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Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

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.

MINIATURIZED (www.miniaturized.online)

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.

DOT DASH – Madman in the Rain (The Beautiful Music, thebeautifulmusic.com)

I’ve always thought that Dot Dash are masters of breezy, jangly indie pop, and this latest LP from the prolific Washington DC band does nothing to change my mind about that. The trio play songs that are bright and shiny, with hints of retro bubblegum, British invasion, and psych influences. The opening track, “Forever Far Out,” is a favorite. It’s light and airy, with a great prominent bass, a lovely ambience from the keyboards, and a sparkly feel to the melody and vocals. Many of the songs, though they have a light touch, nonetheless feel epic in scale. “Everything = Dust” is a good example of this, a song that jangles like mad and has a lilting melody, but the strong beat and almost march-like rhythm propel the song with an urgent feel. “Tense and Nervous” also has that imperative feel, with a more upbeat pace, big organ sound in the keyboard, and lyrics that are partly sung and partly spoken emphatically. A couple of the songs have a slightly different feel. “Space Junk Satellites” is one, with more of a lounge sound. “Animal Stone” has a dark garage influence, though it’s still too jangly and pretty for garage. And then there’s the lone ballad of the LP, “Wokeupdreaming.” “I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m afraid of being dead,” the song declares. There’s a slight doo-wop feel to the song, and lyrics that seem to be about confusion, jealousy, and depression, and a desire to climb out of the morass. The one problem I have with Dot Dash and other bands like them is they’re made up of scene veterans who have been around and have long since settled down and only play locals shows, never touring. This limits my chances of ever seeing them live. Until that chance comes, I’ll be content to listen to enjoyable albums like this one.

THE LAUGHING CHIMES – Zoo Avenue (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecords.com)

Hailing from southeast Ohio, The Laughing Chimes are a duo, teen brothers Evan and Quinn Seurkamp. They play lovely indie pop inspired by the British and American jangle pop of the 90s, so are perfectly at home on Slumberland Records, a label that’s specialized in the genre for the last few decades. There are six songs on the EP, out digitally and on cassette (likely due to the severe problems and lead times with vinyl pressing), and they’re all simply gorgeous. I miss bands like this, who play simple indie pop without all of the processing and effects. Just pretty songs that, according to the press materials, are inspired by the crumbling coal town in which they grew up. That sounds grim, but the songs are anything but. They’re sparkling.

THE REAL MCKENZIES – Songs of the Highlands, Songs of the Sea (Fat Wreck Chords, fatwreck.com)

The Canadian band, active now for the past 30 years, are back with a new LP chock full of Celtic punk tunes for your listening pleasure. And a pleasure it is for those of us who enjoy the genre. The Real McKenzies have always focused more on the pop punk side of the musical equation, but with bagpipes and a blending in of traditional Celtic melodies in places, the musical roots in the Scottish highlands are unmistakable. On this latest LP we get exactly what the title advertises, songs of the highlands and songs of the sea; in other words, punk reworking of traditional songs from Scotland’s highlands and the band’s modern take on traditional sea shanties. The album opens with a punk rock rendition of “Scotland the Brave,” a song for which everyone knows the melody, because it’s the most well-known bagpipe march. But few realize it’s an actual anthem with lyrics, and The Real McKenzies, though a punk band they may be, sing and play the song with the reverence it deserves. The sea shanties featured are both traditional and folk tunes, and include the band’s raucous skate punk take on “Drunken Sailor,” the solemn “The Bonnie Ship The Diamond,” a hard rocking rendition of the pirate song, “Dead Man’s Chest,” and a more traditional sing-along version of “Blow the Man Down.” Additionally there’s the 60s folk classic “The Sloop John B,” a song whose roots lie not in Scotland but in the Bahamas. And there’s the lovely “Swansea Town,” a traditional shanty sung when raising anchor and heading out to sea, thinking of those the sailors were leaving behind and already long to see again. Here it’s sung by The Last Gang’s Brenna Red (because, according to the press notes, it meant so much to front man Paul McKenzie that he couldn’t bring himself to sing it). The album features, too, the poetry of Scotland’s premier poet, Robert Burns, in the form of the songs, “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” “Ye Jacobites by Name,” and “A Red, Red Rose.” The first is a poem of longing, from the perspective of a Scot who has left his homeland and yearns to return. Turning the beautiful poem of an aching of the heart into a raucous punk tune is no mean feat. I’m not sure I would have made the metallic musical choice The Real McKenzies did on this one. On the other hand, “Ye Jacobites by Name” has just the right feel for the protest song it is, about the grim strife and division wrought by the Jacobite Risings of the 17th and 18th centuries. “A Red, Red Rose” is a love poem, and previous attempts to turn it into a song have made it a quiet delicate tune, but The Real McKenzies instead turn it into a declaration, sung loudly and proudly. I always love some good Celtic punk, and I always love a new LP from The Real McKenzies. This is no exception.

