and roll music ranging from power pop to pub rock, from hook-laden bouncy tracks to dark and menacing tunes. The opening track, “When I Grow Up,” is a bouncy garage-pop number sung from the point of view of those high school kids, enumerating how they think life will be when they grow up (having a family, getting a job with a “weaselly sleazy manager,” getting a house with a white picket fence, you know – the “American Dream;” and the constant refrain is the prescient, “Never gonna happen.” “Far Away” is pop punk meets power pop in an early Green Day vein, and is a jangly love song. And I enjoy the 60s garage rock feel of “When You,” a song about seemingly unattainable love. Songs like this are the best part of this record. But there also throw-aways like “Soda Pop,” a song about the sugary drink, with minimal melody and little excitement. I can’t get into the mix of blues-rock and power pop of “Back Into Eloise,” a mix that feels somewhat disjointed. A poppy melody just doesn’t go well with those rolling guitar licks or down home guitar solo. And “Funhouse” is a dark, brooding tune with early metal influence. This one’s 50/50: about half the album is enjoyable, while the other half misses the mark for me.

LILY SEABIRD – Alas (Bud Tapes, budtapes.bandcamp.com)

Lily Seabird has been playing music nearly all her life. The singer-songwriter wears her heart on her sleeve, and her songs range from delicate folk-pop affairs to cacophonous indie-grunge. Throughout these songs, Seabird’s vocals remain at once angelic and emotional. She sounds like she has an old soul, particularly in some songs that have the sound of old traditional folk songs. “Angel” is a beautiful example of this, featuring Seabird’s moving singing alongside acoustic guitar and other very subtle instruments. The slightly lo-fi recording in the vocals, combined with gorgeous folksy melody gives the song the air of a traditional song from a century or more ago. I love how the backing instruments (strings, percussion) add a sense of mystery. It’s easily my favorite track of the album. Another great example is the album’s closing track, “The End of the Beginning.” It’s a waltz, with a scratchy piano recording mated with wobbly guitar and fluttering percussion. Here, Seabird’s lovely voice is crystal clear, contrasting sharply with the instrumentals that sound as if they’re on an old battered recording from another era. The melody, too, sounds like something you might have heard in a smoky lounge a hundred years ago, and is simply captivating. Other tracks contain a mix of folk pop and indie rock, with some songs getting downright gritty and grungy. “Grace” has a lovely Americana twang mixed into the folk-pop in the verses, while the chorus gets big and noisy, fuzzed up and raucous. I like, too, the sparseness in the arrangement of “Dirge,” a song that, despite its slow tempo and ample space between the instruments, has a phenomenal grit to it, and an intensity in the vocals. And the jazzy piano and saxophone of “Cavity,” contrasted with gruff guitars and pretty indie pop vocals is wondrous. I think that kind of sums up “Alas,” Lily Seabird’s sophomore LP, and it’s the one she wanted to make and the one she says introduces her more properly than her debut. It’s al album full of contrasts, sounds that collide and play off each other to create a beautiful sonic collage.

O-D-EX – Breaker (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)

Mark Ryan’s got a new musical project. You may know Mark from Mind Spiders, and you certainly should know him from Marked Men. But O-D-EX is quite different from those bands. This is synths, digital guitar pedal, and drum machine, with processed and distorted vocals. The result is a form of cyberpunk or synthpunk, if you will, bridging the gap between punk and industrial music. The tracks are hypnotic, with a steady rhythm from the drum machine, and buzzy drones from the synths, Ryan’s vocals either spoken or shouted. There’s a retro quality, too, harkening back to the 80s melding of new wave and punk. Some of the tracks sound downright evil, filled with twisted dissonance, like the incongruously titled, “So Nice.” It opens with static-filled synths sounding like some short wave radio noise, and then the droning bass synth comes in. Vocals shout-sing a minimalist melody, while those synths still fill the air with modulated cacophony. It sounds urgent and mysterious, and is one of my favorites of the album. The song that follows, “Back to Form,” by contrast, is much brighter and cheerful, the synths happily buzzing a shiny chord progression, the drum machine rat-tat-tatting the beat, and Ryan’s vocals calmly speaking the lyrics. This album could be the soundtrack for a cool low-budget spy thriller movie set in the future. Good stuff.

THE SPEAKEASY (thousandislandsrecords.com)

The Speakeasy hails from our neighbors to the north, Montreal, Canada. And, though the band has been making music for more than six years, this represents their debut full-length LP. Thousand Islands Records is noted for being one of the major proponents of the skate punk sound, but The Speakeasy is a little different than most of the labe l’s artists. Sure, they mix skate punk and melodic hardcore into their songs, but more than that, they feature both folk punk and metallic hardcore, too, creating songs that are quite unique. For example, “Bright Side” has a mix of melodic, even poppy, punk and folk punk, making it a standout track. It also introduces another major feature of The Speakeasy: big harmonized gang vocals. This adds texture and richness to the arrangements on many of the songs. “Devil In Disguise,” on the other hand, goes through quite a musical journey. It has sections of unabashed metal mixed with melodic hardcore, with some Bad Religion and skate punk influences tossed in for fun. After a time the song evolves into folk punk mixed with pop punk. I love the power pop melody and aggressive punk edge of “Keep Me Where You Are,” and “Breakfast Drugs” is wonderful acoustic track, featuring guitar, strings, lead vocals, and big gang vocals on the chorus – and it’s one of my favorites of the LP. And to further demonstrate that they can’t be pigeonholed into a single subgenre, “Tea Party” mixes in a cool jazzy rhythm and swingin’ guitar work with the punk rock. Oh, and there’s an outlier on this LP, too: a rockin’ cover of “Johnny B. Goode.” The Speakeasy are anxious to let you know that there are no barriers between subgenres in punk, and I think that’s fantastic.


HOWLIN’ JAWS – Half Asleep Half Awake (Bellevue Music Recordings, bellevue-music.myshopify.com)

Have you ever felt like you’ve suddenly traveled in a time machine? You certainly will upon listening to this new LP from Parisian trio Howlin’ Jaws. Their music isn’t just influenced by music of the past, they play authentic 1960's pop rock, and it competes with any of the best bands of the era. There’s a wonderfully mysterious psychedelic edge to the eleven songs here, too, along with the solid 60's pop. “Mirror Mirror” opens the LP with some great pop hooks and harmonized vocals. Sitar melds with guitars that are phasing and modulating, creating a cool spacey vibe. The circle of fifths chord progression used in the chorus on the bouncy, funky “Bewitched Me” gives that song a cool jazzy vibe. I like the relaxed feel of “The Sting,” which uses acoustic guitar jangle to great effect, the smooth harmonized vocals singing out like butter. “Healer” has a distinct Beatles thing going on, while “Mindreader” has an amazing 50's vibe, the sound of an era during which pop music was migrating to rock and roll. Deep bass and heavy vibrato in the guitars meet with piano and those harmonized vocals to create a smooth yet mysterious sound. The closing track is “See You There,” and it’s just an extraordinarily easy tune that speaks of a magical place. This album is a must for all fans of 60's psych and pop. Every time I listen to it I enjoy it more and more.

SHPLANG – Thank You, Valued Customer (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Shplang? It’s a quirky name for a quirky band. The Los Angeles area group has been making music for nearly three decades, and their latest LP features a mixed bag with some cool off-kilter tunes and others that are fairly non-descript. The album opens with “Keep It Hot,” a reasonably funky 70's style pop tune, Peter Marston’s vocals smooth as silk, contrasting with the bluesy earthy instrumentals. But it’s the quirky songs that are my favorites. “Understood” has the feel of a story-telling song, and the use of trumpet, flugelhorn, and trombone in the arrangement is wonderful. It’s a bouncy fun track, made more so by Lee Thornburg, who played in the Tonight Show band and toured with Tower of Power. When the song was first conceived it only had a rough trombone part. The initial recording was sent to Thornburg, who wrote and arranged the full brass parts and played all three of the instruments. It really makes the song one of the most successful of the LP. “Das Diddley” uses a calypso rhythm, spoken German lyrics, and eccentric synths to create something truly unconventional. “Baby Hobo” is a strange song about a baby hobo, with the lyrics spoken in a Ken Nordine word jazz sort of way. Recordings of an actual baby squealing with joy are inserted into the mix, and the whole thing is wonderfully bizarre. “Buddha (What Was That)” has the feel of a laid-back Zappa tune, with lyrics that give a lesson in comparative religion, talking about not only the Buddha, but about Jesus, Moses, Muhammed, and other religious figures. Musically it’s got a white-boy funk thing going on. And “Little Mushroom Men from Mars” blends prog rock and grunge-like alternative rock with ludicrously comical lyrics about the titular aliens “moving in the hood,” “kicking down doors,” and “playing our guitars.” And the closer has the feel of a medieval fairy tale of the fair bag girl and the produce boy who has been smitten, though musically it’s fairly standard power pop. The rest of the tracks are decent enough, if middle of the road fare.

SNACKWOLF – Lunch Breakdown (snackwolf.bandcamp.com)

Snackwolf are a skate punk band from Germany, formed only a few years ago in 2019 from members of various other German punk bands. They quickly released an EP, and last year a 7-inch single, but “Lunch Breakdown” is the band’s debut full-length LP. Modern skate punk is rooted in 90's melodic punk and hardcore, and has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Snackwolf’s take on the genre is both melodic and aggressive, more so on both counts than many skate punk bands today, and less metallic as well. It makes for one of the better albums of the genre in recent years. The band mix the metaphysical with the political, with songs asking the existential question “Why are we Here?” as well as songs such as “Dictatorship Retirement Camp” and “Prohibition Signs.” Vocals are guttural and scratchy sounding, but not gruff and deep, and though the music is based in melodic hardcore, there are some great pop riffs and hooks. “Sisters (Left Alone),” in particular, mixes melodic poppy hardcore with just a hint of DC emo, making it a favorite of the LP. The album closes with a simple exhortation from the band, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, to go out and “Start a Riot.” It’s 20 seconds, but demands we stop being quiet and make our voices heard. Solid debut.

THE SWINGIN’ UTTERS – Boots 'N' Booze Issue #4 (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

Pirates Press has published a new issue of their graphic novel series "Boots N Booze," and this one comes with a new Swingin’ Utters 7-inch. This time out the Utters give us two Cock Sparrer covers. The A-side is “I Got Your Number,” while the B-side has “Sunday Stripper.” They’re solid covers, true to the originals, the A-side being a great bouncy Oi classic about seeing through the lies of fake people and the B-side being more of a “novelty” sort of rock and roll song about a sexy woman. The A-side will always be relevant and always be a great sound, but that B-side is definitely a throwback to less enlightened days. Gimme more of that A-side! The Utters play the song at a sprightlier tempo than the original, making it sound more urgent. The B-side’s original track is much more stripped back and primitive sounding. The Utters’ cover features an arrangement that’s thicker and harder rock and roll. If you weren’t a Cock Sparrer fan already, this new record will make you one – and of course you’re an Utters fan already, right? Because they do a great job with both tracks.


BAD IDOLS – Popstar (Say-10 Records, www.say-10.com)

Bad Idols? I would never call them bad! They’ve got a casual pop punk sound, yet are incongruously tight and energetic. Their label likens them to Lookout Records bands like Crimpshrine or Fifteen, and it’s not far off – except Bad Idols are way bigger and tighter than those bands ever were. The same sort of pop punk snotty attitude exists, but the dozen songs are more expertly played, less sloppy. The comparison is best heard in the vocals, with a bunch of throaty swagger, and even extends to the occasional injection of ska into the punk rock, as heard toward the end of the song “So Bold” and throughout “Denial.” The album also contains a new version of the band’s song, “Grind Me Up Grindr,” which previously appeared on the LGBTQ+ compilation, “Never Erased.” I reviewed that comp, as well as the band’s four songs on “Get Stoked Vol. 2,” and this LP shows the growth of the band; as good as those earlier recordings were, this new LP is even better. Songs like “Scorn,” which opens the album, showcase this, with a tight performance and a mastery of dynamics, with the song ranging from quiet and simmering to huge and boiling. I love the huge hammering tone of “Hatred,” a song whose relentless music matches the intensity of its lyrics. And in the big punk waltz, “Former Friend,” you can feel the intense pain and regret. The one issue I have with these songs is they’re way too short, with many of them clocking in under a minute and a half. A lot of them seem to be just getting started when they end, and they leave me wanting more. If you like the late 80s and early 90s Bay Area sound, but amped up, you’re gonna love this. I know I do.

THE DROWNS – “Just The Way She Goes” b/w “1979 Trans Am” (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

The Drowns are just tireless, constantly touring and pumping out new jams. This 2-song 7” single is a preview of the new LP the Drowns will be releasing early in 2024. The A-side may be one of my favorite recent Drowns songs, with a decidedly power pop bent, loaded with great melodic hooks and riffs. It’s a bouncy tune sure to get your motor revving. Speaking of revving a motor, “1979 Trans Am” is a more straight-ahead rock and roll track with just the right amount of glam. The Drowns may not be the punk band or event the street punk they used to be, but they sure as hell are still a ton of fun and hella good musicians and songwriters. I can’t wait for the new LP.

LET’S GO – Smile (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords.com)

Hailing from Kamloops, British Columbia (that’s in Canada, ya hosers!), Let’s Go is a power-punk trio with a strong melodic skate punk streak. The songs on this sophomore LP are up-tempo and thunderous, with a bigger sound than one might expect from three people. Metallic flourishes make their way into some of the songs, and huge gang vocals are plentiful. Many of the songs feature themes of class struggle, rebellion against the elites, disgust at the corporate sponsored destruction of our planet, and unity in the face of oppression and exploitation. My favorite song has to be “Never Gonna Die,” because it reminds me of a mix of Naked Raygun, skate punk, and metal, with plenty of syncopated “Hey! Hey! Hey!” interjections. The lyrics are a love song to fans, with lyrics like, “Nights like this they fuel the machine / You are the power in our scene,” and “You make us feel ten feet tall.” And another favorite is “Our Song,” a bright hopeful anthem with fun lyrics about unity in the face of greedy oppressors and rounding up the rich who exploit our labors and lopping off their heads and/or eating them. “Pixels” closes the LP with a song very different from the rest, with a poppy opening before the punk spigot is turned on. Lyrically, it’s about the crazy thoughts and questioning the nature of reality that cross one’s minds as we lie in bed at night, halfway between wakefulness and sleep. With some decent sonic variety within the larger skate punk genre and with some lyrics that speak to urgent issues, “Smile” is a solid record.

SAM RUSSO – Mistletoe Pier (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

UK singer-songwriter Sam Russo is getting into the holiday spirit with a new single from our friends at Red Scare. And these songs are like nothing we’ve heard from Sam before, both heart-tugging ballads. “Christmas Under The Pier” features a twangy acoustic guitar and a saxophone to present a subtly bluesy song filled with lonesome nostalgia for better times. It’s got a retro jazzy doo-wop feel, and you can hear the heartache in Russo’s scratchy vocals. “Merry Christmas (Baby, I’m Sorry)” has a huge dream pop sound, with heavy reverb in the electric guitars and vocals, still with a very melancholy vibe. The fluttering flutes are a gorgeous touch, and the lyrics are dripping with regret over having hurt and lost one’s love, someone who has moved on and has a new lover. These songs may not reflect the joy the holiday season supposedly brings, but they do certainly represent the sadness many feel this time of year. These songs are destined to be underground holiday classics.


AUTOGRAMM – Music That Humans Can Play (Stomp Records, stomprecords.com)

Autogramm is a band that spans the North American continent, with members in Seattle, Chicago, and Vancouver. They play music that ranges from the power pop of the late 70s to the new wave of the early and mid 80s, with synth-fueled arrangements alongside guitar, bass, and drums. I hear the influence of bands as disparate as The Cars, Cheap Trick, Devo, OMD, and even Vangelis. All of these can be heard in varying ratios throughout the eleven tracks on this, the band’s third LP. On just the very first track, “Born Losers,” you can hear bouncy power pop, with subtle new wave dance beat that could have come from Kraftwerk, and when the synths get really big I hear the sweeping epic sounds of Vangelis. It’s a pretty unique mix of sounds and genres and it works remarkably well. “WannaBe” is the hardest, edgiest track of the album, with gritty synths providing the beat to this song that leans the heaviest into rock and roll and has the least new wave in it. The variety continues with “Hey Allie,” which is a sort of pep talk to the titular woman and has a 60s jangle to it, for the most part, but the synths in the bridge scream new wave. “Why Do We Dance” is a favorite. It starts with an eerie sound, but after the intro it’s got a cool minimalist Devo sort of sound (or, more precisely but more obscurely, a Richard Bone sort of sound). “Plastic Punks” is a fun one, reminiscent of early punk/new wave crossover music, with synth sound effects. And it’s got a great line in the lyrics: “Rock ‘n’ roll is for adults so what’s left for the kids? / Sex and drugs and video games just doesn’t have the same ring to it.” And “Always Gonna Be My Girl” has the sound of early OMD, deep synths and dark lonesome sounds, but the chorus has the sound of 50s rock and roll. The nostalgic sounds make this a fun record, and the variety in sounds keeps the nostalgia from sounding trite and boring. Good stuff!

DEATH CASSETTE – Get Rid of It (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords.com)

Whoa! This is some heavy, aggressive grunged up punk rock with a strong garage element right here. This is a six-song EP, and within that short span we get a variety of sounds. “Storm” opens the EP with some strong powerful punk-fucking-rock, with a thick arrangement and a surf punk vibe going on, The rhythm section veritably throbs, the vocals shout with incredible rage, and the lead guitar injects some of that East Bay Ray surf sound. “Reflector” maintains the big hard punk sound, drops the surf, and pummels you into submission. “Trapped” will submerge you in 1990s Seattle, and you’ll emerge needing a shower to rinse away all of the thick grunge. “Get Done” and “Leech” are a couple more solid punk tracks that pull no punches, and “Solstice” is the lone ballad of the bunch with a wistful 80s punk ballad meets goth-grunge sort of thing. It’s the only track of the EP that didn’t knock me off my feet. This gets a real “hell, yeah!”

DEECRACKS – 20 Years: A Frantic Effort (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

Is it possible that DeeCracks, the Austrian punk rock band, is twenty years old? Indeed, they are, and to celebrate, the band went into the studio to record new versions of a whole slew of songs that span their catalog, as well as a couple new ones. And just a casual listen to this new collection provides a very convincing argument for the continued popularity of the band. They play strong poppy street punk mixed with a Ramones-core feel. Solid musicianship melds seamlessly with powerful gritty lead vocals and robust harmonized backing vocals. And, since this needs to span a hefty two decades, there are a lot of songs here; 28 tracks in 51 minutes. And I am impressed with the level of energy brought to each and every song. “Burnt Out,” one of the new songs, opens the collection, and it’s a short, bright song about facing one’s demons. It opens with the satirical poem, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m a schizophrenic, and so am I.” The song has a huge bounce to it, with big shining guitars to go with the dark lyrics. “Where We Belong” is the other new song, and it appears near the end of the track listing, on the B-side of the third of three 10” records. It’s a twangy pop punk love song with more of a loping feel. Sandwiched between these are a multitude of tunes, with a lot of your favorites and more whoa-ohs than you can shake a stick at. The band do a remarkable job channeling The Ramones on songs like “Not Another Minute,” “Gimme Gimme Plastic Surgery,” “I Need a Nurse” (which includes the famous lyric from “Pinhead,” “D-U-M-B everyone’s accusing me,” and the anthem, “Adderall,” about the miracle drug that’s one of the most commonly abused. There are other songs with a more easy going pop punk sound like “Shambles” (from the “Sonic Delusions” LP), “We Can’t Help It” (from the “Serious Issues” LP), which has some great power pop chord changes, and “Valentine” (also from “Sonic Delusions”), a sweet sounding poppy punk song. The LP ends with a live recording of “Beach 90,” off the EP of the same name and also released on the “Totally Cracked!” LP. This collection is essential listening, not just for Dee Cracks fans, but also for fans of all poppy punk rock music.

DIAMOND HANDS – Cookie (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

The prolific Diamond Hands has returned with their fifth LP in a mere seven years as a band. The duo of Joel Wall and Jon Flynn, operating out of Los Angeles, play a mix of 60s pop, 70s power pop and modern indie and dream pop, loaded with jangly goodness and hooks. The arrangements are quite lush and rich for a duo, and the vocal harmonies are done very well. An example of this sound is on display on the opening track, “I Want You,” which has 60s jangle, modern dreaminess, and a 70s dance beat. “Fruit Trees” has hints of psychedelic era Beatles, such as was found in some songs on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, complete with strings, tempered with 70s soft rock sounds. The song includes a lovely homage to the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in the instrumental break near the end, too. I also hear Elvis Costello power pop in the song “Better Way,” primarily in the vocals and melody, while the instrumentals are filled with psychedelic twang. And interestingly, “Take You Home Again” blends George Harrison-like songwriting with John Lennon style vocals and a modern dreamy vibrato in the big guitars, the lead getting a bluesy solo. With such disparate influences and solid songwriting, this is a fine addition to Diamond Hands’ catalog.

DROP NINETEENS – Hard Light (Wharf Cat Records, www.wharfcatrecords.com)

Drop Nineteens were a short-lived band back in the early 90s, releasing only two LPs, two EPs, and a single in the few years they were active. They played quietly gorgeous shoegaze/dreamy alternative pop music, and then dissolved in 1994. Guitarist/vocalist Greg Ackell gave up on music, and moved on with his life. That is, until 2021, when Ackell was contacted about making some music. And instead of automatically shutting it down, he gave it a go. And the result is this new LP, the band’s first in thirty years. True to form, they pick up where they left off, playing lovely understated pop music that’s lighter than typical shoegaze and focuses on guitar, bass, drums, and vocals rather than on the big synths of modern dream pop. The songs waft and whirl and there’s a wonderful introspective quality to them, with lightly jangling guitars and plenty of reverb. Backing vocals swirl around and the songs seem to cuddle you with comfort. The eleven tracks are just so smooth and easy going, and they’re all so nice it’s hard to pick favorites. But “Gal” does stand out with hints of Eastern music and gorgeous backing synths. It’s almost epic, but in a very elegantly restrained way. Drop Nineteens never get raucous and rowdy, but “Tarantula” is the closest they get. The song’s got a brighter sound and quicker tempo than most, stepping away from the dreaminess toward a more animated pop bounce. I love the somber tone of “Rose With Smoke,” a melancholy instrumental interlude around the halfway mark of the album. And the penultimate track, “Policeman Getting Lost, featuring acoustic guitar and what sounds like somewhat processed vocals, is the sort of soundtrack for that period between wakefulness and sleep, when you’re not quite dreaming, but the mind wanders freely. Welcome back, Drop Nineteens, and keep on being gorgeous.

TURN N FIRE – Dying on This Hill (turnnfire.bandcamp.com)

Turn N Fire, Chicago’s self-proclaimed “Midwestern spilt beer despair rock” band, join a host of others who spent the pandemic lock-down writing songs, passing demos back and forth, and adding their parts. They say the baker’s dozen tracks represent who they’ve become as people, for better or worse, and call it “campfire rock.” As vocalist/ guitarist Jon Kelly puts it, “It’s sad songs over happy chords you could play around an open fire with cheap beer and the best of friends.” There are even songs that reference this: The chorus of “Happy Hill” sings of “whiskey and cheap beer” as a panacea to cover up the ills of life. And “Good Drinks & Goodbyes,” which has hints of Celtic punk and western rock in it” also has references to sharing drinks with friends when parting company. Musically Turn N Fire can be categorized with those bands that play emotionally charged pop punk, with dark lyrics over happy melodies, featuring angsty lead vocals and big gang vocals. It’s a solid sound, the kind I enjoy hearing as I hang with friends in tiny dive bars that have bathrooms that smell bad and are falling apart. These are the kind of songs that will find you crowding to the front and shouting the lyrics with the band. It’s good time/bad time punk rock at its best. A couple of songs stand out among this solid release. “F.O.M.O.” has a huge broad sound, more indie than pop punk, and I love the darkness and the big throaty vocals of the wonderfully titled, “D.I. Why?” “Montezuma” has a big indie jangle in the guitars, and I particularly enjoy “America, Goddamn,” which starts with a humorous instrumental, and when the song gets started in earnest, it’s got a bit of dark twang and beat-poet spoken and shouted lyrics, and it speaks to the many ills we’re experiencing in our country, such as wages that are too low to live on, rampant drug abuse, high bills we have to pay, and the general difficulty of “making it” today, particularly when employers who shut down during the pandemic welcomed employees back with a pay cut. The refrain, “Hang the bastards” sums things up nicely. Then there’s the closing track, “Everybody’s Favorite Bar,” an acoustic tune with a singer-songwriter feel, completely different from the rest of the LP. It’s a song about the struggles with substance abuse, rehab, and trying to be a better person. I was not familiar with this band prior to receiving this record, but I’m now a fan.

WOOLWORTHY – Electric Heartbreak (Boss Tuneage Records, www.bosstuneage.com)

Woolworthy? With a name likely taken from a now defunct five and dime store, Woolworthy are, themselves, defunct no more. “Electric Heartbreak” represents the Chicago alternative band’s first LP in some 25 years, and their first release of any kind since their retrospective collection, “Recycler,” released way back in 1998. Now reunited, Woolworthy continue with their 90s brand of alternative rock with a pop aesthetic. The music is broad and expansive sounding, with the same influences from emo, grunge, and pop punk that’s common for the genre. I like “Break the Law with You,” which leans more into the pop punk side of things and has some nice rhythmic angularity. And the opening track, “Hand Grenade,” has a bright guitar sound that contrasts well with the darker emotional feel of the song. But some of the songs are a bit generic alternative rock. “Where Have All The Glad Girls Gone” fits this category, with a very repetitive melodic line, and vocal angst that feels forced. “The Hard Goodbye” is the hard rock end of the alternative rock spectrum, with a heavier guitar sound and an arena rock guitar solo. The album concludes with the obligatory acoustic number, “We Are Ruined.” And I’m always a sucker for acoustic, because I think when you strip a song down you expose the emotion more fully. And that’s the case here, in a song about loving someone who’s broken and loaded down with baggage, wanting to fix things and make it work, but it just can’t. If you enjoy the alternative rock sound, check this out, but I find most of it to be average.

40 REPS – Heads Up (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

40 Reps, hailing from Richmond, Virginia, play that familiar sound of emotional “pop punk” with gruff, gritty vocals. After releasing their debut EP a couple years ago, “Heads Up” represents the band’s debut full-length LP. When I mention “emotional pop punk with gruff gritty vocals,” you know there’s a very distinct sound I’m talking about. And, while the band is extremely able, and taken individually most of the songs are pretty solid, put together as a whole the LP comes off as somewhat generic, particularly with many of the songs sounding too much alike and blending into each other For example, as you listen to the ending of the first track, which is the title track, and then the opening of the second track, “Looking for Trouble,” they sound nearly identical, with the same rhythms same tempo, same guitar tone, same dueling lead guitars, and so on. Of the ten tracks, “Nail & Tooth” probably is my favorite, because though it is played at the same tempo and with the same tone as all the other tracks, it does change up the rhythms and riffs somewhat, making it stand out as the most different from the rest. A couple of other tracks are a little bit different, too; “Judy” and “White Pickett Fence” both have a country pop vibe dressed up as punk going on, making them my least favorite tracks of the album. I mean, I bet I would enjoy seeing 40 Reps live at some dingy dive bar with friends, but listening to these songs back to back on a LP isn’t doing it for me.


CHICKEN HAPPEN – IV (chickenhappen.bandcamp.com)

Chicken Happen is a clever band name. It’s also a band that’s hard to classify, and that’s a really good thing. It’s also hard to pinpoint why I enjoy this album so much. Maybe it’s Lilly Choi’s lovely yet matter-of-fact vocals that remind me of many of my favorite indie pop bands of the 90s. Maybe it’s the gorgeous keyboards used throughout the dozen songs, both electric organ and acoustic piano. Maybe it’s the varied genres explored or the clean production from Meatwave’s Chris Sutter, who also contributes some guitars and vocals. Whatever it is, this is a wonderful glorious listen. The album starts out with “Turn,” a soulful spiritual. “When’s it my turn?” the song asks, “When’s it my chance to live the life that I want?” The solemn song is all about asserting a sense of self, becoming your own person, and breaking away from the rules others impose. And when I say the band is hard to pin down and moves through various genres, I mean it. We get bright poppy songs like “Easy” (a song about taking the easy way out difficult situations). We get the ironically smooth flowing pop song, “Rage” (about anger at the selfishness of others). There are various retro sounds here, too, including the 70s soul sounds of “Matter” and the 50s doo-wop of “Fly.” And I love the dreamy waltz, “Use,” a song about trying to keep focused when all you want to do is daydream about possibilities. “What’s the use in dreaming when dreams never come true?” asks the chorus, in a despondent surrender to a depressing reality. Despite the genre hopping going on here, the songs all remain unmistakably Chicken Happen. This is a wonderful record.

FINE DINING – No Reservations (finediningpunkrock.bandcamp.com/)

Fine Dining, out of the Los Angeles metro area, play speedy, crunchy, metallic punk rock in a 90s vein. The dozen songs on this LP are as aggressive as they come, with fast ‘n’ loud tracks that will pound and pummel you, and gang vocals that will make you want to sing along. Imagine mixing 90s skate punk, metal, and youth crew hardcore and you get an idea of what Fine Dining sounds like. Lead vocals are belted out with power in a higher tenor range with a good deal of rasp and grit, drums walloping away, smashing you to the ground, and the guitars and bass provide an impenetrable wall, occasionally embellished with metallic licks and flourishes. The aggression extends to the lyrics, too: “Reprisal” is a song about exacting revenge, and has lyrics including “I grit my teeth and I knock you out.” But the reprisal is in the form of music, rather than actual violence, as the song says, “With all this pain I play my guitar.” The melody and arrangement are relatively simple, but quite effective, and this may be my favorite track of the album. Some songs add in bits of variety in the sound, even though the basic formula remains the same. For example, “Rinse, Repeat” has a soaring quality in both the lead guitars and the lead vocals. And I love the bass on “Vacant Parts,” with its deep rich tone. The track is a bit slower and has the feel of a sweeping epic, the guitars still raging and keeping up that wall of sound. While this isn’t the sort of stuff I listen to on a regular basis, I can appreciate the execution here, and fans of this genre won’t go wrong checking it out.

HOOPER – Swim the Races Nobody Wants (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings)

Hooper’s been around awhile, for over a decade. In that time, though, this is only their third full-length LP (though they’ve released a number of EPs and singles), and all of their releases have been with Snappy Little Numbers. Musically, the band plays the sort of indie rock that hardcore bands started making in the 80s and 90s, as they “matured” and “outgrew” hardcore. The music is more melodic than hardcore, edgier and more complex than power pop, less chaotic than the emo of the day. When this sort of music was being made back in the day it was labeled “college rock,” because a lot of college radio stations were playing it, and it was championed by publications like CMJ – College Music Journal. The members of Hooper acquit themselves well in the genre with this new LP, eleven songs in 34 minutes, with music that shows some great dynamic range, mastery of guitar tone, and some excellent choices in arrangement. Some tracks are just nice and melodic, while others make effective use of dissonance. A couple of good examples of the latter are “List of Don’ts” and “This Song Is Fake.” Both have some cool heavy unresolved chords, with the former resolving into a more melodic song with some noisy guitar jangle and the latter devolving into controlled chaos. Another standout track, possibly my favorite of the LP, is “Good Grief,” with more bounce in it and alternating some awesome guitar noise and cleaner sounding parts. I also love the opening track, “Latitudes,” particularly for the guitar sound on the intro. The song has a lovely melody and shifts from big and melancholy to introspective indie to folk-pop. It uses being out in the sea and GPS tracking as metaphors for feeling lost and like your drowning. At one point in the song it speaks about finding a landmark in some glass on the coast and having the ability to point the raft home, and asks the question, “When does it start to count as lost if it happens slow?” as if to ask, if your life slowly drifts out of focus, when do you become a lost soul? If you miss the “college rock” of the late 80s and 90s, check out this new LP, I think you’ll enjoy it.

