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 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!
A CAST OF THOUSANDS – Live at the Carriage House (acastofthousands.bandcamp.com)
A Cast of Thousands has been together for some thirteen years and their catalog spans several studio albums and a couple of live LPs. This latest is a live set with songs from throughout their career as a band, and offers a good picture of what they’re all about. And what that is seems to be two bands in one. Lead vocals are traded between Terry Cuddy and Beth Beer, and the songs have very different feels between the two. Songs on which Cuddy fronts the band are more indie rock and pop while Beer’s songs are more delicate with hints of psych and folk. There are two sets from the night of January 21, 2023 here, and the first set opens with “No Detection,” from the band’s most recent studio LP, “Songs from the Second Floor.” Fronted by Cuddy, it’s a favorite of the entire hour plus of music here, with a spare sound reminiscent of early Talking Heads material. Guitars are muted and serve as much as percussion as the do to propel the minimalist melody. Then the band does a 180 and switches to the pretty psych-tinged folk-rock, “Get Over,” sung by Beer. The song comes from the LP, “The Fifth,” and the guitars lightly jangle while Beer’s vocals ring out with her trademarked quaver. The band doesn’t often get gritty, but with “Big White Lie,” they get down and dirty, more than any other of their songs. It comes from their LP, “Sleeping World,” and though compared to a lot of bands it’s mild, it’s still got a sense of quiet strength, its insistent rhythm pounding out. The song has an indie rock sound, but it could easily be turned into a hard rock grunge track with a different arrangement. Other highlights from the hour plus of music here include the retro jangle pop of “Judgment Day,” sung by Cuddy. Coming from “The Fifth” LP, it has hints of Beatles-esque pop to it. If you’re a fan of country or Americana, you’ll enjoy “To Be a Woman,” a song steeped in sarcasm that Beer sings. It comes from “Sleeping World,” is loaded with twang, and has lyrics about how society treats women, from lower pay for the same work as a man to constant sexual harassment, from laws controlling their bodies to unrealistic expectations for their bodies. “Fugitive” has the cool driving sound of a Johnny Cash train song. And if you like country spirituals, check out “I’ve Been Leaving Too Long.” “Andy Says” is a great upbeat indie pop track, remarkable for the fact that Beer sings on this one. It’s much more raucous than her usual fare, with more jangle than psych. And, finally, I’ll mention “Rumblings,” which features the guitars playing mostly a single note/chord throughout the whole song, while Beer sings a quiet minimalist melody. I don’t want to neglect the strong contributions of Terry Quill (guitar and vocals) and Jim Andrews (drums and vocals). In particular, Andrews’ drumming has just the right light touch to keep a steady beat and embellish the songs without falling into the trap many drummers do when they add too many fills and become overwhelming. A Cast of Thousands is one of those bands that toil endlessly without enough recognition. They play unassuming songs for unassuming folks, and I like that pretty much.
NATIONAL HONOR SOCIETY – To All The Distance Between Us (Shelflife Records, www.shelflife.com)
Hailing from Seattle, National Honor Society play light, airy pop music that mixes dreaminess and 80s pop with adult contemporary and easy listening aesthetics. Their sophomore LP, “To All The Distance Between Us,” is a mixed bag for me. Some tracks are interesting, such as the opener, “As She Slips Away,” which has elements of mod and psych. The song sparkles lightly and gently, and there’s a hint of 1960s pop here, too. The next track, “Control,” is about as raucous as the band gets on this outing (which is a lot less than their debut LP, “To All The Glory We Never Had,” which has some tracks that show their Seattle roots). It’s got a quicker pace and more emphatic guitars. It starts out with a thumping bass drum and distorted bass, so I though I was in for something with a bit of grunge, and while there are some thick gritty guitars on the track, it’s still pretty airy and has a distinct 80s pop feel. And “Used To Be” is dreamy with a tiny hint of more aggression, but just a hint, coming from the thumping bass and insistent drums. Too many of the songs, though, are too light, feeling a bit bland, like adult contemporary elevator music. “The Following,” for example, has lots of soothing harmonized “ooooh”s in the backing vocals and calming ambient synths playing the light pop melody. “In Your Eyes” sounds like something from a modern day easy listening radio station, designed to relax rather than compel. “Jacqueline” is bouncy and poppy with a retro 50s melody in the chorus, but it, too, is still too fluffy and “inoffensive” for my tastes. If you’re looking for something relaxing to put on in the background, this might be a good choice. If you’re looking for something to get the adrenaline pumping or to engage your mind, this won’t fit the bill.
THE RISHIS – August Moon (Cloud Recordings, cloudrecordings.com)
The Rishis is primarily the duo of Ranjan Avashti and Sofie Lute, but the Georgia pair are joined on this debut LP by a who’s who of American indie music, including Max Schneider (son of Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider), Hilarie Brastet (also of Apples in Stereo), John Fernandes (of Olivia Tremor Control), Scott Spillane (Neutral Milk Hotel), James Huggins III (Of Montreal) and more. Musically, The Rishis are the sort of band you might listen to for relaxation and de-stressing. The songs on this debut LP that was some ten years in the making are soft Americana and folk pop. With such a large group, the instrumentation is a lot sparser than one might think, but there are interesting choices, such as inclusion of clarinet, trumpet, and trombone on some of the songs. Acoustic guitars feature prominently in these songs, too, adding to the understated feel. The opening track, “Holiday,” feels like a Hawaiian vacation, with light acoustic guitars, a pedal steel guitar, and breezy island melody sung and played in a very understated manner. This is the sort of sleepy tropical beach holiday we all dream of, and indeed, the relaxed feel of the song suggests lazing in a hammock, only half awake, the gentle breeze blowing. Other tracks use the steel pedal, too, but to create more of a down home country sound. Such is the case with “Make Me Love You,” a ballad with acoustic guitar and more than a passing resemblance to a torch song version of Loretta Lynn. Then there’s the subtle honky-tonk of “Oh So Young,” with piano taking a prominent role, electric guitar providing a steady pop rhythm and a slight bluesy twang. One favorite track is probably “Migrations” a song that shifts feel between verses and chorus, and has intertwining lines in multiple brass instruments, giving it a chamber orchestra sort of feel. Another is “Wake Up,” another with a big orchestral sound coming from an arrangement that includes multiple wind instruments and a martial rhythm. It’s understated and soft, but has a subtle injection of emotion, and a feeling of hope, an exhortation to open one’s eyes and take one’s place in the world. “Uttar Pradesh” closes the album with something that isn’t Americana, but is folk pop – but not American folk. It’s got a south Asian sound to it, as might be expected by its name (Uttar Pradesh is a state in India). It’s a dreamy instrumental that flows and ebbs like a meandering river. The album is nice and relaxing, but maybe a bit too smooth and easy for many tastes.
TRIPLE FAST ACTION (Forge Again Records, www.forgeagainrecords.com)
Triple Fast Action was a Chicago alternative rock band that was formed by former members of Rights of the Accused, a beloved Chicago hardcore punk and metal band of the 1980s. TFA existed as a band for a mere three years in the mid-90s before going their separate ways and taking other jobs in the music industry. During their short lifespan, the band managed to release only two full-length LPs, “Broadcaster” in 1996 via Capitol Records and “Cattlemen Don’t” a year later on Deep Elm Records. They also released three singles and a split 7” but left behind a raft of recordings that never saw the light of day. Enter Forge Again Records some 25 years after the band’s demise to drag those tracks down from the attic and slap them onto a triple LP/double CD release of demos, rarities, and unreleased songs, celebrating the storied quartet. This collection is massive, spanning two hours of music in some 32 tracks. That’s a lot of music! Maybe too much for anyone in one sitting. I’m not going to give you a full track rundown here, because I’m writing a review, not a book! But let’s talk about the overall sound and a few of the notable songs. They definitely had a power pop meets grunge thing going on. They’ve sometimes been described as “Cheap Trick meets Nirvana,” and it’s not far off. Much of their output does lean heavily toward the grunge side of things. After all, that was the big thing in the underground music scene during this era. Songs like “Mooner,” the second track of the collection, with the super heavy prominent bass, fuzzed out guitars, and throaty vocals are spot on for the grunge scene. But then there are cool tracks like “Baby’s Got a Brand New Satellite,” with the grunge-filled instrumentals and vocals playing over a loping glam-pop-like rhythm. “I Am” also mixes the grunge tone with more of a power pop melody in the verses and an arena rock feel in the chorus. And one of my favorite tracks, “Do It Again,” picks up the pace with a punk attitude, a pop melody, and grunge tone. Even more different is “Happy,” a track with a jazzy beat and cleaner bass sound, guitars that jangle, and breathy vocals that range from a whisper to a shout, oozing with grunge attitude. And the ballad, “Chlorina,” brings up visions of retro psychedelic rock of the 70s. There’s also some folksy Americana mixed in with the grunge on “Fullerton & Clybourne,” a dark song about madness and murderous thoughts caused by Chicago winters. And this is all just in the first half! The second disc includes alternate recordings of some tracks from the first disc, as well as additional unreleased material, some of which are the best songs of the collection (“Stepping,” in particular, is an amazing song that imagines a grunge-like Stereolab, and there’s a great glam-pop cover of “Mr. Blue Sky,” the ELO hit, as well as a gritty version of The Beach Boys’ “And Then I Kissed Her”). Triple Fast Action were an underappreciated band during their short tenure. But now you can hear them in all of their 90s alternative glory and make your own set lists out of all this material!
BODY MAINTENANCE – Beside You (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)
Australian band Body Maintenance have finally released their debut full-length LP, more than five years after their first three-song demo and two years after their first proper EP. Sonically the band play a brand of pre-goth post-punk, similar to a lot of music that was being made in the early and mid eighties. Everything here is dripping with reverb: the guitars, the vocals, the synths, bass, and drums. Everything here has a dark foreboding sound. The PR materials blast lazy comparisons to Joy Division and suggest a more direct lineage from Blitz’ “Second Empire Justice” LP, which made me scramble to dig my copy out for a comparison. I don’t think I’d ever compare Body Maintenance to Joy Division; there’s just a different vibe. I get the Blitz comparison, though Body Maintenance is a little more solemn sounding where Blitz, in that era, still retained a bit of their raucous punk edge. Another band I’ll compare them to is “Beneath the Shadows” era TSOL, when they, too, injected a dose of goth in their music, loaded up on reverb, and included keyboards (piano in their case) in the arrangements. “Silver Yarns” is the opening track, and one of the most lively of the nine on offer. Baritone vocals bellow out, the drums create a crashing cacophony the bass thumps rapidly in double-time, and the guitars create a spacey backdrop. Many of the tracks are dreamy and atmospheric, like “Time Enough,” which goes heavy on the synths, the guitar quietly jangling in the background, the drums providing a steady foundation, and vocals pulled back in the mix to make them sound distant. Some songs have a distinct dance beat, too, including “It’s Theater,” which has lush synths, deadpan vocals, solid bass and drum underpinnings, and a lonely sounding guitar solo. I wish there was a little more variation and bigger dynamic range among these songs, because there is a sameness to the texture throughout the album, but if you’re into the whole retro goth post-punk sound, you can’t go wrong with this fairly solid debut.
BROADWAY CALLS – A Little Shake (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
Two more new songs from Broadway Calls, what’s not to like? The “A-side” of this virtual single is the title track, and it’s classic Broadway Calls: brilliant melodic punk with a poppiness to it. It’s jangly and bright, like all good Broadway Calls tunes. The “B-side” is “Dreamin’,” a quieter song with just electric guitar and vocals, but it’s not quite a ballad. The title is apt, because there’s a dreamy quality to the song, especially as it evolves and synths start filling the background with ambience. Two more great songs added to the Broadway Calls catalog and set lists? Check!
HUNTING LIONS – Light (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
It seems like only a few weeks ago I was reviewing an EP from this punk super-group that was titled “Dark,” maybe because it was. Here’s the companion EP, now, the five-song “Light.” And while I enjoyed and recommended that EP, this one’s even better. The first EP focused on a street punk sound, but this one has more pop and melodic content in it, and more thoughtful creativity. The opening track, “Little Girl,” is a top song of the year contender, from the scratchy renaissance fanfare like opening to the Blitz inspired melodic punk, from the soaring guitars to the gorgeous tuneful vocals. That one song would be enough to recommend the EP, but there are four others, too, all good. “Maggie’s Date” is a warm rock and roll tune with a hint of a mournful 50s doo-wop feel going on, while “Good Riddance” is a hard driving song that rips an unnamed person apart, someone who’s “bad rubbish.” The closing track is “Nothing Wrong,” an earnest self-defense in the face of critics and accusers. But wait, that’s only four tracks! This EP also contains a punk rock cover of Bruce Springsteen’s classic, “Hungry Heart.” The grittiness of this rendition really brings the lyrics to life, about someone who has a need for companionship but has difficulties with commitment. Like I said, this EP is even better than “Dark,” so this too is recommended.
JETLAG JENNY – Loser When It Comes to Love (White Russian Records, www.whiterussianrecords.nl)
Super slick and poppy pop punk from Europe. Think a Dutch version of Sum 41 or Blink 182 mixed with the even more pop oriented aesthetics of 5 Seconds of Summer and you’ll get the idea. For the most part the songs on this album are up-tempo, bright, light, fluffy songs that are radio-ready (or I guess these days, streaming service ready). An outlier is the pop ballad, “Sunday Morning,” which is quiet and solemn, with acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals (including guest harmonizing vocals from Mayleaf’s Ilah van der Haas). Just after the halfway point the rest of the band comes in and it becomes a huge ballad. Pretty standard pop fare, really. The album is fairly non-descript, but if you’re a fan of commercial pop punk, you may enjoy it.
>THE LEN PRICE 3 – Chinese Burn (Wicked Cool Records, wickedcoolrecords.com)
The Len Price 3 may be a new name for many Jersey Beat readers, and that would be because they’re a UK band. But if you’re a fan of the classic garage rock sound, they’re a must listen. “Chinese Burn” was the band’s debut LP – way back in the heyday of garage rock of --- 2005? Yes, a mere eighteen years ago. In that era, few albums received a vinyl release, and “Chinese Burn” was no exception. The band have long been associated with Wicked Cool Records, who re-released this debut in the US in 2007. But now it receives a proper vinyl treatment, plus there’s a download for four previously unreleased songs. The original fifteen songs spanning just over half an hour are some great garage and power pop with a British invasion edge. “Christian in the Desert” is the opening track and is one of the best of the album, with a fantastic 60s garage rock sound, reminiscent of The Kinks’ classic “All Day and All of the Night,” except with a more energetic tempo and rougher mien. Songs like the title track are less deep garage and more power pop, but the songs are universally spirited and raucous, and for a garage junky like me, they’re a welcome addition to my music library. Then there’s “The Last Hotel,” a slower, pretty, jangly pop tune that’s clearly English in origin, cribbing from The Who’s hit, “The Kids are Alright.” I won’t dwell longer on the original tracks, because many others have written about them long ago. There are four songs here recorded at various times in the past but never before released. Often it’s because the band isn’t happy with the songs, or because of time limitations. “Dorolea” is another song that’s got Kinks-like riffs but roughed up a bit. “Ten Tonne Love” is another one that you’ll swear you’ve heard before, so familiar are the sounds, but no, it’s an original song, with a loping tempo and a head bobbing melody. “Break Your Neck” was recorded for the “Pictures” LP (2010) and is about a 17th century executioner. According to front man Glenn Page, it was “an odd one out,” so was excluded from the album. It’s certainly a dark gritty track with a deep garage feel and surf rock guitar licks. And “Badeye” is a jangly power pop tune with an emphatic rhythm. I said it at the start of the review and I’ll say it again: this is a must listen for all fans of retro garage and power pop music.