RICKY – Pure Fun (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

Former Western Settings front man and current Hey Chels! member Ricky Schmidt began exploring a solo effort during the pandemic, his debut LP coming out just about two years ago. That one was recorded with whatever friends he could pull into the studio, but since then Ricky has built up a regular lineup, played some shows, and has released this, their sophomore LP. It continues Schmidt’s branching out from his years of emotionally driven pop punk of Western Settings and deeper into the world of indie-pop with a dreamy edge. Bright pop melodies are produced with a lo-fi misty sound, to make them feel worn and faded with age, as if the songs were well-used and well-loved. And Schmidt’s pensive vocals completely change the tenor from bright to lugubrious. The music swirls all around you and becomes completely enveloping, particularly on the aptly titled, “Everything,” a track you can lose yourself in. Another such song is “Living Spirit,” which also swathes you in its lush arrangement, and is also somewhat harder and edgier than most of the tracks. Another high-strung track is “Headbanger.” It’s a more emphatic piece, with guitars used as rhythmic instruments, pounding away just as furiously as the drums. But even before these we get the album’s proper opening track (after a moody intro track of eerie sounds and chirping birds), “Flowers.” It’s a wonderful way to begin, as it’s the brightest and sweetest track of the LP. The title track is another that’s aptly named, as it’s got a carnival sort of feel in the melody, bright and shining, though the production and vocals have a more thoughtful bent. Other special mentions to go “Africa,” eschewing pop melody for a mournful ballad, and “Cool Guy,” for sounding like something Lou Reed might be doing if he had been born a few decades later, with its minimalist melody and partly spoken lyrics. The album’s ending track, “Feel Good” was previously released on a very limited lathe cut, but rerecorded here, with interesting production in which the vocals are highly manipulated and multi-tracked, to make it seems as if Donald Duck were joining Schmidt in the studio. It’s fascinating watching Schmidt’s musical journey and following his growth. As good as “Palm Trees” was, you could tell it was tentative first steps on his own, where “Pure Fun” feels more fully formed, and definitely more cohesive.

AMERICAN THRILLS – Parted Ways (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

After releasing a smattering of 7” singles, splits, and EPs, Connecticut’s American Thrills are now releasing their debut full-length LP. They play an emotionally charged brand of punk-inspired alternative rock. The nine songs here all have a big anthemic quality of the sort where everyone is pressing forward and singing along, fists in the air. It’s got a working class rock streak through it, too, like mixing Bruce Springsteen with The Gaslight Anthem, then slathering it with a DIY ethic. There’s even a track called “Blue Collar” here, as if to acknowledge where they come from. It’s an ode to the unfulfilled lives of the previous generation, those who worked hard for little return, who sacrificed their own happiness to take care of their families, who made mistakes, but whose hearts were in the right place. The arrangements are well done, with guitars alternately crunching and jangling, and the songwriting makes good use of shifting meters at times. The vocals have just the right amount of grit – not so much as to sound like rocks and gravel, but not too little as to sound like smooth crooning. The band, too, have a good handle on dynamic range, with quiet and loud sections presenting alternating moods and mixed emotions. One of my favorite songs is “Maybe You Were Right About Me,” a self-deprecating song with a pretty jangle to it, especially in the lush gorgeous bridge. There are plenty of bands playing this sort of music, so American Thrills aren’t unique, but they acquit themselves quite well on this solid debut LP.

TIM BARRY – "Carolina’s RV" EP (Chunksaah Records, chunksaah.com)

This EP is a companion to Tim Barry’s recently released LP, “Spring Hill,” and was inspired by some traditional songs and “B-sides” he had written and recorded in the same sessions as the LP, but were always intended to be released as a separate 7” EP. The record includes two Barry originals and two traditional songs, all performed in Barry’s unmistakable troubadour style. The two traditional songs include “Wreck of the Old ’97,” and “Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet.” The former was originally written and recorded by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, and it went on to become the first million selling country song. It’s since been covered by innumerable artists, the latest being Barry’s. It’s much more stripped down than a lot of the previous recordings, as is Barry’s style, with a scratchy sounding banjo and with Barry’s clear booming voice. The latter is a song much older, an Americanized version of the British folk song, “The Lass of Roch Royal.” It, too, became an oft-recorded country folk classic, and Barry’s pretty version includes banjo, mandolin, and guest vocals. The other two tracks have a more modern sound, with “Carolina’s RV” being a twangy song about someone with a checkered past whose changed his ways and just wants to be left alone, but lives in constant fear of persecution by authorities and society. The delicate “Clem’s Court Date,” like many Barry songs, tells a story, in this case of a woman who shot and killed her lover who had turned into an abuser. Tim Barry’s solo stuff is always good, and when he strips it back like he does in his live shows and on this EP, it’s unbeatable.

DUMBSKULL – POP (Laptop Punk Records, laptoppunkrecords.bandcamp.com)

Dumbskull is a prolific one-man band, playing guitar, bass, drums, singing, and even playing keyboards here and there. There’s a decidedly strong 1990s pop punk sound here, like the Queers. The songs are short and simple, with buzzy guitar (almost as buzzy as Vista Blue), snare-heavy drums, and simple bass lines. This latest effort is a nine-song mini LP, clocking in at 17 minutes of snotty pop punk. One highlight of the record is the opening track, “Narcolepsy,” a song about wanting to stay in bed and sleep all day instead of, well, doing anything else. The best part comes after the initial rendition of the song ends and a second version starts. While the melody is the same, the addition of keyboards on the bridge gives the song a cool off-kilter feel. “Mission Terraform” has nice shifting rhythms, a science-fiction theme, and a chill guitar solo on the bridge, sounding distant in the mix, a perfect match for punk sci-fi. And “Oh Donna” (not the Ritchie Valens song) has a great surf opening before the loud guitar buzz comes in. And I really like “Sugar, Sugar,” especially for its chorus, the return of the chill guitar in a brief bridge, and lyrics of anticipation of a reunion with a loved one, simple and snotty they may be. Dumbskull isn’t slickly produced (hey, it’s Laptop Punk, after all!), and he isn’t breaking new musical ground, but if you’re a fan of basic 90s pop punk, this is something you’ll likely enjoy.