ODD ROBOT – Deathmates (Wiretap Records, wiretaprecords.com / Bearded Punk Records, www.beardedpunk.com / Bypolar Records, bypolarrecords.com / Disconnect Disconnect Records, disconnectdisconnect.co.uk)

It’s finally here, the long-awaited third LP from Odd Robot! And, though the perfectly crafted pop songs and wondrously crooning vocals are still there, the overall sound is somewhat different. In the interim since their sophomore full-length, “Amnesiatic,” was released they’ve added two more members: First Logan Barton took over bass duties from Mike Doherty, who moved to guitar, and then Nate Phung joined on keyboards. Guitarist/lead vocalist Andy Burris and drummer Damian Monroy, remain. Sometimes Phung’s contributions come in the form of a warm electric organ, other times it’s in the form of buzzy new wave synth. And we’ve got guest vocals from Poli Van Dam (formerly of The Bombpops) on “Anti-Revolution,” too! Odd Robot has been slowly evolving its sound since their first LP, “A Late Night Panic,” which owed so much to front man Andy Burris’ love of Alkaline Trio and The Smoking Popes. And while “Amnesiatic” played around with more complex melodies and arrangements, “Deathmates” simplifies the songs’ melodies even as Nate’s addition makes lusher arrangements possible. A perfect example of this is “Lost Inside Yr Ocean,” one of the lead singles released in advance of the LP. The melody is much simpler and straightforward than many on previous LPs, but the arrangement is thicker and richer than before, including not only the keyboards, but also the harmonized backing vocals made possible by the increasing size of the band. The one song that seems the most like those from earlier LPs is “You’re a Fucking Nightmare,” with a driving power pop punk feel, but even this one includes keyboards, a technical guitar solo, and backing vocals. The songs feel just right, but peeking at the runtimes shows they’re impossibly short, with most under the two-minute mark and a precious few reaching past three minutes. As a result the LP has a whopping seventeen tracks but still manages to clock in at a mere 37 minutes. This LP definitely mixes up the sounds a lot more than the previous LPs, too. We get some country and western sounds in both “Secondhand Noose” and “California Emptiness,” the latter of which has a really dusty sort of vibe. And we get strong retro sounds from “Let’s Start This Over” and “Take a Look at Yourself Sinner,” the former with a great R&B ballad feel, the latter with a doo-wop thing going on in the melody, mixed into the gloriously intense wall of guitar noise going on. The title, “Snakes! Snakes!” might make you think the song would be crazy and raucous, but instead it’s delicate and lovely. I like the way the riff at the end of “Death Mates” is repeated in the intro to “Alone Together.” Not sure whether it’s intentional, but it works well. And the trombone on Along Together heightens its sense of grandness, already both lovely and epic with the inclusion of strings and multi-tracked trombone in the arrangement. This third Odd Robot LP slots nicely into their discography, and it’s nice to see them working to distance themselves from past influences and honing their own sound.

PALM GHOSTS – I Love You, Burn In Hell (palmghosts.bandcamp.com)

Imagine blending today’s dream pop with 80s synth pop and the moody post punk of Joy Division or early New Order and you get an inkling of what Palm Ghosts is going for. Guitars mix with synths that subtly soar as the baritone lead vocals intone with melancholy. The band mixes equal parts jangle and wistfulness to create something quite pleasing to listen to, and it’s even something you can dance to at the club. Some highlights: the album opens with the somber sounding “Tilt,” Joseph Lekkas providing some glorious Ian Curtis inspired singing. “She Came Playfully” is a favorite, for its minimalist rhythms and riffs and great chugging feel. Conflicting emotions in relationships make for a good song topic in “I Love You, Burn In Hell,” its bright dance beat contrasting with the angry guitar injections and morose synths. “Automating for the Modern Age” is a brighter tune than most, with a spryer rhythm and more hopeful sounding vocals, drums pounding emphatically and guitars and synths providing a lofty feeling. And I love the sweeping cinematic quality of “Disassociate.” However, my favorite track may be “Enemy Mine,” which has a very strong 80s sound, and the higher pitched harmonized vocals remind me a bit of The Police, while the guitar and synth work sounds somewhat like the stuff Wire was doing in their more experimental phase. While there’s a strong streak of nostalgia in Palm Ghosts’ music, there’s more to it than that. Good stuff.

TRASH KNIFE – Weird Daze (Big Neck Records, bigneckrecords1.bandcamp.com)

Trash Knife, a band from Philadelphia, are finally releasing their debut full-length LP after more than seven years as a band (though “full-length” is stretching it a bit. It’s ten tracks, but only spans 19 minutes!). They play old school punk mixed with early hardcore, but also have a somewhat tuneful melodic sensibility in the songs. The vocals, however, careen uncontrollably all over the place with an intense fury. The result is a collection of tracks filled with controlled chaos. It’s hard to tell through the noise, but there’s either a sax or a guitar with a really interesting tone in the mix, and it works extremely well. Song topics range widely from keeping some people you spend time with at arm’s length (“Party Friends” chorus lyrics include “They are just my party friends / They are not for real / They are just my good time buddies / They are not my ride or die”) to people who don’t fit in (“Weirdo”) to the supernatural (“Zombies”). “Somedays” is a favorite for its melody and the vibe in the vocals that seem to be half asleep/drunk/high. And I love the chorus of “Zombies.” Remember: “You cannot escape! Zombies everywhere!” And even more tuneful than the rest of the LP is “I.i.l.” which stands for I’m in Love.” Well-done, if overdue, LP.

THE YOUNG ROCHELLES – Kicked to the Curb (Sounds Rad, www.soundsradical.com)

The Young Rochelles ain’t so young anymore! They’ve been a band for ten years, but they still sound young! They play a brand of pop punk that’s heavy on the pop, with smooth silky vocals that glide like butter and gorgeous multi-part harmonies. The tunes here aren’t particularly aggressive, but they’ve got a nice punk edge in the guitars to contrast with the beautiful singing. And though the melodies are deceptively simple, the arrangements and chord changes sometimes contain unexpected surprises. The album opens with gorgeous a cappella vocals that ring out clearly like bells before launching into a wonderful pop punk tune that clearly demonstrates The Young Rochelles’ sound: poppy, a little punky, with amazing vocals that put nearly every band to shame. “The End of Us” leans more heavily toward the punk side of the equation, the vocals adopting a bitter tone in this anti-love song about a breakup. Immediately after is the next chapter of the story in “Today is a Beautiful Day,” about surviving and thriving after the breakup. I love how the lead and backing vocals play off each other toward the end of the song, tossing the lyrics back and forth to each other. “Fractured Fairy Tales” is a song that likens the intricacies of love and relationships to the pitfalls fairy tale princes and princess encounter on their journey to love, and there are some great chord changes here leading into the chorus that really emphasize the unexpected sadness when things don’t work out. Also, the song takes its name from the hilarious J Ward Productions cartoon series, so it has that going for it. “He Says” is a favorite with both a harder punk side and more unexpected parts in the arrangement, plus more of those fantastic harmonized vocals. This album seems to get better and better with every listen. Highly recommended!


EMPTY COUNTRY – Empty Country II (emptycountry.bandcamp.com)

Joe D’Agostino, best known for his stint leading the storied Cymbals Eat Guitars, began making music under the name Empty Country a few years back, releasing their debut self-titled LP just as the pandemic paralyzed the world. An album of demo recordings, mostly from the debut LP plus a few others, shortly followed. And then silence for more than three years, as the world slowly clawed its way out of the clutches of the virus. Now D’Agostino and company return with their sophomore LP, simply titled “Empty Country II.” And while the songs still have an aggressive edge like CEG (D’Agostino received the moniker “Joseph Ferocious” for his vocals in that band), these songs have richer arrangements, more sophisticated melodies, and a stronger range of variety. For instance, after an eerie ambient opening, “Pearl” brings us a somewhat soulful R&B flavor that could have been performed by a 70s Motown group, except it’s performed with indie guitars, bass, and drums that range from quiet and delicate to huge, dreamy, and epic. D’Agostino’s use of falsetto works well, a stark contrast from “Pretty Years,” CEG’s final LP, in which my review decried his changes in vocal style. The arrangement is lush and gorgeous, and the lyrics dark and dismal, about dysfunction in daily life and a cycle of drug abuse to escape the pain. “Erlking,” on the other hand, is even darker, with a bigger rock sound. It’s a song that uses European mythology about the evil king of the elves that stalks and kills children who linger in the woods too long as a metaphor for the dark forces that entice us in the modern world. By saying that “Erlking stowed away on wooden ships” it implies that the evil spirit followed migrants out of Europe and to the New World, where young people still face the dangers of an evil that lures them to their doom, where people who seem friendly and the kind of person “you wanna crack a frosty beverage with” are more likely than not to send you to an early grave. The variety continues with “David,” a soulful and funky tune, with more than a bit of 70s R&B, complete with fluttering piano, funky bass, strong syncopation, and angelic backing vocals. “Dustine” is a huge epic song, and it shows D’Agostino is still at the top of his game, both vocally and as a songwriter. The song has huge dynamics, ranging from subtle indie rock jangle and fuzz to huge wall of noise that mixes dreaminess and grunge in an incredible way. “Syd” is, without a doubt, the most raucous track of the LP, faster and louder with a simpler melody and beat; if not for the melodic content it would almost be a punk tune, but instead it’s a rowdy indie rock song bursting with energy. Next up is “Bootsie,” a track with a cool post punk vibe mixed with dreamy pop. This one has a big of an experimental edge to it mixed with an 80s new wave vibe that has a nice groove. “FLA,” a song about the state of Florida, is both delicate and epic, another showcase for Empty Country’s mastery of dynamic range. Starting with just piano and vocals, the song takes a journey from introspective melancholy to passionate, huge, and epic, a harmonica, of all instruments, piercing through the mix, screaming out and sending a chill down my spine. “Lamb” starts with a lovely pastoral feel, guitars jangling quietly, and grows to be a smooth pretty indie tune. And the album closes with Cool S,” a big emotional track that ranges from quietly soulful to a big rocker to dreamy masterpiece. At nearly an hour long (it’s released as a double LP), D’Agostino makes up for the lengthy gap in releases with a sweeping epic of an album here. While it’s not as explosive as Cymbals Eat Guitars, the writing and arranging are superior, and I think it’s some of D’Agostino’s best work yet.

ENDEARMENTS – It Can Be Like This (endearments.bandcamp.com)

Endearments are a Brooklyn-based trio that play 1980s synth-pop, with smooth vocals, guitar and synths, and with a disco beat in the drums. It’s very retro stuff. “It Can Be Like This” is a five-song EP that has songs about love, lust, and rocky relationships. The music is somewhat dreamy, in that 80s synth-pop way, but to my ears it’s just too slick and early MTV sounding. The opening track, “Hazy Eyes,” is about the intensity of feelings and emotions on molly and wondering if the person you’re with feels the same about you as you do about them. This seems to be the nicest lyrics of the EP, because other songs seem to be about awful people. “Open Hand” has a bit of a dark edge and lyrics about rejecting someone to chase after someone else. “Selfish” is about someone who uses another for sex: “You could be who I adore / But in my bed and nothing more,” as if to say I could never actually love you, but let’s fuck. And we get the closing track, “Sober,” about the ending of a relationship and a protagonist who isn’t sober enough to be sincere and hides his true feelings. Between the slick synth-pop and the outdated attitudes about relationships and love, Endearments seem like the sort of people I would avoid associating with.

BILLY LIAR – Crisis Actor (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

Scottish folk-punk performer Billy Liar went big into the full band thing in 2019 with his Red Scare Industries release “Some Legacy,” and continues with this new LP on a new label, jumping over to Pirates Press Records. This latest LP is bigger and brasher than past releases, and even though the arrangements are a bit thicker than in the past, the raw emotion still punches through to your gut. The eleven songs feature great street punk renditions of Liar’s personal singer-songwriter fare, with a raucous feel and honest lyrics. The album starts with “Oblivion,” a powerful self-affirming declaration that, despite struggles in life, Billy is determined to remain: “The only way I win is by not giving in to oblivion.” But it’s not easy, as he sings that he’s got one pack of cigarettes left from the night he gave up, just in case. He sings about having enough pills stashed away to do himself in, and how he’s come close to giving in. The closing track, “Troubled Mind,” brings us back to Billy Liar’s acoustic roots. It’s just Billy and his guitar, emotions pouring out, as you can hear him literally break down as he’s recording. He sings about his struggles with mental health and questions whether it’s time to stop trying to fake it and get help, about how someone slipped something into his drink in a green room one time and instead of picking him up it sent him spiraling down. It’s gut-wrenching stuff, hard to listen to, as he struggles to keep it together and finish the song, and we hear someone ask him if he’s OK. In between these bookends we get nine more powerful songs with the full band. The guitar, bass, and drums, are joined by electric organ, helping give the raw punk songs and personal lyrics some warmth and soul. This is an excellent album that will make even the most stoic punk shed a tear, and it makes me want to give Billy a hug and tell him everything is going to be OK.

RID OF ME – Access to the Lonely (Knife Hits Records, knifehitsrecords.com)

Rid of Me is a “melodic noise punk” outfit, according to their bio, and they hail from Philadelphia. It’s a reasonable description. I hear plenty of post-hardcore in the eleven songs on this, their sophomore full-length LP. I also hear plenty of emo influence and a bunch of metal, too. The whole package is very depressing, with the band name, album title, and many of the song titles conveying themes of isolation and sadness. The track that opens the LP, which shares its title with the band name, is very spare in its arrangement and slow in pace, providing a suitably somber beginning. Following is a throbbing track called “I’m So Lonesome I Could Die,” with a Hot Snakes sort of sound, including lead vocals that channel the late Rick Froberg, which may be my favorite of the LP. We get heavy songs like “Cut,” which pound and pummel with a 90s Melvins sort of aesthetic. This particular song is about lead vocalist Itarya Rosenberg’s experience as identifying as a trans man, about the confusion and feelings of isolation that are part of the process, the feelings of being judged. And “Hell of It” is a pounding start-stop dirge with angular melodic jabs. “Libertarian Noise Rock,” besides having a cool title, is another heavy one with a strong post-hardcore vibe, though I could have done without the metallic arena rock guitar solo. “How You Say It Is” has a smoother style that blends post-hardcore and indie rock, in the sort of way that Jawbox did/does, but somewhat heavier. I hear a crossing of Pearl Jam and 90s emo in “Gutted.” And “Feel You” channels early Black Sabbath mixed with post-hardcore. If you’re a fan of heavy, emotionally charged, post-hardcore metal hybrid music, check this out.

TEARJERKER (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Little Rocket Records, littlerocketrecords.co.uk)

This is not the dream pop band from Toronto. This Tearjerker hails from Sunderland, in the Northeast of England, and they play emotionally charged 90s melodic punk. This LP is the band’s debut, and it’s a solid effort. The opening of the LP, “Done & Dusted,” which was previously released as a single, hooked me right away with its scratchy guitar jangle at the very start. When the full band comes in we get powerful vocals, throbbing bass, chugging guitars, pounding drums, and lyrics about recognizing and escaping from a toxic relationship. It all adds up to a mighty start to a strong debut. Mick O’Brien’s vocals really make this album, as he’s able to morph them to fit the song. For example, while “Done & Dusted” features big angsty singing, “California Dreaming,” which comes next, has much lower key grittier vocals. And in “CPP” the verses are sung in a much smoother voice with less grit. The other band members, Christopher “Frenchy” French (lead guitar), Marty “Jacka” Jackson (rhythm guitar), and Brent Copeland (drums) all contribute backing vocals that are slickly harmonized and emphasize the 90s punk sound, and they do a fine job of it, but that sound isn’t my thing, to be honest, and the record could have reduced the amount of that. I love the dark melodic jangle of “Love Being Alone,” especially the instrumental breaks in the song, and the dichotomous lyrics of missing and wanting to be in someone’s life but also enjoying being alone. The repeated line at the close of the song is a little creepy: “I’ll see you in your nightmares,” a line which is repeated in “CPP.” “Dear Malcolm” speeds things up, taking the band closer to a hardcore sound, though there’s still a strong melodic content. Toward the end of the album we get two tracks are a little different from the rest. “You & Me” is quieter, more subdued, starting with acoustic guitar and melancholy vocals on a song about a breakup, and while the full band comes in and while the chorus is explosive, the verses are very understated. And the album ends with “Heart of Darkness,” a very introspective song with acoustic guitar and crooning vocals (and lonely whistling!), something very different from the rest of the LP, and another example of O’Brien’s vocal versatility. As I said, this is a solid debut and not just for fans of the 90s melodic punk sound.

TERRITORIES – Colder Now (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

I’ve previously reviewed a couple of releases by Calgary’s Territories, and this new LP, the band’s second full-length, does not disappoint one bit, and indeed is their best record yet. The band plays strong poppy punk rock that’s not pop punk, with catchy melodies, great gang vocals, a great tone, and great messages. My favorite tracks are probably “Pacific Ghost,” which opens the album, and “7 Lbs. of Hope,” appearing toward the end. They both have a similar sound to early Naked Raygun, a Chicago band near to my heart. It’s got soaring melodic lines and wall of guitar sound, like hardcore that’s been poppified, if you will – just like the sound Naked Raygun and other early Chicago bands pioneered. “Pacific Ghost” even incorporates some great whoa-ohs. “7 Lbs. of Hope,” too, uses similar melodic lines and tone, but the faster pace and rapid guitar strumming has echoes of Radioactivity, as well. This being released by Pirates Press, there are street punk tunes, too, including “Hello Outsider,” “Powder Keg,” and “The Company,” all with great loping and working class vibes and lyrics. Some tracks include an electric organ that injects a sense of warmth and personality on songs like “10A Street,” a track that straddles the line between old school Chicago melodic punk and modern street punk. The energy level, powerful guitars, big gang vocals, and emphasis on equal parts gruff punk and great melodies make this record a true winner.

TIME SPENT DRIVING – Estrangers (Negative Progression Records, www.negativeprogressionrecords.com)

Time Spent Driving may be a familiar name to fans of the late 90s and early 2000s emo scene, the sort of music that’s dark and melodic, not the angsty post-hardcore stuff that came out of Washington, DC in the mid 80s or even the screamo sort of stuff that was prominent in the late 80s and early 90s. This stuff is much smoother, more indie sounding than punk, with somber music and melancholy vocals. This is the band’s first new LP since 2015’s “Passed and Presence,” so they’ve got some time to make up. And they do so by providing ten songs that are wide and expansive, with room to breathe. The opening track, “Trust No One,” announces the band’s return to studio releases with several bars of explosive guitars before the song settles into a smoother more flowing dark sound, with lyrics about keeping your guard up at all times and, well, trusting no one. The song sounds angrily lonely, befitting a song about keeping people at arm’s length. This is a common sound through the LP, but there are others, too. The music flows and swirls on tracks like “Under the Weather,” with a smooth gliding sound, more delicate guitar riffs, and ambient keyboards that rise and fall in the background. And “Wake up and Smell the Daisies” has a harder edge in the instrumentals but remains smooth in the vocals. This one has an even darker tone than most other tracks, with a deep sense of foreboding. “Closed Circuits,” on the other hand, has a slightly brighter, almost poppy sound, but the vocals still retain a pensive quality. Though this era of music was never my thing, the band executes these songs quite well, and fans of the genre will enjoy this immensely.

THE WIND UPS – Happy Like This (Mt. St. Mtn., www.mtstmtn.com)

The Wind Ups s really the work of one Jake Sprecher, who, operating out of his Northern California bedroom, writes, records, and performs all of the tracks himself. The songs are noisy, frenetic, power pop meets garage meets early punk, and it’s a cacophonous wonder. Most tracks aren’t speedy, per say, but they’ve definitely got a manic thing doing on. The opening track, “Petri Dish,” is only played at a moderate loping tempo, but it’s got a real head-bobbing retro rock and roll feel buried under the noise. The mostly instrumental track spends its first minute and twenty seconds this way before the scant few lines of lyrics come in for the last fifteen seconds: “Close your eyes and make a wish / Living in the petri dish!” The title track which follows reminds me somewhat of Ohio’s Vacation mixed with The Ramones; it’s got the distorted garage pop of the former and the pop punk sensibility of the latter. Some tracks slow things down, but don’t take away any of the distorted punk goodness. “My Rene” is one such track that sounds like a lo-fi Ramones under the influence of barbiturates. And there are some real punk gems on the LP, such as “Oh I Know,” “Tell Me Again (How Pretty I Am),” and “Starting to Lose You.” This last may be my favorite track of the LP, with a mix of familiar punk riffs and simple minimalist spoken lyrics. “Tell Me Again” has a retro rock and roll sound mixed with a strong punk twist. I could go on and on – all of the songs are pretty worthy. The bad news? The whole eleven track LP flies by in only twenty-one minutes, and it feels like the record was just getting started.


CATBELLS – Partly Cloudy (SQFT Records, catbells.bandcamp.com)

Soft, dreamlike vocals over relaxed acoustically based indie pop runs through the thirteen songs on Catbells’ debut full-length LP. These are quiet, melancholy tunes, perfect for a cold rainy day, curled up in front of the fireplace with your cat and a good book (the opening track, “Fade,” even has “Rainy Day Demo” in its title). The arrangements are fairly spartan, with acoustic guitar and quiet electric guitar, bass, and subtle drums. On occasion the electric guitar gets faintly noisy, with grunged distortion, like on “Gone Too Far,” a particularly moody sounding song with lovely layers to the arrangement. And there are a couple of songs with a subtle bounce, such as “Same As You,” with a stronger, brighter beat, the layered arrangement still providing a rich varied backdrop to the smooth ethereal vocals. Keyboards show up sometimes, too, providing an added dimension to the songs. “Distant Star” is one, using spacey synths and retro doo-wop melodic styling to give the song a wistful, faraway feel. The closing track, “Riding Tides,” uses ukulele, scratchy production, and band-limited vocals to give the track a vintage sound, and it’s the most different track of the album. One piece of constructive criticism is that, as lovely as the sound is, there’s too little variety across the three quarters of an hour length. But it’s a nice fall record.

GRAVE SECRETS – Til Your Lungs Fall Out (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

Based out of LA, Grave Secrets pays homage to 90s and 2000s music with their blend of post-hardcore crunch and melodic pop sensibilities. The trio has an impossibly big and expansive sound, and they demonstrate mastery over the big dynamic range of some of their songs, going from raging to a whisper at the drop of a hat. The guitar wails and screams as passionately as the vocals, and the bass and drums pound mercilessly, on the opening track, “Mood Ring,” whose lyrics provide the album’s title. But beside the massive post-hardcore instrumentals, the band has a penchant for modern pop music, and one could imagine that with different instruments and arrangement some of these songs could be preformed by today’s pop artists. “Drugs” has a cool 90s melodic emo sound, guitar melodies gliding over crackly bass and drums, vocals going from matter of fact to intense unease, and with a cat meow to end things. I really like the bounce in the guitar line and rhythm of “Preacher’s Nightmare,” and “Fuck Shit Up,” one of the lead singles, is a powerful angry post-hardcore track. The two tracks, which are adjacent, couldn’t be more different, demonstrating the band’s ability to excel in different sub-genres. The latter track is an explosion of anger from the point of view of a frustrated youth who lashes out in defiance of all societal constraints. While some of the tracks do feel a little like 90s/2000s generic melodic hardcore, there’s enough good stuff here to recommend this, not only for fans of melodic hardcore, but more generally.

JOHN HINCKLEY – “Neverending Quest” b/w “Majesty of Love” (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Yes. That John Hinckley. The one who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in order to impress child actress Jodie Foster, thus inspiring Arizona skaters to form a hardcore band called Jodie Foster’s Army, or JFA. Besides being a former psychiatric inmate (he was released in 2016), he’s also an artist and musician, of sorts. Up until 2020 he wasn’t permitted to release his works under his own name, and had to do so anonymously. Since then, however, he’s been releasing music on his YouTube channel, and now Rad Girlfriend is giving him a vinyl release of two new songs. These are folksy singer-songwriter affairs, with just acoustic guitar and vocals. The B-side is the better of the pair, with a more interesting melody, more akin to indie music, and a bridge with a little more going on. The songs are rather basic, though, and the appeal seems to be more the novelty of who the performer is rather than the songs themselves.

OLD CALIFORNIO – Metaterranea (oldcalifornio.bandcamp.com)

After slumbering for more than a decade, Old California awakened a few years back and started recording again. “Metaterranea” is the band’s third LP since restarting back in 2020. True to form, the band remains a stalwart of Americana, with country-tinged rock and roll, with plenty of twang mixed with rock and roll soulfulness. The songs range from light and folksy to down home rocking, from the twangy warmth of “Old King’s Road” (listen to that electric organ rock out!) to the melancholy acoustic of “Timeless Things.” “Weeds” is a lovely acoustic affair, a delicate waltz with light picked guitar, upright bass, brushed snare drum, and Rich Dembowski’s suave smooth vocals. There’s a wonderful jazzy quality to the song, and the fluttering acoustic guitar is gorgeous. The song is about the freedom to roam where one will (“I am a drifter / I come on the wind / I know no fences / And no fences keep me in”), and finding beauty everywhere (“I’m a weed in the garden / We’re all weeds in the garden / But weeds are all wildflowers / Where no gardens are”). I think this may be my favorite song of the LP. Some tracks have hints of the softer side of 70s classic rock, like “Destining Again,” with a variety of textures in the song, from rocking guitars to soulful electric organ and sweet intertwining harmonized vocals. Or “The Seer,” which blends power pop, soft rock, and Americana. The album ends with “Just Like a Cloud,” a song which is alternately an easy jazz tune, a down home Southern rock tune, and a spiritual. It gets bigger and bigger over the course of its five minutes. This isn’t my usual musical fare, but it’s a nice one for a change of pace.

PSYCHOTIC YOUTH – Happy Songs (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Swedish power pop band Psychotic Youth was active from 1985 to 1999, making waves internationally before breaking up. They reunited in 2016 and found the reception to exceed expectations, so they’ve been going at it ever since. This new LP contains fourteen songs that span thirty-seven minutes, loaded with power pop goodness, with hints of Elvis Costello and The Buzzcocks influence lurking in there on a few tracks. “A New Plan” starts the album with a bang on the Ramones meets Elvis Costello sounding track. The simple melody screams Ramones-core, while the smoother sound, the electric organ, and vocal stylings are clearly influenced by Elvis Costello. It’s one of the strongest tracks of the album and an example of great track sequencing. Some of the more enjoyable tracks are in the front half of the LP, including “Can This Be The One,” a hard-driving tune with some top-notch guitar work and a peppy bouncy melody. “She’s Gonna Do You In” puts the “power” in power pop, and “Teenage Itch” is a raucous favorite. “Out Of This World” has the sounds of The Paul Collins Beat in its fun chorus. But parts of the back half of the album leave me cold. For example, we get ordinary hard rock from “Can’t Talk To That Girl,” while “I Don’t Wanna Go Now” tries too hard to be a Ramones tune and doesn’t quite work. And “Go” sounds too much like a Cure cover band. The bulk of the album, though, is pretty solid stuff.


CUT PIECE (Dirt Cult Records, dirtcultrecords.com)

Dirt Cult may have relocated across the country, but their connection to Portland remains strong. Cut Piece is a new band that formed there last year and this self-titled four-song EP is the band’s debut 7”. Dirt Cult seems to go through cycles in the type of music they release, and Cut Piece is part of their old school hardcore revival period. The band plays music that’s fast and loud, simple and abrasive, with angry shouted vocals. Three of the four tracks are like that, with one having more a more melodic feel (though the vocals are still shouted). “Life Goes Dark” has a cool 80s goth-punk tone in the guitars and a strong back beat. The other three tracks have a sharp, thin guitar tone, and the bass and drums pound emphatically to go along with the enraged vocals. Of those, “Accept Defeat (Don't Sabotage Me)” may be my favorite. It goes through a couple of shifts in tone; it’s faster and louder, and definitely more furious than the most of the EP. Except maybe for “Mind Regression,” which closes the EP. Its mix of speedy hardcore and angular melodic line reminds me a bit of some early Descendents material. Solid debut here.

THE INCITERS – Bring Back The Weekend (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

The Inciters are a long-standing 10-piece outfit out of northern California. And in the best tradition of cinematic R&B bands like The Blues Brothers and The Commitments, The Inciters play music with soul. The songs don’t just ooze soul, it’s pouring out everywhere. The vocals are smooth and suave, but it’s the instrumentals that really make this LP. The full band includes a trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, baritone sax, guitar, bass, drums, and electric organ, so it’s got a full, rich sound. And if these tunes don’t inspire you to get out onto the dance floor, you must be dead inside. The Inciters have played with a variety of ska, punk, and Oi bands, and I get why Pirates Press scooped them up for their first new full-length LP in a long while. There’s energy and exuberance galore in the eleven tracks, and it’s got a “live” quality to it, likely due to the method used to record it. The rhythm section recorded together in one room, and the horns together in another, with a large window so they could see each other. This ability to play off each other increases the spirit and strength of the music, and the songs seem to get bigger and better as they evolve. It’s hard to pick out any favorites, because every damn track is a banger. We’ve got soulful stormers like “Bring Back the Weekend, “If I Didn’t,” and “Boot N Soul.” And we’ve got the passionate burning tunes like “Love Comes Around,” and smooth, gliding pop like “Always, Sometimes, Never.” “Up in a Puff of Smoke” is more bouncy pop with an injection of soul, making it a fun one. The mix of classic R&B and modern soulful pop makes this a standout LP.

DAVE KUCHLER – Love + Glory (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

New Jersey born and bred Dave Kuchler, formerly of Soul Engines, found himself sitting at home with nothing to do in the spring of 2020, like a lot of us. So he began writing and recording new songs. The result is a bit of a mixed bag, with some good power pop tunes, some classic AM pop, some Bruce Springsteen inspired music, but also some bland southern rock. The best tracks come early on, with the opening song, “In It With You,” being one of the best. It’s a solid power pop tune with hints of Elvis Costello influence, quite bouncy and hook laden, and Kuchler’s vocals are belted out with power and passion. We get Beatles-esque AM pop in songs like “She’d Rather Be With You,” a song that has the same rhythm and very similar vocal styling that one would hear on early Beatles songs. I like the acoustic-based “This Old Car,” even though it’s got a bit of old-timey feel, with mandolin and piano in the mix. But then there are also twangy tracks like “All I Need,” “Lovers Talk” (which has a country blues feel to it), and “Prequel (Maggie),” which just don’t do it for me, sounding a little too white bread. And then there are a couple of very New Jersey tracks, like “Slow Day,” and especially “Chasing Glory,” with The Boss seeming to be in residence. It’s strange, it’s like there are three different bands playing on this record. Like I said, a mixed bag.

MUTAGÉNICOS – El Cuarto (Dirty Water Records, losmutagnicos.bandcamp.com)

The fourth LP from this Spanish band comes some four and a half years after their third, titled “3.” The band plays music that’s loosely garage rock and roll, with mixes of power pop and classic rock. He tracks are generally played at a loping mid-tempo pace, with no slow ballads or speedy burners. A couple of the tracks include some cool sci-fi synths, including the opener, “Cruella de Vil,” and “La Virgen.” I love the bouncy garage power pop of “Hermano Siamés,” with a bit of 60s Beatles feel and some great vocal harmonizing going on. “Arácnidos Ibéricos” (Iberian Arachnids) is one of the most pure garage tracks of the album, but even this one has its own genre bending, including some cool 80s new wave guitar minimalism and some 60s surf pop guitar riffs. Another track of note is the retro doo-wop sounds mixed with big Americana surf guitars and warm R&B electric organ on “3 Lustros,” making it one of the more unique songs of the album. Like their previous LP, “El Cuerto” is an enjoyable listen for all fans of poppy garage rock.

SEAGULLS – The Rapture and Resurgens (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

This is not the shoegaze pop band Seagulls I reviewed a few years back. This one is an emotionally charged pop punk band from Atlanta, Georgia. They play raucous rowdy street punk rock, with plenty of poppy riffs and melodies, scads of gang vocals, and plenty of gritty emotion. Lead vocals are gruff and tough, and the whole album makes the sweaty dive bar aesthetic come alive through the speakers. As the LP opened, with “In the Beginning,” I thought this was going to be a crunchy hardcore record, because that short track starts with an intoned “prayer,” followed by speedy hardcore, followed by slowed down huge emo. But then “Four Long Years” started up with its loping tempo, big melody, and huge, brusque, crusty vocals, and I knew I was in for a treat. The ensuing 34 minutes is filled with the sort of music you crowd into a tiny space to hear, pressing to the front of the crowd with all your friends and crowding around the mics to sing along, beer sloshing all over the place. The pinnacle of this style on this LP has to be in the big, broad “Antedilluvian.” It’s veritably epic and expansive. “Brand New World” is a bit different, with a hint of Celtic punk sounds, accentuated by the gang vocals in the chorus. I love the bright melody and the topic of the cleverly titled, “Sinners in the Hands of a Non-Existent God.” Clever song titles abound on the LP, including also, “Symphony for the Righteous Destruction of Humanity in E Major,” “HellHoleBoob,” and “A Tale Told by an Idiot.” “Symphony…” is a great up-tempo tune with a fun broad chorus, “HellHoleBoob” is one of the bouncier, poppier tracks of the album, and “Tale…” closes the album with the perfect broad anthem. While there are plenty of bands playing this style of music, it’s always a good time listening, and especially seeing this sort of band live. Seagulls do a fine job here.