ILL COMMUNICATION – Doomsday Brigade (Safe Inside Records, www.safeinsiderecords.com)
Ill Communication is Southern California youth crew hardcore, like straight edge music from the 90s, blended with big melodic rock and roll, bordering on arena rock. Think bands like Turning Point and Inside Out, but more slickly produced. Most of the tracks are crunchy metallic stuff that you’ll remember from your youth if you were into the whole straight edge scene. There are plenty of big gang vocals, and lots of heavy metallic chugga-chugga bass and guitars. But some of the songs blend in smoother melodic rock, too. One example of this is “Flip the Switch,” which starts out with the same crackling hardcore, but listen to the smooth soaring melody that underlies the song. And “Search for A.C.” starts out hammering hard, but halfway through it slows to a dirge and gets all spaced out, like a soundtrack from a post-apocalyptic film. But for the most part this is a mix of 90s hardcore and metal. Listen to the metal guitar licks on songs like “Soul, Brains & Guts” or “Forever War, Forever Ill.” You’ll wonder if the band members have shaved heads or big fluffy hair! One humorous moment comes at the start of “Crucial Connection,” where there’s a reference to the fact that the band is made up of grizzled veterans that have played in bands and toured the country for a long time. We hear a clip from some movie, where one guy says, “"I don't know if we need all this hipster bullshit." “Fuck hipsters,” comes the reply, “I've been doing this shit thirty years!” The track that follows is some of the purest 90s straight edge hardcore you’ll find in this decade. I can enjoy some of this style of hardcore in small doses, but the smoother more melodic rock stuff doesn’t do it for me at all.
WOLVES & WOLVES & WOLVES & WOLVES – CurseCurseCurse (A-F Records, www.a-frecords.com / Gunner Records, gunnerrecords.com)
Finally, a follow-up to the excellent 2016 LP, “The Cross and the Switchblade.” Seven years is a long time to wait for a new album, but with this North Carolina band, it’s worth the wait. As with that last LP, the powerful lead vocals are gritty and grimy while the instrumentals pound and pummel. The music is warm and melodic, and these tracks are packed with emotional content. I love the opening track, “Hey Run Away,” which has the striding feel of an Off With Their Heads song without the depressing lyrics and suicidal thoughts. Another notable track is “Oh Catalonia,” for its use of mandolin in the arrangement and for its broad sound, reminding me of Beach Slang (a band that made a huge splash and burned out quickly). I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, every track is strong. And as strong as the album is and as great as every full band song is, the closing tracks of each side of the album are gorgeous stripped back numbers, the passion coming through even more clearly. “Same Old Sin” is a song that decries the mistakes we keep making as a species, never learning from the past. Just electric guitar, tambourine, and pleading desperate vocals convey more emotion than you might imagine. “Raging Wind” ends the B-side with just vocals and acoustic guitar, and lyrics about the struggle within each of us between our “better angels” and the “demons in my head.” The desperation is palpable in the pleading vocals. Seven years is too long to wait for new music. I hope Wolvesx4 doesn’t wait seven more years for the next LP; they’re too good to stay in hibernation.
WORRIERS – Warm Blanket (Ernest Jenning Record Co., www.ernestjenning.com)
Over the course of the last decade, three previous LPs, and several singles and EPs, Lauren Denitzio has tried hard to make Worriers a real band. They’ve toured hard, too, in various configurations. But in the past few years, Denitzio has come to the realization that Worriers really is a solo project. To that end, on this fourth full-length LP, they’ve gone solo – almost. Denitzio plays everything but the drums, which were provided remotely for some tracks by Atom Willard (Rocket from the Crypt, The Offspring, Against Me! and others). In that sense, this is almost like a debut, and the sound is certainly different from the previous albums. The songs are more subdued, sadder sounding, and certainly more stripped back. The resulting nine songs are more effective at laying emotions bare, as well as exposing the gorgeous melodies that Denitzio writes. The opening track, “Doom Scrolling,” by definition is about wallowing in bad news. The song is stripped back to just bass, drums, and vocals, and lyrics speak to the deterioration of society and the desire to escape civilization before it all collapses. The song seems to have been born out of the daily death reports during the pandemic and the flight from cities to avoid illness. I love the strong backbeat and the ethereal backing vocals that give this song the feel of a ghostly echo of an early 80s pop tune. Even a song that would normally be one of the more raucous tracks on the record, “Power Pop Mixtape,” is dialed back, making it feel more introspective, as if examining one’s own relationship with the musical genre rather than celebrating it. Denizio’s normally matter of fact vocals give way to something lighter and bubblier on most of the track, and toward the end they burst into something glorious and soaring. I’m struck by the sadness of “Creep,” a song about the disintegration of a relationship that never worked to begin with. The changing lyrics in the short chorus reflects the evolution: “I don’t think that you’re a creep but I know that you do,” becomes “You don’t think that you’re a creep but you know that they do,” and then finally “You don’t think that you’re a creep but you know that I do.” These are people who never really knew each other growing even further apart. There’s only electric guitar and Denitzio’s vocals on this one, and it sounds filled with quiet resignation. Ambient synths that provide the backdrop for “Pollen In The Air” cast a pall over the poppy melody, and the contrast that results makes for a memorable song. Then there’s “Never Quite Kicks In,” which sounds like, with a full band arrangement, it would be much bigger and brighter, but here Denitzio sticks to just a keyboard tuned to a buzzy waveform, and the lyrics about life as a highly sensitive person, wanting to “quiet quit” to find peace and avoiding social interactions with friends. The song ends with a revelation: “Can’t see what you don’t believe in with your blinders on, ‘cause you’re not the problem, it never quite kicks in.” We need to step outside ourselves sometimes to reevaluate the sources of what we perceive as problems in our life. I’ve always enjoyed Worriers’ songs, but with this simpler more austere version of Worriers, there’s no hiding, and the feelings and melodies are made manifest. Bravo.
LIGHTWEIGHT – The Next One’s On You (lightweightpunk.bandcamp.com)
OK, it’s official. They say “third time’s the charm,” and this third EP in a series over the past year has cemented Lightweight as one of my favorite current pop punk bands. The Sacramento, California quartet’s first two EPs, released last year, both made my “Best of 2022” list. And this new one is sure to make my 2023 list. This EP is certainly quite different from the other two, though, with songs that are sweeter and more wistful, though still with that gravelly pop punk sound. There are four songs this time out. “Uncertain Marigold” has big jangly guitars, lead vocals that are alternately huge and subdued, and lyrics about failed attempts at self-care and the realization that you need outside help. The tempo is fairly slow, but the song is bursting with energy. “I Should Know Better, Whatever” comes next, and is brighter and at a moderate pace, with dark lyrics about self-medication, faking your way through life, fucking up, and losing friendships. Next up, and probably my favorite song of this EP, is “Slam Drunk,” a song about our attachment to places (“I dropped a piece of myself in Sacramento / I never wanted San Francisco / On my way home back to Chico / It seems I’m losing pieces of me everywhere, everywhere I go.”). There’s lot of big gang vocals and call and response vocals on this one, and while it’s huge and a likely crowd pleaser for drunken sing-alongs, it’s got an air of melancholy to it. “No Goodbyes” is gorgeous, starting with quiet lead vocals, somber guitars, and shouted backing vocals sounding like they’re coming from another room. The arrangement here uses drums very sparingly and is very atmospheric, using massive amounts of reverb to give the song a lonely sound. Lyrics are about growing older, growing apart, and the difficult decision to leave a place. The end of this track, with competing melodic lines between the vocals and guitars, will send a chill down your spine. What a great EP. Yeah, Lightweight. You gotta get on this band.
MELONBALL – Breathe (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com / Lockjaw Records, www.lockjawrecords.co.uk)
Punk has been a global phenomenon for decades, and so has skateboarding. The two have been inextricably intertwined for nearly as long as both have existed, the aggressive riffs of punk meshing well with the aggressive moves and tricks of skating. So it’s no surprise that skate punk, particularly the aggressive and metallic form of skate punk that emerged in the 1990s, has flourished globally, too. Melonball hails from Nuremburg, Germany, formed in 2019, and Breathe represents the band’s debut LP. The band have embraced the modern skate punk genre, though they temper the darker and more metallic aspects with plenty of pop-tinged melody and strong tuneful lead vocals. That said, the opening track, “Sicker,” is one of the darker and edgier tracks of the album, with hard rocking power chords and guitar solos, and lyrics about conflicts between personal identity and family heritage. Following that is one of the speedier tracks of the album, “Sinking,” fulfilling the definition of modern skate punk. The guitars and rhythm section play a double-time rhythm and the vocals seem to float above the instrumentals. The song calls out posers who brag about themselves, but really have no accomplishments of their own, always riding on the coattails of others, and what happens when their lies are discovered. “Break a Leg” and “Rage” are favorites, with a little bit of a brighter, poppier punk sound to help dispel the darkness of the bulk of the album (It’s ironic that a song titled “Rage” would have a brighter and not quite as metallic sound). The speedy “We All Go Down” alternates between melodic and metallic, but is always energetic, as is every song here. “Fast Forward” is one of the darkest tracks of the album, both musically and lyrically. It speaks to the international refugee crisis, with people fleeing life-threatening situations, be it war or drug cartels or violent gangs. It’s about how wealthy western nations treat them poorly, forcing them into squalid conditions, if they allow them entry at all, and how some politicians use fear and hatred of non-white foreigners as scapegoats for political gain. The track that’s the most different from the rest has to be “Whatever,” which has ska guitars and rhythms in parts and more of a fun, easy going sound. Melonball aren’t breaking new musical ground, but they’re a solid player in the skate punk world. I want to make special mention of the band’s strongest aspect, and that’s Oli’s lead vocals. Her singing is particularly good.
Some of San Diego’s rock royalty gathered together, initially planning to form a Tom Petty tribute band. It’s made up of front man Timothy “TJ” Joseph (Buckfast Superbee) on guitar and vocals, Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes), Chris Prescott (Pinback, No Knife) on drums, and Brian Desjean (No Knife) and Chris Torres on bass. But TJ discovered nuance and inspiration in Petty’s songwriting, soon deciding to write original material and changing the course of the band. The music on this debut LP is unlike that made by the members’ other bands, focused on smooth relaxed indie rock rather than punk or punk-influenced material. TJ’s tuneful vocals have just a hint of rasp, and give the songs warmth, making them feel like a cozy blanket you can wrap yourself in. The tempos are all in the moderate range, nothing too fast or too slow, and the guitars lightly jangle and sparkle. “Blue Glass,” the second track of the album, makes great use of reverb to create a gorgeous shimmer, as the drums pound out a syncopated rhythm. I like the loping sound of the song, “miniaturized,” with its emphatic rhythm, a cool whimsical melody rooted in power pop, and lyrics that speak to the basic fact that people are all the same, with no one better than anyone else, and all with the same ultimate fate (The chorus declares, “miniaturized, we all end up exactly the same size / miniaturized, all of us exactly the same / miniaturized, we all end up to see the other side.”). Power pop plays a role in the melody, too, of “The Suitor,” a track with a big sound that reminds me of a lot of the great guitar-based rock music being made in the late 70s and early 80s, with hints of REM in the backing guitar arrangements. TJ’s bright vocals are multi-tracked and harmonized beautifully. “Right There” is a favorite, with a slightly slower tempo, but a bright sound (the sound is bright throughout, thanks to production assistance from Mitch Easter (who also played guitars, bass, and keyboards on some tracks). “Peligroso” is veritably orchestral in its arrangement, with muted and unmuted trumpets along with the thick lush guitars on this ballad. miniaturized isn’t averse to exploring Americana, either; the song “Gemstone” has a distinct down-home flavor without getting twangy. miniaturized’s debut LP has a soothing sound that’s perfect for listening to as you cuddle with your special someone on a cold evening.
THE SPEEDWAYS – Talk of the Town (Kool Kat Musik, https://www.koolkatmusik.com/)
The Speedways, from jolly old England, digitally released this album of power pop tunes last autumn, but now, just in time for spring, Kool Kat Musik gives it a proper physical release. Power pop has long been a staple of rock and roll, but there seems to have been a strong resurgence in popularity over the past couple of years, with more and more bands releasing power pop records all over the world. In the UK, The Speedways are leading the charge, fueled by their evident influences of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. Yeah, the press materials stated those influences, but I had come to that conclusion before ever reading the PR blurb. You’ll feel transported back to 1979 right from the start, with the opening track, “Dead From The Heart Down,” even with its cheesy heart beat and flat line tone sound effects at the start and end of the song. It’s a classic sounding song, one that would have been a radio hit back in the day. There isn’t a bad track on this LP of thirteen songs and 42 minutes, a remarkable feat. There are some great standouts, though. Besides the opening track, The Speedways give us “Shoulda Known,” a tune that sounds like it could have come from one of Elvis Costello’s early LPs. I love the retro pop jangle of “Kiss Me Goodbye,” and the cool minimalism of “Strange Love.” “Weekend 155” has a great atmospheric feel, a little less bright and cheery and bit darker and more mysterious sounding. And “Taken” delves even further back in musical history, with a song that lets me know The Speedways study from the Lennon-McCartney songbook, too. If you’re a fan of power pop, this is essential listening.
STAY OUT – Just Pretend (Wrist Rocket Records, www.wristrocketrecords.com)
Stay Out is a Bay Area punk band that’s been around for a bit, and Just Pretend is their third full-length LP. It’s got some variety and sub-genre hopping going on in it. For example, the title track that opens the album is emo-ish West Coast pop punk, while the next tracks, “Aang,” and “Life’s So Lonely,” are heavier on the pop and have a strong sound of early Green Day. I hear Ramones-core meets hardcore in some songs, like the funny-punk “Kreature” and “Mothman,” and mid-80s California punk in others. “Nothing With Me” has a darkness to it, unlike the bright pop in other tracks. Then there are the latter day 90s and later pop punk sounds in songs like “Don’t Trust Your Government” and “See You Space Cowboy.” The album is kind of all over the place – which can be a good thing if you like variety. My favorite tracks are those poppier ones, but I’ve always been a sucker for late 80s Gilman pop punk. This is like having a whole show in one LP. Fun stuff.
THE BOUNCING SOULS – Ten Stories High (Pure Noise, www.purenoise.net)
I’ve never been a follower of The Bouncing Souls, making me an outlier in the punk scene. Their last studio LP, “Simplicity,” was my first exposure to them, and I really enjoyed that album. That came out seven years ago, which is a long time to go without new music. But thankfully they’re here with ten new songs that are almost universally bright and poppy with a punk edge. I say punk edge because it’s hard to call them punk these days; the music is much more in the indie rock genre. Nevertheless, The Bouncing Souls show that even after 35 years they still can craft great songs, full of pop and energy. The album opens with the title track, and it’s one of the best of the record, with just the right balance of melody and power, big vocals, a metronomic pounding rhythm, and huge guitars. “Back To Better” is the closest the band get to punk this time out, with a speedier grittier sound, but still with a strong melodic sense. In some ways this song reminds me of Descendents. “Another Day in Denver” is probably my overall favorite track, with the simplest yet strongest melodic line, the most enthusiastic vocals, great backing vocals that contrast with the leads, and some great tempo shifts. I like, too, the loping feel of “Shannon’s Song,” which has a somewhat slower tempo, but no less of a big sound, with huge power chords. This song also has the biggest dynamic changes of the album, morphing into a smooth quiet one halfway through the song to finish it out. “To Be Human” is the one song that’s outside the mold of the rest of the album, with a harder, edgier sound, devoid of pop brightness. The verses are almost gritty, while the chorus smoothly soars. I hear hints of Bad Religion in this one. The album closes with “Higher Ground,” which I’m sure will be a crowd pleaser at the live shows, with its big anthemic sound and plenty of sing-along opportunities. But to my ears it’s the weakest song of the album, sounding a little too generic, a little too forced, like they were trying to create a big arena song. It’s not a bad song; it just doesn’t match up to the rest of the album. Which is a good one.