ESZTER BALINT – I Hate Memory (Red Herring Records, eszterbalint.com)

This is an album filled with subdued indie pop songs, some of them with some great Laurie Anderson style spoken lyrics and performance art. The songs are very understated, yet have quite a theatrical quality to them – appropriate since Balint has a background in acting and the theater, and used these songs as the basis for a stage production she calls her “anti-musical.” The title comes from the opening track, “Memory Song,” a track about the anxiety induced by dwelling in the past (the lyrics even say that “the past is a dick”). Simply plucked guitar, bass, drums, and ethereal flute accompany the sardonic vocals. “Before America; (Newsreel Avenue)” is one of the tracks that evoke the Laurie Anderson aesthetic, a pretty, dark melody quietly playing underneath Balint’s poetic spoken lyrics. “Campfire at the Chelsea” uses plucked upright bass and piano with restrained electric guitar to create a pretty backdrop for Balint’s vocals, her lyrics telling an abstract story, like the other songs. “Art Bodega Nation” is a favorite, as it’s one of the more raucous tunes, with an early 80s post punk quality to it, the era when there was a ton of creativity and experimentalism going on in rock and pop music. There’s a break in the song in which we hear an argument that apparently happened (or could have happened) between Balint and her mother, Balint complaining that it’s too cold and her mother replying that she’s spoiled. Mom then yells at her about how to “make it in America” (the family immigrated from Hungary) and they argue about going to parties vs. working, and how parental authority is just as bad as Communist dictatorship, making art vs. paying the bills. A real highlight is the gorgeous “After the Party (Fifteen),” a beautiful song played on piano, with violin and trumpet accompaniment and Balint’s tentative singing, as if she’s uncertain and confused. Of the more traditionally structured songs, “Second Avenue” is a favorite, with a lovely hazy quality. The stage production was created before and cancelled by COVID, but has since been revived. And word is that a film adaptation is in the works. Here’s hoping either the live or film version makes its way to San Diego, because I’d love to see it, based on listening to this record.

MIKE BAGGETTA / JIM KELTNER / MIKE WATT – Everywhen We Go (Big Ego Records, www.bigegorecords.com)

When he’s not recording or performing with his own band, Mike Watt and the Secondmen, the storied bass player collaborates with a lot of different people and plays a lot of different genres. This new LP finds him again working with jazz guitarist Mike Baggetta and session drummer Jim Keltner, the second outing for this trio. The LP is replete with laid-back instrumentals, though I hesitate to call them “easy jazz.” There’s nothing easy about this album that features avant-garde experimentalism and free improvisation. Subtle surf undertones sometimes creep in, as well, understandable given the Southern California locale where this was recorded. Think the cool jazz of Thelonious Monk combined with the musical explorations of The Art Ensemble of Chicago. There’s not a lot more to say about this record, either you’re going to love it, like I did, or you’re going to hate it because it’s not punk, not what you expected. The title track that opens the album is, perhaps, my favorite of the bunch. It’s laid-back, with so much great understated playing. You can hear the surf influence in the melody, and the whole vibe of the tune is incredibly chill. But that describes the whole album: chill. Though some of the improvisation from Baggetta’s guitar can get nice and angular, there’s never anything truly dissonant here. “In the Center” is a gift to fans of ambient music, as this track is gorgeous and flowing. So is, “Not Enough Time,” “Fake Break” has a loping feel to it, while “Fearmongers” sounds like something that could have come out of the Twin Peaks soundtrack, then gets even stranger. The digital version of the album contains a bonus track, too; it’s a somewhat more aggressive (relative term – it’s still relaxed) version of the title track, less subtle, less surfy, and with less use of guitar overtones. Throw away all your preconceived notions and give this album a listen. It’ll expand your horizons.

OMNI OF HALOS (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)

After dropping their debut EP earlier this year, Gothenburg, Sweden’s Omni of Halos’ debut full-length LP picks up where they left off. They play a unique blend of heavy alternative rock, dream pop, and country twang. Growling fuzzed bass and guitars combine with pop-filled melodies and the ever-present understated guitar twang to create a singular sound, and it’s all painted over with a lo-fi brush. The songs are on an epic scale, too, full of grandeur. A perfect introduction is the opening track, “You Suck.” It might have an off-putting title, but the sound is anything but. The sound is enveloping, and you can just get lost and become one with the music. “Darkest Hour Final Hour” is one of my favorites of the album; it still has the huge sound, but it’s more wistful, the guitars jangling thoughtfully rather than just being full-on wall of sound. Another favorite is “Empty Shell,” a track that’s less twang, more dark psychedelic aggression. This track is the edgiest thing on the album, and you can hear more anger and less of the pensive dreaminess of the other tracks. I love how effortlessly the indie pop melody melds with the controlled chaos of the arrangement on “Hand in Hand” and “In the Mud,” while the closer, “Out of Control,” has a distinct 90s post-emo feel mixed in with the other sounds. Omni of Halos are creating a whole new sound, a new sub-genre, with their musical style, and it’s one I really like. Recommended.