SUPERDOWN – Return to Sender (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, cylsrecords.com)

Superdown, hailing from Boston, have hooked up with the musically reliable Count Your Lucky Stars for their debut LP, “Return to Sender.” And I can safely say I won’t be returning this to sender, because it’s an enjoyable LP. Superdown play emotionally charged punk with a pop-influenced melodic edge (I can’t bring myself to lump it in with pop punk, because that’s not what it is). Think about 90s bands like Samiam or Hot Water Music for one point of reference. Songs have a sense of gravitas to them, distorted guitars providing a stoic support for the gritty vocals to lean on. Those vocals drip with sincerity, while belting out catchy melodies. While the ten songs have not a single stinker over the course of their thirty-three minutes, there are a few highlights that stand out above the others. “Wasted” is the album’s nod to grunge and pop, and gives the guitars the room to noodle around with some cool riffs over a simple melody loaded with fuzzed up sounds. I love the gliding feel of “Backbone,” while “Ships” remind me a lot of classic Jawbox, with its 3/4 waltz time emphasizing the off-beats and mixing in hints of post-hardcore heaviness with a lighter, airier sense of dreaminess. One thing I wish for on this album is a bit more variety in tempo; the songs are generally all at the same mid-tempo clip, with the exception of “Patterns,” which picks up the pace somewhat, injecting more energy and a brighter sensibility to the proceedings. And “Stare” slows things down to ballad pace. As the song starts, the guitars quietly jangle behind the subtly pleading vocals, but as the song evolves it gets bigger, the guitar jangle turning into a quiet roar, the vocals growing to a snarling accusation. It’s a great way to close a great LP.

TEENAGE HALLOWEEN – Till You Return (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

Teenage Halloween, a band formed nearly a decade ago, waited until the pandemic to release their debut LP, three years ago. They now return with their sophomore full-length, and there’s no sophomore slump here! This LP is even more urgent sounding and energetic than their excellent debut. Part of this may be a change from the band’s rotating lineup of its early days to the solidified roster of Luke Henderiks (vocals, guitar), Eli Frank (guitar, vocals), Tricia Marshall (bass, vocals), and Peter Gargano (drums). Part of this may also be the personal lyrical content; The LP opens with “Supertrans,” a song about gender identity, perceptions, and misunderstanding (Henderiks identifies as non-binary). The tracks which follow are powerful, exciting, and compelling, never letting up a bit over the ensuing 31 minutes. “Takeaway,” the second song of the LP, may be my favorite. The gang vocals, bright hopeful melody, and insistent lyrics remind me somewhat of the late great RVIVR. Another change: Henderiks isn’t the only lead vocalist anymore. Tricia Marshall also takes the lead on some songs, including “Getting Bitter,” and “Say It,” with a sound that, while less manic than the Henderiks fronted songs and maybe a little more jangly, bouncy, and poppy, are no less powerful. I love the bubbly and aptly titled “Good Time,” as well as the angst-driven anthem, “Armageddon Now.” The two songs feel like complete opposites, but they’re equally essential. The albums closes with two massive songs with a big dreamy edge, “Lights Out” and “Oh the Drama” are a lot more introspective sounding than the rest of the LP, even as that closing track alternates between ballad and barnstormer. What a great record! And even better, as you read this, Teenage Halloween are embarking on an extensive nation-wide tour to support it. I highly recommend this record, and I highly recommend you catch them at their nearest stop.

THE VILLAINTINOS – Come and Get It (www.thevillaintinos.com)

The short review is: Hard driving rock and roll that sounds like it comes from Los Angeles, but it comes from Columbus, Ohio. A longer review: Imagine late 70s LA rock, mixing the urgency of punk bands like X with remnants of the 70s hard rock and garage scene and you get a feel for what The Villaintinos sound like. Their debut EP consists of four songs, three of which lean more toward hard rock vibes and one that’s got more of an early punk attitude. That punker tune is “Come Closer,” and it’s got a faster tempo and more insistent sound than the other tracks. Leah Hanson’s vocals sound both smoother and angrier here, and the instrumentals feel more visceral. The other three tracks, “Bitch,” “Hands Tied,” and “Irish Goodbye” are raucous good fun, in a black leather jacket over faded torn blue jeans sort of way, and they would be right at home in a playlist with bands like Motorhead or AC/DC.


BENJAMIN JAYNE – Broken (www.benjaminjayne.com)

Benjamin Jayne is a solo act performed by the head of psychiatry at the nation’s smallest hospital, Benjamin Wright. The album is moody folk-rock loaded with experimental and ambient electronics. The PR materials accompanying this release say that he’s been compared to Nick Drake, and I can see that. The music is subtle and understated, and Wright’s vocals are sung almost in a whisper. The lyrical content of the album deals with how we change over time, and how we sometimes don’t recognize who we’ve become. The songs have a dark melancholy to them, too, just as Nick Drake’s songs do, but where Drake only had his guitar, Wright uses acoustic guitar and plenty of electronics, giving these songs an even deeper sense of foreboding and sadness. Some songs focus more on the electronics and others on guitar. One of the former is the opening track, “A Million Miles,” one of my favorites. The deep bass electronics at the start of the song provide a menacing feel, while the acoustic guitar tries to brighten things as much as it can. At places in the song, the music stops and we hear what sounds like the wind blowing on a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. Toward the end of the song we get a refrain that’s brighter and more hopeful sounding, with string synths swelling and the vocals lifting up in a major key. It’s a very evocative track. An example of the latter is “Don’t Give Up,” which follows, with fluttering acoustic guitar, subtle electronics, and pensive vocals. I hear hints of Pink Floyd in the bridge of “Somewhere Far Away,” a song that’s otherwise a straightforward easy pop tune. I love “(Numb) I Can’t Feel a Thing,” a song that showcases Wright’s baritone vocals, coming out a bit more, bending notes, and veritably soaring on the chorus. The title track is probably the most somber of the album, a song of self-reflection, with the refrain, “I think I’m broken” and “I think it’s all broken.” The lyrics reflect a life out of control, needing “something to go my way.” This is a wonderful album, and perfect for listening to on this cool, cloudy, misty day I’m experiencing today.

THE DOLLYROTS – Night Owls (Wicked Cool Records, wickedcoolrecords.com)

For those who aren’t familiar with The Dollyrots (have you been living under a rock?) they’ve been around since 2000 and have released records with Lookout, Panic Button, and Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records. They’ve released a grip of LPs and EPs and played over 2000 shows, including on TV, on “The Price is Right.” Their latest LP is their second for Wicked Cool Records, and finds the band in fine exuberant form. They’re sort of halfway between the sounds of top pop artists of today and that of pop punk of bands like Bad Cop/Bad Cop. Some of the thirteen songs on this new record could even be slightly rearranged and become big pop hits. My favorites are the songs that lean more heavily into the punk side of things, like “5+5,” the track that opens the LP. It’s a bright love song about the every day, loving someone even when they just woke up a mess, and about loving without having to try. Loads of bounce and big gang vocals on the chorus make it a standout. “Hey Girl,” too, is more pop punk than just pop, and the guitars growl while the vocals are delivered with a snarl. “The Vow” is a favorite, easily the loudest and most raucous tune of the LP. It’s a song about everlasting love, throughout all of the ups and downs of life, and it exudes pure joy. Some of the songs are punked-up arrangements of straight-up pop tunes that could be performed by Taylor Swift or someone similar. The title track, “Night Owl,” is one such tune. It’s got edgy guitars and vocals with loads of attitude, but a simple pop melody right out of the top 40. Another is “Hot Mom with the Skinny Pants On,” an ode to all the cool moms who play drums, smoke weed, been in the pit, and listen to Rancid. And “Tonight With You” is another; the instrumentals are hard and gritty, as are the vocals, but the melody and lyrics are pure pop. Then there’s a song like “When We’re Sober,” which is in between, with softer verses and a punkier chorus, but always with sweet pop. “Trees Sway” is an outlier, a lovely, melancholy acoustic number with violin and cello, completely different from anything else on the record. And the album closes with a cover of “New England,” a song that was a huge hit for Kristy MacColl back in 1985. The Dollyrots trade in MacColl’s new wave jangle and angelic vocals for something edgier, but the melody is timeless. This is a little poppier than the stuff I normally listen to, but The Dollyrots sure are a fun and accomplished band.

RINEHEARTS – Full Bloom (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Rinehearts have been toiling away making music in their native Australia for the past seven years, and even longer than that when you consider that the members have been playing in bands going a lot further back than that. The music they make isn’t flashy, but if you’re a fan of 70s power pop, this is a record for you. The ten songs are solid power pop, the kind that used to rule the airwaves back in the day. They put a workmanlike effort in here; the band is tight, the sound is pleasing, there are earworm riffs and pop hooks galore. On some of the songs the guitars jangle furiously, on others they growl, as the song needs. While the whole album is a stalwart representative of the genre, there are a few standout tracks. “Power Lines” is an outstanding example of what power pop can be, with great vocal harmonies, jangly guitars, and a poppy melody that’ll instantly imprint on your brain. I like the loping feel of “Blue Jeans,” while the ballad-like “Falling Down,” with its harmonizing and dueling vocals and acoustic guitar is just lovely. “Piling On” to me sounds like the kind of song Mission of Burma might have done if they were a power pop band. It’s got a bit of minimalism in the melodic line, and just listen to that big repetitious chorus! Really, there isn’t a bad track on the album. If you’re a fan of power pop you need to check this out.

BRADLEY RIOT – Dark Side of the Road (bradleyriot.bandcamp.com)

I saw Bradley Riot live at a recent show, and was immediately taken with this passionate performer. He was playing solo acoustic, and the angst came through clearly and honestly. So when I was told he had a new LP coming out today, I was anxious to listen to it. There’s more than solo acoustic here, though acoustic guitar is the primary instrument (besides Riot’s vocals). Backing arrangements include piano, electric guitar, strings, and more. They’re there to support Riot, subtly adding to the background rather than taking the forefront, leaving the acoustic guitar and vocals to shine. The topics of the seven songs on this mini-LP are fairly somber, particularly the opening track, about writing one’s own obituary and planning one’s own demise. There’s an ironic lyric, too, where Riot sings, “Well, the words on the page all bleed, makes me envious / Remember me when I’m gone,” as if to say that life is better than we sometimes realize. The song lists all the loved being left behind and decries the wasted time. “I know I should fight,” Riot sings, “But I’m leaving here at midnight.” I love the backing electric guitar of “Don’t Say Goodbye,” giving the song a dark dusty sound, the acoustic guitar being strummed ruthlessly to give the song a raucous edge. Even more raucous is “Falling Down,” which adds drums and bass to the mix, and is an ode to all the bad mistakes we make in life. The hey-heys in the chorus remind me of something Naked Raygun might have done back in the 80s and leave a warm feeling. The closing song is a rousing number that bookends the record with “Obituary.” It’s called “RIP” and though it’s a lively song, it’s about suicide, too, and a belief that “it won’t matter much.” This one has an ironic line, too: “You know I’d say I’m still afraid to die / But I just want to get there quicker / And take this pain off of me.” Yes it’s an acoustic album, but it’s so much more. I’m really glad his other show that night was cancelled and he jumped onto the one I was attending. Recommended.

WIMPS – City Lights (Youth Riot Records, youthriotrecords.com)

The PR for this record calls Wimps “slacker punk,” and that’s probably a pretty apt description. The music is right on the edge between indie rock and punk. The arrangements are fairly minimal, with guitar, bass, drums, and piano. The guitars are distorted and fuzzy, the bass is given opportunities to step to the front, the drums are solid, and the vocals are stoically matter of fact. It all adds up to music that’s pretty bouncy and enjoyable. Wimps have garage rock tendencies without going full on delinquent. It makes for a very even, balanced, and enjoyable sound. The band ranges within those parameters from 60s pop to 90s indie. For example, “Animal” has a 60s pop beat mixed with a 70s Rolling Stones aesthetic and a 90s post-grunge garage tone. Getting even further into the 90s post-punk garage sound is “Fits,” which immediately follows. I love the introspective sound of “Lake Washington,” with a sparer arrangement, a gliding melody, and the warmth of electric keyboards. Lyrically we get songs about the mundane things in life, like living on automatic in “Doing It.” The chorus sings “I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m doing it” on repeat, and verses sing about being a parent when you’re still just a kid, doing what others expect of us, laughing at jokes we don’t understand, and so on, living life on others’ terms instead if our own. “Mind Reader” is about the difficulty in communicating with others, because no one really says what they mean and we all need a mind reader to help us understand others. “Never Leave the House” is a song many of us can relate to, especially after a couple of years of a pandemic. It’s about staying home, letting yourself go, never washing your hair, never changing clothes or making the bed, and so on. “Rut” is about living life stuck in a rut, and liking it because the routine is predictable. Wimps have been compared to bands like the Breeders, the Pixies, and even the B-52s, and I can hear the influence, especially B-52s, though Wimps are less quirky and not new wave, but I can hear some of them in the melodies. All of these seemingly disparate elements blend together into a really good record.


BURNER HERZOG – Random Person (burnerherzog.bandcamp.com)

I didn’t know anything about Burner Herzog going into this review, but I love the name. Reading through the band bio, it appears that the band is the brainchild of Jasper Leach, who had a band with this name in the San Francisco Bay area for years until relocating in 2019 to New York City. There, he found like-minded musicians, including another Bay area transplant with whom he had previously played music, and a new Burner Herzog lineup was born. This new LP is hard to categorize, which is fine by me. Leach’s vocals are quirky, in a good way, sounding very casual and matter of fact, while the music ranges across and in-between various genres, from the bombastic rock and roll of “Lucky Girl” to the grunge-folk of “Sometimes It’s Hard to Break Free.” There’s the mix of retro folk-rock and modern indie in “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do,” which reminds me somewhat of the late great Chicago singer-songwriter, Steve Goodman. I’m not a fan of country, but the subtle twang of “Memo to Persephone,” and its alternating between smoothness and grittiness is lovely. And “Bliss of Love” may be my favorite track of the album; it’s got a David Byrne/Talking Heads sort of thing going on. One of the best things about Burner Herzog is the fascinating variety of textures in the instrumentals, with all sorts of different sounds showing up in the mix. I can’t give you “RIYL” type references, because, like I said, this is hard to categorize. But I will tell you it’s a good listen.

MIRRORS ON THE MOON – Whiskey & Wine (www.mirrorsonthemoon.com)

Mirrors on the Moon, a new New Jersey band, presents a curious mix of classic rock, psych, and Americana on their debut recording, a five-song EP. Upon initial listen, I couldn’t get into the opening track, from which the EP takes its name. It reminds me a lot of those 70s smooth jams that were dominant back in the day, and I swore I could almost smell the patchouli oil wafting through my room. But the EP got better from there. “Marigolds” has a bit of a funk and soul thing going on, mixed with Pink Floyd-like hazy psych rock. And “Waking Up” is absolutely gorgeous, a quiet folk-rock tune with beautiful strings, gorgeous melody, and wonderfully harmonized vocals. “Get Lost” takes us back to the 60s and 70s, this time to an acid rock jam sound. And “Don’t Panic” closes the EP with some classic chill out 70s stoner rock. Mirrors on the Moon are not the kind of band I normally listen to, but they do a good job at what they do, and I really do like “Waking Up” a lot. If you’re into this sort of genre, check this one out.

THE ROUTES – Reverberation Addict (Topsy-Turvy Records, soundflatrecords.de)

What would have happened if The Buzzcocks had appeared on the music scene a decade or so earlier and were an instrumental surf band instead of the influential power pop and proto punk band they were? That’s the question The Routes endeavor to answer on their latest LP, featuring covers of the beloved band’s songs. The album title, of course, is a takeoff of “Orgasm Addict,” one of their most famous songs, and the cover art is even a reworking of the original single’s cover and was put together by longtime Buzzcocks graphic designer Malcolm Garrett. The album starts out strongly with the wonderfully arranged version of “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've),” one of my favorite Buzzcocks songs, and though it’s almost note perfect, the tone gives it that great gliding surf sound. Departing from the original more emphatically is the surf version of “Orgasm Addict,” which eschews the simple punk melody for a more complex, flowing, and technical Dick Dale style version. I love how the rhythm and melody of “Something’s Gone Wrong Again” are retained, but the whole tone of the song changes from manic punk to easy-going surf jam. There’s a similar transformation for “Whatever Happened To,” though this time out the cover is a little edgier, but not nearly as high-strung as the original. It’s a cool sound. And the classic, “What Do I Get” is reimagined as a spaghetti western sort of anthem; you can even hear the horses galloping! There are fifteen reinvented Buzzcocks tunes here, and the concept is so fun and it’s really well executed.

YOUNG HASSELHOFFS – Dear Departed (Mom’s Basement Records, www.momsbasementrecords.com)

As they approach the quarter century mark as a band, these “young” musicians from America’s heartland return with their fifth full-length LP. The band has been called “pop punk for grown ups,” and that may be reasonably accurate. They tend to lean a little closer to the power pop end of the spectrum, but definitely come from the DIY pop punk scene. The ten songs here feature bouncy poppy fun tunes filled with vocal harmonies and hooks. The arrangements and production are thoughtfully done, and some songs feature horns, electric keyboards, and/or piano, contributing to the nice sonic texture. It all adds up to an unexpectedly slick package. Some of the songs almost feel like they could have been radio hits from the late 70s or early 80s, when guitar-driven pop filled the airwaves. The album starts out strongly with “Hold Me Now,” a track fills with awesome hooks and shifting sounds, from staccato piano to lush flowing guitars and vocals. The title track is easily my favorite, with a big power-pop-punk sound and an arrangement that uses bright horns with dissonant chords at various intervals. The use of single lead vocals in places (instead of the usual harmonies) gives the song an appropriately lonely sound. “Something Wicked” opens with an electric organ, making it feel like we’re about to hear a sermon. The song is a little slower and a bit melancholy sounding. And I love the gorgeous strings and acoustic guitar on the closing track, “Still Got Time.” In between these are other songs just as worthy, though “You Belong to Me” does seem to stray too closely to the commercial pop sounds of the AM radio of my youth. But this is a good LP, especially for fans of power pop.


KURT BAKER – Rock ‘n’ Roll Club (Wicked Cool Records, wickedcoolrecords.com)

Kurt Baker, one of our era’s foremost proponents of power pop and keeper of the flame, returns with his latest album chock full of rock and roll goodness. The music is essential listening for all fans of power pop and rock. Baker uses this album to expand his musical horizons somewhat, too, leaning into other genres to dress up these new songs. For example, the opening track, “Hittin’ Rock Bottom,” takes some cues from the era when power pop was bleeding over into the burgeoning new wave scene and when hair metal bands were taking center stage. And the title track features some bluesy hard rockin’, paying homage to the dive bars at which we all congregate to hear our holy music. I enjoy “She Don’t Wanna Be Alone,” a power pop ballad of sorts, a little slower than typical, with a melancholy jangle and a hint of Elvis Costello influence. “Love Express” is way different from usual Kurt Baker fare, leaning into a disco beat and funky guitar and backing vocals. We get what sounds like a brighter blending of Oingo Boingo and the Buzzcocks in “Missed Connection.” The album is a veritable tour through the music that shaped many of our lives back in the 1980s. I really love the standout track, “In Love Alone,” which mixes earlier pop sounds of the 60s with an Elvis Costello style song, and the warm organ, piano, and harmonica in the arrangement give it so many different textures. “Not Right” is a great slow burner, with an insistent rhythm, and the electric organ provides some cool tension. All this said, there is one track I couldn’t get into, and that’s “It Was You,” the song that ends the LP. It begins as a nice acoustic number, but then adds strings and full band, and it transforms into just another sappy adult contemporary song. Excluding that, though, this is another solid outing from Mr. Baker.

THE JULIES – Always & Always (Lost In Ohio, lostinohio.com)

90s indie band The Julies had a short career, releasing two EPs before splitting, and never getting to the all-important full-length LP. Until now. The band reunited, wrote some new songs, and finally are releasing their debut full-length LP. The ten songs offered here are softer and smoother than the band’s original output, which was a mix of gritty guitars and poppy melodies. This new LP shows the core members of the band, Alex Yost (Guitar, synths), Patrick Zbyszewski (Guitar, bass, synths), and Chris Newkirk (vocals) have aged gracefully, presenting songs with just as much pop, but with richer sounds and melodies and more mature arrangements. The songs are bigger and dreamier, slower and more deliberate in tempo. I hear strong hints of 80s Goth-influenced pop of bands like The Cure, Joy Division, Killing Joke, and Depeche Mode running through these tracks. The guitar tone on songs like “The Weight of Your Hand,” a very pretty ballad, has a shimmering underwater quality to it. In combination with the synths, the song has a wonderfully glossy sound to it. I also love the spiritual feeling of “Angels of the Underground,” particularly on the bridge, which sent shivers down my spine. The Julies also save the best for last. “Hope Is Hard,” the track that closes the LP, with the feel of drifting down a river on a lazy summer day. Overall, this is a welcome and long overdue record, and while it’s not going to shake the musical world, it’s a solid listen.

SADLANDS (sadlands.bandcamp.com)

Sadlands is a new band out of NYC that features members of Answering Machine, Choke Up, and Ellen and the Degenerates. This four-song debut EP was recorded with none other than The Bouncing Souls’ Pete Steinkopf, and they’re universally bouncy indie pop meets pop punk. One great feature is the dueling vocals of songwriters Samantha Campanile and Jess Lane, seeing them trade off on songs and uniting to provide some pretty harmonies. Their amazing vocals smooth out the grit in the instrumentals, giving the songs a nice polish. The first two songs, “Mclellan” and “After Tonight” are a little more up-tempo, a little more raucous, a little more fun. “Flowers,” which was the lead single, slows things down a bit, but injects a ton of passion in both the vocals and instrumental performances. The lyrics reference forgiveness and healing of old wounds, and the emotion is palpable. Closing things out on this debut is “With Friends Like These,” and it’s got less punk and a little more indie rock, with a richer more epic sound. This is a solid debut, and I look forward to hearing more from Sadlands.

SEABLITE – Lemon Lights (Mt. St. Mtn., www.mtstmtn.com)

Seablite has been around since 2016, formed over a shared love of 80s and 90s Britpop. If you were listening to Sarah Records sort of music back in that period, you’re going to love Seablite. They’ve got that exact sound: part pop, part dreaminess, part shoegaze. In some ways, too, they remind me of a lighter poppier Stereolab. “Lemon Lights” is the band’s sophomore full-length LP, containing twelve ethereal pop tune, with harmonized vocals that ring out like soft celestial chimes, guitar, bass, drums, and beatific keyboards. Listening to these songs is almost a spiritual experience. I love the gliding feel of the opening track, “Smudge Was a Fly,” and it takes me right back to my days listening to bands like Blueboy, Ivy, Northern Picture Library, Aberdeen and more. It’s hard picking out standout tracks because they’re all so lovely. But I do love the bright sounds of “Hit the Wall,” and the slightly edgy “Blink Each Day.” And “Hold My Kite” trades the fuzzed guitars and bass for a cleaner tone, but it doesn’t give up an iota of gorgeous gauziness. And one thing I adore about these songs is that as bright and poppy as they are, there’s always a hint of melancholy, particularly on a song like “Monochrome Rainbow,” but really on all of them. Recommended, because it’s so nice.


AMERICAN TELEVISION – Scars (Smartpunk Records, www.smartpunk.com)

“Scars” is American Television’s second full-length LP, following “Watch It Burn,” which came out a mere two months before the global pandemic changed everything. And you’ll be excused if you feel you’ve heard this before; it is somewhat derivative and generic poppy punk, but no more so than most poppy punk bands releasing music these days. The songs are raucous and crunchy, loud and obnoxious, which can be a great thing. But they’re also all played at the same mid-tempo pace, all with the same general feel. To their credit, the band manages to make the songs sound bright and catchy, so fans of the genre will certainly enjoy them. What the band lacks in originality, they make up for in energy. I can imagine the live shows are sloppy fun affairs, with inebriated audience members crowding to the front, jumping around, fists waving in the air, singing all the lyrics. Best song: “Moments,” for its dark tinged feel that makes it stand out from the rest of the tracks, and its insistent pounding drums and bass.

CINEMA HEARTS – I Want You (www.cinemahearts.com)

Former beauty queen Caroline Weinroth returns with a second EP of lovely indie pop, mostly inspired by 50s and 60s girl group doo wop. She continues, too, to write songs that touch on personal experiences and aspects of her life. For example, the first track, “Fender Factory,” was inspired by a tour she took with her family. She was excited because he played a Fender. But the tour guide discounted her because she was just a girl, quizzing her about guitars throughout the tour, trying to trip her up. Weinroth says of the song, “It's since become an anthem to subvert the machismo of rock music.” Musically, it’s Weinroth’s modern take on those doo-wop groups, with a distinct retro sound, filtered through modern amps, pedals, and production. I love the title track, which includes the subtitle, “But I Don’t Need You.” As such it’s turnabout on the way some men treat the women in their lives, and a reminder to guys to work harder at making relationships a two-way street. Musically it falls into the same retro camp as most of Weinroth’s songs, with a surf-guitar tone on this one. It’s a perfect song for the sock hop, and perhaps my favorite of hers so far. “Loose Love” has less retro and more of a modern indie sound, making it stand out from the rest, and “All My Life” is half way between modern and retro. Like the first EP, there’s no new musical ground being broken, but the songs are great and the topics on point. Solid EP, even better than the first one.

GARMENT DISTRICT – Flowers Telegraphed To All Parts Of The World (HHBTM Records, www.hhbtm.com)

Well, the PR materials say this is Garment District’s second full-length LP, but Discogs says the Jennifer Baron fronted band has previously released three LPs, making this their fourth. Go figure. The music is a pastiche of styles, just as a garment district contains a wide variety of styles of clothing and materials. Baron and company blend a variety of influences, including indie pop, garage, psych, power pop and more, as well as a variety of instruments, including guitar, bass, drums, synths strings horns, and vocals, creating something unique and eclectic. The music is alternately and simultaneously bouncy and dreamy, smooth and crunchy, poppy, jazzy, and experimental. We get songs like “Follow Me,” with a subtle folk-like song played on electric guitar and sung with gorgeous crystal clear vocals, but noisy guitars interject, fuzzing things up mightily, casting a dark shadow over the song. We get a song like “The Island of Stability,” with a bouncy power pop melody, ethereal synths forming the backdrop, and bubbly mod pop riffs. And there are quirky songs like “Moon Pale and Moon Gold,” with a deep bass, celestial harmonized vocals, and discordant synth interjecting. Or the eerie, funky “Cooling Station,” which takes it queues from classical music and R&B. (and the whistle that appears alongside the martial rhythm conjures images of a marching band at halftime). These are types of music that should never work together, but somehow they do. We also get, though, lengthy dreamy jams called “The Starfish Song” and “The Instrument That Plays Itself,” which are heavy on rock and roll guitar clichés, but tempered with immense lush arrangements. Notwithstanding these two tracks (I’m not a “jam” kind of guy) this is a fascinating record.

GONE STEREO – "I’m So Sick" EP (Negative Progression Records, www.negativeprogressionrecords.com)

Long Island’s Gone Stereo’s sophomore release is a two-song single featuring 2000s style pop punk, a la MxPx, Ataris, or even Sum 41 or Blink 182. The songs are slick and heavy on the pop, with the B-side, “Cool Kids,” being a little more punk than the title track, with lyrics about high school cliques and wanting to be an individual and not have to conform. The songs are hooky and guitar-fueled, but they may be a little too commercially oriented for my tastes.

GREY GARDENS – Into the Sun (Setterwind Records, setterwindrecords.bandcamp.com)

Grey Gardens is a five-piece alternative rock band out of southeast Michigan and “Into the Sun” is the band’s recorded debut. It’s a five-song EP, and the songs are emotionally charged in the 1990s and 2000s vein of alternative emo. And the title track, which opens the EP, is fairly standard fare for the genre. But the songs build as the EP goes along, peaking in the middle. “The New Normal” has some big riffs, jangly guitars, and a huge sing-along chorus. And I think “Hum Along,” the middle track, has to be the best of the EP, especially for the creative guitar riffs and technical flair that fill in the space between the lyrical lines. The song starts very quietly and builds and builds, until the very end when it goes out quietly again. So lovely. The other two songs, “The Wire” and “Unglued,” return to standard alternative emo sounds, but are still solid. Not the sort of stuff I listen to regularly, but a good listen, nonetheless.

GRRRL GANG – Spunky! (Kill Rock Stars, killrockstars.com)

This is the debut full-length LP for Indonesian trio Grrrl Gang, a band who chose a wise title for their record. The songs are exactly that, full of energy and verve. There’s lots of bubbly indie pop, but mixed in are some crunchy guitars, too, and fun enthusiastic vocals. The opening track, “Birthday Blues,” immediately caught my attention with a Mission of Burma like momentum, the bass throbbing, the melodic line pulsating with the rhythm section, vocals emphatically spoken and sung. The only drawback to this song is it’s miniscule length, at a mere 1:19. Immediately following is a somewhat lengthier “A Fight Breaks Out At A Karaoke Bar,” a near perfect indie pop song that clocks in at a more reasonable 2:22. The effervescent instrumentals are matched by the boisterous vocals. Some songs feature lo-fi production, like the punk adjacent “Cool Girl,” one of the edgier tracks of the album, with lyrics displaying envy, with a frequent refrain, “I wish I was a cool girl.” The song ends with a single eerie guitar pulled way back in the mix, with deadpan vocals stating, “I want to tear my skin apart / And never glows in the dark.” Other songs are variations on these themes, with varying levels of the titular quality. “Mother’s Prayer,” by contrast is standard indie-rock reminiscent of the more commercial bands that were birthed by Seattle’s grunge movement, with a mid-tempo pace, classic rock meets dream pop vibe, and jangly post-psych guitars. To my ears it’s the least successful track in an album full of solid pop hits.

MORNING EAGLE – Something Will Find You (Setterwind Records, setterwindrecords.bandcamp.com)

Hailing from Long Beach, California, Morning Eagle have released a plethora of EPs and singles over the past couple of years. “Something Will Find You” is their latest, a four-song affair filled with dreamy alternative grunge. The music is alternative and grunge, but smoothed over with pensive shoegaze qualities. Listening to the title track transports me right back to the 1990s and the grunge-influenced alternative rock that was all over the airwaves (yes, airwaves, long before internet streaming!). The song has a hazy film over it, giving it an ethereal quality. “War of Roses” picks up the tempo and the guitar intensity, but the glossy production and the easy relaxed vocals transform the song into something that seems unreal. “Royal Ivy” trades some of the smoothness for technical flair in the form of short guitar solos. The backing guitar and bass are deeply fuzzed and grunged here, and even the vocals seem a bit grittier, though they still have a dreaminess. “Monarch” closes the EP with a song that starts out quietly, with clear guitar tone and vocals, almost a ballad, but it builds, adding bass and drums, then getting bigger and grungier as it evolves. Fascinating four songs.

THE SLACKERS – Kill You (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

The Slackers return with a new two-song single. The A-side title track blends reggae, dub, and Hip-Hop! The song’s lyrics are about wanting to kill the white supremacists and those who want to impose a fascist dictatorship, explaining that it was what America did (back in the Civil War and World War II), but it’s not allowed now. The song decries how the system is rigged in favor of rich white men, with the poor paying more taxes. It speaks to the contradictions around guns, with people wanting stronger gun control to stop the killing, but wanting guns for self-protection and to fight back. It’s quite a strong social and political statement. The B-side, “Statehouse” is a reworking of the song they released on their LP, “Don’t Let the Sunlight Fool Ya.” It’s a walk through the history of the Civil Rights movement and contrasts it with the resurgent right wing in America that led up to an insurrection, something no one thought possible here. The Slackers are still killing it.