PUBLIC SERPENTS – The Bully Pulpit (SBÄM Records, shop.sbam.rocks)
Don’t call Public Serpents “ska punk,” because that tired term conjures up images of suburban pop punk bands with horns, and that’s not what this band is. Call them ska core, if you must label them. Their music has a basis in ska, for sure, and they’ve got the horns, but they’re much more informed by hardcore and crust than they are by pop punk. The music is crunchy and gritty, sometimes speedy and sometimes slow and grinding. It makes sense if you know that the band’s front man is none other than Skwert, of the legendary band, Choking Victim (some of whose members went on to play in Leftöver Crack). Many people know I’m not really a “ska person” (I’ll go to ska shows to support my friends’ bands, but otherwise don’t go out of my way for it). But Public Serpents is one of two contemporary bands that play ska-based music that’s unique and very creative, the other being the UK’s Faintest Idea. And like their British brethren, Public Serpents inject their songs with political and social commentary, such as on the anti-war anthem, “Armageddon Stomp.” The guitars crunch deeply over the loping rhythm, while Skewrt’s vocals are alternately gritty and throaty or deep and guttural. Listen to “Not Forever,” an ostensibly ska tune, but it’s sped up and gritted up, like taking Op Ivy and making it more ska-influenced than it already was. Speaking of Op Ivy, there’s a strong East Bay streak through many of the songs here, none more than “Farewell,” which may be my favorite track of the LP. The verses are pretty standard ska, while the chorus is brash punk (and reminds me of current San Diego band, Se Vende). “Burning My Eyes” is different from a lot of the tracks, with a dark edgy post hardcore sound, leaving the horns to take a break. Another different sounding track is ”Why Can’t I Tell,” which has sections that feel a bit like Celtic punk with what sounds like a tin whistle, though most of the track is great noisy chaotic punk, also eschewing the horns and ska sound. “Half Mast” also drops the horns to create a hard-driving metallic hardcore track with an interesting reggae vibe underlying some of it. But the most unique and wonderful track of this album is the title track, which blends Eastern European folk music and hardcore into an amazing chaotic mess of distortion, and is about those who use a “bully pulpit” to bully and divide the population, keeping us distracted from the real source of society’s ills. I’m not a “ska person,” but when the music is this great, sign me up! According to the press materials for this record, Skwert said, “My whole life is invested in this. Artistically, physically and mentally, I’d probably die without it…there literally would be no point in living at this point.” Rest easy, Skwert, and keep on living and making more great records like this.
STAR FUNERAL – In the Dark (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, cylsrecords.com)
“In the Dark” represents the debut LP for Star Funeral, the solo project of Nikki Esposito, who plays guitar and bass on this LP, as well as singing and writing the songs. Drums are courtesy of Ethan Kreidemaker. The music in the eight songs presented is hazy stuff, with a dark pall, a somber character. Esposito’s vocals are tuneful, but feel stiff, sung in deadpan throughout, in a matter of fact manner. The tempos don’t vary between songs, there are no dynamic changes, with everything being at the same volume level, and the instrumentals feel lethargic. The result is somewhat lugubrious, creating the impression of sorrow, though the vocals belie this, sounding more unfeeling in the face of sadness. Adding to this are lyrics that are speak about the bleakness of life, solitude, emptiness, and so on. I don’t know that I like the sentiment behind “Outgrow,” the album’s second track. Its refrain says “You outgrow people just like you outgrow your clothes.” This implies that friendships and relationships might be subject to one’s personal growth. I have friendships that extend back for many years, and if the friendship is real, it can withstand personal changes. It’s a selfish idea that someone has to be on the same page with me on everything to be my friend. This is the concept of the echo chamber that’s tearing the country apart. Just as we should value diversity for the different experiences that can create a stronger whole, diversity in friendships can enrich our lives. I had a hard time getting into this record.
THE TEARAWAYS – And For Our Next Trick (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)
Dirty Water Records is a UK label best known for championing the garage and rock and roll revival. Dirty Water: dirty music for dirty people may as well be their tagline, because their usual fare is music from the seedy back alleys and dark underbelly of rock and roll. And thank the gods for it! But Dirty Water has been branching out lately, and their new release from California’s The Tearaways is a good example of this. The band has much cleaner sound than is typical of Dirty Water releases, blending 70s power pop with 60s California beach pop and British Invasion sounds. The music is bright and sunny, just like the band’s Santa Barbara hometown, and it’s chock full of jangly guitars and beautifully harmonized vocals. Check out the track, “Are You Fucking Kidding Me,” which is included in both regular and radio edit versions. It sounds like a cross between The Beatles and 70s glam, and is sure to get your head nodding and your toes tapping. “Come On Jaan” strongly channels the Beatles, too, with its harmonies, melody, rhythm, guitar licks. I enjoy the rolling sounds of “Not Good Enough For Me,” that feeling coming from the power of the rhythm section, and the harmonized vocals meshing well with the retro guitar riffs. The previously released single, “Charlie, Keith, and Ringo,” is a brilliant homage to the drummers for The Rolling Stones, The Who, and the Beatles,” harkening back to big 70s arena glam rock sounds. This is an unexpected release from Dirty Water Records, but it’s a welcome one.
THE CLAMOR (theclamor.bandcamp.com)
This is the debut LP from the new New York musical outfit led by Aaron Louis. Louis, the Audio Visual director of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and previously of the musical group Dandelion Wine, calls this his latest “punk” project. But it bears little resemblance to any punk I’ve ever heard. Instead, it’s got elements of post-punk, art rock, rock and roll, dub, jazzy funk, and hop-hop. It’s a compelling mix of genres that, despite seeming like it wouldn’t work, is engrossing, drawing me in after a couple of listens. Some of the tracks are bouncy as hell, like “Cardiac Soundtrack.” It’s got a funky beat, the warmth of electric organ, and minimalist melody with riffs bouncing from instrument to instrument. We get songs like “Nerve and Vein,” with a funky jazz arrangement a la Chicago, complete with trumpet, a reggae dub rhythm, and hip-hop inspired vocals. Another favorite is “PANIC!” It’s got a darker sound, angular melody, and vocals dripping with mystery. The dub sound comes back here, too, with a strong backbeat in the keyboards. “bell the cat” (capitalization is absent in this title) has a cool breezy island feel to it and great dueling trumpets. The tracks here may not be punk, but they’re creative and varied. This is an enjoyable LP.
HUNTING LIONS – Dark (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
OK, it’s a newish Bay Area band and it features a roster that reads like a who’s who of Bay Area punk, with former members of bands such as Swingin’ Utters, Tiger Army, The Beltones, US Bombs, and more. The five-song EP starts out with a pair of big street punk tunes, “The City” and “KOTA” (King of the Avenue). The former speaks to the sad state of the San Francisco Bay area, with tech companies and their employees pushing out natives and making the city unaffordable for anyone else, turning the cultural mosaic of the city into just another white bread cookie cutter town for rich people. The latter is an homage to California car culture, cruising, and low riding. While the first is dark and pessimistic, the latter is bright and cheery, with big gang vocals. The middle track of the EP, “War,” is a song that’s darker, more pessimistic, and more aggressive, with somewhat of a “Fat Wreck Chords” sound. “BNO” is more rock and roll, reminding me of Chicago’s long ago band, The Slammin’ Watusis. And the closing track, Dead Generation, channels Operation Ivy. With the exception of “BNO,” you can tell this is the consummate Bay Area band. Recommended.
LUCIAS MALCOLM – Past, Present and Future Regrets (luciasmalcolm.bigcartel.com)
Front man for the UK ska-punk band, Call Me Malcolm, Lucias Malcolm has stepped away from his comfort zone to present his debut solo LP. Not only does he not have his band mates with him (he plays everything on this album), his songs are in a completely different genre than we’re used to from him. Rather than bright ska-punk and poppy punk, Malcolm’s solo work is deeply rooted in the 90s melodic punk tradition. Some of the songs are big and dark, like some of the best-known bands of the genre. The opening track, “Kill It With Fire,” sets that tone, with big powerful guitars, bass, and drums, and Malcolm’s tuneful vocals singing the gloomy sounding melody. My interpretation of the lyrics to this are about Malcolm’s desire to reinvent himself with this record. One line says, “30 minutes let me share my insides,” while the chorus sings, “Let’s burn it down / Delete and start again.” Most of the album has this dark melodic punk sound that was so popular in the 90s and 2000s (and has been making a big comeback). But not all of the tracks strictly follow that formula. Some of them are brighter and have a bit of pop in the melody. “Zero-Sums Game” is one such track; the melody practically sparkles, though the lyrics bring the darkness here. “I quit drinking to try drowning instead,” the first verse opens, and it ends with “I’m self-medicated by a major neglect.” The song seems to speak to a life that could be great, but which the protagonist keeps fucking up (“This could be heaven, but there is hell to pay today,” shouts the chorus). “No Spoilers But Everyone Dies At The End” is another big poppy song, with bright melody belying the dark themes the song contains. Of the track, Malcolm says, "’No Spoilers’ is about a theoretical future break up. At its heart, it's a love song, but about a love soon to be lost. It's about depression's effect on relationships, the tendency it has to make us self-destructive, and how on a long enough timeline everything must come to an end.” The shortest song of the album, at a mere 45 seconds, nevertheless packs a punch of message. “A Love Letter to My Future Selves” admonishes us to live in the present. Worrying about the future leads to ignoring what’s in front of you now and missing opportunities. Dwelling on past failures, likewise, stifles forward progress. The song has bright synths prominently in the mix, a big bouncy beat, and one of the most positive messages of the record: live for the now. And I think that’s the message of the album, as a whole. Earlier songs show how destructive overthinking life can be, spinning in circles worrying about what has been and what may be. I think I like these poppier songs best and wish there were more of them, because they’re great. The other tracks are good, too; every track is well executed. If you’re a fan of epic melodic punk, you can’t go wrong with this LP.
ED RYAN – A Big Life (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Power pop, AM bubblegum, new wave, and show tunes, all rolled into one? Yep, that’s Ed Ryan, all right, and it can be heard on his other records, as well. But on this latest record he also injects a bit more roots rock. This can be heard on songs like “As I Am,” a track that’s less pop and more rock, maybe with a hint of Americana. That’s not to say it’s devoid of melody; Ryan’s songs are always very tuneful. It’s just that the focus is more on the rock feelings than on the poppiness. Get a load of the arena rock guitar solo on this track, too! Ryan plays all the instruments, as is his usual, and he also wrote everything, recorded it all, and produced. So it’s a true solo effort. “Wonder,” too, with its acoustic guitars, electric organ, and overdubbed harmonized vocals, sounds more like 70s folk-influenced roots rock. And check out the lightly rockin’ “You Keep Me Up All Night,” with its pop rock edge. But most of the tracks are Ryan’s good old guitar fueled pop music. The opening track, “Settle Down,” is a perfect example. Simple, poppy, and bouncy, the track includes some buzzy synths in the background, and the overall feel of the track is super bright. Songs like “Lighthouse” are jangly, bubbly and ready for a stage, sounding like they could have come from a Broadway show. “Testify,” too, has a big optimistic pop sound, you can hear the hope emanating from the melody. Then there’s “Dreaming Moon,” easily my favorite track of the album. It’s slower, but not quite a ballad, has acoustic guitars, and a great blend of folk rock and British Invasion. It’s just such a nice understated tune. The closing track, “Overnight Romance,” has a bit of an R&B feel, sounding like a sideways cover of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” as popularized by The Blues Brothers. I said this about Ryan in my review of his previous LP, and I’ll say it again: these songs are energetic and fun.
THE VAN PELT – Artisans & Merchants (Spartan Records, www.spartanrecords.com)
The Van Pelt were one of those “it” bands back in the 1990s. Their first LP, “Stealing from Our Favorite Thieves, as well as their storied live shows, made them the darlings of critics and fans and the target for big label A&R piranhas. The band eschewed the spotlight, worrying it would lead to crashing and burning prematurely. Yet crash and burn is what they did. After their follow-up LP, “Sultans of Sentiment,” failed to receive the accolades that “Stealing” did, the band broke up in the midst of recording a third LP. That record finally saw the light of day in 2014, as the band began playing some reunion shows. “Sultans” had begun to receive appreciation over the years, too, and the band began writing again. Fast forward to 2023, and The Van Pelt is back in force with their fourth full-length LP. The band was noted for their abstract lyrics and artful arrangements, and such is the case here. The music is lush and dreamy, but not typical dream pop; it’s got more of an orchestral feel. The music ebbs and flows while lyrics are sometimes sung, sometimes spoken. Listening to The Van Pelt is an immersive emotional experience rather than a cerebral one. It’s more about the feeling than the message, at least to me. I think this is why many have lumped The Van Pelt into the “emo” category, even though they bear no resemblance to more “traditional” emo bands. Listening to the title track of this LP, for example, makes me think more of art rock than emo, with coldly spoken lyrics over angular and repetitive riffs and a steady beat. Most songs, though, flow more smoothly, even the track “Punk House,” which relates the experience of playing and staying at such a place, a show that no one came to because there was a bigger show at another venue. In this track, despite the title, the music is dreamy and ethereal, while the lyrics are partially sung and partially conversational. While most tracks have a gentle fluidity to them, “Grid” is the most raucous, with guitars that howl, synths that soar, and an insistent rhythm, vocals spoken loudly and emphatically about a night spiraling out of control, from going to a show, to a house party, to a convenience market, trying to pick up a girl, and everything goes wrong everywhere. The closing track, on the other hand, is the airiest, most gossamer of the album, seeming to float us away. If you like your music to evoke an emotional response rather than pummeling you with an important message, if you prefer a calming sound rather than one that jars, The Van Pelt is going to give that to you.
THE COVIDS – Bust to Bits (Wap Shoo Wap Records, wapshoowaprecords.com)
Formed in the boredom of the pandemic lockdowns from which the band takes its name, The Covids had to wait more than a year before they were able to play live. Now the Dutch group’s debut LP is out, and it’s (mostly) pure, raw, aggressive garage punk. If you take a Denton, Texas band like Marked Men or Radioactivity and inject more pop melody and a hint of old school rock and roll, you have an idea of the sort of sound The Covids have. I particularly like songs such as “Certified (Do It),” which have a strong garage punk feel, but also some 60s throwback garage and some 70s first wave punk. “Spice” is the most aggressive track in an album of powerful cuts, making it a standout. I like the angular rhythms and big muscular guitars on this one, as well as the jabbing backing vocals. Speaking of backing vocals, this album makes great use of them, particularly on the penultimate song, “Downstairs,” where they’re reminiscent of those harmonized backing vocals of R&B tunes of the 60s. The one track I couldn’t get into is the closer, “Drink and Thrive,” which has more of a jam feel than punk. But this is an otherwise solid LP. Word is The Covids are touring the US later this year. I really hope they book a date in San Diego so I can go see them.