THE RAGING NATHANS - Still Spitting Blood (www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Goddamn! The Raging Nathans keep cranking out new LPs at a record pace. This latest LP comes just over a year after their last full-length, “Waste My Heart,” which itself came out less than a year after the “Oppositional Defiance” LP. In between these they’ve released various EPs and singles and have appeared on splits and comps. But rather than running out of ideas, this Ohio punk band just keep getting better and better. The front half of the album features powerful Midwest melodic punk, gritty and crunchy, speedy and strong, yet with great pop punk melodies and strong tuneful vocals. They remind me of classic Midwest hardcore and punk bands of the 80s, with a big muscular sound, bands like The Effigies and Naked Raygun. Songs like “Head in a Hole,” which opens the album, are just incredibly pummeling. I love the guitar sound and the vocal harmonies on “Fucked Olympia,” while Patrick Cost’s drums pound away faster than a speeding bullet. As great as those tracks are, one of my favorite songs of the album is “The Lime Pit,” a song with a more moderate pace and a dark power pop melody. “Waste of Time” starts out as a pretty loping track, with a slower pace, and gorgeous melody. Then, as the song edges toward the close, it has a classic late 80s pop punk sound, sort of like Screeching Weasel from that era, speedy and very tuneful (with cleaner better vocals and harmonies). And lest you think that only Fat Wreck bands can play the speediest hardest skate punk, The Raging Nathans use the title track to teach you otherwise and put all skate punk bands to shame. This track is super fast, super tight, and super crunchy, and it does it all without the wanky metal crap. Then there’s “Nothing I Can Do,” which brings a ska-punk like feel without being ska, in the way Operation Ivy did back in the late 80s. The Raging Nathans keep bringing us albums that are expertly performed, well written, and varied enough to hold our interest. They’ve made my “Best of the Year” list the last two years in a row. Will they make it three? They’ve got an excellent shot with “Still Spitting Blood.”

REJECTION PACT – Can We Wait (Safe Inside Records, www.safeinsiderecords.com)

Nineties hardcore is alive and well and still being made by bands like Boise, Idaho’s Rejection Pact. The album features a dozen tracks of crunchy metallic youth crew style hardcore – with a difference. In many of the songs, the arrangements are more thoughtful than is typical of the genre. But the bulk is exactly what you’d expect: heavy crunchy instrumentals, angry shouted vocals, and big gang vocals. Political and social commentary dominates the lyrics, rather than the themes of unity, brotherhood, and betrayal that are the norm for this genre, so that makes the band stand out from the crowd, too. I’ll say right from the start, the genre isn’t one of my favorites, but I do like the interesting touches this album offers, like the highly experimental “found sound” collage of the first track, “Imperative.” We hear a radio dial being spun, with static and radio stations coming in and out, and then a solemn distant piano, the static still in the background, providing an eerie atmosphere. But then things explode with the fury of “Hollow Ethos” and the other songs that follow. “Collective Will” is an interesting one, starting with eerie reverb effects and ending with a cool smoothing out of the guitars and the addition of piano. In between is some Gorilla Biscuits worthy 90s hardcore. “Profit programming” uses sound clips and a more progressive rock sound to slam the excesses of American capitalism. And “Prune,” the speediest track of the album, mixes hardcore and progressive sounds in an interesting way. If you’re a fan of the 90s hardcore sound, give this a spin. It’s got what you love and yet it’s a step above the generic hardcore sound.

S.C.A.B. (Grind Select Records, grindselect.com)

This is the sophomore release from the Brooklyn-based band, their debut having been released just prior to the onset of the pandemic. The band name began as the first initial of each band member’s first name (Sean Camargo – Vocals/Guitar, Cory Best – Guitar, Alec Alabado – Bass/Synth, Brandon Hafetz – Drums), though Hafetz has since left the band and the name now takes on different meanings. The music here is bright pop music played with a retro goth sound, the guitar tone clear and loaded with reverb. It gives the otherwise glittering songs a dark dreamy quality. It’s the sort of sound I’m hearing more and more often from younger pop bands coming from the indie tradition. MTA LUX is a particular favorite of the LP, being the most raucous track of the ten on the LP. It’s upbeat, with more emphatic vocals and guitars jangling like mad, synths ringing out. It’s almost like a dreamy poppy punk tune; with so much going on it gets awesomely chaotic. And “Tuesday” is a nice pop tune with a propelling rhythm in both the drums and guitar, the bass playing a soaring line. One thing that bugs me about the guitar tone used. It seems to wobble, in and out of tune, which sometimes makes the vocals seem to waver in and out of tune, as well. This sort of guitar tone and heavy reverb can be interesting when used judiciously or when the entire tone of the band is darker and less pop oriented. Used too much in an album of pop tunes, it can get tiring. In S.C.A.B. I find a band with some promise; they’ve got a decent variety in their songs pace and good dynamic range. All they need now is a bit more variety in the overall tone they use from song to song.

STREET DIAMONDS – Scenester Citizens (A.D.D. Records, addrecords.limitedrun.com)

Street Diamonds, formed on the eve of the pandemic, took some time to get off the ground due to the pandemic shutdowns. Their first show was a live stream from an empty bar with the band all wearing facemasks. They’re all scene veterans, having played in a multitude of bands of the past, including J Church, Jack Acid, Vena Cava, Bloodbath and Beyond, and many more. They’re based in the Bay Area of California, and play music with that they say is an 80s Bay Area punk sound: it’s got a hardcore crunch, has tons of melody, but isn’t speedy or poppy. To my ears it sounds more like the music punk bands were playing in Chicago years earlier. Their debut EP consists of four songs filled with dismay at the state of the world. For example, “The Right to be Dumb” speaks to the purposeful ignorance of people who get their news from Internet blogs and social media. I love the chants of “USA! USA! USA!” on the bridge, mocking the people who declare the nation to be exceptional, even as they continue to remain in ignorance. And “I’ve Been Rights for So Long” speaks to the frustration of knowing what too many other people ignore until you just give up and “watch it all burn.” Crunchy melodic punk with political and social commentary? To me that’s a perfect combination.