TEENAGE FANCLUB – Nothing Lasts Forever (Merge Records, www.mergerecords.com)

There are certain bands with staying power. One such band is Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub, who formed way back in 1989 and have spent that past 34 years entertaining fans, teenage and otherwise, with their alternative rock music. “Nothing Lasts Forever” is the band’s eleventh studio LP. It comes a mere two years since the band’s last LP, “Endless Arcade,” which is an anomaly that fans will welcome. They slowed down on new recordings during the 2000s, going five or six years between albums. What hasn’t changed, even with a lineup change in 2018 that saw co-founder Gerard Love depart the band, is their sound. This latest record still features Teenage Fanclub’s brand of easy, soothing alternative pop and rock. And I know there are a lot of people who love this sound. The songs are relaxed and subdued, so don’t plan on going crazy jumping around at a show. But if you like more “normal” dancing, you’ll be able to do that. Songs like “Foreign Land,” the opening track of the record, have an easy loping tempo, perfect for bobbing your head and tapping your toes or maybe shuffling around on the dance floor with your main squeeze. It’s got a hazy lazy vibe, blending some acoustic guitar into the mix, with hints of psych lurking in the electric guitar tone. Some songs are a little too much like 70s soft rock for my tastes, coming across as a little bland, with hushed harmonized vocals, simple guitar solos and uncomplicated melodies. “Tired of Being Alone” is one such track, and “I Left a Light On” is another, complete with stringed accompaniment. There are a couple of standouts. I kinda like the power pop jangle of “See the Light;” its strong backbeat and bright keyboard jangle will make it hard for you to not bob your head, and the subtle use of saxophones in the arrangement is brilliant. “Self-Sedation” has a retro 60 pop feel, which is fun. And the ending track, “I Will Love You,” is a lovely extended spacey track with a minimalist riff running through the entirety of the song. If you’re a Teenage Fanclub follower, you’ll appreciate this album. It’s them doing what they do best. If you’re looking for something with a higher level of energy this may leave you wanting.


DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN – Cover Your Ears (deweydefeatstruman-sd.bandcamp.com)

San Diego’s Dewey Defeats Truman, who were primarily active in the 2000s and who resurfaced a few years ago to release an excellent new EP, “The Way We Shatter,” went back into the studio to have fun with a couple of covers. The result is the two-song digital release, “Cover Your Ears.” The A-side covers The Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It,” and I think it’s the better of the two tracks. It starts out sounding pretty true to the original, but as the song evolves it begins to sound more and more DDT-like. Covers can be fun when the band makes an attempt to give it their own spin. And this one is really well done. The B-side is “Kidney Bingos,” a Wire tune. In this case the cover might be a little too “on the nose,” with a strong 80s synth-pop sound and nothing of DDT in it. It’s still a good song, but adds nothing new to the original Wire track. Still, it’s always good to hear new DDT recordings.

MUSTARD PLUG – Where Did All My Friends Go? (Bad Time Records, www.badtimerecords.com)

Mustard Plug, by now, needs no introduction. They’re a ska band, or more precisely a ska punk band from the so-called “third wave” of the genre. The band formed in 1991 and they’ve been making music to skank to for more than 30 years now. And having been around so long, working to perfect their craft, Mustard Plug are experts at what they do, and have produced a solid example of the genre. As a former trumpet player myself, I appreciate the prominence of the brass instruments on many of the tracks, and the fantastic melodies they get to play. The album opens with the title track, which has a lush, rich arrangement with a strong skankin’ backbeat. Harmonized backing vocals are subtle and effective. A song I really enjoy is “Fall Apart.” It’s got a great melody and the arrangement is pretty cool, with some of the horns pulled back in the mix to sound distant. I like how there are moments when the trumpet growls, and the bass has some stellar riffs. Really, the arrangements on all of these songs are top notch, especially “Another Season Spent in Exile.” The dark tone is great, and the interplay of the horns, especially against the big backing vocals and guitars/bass/drums is pretty damn spectacular. Most of the songs are pretty standard ska punk, heavy on the pop, but “Why Does It Have to Be So Hard” and “Rebel Youth Face” are straight-ahead third wave ska without the pop punk, with the former bordering on rock steady, with a slightly slower loping tempo. If you’re a fan of ska and ska punk, get on this.

THE SUBJUNCTIVES – Let’s Try This Again (Top Drawer Records, tdrecs.com)

The all-star Seattle pop punk trio of Ean Hernandez (Sicko), Jeff Mangalin (Four Lights), and Wendell Howell are back with a brand new LP chock full of bouncy, poppy punk tunes! The LP contains fourteen new musical tracks, one Sicko cover (“Believe”), and one studio comedy track for our listening pleasure. These are short blasts, too, with the entire album clocking in under 30 minutes. And song topics range from silly and funny to serious and sentimental. Every song is a banger, with mostly up tempo paces, crunchy guitars, and harmonized vocals. Even so, there are some real standouts. One such song is “I Don’t Have the Time,” a loping poppy track that sounds like a blend of the early Green Day and Mr. T Experience catalogs of the 90s, complete with the MTX “ba ba-ba-ba-ba” lyrics. My only complaint is that at less than 90 seconds it’s too short! I love the message and melody of “Smart Punks,” too, with a chorus that sings, “Punk rock doesn’t have to be dumb!” The touching song, “It's a Shame We Didn't Get More Time, Lance,” is a beautiful ode to Lance Hahn, the musician from Cringer and J Church who tragically died too young from kidney disease. Another one that’s sentimental is “What’s Up Fuckers?” about growing old and not wanting to be alone. The vocal harmonies intertwine wonderfully. “I don’t want to be alone again / I don’t want to be without my friends / I don’t want to be the lonely man that sits at home…” The song has a strong 60s power pop feel to it, too. “The Henry Rollins School of Menacing” is a humorous tune that starts out a familiar old hardcore guitar riff, and then goes through all the different ways to be intimidating, based on Henry Rollins’ public persona. “If We Ever Get Out of This Mess I'm Going to Do Something With My Life” has some fantastic chord changes and riffs making it a real standout track of the album. “So Glad You're Here” has the makings of a pop punk anthem, with personal lyrics about Ean’s punk rock life. The Sicko cover, “Believe,” is pretty much a note for note redo, which is to be expected since Ean fronted that band, too. The only difference is the harmonies work better on the cover. And that comedy track? The final track, “High Comedy at Chez Albini,” contains studio banter and the guys fake farting and laughing about it. High comedy indeed. But a fantastic pop punk album. Highly recommended.

WORRIERS – Trust Your Gut (Ernest Jenning Record Co, www.ernestjenning.com)

After the home-recorded solo LP (“Warm Blanket”) that Worriers’ Lauren Denitzio released at the start of the year, Worriers are back as a full band. With Denitzio having made the move cross-country from NYC to LA, there are some personnel changes, with Atom Willard replacing Mikey Erg on drums. Also joining are Franz Nicolay (of The Hold Steady) and Allegra Anka (of Cayetana). Still with the band is Frank Piegaro (The Love Songs). Though it’s a return to a full band, “Trust Your Gut” still has the more intimate scaled back sound of “Warm Blanket.” There’s less punk and more pop here. The arrangements are more thoughtful, less simplistic, with some songs featuring piano, synth, electric organ, and/or strings. What hasn’t changed is Denitzio’s ability to craft excellent songs that are both pretty and thought provoking, with themes of heartbreak, gender expression, identity, and love. Listening to the title track feels like listening to an anthem from a 1980s John Hughes film, with fluttering synths and a bright new wave pop bounce. It’s all about uncertainties in life and the anxiety that can cause, trying to figure out who you can trust. There are songs, too, like “I’m Not Mad,” which have a pop ballad quality, despite not being slow. This one is mid-tempo with a big warm sound from the electric organ filling the background. The arrangement is otherwise somewhat spare sounding, letting Denitzio’s vocals shine with a plaintive quality. And we get delicate folk-pop in songs like “Waste of Space,” with acoustic guitar and piano in the mix. The string choir used in “Backyard Garden” is gorgeous, and “Top 5” starts out solemn and mysterious, with sustained bass synth tones and a minimalist feel, with insistent vocals. Worriers have gone in a completely new direction since their first two LPs. I like both sounds, and I love these new songs.


BARK – Loud (Dial Back Sound, dialbacksound.bandcamp.com / Cool Dog Sound, cooldogsound.com)

Mississippi husband and wife duo Tim Lee (The Windbreakers) and Susan Bauer Lee have been playing together for some two decades and releasing recordings under the Bark moniker since 2015. They’ve got a spare sound reminiscent of early LA punk bands like X, the guitars, bass and drums dialed back in the mix jut a bit, and the vocals quite prominent, though the tempos are slower and there’s a softer edge to the songs. While all of the songs are enjoyable, there are few highlights my ears took to right away. I love the casual feel of “Radar LUV,” an easy feeling love song that has a definite late 70s/early 80 feel of the crossing of power pop and early punk. Lee’s lead vocals are a tad nerdy sounding, just perfect for a song where the protagonist sings, “I just want to be on your radar,” setting low expectations. I really enjoy the storytelling vibe of “James Robertson Must Turn Right,” almost like a dusty western tune, the keyboards providing a haunting aura on the chorus. “Work in Progress” has a fantastic power pop meets punk feel, and is a little more raucous than a lot of the tracks. The backing vocals on this even have hints of B-52s style new wave. “Rock Club” is a song many of us can relate to, about being an aging scenester. We all know the routine of staying up too late, drinking too much, too many nights of the week down at the rock club. “Now they say you’re too old / they used to say you’re too young,” the song sings, and it asks the question, “So why would you quit now? Why would you give it all up?” Indeed, why would we give it all up? I certainly haven’t. Some of the songs are decent enough, but could do with a dose of caffeine. “So Much Time” has a good melody and sound, but feels like it’s a dozen or so beats per minute too slow, and pepping it up could improve it a lot. “Present Tense” was the only song I couldn’t get into, because it’s just too slow, too subdued, too sleepy sounding. But overall this is a great listen.

BRIAN DAMAGE – Previous Episodes (Just Because Records, justbecauserecords.bandcamp.com)

The press release calls Brian Damage “power-pop weirdoes.” And I get the weirdo part, but not the power pop. Brian Damage is indie-folk rock. The songs are quirky, poppy stuff with acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and loads of synths. Nothing here is heavy or angst-filled; rather the songs are light and more than a bit eccentric. I love how the songs have a variety in the sounds and feel, but are all unified by their uniqueness. The album opens with a song that mentions cat piss multiple times, “Back 2 My Old Ways.” The acoustic guitar feels like it’s purposely out of tune, ever so slightly, giving it a whimsical sound sort of like a toy piano might do. That gives you an idea of the direction of the LP. “Miserable Schemes” has a great psychedelic folk feel, with acoustic guitar and glockenspiel, along with electric guitar and definite late 60s melodic lines. I love the melody of “Human Goings,” especially when it’s played by the buzzy synths. It gives the otherwise somber mid-tempo song a brightness and bounce. I also enjoy the dark angular 80ss new wave sound of “Robo Nutso,” a very appropriately titled tune, with a crazy robotic thing going on. “Fantasy” seems seamlessly to blend modern indie rock with 80s new wave sounds. “Trading Cards” is off-the-wall bizarre. And “Fast Food Chains” closes the LP with a track featuring acoustic guitars, lush synths that ring out, and somewhat whimsical vocals. There are more songs besides these, all equally good, too. If you’re into quirky indie with synths, check this out. You won’t be disappointed.

EVERYONE ASKED ABOUT YOU – Paper Planes, Paper Hearts (The Numero Group, numerogroup.com)

In the most unexpected place of Little Rock, Arkansas and the most unexpected time of the 1990s came a queer emo-indie-pop band called Everyone Asked About You. In their short career they released a single LP, “Let’s Be Enemies,” a pair of 7” records, one self-titled and one called “Sometimes Memory Fails Me,” and a split single with The Shyness Clinic. The Numero Group has taken the original DAT recordings from these sessions, remastered them, and released the entire Everyone Asked About You catalog as a 2-LP set in a gatefold sleeve, complete with a 20-page booklet filled with photos, flyers, lyrics, and an essay on the missing link between Midwest emo and the Moog synthesizer. It’s an hour filled with a unique band’s unique music. They had an amazing dynamic range, going from lovely quiet twee-pop to intense raging emo. The songs are very pretty and very moving, and I feel overcome by a wave of 90s nostalgia, because emo and indie-pop were the sorts of music I was listening to back then. And I’ve heard of and known bands that blended east coast emo and west coast pop punk, most notably bands like Gauge, Braid, and Cap’n Jazz, creating what came to be known as Midwest emo. But I had never before heard a band that blended twee indie-pop sounds with Midwest emo. It’s quite a compelling sound. And, yes, they indeed include a synthesizer in the arrangements. It’s subtle and effective, not overpowering. The collection begins with the band’s first self-titled EP, and these first four songs show a band that had already fully formed their sound. The songs are alternately pretty and intense, twee and crunchy. They sometimes get big and grand sounding, too. Following are two songs they released on the split with The Shyness Clinic, “A Better Way to a Broken Heart” and “I Will Wait,” and these are a little smoother and lighter, heavier on the pop and less on the emo intensity (though there’s still definitely an emo air to them). Next up are two songs from the “Sometimes Memory Fails Me” 7” single, with that title track and “Handsome, Beautiful.” This latter track is the one from which the collection takes its title, with the phrase appearing in the lyrics. The song itself soars and jangles beautifully. The balance of the collection comes from the LP, which was posthumously released in 2012. All of them are great tracks, but I want to call out “Song for Chris” for special mention. It’s got a great swirly pop sound mixed in with the Midwest emo and a strong feeling of forward motion. The Numero Group keeps doing a great job at preserving the best music of the past.

TIM KINSELLA AND JENNY PULSE – Giddy Skelter (Kill Rock Stars, killrockstars.com)

Tim Kinsella should need no introduction. As a founding member and driving force behind bands like Cap’n Jazz, Owls, and Joan of Arc, he’s well known in the underground and indie music scene. Jenny Pulse is less known, but was responsible for Spa Moans, an experimental pop act (she has since dropped the moniker). The two met and married and have been making music together for years and now under their own names. Their shared penchant for the offbeat serves them well on this latest album, whose title is a mash-up of “Gimme Shelter” (referencing the Rolling Stones’ Altamont disaster) and Helter Skelter, of Manson Family infamy. The music on this new LP spans a range from experimental and unorthodox to pure pop and everything in between. It’s a fascinating listen that begins with the chunky rhythmic sounds of “Unblock Obstacles,” complemented by interjections by what sound to be flutes playing a different melody in a different key. There’s a great free jazz instrumental bridge that builds to a crescendo toward the end of the track, building tension and releasing to a recapitulation of the main melody. Some tracks are big dreamy electronic pop, similar to what Jenny Pulse is most known for. “Over and Over” is one such song, with chill-out dance beats and otherworldly synths, Pulse’s hazy vocals providing a contrast to the music. Songs like “Wild Silence (Thumb Inspector)” stay closer to traditional indie pop song structure, though the instrumentation is not, with strings and synths. And, while most tracks will feature vocals by either Kinsella or Pulse, this one features them both harmonizing together in places. I love the contrast between the simple unassuming piano and the grandeur of the synths on “Nena,” and I equally adore “Bootgirl,” which is equal parts industrial dance, spacey experimental, and chill-out music. Some of the best parts of the album are the shorter more experimental pieces, like “Every House Has a Door 3” and “Every House Has a Door 4.” The former starts with odd burbling and clanging noises and reminds me of something Stephen Stapleton of Nurse With Wound might do, but then we get off-kilter chamber music with strings and guitar, which is simply beautiful. The latter is minimalist blues with an emphatic rhythm, simple repeating melodic lines, ending in a sudden swirl of animal noises. The blending of pop, ambience, dreaminess, and experimentalism makes this a compelling record.

PALE ANGELS – Plastic Legacy Pt. I (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Pale Angels, that international noise-pop-punk-garage band whose members hail from the UK and the US are releasing “Plastic Legacy Pt. I” nearly a year after they released “Plastic Legacy Pt. II.” Don’t ask why they released Part II before Part I because no one knows. Who cares, anyway, when the music is this good? Like their Ohio compatriots, Vacation, the trio blend disparate musical styles to create something unique and compelling, while varying the mix from song to song and keeping things fresh. My favorites are the ones that manage to inject some psych or retro pop, like “Never Asleep,” a jaunty tune with a mod sound underneath all the lo-fi noise. “Nervous Breakdown in Underhill Park” has an appropriately manic mood to it, while also sounding inappropriately bright. And “Clones” has to be my favorite track of the album, the 60s pop melody and brightness struggling to fight through the thick, gritty, lo-fi noise. “Loved” has a fantastic minimalist quality, with repetitive rhythm guitar and a soaring feeling from what sounds like subtle keyboards. Minimalism extends to lyrics, as well, with the chorus consisting of the phrase “Maybe I loved you” repeated over and over. A couple of the songs have a twang to them, like “Garden Variety Blues,” with heavy reverb in the guitar and a country blues melody. Even “Spent,” the first proper song of the LP, has a subtle Americana feel to it. And “My Little Bike” has a striding sense to it, like a traveling bluesy tune. The closing track, “Spiders,” is the one that doesn’t fit the rest of the album, with the sound of an 80s new wave pop ballad, complete with drum machine and guitar processed so heavily it almost sounds like a synth. To me it’s the weakest song on the record, but every other song is so solid that I can easily overlook it. Highly recommended.

GRAHAM PARKER - Last Chance To Learn The Twist(Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Graham Parker has had a long and storied musical career, as a solo performer and with a whole variety of different bands. It’s fair to call him a musical legend. His early recordings with Stiff Records were noted for mixing power pop, R&B, and straight-up pop, sometimes with an early punk edge. As a contemporary of Elvis Costello he found a modicum of success with hits like “Local Girls,” “Mercury Poisoning,” and “Heat Treatment.” Parker hasn’t slowed down a bit over the decades. His vocals are still strong and immediately recognizable, and though his music isn’t a raucous as it used to be, there’s still the same stimulating mix of musical styles. The Goldtops, with whom Parker is playing these days, consists of bassist Simon Edwards, drummer Jim Russell, guitarist Martin Belmont, and keyboardist Geraint Watkins. They’re aided by horns from The Easy Access Orchestra, and backing vocals are provided by The Lady Bugs. We get a big dose of this in the bluesy opening track, “Music of the Devil,” a song about the history of rock and roll, in which the religious and elites attacked the music, drove it underground, yet its popularity could not be suppressed. We get big pop rock ballads like “Sun Valley,” and light country-tinged songs like “It Mattered to Me.” “Wicked Wit” has a bouncy jazzy feel, and there’s even an ode to cannabis consumption, in “Cannabis.” The song decries the “ill-informed prohibitionists” and celebrates its use to “hear music straight from the sun.” “We Did Nothing” is a great tune, using acoustic guitar, having both a subtle folk feel and potent emotional punch. It’s the most political song of the album, focusing on inaction in the face of global crises, including devastating floods in Pakistan, global wildfires burning our forests, chaos in Afghanistan, and more. In response to tragedies, “the richest crush the poorest,” and we respond with indifference and “a pandemic of stupidity.” “Lost Track of Time’ is a deeply soulful tune, with the warmth of keyboards, expressive guitars, and lyrics about the ache of missing one’s love when you’re away, when everything around you without your love seems so off that you lose all sense of reality. There’s even a sort of novelty tune here: “Them Bugs” is a playful reggae-inspired tune about insects coming out at night and biting your ankles. Graham Parker might be playing smoother and more relaxed songs these days, but he’s still playing a wonderful variety of pop and R&B inspired songs.

SMUG BROTHERS – In the Book of Bad Ideas (Anyway Records, www.anyway-records.com)

The latest LP from Ohio’s Smug Brothers brings more of their signature sound, blending power pop, indie, and tinges of British Invasion/mod pop. The songs are smooth and relaxed, with even the more energetic tunes having a laid-back feel, such as the two opening tracks, “89 Lullaby” and “Stiff Arm at the Still Water.” The former is a solid power pop number, and one of my favorites of the LP (kudos for putting one of the best songs first!). It’s got a great bounce and some nice pop hooks. The latter, though still with an easy breezy feel, has hints of an old school punk edge that make it very appealing. Other standouts include the jangly “Let Me Know When It’s Yes,” and the bright sounding retro-mod tune, “Sudden Berlin.” Some of the songs get a little too laid-back and feel non-descript, blending into each other. Like “Since the First Time I Heard You Laugh.” It’s got a decent melody and some nice hooks, but the synths, pace, and production make it feel too lazy and bloated. If the arrangement was roughed up a bit, this could be a pretty solid tune. “What Starts Out as Fun,” too, would be a better tune with a sprightlier tempo and better choices in guitar tone and arrangement. Also, the record lacks the more interesting experimental elements from their EP released at the end of last year, which I liked better.

STOMPER 98 (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

Stomper 98 is billed as one of Germany’s premier Oi bands. And while some of the songs have a working class punk feel, there’s more melodic punk and hard rock here than classic Oi sounds. The band features Sebi Stomper (also of Plizzken) and Lars Frederiksen (Rancid, The Old Firm Casuals), as well as Tommi Tox (Toxpack). Stomper 98 has been around, as their name implies, since 1998, so they’re celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, and this LP is a sort of celebration of that. According to the PR materials, “every song tells a story,” but the lyrics are all sung in German, so I wouldn’t know. But needless to say, the music is strong and powerful, with some coming across better than others. For example, “Wir halten die Fahnen weiter hoch” (We Keep the Flags High) is solid melodic punk. I love the contrast between the heavy hard rock in the verses and the great pop punk in the chorus of “Erkennst Du Dich wieder” (Do You Recognize Yourself). It sounds like a song that could have been done by a Chicago punk band like The Bollweevils or even Naked Raygun. I think this one’s my favorite of the album. “Deutschland im Chaos” (Germany in Chaos) is a song that has a chorus so simple and so good that I found myself humming it after my first listen while I was making dinner. It’s definitely an earworm. Another earworm is “Alex - Schatten der Nacht” (Alex – Shadows of the Night). These are songs you’ll immediately latch onto. Some songs deviate from the formula, with melodies that have elements of folk, indie, or even ska. “Alle gegen alle, jeder gegen jeden” (All Against All, Everyone Against Everyone) has an indie sound, but with hints of ska melody (though not rhythm). “Bleibt mir allesamt gestohlen” (All Stolen from Me) feels like the melody may have been influenced by an old folk tune. I like, too, “Boots, Bier und Bomberjacken” (Boots, Beer, and Bomber Jackets), which has a mix of mod and street punk. It’s definitely a song made for dancing. “Außenseiter” (Outsider) was the only song I couldn’t get into. It’s slower, darker, and less punk. But one song won’t spoil an otherwise good record.

THEEE RETAIL SIMPS – Rubble b/w Jumpin Jack Off (Goodbye Boozy Records, goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

They’re also known as Tha Retail Simps, and after releasing two full-length LPs, the band has a new two-song 7-inch single out from Goodbye Boozy. The A-side is chaotic lo-fi noisy garage punk rock with rabidly screamed vocals and guitar, bass, and drums that sound manic, like they’re about to explode. The B-side is a raucous cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin Jack Flash,” with the same super lo-fi recording and lunatic fringe lead vocals (though the backing vocals are more even keeled). Off the wall insanity going on here.

FABLED MIND – Project Paradise (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com / Lockjaw Records, www.lockjawrecords.co.uk)

Fabled Mind’s latest LP is a rarity in the punk world: it’s a concept album. The storyline takes place in a world in which people live in a supposed paradise, in which the rapid advance of technology includes the integration of artificial intelligence with the human body. It examines the consequences from the point of view of our protagonist. The system running the show and governing people, for their own good, of course, is the titular Project Paradise. Musically, the band mainly play metallic melodic punk, heavily influenced by 90s skate punk. But the songwriting, arrangements, and technical flair point more toward calling this chamber music for the rock and roll age. Additionally, in some of the melodic and lyrical complexities, I can hear Bad Religion influence. This is particularly evident on the song, “Awakening.” The album opens with spacey synthesizers and a pleasant digitized female voice, a la Black Mirror, welcoming us to Project Paradise, where “you can choose between thousands of worlds where you can be a star, a hero, or even a god.” Project Paradise is called “an improved reality” as the song, “Perfect World” kicks off. And you can immediately hear the complexity in the song with shifting time signatures. You can hear the expert musicianship and the solid 90s skate punk base. Other tracks range from fairly straightforward 90s melodic skate punk at one end of the spectrum (title track, “Project Paradise”) to technical and complicated almost orchestra sounds at the other (“Vultures”), and songs that shift a lot, like “The Algorithm,” with metallic and pop elements. There are outlier tracks, though, very different from the rest. “Heirs of the Stars” is one, a quiet acoustic ballad with guitar work worthy of a renaissance musical piece. “Architects of Deception” is another, with a European folk song quality. And the short a cappella choral, “Interlude,” feels very spiritual. This is an album of complex themes and complex music that’s both familiar and challenging.

MSSV – Human Reaction (Big Ego Records, www.bigegorecords.com)

Mike Baggetta, Stephen Hodges, and Mike Watt return for their latest album as mssv (which stand for Main Steam Stop Valve). They provide an enjoyable eight songs of jazzed up rock music, reminiscent of the more adventurous kind of punk and indie music that was made back in the 1980s. These are primarily instrumental, with occasional vocals that are more interjections or spoken word poetry than singing. The track with the most song-like structure is the opener, “Say What You Gotta Say.” Its strong backbeat gives it a great bounce, and the lyrical content gives it the feel of a post-Beat Generation thing. More mysterious and experimental is the spare “French Road Drifter,” with subdued martial drumbeats and angular plucked guitar and bass, wobbly buzzy synth interjecting here and there. I love the quirky waltz called “Baby Ghost (From the 1900s),” a cool whimsical number with some great guitar runs and drums focused on kick drum and high hat. The bass is sparsest of all, with barely one or two notes per measure. Also with a spare arrangement is “Pillow Talk,” but this one is dark and mysterious, vocals consisting of words being stated or shouted at various intervals. The minimalist bass and drums are hypnotic, adding to the cryptic feel. Albums that are mostly instrumental in character often can get bogged down in the “jam.” MSSV never fall into that trap, always energetic and engaging, always sounding fresh and exciting. It may not be for everyone, but I love this LP and recommend it.

YOUNG FRANCIS HIFI – The Young Generation (Dirty Water Records, dirtywaterrecords.bandcamp.com)

Hailing from the seaside beach town of Brighton in the UK, Young Francis HiFi play short raucous blasts of garage pop punk. Their songs are fast and loud, erupting with tons of youthful energy. Lyrics are bubblegum power pop oriented, about love and loss, hanging with friends, and getting high. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, packed with thirteen tracks, Young Francis HiFi will surely get you off the couch and jumping around the room. With song titles like “I Wanna Hold You Tight (Tonite),” “Don’t Break My Heart,” “Girls Like You,” and “Gimme a Kiss,” young people (age-wise and at heart) will all relate to the themes of the album. While most of the songs follow this formula, there are a couple with a difference. “Do You Like Good Music” is slower, somewhat quieter, almost like a seductive garage rock and roll tune (it’s still noisy, but has a completely different sort of attitude). And “Bad Attitude” is a bit slower and heavier sounding, with a definite chip on its shoulder sort of sound. This record is pure fun and pure energy.

VARIOUS – COMP PENNSYLVANIA (Sell the Heart Records, selltheheartrecords.bigcartel.com / Riot Squad Media, linktr.ee/riotsquadmedia)

Camp Punksylvania is an annual event held in, natch, Pennsylvania (Scranton, to be precise). It’s run by Riot Squad Media, a female run DIY punk rock and media collective. This year’s festival takes place over Labor Day weekend, and they’ve teamed up with Sell The Heart Records to release a limited edition compilation featuring twelve of this year’s performers. Many of the tracks on the comp are exclusive, having never appeared on other recordings. Still others were previously only released digitally and are making their physical release debut. From the track listing you can tell this is going to be a stellar lineup. And while there are some big names here, some of the best tracks come from lesser-known bands. Yeah, A Wilhelm Scream, Tsunami Bomb, and The Dollyrots are all here and provide excellent tracks, as one would expect, but the real unexpected highlights come from bands with which I was unfamiliar. Escape from the Zoo is a band that Jesse Sendejas (of Days N’ Daze) co-founded with his wife, Veronica, and their contribution, “Run” is a fantastic folk punk track with definite Eastern European lineage. It’s aggressive and haunting at the same time. Canadian band Belvedere is a group I’ve reviewed before, so they aren’t complete unknowns. Their track, “Comrade,” which features Roger Lima from Less Than Jake, is solid 90s melodic punk, super tight, without getting too wanky, a trap too many bands of the genre fall into. I’ve also previously reviewed The Homeless Gospel Choir, and I can’t rave enough about this solo performer and band that provide acoustic and electric songs with wonderful melodies and insightful social and political commentary. For the comp they provide the demo version of their song “Leaving Hazelwood,” a melancholy look at the mixed feelings that arise from leaving a place with great friends and memories. Fat Chance is a New Jersey band that play raucous ska punk that’s heavy on the punk with suitable horns, and their song, “Comrades,” just sounds like a really fun party where everything is just a bit out of control. The What Nows?! are from Reading, PA, and though they call themselves a ska punk band, their track, “Broken Down,” feels more like a blend of folk and calypso, without acoustic instruments, minimal drums in the form of bongos, and trumpet. It’s a little jazzy and a lot of fun. There are other worthy tracks from Fat Heaven, River City Rebels, and Stop the Presses that round out the LP. It may be too late to grab tickets to the event (as you read this on the first day of the festival), but you can grab a slice of it with this record.

ABORTED TORTOISE/GHOULIES – Euro Tour 2023 Split (Goodbye Boozy Records, goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

Aborted Tortoise and Ghoulies are touring together through Europe, so what else would they do than release a split to sell? Each band gets two songs on this EP. Aborted Tortoise’s two songs (“Malpractice” and “Tom’s New One”) are bright, speedy, and spare garage punk in the best sense of the tradition: simple chords, not a lot of melody, spoken/shouted lyrics, and tons of energy. Ghoulies’ pair (“Irrelevance” and “Self Help”) add synths to fill out the sound, transforming from the basic garage punk sound to one more akin to new wave, still pretty manic and bursting with intensity. Based on this record, I can tell this is going to be a great tour.

ALLEYS AND GANGWAYS – Take This Outside (alleysandgangways.bandcamp.com)

Alleys and Gangways is a thoroughly Chicago band, right down to their name. Chicago is a city of alleys and gangways, and it’s known for a big muscular guitar sound in its punk bands. Alleys and Gangways have that in spades, as well a melodic sensibility without becoming a stereotyped pop punk band. This five-song EP is their third release (all of which have been EPs). The band have had some lineup changes since their last EP, “Long Shot,” which came out in 2021, and as a result their sound is a little bit different: it’s less pop punk and more gritty burly punk with attention to melody. Still present are the opportunities for gang vocals and harmonization, which add to the band’s sound. “Camera Shy,” which opens the EP is a solid start, with all of the above elements on full display. It’ll get you up and moving, or at least bobbing your head. Even with its deep gritty sound, it’s got quite a bounce to it. My other favorite of the EP is the closing track, “Jobber,” a darker, harder, edgier track than the others with a bit of an old school Chicago hardcore vibe. “Swan,” the middle track, falls short of the mark set by the rest of the EP, with more of a hard rock sound, complete with arena rock guitar solo. But this is quite a satisfying EP.

GUJI - "Guji" EP (godlessamericarecords.bandcamp.com)

This EP is the debut of a Chinese synth-pop quartet that features three Chinese nationals (Klaire on synths, Alex on bass, and Stacy on drum machine) and one American ex-pat (Chachy, best known as the front-man for Round Eye). The music blends modern indie pop and retro 80s musical experimentalism, with sparse arrangements and lush vocals. The opening track, “Judgment Day,” is the most raucous, with an edgy old school guitar sound, but with a bouncy bubbly pop melody and pretty harmonized vocals. “I Like to Hang Out in China” is my favorite track, with its angular melodic lines; it sounds very much like some of the stuff that was coming out on Recommended Records and other cutting age labels in the 1980s. The lyrics are tongue in cheek, listing off all the reasons one might like to hang out in China, such as being told what to do, people misunderstanding you or making incorrect assumptions. Similar to that is “My Mao Suit,” with a great minimalist bass line and sparse synths. Lyrics refer to the pressures in China to conform, using clothing as a metaphor. I like the mechanical feel of “Build a Friend for Me,” and the bouncy new wave pop of “Sorry Day,” but I’m in love with the lush yet spartan pop sounds of “Cereus,” which closes the EP. Word is that this was a pandemic lockdown project, but I hope this continues as an ongoing enterprise, because it’s an outstanding debut.

PITY PARTY – Sick Sad World Survival Guide (thepityparty.bandcamp.com)

Bay Area pop punk band Pity Party’s latest EP contains new recordings of four songs from their first LP, “Gnarbage,” plus one new song and one cover. The four redone songs are “Suicide Handbook,” “Waste of Life,” “Booze Cruise” (renamed here as “Booze Cruz”), and “Gnarbage.” The new recordings are all much better sounding than that first LP; with higher fidelity comes clearer intent. “Suicide Handbook” stays fairly close to the original in style, until the very end when it gets more manic and emphatic than before. “Waste of Life” is reimagined, changing from a moderate tempo relaxed pop tune to a crunchier pop punk tune, with a faster tempo. “Booze Cruz” is fairly close to the original, but with the better recording comes a deeper, more emotional sound. The same applies to “Gnarbage,” which retains its speed, bounce, and punch. The new song is “Ionize My Enemies,” and it blends big pop punk guitars with breathy, sultry vocals and is so big it sounds downright cinematic. The closing track is a cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” using acoustic guitars in place of synths, and going big and hard rocking at times. Sarah Levy’s lead vocals are steamy in the right places and fiercely growl when the music demands it. It’s a great cover. And it’s a great EP.