THE DECIBELS – When Red Lights Flash (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
It’s the 1960s again, and jangly pop music is ruling the airwaves! At least that will be your conclusion upon listening to The Decibels’ latest LP, their first since 2019’s “Scene, Not Heard.” They started work on this record shortly after that record was released, but certain global events got in the way of finishing it until more recently. The Sacramento, California band’s sound is solidly in the mod and power pop camp, with the sort of music that was all the rave 50 to 60 years ago. The Decibels did a great job at tracking this album, because they put a few of their strongest songs at the start. “Why Bother With Us” opens things with a song that jangles like mad, and the harmonized vocals are spot on. Right after this is “Enough,” a fantastic song, catchy as hell, mostly using a circle of fifths for the chord progression (something that’s more common in jazz than pop or rock). And the bounce of “There's Just Something About You” is incredibly infectious, the bright melody and instrumentals sure to bring a smile to your face and put a spring in your step. After that, the songs, while solid enough, don’t jump out at me quite as much. They have less sparkle, though more power in their pop, musically jumping forward a decade into the 70s. Except for “Say Goodbye,” which blends Beatles-esque pop with a bit of surf, and has a great long instrumental break in the middle. There is another standout there, though – “You Don't Need To Be Afraid” is the most aggressive track of the album, and one that demonstrates the relationship power pop has to pop punk. Good stuff here.
EYELIDS – A Colossal Waste Of Light (Kill Rock Stars. killrockstars.com)
Eyelids are one of those “supergroups” that periodically form because the members have played on the same stage at various times, dig each other’s playing and songwriting, and decide to try something together. In the case of Eyelids, the band features members of bands like Guided By Voices, The Decemberists, Camper Van Beethoven, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and more. The music is solid indie rock, but with various influences from other genres, such as dream pop, indie pop, 70s pop, and even psych. For instance, the opening track has a great Beatles-meets-power pop sound blended with a 90s indie jangle. There are songs that inject a dose of dreaminess without getting too twee, like “Swinging in the Circus,” which is more indie rock than pop, but with a an expansive yet pensive feel. “Runaway Yeah” is another notable track that demonstrates how the band is able to successfully mix jangly pop, power pop, dream pop and more than a bit of psych into one song. One of my favorites of the record is the delicate “That’s Not Real At All,” which has a light jangle to it, particularly in the light touch on the guitars. And another is the gorgeous “Misuse,” a song that shimmers like an acoustic Spiritualized. The record overall is more understated than you might expect from a group made up of such musical luminaries, and though there’s a cohesiveness to the LP, there’s enough variety in textures to keep things more than interesting. This is a solid pleasant listen.
GOOD FRIEND – Tell Me Ma (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
Surprise! Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, Good Friend give us a new single, their first recording since 2020’s “The Erin Rose” EP. The versatile band plays in a wide variety of genres, with the last EP including music ranging from jangly pop to emo-ish to grunge. This new single continues the variety, with the title track being a fun raucous Celtic folk-punk tune, complete with piano in the arrangement and huge backing gang vocals. The B-side, “Preaching to the Choir,” is bouncy indie rock with a hint of folk. A lot of the bounce comes from the oomp-pah bass line on the chorus. Every Good Friend song I’ve ever heard sounds a little but different, and long-time readers of this column know I love variety. That makes Good Friend a band worth listening to, and this single a nice addition to their catalog.
RYAN HAMILTON – Haunted by the Holy Ghost (Wicked Cool Records, wickedcoolrecords.com)
Ryan Hamilton, of Ryan Hamilton and the Traitors and Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequin Ghosts, is back with a fresh new LP of rock and roll under his own name, solo style this time. His music, as usual, ranges from power pop to arena rock, and he’s even got some country rock on this one. The album leads off with “Asshole,” a rockin’ track about wanting to be a better person and a better partner. Lyrics refer to not wanting to be a player, not wanting to spend another night sleeping on the floor, not wanting to be a manipulator anymore and no more one-night stands. In short, “I don’t wanna be an asshole,” as the chorus declares. The title track follows and features power pop with hints of Americana twang, particularly in the chorus. And we get some cool nerdiness a la They Might Be Giants in the song “Paper Planes.” One favorite is the big gritty ballad, “Broke My Heart, Fixed My Vision,” about someone who treated our protagonist poorly, but woke him up to reality. The tempo may be slow, but the music is big, the guitars growling and the vocals soaring with a sense of victory. Heartbreak and bad relationships are a recurring theme on this record, too, as evidenced by the song, “In the Absence of Love,” about life outside a committed relationship, making poor decisions and ending up being miserable. “You’re a magnet for pretty toxic people,” says one verse. “Let them in and let make make themselves at home,” it continues. “Is it too late now, is my heart beyond repair? You cross that line and your heart sinks like a stone.” This one, musically, is also ballad-like, but smoother and more solemn. The closing track goes full-on country, with “Sad Bastard Song,” a song of confession that one is broken and unredeemable, with lines like, “Here’s another sad bastard song / For losers out there like me / I don’t wanna grow up / I know my shit’s fucked up / I’m gonna get stoned and watch TV.” Steel pedal guitar sings out as Hamilton sings self-deprecating lyrics over his acoustic guitar. There’s a whole verse where the only lyric is the word “drink” repeated over and over. There’s even a “hidden” track, a cover of “All My Exes Live in Texas,” done as a rowdy rock and roll song. Most of the songs, though, are just good old power pop and rock. This LP isn’t going to shake the world, but it’s a solid listen if you enjoy power pop and rock.
RYAN ALLEN – The Last Rock Band (Setterwind Records, setterwindrecords.bandcamp.com)
Ryan Allen makes records under a variety of band names, including Extra Arms most recently, but sometimes he releases music under his own name, particularly when he plays everything himself, as he does here. This latest solo LP is a concept album, about a world in which rock and roll is dying, replaced by insipid pop acts. There’s one last rock and roll band left on earth, and this album chronicles its life from the very beginning (“Start a Band”) through rising stardom (“Like the Ramones”), the return from a mistaken detour (“Second Act,” “We Have Returned”), to the reason why people like Ryan make music (“Because I Have To”). Overall the sound is what we’ve come to expect from Allen: power pop blended with raucous punk-tinged indie rock. There are plenty of jangly poppy bits, but the music is mostly emphatic, as if it has a point to make and its desperate to make sure you get it. The story is told in retrospective, with the opening title track being that last band travelling across the country in the hopes that people will still want to listen to their music. It then hops back in time to “Discovery,” which tells the tale of discovering rock music for the first time. This track, with its huge sound of revelation, has to be my favorite of the album. The big backing vocals are just glorious, the whole song a big wall of guitars with big open chords. You can feel the music welcoming our protagonist with open arms. After the band forms and grows in notoriety, there are second thoughts about life on the road and what’s missing in life on the song “Stop the Train.” The song is the most subdued of the record, almost a ballad, and it definitely has a melancholy feel, particularly on the chorus when we hear the lyrics, “I can’t stop the train.” Despite the desire to stop, the band has taken on a life of its own. The dark seedy side of life on the road is explored in “Wrong Place, Wrong Time,” the most punk track of the album. “Bought a Computer” relates the time when, in a fit of madness, our hero gets fed up, burns his guitar, and buys a computer, thinking he’ll just join the legions of others making synthetic music. The song dumps guitars in favor of cheesy synths; it’s the weakest song of the album, feeling thin and uninspired, and I think that’s intentional. We then get the glorious power pop meets arena rock track, “Second Act,” where the narrator realizes where his life really lies, and returns to the life of a rock and roll band. It’s got the same sort of big revelatory feel of “Discovery,” though in a very different genre. “We Have Returned” has a more Americana ballad feel, the band now veterans, and then it picks up and gets more raucous. And the closer, “Because I Have To,” mixes synths and guitars into a big inspirational rock and roll anthem. If you’re a fan of rock music, be it power pop, indie rock, or punk rock, you should be listening to Ryan Allen’s records, including this one.
BABYBABY_EXPLORES – Food Near Me, Weather Tomorrow (No Gold, babybabyexplores.bandcamp.com)
What a marvelous collection of twisted pop tunes! babybaby_explores presents highly experimental songs with angular melodies and arrangements, with vocals to match, and I just love it! It harkens back to the fantastic sort of inventive music being made in the 1980s, championed by the likes of Recommended Records. They’re a trio that includes vocals, synths/drum machine, and electric guitar, but they don’t sound like any contemporary trio making music today that I can think of. Even the album title is fascinating: it consists of the two most Googled phrases. And that’s the least fascinating about this creative group. Every track is captivating in its own way, but I’ll mention some that were highlights for me. The opening track, “Gum,” makes great use of reverb and tape delay, has angular intervals in the melodic line, and manic vocals bordering on anger. The vocalization of a cuckoo clock sound is pretty cool, too. The ominous opening of “Duck Song” gives way to something with a more martial feel, a song demanding action, but with a whimsical chorus. The matter of fact delivery on “Work Chip” makes it sound instructional, like directions for some sort of menial job, even as the instrumentals contrast with a lounge jazz feel. And “Twiddle” is a song about getting stuck with a person who won’t stop talking, won’t let you get a word into the conversation, and how a friend comes to rescue you from the situation. You can hear the exasperation in the vocals, and the haunting guitar sound reflects the horror of the situation. This record isn’t going to be for everyone, but it is truly one of the most inventive records I’ve listened to in a long time, and it’s certainly a candidate for my Best of 2023 list.
BLACK ADIDAS (Dirt Cult Records, dirtcultrecords.com)
They may be from LA, but Black Adidas sounds like a UK band that straddle the line between Oi and pub rock. In US terms, that would make them a “street punk” band. The vocals are sung with a mix of affected British accent and some nasally Mike Ness thrown in. Listening to the opening track, though not as rowdy as an Oi tune, you can hear the drunken swagger in the vocals, the shouted gang vocals injected here and there, and the loping tempo. The thing that’s different is the use of a synths, giving the track a new wave edge, like an 80s UK band trying to expand beyond their punk origins into the new genre. “In My Head,” for instance, reminds me somewhat of the new wave band Modern English and their hit “I’ll Melt With You,” but played more loosely and with a grittier guitar sound. It’s got those soaring synths in the background, just like “Melt.” Then there are songs like “Miscellanious,” which are more like a blend of folk-punk and working class rock and roll, the synths tuned to sound like an organ giving it a warm sound. Some songs wander into singer-songwriter territory, such as “Cool Riffs,” a dialed-back song with acoustic guitar and a lounge-like feel. These seem somewhat out of place on this album, but hey, those pub rock bands always have those slower quieter songs in their set lists. Songs like “Howling at the Moon” kind of feel like cheesy Ramones-core, but played by a pub rock cover band, a little sloppy and with an arrangement that doesn’t quite sound true to the song (in this case it’s piano). Songs like “These Precious Sins” just go straight for the synth-based alt-rock sound. All in all, it’s a very mixed record that never quite hit the mark for me.
CHARMING DISASTER – Super Natural History (charmingdisaster.bandcamp.com)
Charming Disaster is the duo of Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris, plus additional friends on various instruments as needed. They call themselves a “goth-folk” duo, and it’s an apt description, though I would add the word “pop” in there, as well. The songs are inspired by the stories of Edward Gorie and others, revealing an obsession with the macabre and mysterious. Song titles such as “Monsters,” “Grimoire,” “Bat Song,” and “Disembodied Head” cement their place as purveyors of horror. The music ranges from delicate folk to solid pop to show-tune-like, complete with horns and sound effects. “Grimoire,” in particular, sounds like it could come from a stage production of a show about witches. The jazzy horns and tapitty tap of the percussion are fun, as are the lyrics about a particular witch from Africa. A grimoire, for those who don’t know, is a book of spells. “Disembodied Head” is notable for having hints of garage rock influence, but lighter and more lithe. The more pop-centered tracks are light and quirky, and fine enough, but where Charming Disaster excel is in those more folk-oriented songs. Songs like “Bat Song,” with quiet delicate acoustic strings, the distant trumpet, and tight vocal harmonies, are just gorgeous. And “Paris Green,” with its vaguely ethnic folk quality and magical lyrics is fascinating, particularly when the harmonizing trumpets come in at the end. “Wrong Way Home, which closes the album, is the most straightforward folk tune of the album, and the delicate acoustic plucking and harmonized vocals are very pretty. This record is certainly charming. A disaster? Not at all.
FAIM – Your Life and Nothing Else (Safe Inside Records, www.safeinsiderecords.com)
Faim, hailing from Denver, Colorado, is hard-fucking-core. The music on this 8-song 23-minute mini-LP ranges from 90s hardcore to post-hardcore to screamo and even shoegaze. Aggressive? Hell yes. Mid-tempo sludgecore guitars meet manic vocals and angular harmonics in some tracks, while others feature speedy atonal guitars with those same frantic desperate vocals. But what’s most fascinating are the songs where the instrumentals are smoother and more laid back, almost dreamy, while the vocals continue to be an intense onslaught. Songs like “What I Want Back is What I Was,” “Sylvia,” and “The Fallacy of Existence” harken back to 1990s screamo, Songs like “Boys Will be Boys” are nothing short of blistering hardcore of the kind that was pretty much an exclusionary boys’ club back in the days of violent pits. In between these extremes are songs such as the chaotic crusty hardcore of “Lack of Clarity” and the mix of 90s hardcore and post-hardcore of “Missoula.” The common thing that ties all of the songs together is those frenzied vocals. If you’re a fan of the heavier side of 90s hardcore, check this out.
FAKE NAMES – Expendables (Epitaph Records, www.epitaph.com)
Fake Names reads like a roster of DC hardcore and international post-hardcore musicians. It includes Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion, and most every other band out there), Michael Hampton (SOA, The Faith, Embrace), Johnny Temple (Soulside, Girls Against Boys), Dennis Lyxzén (Refused, INVSN, The International Noise Conspiracy), and now Brendan Canty (Fugazi, Rites of Spring, Happy Go Licky, One Last Wish). With names like that, you’d expect something truly special, right? I know did. And it’s fine, but a bit of a let down. It’s big rock and roll with light overtones of post hardcore, at best. For example, “Go” has the sound of the evolution from 70s power pop to 80s arena rock, with guitar fueled melodic pop, but played through the lens of a hair band. Most of the tracks aren’t that bad, but they’re average at best. “Targets” opens the album with reasonably decent melodic post-hardcore, but it’s a little too melodic and watered down. “Expendables,” one of the early release singles, has qualities of street punk, with a big anthemic sound, but it, too, seems to be not as strong as what other street punk bands are doing these days. “Damage Done” has a big melodic punk sound akin to what some of the Fat Wreck bands are doing. And “Can’t Take It” has reasonably emphatic verses, though the chorus and bridge are a bit mild. The lone highlight where the promise of the lineup is met is “Delete Myself,” which has the feel of the big new songs Soulside has been doing since their reunion. I don’t know, maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but I expected a lot more from this lineup.
THE JACKETS – Pie in the Sky b/w Misery of Man (Wild Noise Records, wildnoiserecords.com)
From Bern, Switzerland, The Jackets offer up a great new 7” single full of garage-psych-surf-punk goodness. The A-side, “Pie in the Sky,” has buzzy fuzzy guitars loaded with reverb and tremolo, powerful vocals belting out the lyrics, and a loping rhythm. This song sounds like it came directly from the mod 1960s. Flip it over to “Misery of Man” and we get a song with a higher poppy punk content and less psych, but still plenty of garage and surf. I love both tracks, but I think the B-side is a notch above the A-side. The band has gone full DIY, too, by releasing this on their own brand new record label, Wild Noise Records.