BRING THE HOAX (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)

This Stockholm, Sweden band focus on a 90s sound, with grunge and indie rock influences. They even throw in a little bit of 80s in the opening track, “Los Angeles,” by heavily processing the vocals through a vocoder on the chorus, giving it a big retro pop sound. Tuneful melodies blend with fuzzed out guitars, elevating the grunge genre like never before. I like the angular post-hardcore lines of “1993,” and the power pop influenced “Jonestown” is a standout; the distorted grunge mixed with the poppy jangle makes for a great sound. And that’s a good overall description for the five-song EP, distorted grunge mixed with poppy jangle. Nice stuff.

THE DARTS – Love Tsunami (Dirty Water Records, dirtywaterrecords.bandcamp.com)

I love the description The Darts have on their Facebook page: “If Elvira and Wednesday Addams did shots of snake venom at a bachelorette party, that’s The Darts.” It gives you a distinct flavor for this garage rock band that leans heavily into eerie organ sounds and drips with debauchery. As the band has evolved they’ve moved from the heavier fuzzed-out hard rock sounds more toward a brand of “horror garage, I’ll call it, with a psych-pop bent. The three songs on this EP blend great pop melodies with psychedelic garage rock, and that sweet keyboard with the heavy vibrato gives things that mysterious air. Another ace release from The Darts.

MAGGIE CUBILLOS – Old Shoes (distrokid.com/hyperfollow/maggiecubillos/old-shoes)

Singer-songwriter Maggie Cubillos is currently studying at Berklee College of Music, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. Her music, though pop oriented, is informed by the indie influence of her Southern California roots. “Old Shoes” is her debut single, and it’s a pretty, delicate tune with acoustic guitar, understated percussion, the quiet twang of a steel guitar, and Cubillos’ gorgeously clear vocals. The song is about embracing change, despite the fear and trepidation it can bring. This is a lovely debut.

NIGHTMARATHONS – Hidden Vigorish (A-F Records. a-frecords.com)

Pittsburgh punks Nightmarathons (what a great name!) return with their sophomore LP. The eleven songs are huge, big emotionally charged music made for beer-soaked sing-alongs in divey venues. Melodies are enormous and broad and the vocals have just the right blend of grit and tunefulness, shouted at the top of their lungs. This is the perfect band to play something like The Fest, and in fact they did this year. I love this sort of stuff, and there’s not a bad song on the LP. But there are a few standouts. I love the urgency of “Abandon,” especially the opening bars, with just vocals and guitar. Even when the guitars get a little mellower in the middle and we get some dueling vocals going on, the drums and bass keep propelling the song ever forward. I like the start-stop in the melodic line of the lead guitar in the intro to “Wrong,” as well as its martial rhythm and the glorious sounding ending. “Bridge” has a bright hopeful sound with pretty jangly guitars, and “Not the End” is a fittingly epic track. One thing this genre does suffer from is a sameness from song to song. When all your songs are huge epics, it’s hard to pick the better songs. But I do love this sound, and Nighmarathons do a good job with it. Solid record.

SIC WAITING – A Fine Hill to Die On (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

For anyone wondering if the relocation of Sic Waiting’s front man, Jared Stinson, from Southern California to the heart of Dixie, meant the end of Sic Waiting, rejoice! It did not signal the demise of the storied band, and now we’ve got the proof in a brand new album, their first since 2015’s “Derailer.” Sic Waiting have always championed the 90s punk sound, but never fell into the 90s punk rut, never turning into another same-old-same-old SoCal skate punk band. They’ve got big melodies and big arrangements, and Stinson’s vocals are enormous, ringing out with commanding decisiveness. I love the soaring and bouncing melody of “American Hearts,” and its chord changes are not typical of punk rock, giving the song a pretty unique sound. I like, too, the sentiment of the lyrics, slamming and shaming the so-called patriots who crowed at all of the military actions our nation has taken around the world, invading other countries and bending them to our will. Another favorite is “One Fell Swoop,” especially its gorgeous bridge, where the guitars get all smooth and pretty, lush harmonize vocals singing out, in contrast to the rougher punk sound of the rest of the track. “Good Things” proves the band is way more than a generic SoCal punk band, almost ballad-like, epic in scale, with a gorgeous lush arrangement. At one point we get a quiet section with swirling guitars, and the whole song is just to pretty. The lyrics, though, are in contrast with the melody, about how all of the good things always seem to have bad endings, the result of our own faults and the way we hurt others. Another good one (well, all of them are, really) is “Life’s On Fire,” with Bad Religion-like sciencey lyrics (“Turn potential to kinetic energy”) and big Dirty Nil chords. The song really is about taking the great American road trip, getting into a “mean machine” and using a “folding map,” starting in California and covering the whole lower 48 states. The bottom line here is that “A Fine Hill to Die On” is Sic Waiting’s best record to date, and gets my recommendation.