SISTERS – Leecheater (sistersrock.bandcamp.com)

Jason Blackmore (Molly McGuire, Death Eyes) and Mario Quintero (Spotlights) found themselves at loose ends with the ending of past projects and the onset of the COVID pandemic. So the pair decided to team up to have an outlet for their creative steam, so to speak. The result is Sisters, a band that plays hard edgy 90 post-punk that’s also somewhat atmospheric, particularly in some tracks. “Leecheater” is the band’s debut, featuring eight tracks in forty minutes. The opening track, “Born Again,” features plenty of 90s noisiness, but there’s also a hint of DC-core influence in the chord progressions, and the vocals are smooth and dreamy. That pattern (minus DC sound) continues through most of the tracks, but by the time we get close to the halfway mark, with “Through the Cracks,” though the edgy noise is still there, the atmospheric qualities come more to the forefront, the vocals getting even smoother and the guitars starting to get hazy. “The Wick Effect” is mainly mysterious and understated, with breathy spoken vocals, quietly plucked guitar and bass, and drums used as punctuation. Periodically, though, the band explodes on the chorus, with sweeping grandeur. The contrasting textures and qualities make this a standout of the LP. Toward the end of the song, reverb-laden synths come in, ringing out like bells. This very lazy hazy aesthetic carries over into “Windows,” a ballad-like track that’s dark and noisy, like a mix of goth and post-hardcore. This dreamier sound covers the back half of the album, as tracks get hazier, gauzier, and even a bit psychedelic as we get to the title track that ends the record. It’s like taking a journey, from beginning to end, going further inward and drifting off. Fascinating.

WRECKLESS ERIC – Leisureland (tapeterecords.de)

Yes, that Wreckless Eric! Eric Goulden has been making music under this moniker since the 1970's, with his biggest hit being the oft-covered “Whole Wide World,” released in 1977 by Stiff Records. After being active in the late 70's and early 80's, Wreckless Eric slowed down some, releasing an occasional record here and there under that name (though he’s released music under various other names in the interim). In 2014-2015, he started more regularly releasing records, with albums coming out every few years. “Leisureland” features a whopping 15 tracks over three-quarters of an hour, and though the arrangements are more professional sounding that those early records, the easy style he’s known for is still there. The songs can best be described as power pop melodies played in a laidback folksy style with psychedelic tendencies. Many of the songs are delightfully understated, too, with lots of quiet tension getting built up. I love “Badhat Town,” a song with hints of twang and loads of synth glissandos, giving it a reverse dripping kind of feel. “Standing Water,” too, has a downhome 60s country rock sort of vibe going on. And “The Old Versailles” has the sound of a bluesy duster, something out of a cool cheap western flick – at least until the halfway mark when it briefly turns into a jangly folk-psych tune. “Dial Painters (Radium Girl)” is an easy psych-folk sort of song, but with buzzy synths, and has the odd feel of a Syd Barrett song, complete with oddball lyrics (in this case, about the women who, last century, hand painted wristwatch dials with dangerous radium paint). The same applies to “High Seas (Won & Lost), a song with a similar vibe. “Esplanade By Moonlight” gets downright experimental, with eerie, atmospheric synths and the sounds of the sea and sea gulls. A couple of other tracks are mainly instrumental, such as “The Tipping Point,” which uses occasional vocals solely as instrumental interjections. The piece is sort of easy listening music for the rock and roll generation; very relaxed, very evocative, and almost romantic. There’s enough variety here to keep things interesting, and enough of the signature sound so you know it’s Wreckless Eric.

THE DARIEN GAP – Haunted Lots (thedariengap.bandcamp.com)

This has to be one of the most anticipated releases of the summer, at least for me. It features the return of Brian Moss, formerly of Great Apes, to making music with a band (excluding one-off projects). I’ve made no secret of my love for Great Apes and my sadness when they called it quits. Moss proceeded to move to a new town and began looking for others who were musically inclined. He found Mike Thompson, and the two began to write. They continued the search to fill out the band, but came up short, so on this debut 5-song EP, Moss handles vocals, guitar, and some bass, while Thompson plays drums, guitar, and the balance of the bass, as well as backing vocals. This EP was a DIY effort, with the pair also recording and mixing the tracks themselves. The resulting record features music that’s emotionally charged without sounding “emo,” and full of melodic punk content without sounding like melodic punk or pop punk. Moss’ vocal talents, too, are expansive. He can shout and yell with a ton of gravel in his voice, and the next moment he can sing smoothly and tunefully, a match for the instrumentals, which also have a wide dynamic range. The tempos shift to reflect the emotional content, and the tone ranges from easy and breezy to epic and broad. While I love all five of the song on this EP, my favorites are the final two. “The Shroud” has a lovely jangle and lilting melody with bigger choruses, and the quiet bridge at the halfway mark is gorgeous. And “I Wish I Didn’t Wish” has an easy lope to it, giving it a relaxed homespun feel (not as in country, but with that personal feeling of good folksy music). The song seems to be about experiencing a free unencumbered summer, spending time in the mountains and at the pier under the influence of various substances. The swirly jangle toward the end is very pretty, as Moss sings about psilocybin. I sure hope they find a couple more people to fill out the band so they can tour. Highly recommended.

LEOPARD PRINT TASER – Existential Bathroom Graffiti (knifehitscollective.bandcamp.com)

Leopard Print Taser is an odd name for a band that doesn’t play kitchy novelty music. Instead, the Boston quartet plays a cool mix of heavy grunge and dreamy pop. The instrumentals feature plenty of deep fuzz and heavy riffs, but the melodies and vocals range from lithe and bright to strong and tough. The band immediately demonstrates its predominant sound on their first track, “One Inch Gut Punch,” with gritty-toned guitar and bass playing a melody that’s otherwise light and airy, the vocals sometimes full of teasing sass, other times breathy and seductive, and yet other times loud and angry. My favorite track of the album, hands down, is the bright bouncy “Y U Lie,” with its pop punk attitude,  alternating between pop and grunge between the verses and chorus. The vocals on this one range from somewhat subdued to near rage, showing brilliant dynamic control and expression. Following this is “Other Side,” which is lighter and swirly, with guitar riffs going around in melodic circles, though the vocals are tougher and stronger here. The instrumentals are brighter, but still with a layer of fuzz in the tone. “Deep Dive” follows with intensity and big dreaminess, emphatic rhythms punctuating the chorus. I enjoy, too, the hard driving yet breezy sound of “Lead the Charge.” Another interesting track is “Tauroctony,” which has a mysterious yet playful noisiness to it. The track that stands out as very different from the rest is “Big Shot, a song that’s noisier and more punk-like than anything else on the album. The combinations of grunge, punk, pop, and dreaminess make “Existential Bathroom Graffiti” a solidly enjoyable record.

POWERSOLO – Jambalaya…XTRA Spicy (Dirty Water Records; powersolo.bandcamp.com)

Powersolo is a Danish band that’s been around nearly 30 years, and this eclectic new album is a good overview of the band’s multiple sounds, which range from glam to power pop to garage and new wave, pretty much all over the place. Now, I love variety, as longtime readers know, but this album sounds downright disjointed, with too much variety making it sound more like a compilation LP than a single band’s record. We get twangy glam rock in the opening song, “Get Back OTC,” while the band channels early Rolling Stones on “King.” “Sitting Around” has both a power pop feel and that of a Spanish folk tune, plus the keyboards have undertones of ABBA, making for a weird but enjoyable tune. The song also has an occasional Beatles’ musical quote; see if you catch them. “Bookstore” sounds like a children’s song, complete with a narrated story and toy piano as part of the arrangement. Then there’s the odd instrumental, “Daily Grind,” with a brass band, organ, and a laughing baby. I’m having a hard time figuring out what to make of “She’s a Trucker,” an epic psychedelic tune with country-like vocals, or “Potato Chips,” which is a Middle Eastern instrumental mixed with twangy country and lyrics about the salty titular snack. Or “Turkey Drunk,” a bluesy instrumental with interjected sounds of turkeys. It’s sure out there. “See Her” has a definite 80s new wave feel, a la Devo, and is one of the best tracks of the album to my ears. Like I said, the record is all over the place, and a lot of it is strange. But strange can be fun, especially after listening to “serious” political punk records or emo songs full of angst. And this is definitely a fun record.

THE 1981 – Move On (Dandy Boy Records; the1981band.bandcamp.com)

Do you want to feel sad? Well, this may be the album for you. The Oakland duo of Adam Widener and Bobby Martinez play melancholy music inspired by the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, with arrangements that include guitar, bass, drums, and plenty of synths. There’s a thick wall of fuzz, and the melodies sound like the more emo younger sibling of power pop. There are pop elements, but the songs definitely have a morose aura. The songs are overwhelmingly about the evolution of relationships, from beginning through inevitable break-up and beyond. And, as primary songwriter Martinez says, "I wanted this record to be something anyone who's ever gone through a break up could hear and identify with. Regardless of gender or sexuality- everyone that's ever been in a romantic relationship has experienced a relationship ending. This is universal." As a result there was a conscious decision to avoid pronouns in the lyrics. The front half of the album is more successful to my ears than the back half, with more varied textures and tempos, while the back half starts to drag somewhat. Perhaps this is a reflection of the hopefulness and excitement at the start of a relationship, and the end of a relationship is much gloomier. In those side-A tracks, “Easy” is a favorite, with a more confident rhythm and emphatic power pop melody. There are some great quiet instrumental breaks where the lead guitar plays with a clear tone, in stark contrast to the deep growl of the tone in the rest of the song. This is easily my favorite track of the album. “Mona Lisa” very much has an 80s pop sound, tempered with the fuzzed out guitars. Verses have a clear clean pop sound, while the instrumental breaks are noisy. And “Make It Right” starts out somewhat hushed, but gets bigger and bolder, as we reach the point in the story where there is an acknowledgement of problems in the relationship, but there’s a confidence that they can get past them and make things work. But, as I said, the back half of the album starts to drag a bit. For example “I Love You,” a song in which the narrator declares, “I love you, and I kinda hate you too,” is too subdued. My own opinion is that a clash of emotions such as this should be much more raucous and dynamic. There’s too little variation for my tastes. That applies to the album overall, too, with a few exceptions. I’d grade it a C+ if I were handing out grades.

HURRY – Don’t Look Back (Lame-O Records, lameorecords.com)

Hurry is a band that’s been around just over a decade, formed in 2012 in Philadelphia. They claim to primarily be a power pop band, but what I hear more of is jangly indie pop that sometimes veers into dreaminess, sometimes into pop punk territory. They’ve got a cool blend of 80s and 90s indie with somewhat more modern guitar pop mixed in, making songs that are pretty catchy. They open this latest LP, their seventh, with “Didn’t Have To Try,” a song that’s bouncy, poppy, and relaxed, giving it an effortless feel. The guitars have a nice fuzz in the tone, even as they try to jangle brightly, and the harmonized vocals are very laid-back. The song comes across like they didn’t even have to try. It’s an auspicious beginning for a pleasant record. I really enjoy the use of trumpet on the short bridge (and again at the end) of the lazy, hazy “Beggin’ For You.” It’s an unexpected arrangement that works beautifully. Many of the songs have a dreamy sound, and the trumpet reappears in other tracks, as well. “No Patience,” while retaining the dreamy jangly sound does feel a bit thicker with guitars a bit more emphatic, almost bordering on a punk-like feel, but never quite becoming pop punk; it’s a standout track. If I have any constructive criticism for Hurry and their new LP, it’s the need to increase the variety. Vary the tempos, sometimes. Vary the volume level. Vary the guitar tone sometimes. There’s too much uniformity here. Sure, it’s nice, but it’s too much of one thing.

SPOILERS – “There or Thereabouts” (SBAM Records, shop.sbam.rocks / Brassneck Records, brassneckrecords.bigcartel.com / Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com / Waterslide Records, watersliderecords.com)

Spoilers is a band from the UK that features Dan Goatham, of the band Snuff, so needless to say, they’re firmly in the melodic poppy punk camp. Their latest release contains eight tracks of bright and bouncy, if a little noisy, pop punk. Lo-fi recording gives the songs an edge, where they might otherwise come across more like indie pop, especially on a song like “None Taken.” It’s a fantastic, gorgeous power pop song, roughed up through lo-fi recording and fuzzed guitar tone. That combination of wonderful peppiness and gritty punk makes for a solidly listenable combination. I like the speedy punk of “Straight Lines,” the backing vocals sounding like something Naked Raygun might have done, with plenty of shouts of “hey!” It’s faster and louder but still eminently melodic. A key element of Spoilers’ sound is use of an electric organ in their arrangements, giving them a warm tone. It’s more prominent in some songs than in others, but it contributes a distinct character to the mix. It’s present in big sustained chords in “The Good Life,” helping fill out the song and make it feel bigger and grander. Spoilers make these songs sound effortless, too, especially Goatham’s lead vocals. Their almost relaxed demeanor contrasts sharply with the more frenetic instrumentals. The songwriting is really good, too. Listen to the melodic lines and arrangements on songs like “IWHOI,” with easy vocals and frantic instrumentals, the rhythm section banging away in double time in places, but this is not skate punk! It’s too pretty and power pop-filled. As the mini-LP (it’s got too many songs to call it an EP, but at 24 minutes it’s too short to call it an LP) progresses, each song seems to try to top the previous one. The title track certainly achieves that with a melody that’s going to be your next pop punk earworm. The closing track, “One More Song,” turns the formula on its head, with vocals and instrumentals sounding equally urgent. It’s the edgiest song of the record, though its chorus still manages to provide plenty of pop goodness. Spoilers are unwelcome when it comes to TV show plotlines, but when it comes to music they’re encouraged. This is excellent stuff.

WILMETTE – Hyperfocused (Mutant League Records, www.mutantleaguerecords.com)

Before I read anything about the band, I knew they were from the Chicago area, taking their name from a northern suburb. The band embraces nostalgia for 90s and 2000s music, though most of the band members were toddlers during that era. The music has big pop hooks melded with post-hardcore intensity and math-rock shifts in rhythm. It’s not the sort of music I was listening to back then, but you have to admire the ability to successfully blend those disparate styles. For example, the opening track, “No Conviction,” is loaded with pop hooks that would feel right at home in the biggest pop acts of today, but they’re played with guitar, bass, and drums rather than with loads of electronics, and with a ferocious intensity instead of a bright bounce. The rapidly shifting rhythms, too, keep the listener off-kilter. Unexpected music is always the best music. And that remains the formula for the ten tracks. As a result, they sound honest and emotional, where a lot of 90s and 2000s emo-pop-punk always sounded so fake to me. Some of the songs, too, like “Circa ’99,” a song that wears its unearned nostalgia on it sleeve, with memories of being a kid, bothering the neighbors by playing music too loud, dealing with school problems, teen anxiety, and everything that went with it. It’s one of the more “ear worm” sorts of songs on the album that you’ll be going back to over and over. Sometimes Wilmette does fall into the same trap a lot of 90s and 2000s bands did, with overproduced music and overdone arrangements. Such is the case with “Sunflower,” a song that has that smooth emo-pop sound and less of the post-hardcore intensity. The slick harmonized vocals surely sound like a cliché here, too. Bottom line, though, if you’re a fan of the genre, check out Wilmette, because they’re going to give you more than you expect.

ANNIE HART – Weight of a Wave (Uninhabitable Mansions Records, uninhabitablemansions.bandcamp.com)

Electro-pop luminary Annie Hart has had her synth-driven music appear in movies, TV shows, and commercials, and she waded into the world of performance with her 2017 debut LP, “Impossible Accomplice.” Her latest LP, “Weight of a Wave,” features a wide range of synth pop music, running the gamut from 80s minimalist new wave to modern lush indie pop. And as a result, for me it’s a mixed bag. Some of the 80s influenced tunes are a little cheesy to my ears, but some of the more modern pop sounds pretty catchy. One highlight is the slightly twangy pop of “I Never Do,” with its melancholy vocals and its focusing on guitar more than synths. Its use of what I think is a plucked cello or acoustic bass to play a melodic line is very pretty. Another highlight is “What Makes Me,” with its keyboard tuned to sound like the old 1970s Fender Rhodes. The song is bouncy, but still with a pensive edge. Speaking of gloomy sounds, “Nothing Makes Me Happy Anymore,” though it does feature prominent buzzy synths, is a gracefully subdued song, again using the bass to drive a lovely melody. The closing track, “While Without,” has a strong beat and competing minimalist synth riffs underneath breathy vocals that blend together to create an incredibly catchy song, both sad and hopeful at the same time. About half the songs here are quite good, the other half, the ones focused more on 80s new wave synth sounds are OK but nothing to write home about.

SATANIC TOGAS – "Digital World" EP (Goodbye Boozy Records, goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

Australian garage rockers Satanic Togas are touring Europe this summer, and decided to record a few new songs to have at their merch table. Thus was born the Euro Tour 2023 EP, four songs of greasy slimy raucous garage rock and roll. The EP has four songs, two to a side, with the A-side containing “Digital World” and “White Lies,” while the B-side offers “Confused” and “Microchip.” The first pair of songs is definitely the more straightforward, with “White Lies” bordering on old school 70s punk, making it a favorite. The backside of the EP features some freaky studio manipulation of the vocal track on “Confused,” making it sound like garage rock from outer space. “Microchip” is more punk-adjacent garage, but the vocals sometimes are processed with odd feedback and other sounds. “They put a microchip in my brain,” is the song’s refrain, as things start to go haywire in the instrumentals. I bet this is going to be a hell of a fun tour, if this EP is anything to judge by.

THE RAGING NATHANS / THE STORY CHANGES – Split EP (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

A lot of splits have been coming out lately from various bands, and the latest pairing is two bands from Dayton, Ohio: punk stalwarts The Raging Nathans and the two piece The Story Changes. Each band contributes two songs, with The Raging Nathans’ being “Paradice” and “Busy Thoughts,” while The Story Changes offer up “Burning Down” and “Simple Song.” The Raging Nathans cuts sound like leftovers from two separate sessions, because they’re so very different in both genre and in sound quality. “Paradice” is a darker sounding song with an Epitaph Records feel, something unusual for TRN, while “Busy Thoughts” has the sound of an older pop punk demo, with its low-fi production and 90s Insub Fest band style melody. The Story Changes features Hawthorne Heights’ Mark McMillon and Christopher “Poppy” Lee (who is currently Hawthorne Heights’ touring drummer), and their songs are bigger 90s melodic punk, with “Burning Down” being bigger and darker, and “Simple Song” being, well, simpler and poppier. For both bands I think the second song is more enjoyable, but the whole EP is solid.


CITY WINDOWS – Velvet Divorce (Midwest Migration Records, citywindows.bandcamp.com)

San Diego’s City Windows returns three years after their debut EP and offer up eight new songs on this 22-minute mini LP. I very much enjoyed the EP, but I like this new release even more. It’s still huge and epic, but it’s lighter and more lithe than the EP, not quite as heavy. The songs are speedier and crunchier, and still have those dueling lead vocals one deeper and gruffer, the other a bit higher timber, less gruff and more gravelly. The songs are still packed with emotion and melodic content, but because they’re not as heavy I think it feels like the band means it more, if that makes sense. The opening track, “Another Year,” is an excellent example of this. The song packs a potent punch, but it moves more easily than songs from the debut EP and sounds even more sincere, too. I love the sound the band gets out of the guitars on the bridge near the end of “The Price to Pay,” huge and full of reverb to create a melancholy feel. “Pale Face” is a great song that flies by at a rapid pace with even more pop melodic content than usual. I think this one may be my favorite of the album, because it even has a bounce to it. “Old Storms of Hawthorne” is the most epic, flowing song of the album, with a huge ringing sound, but even more flowing is “Interlude,” a short instrumental piece that’s beautifully relaxing. I think the time together as a band has improved City Windows’ sound, as good as it was on the debut EP. The songs just feel more effortless. This gets a strong recommendation.

DIESEL BOY – Gets Old (SBAM Records, shop.sbam.rocks)

Twenty-two years. That’s a long time between albums (though The Bollweevils beat that at 28 earlier this year). But Diesel Boy, the pop punk band from Santa Rosa, California, have regrouped and released their first new album since 2001’s “Rode Hard and Put Away Wet.” And while the title may refer to the fact that the band members are aging, they’ve not lost any of the energy of their youth. If anything, they’ve just gained polish and expertise, sounding tighter and more emphatic than before. Their wonderfully fun sense of sarcasm is still there, too. The first track, “Lost Decade,” addresses their long absence, with lyrics about three presidents being sworn in the interim, band members having kids, and questioning whether “this is a reunion.” As the song races toward its end, they suggest that maybe they still have a bit of rage, maybe they’re out of touch, and maybe they still have some bad puns in them. Yeah, it’s still Diesel Boy. The songs are poppy, punked up, and fun, just like they always have been. There’s darker punk in songs like “Viking Funeral,” and silliness in lighter bouncy songs like “Corpse Paint Blues.” I love the intro to “The Turk,” with piano and sax, with heavy reverb and big pleading vocals, before the pop punk comes in. I’d like to hear a whole song done like that. Speaking of bad puns, “The Finnish Line” is a song about a trip to Finland, not about completing a race. “Internet Girl” is an anti-love song about a woman who’s more into the her digital devices than her guy, and in fact wants to “get him uninstalled.” The closing song, “Two Stones,” is very different, with a slower tempo, broader sounding arrangement, and a more wistful feel, looking back on a life lived. It gets downright dreamy as the last couple of minutes become an awesome instrumental. Yeah, Diesel Boy is back, and better than ever.

THE DROWNS / WONK UNIT – Split (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

Your eyes do not deceive you! The Drowns continue their long string of split singles, this time with the UK’s Wonk Unit. This is appropriate for multiple reasons, including the fast friendship between the bands, the fact that Wonk Unit helped book The Drowns’ on a UK tour, and former Wonk Unit member Simon Short has become the newest member of The Drowns. The Drowns continue to change things up, musically. Where they started with street punk and evolved into solid glam, their contribution to this split, “The Beast,” has the sound of cool, cheesy horror rock. That’s appropriate, because the song is about the state of the US in world politics. It’s a lot smoother and milder than recent tracks from the band, but it’s got a cool vibe. Wonk Unit give us “Rebecca,” a thickly arranged pop punk tune about substance abuse and mental health. The guitars provide a solid wall of noise in this poppy tune that, while the melody is bright, it has a sense of melancholy. Another solid split from Pirates Press.

GODSPEED - A Tribute to Pierre Kezdy of Naked Raygun (godspeed-tribute.bandcamp.com)

I’m originally from Chicago, and Naked Raygun plays an outsized role in my punk upbringing. So it was devastating when I heard the news of the death of Pierre Kezdy, Raygun’s longtime bassist and all around great guy. He left behind a wife and children, and so the many bands that have been influenced by or befriended Raygun over the years were more than willing to contribute to this compilation LP, a collection of Naked Raygun covers, with all proceeds going to Kezdy’s family to honor his legacy. As Put It Here’s Curt Harrison and Big Minnow’s Patrick Mineau put it, “The influence Naked Raygun has had on us, and many of our friends, has been insurmountable. Our hearts broke for the Kezdy’s when Pierre passed away and we are honored to pay tribute to someone that played such a huge role in our musical journeys.” Fourteen bands provide the tracks, including big names like Hot Water Music, Face to Face, Swingin Utters, J Robbins, Pegboy, and more. There are plenty of Chicago locals represented here, too, the bands who grew up going to see Naked Raygun at The Metro, scrambling for the “free shit,” and soaking up the music. Bands like The Bollweevils, Death and Memphis, The Brokedowns, The Usuals, and more. They cover songs from all eras of Naked Raygun’s career, and you can hear how heartfelt these recordings are.

I can divide the comp into two categories, as I usually do with covers: bands who do their best to remain true to the original and those who make the track their own. There are pros and cons to each approach. The bands that try to replicate the original track are paying homage to dearly beloved songs, but they aren’t adding anything new. Bands who put their own spin on these tunes are adding to the universe, but they run the risk of ruining the songs for fans of the originals. In the category of hewing to the original, Hot Water Music’s rendition of “Wonder Beer” (from the LP “Understand?”), which opens this tribute, is a glorious homage and the perfect way to begin, with one of NR’s most adored songs. Possibly the most emotional cover of the bunch comes from Pegboy and their cover of “Vanilla Blue,” written by Pierre Kezdy and released as a standalone single in 1987. Pegboy’s guitarist, John Haggerty, played for many years in Naked Raygun, And Kezdy played bass for a while in Pegboy. Their rendition of the song, while a bit thicker in sound, as is Pegboy’s way, is very true to the original. Death and Memphis take on “Treason,” released both as a limited edition 12” single and on the LP “Understand?” and they stick reasonably close to the original, with a little poetic license on the bridge after the halfway mark, providing a solid recording of this favorite. Of the song, “Surf Combat,” off the “Throb Throb” LP, Dan Vapid of The Methadones says, “The first time I heard Naked Raygun I distinctly remember hearing the line “Muscle Beach is now Pork Chop Hill” and it being funny yet infectious. Soon after I bought “Throb Throb” and they became one of my all-time favorite bands.” The Methadones’ version of the song is a worthy rendition, all the ire and irony of the original preserved. Face to Face does a note for note perfect copy of “I Don’t Know,” which was one of the first Naked Raygun songs I can remember hearing. It appeared in 1984 on WNUR radio’s “Middle of America” compilation LP, and again on “Throb Throb.” Grey Trash Aliens, from north suburban Chicago, do a solid to “Fever Island,” a track from “Raygun…Naked Raygun.” The Bollweevils’ vocalist Dr. Daryl Wilson has oft told the take that without Naked Raygun there would be no Bollweevils. The original band members met at Naked Raygun shows, and inspired by what they heard, they decided to form their own band. Their version of “I Remember,” from the LP, “All Rise,” is a great interpretation, with a thicker sounding arrangement but sticking close to the formula, Wilson’s whoa-oh-ohs sending chills down my spine. Another track true to the original is “Rat Patrol,” from “Throb Throb,” here performed by The Turdles, and an expert job they do. Stress Dreams’ cover of “Home of the Brave” opens with the howling wind of a wasteland, bringing to mind the cry at the start of NR’s version of “Metastasis” that appears on one of the Flipside compilation LPs, “Everyone knows Naked Raygun rules the wasteland!” Other than that touch and some melodic line flips in the whoa-ohs at the end, this track is pretty close to the original.

In the category of putting a new spin on the songs, The Usuals give us “Soldier’s Requiem,” the first track from “Jettison,” and vocalist Curt Harrison could be a stand-in for NR’s Jeff Pezzati; he’s got all the trademarked whoa-oh’s perfectly down. But other than that (and the big gang vocals of the original), the arrangement is thicker, adds some great harmonizing, and some unique flourishes. Even more different is J Robbins’ rendition of the deep cut, “Got Hurt.” It originally appeared as a bonus track on the CD version of “Basement Screams,” which was released in 1999 (the EP itself was the band’s debut from 1983). The original is a sparse song, with synths, drums, bass, and vocals, while the cover is a full band with Robbins’ own style of angular melodies and repeated riffs, and is a true highlight of this album. “Gear” is a song Naked Raygun released twice, once on their “Flammable Solid” 7” and once on their debut LP, “Throb Throb.” Here, Swingin’ Utters provide a version that’s harder edged, more raucous and more urgent sounding than the original, as befits the song. Josh Caterer, of The Smoking Popes,” takes the melodic punk of “Knock Me Down,” from the “All Rise” LP and turns it into a gorgeous 70s pop ballad right out of the flower power era, his crooning voice a perfect match for the song. The album closes with The Brokedowns, one of Chicago’s top bands these days. Their version of “Walk In Cold,” off the “Jettison” LP, possibly surpasses the original, with a quicker tempo, a more energized arrangement, and more insistent vocals. The thought behind this compilation, and the loving care that went into putting it together is very touching. The bands that contributed and the people who put it together all did right by Naked Raygun and Pierre. This comp gets my strongest recommendation. It’s good music for a worthy cause.


ARTHUR ALEXANDER - …Steppin’ Out (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Not the soul and country singer from the South, this Arthur Alexander is a pop singer songwriter from the Los Angeles area. His new LP, out now on Big Stir Records, is quite eclectic, spanning genres from hard rockin’ garage to power pop to old time country swing. While diversity is great, originality is pretty important, but Alexander’s songs tend to sound fairly derivative. Not just that, they don’t pack any sort of emotional gut punch; they’re pleasant enough, but they’re just…there. Power pop songs like “It’s Not Love Anymore #2” or the jangly “I Miss You” are fine, but sound more like period film soundtrack pieces than authentic songs. Then there are songs like “(She’s a) Red Hot Lover,” which sound vaguely like 1980s new wave or “A Little Too Much,” the former with a dark sound and the latter brighter and poppier, sounding too much like something Huey Lewis and the News might have released. “Oh, Lulu, Won’t You Be My Girl” is the aforementioned country swing tune, and it’s bouncy and fun enough, but reminding me of something that might come from an NPR variety show; in other words, somewhat white bread. “Humming Blues in Four,” too, has the sound of mild country meets mild power pop. Sort of milquetoast. Speaking of which, “Silver Cloud” commits the sin of being adult contemporary, bordering on easy listening music. If you like your music on the mild side instead of the wild side, you may enjoy this record. It’s certainly inoffensive.

THE ARROGANTS – Brainwash (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

The Arrogants play a brand of music that recalls the mod era of the 1960s. Their music drips with garage and psychedelic rock, and though the band is French, the lyrics are sung in English. As a result, the band sounds like they stepped out of a machine that moves through space and time, coming from mid 60s America. A recurring theme in the songs is how the bass takes a prominent role, pushing out strong riffs rather than just supplementing the drums in the rhythm section. It’s one of the strongest parts of the band, I think, giving them more than just a solid foundation. Conversely, the part of the band that could use a bit of improvement is the lead vocals. They’ve got the right essence for the mod/psych/garage rock sound, but there are sometimes intonation issues, leading them to be a touch off key. The vocals certainly have the right amount of enthusiasm. Some of the songs are 60s “white” R&B, such as “Stoned Blues,” a track that takes a simple blues chord progression and turned it into a jam, with substance-influenced lyrics. “Look at Your Body” is a favorite track, with a mix of garage and R&B sounds and a cool “go-go” mod vibe, though the grittiness of garage keeps it from sounding too clean, like mod can be. Another is “I’m Trippin,” which feels like a legit song from another era, not a modern take on the genre. Besides the lead vocals the only thing that bothers me about this record is its length. At forty-nine minutes, it’s a bit too long, and a lot of the songs start to blend from one to another – with the exception of the closing track, “She Smiles (She Comes),” which is a much more sedate tune with acoustic guitar and a poppier melody. I think if about twenty minutes was trimmed it would be a lot better of a record. But if you’re a hardcore fan of the genre, check it out.

BORDERLINES – Keep Pretending (Hey Pizza Records, www.heypizzarecords.com / Mom’s Basement Records, www.momsbasementrecords.com / Memorable But Not Honorable, www.mbnhrecords.com)

Borderlines is a band from Portland, Maine that formed way back in 2012, and it took them more than a decade to release their debut full-length LP. They’re distinctly a pop punk band, but they’ve got a pretty mild sound. The songs are all played at a medium loping tempo and without a lot of dynamic range in volume or intensity. The dozen songs are pleasant enough, though they don’t inspire or excite. In that way they’re a lot like The Menzingers, so if you like them you’ll enjoy this a lot. Lyrically the songs speak to things like loss of innocence, dwindling hope for the future, and (of course) longing for love. I really just couldn’t get into this record; to my ears it sounds a bit generic.

CYCLONE STATIC – Cave Pop: Dance Songs For Primitive People (Mint 400 Records, www.mint400records.com)

Cyclone Static hails from this zine’s namesake state of New Jersey, and play a brand of gritty noise rock that’s somewhat tempered with strong melodic content. “Cave Pop,” a four-song EP, represents the follow-up to their 2019 debut LP, “From Scratch.” There’s something about noisy growling guitars and scratchy vocals playing songs with strong melodic pop hooks that scratches a musical itch, and Cyclone Static certainly do that. Of the four tracks, only the opener, “Boom Boom” doesn’t work for me; it’s a little too “on the nose” of ‘90s alternative rock, and sounds like it’s trying too hard. But the other three tracks are outstanding. “On the Block” reminds me a lot of the late lamented LA garage-pop-punk band, Gentlemen Prefer Blood, the lead vocals hitting all the right notes with a wonderfully raspy sound, and the melody being just the right peppiness blended with punk attitude. I love the big grunge-pop sound of “Real Sign,” and “It’s Okay Now” goes deeper into grunge territory, but adding in just a hint of psych while keeping an incredible pop sensibility in the melody. Great pop hooks with a grunge undercurrent? Hell yes!