TALEEN KALI – Flower of Life (Dum Dum Records, dumdumrecs.bandcamp.com)
Taleen Kali, formerly of the short-lived band TÜLIPS, started releasing material under her own name, and now presents her debut solo full-length LP. Where TÜLIPS was categorized as “riotgaze,” blending Riot Grrl punk and shoegaze buzzy dreaminess, Kali’s own material is less rough around the edges and bigger and dreamier. Kali’s smooth and pretty vocals contrast nicely with the big buzzy guitars. The music is loaded with reverb and the melodies are generally bright and poppy, but sometimes a little dark, too. These songs are so loaded with contrasts, and they work really well. The melodies feel almost romantic, with Kali’s delicate singing, and the instruments feel like they’re swirling around you, enveloping you. There’s also plenty of genre hopping on the LP, though it’s subtle. I really like the opening track, which shares its name with the LP. It’s got the deep gritty guitars of grunge, with an upbeat tempo, bright melody, and gliding vocals that sometimes border on sneering. As a contrast, “Crusher” has a new wave vibe buried in the dreamy buzzy mix. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is of particular note, with the melody sounding like something out the mod era of the 1960s Brit pop. On “Fine Line” I hear Kali channeling 1980s Billy Idol’s sensuous new wave singing. “Summer of Sound” is a ballad with a delay in the vocals, as well as reverb, making it extra otherworldly, and it has hints of 1960s girl group pop in the melody. Varied enough, yet consistent and cohesive, “Flower of Life” is a winner.
ROUGH KIDS - The Black and White and Grey (Dirt Cult Records, dirtcultrecords.com)
Rough Kids are an LA band that’s been around awhile, newly signed to Dirt Cult Records for this, their third LP. Musically, they tend to play 80s era punk-influenced alternative rock music, It’s similar in some ways to the sort of music you might hear from mid-period Social Distortion or The Alarm, or even “Change Today” era TSOL (between their hardcore and crossover metal eras) did. A couple of the songs seem to be informed a bit by modern garage punk, like “Don’t Blow It Away,” a song that brings to mind another LA band, the late lamented LA Drugz. And “Breakdown” is a speedier track with a higher punk to rock ratio than the other tracks. There’s a darkness in the feel of many of these tracks, too, reinforcing my comparison to mid-period Social D. But then there are brighter, poppier tracks like “Do the Drug” and especially “Gimme Something,” which remind me more of 80s UK bands that were more about rock and roll melody than punk rawness. Like the Buzzcocks, for example. It’s solid enough music if you’re more into the straight ahead alternative rock and roll side of music, though none of the songs really jumped out at me as a standout.
TOILET RATS – IV (Steadfast Records, www.steadfastrecords.net)
Toilet Rats is the one-man project created by Tommy Ratz (aka Thomas Rehbein), a Minneapolis music scene fixture who’s played with a variety of bands. Toilet Rats is his synth-punk alter ego, and the songs here range from raucous punk to subdued synth-pop. Rehbein cites a wide variety of musical influences, from Jawbreaker and Jawbox to Depeche Mode, Lard, Run DMC, the Ramones, and more. I hear some of it, like the Ramones and Depeche Mode, but not so much Jawbox or Jawbreaker. “Carol Kane” and “Clap Back” are the more raucous tunes, and though they’re played solely on synths, you can imagine these on buzzy guitars. “Drug Bird” is so solidly in the Ramones core camp it could have been a song out of that storied band’s catalog. Many of the lyrics are inspired by horror films and legends of monsters. A perfect example is “Nessie,” the song about the playful “prehistoric lizard in the water” in Scotland. Then there are songs like “Oskar and Eli,” which has the feel of a new wave tune from a John Hughes film mixed with the darkness of a grade B horror flick, a little bit like The Ramones and “Pet Sematary.” It’s a pretty diverse set of sounds in just under 20 minutes, it’s a little head spinning. It’s a little cheesy, too, which may be part of the appeal.
WICKED BEARS – Underwater (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)
Wicked Bears, hailing from Salt Lake City, are a trio but sound much bigger than that, with big powerful guitars and particularly in the huge harmonized vocals. Musically, they can be slotted into the broad category of “90s pop punk,” but they’re a bit more complex than that. They’ve got hints of ska punk in the loping rhythms of many songs, and in particular, some of the guitar work of “Lucky” is very ska-influenced. There are more interesting arrangements, too, than typical 90s pop punk, no mean feat when you’re talking about a 3-piece. The production is very well done, almost slick, and the droll lead vocals are smooth and tuneful. The songs are catchy and bouncy, and the lyrics have some dark (and light) humor in them, with songs about the “Terms and Conditions” of life, dealing with the extremes of winter and summer weather (as a metaphor of the stresses of life) in “Put Me Down,” and a song about the bestest dog, “Max.” The band isn’t averse to including other 90s genres, either, as “Hypothetically,” after a quiet, pretty introduction, turns into something bordering on speedy skate punk. When the song gets to the halfway mark, it evokes music of the baroque, with the lead and backing vocals singing different lines that mesh together. The lyrics are about dwelling on the pitfalls of relationships, how it can drive you crazy thinking about the what-ifs, and how love can endure. The closer, “Still Underwater,” in a very creative maneuver is an interesting mashup of lyrics from all the other songs of the album, making it a perfect way to end the album. 90s pop punk can often sound trite and stale, but by mixing things up, Wicked Bears avoid that trap.
VARIOUS – Redrawn: A Tribute to the Pencils (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
A tribute to who? That was my first reaction, to be honest. Turns out The Pencils were a short-lived band from North London, active from around 1982-84. They released a couple of singles and an LP. Kool Kat released an anthology of their music a decade ago, and now this double CD tribute. As I looked at this, I thought to myself, do I really want to spend nearly an hour and half per listen to go through 23 tracks from other bands that I’ve never heard of playing covers of this band I never heard of from 40 years ago? Well, of course I didn’t want to. But I figured I would at least give it a spin, and I’m glad I did. I’m not going to go into lots of detail and break things down track by track or compare the covers with originals, but what I will tell you is it’s a pretty enjoyable listen. From the sounds I heard (and knowing the musical tastes of Kool Kat), I take it that The Pencils were a power-pop band with, of course, Brit-pop tendencies. And that’s what we get here, twenty-three tracks of jangly tunes with hints of garage, psych, and even R&B. With few exceptions, the bands here all put in solid efforts and certainly provide good entertainment. If you’re a fan of power pop, this gets a recommendation from me.
THE BAYONETS – Argentina (Wicked Cool Records, www.wickedcoolrecords.com)
LA band The Bayonets features the son of famed songwriter Jerry Leiber and studio musicians who have played with a who’s who of rock and roll. Argentina, their latest 7” single, features an A-side title track that has a classic East Coast 60s garage rock sound blended with 70s AM power pop. It’s bouncy, jangly, and fun. The B-side, “Post Apocalypso,” is a Latin-inspired tune about the end of the world. The dark lyrics contrast with the smooth easy listening pop, strings, and piano. It, too, has a 70s AM pop vibe.
DEATH VALLEY GIRLS – Islands in the Sky (Suicide Squeeze Records, suicidesqueeze.net)
Death Valley Girls’ last full-length LP came out in the midst of the pandemic, back in the fall of 2020. I described that album as a mix of dark goth, dream pop, light power pop, and garage rock and roll. The music was dark and a bit dreamy, but also a bit raucous with a garage edge. This new LP, on the other hand, leans a bit more into the dreamy side of things, with lush, hazy tunes, though there’s still plenty of garage oomph to get you up and moving. Not on the opening track, though. “California Mountain Shake” is pure misty ethereal pop, ebbing and flowing. Not until the next track, “Magic Powers,” does the rock and roll kick in, but even then, it’s dark and shimmering, almost otherworldly. I like how the feel shifts from song to song on this album, more than on the last. For instance, “Islands in the Sky” has a distinctly retro psych pop feel to it, while “Sunday” brings the gospel influence in spades, with soulful vocals and even horns. After the song reaches the halfway mark the pace picks up, and it reminds me of all those great R&B tunes of the 50s and 60s, but played through the fog of dream pop. “Journey to Dog Star” is mysterious and vaguely Arabic, while “Say It Too” sounds like an old torch song that’s been pushed through some kind of musical filter. I like the bouncy pop of “When I’m Free,” and “It's All Really Kind Of Amazing” has the feel of a big stage production featuring 60s pop. All of these songs, though, share the big hazy dreaminess that make the Death Valley Girls who they are. I think I like this LP even better than the last one.
FAT HEAVEN – Trash Life (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Engineer Records, www.engineerrecords.com / Waterslide Records, watersliderecords.com)
New York’s Fat Heaven have teamed up with Sell the Heart Records in the US, Engineer Records in Europe, and Waterslide Records in Japan for this latest LP, which collects together six previously released songs (from the Crybaby EP and their split EP with Trashy), and adds four new songs produced by Pete Steinkopf of Bouncing Souls. The band plays big pop punk tunes with a great aggressive edge. The songs are fast and loud, with plenty of pop melody goodness. It’s hard to believe they aren’t bigger than they are, because this is a great collection of songs. There’s plenty of pop punk self-deprecation on display, too, with songs like “I am Trash” and “Quarter-Life Crisis” that belie the bright sound. The band is able to change things up, too, not relying simply on the fast’n’loud formula. “Doomsday Clock” slows things to a moderate lope and a darker tone, singing about the end of everything. I particularly like some of the earlier tracks from the Crybaby EP. “Crybaby” and “Never Needed You” are nice and crunchy, bordering on poppy grunge, and are the most aggressive tracks of the album. Not to knock the new tracks at all, though, because they’re brilliant. On a technical note, you can hear the differences in production quality from the new songs to the old; maybe the old songs weren’t remastered for this release. Regardless, this is recommended for all fans of pop punk.
SINGING LUNGS – Coming Around (Count Your Lucky Stars, www.cylsrecords.com / Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Engineer Records, www.engineerrecords.com / Waterslide Records, watersliderecords.com)
This is the first new music from Michigan’s Singing Lungs since 2020’s pandemic era EP, “Phone From Car,” and their first full-length since 2018’s debut, “Groan.” They play unassuming 90s indie punk, music that’s melodic, crunchy, and jangly, all at the same time. This sophomore LP seems to focus a little more on the melodic lines, rather than raucous punk of past releases, though the lead vocals are still deliciously gruff without being gravelly and hoarse sounding. You can hear this throughout the album, but in particular on songs like “Around Again, which has more of a power pop mixed with indie rock sound. It’s wonderfully melodic, and I love the use of harmonized vocals on the chorus. “Come Down Hard,” too, is much more of an indie rock track than what we’ve heard on the past records. “See You” and “Present Tense” have a great gruff melodic sound, reminiscent of Hüsker Dü’s mid period, including the thick guitars that jangle just a bit. The latter song uses a keyboard to add to the texture, too. “Read a Book” brings to mind “working class” rock and roll, like if Bruce Springsteen had decided to play punk instead of rock and roll. It’s another worthy effort, though I think I prefer the rougher, punkier sounds of the previous releases.
STEVE STOECKEL – The Power of And (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)
If you’re a fan of power pop you may recognize that Steve Stoeckel is a founding member of The Spongetones, a power pop Hall of Fame member. Stoeckel is now releasing his debut solo LP, and while it’s more varied than the term “power pop” might imply, it’s still rooted deeply in a late 70s and early 80s guitar pop tradition. Songs often reference women, as power pop tunes will, and the raucous, slightly British Invasion influenced, slightly new wave “Laura Lynn” that opens the LP is one of these. It’s got a strong beat, bright melody, and the keyboards/synths add a warm garage feel to this song of unrequited love. “Mod Girl” is another, and I really love the blend of power pop melody and new wave jangle, with cool British Invasion meets psych in the backing vocals. And “Christine” is power pop with a jazzy beat, jazzy piano, and lyrics about a one-sided breakup. Most of the songs, though, are completely different, like the pretty delicate “Birds.” It’s still got a strong retro streak through it, but with acoustic guitars and ukulele, is less power pop and more folk pop with tinges of psych. A number of songs on the album have this feel and similar instrumentation. “If/Then” is one, with a hint of Beatles-esque songwriting, gorgeous strings, and lyrics that examine what life would be like if a couple hadn’t met and fallen in love. “The Emerald Sea” is a lovely tune with a Celtic folk feel, courtesy of the penny whistle played by Michael Mitsch. The title track is pretty, too, and the lyrics are much more evocative than you might think. Each verse is short, with some descriptive phrases, such as “Green leaf turns to brown, Sun goes up and down, Tide moves in and out” and each ends with “And…” leaving the listening to fill in the imagery. Indeed, that’s the power of “and” here. “Just One Kiss” has an old-timey jazzy standard feel to it, and is a really fun one. Though the songs here aren’t going to set the world on fire, it’s a solid enjoyable album.
REMY VERREAULT – On My Own (highenddenimrecords.bandcamp.com)
Remy Verreault previously played with Canadian bands We Love Danger, Wrong Advice, and Mark & The Wolves. But then he decided to strike out on his own – quite literally. Verreault wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, provided all vocals, did the mixing and mastering himself, and created all the artwork. His previous solo efforts were completely DIY, but now he’s partnered with High End Denim on this latest project. And What Verreault produces is Canadian skate punk, sung in English with a thick Quebec French accent. The lyrics seem to be very personal, bits of stories of Verreault’s own life, such as the opening song, “Sow Good,” in which he sings about negative experiences on Facebook and deactivating his profile, and eventually reactivating it in order to counter the mean people with humor and joy. The meaning behind “Musicholic” is self-explanatory. A lot of the songs are pretty much what you’d expect with skate punk, musically, but it’s all the more remarkable that everything is done by just the one person. But there are some songs that step a bit outside the skate punk genre. “In Order To” is more of a hardcore track with gang vocals and cool 90s guitar harmonics. It’s a song of introspection, about learning to love and accept yourself. “Since 89” is the poppiest track of the album, played at a more moderate pace than the others. It’s a song about working in a job at a small company where the owners try to give it the feel of a big family, where there are “family” meals after closing to celebrate good times, where they let musicians have the freedom to play and go on tour. Sounds like a dream. “Crybabies” has a sweet intro that has the sound of the baroque, and then becomes a song with a split personality: the drums and bass are speedy skate punk, but the guitars and vocals are almost ballad-like, floating smoothly over the rhythm section. The lyrics are a slam on amateur critics who denigrate everything, don’t know how to do the thing themselves. “Strange Times” should be the album closer, because it has a huge epic sound, and the vocals are particularly yearning, singing about the times we live in, with huge divides, cancel culture, the pandemic, and increasing mental instability. “Where are we going? How will we end up?” the song asks. I think we all want to know the answers to those questions. Unfortunately, it’s not the last song; we get an acoustic recording, “A Fading Hope.” It seems out of place here, and the song ends the album on a pessimistic tone. Overall, this is an interesting record with some great standout songs, but the overall tone (with a few exceptions) could use some more variety.
BOSS’ DAUGHTER – Bouts with Bummers (SBAM Records, shop.sbam.rocks)
Boss’ Daughter, the band from Reno, Nevada, is a ska punk band that isn’t a ska punk band. They’ve got the sort of instrumentation you would find in a ska punk band, including trumpet and trombone. They’ve got a big rich sound. But they jump around genres a lot and their arrangements are a lot more inventive than a typical ska punk band. The sound has elements of nerd pop, too, particularly in the lead vocals and in the lyrics’ droll humor. There are songs that lean heavily into the ska side of things, like “Extinction” and “Genuine Imitation.” There are songs that are pretty straightforward raucous pop punk, like “Photography.” And there are songs that lean heavily toward the pop side of things, like “Departure,” with its gorgeous swirly and jangly guitars. But most of the songs are hard to categorize, which, to me, is a good thing. There are elements of different genres that come and go, different musical textures from song to song (and even within songs), and there are very creative arrangements. One favorite song has to be “Religious Convenience,” a song that uses elements of ska and a dark European folk feel to highlight lyrics with a political conscience. “Away” is another notable track, a particularly nerdy love song about touring life on the road and missing one’s partner. And “Imaginary Arguments” has elements of big crunchy 90s hardcore, huge shouted gang vocals, a speedy skate punk pace, but a cool jazzy feel, especially in the bass and guitar twang. This song, too, changes completely toward the end on an extended bridge. It’s an amazing tour de force. But my favorite of the album has to be “Okay,” from its big guitar riffs at the opening, to the massively raucous PUP-like pop punk feel and the huge sing-along sections and whoa-ohs. It also changes tenor toward the end of the song, softening and gliding away. It’s very nice. The whole album is, really. It’s a pretty unique sound, and one worthy of your attention.