DAVID WOODARD – Stupid Kid (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

David Woodard’s debut full-length LP is a bit of a mixed bag for me. For the most part, this is soft rock, adult contemporary sort of music that’s will relax rather than excite. It’s pleasant background music. But among the seventeen tracks are a few gems. I’ll focus on those. The album opens with the title track, which is a great power pop tune with self-aware lyrics about writing and recording “stupid songs” about love and girls and all the typical pop song tropes. It’s got a lively rhythm and melody, and I’m a sucker for good power pop. Immediately following, “Literally Probably Maybe” has a solid indie rock sound with shades of REM. “Home the Long Way” is gorgeous, with violin, bowed bass, and hammered dulcimer mixed in with the electric guitar, bass, and drums. I like “Everything In Between,” with a great mod British Invasion sound. The use of piccolo trumpet is a nice touch, giving it that retro 60s feel. And the gentle folk-pop-rock jangle of “Nine Hundred Ninety-Nine” is especially pretty. The other songs are not bad; they’re just inoffensive.

MARTHA – Please Don’t Take Me Back (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com / Specialist Subject Records, specialistsubjectrecords.co.uk)

The indie-pop-punk band from the village of Pity Me in County Durham, UK are back with yet another album that’s filled with brightness and darkness, with elation and depression. Their songs always sound so bright and cheerful, and sometimes they are. But other times they’re full of gloom and doom. As the band has evolved, their songwriting and arranging have gotten better and better, and their songs have gone from inward-looking to outward, from the ups and downs of relationships, self-identity, and self-awareness, toward a grim look at society. While earlier albums delved into the awkwardness of love and relationships and the healing power and triumph of love, “Please Don’t Take Me Back” is an album filled with resignation. Such is the case with “Every Day the Hope Gets Harder,” a song about the slow destruction of the band’s home country by its ruling elite, the turning of it into a real example of The Hunger Games, in which the wealthy live in extravagance while the majority of the people live lives of desperation. Musically, the song is upbeat and dazzling, but the lyrics speak to the numbness of daily life, the utter lack of hope for a better future. You can hear the growth of the band in songs like “Irreversible Motion,” one of the prettiest songs the band have ever done. The arrangement is lusher and the melodic line more complex, with gorgeous vocal harmonies and loads of jangly guitars. Then there are the huge, dark songs like “Total Cancellation of the Future,” with a grimmer sound and sentiment than anything the band have ever done before. Another enormous tune, and one of my favorites of the LP, is “I Didn’t Come Here to Surrender,” a song that defiantly declares that, although life is boring and mundane and our existence is fragile, “I didn’t come here to surrender.” Life will out, as they say. We will survive and thrive. It’s one of the most optimistic moments of the album, and has glorious instrumentals to match. The album closes with “You Can’t Have a Good Time All of the Time,” a lovely hazy tune that uses synths in the arrangement, with the return to resignation that, as much hope as you might try to have, sometimes life just punches you in the face. The song’s ending feels like something out of a dream, with just synths tuned to sound like fairy tale bells. I love Martha, and I think this LP may be their best yet.

REST EASY – Hope You’re Okay (Mutant League Records, www.mutantleaguerecords.com)

Newish Vancouver hardcore band Rest Easy released their first EP last year, and now “Hope You’re Okay” represents the band’s debut full-length LP. And I do mean full-length. At twelve songs and 51 minutes, even at the breakneck pace some of these songs are played at, that’s a lot of music! The band features gruff, gritty vocals over the typical guitar-bass-drums makeup, and the songs mix crunchy hardcore with some poppy melodies. The opening track, “Dirty Work,” is a perfect example; the song is harder hitting than pop punk, but poppier than hardcore. I especially like the DC/Dischord style breakdown toward the end of the song. They do channel that DC sound here and there, with it also popping up on “Broken Wrists,” among others. Some of the songs, too, have a broader 2000s emo post-hardcore sound, like “Hey Maxine” and “On the Outside.” Those songs are done well, if you’re a fan of the genre, but they’re my least favorite of this LP. I really like songs like “All Inside Your Head,” which starts out as the fastest song of the record, with tons of rage. But then 45 seconds into the 2-minute track, it slows to a lope and turns into a great crunchy pop punk tune. “Coast to Coast” is a favorite, reminding me of a local Southern California band, French Exit, who sadly broke up several years ago. The combination of melodic punk and hardcore with emotionally charged gruff vocals hits the sweet spot. If you like crunchy hardcore with a strong pop sensibility, this is a record for you.

SARAH AND THE SAFE WORD – Strange Doings in the Night (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Having recently appeared on Say-10’s LGBTQIA compilation “Never Erased,” Sarah and the Safe Word are now teaming with the label to release their debut full-length LP. Originally released as digital only, the album has been fully remastered for a well-deserved vinyl release. As I’ve noted before, Say-10 is mostly known for releasing aggressive punk and hardcore records, especially in the skate-punk vein, Sarah and the Safe Word are not even close to that sound, but what a sound they have! I’ve seen them described as “queer cabaret rock and roll,” and I suppose it’s an apt description. The band play a brand of indie pop that uses non-traditional instruments, including violin and piano. The album opens with a real cabaret sort of song, “Act 1, Scene 1,” which serves as an introduction. “Do you wish for the ruin of the people you loathe, do you secretly hate all your friends?” it asks, with a waltz-time arrangement. “We have good news for fans of that music, your wait is at last at an end, “ it continues, indicting that the band plays “that music.” “So Metropolitan” kicks things off in earnest and presents the band’s full sound, which is glorious indie pop, with guitar, bass, drums, piano and violin. It’s a huge full sound, and I even hear some horns. The title track is even better, with an orchestral sort of arrangement. The songwriting and arranging are simply brilliant, sounding like something out of a staged musical. It almost reminds me of Chicago’s late lamented The Fire Show, with a similar grand scale to the songs. The album keeps getting better and better, as “North Ave” comes up next, starting out as a quiet pop tune, and grows, the piano adding a great loping jangle to this dark tune. “You’re the Sort of Man I Like” is a jaunting little tune with a dark twisted sensibility. The muted trumpet solo gives it a real old-timey sound, and the whole thing has some great perverse humor. “PillPusher” and “Audrey Honey…” are the only songs that I couldn’t get into, with an 80s arena rock sort of sound. Otherwise, this is a lovely and unique album that I recommend.