DEMONS – Under the Western Heel (Knife Hits Records, knifehitsrecords.com / The Ghost Is Clear Records, theghostisclearrecords.com)

Who knew such mayhem could fit inside the grooves of a vinyl record? Demons are a four-piece band from Norfolk, Virginia that play an intense mix of metal, punk, and noise rock. The band are able to shift moods at the drop of a hat, too, and have a wide dynamic range. The opening track, “Husk,” is intensely noisy hardcore, while “Holy,” which follows, is a heavy dirge with an extended instrumental introduction and spoken/shouted lyrics. It’s got a really great 90s post hardcore vibe to it. I love the slow burn of “Man – the Herald for His Own Condemnation.” The open has the ringing of an alarm, a clarion call, and there’s some Rage Against the Machine sort of anger in the track. “Eternal Shithead” is intense, and in my opinion is best track of the LP by far, but way too short under two minutes. I love how the time signature shifts between 3/4 and 2/4, the angular guitar riffs, and how the huge wall of sound pummels you into submission. Another favorite is “Albatross,” a song whose agile shifts in rhythm belie the onerous reputation of the massive titular seabird. Dissonance abounds on this album, particularly in “Thankful,” the track that closes the record, and the way the sound breaks up as the track fades is pretty creative. I know I’ve said it a million times before: heavy stuff is normally not my thing, but Demons have crafted a pretty fine album here.

THE OXYS – Generation Irrelevant (Dead Beat Records, dead-beat-records.com)

The Oxys, formed in Austin, Texas during the peak pandemic days of 2020, wasted no time in following up their late 2022 debut LP, “A Date with the Oxys,” and are back with their sophomore full-length LP. For the most part, the songs on this LP are punked-up rock and roll, with plenty of swagger and arena rock guitar flourishes. The punk attitude brings the arena rock tendencies down to earth and keeps them from getting too overblown. While this describes the bulk of the ten songs on the album, there are a few tracks out of the norm worth mentioning. “Death Rock Valley Girl” has a more subdued 80s feel, bordering between new wave, punk, and rock. My favorite track of the LP has to be “Isolation,” which has a big Chicago punk sound, kind of like Naked Raygun meets The Bollweevils. Other than these tracks, though, while the music is solid enough, it’s somewhat generic. It’s like getting a store bought apple pie instead of mom’s fresh baked. It’s tasty enough and you’ll eat it, but it’s nothing to write home about.

THE PENSKE FILE – Half Flow (Stomp Records, stomprecords.com)

I have loved this band since the first (and only) time I saw them play live, back in August 2016. One thing I’ve loved about them is how earnest their songs are, how there’s an intense feeling of both pleading and joy in how epic their performances are. I’ll never forget when their last LP, “Salvation,” came out and how great the song “Kamikaze Kids” was (it’s still high up on my favorite songs list). “Half Flow” is a great album, too, but it’s toned down somewhat from previous records, with more of an introspective sound than an epic one. Maybe it’s everything the world has gone through in the five years since that album came out, but it just seems more melancholy, more thoughtful, and less joyful. A look through the song titles reveals a less optimistic outlook and a more wistful mindset. We get songs such as “Bad Dreams,” “We’re Both Still Alive,” “Ride It Out,” “Will We Ever Know,” and more. “Bad Dreams” opens the album, and the big guitars and big guitars ring out with heavy reverb. The vocals sing an aching song of broken promises and broken dreams. Listen to “Under Streetlights,” a short song (under a minute) which is just piano and subdued vocals, and the background sounds of crowd noise, people talking and laughing. It’s got a very lonely, isolating sound. Even when they’re big and epic, the songs can sound deeply gloomy and heartbreaking. Such is the case with “Ride It Out,” particularly on the bridge, with gut-wrenching vocals and a spartan arrangement. “Waiting for Rain,” too, has a distinctly forlorn mood to it, with guitars darkly jangling. “Half Flow” doesn’t have the elation of past Penske Files LPs, nor does it have a big standout song like “Kamikaze Kids.” But it’s still an amazing record. The optimism of youth is gone and replaced by the jaded reality of maturity, both in the overall feel of the record and in the more intricate arrangements and songwriting. Beautiful.


ACHINGS - All These Shapes, All These Days (LandLand Colportage, landlandcolportage.com)

After forming in 2018 by happenstance and releasing a four-song EP and a two-song single, Philadelphia’s Achings are finally releasing their debut full-length LP. The music is dreamy, but not what I would call dream pop, because it doesn’t have that fuzzed out shoe-gaze sound. The tone is clear, but the instrumentals are lush and the vocals are ethereal. There’s a distinct pop element in the melodies, but the rich production gives many of the songs a dark melancholy sound. The opening track, “Undoing,” is a good example of this, with vocalist Rebecca Joys’ singing having a mysterious quality. I like the luxuriant feel of “The Rows,” thick with synths and guitars, and I’m not sure if those are horns or synths I hear on the chorus, but it’s gorgeous. While most of the songs have this sort of sound, there are a few that are quite different. “Friends in Far Places” is a quiet, delicate ballad with a sparse arrangement, just guitar and vocals. It comes across as very introspective. The song that follows immediately, “Fast Friends,” has a quicker pace, a brighter feel, and more of a bouncy rhythm than most of the tracks, making it sound poppier and more joyful. This makes it a favorite, for sure. And “Lake” is pretty and more relaxed pop than the rest of the LP. While it starts out easy and light, it gets quite dark, with an undercurrent of menace. The whole album, really, is pretty.

ERRTH – Control/Sleep All Day (errthisaband.bandcamp.com)

New bands are always fun, and Errth is a new band out of Philadelphia, made up of Kevin Day (Aspiga/Graduation Speech), Eric Saylor (Reunions), Tim DeMarco (ex-Public Serpents), and Brian McClure (Seeing Snakes). This two-song debut is a taste of things to come, because the band plans to release their debut LP sometime next year. They claim East Bay and Chicago influences, but I don’t hear it so much. Instead I hear east coast, SoCal, and Florida influences. “Control” reminds me a bit of the late and long lamented Dead Mechanical, with some cool repeating riffs and big broad sound, and it still remains eminently melodic and bright. The other song, “Sleep All Day,” with its gruff lead vocals and relaxed emoish pop-punk reminds me more of a Fest kind of band and it gives me Tiltwheel sort of vibes. Both songs are great, and I highly recommend getting in on this band on the ground floor so you’re ready when the LP comes out.

THE GOODS (Dandy Boy Records, linktr.ee/dandyboyrecords)

The Goods, hailing from Oakland, California, was formed during the pandemic and features Oakland sideman veteran Rob Good (Sob Stories, Cocktails, Re-Volts) stepping out front, along with Paul Wiseman and Cherron Arens. Their debut is a four-song EP filled with power pop goodness and loaded with hooks and harmonies. The first track, “David Jones is Dead,” is played at a loping tempo but has a raucous feel. It’s pretty damn short at just over a minute and a half, but it packs a punch and is a lament over the loss of rock and roll icons. I love the lightness of “Dear Angeline,” a song with a melancholy lilt and hints of psych and British Invasion. Good says of this song, “It doesn’t have a chorus! It’s interesting trying to write a catchy, hooky song that deviates from a typical verse/chorus/verse structure. This one is like all bridges.” “I’m Not the Only One” feels like a blend of power pop and 90s indie rock, with less of a bubbly pop sound. And the closer, “Hear Me,” is another with some British Invasion in its DNA, with impossibly bright jangly guitars and lyrics about picking yourself back up after being knocked down. Solid EP that fans of power pop are going to eat up.


AFRICAN HEAD CHARGE – A Trip To Bolgatanga (On-U Sound, on-usound.com)

While at first blush, African Head Charge may seem like an odd group to review in Jersey Beat, when you go back and consider the influence they’ve had in indie and pop music, it makes perfect sense. African Head Charge, active since the 1980s, were pioneers in the development of dub, partnering with producer Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound and releasing a string of influential albums. “A Trip to Bolgatanga” is their first album of all new material in twelve years, their more recent LPs being releases of outtakes and remixes of older work. It sees AHC founder Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah once again teaming up with Sherwood, with the music representing a journey to Bonjo’s current hometown in northern Ghana. Also contributing are other familiar names from the Tackhead/On-U Sound family, including Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald, as well as a plethora of others. The ten tracks over thirty-seven minutes present a variety of sound, from plucked strings and hand percussion instruments to chants and horns, from African folk to modern trance. The tracks are perfect to chill to and perfect to dance to, and you might learn something along the journey. “A bad attitude is like a flat tire,” Bonjo tells us as the record opens. “You can’t go anywhere until you change it.” Thus begins our journey through northern Ghana, as Bonjo reminds us, “To make a difference in somebody’s life, you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful, or perfect. You just have to care.” In the ensuing tracks we get the sounds of nature, African whistles, miscellaneous percussion, plenty of horns, music that’s mysterious, music that’s spare and arid, music that’s lush, and music that’s glorious. It’s all done with the psychedelic dub mindset that African Head Charge have always been known for. “Asalatua” is a particular favorite; if it doesn’t get you up on your feet and moving, seek medical care. It’s got a strong dance beat, plenty of chanting and percussion, and cool production effects. “Passing Clouds” follows and is a great chill-out track featuring a more traditional dub feel, relaxed rhythm, horns, and trance-inducing ambient effects. If you’re looking for self-affirmation, you can’t do better than “I’m a Winner,” a bright track with a light yet insistent beat, which finds Bonjo declaring, “I am a winner. I came, I saw, I conquered.” And the title track has a gorgeous Afro-jazz sound, with rich saxophone, warm keyboards, and subtly syncopated rhythms. We get more wisdom near the end of the album on the song “Never Regret a Day,” featuring King Ayisoba. “Never regret a day in your life. Good days give you happiness. Bad days give you experience. Worst days give you a lesson. And best days give you memories.” It’s always a good day listening to African Head Charge.

CABEZA DE AGUA (Steadfast Records, steadfastrecords.net)

Remember 90s screamo? Do you remember the sub-sub-genre of screamo that utilized tuneful melodic instrumentals to contrast with the intense vocals? Well, Cabeza De Agua, a trio from San Juan, Costa Rica, want you to remember. This three-song EP is meant to inspire, with gorgeous, clear–toned math inspired-instrumentals and turbulent seething vocals. That’s the first two tracks, of the three, “Pacuare” and “Savegre.” The latter ends with some Spanish spoken word, and it transitions seamlessly into the closing track, “Te´rraba,” which is a lush ambient synth track, completely different from the previous two. This is Cabeza De Agua’s debut EP, and what a great debut it is!

WHAT GOES UP – The Laws of Gravity (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Ohio record label Rad Girlfriend is mostly known for great pop punk releases, though a few of their recent records have featured noisier post-hardcore and emo fare. What Goes Up, however, is right in their wheelhouse, with bright poppy melodies and gritty noisy instrumentals. The amazing thing about this band that sounds like they were ready made for The Fest is that they’re not from the Midwest, Florida, California, or indeed anywhere in North America; they’re from Japan. But the songs are sung in English, with pretty female lead vocals and gruff male backing vocals. Those lead vocals sound like they came from a late 80s or early 90s indie pop band, and despite the instrumentals being wonderfully dirty and distorted, the melodies are impossibly bright and poppy. It’s a fantastic combination that makes me wish they were a US-based band that I would be able to see live. While there’s not a lot of variation from song to song, there are some nice touches, like the strident solo bass that opens “Unfit” and leads us into a veritable wall of noisy guitars, bass, and drums, with the brilliantly contrasting sweet and gruff vocals. A favorite track is “Kai.” It’s so bouncy and fun sounding, with a great melody and outstanding lead vocal riffs. If you claim to be a fan of pop punk, you need to hear this, and it’s more ammunition for my theory that there’s no such thing as a bad Japanese band.


FOUR LIGHTS – Sgt. Pepper II (fourlightsrock.bandcamp.com)

Rumor has it that Seattle’s Star Trek nerd pop punk band (their name and the title of their second LP come from that TV franchise) might have another new album in the works, but while we wait for that, they’ve gifted us with a new three-song EP, their first new music since 2018’s “Kobayashi Maru” LP. The first is a rare cover for the band, “Jet,” written by Paul and Linda McCartney and originally recorded by Wings. The version here, while it retains the original’s relaxed tempo, is naturally grittier, and I like the ska undertones that creep into the guitars. “Good Enough” is a departure from Four Lights’ usual pop punk sound, with more of a fun power pop sound with hints of glam rock. “Deja Vu” closes the EP, and is a more typical pop punk song for the group, featuring top notch melodic content and the harmonized vocals they’re known for, making it my favorite of the EP. It’s been way too long between Four Lights records, and this EP will slot nicely into their discography.

MASON LOWE – Morning People (Killroom Records, www.killroomrecords.com)

Mason Lowe, the drummer for Seattle’s Bread and Butter, was feeling a bit down during the pandemic, so he went down, quite literally, to his basement to write some bright sounding pop tunes. The result is this fresh new LP, featuring a dozen songs that range from power pop to mod, psych, and garage, with hints of British Invasion sounds. The whole project was fueled by nothing more than Lowe’s imagination and a supply of Ranier tallboys. The songs are pretty universally sunny and lively, and there are some interesting touches here and there. For example, the song “I Can Do Well” uses synths in the background to turn an otherwise simple guitar-driven power pop tune into a deeply melancholy epic. “World Class” has the innocent melody of a children’s song, while the creative synth use reminds me of Mediterranean folk tunes, but the lyrics are about heartbreak, creating s song of brilliant contrasts. “Scab on Your Arm” is dark and more rock and roll than power pop, with garage and grunge undertones. And “What Took You So Long” blends British Invasion pop and power pop, inserting a great instrumental bridge that reminds me of Greek folk music. There’s been so much good power pop coming out lately, and you can add Mason Lowe’s “Morning People” to that list.

MERCY MUSIC – What You Stand to Lose (Double Helix Records, doublehelixrecords.com / SBAM Records, shop.sbam.rocks)

I still think it’s a travesty that Mercy Music aren’t bigger than they are. The trio of Brendan Scholz, Jarred Cooper, and Rye Martin act as a single tight unit, playing energetic pop-filled punk-edged tunes. I’m not going to call it pop punk, because it’s more than that; the songs are more mature and complex than typical pop punk. There’s a theme that runs through the songs on this album, according to guitarist/lead vocalist Scholz. “’What You Stand To Lose’ is about coming face to face with one of your worst fears, learning from the experience, and hoping you come out the other side a better person.” It’s those worst fears that are expressed in the dark lyrics, and the hope that comes through in the bright poppy music. A perfect example is “Love You/Need You,” one of the lead singles the band released ahead of the LP. It’s got the 80s/90s indie rock meets power pop sound that gives it loads of bounce, but the lyrics are, as Scholz describes, “about coming to terms with the fact that the person you’re in love with is no longer in love with you.” Listen to the outstanding power pop of “REAL,” with Cooper’s drilling bass work and solid harmonized vocals, and lyrics that speak to a breakup and wondering if any of the feelings were real. I l love how “Undone” blends 60s pop and modern rhythms, shifting back and forth, and parts of the song, particularly the closely harmonized vocals, are almost Beatles-esque. Speaking of retro influence, though most of the album is not, “Fine” is a speedy track that has hints of rockabilly, with loads of twang. Another standout is “Found Out I’m Useless,” which has the feeling of a more subdued Dirty Nil track, with a big dose of deep grunge and rock and roll in this slow burner, and huge power in the vocals. I’m not sure if “What’s The Use” has a familiar sound because I’ve heard the band play it live before or if it’s just one of those songs that are so good that they take up residence in your brain after a single listen. It’s a great power pop track with a loping rhythm and lyrics that reflect a sense of defeatism, thinking you have something true to hold on to, but when it proves otherwise, you want to give up. The closing track, “Waiting to Begin,” is the only one that isn’t bright pop; it’s a solemn acoustic track that gives Scholz a chance to really shine. The vocals are dripping with emotion. “Bleed me out and draw me in / I’m waiting to begin” declares the chorus, showing that as much as we learn and grow from our hard times, we too often fall into the same traps over and over. “What You Stand To Lose” is an outstanding album, perhaps Mercy Music’s best yet.

PARALLAX PROJECT – Autologous (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Michael Giblin’s “solo” project sees its first new release since 2009’s “Sleeping with the Enemy: Covers from the Vault.” Musically the songs range from bubblegum to power pop with new wave influences to overcooked synth pop and adult contemporary, resulting in a mixed bag where there are some fun enjoyable tracks and others that miss the mark. I’ll focus on the highlights first. “I’ve Gotta Change My Life” has a cool mix of new wave synths and power pop guitars, reminding me a little bit of Bill Nelson (Red Noise, Be Bop Deluxe), and is probably my favorite track of the album. And I like the stripped back acoustic track, “Anything Like Me” (though I think a drier sound without the heavy reverb would be a more effective production choice). But other than these, the songs really don’t do it for me. Songs like “Mary Houdini” feel too much like “soft rock” and “Now That I’ve Disappeared” is practically elevator music. And speaking of production choices, “When I See That Girl” has the potential to be a great power pop song, but the production and arrangement are way too overdone; the synths and a slower tempo make the song feel bloated and dreary. Picking up the tempo and sticking to a classic guitar/bass/drums arrangement could turn it into a “hit.” Other tracks are OK, but nothing that made me sit up and take notice. For example, “Nobody Cares” is the sort of fare you might expect from a typical local bar band that has a month-long residency on Monday nights. The production and arrangement choices made here take their toll on some otherwise decent songs.

SLIP~ONS – Heavy Machinery (slip-ons.bandcamp.com)

Slip~Ons, from Vancouver, Canada, sound more like a band from mid or late 80s Minneapolis. They got the indie sound created by bands like Hüsker Dü or The Replacements. The band, which features members of Doughboys and Sarah MacLachlan, have been around for more than a decade yet this five-song EP is only their second release (the first being a two-song single released in 2019). That’s a shame, because this band deserves to be more widely heard than they are. The title track opens the EP with a wonderful loping jangle that alternates between quieter verses and big full choruses with a solid wall of guitars. It’s got the best bounce to it, like someone going for a stroll after getting the best news ever. “Mosquito” is bigger, faster, and more energetic with huge passionate vocals and hints of 80s emo. I love the big, broad, open guitar chords that fill the song. “Nothing Is Good Enough” has a darker feel, giving it even more of a Hüsker Dü air. And the EP’s closer, “Undivided,” like the title track, has a bouncy happy sound. Other comparisons might include Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr., and other post-punk indie bands. The outlier of the EP is “Soldier, Don’t Say Goodbye,” which has more of a rock and roll meets power pop sound than the rest of the songs. This is a solid EP, and Slip~Ons need to get themselves more exposure, record more, and tour more.

STRIKE TWELVE – Last Band Standing (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

Strike Twelve is a veteran quartet of true believers of punk rock, based in Temecula, California, in the far reaches of San Diego County. The band has been around for close to two decades, slogging away in relative obscurity but sticking with it because, as the opening track declares, it’s “Not a Phase.” The song is an anthem for all the punk rock lifers among us, with lyrics about playing shows at the local dive bar for beers with only the bartender and the sound guy in attendance. But they won’t quit until they die, as they sing. Strike Twelve is most often pigeonholed into the “melodic punk” category, with lots of bands that play 90s punk with skate punk influences, but that’s too simplistic and broad a category. Strike Twelve’s music is melodic punk, sure. They’ve got speedy songs with the double-time rhythm section and closely harmonized vocals, sure. But their songs have more pop content that is typical of the genre, making them stand out from the crowd. A perfect example is the excellent “Bubble.” It’s plenty fast, with big crunchy guitars and those harmonized vocals, but it’s downright bubbly in terms of the pop melody. “Everything’s going fine in the bubble / While the world around you falls to rubble,” declares the chorus, in this song of privilege, where people live inside their protective bubble, oblivious to the plight of the masses of humanity. The topic contrasts nicely with the happy sounding instrumentals. There’s social commentary in “Smart Phones, Stupid People,” too, a song about our addiction to social media, instant gratification, and the false sense of community we get when our only companion is a pocket electronic device. The music is speedy and crunchy, but the melody is fun and poppy. The band’s fondness of Bad Religion is clearly on display in their song, “Party of Two,” which features a darker melody straight out of the BR playbook, but also has thick, lush harmonized backing vocals, giving the song their own sound. There are other ways the band breaks the mold and goes their own direction. I like the reggae break down in “Brother,” an otherwise crunchy metallic 90s punk track. “Bums Me Out” is a favorite, with a moderate pace and super poppy melody, a song about staying together through hard times. “Forgotten,” too, is a song that shows the versatility of Strike Twelve, with an upbeat song that blends great pop punk and 90s melodic punk. And “Totally Busted” is punk-tinged rock and roll music, a fun song about being a low-life when you’re girlfriend is away, doing everything you’re not supposed to, but when she gets home you’re “Totally busted, reaffirming that I can’t be trusted.” “Last Band Standing” may be the band’s fourth studio LP, and they may be seasoned veterans, but their sound is totally fresh. Solid release here.

UPSIDE DOWN MAN – Looking Up (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords.com)

Upside Down Man is a band from Calgary, Alberta, up in the Great White North, AKA Canada. The four-piece band plays a brand of melodic punk rock that’s heavily influenced by metal, skate punk, and Bad Religion. The songs aren’t speedy like skate punk, but there are plenty of metallic flourishes and prominent crunchy guitars. Contrasting with the hard-edged instrumentals are smoother vocals with gobs of tuneful close harmonizing. I’ll state up front that this is not the sort of sub-genre of punk that I seek out, as it’s not “my thing.” The band is tight and extremely proficient, but I’ve never been a fan of metal, and there’s too much metal here. The melodic content has a lot of Bad Religion in it, and the lyrics are suitably poetic (though devoid of obscure vocabulary). All of that said, there are some nice highlights to mention. I enjoy the simple almost folk-like melody of “Don’t Care,” a song that feels like it’s telling a story. It’s not folk music – the instrumentals still have plenty of crackle, but the melody, particularly in the verses, sounds like it could have been adapted from some ancient folk tune, and that gives it a great character. “Are You Waiting” has hints of pop mixed in, sounding like some Descendents got mixed in with the metallic melodic punk. And “Diablo” and “Count Backwards almost border on pop punk, but played with more intensity. “Count Backwards” is particularly enjoyable, with speedy parts, loping parts, and dripping with poppy melody. I could see this one being a lot of fun live. Bottom line: the overall sound of the band isn’t my thing, they’ve got a few songs that I enjoy a lot, despite that, and they’re excellent musicians. If you’re a fan of the metallic melodic punk thing, you’ll eat this up.

THE DROWNS / THE LAST GANG – Split 7” (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

The Drowns have been doing the split thing a lot lately, and their ltest one is with Orange County, California’s The Last Gang. The Drowns demonstrate the completion of their evolution from pop punk through street punk to solid 70s rock and roll with glam tendencies with the song, “Subculture Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Rev. Peters’ vocals have just the right amount of throatiness and the band’s instrumentals have just the right amount of swagger to make the song work really well. The Last Gang contribute “Pleaser,” a poppy punk rock tune typical of their output over the last decade. Brenna Red’s clear-as-a-bell singing has a sense of resignation, the feeling of someone who’s given in to the inevitable, with lyrics about being judged by appearances and superficial beauty, and living and dying by the reactions of others instead of living for one’s self. Both bands give solid performances and exactly what we expect from them.


THE BLOODSTRINGS – Heartache Radio (Dackelton Records, dackelton.de/en)

The Bloodstrings are described as a “punkabilly” band, but there’s precious little rockabilly here. Instead, the band from Aachen, Germany gives us fairly standard punk rock and roll. There’s an 80s power pop meets punk sort of vibe, similar to early releases from bands like The Pretenders, and indeed Celina Baluch’s powerful lead vocals are somewhat reminiscent of Chrissie Hynde’s singing. Two piano pieces bookend the album, “Prologue” and “Epilogue,” and they’re very lovely, but completely out of place. They’re quiet, subdued pieces that would feel more at home on a classical LP than a punk rock record. In between are thirteen tracks spanning thirty-two minutes of melodic punk rock. “Burning Hearts” has speedy skate punk-like verses and a big sing-along chorus that’s sure to be a favorite of live shows. Most of the tracks are varying levels of punk rock, too. “Bottle Talkin,” for instance, is a song about drinking and being inappropriate; it alternates between loping fun punk with a sing-along feel and speedier bits. “Shut Your Face” has the feel of a 90s melodic punk track, for sure. The title track is a real standout, and the main track that caused me to think of early ‘80s Pretenders material. The subtle interplay between the bass and guitars and the partially spoken, partially sung lead vocals make this a really great track to listen to. “Colorblind” is an old school hardcore punk rager, with shouted lyrics and minimal melody, as is “Schon Mal,” making them stand out somewhat from the rest of the record. “No one Makes It Out” is the closest the band get to rockabilly, with an easier tempo, jazzy feel, and big backbeat. The fact that there are a variety of textures and sounds on this record is a real plus. The fact that many of the tracks have fairly unique sounds as noted above is another positive. Several of the songs are fairly generic, though the performances are strong enough to overcome any negatives there.

FUNERAL DATE – Out of Prayers (Diabetic Koala Records, facebook.com/diabetickoalarecords)

Hailing from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, Funeral Date is a synth-based “dark wave” band playing dreamy music very reminiscent of the softer 80s new wave sound. Bands like The Cure, Cocteau Twins, and Depeche Mode are sure to come to mind. This four-song EP is the follow-up to last year’s debut full-length LP, and it finds the band picking up where they left off, offering up synth-pop/Goth-wave songs that are subdued and relaxing, or would be if the vocals were stronger. For fans of the genre, the vintage drum machine, ambient synths, and clear clean guitar will be familiar and comfortable. But the lead vocals would do better to try to be sung in tune instead of spoken a sing-song voice, because it ends up sounding off key, rather than creating an effect I think they’re going for. Even when the vocals are truly sung, though it’s more in key they come across as somewhat lugubrious and disengaged. The instrumentals are delightfully melancholy, but the vocals are off-putting.

GIT SOME – New Blood (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Git Some, From Denver, Colorado by way of Chicago, play energetic, powerful, loud and noisy music that’s punk as fuck. They’ve got an astringent sound with discordant instrumentals and sharp biting vocals. The buzz saw guitars sound like they will cut through anything, and the rhythm section rams and pummels. Most of the record features angular and somewhat chaotic music, like on the opening track, “The Test.” The lo-fi recording adds to the tension and noise that the guitars create, and the bass and drums drive hard through the track. There’s a real sense of musical abuse here, in the best way, hammering at the instruments and vocal chords as hard as possible and putting them away wet, if you will. Even the tracks that are more relaxed and less hard and driving have an intense edge. “Spirit Gun,” and “The Squeeze,” for example, are played at a moderate to slow tempo, but the instrumentals and vocals don’t give up an ounce of ferocity. The latter track has a particularly slow burn feel to it. A couple of the best tracks are reminiscent of mid 80s era Dischord. “One Eye Glowing” is a killer track that’s got that post hardcore punk and early emo feeling all over it, with simple, but deep sounding guitar riffs and passionately shouted vocals. And “Cherry Cowboy” is a short blast of harder DC-style post-core a la Swiz, mixed with some NOMEANSNO (check the crazy bass!) and AC/DC style hard rock. Git Some, indeed! Go do that!

SWANS – The Beggar (Young God Records, younggodrecords.com)

It’s always an exciting time when a new Swans record comes out. It’s something I thought might not happen awhile back, after Michael Gira announced the end of Swans (again). It turns out it was just the end of that particular lineup of Swans, as Gira collected together some new musicians and began writing, recording, and touring again. How does The Beggar stack up against all the other Swans LPs? Well, for sure, this one is way less noisy than a lot of earlier LPs, even the ones of more recent vintage. The tracks here are more harmonious, yet no less powerful. At least that’s for the first of two discs (“The Beggar” is being released as a two CD set or a two-LP set with one less track and a different track order). Disc one shows the softer, more sedate side of Michael Gira, with plenty of ambience, both in the instrumentals that seem to drift, whirl, and envelope and in the vocals that are intoned rather than sung. In opposition to earlier Swans music, in which Gira used grating noise to generate an emotional response, here he uses trance-inducing hypnotic songs, like “Paradise Is Mine.” It’s got repetitive lines that build up in layers through the track’s nine plus minutes. As the song reaches its climax, Gira repeatedly asks himself, “Am I ready to die?” revealing what this paradise may be. And, in what may be a Swans first, we get music that’s about as close to a pop song as they’ll ever do “Los Angeles: City of Death.” It’s got a distinct melody and more of a traditional song structure than anything Swans have ever released. It’s got a distinct martial rhythm, too. “Ethereal” has never been an adjective I’ve used to describe Swans, but “Michael is Done” is downright heavenly. It’s got a two-minute intro, which is subdued, light, and airy, and then the clouds part, the sun bursts forth, and the true glory of everything is revealed. We get a quiet lament in “Unforming,” a sad sounding song, and we get the mysteriousness of the title track (the last two minutes of which could be the soundtrack for some spy thriller movie). The thing all of these tracks on disc one share is that they’re tuneful, yet powerful in their own way.

The second disc in this set contains two tracks: “The Beggar Lover (Three)” and “The Memorious.” The first (exclusive to the CD set) is a nearly 45 minute track that harkens back to the free-form experimentalism we all know and love Swans for, though there’s less grating and grinding noise and more gorgeous and lush textures through instruments and vocal choirs. It’s definitely less tuneful and more experimental than anything else on “The Beggar,” and definitely has some sections that are designed to be challenging. I love listening to the evolution of these longer-form tracks where Swans have the room to really explore sonic landscapes and ideas. Some of the changes in the piece flow seamlessly; others are more abrupt. The other track on disc two, which also appears on the vinyl edition, seems to take an idea from “The Beggar Lover (Three)” and builds on it for some eight minutes plus, taking a baby’s shrieks of joy and giving creating a noisy waltz. When all is said and done, this latest album is over two hours of musical art, and the next logical step for Swans. Two hours is a long time to dedicate to an album, but it’s worth it.

VIRAL SUN (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

My inability to find much information about this band leads me to believe this may be their debut. It’s sort of a mini-LP, seven songs in twenty-two minutes. The only info I could glean is that they are from the Bay Area. The band defies categorization, playing music that features plenty of controlled chaos, lots of angular stabbing melodic lines, smooth soaring vocals, and rapidly shifting rhythms. It’s as if someone took a post-hardcore band and a math-rock band and mashed them together. It’s an interesting sound, something pretty unique and unexpected, always a plus. One of the things I like about these songs is the contrast between the instrumentals and vocals, the hard and the soft, the edgy and the smooth. Another is how some of the songs build and release tension, the jagged instrumentals and thrusting guitars reaching a frenzy and resolving with the lustrous vocals. “Jewels for Helmi” is a favorite for its powerful repeating riffs and the dreamy bridge in the middle of the track. The clashing of the pounding chaotic instrumentals and the reverb laden sleek vocals is most pronounced in “Iscariot.” If this is, indeed, a debut, it’s a fascinating one, and I look forward to seeing where they take things in the future.

VARIOUS – Get Stoked! Volume 3 (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

The kind folks at Say-10 have been releasing an irregular series of punk rock compilations, and Volume 3 is here! This time out we get four songs each from Seagulls and Plastic Flamingos, three from Dead Format, and two from Custody, coming, as always, as a bundle of limited lathe cut 7” records. Volume 3 is the final set, according to Say-10, and they saved the best for last. Seagulls offer up some great sing-along pop punk, including the short, loping “What Comes After 4” and the raucous “Church of the First Woke,” which shifts tempos and textures multiple times through its three and a half minutes, never losing an iota of energy. The band features gruff lead vocals, big gang backing vocals throughout their songs, and pop-filled punk rock that’s tight, but just loose enough to feel more like a party than a surgical strike. Plastic Flamingos, by contrast, have cleaner and nerdier lead vocals and less strident instrumentals, but still loads of fun pop punk. Their song, “The Beachcomber,” is a more somber song and you can hear it tell a melancholy story, making it a standout. Their “With or Without Boof” is an epic sounding track that uses 50s doo-wop and ska influences in constructing the song. Dead Format’s songs are harder edged and darker, with more of a post-hardcore sound, but with plenty of melodic sections. Of their three tracks, “Safety Is No Accident” is the one that caught my attention the most, with its speedy pop punk meets hardcore sound. Finally, Custody’s two songs are less punk and more indie rock with a serious sound and intent. “Dirty Floors” is a driving song with pleading lead vocals, and “Blue Moon” is a huge track with an emoish feel. It’s a shame this is the last of these bundles, but the “Get Stoked!” series is ending on a high note.