GRAY VINES – Young Hearts (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)
Recorded way back in 2019, before the world changed, “Young Hearts” is finally seeing the light of day. Gray Vines is a Denver duo featuring Ben Roy and none other than Snappy Little Numbers boss Chuck Coffey. This EP features six tracks of mainly acoustic recordings, and they evolve from light and delicate to intense and emotional. Opening track, “The Postcard,” has a lithe guitar and angelic vocals (particularly the backing vocals). By the time we get to the last three tracks (“Young Hearts,” “A Light Through the Seams,” and “Cold outside”), things are much more powerfully passionate. In between, on “Patterns” and “Dawn Quixotic,” there’s a steady rise in depth and earnestness. It’s all the more remarkable given the stripped down arrangements, with just acoustic guitar, bass, and occasional percussion. The latter, has more than a bit of twangy Americana to it. This EP is evidence that you don’t need a full band to convey strong emotions.
KEPI GHOULI – Ramones In Love (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
Surprise! Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the holiday for lovers, Kepi Ghouli offers up a new LP – another album of covers. But this time the songs are very familiar – they’re the love songs of the Ramones, but reimagined in Kepi’s noggin’ to be less punk and more romantic. The songs span The Ramones’ career, from their debut self-titled LP through 1987’s “Halfway to Sanity” LP. And though these songs were ballads in the relative landscape of Ramones songs, they still had the Ramones distinctive punk rock guitar sound, making them never seem to be ballads – or even about love. Kepi’s renditions are much more subdued, smooth, and ballad-like. No song shows this more clearly than “I Remember You,” which appeared on the band’s second LP, “Leave Home.” Kepi’s version includes quiet keyboards in place of buzzy guitars, the song sounding much more wistful than the original. “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” too, has a very forlorn sound, with bowed bass, strings, chimes, and tympani in the arrangement. Kepi breathes new life into these tunes, and I find I enjoy this cover LP much better than his last covers LP. There are a couple of standouts that I really love. I adore the jangly guitars of Kepi’s version of “Needles and Pins,” which takes on much more of a 60s psych-pop tune than the original’s garage-doo wop would suggest. The breezy island feel of “Questioningly” that Kepi brings is nicer to my ears than the countryish version the Ramones did. And as classic as the original version of “I Want You Around” is, Kepi’s jangly rendition is so pretty and delicate. The version of “7-11” (from the “Pleasant Dreams” LP) that Kepi provides is incredibly moody, slowing things down and stripping back the arrangement to just vocals and bass, with the sound of the thunderstorm prominent in the background. And the arrangement of strings and acoustic guitar on “Bye Bye Baby,” which closes the LP, is stunning. Though I want more new originals from Kepi, this is the sort of cover album I can get behind.
IVAN JULIAN – Swing Your Lanterns (Pravda Records, www.pravdamusic.com)
Former member of Richard Hell and the Voidoids Ivan Julian has had a storied career, as an early member of New York City’s punk rock scene and as one of the progenitors of the post-punk scene that followed. Julian has played in various bands, he’s been a producer, and he’s released solo material under his own name. “Swing Your Lanterns” is the latest such effort. Originally seeing a limited CD-only release in France a couple years ago, Chicago’s Pravda Records is giving it the full treatment, with vinyl, CD, digital download, and streaming available. The record definitely focuses more on a post-punk vibe, with plenty of rock, soul, and funk in the mix. This is evident from the very first track, “Cut Me Loose,” which features a super funky bass, wailing guitar, and jazzy keyboard. Another one that’s a favorite of the LP is the one from which the album takes its title, “Swing Your Lanterns Low.” Besides having the funky soul of that particular brand of post-punk championed buy bands like The Pop Group, the big gang vocals give it a gospel feel. The whole vibe is very late 70s post-punk. I like the references to other bands here, like the Talking Heads-like sounds of “Wild” and the Rolling Stones’ feel in “Cazalla.” Not everything is post-punk, but everything does have a retro feel. “Love Is Good” has the sound of 50s doo-wop blended with gospel music, and ends up sounding somewhat spiritual. Overall, I enjoy this LP. The songwriting is solid, but perhaps Julian’s vocals are more suited for a punkier or more rock and roll sound.
QUIET SIGNALS (quietsignals.bandcamp.com)
Quiet Signals, indeed! This instrumental LP is gorgeously quiet, featuring Nick Kizirnis’ acoustic and/or electric guitars and Kate Wakefield’s cello. This is Kizirnis’ debut as Quiet Signals, recorded virtually during the first two years of the pandemic. Tracks were sent back and forth, and the evolved into beautiful ambient musical landscapes. Turning up the reverb gives the pieces a bigger sound, but it’s really the lovely artistry of the duo that makes them work. You can hear them play off each other, and it’s all the more remarkable when you consider that both musicians come from a more raucous background. Kizirnis played with the Ohio surf rock band, The Mulchmen, while Wakefield is half of the duo Lung, which play intense art-punk tunes featuring cello and drums. On this LP, though, they create new worlds and touching moments with these emotion-laden tunes. Some are epic, like the opening track, “Brighten the Path,” which starts simply and slowly builds over its nearly five minute length, becoming something grand, as an oboe seems to join in. I get the mental image of strolling down a path, fields of colorful flowers stretching to the horizon, as the sun emerges from the clouds. There are eight tracks here, all aural artworks, and conjuring different mental images. The music blends folk, classical, and indie pop to create something simply magical.
ADAM REID & THE IN-BETWEENS – The Numbers Keep Repeating (snappylittlenumbers.com)
After starting out as a folksy singer-songwriter act more than a decade ago, Adam Reid recruited a full band, and the group’s resulting music, while rooted in the indie rock tradition, still maintains its folk-like feel. The music is light and lithe, along the lines of The Pixies, but maybe even airier and poppier. There’s plenty of use of acoustic instruments, tempering the sound further. I particularly love the delicate “Margins,” which includes acoustic guitar and violin. It’s got a minimalist repeating line and somber vocals, creating a song that has the sound of heartbreak. Many of the songs have a mix of acoustic and electric, with a subdued feel, but “Alabama,” the second track, is the most lively and raucous of the album (though “raucous” is relative here). Because of this it’s one of my favorites of the album, with a definite indie bounce. While the songs are lovely, I do wish more of them had a little more edge, as too many of them are too perhaps a bit too soft and understated.
COLONY HOUSE – The Cannonballers (www.colonyhousemusic.com)
Made up of brothers Will and Caleb Chapman (drums and guitar/vocals respectively), as well as Scott Mills (guitar) and Parke Cottrell (bass), the Tennessee band play unabashedly poppy music that straddles right on the border between indie and commercial. Some songs fall a little too far into the commercial side of things for my tastes, but the bulk of this, their fourth full-length studio LP, is a hoot. The opening track, for example, “Landlocked Surf Rock,” has a bit of surf rock feel, though the band lives nowhere near the ocean. It’s sheer bouncy fun with manic rhythm and lyric delivery, and the harmonized vocals are gorgeous. “Would Ya Could Ya” is another great one, with raucous guitars contrasting with quieter vocal sections. The playfulness of most of these tracks is a blast to listen to, in the same way The Happy Fits’ songs are. There are a lot of parallels between the two bands, though Colony House uses synths rather than cello. There’s an intense joyfulness in both bands’ songs, with some epic ones. Here, “Trying to Survive” is one of those that’s sure to get the crowds at shows going (you’ll know the sections clearly when you listen!). The dynamic range is pretty great, too, going from quiet and subdued to enormous. I adore “Everything,” a pretty wistful love song with acoustic guitar that just seems to float. And the spiritually charged “Man on the Run” is sure to inspire. On the other hand, songs like “One of Those Days” sound like they were designed more for the top 40 pop crowd, rather than the indie crowd. But, hey, everyone’s allowed a mistake now and then, especially when the rest is this good.
ROBERT FORSTER – The Candle and the Flame (Tapete Records, www.tapeterecords.de)
Robert Forster is probably best known from his days as a guitarist and vocalist with the Australian indie band, The Go-Betweens, but he’s also had an extensive solo career, and The Candle and the Flame is but the latest in a string of solo LPs dating back to 1990. This latest effort sees Forster providing a mostly relaxed LP full of chill indie tracks that mix acoustic and electric. Most of the songs have a really lovely groove to them, but this is not an album that rocks out; it’s album with songs that will just crawl up to you and get nice and cozy. The opening track was a family affair. “She’s a Fighter” was written when his wife and musical collaborator, Karin Bäumler, was diagnosed with cancer. As she talked about fighting to regain health, the lyrics came to Forster for a song for which he had already written the melody. Because of the meaning of the song to Forster’s family, the family recorded it, with Forster playing the aggressive riff on acoustic guitar and providing vocals, Bäumler providing additional vocals and playing xylophone, daughter Loretta playing electric guitar, and son Louis on bass and percussion. It’s easily the most intense track of the LP, and one of the best. I really enjoy “Tender Years” and “Always,” with Forster’s vocals reminding me a bit of David Byrne’s style of vocal delivery, though his voice is more subdued and melodious than Byrne’s. I like, too, the delicate “It’s Only Poison, featuring dueling lead and backing vocals and pretty acoustic guitar picking. I like the whole album, for that matter. It was perfect for listening to on this gloomy rainy Sunday.
LOTEC – Squares! (lotectheband.bandcamp.com)
80s bands have done it. 90s bands have done it. Now it’s time for 2000s bands to reunite and record new music. LOTEC, formerly called Land of the El Caminos, hailing from Chicago’s suburbs, haven’t released an LP since 2001’s “Subourbon,” but here they are with a brand new batch of songs. Looking through my records, it appears I reviewed their 1999 LP, “Doll Face,” back when these pages were still made of real paper, and given I still have the CD, I’ll guess I gave it a positive enough review. The band is less grunge and punk influenced these days than they were back then, the dozen songs on this LP focusing more on jangly indie rock with less of a grimy tone than their previous efforts. Vocals, too, have more of a nerd pop sound than the grit of years past. Not that I’m complaining – on the contrary, these songs have a lot more melody and a lot more appeal. Even when they do get more raucous, like on ”Fuck Me Up,” this is still more melodic indie rock than punk or grunge. “Fuck Me Up,” besides being grittier and more intense than the other tracks, has a hint of dustiness to it from the big strummed and sustained guitar chords, like something out of an indie rock western movie. But most of the album has more of a nerdy indie rock sound, the opening track, “All the Ways,” being a good example. It’s bouncy and jangly, the vocals casually gliding around the notes, getting pushed out of the throat. “The Face,” too, has a nice jangle to it, though with a more melancholy melody. If there’s one suggestion I can give LOTEC, it would be to work on increasing their dynamic range. Everything is played at the same tempo and the same volume level. Even the vocals have the same sound throughout. Variety is the spice of life, they say, and that includes in music. But this is an otherwise solid LP.
PANTHERVISION – Now In 3-D (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Panthervision is the work of Bonnie Veronica and Kirk Larsen, both of the former garage-pop band, Beyond Veronica. After that band ended its 15-year run, they wanted to continue working together, and Panthervision was born in 2019. ‘Now In 3-D” appears to be the band’s debut full-length LP, and it’s chockfull of garage power pop tunes. If you’re a fan of poppy punky garage rock’n’roll, you’re Panthervision’s target. An even dozen unassumingly aggressive tracks will worm their way into your ears ad your heart. The tunes are bouncy and poppy enough, and Veronica’s vocals are belted out with confidence. The album opener, “Say What You Like,” sets the tone for the whole album, with a hooky melody and chord changes, snarling guitar, thumping bass, and pounding drums. There are even shades of The Go-Go’s style of pop, but with a much more raw edge to it (probably like the Go-Go’s were in their earlier punk days). The songs are solid enough, but if I had one complaint it’s that the songs are a little too raw, with some of the riffs sounding a bit stiff. “Black Cat Shuffle” is an example of this, sounding like early Black Sabbath crossed with a garage pop band, and played by a local cover band at your local biker bar. But songs like “Through My Window” make it all worthwhile; it’s got a great melody and is instantly catchy. And “Mister Riley” has some downright jangly parts, making it another favorite. Overall a decent record for fans of the genre, but the band needs to loosen up a bit.
THE ROUTES – Lead-Lined Clouds (Soundflat Records, soundflatrecords.de)
After a couple of interesting instrumental LPs, The Routes have returned to their garage roots with their latest LP, “Lead-Lined Clouds.” But don’t assume this is a straightforward 60’s garage LP. Sure, there are elements of psych in the songs, and the keyboards scream 60s garage. But the songwriting is way more nuanced than straight nostalgia. While the LP opens with fairly solid standard garage rock and roll, the music mutates subtly as the album evolves. There are interesting choices in the arrangements that are not your normal retro sounds. And sometimes the melodies and chord progressions have a distinctly modern influence. For example, I love the jazzy rhythm of the title track, with its strong backbeat. “No Good” is a raucous good time dance tune that’ll have you jumping around. And are those trumpets I hear in the arrangement, or just guitars? They’re a bit buried in the mix, but those high notes amidst the thick guitars and keyboards add a lot to the feel of the track. The rhythm of “Seen Better Days” and “Only Have Yourself To Blame” may be pretty straight and square, but the instrumentals are bright and shiny, and incongruously bouncy. They’re almost like really early Pink Floyd songs. Some of the later tracks on the B-side make cool use of dissonance, injecting a bit of unease that makes these songs stand out from typical garage roots music. “Inside Out” takes this a step further, with a breathless descending riff, the whole track having an anxious feel, some of the broad keyboard chords reminding me of Devo. One interesting thing of note that’s different from retro garage, a lot of the songs make use of minimalist melodies, the same notes and chords repeating over and over. The Routes continue to provide fascinating LPs that, while varying in feel from record to record, are distinctly their own,
BROADWAY CALLS / COUNTDOWN TO LIFE – Songs About Pipe Bombs (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
To celebrate their tour with The Flatliners and surviving the pandemic, Broadway Calls decided to release a new single, and Red Scare has released it as a split with Countdown to Life. Broadway Calls’ song is called “Dead before I Hit the Ground,” and it blends big sing-along pop punk with 1980 AM power pop, and injects some heavy grunge elements into the instrumental breaks. The mix of genres is creative and unique. Countdown to Life contribute “Scrambled Eggs and Wobbly Legs,” a track that mixes 90s post hardcore with pop and funk elements. It’s fucking intense! I’m not sure why these two were paired together for this split, because they couldn’t be more different. But both are great listens.