VISTA BLUE – "No Cliques, No Trends" EP (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)

The prolific Vistas return with a brand new EP, six new songs of buzzy pop-punk goodness. Typically, the Vistas write all their songs around a given theme, be it seasonal, holiday, movie genre, or what have you. But this EP is different from the rest. There isn’t a single theme, and a couple of the songs veer somewhat from the traditional Vista Blue sound. “The Boys are Still in Town” and “The Girl on the Magazine Cover” are more moderately paced and the guitar tone is more subdued, giving both songs more of a power pop feel. I particularly like the latter of the pair for its great use of keyboards in the arrangement and retro sounding melody. “The Real Richard Bates” brings back the speedy buzzy guitars in a 28 second track that features some lo-fi ukulele recordings as bookends. “We Don’t Think So” is halfway between, with a more interesting melody than is typical in Ramones-core, but with more of the Vista guitar buzz. “I Don't Wanna Spend the Summer With You” and “Bryan Funck's Not Really Such a Bad Guy After All” are the only tracks of the EP that sounds like typical Vista Blue. The variety is stronger than any previous Vista release, making this one of my favorites of theirs.

VORTIS – The Miasmic Years (vortis.bandcamp.com)

At last! The amateur critic gets to review the professional critic! Vortis, a band that’s been kicking around Chicago for the better part of two decades, features none other than Jim DeRogatis, former music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of Public Radio’s “Sound Opinions” radio program and podcast. Besides DeRogatis on drums, Vortis includes Tony Tavano on guitar and Louie Calvano on bass, with both featured on vocals. The trio play raw pared down punk rock, with retro 80s distorted guitar tone reminiscent of “Beneath the Shadows” era TSOL, solid Chicago thumping bass work, and pounding drums. In typical punk tradition, the songs are short sonic blasts, laden with social and political commentary, the seventeen songs clocking in at just over half an hour. The album was written and recorded during the COVID pandemic lockdown, and as a nod to this the band created “COVID Blues,” a modern take on “1919 Influenza Blues,” a song from Essie Jenkins about the last great pandemic. Besides this song of death by disease, there’s also “Quarantine” and “Distanza Sociale,” both songs inspired by the two years we all experienced with little contact with friends and family. “Quarantine,” in particular, has a deeply ominous sound, courtesy of an eerie guitar solo and some judicious use of looping technology. A favorite of the album is “Accretion,” a song whose title means a gradual natural growth through accumulation of material. The song has a loping rhythm and accusatory lyrics asking, “What side are you on? What street are you on?” The song seems to reference the anti-racist protests that grew and spread during the spring summer of 2020, some turning violent when police met peaceful protesters with unjustified force. Another favorite is “Launch,” with a march-like rhythm and sarcastic spoken vocals about “the biggest spectacle the world has ever known.” “This Ain’t Gonna End Well” seems to take all of the political tropes and put them all into one song, as the lyrics reference gun control, voting rights, fake news, pollution, abortion, trickle down economics, and racism. And I like the swagger of “Suspicion,” a song with a strong backbeat, wah pedal in the crunchy guitar, and a cool sing-songy meter to the spoken lyrics. The closing track, “Crisis,” reminds me in some ways of Boston’s The Proletariat, particularly their early stuff, from the guitar tone to the drumming making use of the all the toms, to the call and response vocals. Vortis isn’t slickly produced; it’s certainly unpolished. You can tell they aren’t a professional touring band, and rather are a group of friends playing music for their own enjoyment as much as they do it for others. But often those are the best kind of bands, aren’t they?

BEAR AWAY – A Drastic Tale of Western Living (bearaway.bandcamp.com)

Five labels team up to bring us the debut full-length LP from this Scarborough, UK band that just formed in 2019. The band have an emotional pop punk sound, similar to bands such as Hot Water Music, Bouncing Souls, Iron Chic, and others. Big vocals and big guitars make for a full, rich sound, and the songs feel ready made for huge group sing-alongs. The title comes from a lyric in the opening track, “Wake Up and Smell the Floor.” The song speaks to how fucked up life has become, how society is cracking, and how life has become empty and meaningless.  I love the guitar sound; with big bright chords and jangly strumming, it’s just gorgeous. Similarly, the huge guitars on “East Coast,” with one an octave above the other, give the intro a distinct 80s wave sound. The overarching theme of the ten songs seems to be our broken Western society, with lyrics referencing environmental destruction, meaningless votes, and the struggle to earn a living. There is such a bleak thread throughout the lyrics, though the instrumentals feel defiant, as if we will go on, even in the face of such adversity. “Seaside Trash” is a song about that in particular, with lyrics that talk about growing up running your own life, with hopes and dreams, only to see them go nowhere. But “We struggled through it all / We just got old and carried on.” Stoicism as a virtue? Perhaps it’s the best we can hope for. Punk returns to its nihilistic defeatist roots. Recommended.