THE CAROLYN – Harmful History (59 X Records, www.59xrecords.com)

The Carolyn, the Atlanta indie-rock/punk trio, last released music just about exactly a year ago, in their full-length LP “Rhythm of My Own Decay.” This new EP contains three tracks, two new originals and a cover. The title track has a great indie rock sound with undertones of Americana storytelling. The song starts with guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, but soon enough keyboards fill out the sound, making the already big song sound enormous and glorious. But it’s way too short at only a minute and a half! That’s the drawback here – the songs are over just as you’re getting into them. “LBB” is the other original, and it, too, makes it hard to believe this is just a trio, because it has a big sound. The band’s dynamic control is awesome, with the raucous instrumentals suddenly dropping to nothing but a few guitar strums and introspective vocals, before exploding again. The cover is “Salvation,” by The Cranberries. The Carolyn’s rendition is pretty true to the original, with maybe a bit rougher of a texture, something I think works well for this song. I was not familiar with the band before receiving this EP, but now I’m a new fan.

DECISIVE PINK – Ticket to Fame (Fire Records, www.firerecords.com)

Art pop much? Sure thing! Decisive Pink is the duo of Angel Deradoorian (of Dirty Projectors) and Kate NV (an experimental pop artist), and “Ticket to Fame” is the pair’s debut LP. The “experimental” nature comes through pretty clearly in the creative use of synths and drum machine to drive not only the melodies but also the textures of the eleven tracks here. Vocals are ethereal and dreamy, while the synths provide both ambience and percussive effects. Some of the tracks are definitely “songs,” with melodies and sung lyrics. Some qualify more as sonic art pieces, with instrumental effects and stilted spoken vocals. The opening track, “Halfmilch Holiday,” is an example of the songs on this album, while “What Where” is a good example of the latter, with a pastoral instrumental sound punctuated by percussive effects and processed spoken vocals that are reminiscent of something you might hear at an avant-garde slam poetry reading. “Ode to Boy” reminds me a lot of the synth pop that Bill Nelson (Bebop Deluxe, Red Noise) has made since “retiring” into his studio in Northern England, but with the ethereal vocals of Decisive Pink. Though the whole album is interesting to listen to, it’s the more adventurous tracks that really catch my ear. “Potato Tomato” is one, a piece whose lyrics consist entirely of the two titular words and whose instrumentals have little in the way of song structure and feel mostly improvised. “Cosmic Dancer” is a gorgeous song that evokes a sense of busy industry, building, and creativity. It starts out as an instrumental, with fluttering flute sounds and minimalist repeating lines in the synths. Eventually the vocals join in and the song turns into a pretty and slightly experimental pop tune. Decisive Pink is a fascinating mix of pop and art.

J.F.A. – Last Ride (DC-Jam Records, www.dcjamrecords.com)

Lots of bands play a style nowadays called “skate punk.” It originated in the 1990s and 2000s and features melodic and metallic music based in the hardcore punk spirit. But long before these bands appropriated the term for the music they made, the original skate punks, J.F.A., a band out of Phoenix, Arizona, played hardcore punk and avidly skated to their own music and that of like-minded early 80s hardcore bands. J.F.A., or Jodie Foster’s Army, as they were called (a reference to John Hinckley, Jr.’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress then child actress Jodie Foster), were mainly active in the 1980s, forming in 1981 and releasing various EPs and LPs, softening their sound somewhat along the way. The band never disappeared, but they became less active, releasing records ever more infrequently, and making various lineup changes. Their last LP was 2012’s “Speed of Sound, though they released songs on a couple of splits since then. Eleven years is a long time without a new album, and so the band has now corrected this with “Last Ride,” a song that references getting one last ride at the end of a skate session and going all out to make tricks, regardless of the safety factor (it does not mean this is the band’s last record). The music on this LP is not, of course, as raw as their early material. It’s more varied than older releases, ranging from 80s hardcore to pop influenced rock to surf to instrumental pop rock. The 80s hardcore tracks, like “N- Tolerance” or “Troll” is a little bit slower and a lot tighter than the early thrashy hardcore the band did, because (1) it’s harder to by so fast and furious as we age, and (2) we get better at our instruments as we age and gain experience. “Fort Point” is a full on surf rock tune, with a classic blues chord progression, strong backbeat, and loads of guitar reverb. Even though the band are from the Arizona desert, it sort of makes sense they would play this kind of music sometimes, given that skateboarding was originally called sidewalk surfing. And “Vert Soldier,” a surf punk track if ever there was one, has a surf rock feel mixed with a blues-rock sound, including piano in the arrangement! “Desert Pipes” is another instrumental with surf undertones” and without punk content. Sometimes the songs inject a cool Descendents-like pop meets funk feel, like “Dinner with Mickey” or “I-5.” Some songs are better than others. “Speed Wobble Blues” is a song that’s less enchanting than others. It’s a simple rock and roll blues tune and feels a little shaky in its performance. Maybe that’s intentional, given the topic, but it falls a little flat to my ears. “Walk Through Walls,” too, feels out of place here, more of a standard bar band rock and roll sort of song. Also out of place is “Magic Carpet Ride,” a cover of the Steppenwolf song (punk started as a response to the bloat of arena rock and roll). “Badlands” is one of the weaker tracks, too, with an ordinary rock and roll sound, maybe a bit grittier than normal. But it’s the hardcore tracks that make this record work. Besides the ones mentioned earlier, “Motorhomeless” is a strong track, and “Stage Dive” would have felt home on a set list 40 years ago. One thing this record has in common with its early 80s hardcore punk ancestors: Lots of short songs fill it up. There are eighteen tracks in a mere 36 minutes – that’s an average of only two minutes per song! Most songs are under the two-minute mark with only a few exceeding it. That’s pretty punk. This new record, like records released by many early hardcore bands these days, has its moments, its ups and downs. It hardly captures the energy of those early records, but that was then and this is now, anyway. It’s decent enough.

NIGHT COURT – Humans (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com / Debt Offensive Records, www.debtoffensiverecs.com)

The Vancouver garage pop punk band is back! Last year they released two full-length cassettes that I loved, filled with gritty pop songs tinged with punk. They had recorded so many songs that they needed to split them into two releases, and now they’re on their way to becoming quite prolific, as their third album (and first to get a vinyl release) has a massive sixteen tracks that fly by in a mere 27 minutes. The sound of the band is pretty different from anything else you’ll find out there, with a lo-fi garage punk vibe laid over great poppy melodies. The opening track, “Batman,” for example, has an almost power pop feel, with a great radio ready melody, but it’s overlaid with a lo-fi haze that turns the power pop genre on its head, and the guitar tone at the start is almost goth-like. One favorite is the humorously titled “Fuck Art School,” a dark song that ironically sounds like something akin to art punk. “Karate Kick” has a cool shoegaze vibe going on in the super distorted guitars and a melancholy dream pop feel in the melody, though the vocals are more solid power pop. I love the slower lope and noisy pop of “Predator,” which adds unlikely acoustic guitars into the mix. “The Same” is a little bit more standard indie pop when it comes to the rhythm and melody, but the production that gives a layer of dirty fuzz over it all makes for a great contrast and a memorable track. And the album closes with a very unique cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” that sounds nothing like the original, with more drive and darkness. The only complaint I have about this record is that the songs are too short! Only two of them exceed two minutes, with most being around a minute and a half, give or take. Just as I’m really getting into a song, it’s over! This album exceeds my high expectations.

SUPERBLOOM – Life’s a Blur (wearesuperbloom.myshopify.com)

Following up 2021’s debut LP, “Pollen,” Brooklyn’s Superbloom is back with what they’re calling an EP, but at eleven tracks and 24 minutes, it’s more of a mini-LP. Though the band are from the East Coast, they’ve got more of a Pacific Northwest grunge-alternative sound, with heavy guitars and smooth drifting vocals. Think Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana, the whole 90s “alternative” scene, and you’ll get an idea of Superbloom’s sound. The mini-LP is bookended by “Intro” and “Outro,” a pair of spacey instrumentals, which feel sort of out of place here, but are interesting, nonetheless. We get songs like “Pig,” which is the uber-heavy guitars and bass and crashing drums of the whole grunge thing, with those easier sounding vocals, similar to what Pearl Jam did so often. While most of the songs are fairly standard 90s alternative, there are some unique creative bits. “Think Things Over” is an instrumental interlude that leads into the expansive alternative rock song, “Falling Up.” It starts out with ambient sounds, and then suddenly resolves into a static-filled funky beat. I really wish they used that in a song because it’s got a really great vibe. “Falling Up” is one of the better tracks of the album, I think, with a little bit of modern dreaminess in the production. The title track, too, is very understated, with acoustic guitar and keyboard ambience and whispered vocals. It’s got a very subdued melancholy sound. Mostly the album is solid, if somewhat standard, 90s alternative, so if you’re feeling nostalgic check this one out.

TIGHTWIRE – Head Full of Snakes (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Tightwire is a pop punk band from Minneapolis with a huge sound. As befits their name, they are tight. They are also melodious and harmonious, with gorgeous tuneful vocals. The overall sound might be described as “Ramones-core,” with mostly basic punk guitar work but poppy tunes. This means that Tightwire isn’t a particularly unique band, but they make up for that by being so incredibly proficient. There have been thousands of pop punk bands that play this sort of music, but very few have ever played it this well. Lyrics are simple and repetitive, as are the melodies, but they’re played so well that it makes this record s true standout. Fast, powerful, poppy and tight, the band does change things up here and there. Like the huge bridge on “Smoke Machine,” with synths creating a heavenly sound. Or the acoustic opening on “One Foot in the Grave.” “Anyone But You” is a favorite for its smoothly gliding chorus, the bass providing a deep harmony to the melodic line. And “Bad Things” has a cool call and response sort of thing going on in the instrumentals throughout the song. The album ends with what’s destined to become a holiday classic in some musical circles, “All Alone on Christmas,” a song that sounds comfortably familiar with melancholy lyrics. Tightwire isn’t creating anything new here, but they do it so well that it makes them a really strong band, and this is a really strong album. Recommended.

TOXINS – Existential Dread (wearetoxins.bandcamp.com)

Toxins are a newish band from San Diego, formed during the height of the pandemic when vocalist Matt Watkins, formerly of Signalman, relocated to San Diego from San Antonio, Texas. The band mixes things up with raging yet melodic post hardcore and smoother (yet still powerful) pop-core (a mix of hardcore with poppier melodies and instrumentals). Being a five-piece, the band has a big full sound, with gritty, growling guitars and bass, pummeling drums, and vocals that are alternately filled with anger (such as on the hardcore track, “Something Worse Than Nothing” that opens the LP) and powerfully melodic (such as on “Discontented,” one of the strongest songs of the record). The bulk of the songs tend to move between these two extremes, mostly falling into a 90s melodic hardcore category without ending up sounding too metallic or wanky, a trap too many bands attempting the genre fall into. I love the range of sounds here, including the strong 90s melodic hardcore of songs like “Hummingbirds” and the hard-edged “Brown Bag Special.” Watkins’ vocals are of particular note, able to range from angry shouting to passionately tuneful singing. “It Comes in Waves” is a good one leaning more toward the hardcore side of things, and I love the passion of the vocals and melody of “World’s Apart” and how that combines with the chunkka-chunkka power of the instrumentals. In a sea of 90s melodic punk wannabes, Toxins are head and shoulders above the crowd.


DOG PARK DISSIDENTS – The Pink and Black Album (Say 10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

The Dog Park Dissidents, with members from New Orleans, Long Island, and Philadelphia, are queer-core to the bone, and Hallelujah for that! This is sort of their debut LP, and I say “sort of” because it takes their three EPs (“Sexual and Violent,” “High Risk Homosexual Behavior,” and “ACAB for Cutie,” remixes the tracks, and reassembles them into one glorious album. I previously heard this band when I listened to their 2021 EP, “ACAB for Cutie,” which focused mainly on an old school punk sound, but with all the songs collected together here, I can hear that they like to play in a variety of genres. And I do mean play! The playfulness of these songs comes through clearly, as well as how the band members must be having the time of their lives. The closest comparison I could make would be Alice Donut, the 90s band from New York, but Dog Park Dissidents are more raw, more punk, and more in your face. I mean, the opening track, “Rainbow Drones,” is about the titular flying objects, with lesbian pilots, and mentions how the ‘B’ in ‘LGBT’ stands for “bomb.” It’s a fun loping punk track that talks about the ongoing fight for equal rights. I mean, one line mentions that “we worked how to repeal don’t ask/don’t tell,” and admonishes “queer kids, don’t kill yourselves” so when it get’s better “You can kill someone else.” The album bounces around genres, including good ol’ rock and roll, metal, indie rock, and even some pop. As I said, they’re in-your-face queer-core, and the song titles should help you see that. “Queer as in Fuck You,” “Pronouns,” “Trans Starship Feminist BDSM Paradise,” and “RuPaul’s Frack Race” are examples. I enjoy the doo-wop inspired “Host,” a tragic song about the near future when “they shut down the gay bars” (and the bathhouse), and raided the leather bar, where two star-crossed lovers are both in the closet and living with their parents, too poor to get their own places, so neither of them can “host” a hook up. “Pronouns” is a fun manic punk song that answers all the assholes that question the need for the words. “Say the goddamn pronouns, motherfucker” the song demands. “There’s an expectation that you’ll respect / If I’m a he, she, they, or ze / If you don’t say what I tell you to say / Then I’ll kick in your fuckin’ teeth.” This is no holds barred, take no prisoners music! There’s even a brilliant cover of the Britney Spears song, “Toxic” that takes the edgy pop hit and turns it into a gritty hard rock tune of desire for what you know is bad for you. What a great album!

THE DROWNS (FEAT. SUZI MOON) – Ballroom Blitz (Pirate’s Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

To celebrate their appearances at 2023’s annual Punk Rock Bowling, The Drowns and Suzi Moon have teamed up on a one-off, covering The Sweet’s classic rock and roll hit, “Ballroom Blitz.” It’s a song that’s often been covered, probably because it’s so much fun. And they sure do have fun with it! It’s very true to the original, Rev’s gravelly vocals subbing very well for Brian Connolly, and Andy Wylie’s smooth stylings are perfect for, well, Andy Scott’s. Suzi Moon does a great job on her verse, too, belting it out with seductive power to counter Rev’s insanity. Everyone knows the song, right? What fun!

THE MULLENS – Get What You Deserve (Get Hip Recordings, gethip.com)

The Mullens, a garage pop band from Dallas, Texas, has been around since the mid nineties, and their latest full-length LP is ten songs of classic garage and power pop. From the 60s Beatles mania sound of the title track to the Rolling Stones “lite” sounds of “Lonely Wolf,” the songs will sound familiar yet different. There are as many different varieties of garage rock and roll as there are garage bands, and the full spectrum of garage is explored on this album. The songs are all good ones that will get any fan of the genre bobbing their heads and tapping their toes, but a few standouts do exist here. “Heard It from Kandi” is a real earworm that’ll crawl into your head and make you wrack your brains to figure out where you heard it before. “Feel So Bad” will make you feel good, with its up-tempo pace and classic sound. “Bad Bad Man,” like a lot of early rock and roll, blended in R&B influences, and that’s the case here, too. And my favorite of the album is probably “Always On Your Side,” a song that jangles like mad and has all the elements for a big crowd-pleasing sing-along in its chorus. The closer, “No More to Talk About,” is a good one, too, with a simple punk-like chord progression and jangling guitars. If you’re a fan of garage, this will scratch your itch.


BEN & KEELY – The Tell-Tale Party Noise (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)

Talk about intimate. Ben & Keely recorded this album in their new home after moving to the heartland of America, Omaha. Ben plays guitar, bass, keyboards, and drum programming, Keely plays harp, and they both contribute vocals. The music is relaxed, subdued, pretty stuff. The ten songs are mostly acoustic with breathy vocals that barely rise above a whisper. It really feels like you’re listening in on the pair as they make music for themselves, rather than like listening to an intentionally made record. On my first listen through the album I was pleasantly surprised when the harp made appearances on a few of the tracks, “Hail Song” is one of these, a song which starts with a few bars of lonely sounding keyboards, followed by relaxed acoustic guitar and Keely’s ethereal vocals. Toward the end of the song the harp comes in, accompanied by alto sax, and it leaves me feeling warm and cozy inside. The harp returns on “Union of One,” a delicate song with plucked and strummed acoustic guitar, tapping percussion, alto sax, and those whispered vocals. The harp again comes toward the end of the song, echoing the plucking of the guitar strings. And the closing track, “Six Sages,” is incredibly beautiful, a celestial sounding instrumental with harp and keyboards. The lyrics of these songs are just as intimate as the music, seemingly telling of snippets of personal lives lived. “Fine” talks about the first time seeing a lightning bug, passing the time in church playing “hangman,” working in a coffee shop, and trying to figure out if rent on a new house is affordable. “Hail Song” is observations about a particular storm, trying to talk with distant friends while the signal keeps fading, and thinking they should have parked the car under a tree. The shortest and most demo-like track is “Recluse,” just noisy distorted acoustic guitar and vocals singing the lines, “If I was a recluse, I never would have met you and we would never have fallen in love.” It’s a nice sentiment, but a mere fragment that perhaps will be expanded into a full song in the future. The penultimate track, “Gun,” reminds me of the melodic minimalist “apocalyptic folk” period of Current 93, the acoustic guitar playing a repeating riff and with understated vocals. The difference here is the inclusion of keyboards. This is the sort of record to play on a cold rainy afternoon while reading a good book by the fireplace.

THE DIRTY NIL – Free Rein to Passions (Dine Alone Records, dinealonerecords.com)

In the first decade of their existence, this Canadian trio self-released a slew of singles and EPs, but it wasn’t until their second decade that they got signed and serious and began releasing LPs. We’re now up to the band’s fourth full-length and their third bassist, Sam Tomlinson replacing Ross Miller, who had replaced original bassist Dave Nardi. The band has always been about rock and roll, their earliest tracks with an alternative-punk edge. As they’ve been releasing albums they’ve experimented with grunge and metal, but “Free Rein to Passions” sees them, for the most part, returning to basics. It’s still raucous and powerful; we’d expect nothing less from our boys in The Nil, but there’s less grunge and metal through most of the ten tracks offered up on this latest LP. One exception to this is the opening track, “Celebration,” which was also one of the lead singles released prior to the album release. It’s heavy, it’s grungy, and it’s loaded with metallic riffs and embellishments. If I were to be honest (and I always am in these reviews), it’s my least favorite track of the LP for that reason. Thankfully another lead single, “Nicer Guy,” gives a much better picture of the sound of this album. Sure, it’s heavy and crunchy as all hell, but it’s got a bit of pop melody and that alternative-punk sound of earlier songs, and Luke Bentham’s lead vocals are as gorgeously tuneful as they are strong. The song, about improving one’s behavior and being the titular “nicer guy,” is an odd topic for these guys to sing about, though, because they’re already good people. There’s less metal, more punk and grunge and rock and roll throughout the rest of the LP, and that suits me just fine. “Land of Clover,” in particular, sounds like something that the band could have released on one of their early EPs, though it’s got some nice musical embellishments that sound more current. A fun track is “Stupid Jobs,” a rock and roll sing-along about shitty jobs and shitty bosses. I love the line, “This whole workin’ for you / Ain’t workin’ for me.” The sentiment in the chorus, “I don’t wanna work for you or anyone again” is something a lot of us can relate to, especially the musicians who only work these crap jobs to make ends meet between tours. The title track comes near the end of the album and is one of the best. It’s full-on rock and roll mixed with post-hardcore and it rages hard. We still get the big rock and roll ballads that The Dirty Nil have perfected on this record. “Atomize Me” is a huge slow burner with a gigantic sound, Bentham’s vocals belting out the lyrics like there’s no tomorrow. In some ways this track reminds me of Queen, had they gone into a grungier heavier direction, particularly in the way Bentham slides the notes as he sings. And the closing track, “The Light The Void and Everything,” is a gorgeous torch song, just enormous in the instrumentals and vocals. While The Dirty Nil seem to have returned to their roots in terms of the songwriting on this album, the intervening years have increased their proficiency as musicians, and that’s a potent combination. This is the best Dirty Nil album yet.

MIRANDA AND THE BEAT (Ernest Jenning Record Co, www.ernestjenning.com)

Beginning life as a duo in small town California, migrating across the country to New York City, and picking up a couple more band members, Miranda and the Beat offer up their debut full-length LP. And man, this is R&B: Rock’n’Blues. It’s hard to imagine how soulful this record is, so put it on and soak it up. You’ll be transported back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, with psych-tinged rock and roll that’s loaded with soul. Miranda Zipse’s lead vocals are belted out like her life depends on it, and Dylan Fernandez’s keyboards add the emotional punch. The first two tracks, “Sweat” and “Out of My Head,” are a one-two punch that’ll knock you on your ass and have you jumping back up and onto the dance floor. “I’m Not Your Baby” slows things down but doesn’t give up an iota of impact, with this slow burner of a song of independence and self-empowerment. “When Are You Coming Home” has the feel of The Animals, deep garage rock and roll stuff here. And the penultimate track, “Let You Go,” is epic; there’s no other word to use to describe it. But not everything is garage and soul. “Concrete” drops the soul for something that’s more garage punk mixed with psych. A minimalist bass line throbs while they keyboards add ambience, and Miranda’s vocals scream out with more punk than soul. “ODR,” too, is more frantic and punk-filled, a short track with vocals that channel Lydia Lunch at her finest. And the closing track, “Don’t Feel the Same,” has the feel of a lo-fi demo, retro acoustic pop and pretty vocals, completely different from the rest of the LP, but very nice, nonetheless. This is one hell of a debut, and I can’t wait for the tour.

UGLI – girldick. (mybandisugli.bandcamp.com)

Not quite two years has elapsed since UgLi released their debut LP, “Fuck.” I dubbed the band “grunge pop,” because they used a deep throbbing bass and crunchy fuzzed up guitars as backdrop for pretty pop tunes. This new five-song EP continues in the same vein, but I like the songs on this EP even better than the LP. The EP opens with the most raucous tune I’ve heard from UgLi, “spiro.” It’s got a jazzy rhythm, a heavy-duty grunge bridge, and less overt pop than the other songs. “relic.” (Yes, all the song titles are lower case and end in a period) is a more relaxed lounge-like torch song for the first part, then gets super heavy, too in the middle. “crybabi.” falls in the middle, and could be my favorite of the EP, with start-stop instrumentals, cool plucked guitars, a pretty melody, and cryptic lyrics. The last two tracks are grunge ballads. “taste.” has an awesome psychedelic instrumental bridge, and ‘flatsoda.” gets very dreamy, as dreamy as you can get with all that distortion. Like I said, as much as I liked UgLi’s debut LP, this EP is even better.

UNDERHEAVEN – To Every Purpose (MoVillainous Records, www.facebook.com/Und3rh3av3n)

Underheaven is a band that originally formed in Washington, DC, back in 1982. It was the height of DC hardcore, and Don Zientara was already recording the music that would inspire generations. But that’s not all he was doing. Zientara was also in a band called Underheaven, which included Howard Wuelfing of The Slickee Boys and The Nurses, and Mark Jickling and Rich Labrie, both from Half Japanese. While other bands around them were playing hardcore punk, Underheaven played pop music. They released one four-song demo, had a song appear on a Sub Pop compilation, and then sort of disappeared. Until 2019, that is, when Zientara Wuelfing, and Jickling reconnected, recruiting Gary Smith to play drums. They were going to start playing live again, just as the pandemic shut down the world. But they made it into the studio in 2021 (Inner Ear, of course), and recorded two of their 1980s vintage songs, “One Mad Answer” and “The Moment I Die.” The first is a hazy pop song with lazily jangling guitars and a dreamy feel, while the latter combines pop jangle and the modal sounds of Mission of Burma. Of the pair, I like the second better. Though the disruption of Zientara’s life and livelihood with the closure and relocation of Inner Ear meant another end for the band as it was, Wuelfing is continuing to write new Underheaven songs and we may yet hear more.

TONY VALENTINO – Dirty Water Revisited (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Tony Valentino, one of the founding members of The Standells, is 82 years old, but still going strong. The Standells were known for their garage rock sound, often called one of the prototypes of punk rock, and on “Dirty Water Revisited,” Valentino presents updated versions of some of The Standells best known tracks, plus some new music, as well. Of course the title track, “Dirty Water,” was the Standells’ biggest hit and is still a popular song in Boston, where it’s used as a theme song by various sports teams. There are other classics like “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Where White” famously covered by Minor Threat), “Barracuda,” and “Why Did You Hurt Me,” as well as lesser known songs like “There Is A Storm Comin’” and “Riot on the Sunset Strip.” The songs are reasonably well done, though the arrangements feel somewhat thinner than the originals. What hasn’t changed is Valentino’s ability to belt out the vocals like he’s still in his 20s. There are ten tracks in all, two of which are brand new: “I’m a Sexy Punk Rocker” and “Vicki.” The former is done in the style of First Wave 1970s punk rock, while the latter is sort of power pop meets new wave. They’re the best part of the album, showing a creative mind still creating instead of resting on laurels. Overall, the album may appeal primarily to Standells fans, but I prefer the original tracks over these new recordings.

VERSUS THE WORLD – The Bastards Live Forever (SBÄM Records, shop.sbam.rocks)

Versus the World are a band formed back in 2005 in Santa Barbara, California. And they definitely have the 2000s California sound down pat: part pop punk, part post-hardcore, and part emo. The songs are big and soaring, eminently melodic and poppy, with plenty of emotionally charged lyrics and lots of metallic flourishes and riffs. The opening track, “Frank Sinatra,” has nods to the band Queen in the melodic line and in the gliding vocals and vocal harmonies, as well as the chord progressions and production values. It’s certainly an ear-catching way to open the LP. I like how the band calls out themselves from their last LP, released way back in 2015, “Homesick/Roadsick,” with the second track of the LP, titled “Roadsick/Roadsick.” It features melodic punk that borders on skate punk with a double-time rhythm section and regular time vocals that seem to float above the instrumentals, but the song is less metallic and more emotional than modern skate punk. Nearly every song turns into something on an epic scale, even something that you think is going to be a ballad. “What I Deserve” starts out very quietly and slowly, with gorgeous guitar and ambient sounds, Donald Spencer’s vocals ringing out, but then the whole band jumps in with tumultuous intent, Spence’s lofty vocal’s reaching sky high. And as big and epic as the songs are, sometimes they feel introspective, like “Goin’ Out for Smokes,” one of the lead singles from the album released in advance. Maybe it’s the big echoing feel at the start of the song, or maybe it’s the lyrics about examining one’s failures. There are a lot of fans of this sub-genre of punk, and they’re going to find plenty to enjoy here. There’s no new musical ground broken, but the band put in a solid effort.


BIG LOSER – Left on Del Mar Drive (Black Numbers, www.theblacknumbers.com)

Big Loser was formerly know by the fun but unwieldy moniker of Free Kittens and Bread. They changed their name a few years ago, releasing their sophomore LP, “Love You, Barely Living.” The new name better suits the self-deprecating lyrics from front man Chase Spruiell and how he uses his songwriting as a catharsis. Now a new post-pandemic EP makes its way to our ears. Big Loser give us four songs of gorgeous, lush indie rock. The EP covers different aspects of a horrible breakup Spruiell experienced a few years ago after uprooting his life and moving to a different city with his then partner so she could attend school. The EP opens with “Resentment #9,” a quiet acoustic tune more like Spruiell’s other project, “Half Man.” It’s a short tune that explains that both parties were guilty in causing the breakup, and describes writing down resentments, and hurling blame at each other. The song sets the stage for the whole EP, with the second track, “The Speed of Pain,” a track about trying to navigate the feelings in the immediate aftermath of the breakup and trying to make sense of it. Guitars, bass, and drums are hard to make sound lush, but Big Loser do it here, with a full sound, electric and acoustic guitars blending together to create a song that feels both light and heavy at the same time. “I’m Rubber, You’re Glue” is a bouncy joyful sounding song that takes the old saying kids are taught to deal with others who bully and name-call. “It must be shit to be you,” the chorus sings, the lyrics explaining, “Because now you’re the glue and I am the rubber.” It’s the joy of seeing the other person’s failings come back to haunt them in various aspects of their life. The closing song, “Logistics,” is the rational side of a break-up, how to divide up all the accumulated property that you’ve shared. It’s a bouncy number that begins “I’ll keep the house, you keep the bed / I’ll keep the hope, you keep the dread.” The lyrics speak to how distance can bring clarity and healing: “The longer I get away from you / The easier it is to have a clearer view.” It does get dark and resentful, with “I’ll suck it up and wish you the best / You’ll twist my words up in your head / To be something that I never thought / So you can keep up your façade.” The EP tells a complete story, offers up hope, and is a great listen. Recommended.

DECENT CRIMINAL – There’s More to It Than Climbing (Diised Records, diissed-records.myshopify.com / Gunner Records, gunnerrecords.com)

Decent Criminal’s latest LP, their fourth full-length since forming several years ago, is a dramatic departure from their previously released material. Where they were previously more focused on music that had retro melodies, doo-wop influence, and plenty of DIY pop punk spirit, this latest LP finds the band exploring more pop and grunge oriented fare. The opening track, “Outside,” is going to throw Decent Criminal fans for a loop, because it’s quiet, subtle, dreamy folk-pop inspired music. “Driving” is a little closer to past DC songs, with a strong grunge streak through it. Soothe is halfway between the two, with deep grunge in the bass but a big dream-pop arrangement. The lyrics seem to make a nod to the band’s evolution, speaking about running into an old friend, not caring what others think about them, and not wanting to just keep doing the same thing. There’s a refrain in the song that says, “My friends like heavy metal / My friends are all about it / I don’t like heavy metal / Don’t give a fuck about it,” as if to say they’re making music they like for themselves. If you like it, great, but if you don’t, so what? “Same,” which follows, also makes the same reference of change and not caring what others think. The lyrics are pretty minimal: “So you listen to Pavement / But it gets old to me / And I’d listen to Basement / But it’s not what I need / And we’ll never be / And the same we’ll never be.” The music is drastically different from anything the band have done before, with a twee mix of acoustic guitars, subtle electric bass, and simple rhythm from the high hat and bass drum. The only other track of the album that has a sound at all similar to past DC songs is “Blind,” which is another heavy grunge track, but even here, It’s got a different feel than past songs, steeped more in 90s rock than 50s or 60s. The balance of the album features purely pop music, relaxed and easy, smooth and serene, even a little ethereal. It’s gorgeous stuff. Special mention needs to be made of “Time,” because, though Decent Criminal have been known for retro influences, it’s mostly been 50s and 60s doo-wop. This song has a relaxed easy pop sound, but with elements of 70s soulful rock ballads. Longtime Decent Criminal fans may be a bit confused by this new LP, but like the songs say, so what? Those who get it are going to be in for a tremendously enjoyable listen.

THE DROLLS – Kick Out the Jammies (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

The Drolls and Snappy Little Numbers are embarking on a musical journey: a monthly 7” release series in which The Drolls will play songs written in the style of some of their favorite bands. The caveat is that “band energy, creative output, and vinyl supply chain issues may impact the ability to release a single every month, or even ever again.” This first installment includes an A-side, “Kick Out the Jammies,” written and performed in the style of The MC5. As such it’s raucous rock and roll with a deep growling bass, but there’s no way to match the 60s acid rock sound of The MC5. It’s still a good garage rock and roll track. The B-side is “I Am a Data Scientist,” and it’s written in the style of Guided By Voices (who have a song called “I Am a Scientist”). As with the MC5 homage, the song is not a cover or even similar to the “namesake” song, but it is the sort of jangly indie rock that GBV are known for. And I find it’s the more enjoyable and successful song of the pair. Neither song sounds like The Drolls’ normal sound, but they’re still fun and obviously done tongue in cheek. Here’s to hoping that band energy, creative output, and vinyl supply chain issues don’t stand in the way of further releases in the series.