THE BROKEDOWNS – Maximum Khaki (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
The Brokedowns really are the genuine heirs to the glorious Chicago punk legacy, that of a huge muscular sound, with big shoulders to match those of the city. Enormous guitars, pounding bass and drums, and emphatic powerful vocals that are a perfect match for the music, which, like many great Chicago bands that came before, features a cross between old school hardcore punk and melodic pop punk. Some of the songs are more melodic, too, and it’s apparent that Dillinger Four is a strong influence on the Brokedowns. The topics are generally less than serious and weighty, with song titles like “Ernest Becker at a Costco” (Ernest Becker is a noted anthropologist), “Samurai Sword Decontrol” (that title had me laughing out loud, having lived in Boston in the 80s), “Satan in Quarantine,” and “Osama Van Halen.” Every song is a banger, as would be expected from this band, but there are some great highlights. “Chakra Updates” is a huge sonic blast in a short song that clocks in at just over a minute. I love how it mutates from Chicago hardcore to dark punk to something almost jazzy, before returning to Chicago punk to end the song – all in 71 seconds! I like, too, “Man Graves (Masculine Caskets),” a song that brings to mind the power of Naked Raygun and The Effigies, but puts a more melodic modern twist into the chorus and bridge. The aforementioned “Samurai Sword Decontrol” adds in a great rolling line underneath the melody, while “Stay Calm Cruel” is more reminiscent of a John Reis band like Hot Snakes, even how it morphs from intensity to calm and serene and back again. If you’ve been sleeping on The Brokedowns, this is the album to grab to change that. This gets a very high recommendation.
HOUSEGHOST – Another Realm (radgirlfriendrecords.com)
Ohio’s spooky pop punk band was hit by delays, so this came out a bit late for the Halloween season last year, but that’s no reason to miss out on a fun LP. This is the trio’s sophomore LP, their debut having come out in the fall of 2020. The band’s music is a mix of pop punk, garage, and goth for added darkness. It’s like taking Ramones-core, mixing it with the garage punk of bands like Vacation, and painting over the whole thing with a dark gothic brush. Song topics include spending a scary night in the forest (“Night in the Woods”), being born a monster and abandoned by your mother (“Born on Halloween”), living in misery and wondering what life has in store (“Happiest”) and more. “Zig Zag Zig” is a particular favorite, with a stronger garage punk feel and brighter melody, if not lyrical content. I love the hard, dark power of “All Bad News.” And “Nameless” may be my favorite track of the LP, just for the gorgeous chorus, but also for the great chord progressions and powerful garage punk. One of the great things about Houseghost is that they’ve got two lead vocalists in brother/sister duo Nick and Kayla Hamby. They take turns fronting the songs, providing varying textures to the music. Though all the tracks have an eeriness to them, Kayla’s songs seem to have a little bit more brightness. Better late than never! Good stuff.
JULIAN NEVER – Pious Fiction (mtstmtn.com)
Julian Never is the project of Mayyors’ former drummer, Julian Elorduy, along with band mate and Mt. St. Mtn. boss Mark Kaiser. The fifteen songs on this LP may take forty-two minutes to listen to, but the time seems to fly by, because you get so engrossed in the music. The music is jangly and bouncy yet dreamy and drifting, as if someone took Spiritualized and melded them with Modern English (the band whose claim to fame is the one-hit wonder, “I’ll Melt With You”). With this description, you may think the band is solidly retro, and you wouldn’t be far from wrong, but it would sell the band short, because they also have a satisfying modern indie sound, as well. These songs are generally pretty synth heavy with a nice danceable beat, and they’re chock full of gorgeous pop melodies. One of the best aspects, too, is the vocals, which have a hint of a mysterious air. They’re sung in a deep baritone, with a relaxed understated manner, contrasting well with the bright instrumentals. There are so many good tracks on this album, starting right off with the subtle jangle of “Seven Steps,” which opens the record. The blending of electric and acoustic guitars with synths is very pretty. “High School” swirls and envelops, even as the up-tempo rhythm makes you want to get up and dance. It makes for an excellent standout track. Another great one is “Silver One,” the mix of jangle and breeziness is stunning, and the lyrics about a struggle with spirituality are moving. There are even hints of folk-psych influence here, in songs like “Luv,” “Ursuline,” and the very appropriately titled, “Relax.” And I adore the lounge-jazz piano of the opening of “Memphis,” which is another pretty, jangly, understated song. The closing track, “The Fall,” eschews the understated style for something more epic, lush, and gorgeous. This album is the first wonderful surprise of 2023.
KEPI GHOULIE – Full Moon Forever (piratespressrecords.com)
Kepi Ghoulie teams up with his friends, Ara Babajian (drummer for The Slackers, Leftöver Crack) and B-Face (bassist for The Queers, Groovie Ghoulies, and more) on a challenge, of sorts: provide covers and reinterpretations of some of the darker sounding new wave, pop and rock tunes of the past. But rather than sound goth and melancholy, Kepi brings light and joy to many of these songs. The covers include an upbeat rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” sounding more like an inspirational anthem than the song of desperate self-deception of the original. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Happy When It Rains” is here, too. Where the original has wistful gloom about broken love, Kepi’s version bounces off the wall in elation of the memory of love. And the delicate introspection of Peter Murphy’s “Cut You Up” becomes a raucous track full of excitement and tension. Some songs are suitably sad sounding. Mazzy Star’s “Flowers in December” is here, and it’s done as the ballad it’s supposed to be, but with Kepi doing the singing, it comes off more emphatically and less mournful. Kepi’s electric guitar replaces the acoustic of the original, so it has less of a delicate feel, as well. The understated sadness of The Cars’ “Since You’re Gone” is maintained, with the tempo and ambience remaining the same as the original, and new wave synths included in the arrangement. And the T Rex tune, “Cosmic Dancer,” has a lusher arrangement, but retains the introspective delicate nature of the song. Some of the covers just don’t work. I mean, how can anyone take on Lou Reed on any of his songs? Kepi tries it with “Andy’s Chest,” and instead of the droll funk of the original, it comes across as a forced folk rock tune. Kepi also tries to do a version of “Don’t Worry Children,” the bright and shiny R&B song by Lords of the New Church. But if falls a bit flat, losing the shine. There are a dozen covers here to explore, some better than others. It’s a mixed bag for me.
THE MOSS – Insomnia (s-curverecords.com / Hollywood Records)
Holy crap, keep this under your hat, but someone made a big mistake! Major record labels don’t normally put out really good, catchy indie pop records, instead focusing on whatever the current lowest common denominator is. But S-Curve (founded by a former Mercury Records exec, and releasing hits like “Who Let the Dogs Out”) and Hollywood Records (part of the Disney empire) have teamed up to release the latest EP from Salt Lake City’s The Moss (formerly from Oahu). The four songs on the EP are catchy as hell, with hints of surfiness mixed into the jangly indie pop. The title track is a real winner, about how one’s world turns upside down and spins around when you’re falling in love. It’s sure to get you hopping around the room. “Blink” is an undeniable crooner of a ballad, while “Carousel” is a breezy lounge-pop track. “Chapparal” closes things with another bouncy surf-pop track mixed with cool R&B. Really catchy stuff that one would never expect on a major.
THE STAYAWAKES –Dogs and Cats/Living Together (koolkatmusik.com)
Kool Kat Musik is most known for power pop and retro bubblegum pop, but with this latest LP on the label, they show they’re branching out to solid modern indie, too. Originally released in 2018, the Portsmouth, UK band have teamed up with Kool Kat to reissue this as a “special edition,” with six additional tracks, a couple of which appear to have been previously unreleased (two are acoustic versions of songs on the LP, one is a demo track, and one is from a previously released single). The tunes from the album are lovely gliding 90s indie tracks, with gloriously lush arrangements of guitar, bass, drums, and synths, and Andrew Ricks’ vocals are spot on. The songs are bright without being overly bubbly, and rhythmic without being too bouncy. One favorite is “The Little Explorer;” besides being a pretty song, it has a gorgeous orchestral ending, with a trumpet in the arrangement. While the band doesn’t break new musical ground, their songs are very enjoyable to listen to. Interestingly, those bonus tracks sound like a completely different band, with a brighter, more raucous attitude in the instrumentals, even as the vocals remain cool and smooth (except for the acoustic version of “No Shame,” which, as an acoustic track, is naturally more subdued than the others). Favorite track from these has to be the bright breezy “When Your Heart Dreams of Spring.” It’s hard to say which version of The Stayawakes I like better. I like them both.
THE 1984 DRAFT – Best Friends Forever (poptek.com / selltheheartrecords.com / engineerrecords.com)
On this, The 1984 Draft’s sophomore full-length LP, the Ohio band continue to channel the 90s indie rock aesthetic, informed by a DIY punk ethic. But on this album the songs seem to have, I don’t know, more soulfulness, with tinges of Americana. There’s no nasally country twang, but you can feel these songs tell us stories, in the same way the best Americana does. And front man Joe Anderl relates that his songwriting is intended to do just that, tell stories about life, about his family, about his kids growing up. You can hear heartfelt working class rock and roll in these songs, emotions worn on sleeves. Topics include the daily grind of life and the rat race – get up, go to work, come home, sleep – in the album opener, “Erryday.” “Bells” is a big epic tune of memories of going to church on Sundays and the various hypocrisies of organized religion. I love the expansive sound of “Last Summer,” nostalgia dripping for a lost childhood from every note. And “Rhino” reminds me of latter period Hüsker Dü, making it an instant favorite. The album also includes the song “Two Cow Barrage” that was released last summer on a split with Todd Farrell, Jr. It’s an ode to the band, Two Cow Garage, and after a suitably raucous intro it settles into a Pegboy-like track with a big wall of guitars, though tempered with that tinge of Americana. I like how the songs feel genuine and not forced. There’s a relaxed easiness to them, without falling into the soft rock category; they feel very earnest.
THE DROWNS / PLIZZKEN – Split EP (piratespressrecords.com)
A surprise split single from Pirates Press starts out 2023! The Drowns continue their transformation from street punk band to full-on rock and roll band with this latest recording, a song called “The Lost Boys of Suburbia.” Raucous and rambunctious, this song exudes pure piss and vinegar and more than a bit of snot. Plizzken, from Germany, is the sort of street punk Pirates Press made their name on. Their song, “One More Time,” takes Ramones-like punk rock, slows it down a bit, and gives it the pub-punk treatment with big gang vocals. Surprises are fun.
BAD WIRES – Failed Fables (badwires.bandcamp.com)
Bad Wires’ tagline on their Facebook page calls them, “An unhinged sonic disaster, laughing in the face of the decline of Western civilization.” That’s a humorous but fitting take for this raging post-hardcore noise band. The Louisville power trio include a new studio recording on this EP, plus three live recordings from a set at Headliners Music Hall, in which the band opened for Human Impact, a band that features members of Unsane, Swans, and Cop Shoot Cop (to give you an idea of the mayhem to expect from Bad Wires). The opening studio track, “Senile 20 Something,” was written during the chaos of 2020 Louisville, in the wake of the police killing of Breonna Taylor and that of David McAtee, who was murdered by police during the ensuing protests. The music is heavy, pounding, and chaotic, harkening back to the noise rock of the 90s, while the lyrics are highly political. “Legal abuse is still abuse / Legal murder is still murder,” the band declares as the song ends. The political and social commentary continues with “Countryman,” a song about how the powerful and wealthy convince the masses that the blame for their shrinking piece of the pie and for their increasing struggle lies with the impoverished and the “others.” The ruling elite continue to amass wealth while pitting people against each other, so they don’t look for the real root cause of societal problems. The music is brutal, metallic, and sharp-edged, with guitars stabbing right through the speakers. This is powerful stuff.
CAN KICKER (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)
It’s almost as if Can Kicker fell through a time warp on this, their debut full-length LP. Coming a year and a half after their very first recorded release, a limited five-song demo cassette, this debut LP has the feel of goth-tinged early 80s post-punk. It’s all very British sounding, too, harkening back to the days of Blitz’s post-punk experimentation. There’s reverb aplenty in the guitars, and a high-pitched noisy tone, giving them a distant sound, while the bass lives in the forefront, grinding away with massive power chords. Luke Penny’s vocals are partly passionately cried out, partly stony deadpan. For the most part, the tracks have a moderate to up-tempo pace and an urgent feel, as if what the song has to say is the most important thing right now. But then there’s “Waking Dream,” which has a slower pace, and if not for the chaotic noise it would almost be dreamy. As it is, it’s more nightmare than dream, the darkness calling out, beckoning you in, and enveloping you in the void. After the intensity of the previous eight tracks, the closer, “Stupid Game Part 2,” is the perfect way to cool down; it’s a dark dusty sounding instrumental that allows you to ponder on what you’ve heard, and to float off into the distance. Fascinating stuff, this.
JONATHAN FRANCIS – Life in the Weeds (Chunksaah Records, chunksaah.com)
Jonathan Francis, formerly of the New Jersey punk trio The Moms, is striking out on his own, partnering with Chunksaah Records to release this, his debut LP. Where The Moms was raucous working class punk rock with the feel of an endless party, Francis’ solo work is much more emotionally charged with an indie-alternative rock feel, rather than punk. The songs tell stories and sound enormous. A great introduction is the opening track, “Borrowed Song.” It’s as perfect an opening to a debut as you can get, giving you the warmth of the organ, full integrated in the arrangement so not to overpower the rest of the instruments, but setting just the right mood. Even the guitar solo feels right, which is quite a feat. The track opens tentatively, testing the waters with just a guitar, but when it gets going, the melody has a big striding sound. “Ghost” is a particular favorite, for its epic lope and big emotional punch, Francis’ passionate vocals practically screaming out on the chorus. The song seems to be about someone who is being ghosted, a friendship ending, and the associated pain. The person has been trying, “swearing I’m doing all I can, but I still end up with empty hands.” A line, though, defiantly declares, “I’m not a ghost,” as if to say one’s being does not rely on the affirmation of others, no matter how empty we may feel when relationship ends. “Abuser” is about someone who has serious problem. Like most abusers, they make excuses and claim to want to get better, but they never do, and as the song says, “You say you want to get better / But you don’t know what that means / ‘Cause you’re just an abuser.” The song is sung from the point of view of the victim, coming to a realization that it’s time to end things, even though this person has been their best friend. The subdued epilog to the song quietly reiterates lines from the chorus. Just guitar and vocals achingly sing out, declaring “And I think it’s about time we got moving on / And it’s about time we sang a different song.” To that, all I can say, Jonathan, is keep singing these songs. Recommended.
GAFFER – Dead End Beat (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)
Here’s yet another debut LP for 2022, a year that’s seen a very large number of exceptionally good debuts. Gaffer adds one more to the pile before the year concludes. The band formed only two years ago, releasing a demo in 2020, then enduring forced hibernation courtesy of COVID-19. They’ve come roaring back with this raucous LP, filled with urgent, snotty old school punk rock. Though the band hail from Perth, Australia, they channel an early UK punk sound mixed with early 80s UK post punk. Imagine mixing the post punk of The Fall with harder and faster snot of late 70s UK punk. It’s a compelling combination. There’s fast and loud power chord tracks, like “Handcuff,” which opens the album, almost 80s hardcore in nature, but with the post punk feel and a bit of extra melodic content that really makes it work well. “Factory” slows things down with a sludgy industrial sound, perfect for a sarcastic song about the joys of mindless shit work with low pay and no reward. I like the dark angularity of many of the songs, especially “Skin of Your Teeth,” a track that has a powerful garage punk energy underlying things. And “Stop” is a favorite for its ‘90s noise-rock sound. Good stuff, here.