FAULTY COGNITIONS – Demo (faultycognitions.bandcamp.com)

Getting demos from new bands is always exciting and always something to be leery of. Will they be any good? In the case of this particular demo, I knew it was going to be more of the former, because Faulty Cognitions was born out of Chris Mason’s (Low Culture, Shang-A-Lang, Macho Boys, Dirt Cult Records) move to San Antonio, Texas. Mason connected with longtime friend Yole Centeno, who brought in Mike Spliff and Mike Obregon to join in. The recording quality is definitely lo-fi, but the musical content quality is high and the sounds are varied. My favorite song of the six on this demo is the opener, “Las Cruces.” Named for the New Mexico city in which Mason lived when Low Culture was formed, the song has a great pop punk feel similar to that band. The most hardcore song is “Thin Blue Line (is a Warning Sign),” with an old school 80s punk sound, very different from “Las Cruces.” Other songs blend power pop and indie rock with a pop punk edge. This is solid stuff from scene veterans. I hope they find time to play some out of town shows soon.

LONE WOLF – Haze Wave (Stardumb Records, www.stardumbrecords.com)

Pop punk is truly an international genre. Lone Wolf is a band that hails from The Netherlands but sound like they could be from Gainesville. It makes sense, then, that they’re going to be playing The Fest this year. They’ve got a great loping sound with songs that are poppy with hints of emotional content. The opening track, “Beggin Me,” is a standout favorite, especially for its chorus. I like the rough jangling guitars and the simple melody with accents in non-traditional spots. That pattern runs through a lot of the songs here, and the production gives the tracks a hazy lonely sound that’s appealing, as well. I think that’s what I mean when I mention “emotional content.” The sparseness of the arrangement in “Stay Home,” for example, offset by the big reverb and fuzzed guitar tone, makes the song just feel melancholy. In some ways the band reminds me of a mix of Ohio’s Vacation and Texas’ Radioactivity, but with the songs slowed down to a lope. The dual lead vocals on the songs are a pretty unique twist, too, giving these songs a stronger sound. The one thing that could be improved would be more variety in song tempos. All of the album’s twelve tracks are played at pretty much the same pace. That’s OK, the album is still very enjoyable.

PERFUME USA – Kiss It Goodbye (Setterwind Records, setterwindrecords.bandcamp.com)

I’ve heard lots of dream pop bands and I’ve heard lots of grunge bands, but Perfume USA is, perhaps, the first dream grunge band I’ve ever heard. The band’s sound is deeply rooted in 90s grunge, with deep bass and growling guitars, but there’s a layer of haze across these three songs, too, that gives it a more pensive sound. Even as those guitars roar, they soar, too. The band hasn’t been around very long, their debut EP having only been released two years ago. This sophomore release is a three-song EP, and the first and third songs, “Angelfist” and “Tapeworm,” respectively, are the ones that are the dreamier tracks, with a slower more deliberate pace and thick haze. The middle track, “Smile,” has a bit brisker of a pace and more traditional grunge sound, but mixed with a bit of 90s post-hardcore and a bit of haze. Perfume USA has a very unique sound that’s mesmerizing to listen to.

PONY – Velveteen (Take This to Heart Records, www.takethistoheartrecords.com)

Our fearless editor told me when he sent this that the first song reminded him of Caroline Records material ca. 1992, and he’s not wrong. The Canadian band (they hail from Toronto) consists of the duo of Sam Bielanski and Matty Morand, and they play pop music. Remember 90s indie pop, the twee stuff that felt ever so sweet and precious? That’s pretty much what we get here on the band’s sophomore full-length: impossibly sugary melodies and deliciously candy-coated vocals. The level of sweetness is tempered from song to song by varying the crunchiness of the guitars and by how much keyboard is included in the mix. For example, that opening track that our fearless editor enjoyed, “Tres Jolie,” is heavier on the guitars and has a great rolling bass line, a nice contrast to the vocals in a salty and sweet sort of way. It’s probably my favorite track of the album. “Sunny Rose” is another in this vein, and another favorite. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the softer toned “Sucker Punch,” loaded with keyboards, the guitars dialed back a bit, and the multi-tracked harmonized vocals a little broader and smoother. Some of the songs veer a little too much into commercial pop territory, like “Sick,” a song whose chorus could be a chart topper with a few changes in the arrangement. Ant then there’s “French Class,” a subtle song that has a deep bass line, loads of synths, plenty of reverb, and a French lounge-pop feel. The indie pop of the 90s was something I enjoyed a lot, so this LP is quite a welcome one.

SPELLS – “What the Hell is Caution” b/w “Some Would Say” (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Two new songs from Denver’s Spells on a 7” flexi. Both tracks are perfectly representative of Spells’ sound: thick arrangements of poppy indie meets pop punk. “What the Hell is Caution” is big and broad sounding, with enormous group vocals, while “Some Would Say” is rooted deeply in the power pop tradition. It’s a pair of winners.

THE TELESCOPES – Of Tomorrow (Tapete Records, www.tapeterecords.de)

When I reviewed The Telescopes LP, “Songs of Love and Revolution” a couple years ago, I noted that they’ve been categorized as a noise band, a space rock band, as dream pop, and as a psychedelic band. This time out, they’ve eschewed the noise and pop elements and focused on space rock and psych. “Of Tomorrow” is super spaced out music for spaced out people, with minimalist droning and beats, super understated instrumentals, and lugubrious vocals. Those vocals are a sticking point for me. Because the instrumentals are so much cleaner than on “Songs of Love and Revolution,” they stick out more, and in many instances they’re out of tune. That said, some of the tracks are quite nice “Where Do We Begin,” is played with a light delicate touch and hushed vocals, but on the other hand, “Only Lovers Know” has a cheesy synth-based melodic line that repeats endlessly with vocals that sound like mumblings in one’s sleep. The most raucous this seven-song album gets is the opening track, “Butterfly,” with urgent organ and a throbbing bass. But even here, those sleepy vocals struggle to remain on pitch. Despite a couple of bright spots, relatively speaking, this album was a disappointment to me, given how much I enjoyed the last one.


THE BOLLWEEVILS – Essential (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

"Essential" isn’t just a title, it’s a directive; this is an essential album for anyone who claims to be a fan of punk rock. It’s also a reference to the band members being essential workers, including educators and first responders, and then there’s front man Daryl Wilson, the Punk Rock Doc, a real life hero doctor. The band began in 1989 and they were Chicago scene stalwarts for seven years, playing a ton of shows all over the city and suburbs. They released a myriad of singles, EPs, and splits on various labels, plus a couple of studio LPs and a live LP with California’s Dr. Strange Records. The band had a reunion in 2003, but then started up again in earnest in 2006, their only recorded output since being a two-song 7” in 2014. But the band has been busy writing new songs and honing their performances in the intervening years. Where they used to be a band that appeared further down the list on show bills in the past, they regularly headline or support major acts now. And now they’ve released their first new studio LP since 1995’s “Heavyweight.” The Bollweevils have always had a solid Chicago punk sound, one that was distinct from the sounds coming out of California, New York, or Washington, DC. The sound features more muscular guitars mixed with plenty of melody, and The Bollweevils are masters of the sound. Big burly guitars, crashing pounding drums, throbbing thumping bass, and powerful clear vocals combine into some seriously strong Chicago hardcore punk. This new LP features new recordings of a few Bollweevils favorites of the past, like “Bottomless Pit” and Unrespected Peggy Sue” (retitled here as “Disrespected Peggy Sue”). Others are newer, and have been part of their set list for several years, like “Theme” and “Liniment and Tonic.” All of them are high energy Chicago hardcore punk worthy of your ears and dollars. While it’s hard to pick favorites amongst this album full of hits, there are a few standouts. “Predisposition” starts the album strongly with speedy, crunchy, melodic hardcore, while “Disrespected Peggy Sue” has a great stabbing intro and instrumental sections interlaced with great poppy punky hardcore. Pete Mittler’s bass needs special mention here, because it channels all the masters of Chicago punk past. I like the angularity of Ken Weevil’s lead guitar and solemn melody of “Our Glass.” Pete Mumford’s drumming is powerful throughout the album. And of course “Liniment and Tonic” is the song all of us aging punks can relate to. The song is always a crowd pleaser, one of the most melodic songs the band does, yet also one of the simplest. Those are just a few of the strongest songs here; there are ten songs in all, every one a banger. Get on this now!

CROSSED KEYS – Believes In You (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Dead Satellite Records, deadsatelliterecords.com / Creep Records, shopcreep.com)

Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys consists of former members of Kid Dynamite, Halo of Snakes, Ink and Dagger, Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer, and more. Formed several years ago, these Philadelphia scene veterans return with their sophomore full-length LP, following up 2019’s “Saviors.” The ten songs here are high energy, melodic punk, sometimes leaning towards the pop end of the spectrum, sometimes more towards the skate punk side of things. For example, the opening track, “Victim Complex,” explodes with anthemic fury, the lead vocals bellowing out with a glorious melody as the furious guitars, bass, and drums create a beautiful cacophony and a gorgeous pop punk track. The next one, “RIP Arch Street,” while equally melodic, has a slightly darker sound and feels more like many of the skate punk bands out there. And songs like “If You Don’t Love Yourself” are halfway between those two reference points, with strong instrumentals and loads of pop-like melody. The super bright “Vina Park” is a real highlight, the sort of song that’s going to have everyone in the club singing along and pumping fists in the air. Like “Victim Complex,” it has the glorious sound of an anthem, something to unite everyone. And “Middle Light” has a huge 90s and 2000s emo sound going on. I love the manic raucous feel of the songs on this record; it’s a controlled chaos sort of thing going on, where there’s lots of noise but it all fits together. And the lead vocals are powerful and tuneful, cutting through the instrumentals. Good stuff.

CURIOUS THINGS – Naif (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com / Dumb Ghost Records, dumbghost.bandcamp.com)

Curious Things, hailing from Denver, Colorado, is the project of songwriter Cameron Hawk, who’s played with bands such as The Dead Girls, Stiff Middle Fingers, Hidden Pictures, The Gamits, and more. Hawks songs are a blend of power pop and pop punk, with the poppy melody and attitude of power pop (with close harmonies in the vocals and guitar licks) and a bit of pop punk edginess. There’s a clear DIY spirit here, too. Joining Hawk are fellow Gamits alum Forrest Bartosh on drums and bassist Ruan Heller, who played with Hawk in Lawsuit Models. I hear influences of The Replacements here, particularly in the vibe of “The Night,” which has a strong power pop streak, loads of jangle, and harmonized backing vocals. The Smoking Popes are an influence, too, especially in the song, “Cancelled Yourself,” which has some great rapid-fire key changes, That song and “I Deserve This” are a couple of my favorite tracks on the nine on the album with some great pop hooks. The guitar riffs opening that song, as well as the interesting melodic intervals make for a compelling track with a bit of a Mission of Burma vibe blended in with the power pop. “Boo Hoo” is another favorite, with a great driving rhythm and more shifting rhythms. Curious Things isn’t going to set the world on fire here, but this is a really good listen for fans of power pop and pop punk.

EATING CLUB – Lose This Parade (eatingclub.bandcamp.com)

Alex Bortnichak, half of the duo that makes up Sparta Philharmonic, created Eating Club as his solo outlet several years ago, and “Lose This Parade” is his sophomore full-length LP under that moniker. Unlike his debut LP, however, on this outing it’s not fully solo; he’s recruited friends to fill out the band instead of playing everything himself. While there’s less cohesiveness in this album than in the self-titled debut, the songwriting, production quality, and variety are stronger on this follow-up. Some of the strongest influences heard in the music come from power pop and glam, though these are tempered with shoegaze, Americana, Goth, and even Latin music. The result is a musical melting pot, diversity of sound that reflects the diversity of society. We get fuzzed out retro pop on “Death of an Empire,” the opening track. It sounds like The Jesus and Mary Chain playing power pop, and is a favorite. The title track reminds me of a Sparta Philharmonic song, because it transforms, starting out as a gritty spiritual, then gets a clean twangy sound, then is fuzzed pop, and then adds in gorgeous cello to contrast with the rasping guitars. There are smoother tracks, too, like the dark lounge of “D.O.A.,” the easy Americana twang meets power pop of “Swan for Forage,” and the retro goth meets Latin flair of “Where’d I Go Wrong?” Power pop reigns supreme in the big warm and bouncy track, “War Story,” and “Hilly Gobbilly” can’t decide if it’s a twangy southern rock song or indie-lounge. The acoustic guitars in “I Can Relate” and, in particular, the closing track “Que Tienes (Mi Corri)?” are very pretty, that ending track being a ballad sung in Spanish as a nod to the years Bortnichak spent living in Peru (where he met the love of his life). Eating Club is hard to pin down, hard to pigeonhole into a particular genre. And that’s always a good thing.

JUGHEAD’S REVENGE – Vultures (SBÄM Records, shop.sbam.rocks)

Jughead’s Revenge was a venerable LA punk band of the 90s. They were very much a band of that time and place, with music that contained equal parts SoCal hardcore, poppy melody, snotty vocals, and a humorous attitude. They reunited in 2009 and put out a couple of singles in the past several years, but this five-song EP is their first serious new releases since their 1999 LP, “The Pearly Gates.” When bands reunite I always enjoy seeing them write and record new material, because it shows they’re more than just a nostalgia show. In the case of Jughead’s revenge, their new material isn’t just a regurgitation of what they did 30 years ago. The songs are more influenced by modern melodic punk, less by 80s hardcore. The arrangements are bigger and thicker, the vocals more tuneful, and the overall sound is more introspective and thoughtful than sassy and sarcastic. The one exception is the closing track, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which brings back some speed, some crunch, some hardcore, and ends up sounding like modern skate punk, with a glorious bridge in the middle of the song, the backing guitars sounding quite epic. “Bridges” is the brightest and poppiest track of the five, while “Eighties” oddly enough is the most 90s song of the EP. Just like it’s a rarity to teach old dogs new tricks, it’s rare thing, indeed, for an old band to learn new songs. It’s a great surprise and something sure to bring a smile to your face (and ears).

POPPY PATICA – Black Cat Back Stage (poppypatica.bandcamp.com)

When most people think of Washington, DC music, they think Fugazi, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Dischord Records, and Revolution Summer. But in the 1990s, the Washington, DC metro area was home to a vibrant indie pop scene, too. Bands like Velocity Girl, Tsunami, Unrest, and more were playing shows and putting out records on labels like Teen Beat Records, Slumberland Records, Simple Machines, and others. Poppy Patica, is a project that features Peter Hartmann and friends, and though he’s been recording under the Poppy Patica moniker for several years, he’s calling this his “debut LP,” probably because it will be his first to get a physical release. Poppy Patica continues and builds upon the tradition of indie pop bands that came before, with great light poppy tunes containing jangly guitars and layered vocal harmonies. But Poppy Patica takes things further, injecting modern dream pop elements including keyboards and a mix of reverb and present tonality. Check out the opening track, “Awful Sound,” with its peppy poppy upbeat sound, augmented by bright and shiny synths. Or the more subdued loping “Handprint,” with guitars and backing vocals that seem to shimmer. Some of the songs have a cool underwater effect, too, with “Burnt to Bits” doing it in the keyboards while the guitars mimic waves rising and falling, and “Kiwi” doing it with guitar manipulation. “Sweetest Song” has grittier guitars than most, but softens things up with huge reverb, gentle vocals, and keyboards that ring out like muffled bells. And “Demolition Order” is downright ethereal, with mysterious backing vocals and sparse instrumentation. If you’re a fan of indie pop and dream pop, give this a spin. It’s one of the better releases in the genre to come out in awhile.

STATUES – Black Arcs Rising (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)

Remember the days when labels like Homestead Records and SST Records used to put out these edgy indie bands that played music with gritty guitars, raspy vocals, and poppy melodies? Swedish band Statues emulates that sound on this third LP, their second with Sweden’s indie label Lövely Records. The overall sound is somewhat noisy and fuzzed up, yet quite melodic. The opening track, “Underground,” is particularly strong, distorted guitars teetering on the edge of being overwhelming, while the fiery passionate vocals sing out. It’s almost Hüsker Dü like. “Hiding in a Hole” is the grittiest, most angular, most punk song of the album, reminding me of something that might have come from Hüsker Dü in the “Everything Falls Apart” era mixed with Black Flag. Other tracks have the noisy indie rock meets pop sound tempered with a dreamy pop melody, like “Agony” or “Eyes in the Sky,” with a much easier feel underneath the grit. “Meteorology” has a huge epic feel, while “Dead of Summer” sounds much more modern and pop-punk like, but with the noise layer draped over it, guitars and vocals all fuzzed out, sort of like Beach Slang did in their brief career. I love how the songs have a good variety while remaining cohesive so you always know they’re performed by the same band. Solid release here that’s going to find its way into my regular rotation.

SUNBURSTER – Trudging to Extinction (Knife Hits Records, knifehitsrecords.com)

Trudging to Extinction” is the latest release from Philadelphia’s self-styled “Neolithic knuckle-draggin’ grunge-tinged sludge metal” band. I’d say it’s more than grunge-tinged, it’s full-on grunge and sludge metal. The five tracks on this latest EP are heavy and definitely gritty, grimy, and oozing with muck. Metallic guitar licks abound, and the vocals are guttural and growled. There’s a dark sense of foreboding throughout the EP. Three of the tracks are originals (“Halfway Crook,” “Roach,” and “I am Error”). And while the songs are undeniably powerful, played at a slow stately pace, with pounding percussion and throbbing bass, it’s hard for me to discern a lot of variation from song to song. I think it’s more an artifact of the genre than the band. The other two tracks are covers. “Night Goat” (The Melvins) is, unsurprisingly, very similar to the others. “Last” is a Nine Inch Nails cover, and it’s got a distinct bounce in the rhythm. The instrumentals are just as heavy and noisy, but there’s also unsurprisingly more structure to the song. It’s hard for me to get into this sort of stuff, but if you like noisy sludgy metal, check it out. They’re proficient, for sure.

TOWNIES – Revolver (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

The band from Colorado is following up last year’s debut LP with a new six-song EP. The band continue playing stripped down punk rock with surf and garage influences, loaded with social commentary, but this time with more melodic content. Guitar, bass, drums, and Suzanne Magnuson’s strong vocals provide a potent musical cocktail on songs like “Evil 2 Da Max,” the EP’s opening track. Humor creeps in on songs like “Shit Beer,” all about the crap piss-water punks drink to get drunk, like Schlitz, Blatz, and PBR. The songs are raucous and a bit chaotic while remaining angularly melodic, with “Street Justice” being a favorite of the EP. “Street justice don’t call them” repeated over and over in the lyrics are a reference to taking care of things yourself without involving corrupt cops. And the closing track, a cover of the Swingin' Medallions' “Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love,)” has a retro 50s rock and roll rhythm and melody while the reverb-laden guitar screams surf punk. The real revelation of Townies, though, is Magnuson’s intense vocals; she can belt out the lyrics like few vocalists. If you didn’t take my advice when I reviewed “Meet the Townies,” take it now. Pick this up and listen to it on repeat!

WRONG WAR – On Further Reflection (Council Records, www.councilrecords.com)

Wrong War is a current band from Chicago, but you would be forgiven for thinking they’re a forgotten band from Washington, D.C.’s Revolution Summer era, particularly on the title track, which opens this three-song EP. The lyrics are certainly as poetic and cryptic as bands like Rites of Spring, Embrace, and others, seemingly about looking back at choices made and wondering how different things might be but for those choices. It’s easily my favorite song of the three, with its mix of old school emo and punk. The other two tracks lean more toward old school hardcore and punk, with “Darkness Flags Unfold” reminding me a lot of Boston’s The Proletariat. I’ve previously recommended Wrong War’s LPs in this column, but this EP is even better. Recommended!

VARIOUS – Err02 (Council Records, www.councilrecords.com)

Four bands share space on this new compilation EP that harkens back to sounds of the 80s. Grey C.E.L.L., from Philadelphia, offers up “No Hymn,” a chaotic thrash-core track about the uncertainty these days of what’s true, with censorship and bias everywhere you turn. Chicago’s Wrong War, who also have a new three-song EP out today (reviewed in this column), contribute “Who’s Hiding Now,” a mid-80s sounding east coast hardcore song about the sacrifice of the young to feed the political ambitions of others. Kirkby Kiss and Hundreds of AU are both hardcore bands from New Jersey. Kirkby Kiss’ song, “Standards and Practices,” has deep guttural vocals with melodic instrumentals, and it’s a song about not caring about the judgments of others, instead being dedicated to being true to one’s self. Hundreds of AU and their contribution, “Dark Like Winter,” by contrast, are very metallic, very crunchy, and fairly chaotic. While Wrong War’s track is easily my favorite, if you’re into old school hardcore and thrash, this is solid place to learn about some bands you may not know about.


THE CITY LINES – Analog Memories (thecitylines.bandcamp.com)

The City Lines is singer-songwriter Patrick Deneau’s outlet for exploring his love of 90s alternative rock and Midwestern power pop. “Analog Memories” is his second LP, and he’s joined by Drummer Bob Zammit and bassist Bryan Robert Kraan (who also provides backing guitars and synths). Of the seven-song mini LP, the band say they have a sound of Bruce Springsteen backed by Jimmy Eat World. Eh, it’s nice for a PR blurb, but I don’t know that it accurately describes the band’s sound, which ranges from alt-rock bordering on pop punk, sometimes Americana tinged, with some nerd pop tendencies. The opening track, “Different This Year,” would be at home in any pop punk band’s set list, though it’s a less raucous arrangement here than a pop punk band would use. The song structure and melody, though, feel very much pop punk, while the tone and arrangement is more relaxed, smoother and easier. It’s easily my favorite track of the record. I mentioned Americana, and you can hear that in “Where I Want to Be,” a song with a distinct down home storytelling vibe, and the deep country “Better n Worse” has a solid twang. And then there are the loping indie-rock sounds of songs like “Far Enough,” with cool nerdy vocals and sparkling instrumentals. And the band channels 90s melodic hardcore (though softened considerably) in “Erased,” with the double-time rhythm in the drums and the straight-time vocals floating above. It’s quite an eclectic collection of songs here.

KILLER KIN (Dead Beat Records, www.dead-beat-records.com)

Killer Kin’s debut was a two-song 7” single that came out early in 2021. Back then I described them as soulful rock and roll, like taking Little Richard or James Brown and tossing them into a garage band. Now they’re back with their debut full-length LP, and the description remains apt. This is deeply soulful rock and roll that’s fuzzed out and manic. The walls of fuzzed gritty guitars and bass seem nearly impenetrable, yet the vocals stab right through, jabbing away at your very being. This is raw and primal stuff, loaded with R&B goodness and rock’n’roll sinfulness. The band attacks every song with a fury that’s rarely matched nowadays. The only other band I can think of that are currently blending R&B and massive garage rock kike this are San Diego’s Schizophonics, but Killer Kin are more on the down and dirty end of the spectrum. This sounds like the soundtrack for your life when you wander into the wrong alley late at night. It feels like vocalist Mattie Lea is having conniptions on the opening track, “Mr. Dynamite,” and things just never let up through the half hour of intense music, instead they just get more manic, more out of control. The frenzy reaches a peak with “Shock Collar,” a track that will rip through your soul and make you feel that the titular device is around your own neck. Warning: if you play this record, strap in tight! It’s a crazy tumultuous ride.

JORDAN KRIMSTON – Somewhere I Might Go (Counter Intuitive Records, counterintuitiverecords.com)

San Diego’s young musical savant, who wrote and recorded some excellent albums with his high school band, Big Bad Buffalo, and who today plays in multiple other bands (including stints as the touring drummer for Oso Oso) has been quietly getting his pop itch scratched via his solo efforts. After releasing a couple of solo EPs and an LP, Krimston is back with his sophomore full-length. Krimston’s evolution with his solo records has gradually migrated from his indie rock roots on his first EP, “Turn the Page,” through the dramatically inventive and sometimes mathish feel of “Bushwhacking” to the unabashed bubbly pop of “All Commodities.” This latest LP is solidly in the pop camp, but the songs also feel softer and a little more introspective, a little hazier and more relaxed. Krimston also explores other genres on this LP, such as the light R&B pop feel of “Working Out the Kinks,” (the dense and opulent keyboards on this track remind me of some of Bill Nelson’s solo work from the 90s and 2000s, after he moved away from the angular new wave and power pop material of Red Noise) or the bright modern psychedelic feel of “Cycling.” The arrangements here are lush and rich, and the musical embellishments are gorgeous. The title track, in particular, feels very nostalgic; this ballad has a melancholy feel and the soaring violin will bring a tear to your eyes. And I love the exotic eastern-tinges to “Can’t Explain It” and the trippy relaxation induced by the enveloping sounds of the closing track, “Stuck in the Same Motion.” One favorite is the mildly funky “Izzy & Sam,” a wistful track about friends who grow apart and never have time to spend together anymore. “Friends come and go in this life / I wish it didn’t have to be that way,” the song opens. “Guess I’ll see you around.” The song feels full of regret, particularly when various plans don’t work out with everyone’s schedule, and we hear, “I guess it doesn’t matter.” It’s like the friendship wasn’t that important. Watching Krimston’s musical evolution has been fascinating, and this latest work certainly shows a growing maturity and professionalism.

OK COOL – fawn (Take a Hike Records, takeahikerecords.limitedrun.com)

OK Cool is a duo from Chicago that stylize all their titles with all lower case characters and play easy breezy indie pop. The band features Haley Blomquist and Bridget Stiebris, and the music they make is pretty and understated, with hints of math and shoe gaze influences. For example, “4 what???” has angular melodic lines and shifting rhythms, plus loads of reverb and fuzzed jangling guitars. And the waltz time “nissanweekends” has an awesome bridge in which the bass plays a cool rolling line consisting of three measures of 3/4 time and one of 2/4. “mud” features big dreamy swirling guitars with more angular riffs and plenty of reverb. All of the songs appear to feature either both members singing or multi-tracked vocals, not sure which, but it’s effective, making the vocals sound bigger. “whiplash” has gorgeous acoustic guitar backed with keyboards creating both a folksy feel and a dream pop feel at the same time. The syncopated rhythms evoke the mathish vibe, as well. “treat me nice” is a favorite for its laid back sound, particularly in the percussion, as well as the zig-zagging melodic line in the guitar. The band has a humorous streak, too; there’s a hilarious clip from an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” at the end of “normal c,” in which we hear someone ranting, “How can we be rock stars if we’re not living like rock stars? If we live like rock stars, the music will come!” This mini LP contains 8 songs in under 20 minutes, and it’s so good it’s just not enough.

RAISED ON TV – Strangers In Pictures (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

Well, this is quite a departure for Sell the Heart Records! The label is mainly known for releasing records from punk, pop punk, and emo bands. But this release is deeply in the indie rock and indie pop camp. From the opening track to the last, the music is almost entirely bright and bubbly with a bit of dreaminess through ambient synths, reverb, and floating backing vocals. Listen to the guitars jangle like crazy on the first song, “Around the Sun.” This is really gorgeous stuff. Check out the bouncy pop goodness of “Losing my Mind,” the closest Raised on TV gets to pop punk in this LP. “Mr. Blue” is another energetic track with chipper instrumentals, but it has contrasting melancholy lyrics, making it a favorite. Not every track is all light and bright, though. The dark guitar riffs on “The Race” and the desperate insistent feel of the song make it a real standout. “Between the Highs and Lows” is downright solemn, its big guitar riff sounding lonely in its stark declaration. And I love the relaxed introspective feel of “Wasted.” Probably my favorite track is “Break Me Free,” the penultimate track, which mixes mournful sounds with vivacious rhythms. While Raised on TV isn’t the normal fare for Sell the Heart Records, I do recommend you check this out, because it’s really pretty stuff.

CARDBOARD BOX COLONY / THE DEATHBOTS – Split (Stimulus Package Records, stimuluspackagerecords.bandcamp.com)

Two DIY punk bands from Ashville, NC, four songs, one DIY punk label. I love stuff like this, small local bands pooling their efforts together to release their music. Both appear to be relatively new bands, Cardboard Box Colony first releasing material in 2019, while The Deathbots only began recording last year. This new split has two songs from each band. Cardboard Box Colony’s offering has the sound of speedy skate punk mixed with emotionally charged pop punk. “Writing on the Wall” has more speed and chaos, while “Sink or Swim” is smoother and more melodic, but with some good opportunities for gang vocals. The Deathbots have a more retro punk sound that reminds me of a blend of The Dead Kennedys (but without the surf guitar sound) and 80s Midwest punk. Both were more melodic than the 80s hardcore of the coasts, and The Deathbots have a strong sense of melody mixed into their punk rock. “Thumper,” in particular, uses a lot of DKs song structure tricks and the dark sound that band was known for. “The Dutchman” is hard to classify, having elements of punk and elements of hard rock. Both bands provide a solid effort here.


BIG LIFE (Setterwind Records, setterwindrecords.bandcamp.com)

The PR blurb for this debut recording compares this new Midwestern band with 1980s Dischord Records material. “Yeah, right,” I thought. I’m a huge Dischord fan, and there’s no way a modern band could replicate the magic of Revolution Summer and all the bands that were making music in our nation’s capital at the time. And particularly because Big Life counts Ryan Allen of Extra Arms in its roster. No slight against Ryan, I love his music, but he’s mainly known for his excellent power pop records. But damned if the PR isn’t right! This stuff fits in so well to the mid and late 80s DC sound so well that if these guys found a time machine and travelled back there, Ian and Jeff would be putting their records out. Big Life presents us with an eight-song mini-LP, just over 20 minutes of glorious music that mixes hardcore, melodic punk, and emo in the best tradition of bands like Swiz, The Faith, Soulside, Rites of Spring, Gray Matter and more. This stuff is really great and scratches my DC punk itch like few modern bands can. “Your Truth,” the second track of the album really drives the sound home hard, taking me back in time. Give “Everybody Kiss” a spin and you’ll think you’re listening to a Fugazi cover, while you’ll swear “Learn Everything” is a lost Soulside demo. “Smile You’re On Camera” closes the mini-LP with a powerful punch of post-hardcore a la Swiz. One song that sticks out as a little different from the others is “Waste This Time With Me,” which has a heavy dose of “New Age” era Blitz in it. This is an exciting debut, from a band that I really hope has some staying power to put out more material and tour.

BRUTAL YOUTH – Rebuilding Year (Stomp Records, stomprecords.com)

LET’S GOOOOOO!!!! Hot damn, not a lot of bands are making music that rages this hard anymore. And those that do are mostly the older bands that have reunited and spend their time wallowing in their past glory. Not so for Brutal Youth. This Toronto-based band play fresh original music that blends 80s and 90s hardcore, post hardcore, and melodic hardcore to create something that’s more energetic, more visceral, and more, well, brutal than most music coming out of punk bands today. They’ve been making music together for more than a decade, and it’s scandalous that they aren’t bigger than they are. They should be headlining the big shows they’ve been opening for; that’s how good they are. I hear a strong mix of New York youth crew hardcore and west coast melodic hardcore and punk here, and occasionally I hear hints of DC bands like Dag Nasty and Fugazi. Nearly every track on this album is a banger, and it’s hard to pick out standouts, but I’ll note a few. The opening track, “Juice Cleanse,” is sure to get the mosh pit going quickly, as it opens the album with speedy hardcore that quickly turns strongly melodic without skipping a beat. The contrast between the thrashing verses and the melodic chorus with huge gang backing vocals is amazing, and then when the song changes character after the halfway mark, the tempo becomes a lope and those backing vocals soar to the sky. “Egg Sucking Dog” has killer angular post hardcore on the verses and melodic hardcore on the chorus, all played at a breakneck pace. “Jumping the Broom,” too, jumps between speedy thrashing hardcore and easy loping melodic pop punk. I love the chugga-chugga rhythm of “Holding Pattern,” reminding me of DC hardcore bands from the mid and late 80s. “Concentric” will make you think you’re hearing a new song from Minor Threat until the halfway mark when it goes from hardcore to post hardcore and back again. And “Rebuilding Year” starts out speeding like mad, then has a section with that Fugazi-like chugga-chugga rhythm and a great message, “You get back what you put in.” Don’t be lazy, do your part! The hardcore returns and the song races itself to the finish. But remember I said, “nearly every track on the album is a banger?” Two fall short of the greatness of the rest, “Through the Teeth” and “Moonstones.” These may be the biggest crowd pleasers, with their big melodic hardcore sound, but that’s a genre that doesn’t do a lot for me. These sound too much like what a bunch of current bands are trying to sound like, so they come across as fairly generic. But that’s two tracks out of fourteen, a drop in the bucket. Listening to this record makes me feel like a kid again, at an all ages hardcore show.

KURT BAKER – "Secrets" (Wicked Cool Records, www.wickedcoolrecords.com)

Who needs a “hot tub time machine” or a hopped up DeLorean when we’ve got records? Kurt Baker’s new standalone single, “Secrets,” will transport you back to the 1970s with its blend of AM pop and Motown soul. Bouncy and fun, with a sugary sweet melody, the bass line adds a bit of funk and the organ gives the song a warm soulfulness. And apparently this is just to whet our appetites for new music coming later this year!

For more of Paul Silver's reviews, click here..


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