SMUG BROTHERS – Emerald Lemonade (Gas Daddy Go!, gasdaddygo.bandcamp.com)
Ohio’s Smug Brothers are clearly influenced by power pop and the British Invasion music of the 60s. Perfect case in point is the opening track of this seven-song EP, “Pablo Icarus.” It’s got a clearly retro feel, though there are synths adding to the guitar jangle, creating a slightly melancholy yet bubbly sound. Next up, ”Later is Quad,” has a vaguely indie surf sound, We also get the 70s AM bubblegum ballad, ”Midnight Tomorrow,” before things get really weird with “Winter Swimmers” and Aardvark Fusion.” The former track is 58 seconds of sound effects, intoning vocals, and a throbbing guitar, sounding very ominous and evil. The latter is a minute-long twisted psych pop track with an off-kilter twang. “Phantom Oceans” comes next and is appropriately titled, sounding like music from under the sea. Guitar strums waver and wobble, as the currents flow, and the keyboard sprinkles the mist about in the waves. The whole thing sounds fascinatingly unstable, even as the vocals work to get the things on an even keel. Closing the EP is another nautically themed song, “On the Native Yacht.” It brings things full circle, back to a retro power pop British Invasion sound. A lot of the songs are quite short, and feel like they’re sketches more than fully realized songs, like they need fleshing out. Smug Brothers have some interesting ideas going on here, but they’re just fragments.
THOUSANDAIRE – Ideal Conditions (Knife Hits Records, knifehitsrecords.com)
Thousandaire, an indie rock trio hailing from Atlanta, have a warm familiar sound. If you’re a fan of the 90s and early 2000s indie rock scene, this is a band and record for you. The melodies are smooth, while the guitar tone is noisy and gruff. Most of the songs are like huge expansive vistas, such as the melancholy ballad, “Coward,” and even the jangly opening track, “No Good, “ possibly my favorite track of the album. But there are some songs that are somewhat more understated, such as “Your Gold Teeth III,” a song that has a bit of a funkiness to it, and a lovely introspective bridge. “Promise” is a slower more thoughtful number, but this one has a bigger sound, particularly in the guitars. The vocals are subdued, but the melodic line being sung is broad and big. “On Earth” takes the guitar grittiness to extremes, and with the vocals pulled back in the mix, it comes across as the most raucous track of the album, with an emphatic feel to it, grunge licks punctuating the guitar lines, and “Weekend at Bernies’s Again” is downright poppy and bouncy. There aren’t a lot of bands still playing music like this, though a few bands from back in the day have reunited and are playing this style again. It’s a sound I love, and Thousandaire is ably carrying on the tradition.
GHOST FOREST (ghostforestband.bandcamp.com)
The debut release from Chicago’s Ghost Forest might just seem to be another blip on the releases screen, but when you take a closer look, you’ll find that the band includes Chicago musical luminaries “Gub” Scott Conway (Even in Blackouts, Gauge Ivy League) and James Kimball (The Jesus Lizard, Denison/Kimball Trio). You’ll find an album that’s powerful and hard driving. It’s got a sharp metallic edge, but it’s not metal. Some of the dozen songs on this album contain a potent mix of hard rock and 90s post punk, as evidenced by songs like “Tuff Guy,” a song that calls out those who think they’re all that, who want to push others out of the way and take the spotlight. Other songs, such as “Le Savage,” change things up, with 90s noise rock and hard rock, but with sections of the song that use smoother sounding vocals, even as the instrumentals continue to attack. And there’s a strong industrial vein a la Ministry running through some of these songs, too. Probably my favorite track, though, is “Living in Hard Times,” a song with a softer melodic emo sound and a cool DC style jangle. It harkens back to Gub’s days in Gauge, when blending east coast emo and west coast pop melodies was a new thing. The song seems to reference the hard times of 2020, with COVID isolation and the mass protests over institutionalized racism during the summer. “Lock yourself up inside of it all / Nothing works no matter how hard you try,” the song begins, and “Spread out in the streets and seeing the wars / Feeling like the world has let you down.” I also like the great lope and pounding beat of “Jobs.” It’s got an interesting message too, likening mindless work for others to losing one’s self and becoming less than a person. “I’m digging myself in, digging myself in, digging myself while I’m digging this ditch,” declares the chorus. “It’s only human to wonder if you’re human” is repeated in the second and third verses. That makes it all the more interesting that “No One” has a very mechanical industrial – dare I say “robotic” – feel to it, with minimalist repeating melodic line. And then there’s “Swirly,” a very aptly titled track, as it virtually swirls around you, mesmerizing with its harmonies. This is one of the most exciting debuts of the year.
GODDAMNIT – All This Time Is Yours Now (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Creep Records, shopcreep.com)
Goddamnit, hailing from Philadelphia, PA, have the sound of all your favorite bands from the great punk and pop punk fests, like The Fest, Awesome Fest, and Insubfest. This is a brand of music that hit its heights a decade or so ago, but has since been overtaken by softer and poppier sounds. This all makes sense when you note that Goddamnit formed in 2011. I can hear the influence of Hot Water Music and sometimes even a bit of Dillinger Four or Pegboy, bands from yet an earlier era. There’s a great gruffness and roughness to the songs, but they’re eminently melodic and tuneful. “Lost In Tension” is a particularly notable song, sounding like it could have come from Minneapolis, mixing D4 and The Slow Death. Another interesting one is “Marked Safe,” apparently a reference to the Facebook feature that let’s your friends know if you’ve been hurt in a disaster or not. The song is a little slower than others, but it has a big ending with huge guitars that takes the song in a whole different direction. Speaking of huge, that could describe the LP, in general, vocals sung with fervor. The music from Goddamnit may be from a bygone era, an era when power counted for something. If you’re into this “sound” I recommend checking this out.
POPULAR CREEPS – All Of This Will End In Tears (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)
Detroit’s Popular Creeps, who take their name from a song written by former Replacements drummer Chris Mars, play a modern take on the 80s alternative pop sound. Most of the songs have a great jangly quality, such as the opening track, “Black and Blue,’ probably my favorite of the LP. It’s a song that, as the band describes, is “like being in a boxing match against yourself. You keep throwing the same punches AND keep taking the same blows.” Another great jangle pop tune is “Window,” this one with hints of British invasion influence. It’s a song about codependency, with lyrics like, “It you show me where it hurts I’ll show you mine,” and a chorus that talks about “Falling out the window side by side.” I also enjoy “Wait and See,” an urgent sounding tune that melds power pop and 80s alternative jangle, a song about a relationship that’s fallen apart and all of the self-blame that goes with that. And “Flamethrower” is the track for fans of the nerd pop of the era. But it’s a mixed bag. A couple of the songs are less interesting to me. “Keep It To Myself” has a little bit of folksy Americana twang, and “Wait Forever” is even stronger countrified folk pop, sounding like something from the old Prairie Home Companion radio show. They just don’t fit with the rest of the album, sounding like they come from an entirely different band. The only other thing that bothers me a little bit is the intonation of the lead vocals; sometimes they drop off at the end of phrases, going a bit flat. But otherwise, if you’re a fan of 80s alternative jangle pop, you’ll enjoy this record. I know I did.
SLUDGEWORTH - Losers of the Year (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
Sludgeworth, for those of you too young to remember or who have been living under a rock, was a short-lived band from Chicago, formed out of one of the many rancorous splits of Screeching Weasel. The band featured Dan Schafer on vocals, Brian Vermin on drums, Adam White and Dave McLean on guitars, and Mike Hootenstrat on bass, and they played music that, while still solidly rooted in the Chicago punk tradition, was less snotty and more melodic than what Screeching Weasel was doing. This collection is a remastered reissue of the band’s discography, bringing together tracks from their debut EP, their LP “What’s This?”, the “Brightside” 7”and a handful of previously unreleased tracks. Originally released on CD by Lookout! Records, Red Scare is giving the LP the vinyl release it deserves. One listen and you’ll be hooked, just like all of us in Chicago were when we first saw the band play live. Songs like “Waste It Away,” Someday,” and ”Another Day,” were local hits, and should have gotten the band much wider recognition. Of course, this was in pre-internet days, so it was harder for a small local band to generate a national following. Sludgeworth occupied that space between power pop and pop punk, with great pop hooks, played with an earnest DIY punk sound and attitude. Listen to “Someday,” one of my favorite songs of theirs, and you can hear influences of bands like Naked Raygun and Descendents blended together. Check out “Over and Over” and see if you don’t hear a bit of Milo singing there. Sometimes the band went for a slightly harder edgier sound, like on ”Anytime,” a song that wears its Bad Religion influence on its sleeve while remaining eminently tuneful. “Never Say Never” is another great one, with probably the highest quotient of “whoa-ohs” of any of the band’s songs, and is an example of the great songwriting the band did, mixing simple punk instrumentation and more involved pop rock melodies. Schafer almost channels Mike Ness of Social Distortion on “Only One,” with nasally singing and sliding notes, while “Angry Man” is very different for the band, with a mix of emo, punk, and funk, in a vein slightly akin to what another vastly underrated Chicago band, Trenchmouth, was doing during this era (maybe Red Scare honcho Toby could be convinced to do a similar retrospective of that band)? And also mixing emo with pop is the epic, “To Be The Same,” a track that feels weighty and important, the thumping bass taking the forefront here. And, of course, the band’s number one best song (or at least my favorite) is here. “Another Day.” It’s a gloriously breezy pop punk tune. Of course, I have the original records, but I hadn’t listened to them in such a long time; it was really nice to listen to these songs again. Many thanks go to Red Scare for bringing the joy of Sludgeworth to a new generation and bringing back memories of shows past at places like McGregor’s and Wrigleyside. Recommended.
WE WERE PROMISED JETPACKS – A Complete One-Eighty (Big Scary Monsters, bsmrocks.com)
This new EP from the Scottish band features contrasting versions of some songs, both an original version and remixes from the likes of Zoe Graham and Andy Monaghan. The contrasts are striking. The EP version of “Fat Chance” is the closing track, and is a moving melancholy ballad filled with ambience and emotion, while Zoe Graham’s remix would be more at home being played in a dance club with darkened room and flashing colored lights. Honestly, the EP version is vastly superior, moody, and building toward an epic scale. “If It Happens,” on the other hand, is both dreamier and edgier in the Manchester Orchestra remix than the original version. Yes, there are synths, but the vocals are processed to create a virtual choir, while guitars inject some noisy grit. The other two tracks are “Nothing Ever Changes,” a song from the album “Enjoy the View,” here remixed buy Andy Monaghan, and “All That Glittered.” Of the six tracks of this EP, my favorite has to be the EP Version of “Fat Chance.” It’s the most “real” heartfelt song here.
DEAD BY SUNDAY – Fall Asleep to Regret (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, cylsrecords.com)
Dead By Sunday existed for a brief time around the turn of the millennium, and this CD contains the band’s entire recorded output, recently remixed and remastered. The band played a particular style of post—hardcore punk, marked by a mix of emotion, melody and urgency. The press materials claim that this was a style that bands would emulate years later, which may be true, but the implication that Dead By Sunday originated this style is not. This is a style that emerged in the late 80s and grew in the early 90s. That, in no way, though, takes away from this collection of songs, which brings waves of nostalgia. I loved this sub-genre. Perhaps it’s just that they fell between the cracks, after the first wave of emo and before the resurgence in the 2000s. They’re a band that never really caught on – I can find precious little about them on the Internet – but I have to feel some sympathy for this plight. One of my favorite bands that played an earlier version of this style, suburban Chicago band Gauge, never got their due either, with bands that followed getting all of the attention. Perhaps, too, it’s that they were from Flint, Michigan, rather than New York, LA, or the Bay Area. In addition to the melodic/emo blend, Dead By Sunday’s vocals sometimes veer toward a softer form of what, in the 90s, became known as “screamo;” softer because it’s not nearly as intense and noisy as the bands best known for the style, and much of the vocals are more tuneful and melodic than screamo bands. All of this is neatly encapsulated in the opening track, Mexico Sounds Nice,” a song that will feel at once familiar and fresh, as if anticipating the modern wave of emo pop punk bands. “Decoding the Silence” is a particular favorite, with a strong post-punk edge and a heightened level of tension. I like the shifting meters of “Niagara Fell,” and I hear Jawbox influence in some of the songs, including “Self-Defense.” Dead By Sunday is a band that should have been heard more widely, and now, with these songs seeing reissue, they finally can be.
SE VENDE – Happy Accidents (Paper Street Cuts, www.paperstreetcuts.com)
I have fond memories of Bay Area bands of the late 80s and early 90s, the ones that put Lookout! Records on the map. I loved those bands, the ones playing a post-hardcore brand of pop punk that was both melodic and raucous. Se Vende are a San Diego band in that same tradition. Their music is pop punk with an earnest DIY feel and vocals that can only be described as deeply passionate, as is the music. I love the opening track, “So Much More,” which takes a while to get going, starting out as an 80s DC style emo instrumental, but just past the halfway mark the song really takes off, speeding up, and amping up the emotional quotient with a pop punk flair. The lyrics are just as anxious as the music and the vocal delivery, being about how so much of society lives for the material things, greed, and consumerism. “The culture of excess makes me depressed,” the song declares. “Life is so much more than all this mess,” it continues, but it’s clear that for too many people, it isn’t, and the meaning of life and love are lost. It’s a depressing sentiment. Such melancholic sentiments are a common thread through many of the songs, with lyrics of self-deprecation and hopelessness, like “Life Decay,” which sings the praises of “being stuck beneath the sheet,” as in dead. Another favorite (in an album of great tracks) is “Yesterday.” It has a great pop punk jangle and a more moderate pace. The intensity of the vocals contrasts wonderfully with the bright bouncy melody, and the lyrics are about living in the moment for today, because “Yesterday’s gone, time to move on.” A bonus feature of this album comes in “Big Sleepy Pt. 2” in the form of guest vocals from Ricky Schmidt of Ricky and Hey Chels! (formerly of Western Settings). And there’s a second bonus. The album ends with a “hidden track,” a cover of Tiltwheel’s “Do They Make Tin Foil Beer Helmets? Cuz I Want One!” a song they’ve been playing live a lot lately, with Tiltwheel’s full blessing. This album is a must for all fans of DIY pop punk with strong emotional content.
A CAST OF THOUSANDS – Songs from the Second Floor (Record Records, record-records.bandcamp.com)
I’ve reviewed a number of ACOT albums before, and always loved their unique blend of pop and folk-psych. It’s always wonderfully understated. Their latest LP has some of that, but sees the band expand their repertoire into other genres, as well. “No Detection,” which opens the LP, has none of the psych pop and instead is a blend of power pop and post-punk. It’s a solid track and one of my favorites of the record. “Decades,” which follows, on the other hand, has the lovely delicate sound I’ve come to expect from ACOT, with brushed snare, acoustic guitar and bright piano playing a simple melody. Beth Beer’s vocals continue to mesmerize me, feeling so perfect for this style of music. I hear retro AM pop influence in “Heading Nowhere Again,” though the super psychedelic bridge makes you feel like you’re spaced out. I also enjoy the light and breezy “It’s Your Birthday,” a song that’s more of a laid-back celebration that an all-out party. If you’re a fan of power pop, “Astrological Signs” is for you. Beers and Terry Cuddy take turns on the lead vocals and even harmonize together, something that’s not common for the band, where one or the other usually takes the lead in any given song. And another favorite, “Holiday in Amerika,” sounds like a Go Go’s track, with bright new wave era pop and dark lyrics about the country’s descent into fascism and authoritarianism. “Death squads on the streets of Portland! Death squads on the streets of New York! Death squads on the streets of Boston! Death squads on the streets of Detroit!” the song declares, an apparent reaction to the police overreaction to protests during the summer of 2020. There’s a nice variety of sounds in this latest LP, and the band never goes too over the top; they show a restraint that really complements these melodies. It’s a very pretty record.
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