DARKO – Sparkle (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

I think this new EP from the UK’s Darko may be their first recorded output since the 2016 LP, “Bonsai Mammoth.” It’s certainly their first release with new vocalist Tom West, replacing Dan Smith, who left the band in 2020 to return home to his native Australia. The band, perhaps best known for their explosive melodic skate punk style, breaks out of that strict mold without straying too far from the path. The four tracks are longer form songs than is typical, ranging from four to eight minutes. Even with the longer songs, though, they pack enormous energy into these relentlessly powerful tracks. There’s more complexity in the playing and the arrangements include funk in some of the bass lines, and even an arena rock sensibility that comes through sometimes. Such is the case during the opening of “Aux,” the second track of the EP.  As that song evolves, it goes from slower and smoother to faster and more complex, with big gang vocals and complex yet jangly guitars. The funkiness comes back in spades in “Cruel to Be,” spreading to the other instruments, though overall the track never veers too far from its melodic hardcore mission. Anyone who was concerned about the departure of Smith can rest assured, Darko are better than ever.

THE INTERESTS – Going Nowhere Fast (linktr.ee/THEINTERESTS)

After releasing three singles over the last year, young Londoners The Interests bring us their debut EP, five songs, including two of the previously released singles. It’s been interesting following the development of the group, as they started out with very melancholy retro sounding indie, and with each subsequent release their sound has gotten brighter.  I’ll focus on the three new songs here (You can search below or at the link at the bottom of the page for reviews of “Capitulation” and “Feel the Disparity”). The EP’s opener, “It’ll Never Be You,” has a great bounce to it, the guitar tone and deep vocals giving it the only hint of darkness. With the exception of “Feel the Disparity,” it’s the brightest sounding song from the band thus far. The title track is the shortest the band have released, at just under a minute and a half. It’s a pensive quiet ballad, with acoustic and electric guitars, making for a very wistful track. “Somber” is the other new one, and it adds violin to the arrangement, adding warmth to the otherwise somber song, which is nearly but not quite another ballad. The guitars are relegated to the back seat, offering occasional jangle or plucked melody, while the vocals, bass, and violin are in the forefront. It’s a lovely song, indeed. I’ve enjoyed seeing the Interests grow musically, and look forward to a full-length LP, hopefully in the near future.

JAWBOX – Live at Metro Chicago 2019 (Arctic Rodeo Recordings, arcticrodeorecordings.com)

Recorded at the last show of their triumphant reunion tour (which really consisted of several long weekend runs in various regions of the country), on this new double LP we get twenty-five tracks spanning the bands entire history (though there is a heavier focus on their last couple of albums). I was lucky enough to be present at the show at the Regent in Los Angeles, and the band not only sounded as good or better than ever, they appeared to be having more fun playing than ever. It was evident from my vantage point in the crowd, let me tell you. And now that Bill Barbot has left the band, this will stand as his last recordings with them. Now, a lot of live recordings sound terrible, or mediocre at best. This one sounds quite good, with the instrumentals and vocals all coming through quite clearly. It captures the live energy really well, sounding more emphatic than the studio versions of these songs. Now, I’m biased when it comes to Jawbox, because they were one of my favorite bands of the 90s. And though I loved their earlier albums a little better than the later ones, I must say the live versions of some of those later songs are pure fire. One particular example is “Desert Sea,” off the final self-titled studio LP. The original is good enough but this live version contains more tension that really makes the song work better than ever. Even “Grip,” from the band’s debut LP, “Grippe,” is edgier than the original studio recording; it’s livelier, with less of a smoothed out studio sound. A highlight of the set for me has to be the back-to-back pair of “Nickel Nickel Millionaire” and “Motorist,” both crackling with energy, particularly in J Robbins’ vocals. Another is “FF=66,” from “For Your Own Special Sweetheart.” As powerful as the original studio recording is, this live performance has to be one of the most intense of the LP. It’s got the sort of ferocity you would expect from a Steve Albini band, the angularity of the chords adding to the tension. Another one that’s long been a favorite, “Chinese Fork Tie, takes on epic proportions in this live performance, with even more oomph and more unbalanced dissonance than ever. Even “Savory,” which I know was a popular tune of theirs, but was never one of my favorites, is cranked up to eleven in this live performance, making it a real standout. The set “closer” (before a few encores), “Cornflake Girl,” is the perfect ender, especially the way they ended it, with the muffed final chord modulating and fading out. If you missed out on Jawbox the first time around, or if you were a fan, this two record set is a must have. You get more than an hour and a half of Jawbox’s hits in one of their best live performances ever. Highly recommended.

THE MIKE BELL CARTEL – The Cartel & I (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Sounding everything like a 1960s San Francisco band, rather than a 2022 band based in Helsinki, Finland, The Mike Bell Cartel cranks out authentic sounding 60s garage pop, tinged with psychedelics. Guitars buzz and jangle while the drums and bass keep the beat. Farfisa organ provides a sound so authentic you would swear your ear buds have transported you back through time. You will believe that these are archival recordings or at least covers, because Mike Bell (actually Miikka Siira) and his band (Pekka Laine, Ville Särmä, Samuel Abaujón, and Aaoee Hainola) get this sound spot on. I hear shades of Iron Butterfly and the Troggs, maybe a bit of 13th Floor Elevators, but toned down a bit. I even hear a bit of Johnny Rivers (“Secret Agent Man”) in the song “No Turning Back.” If you’re yearning for the days of flower power, give this a spin.

MT. ORIANDER – Then the Lightness Leaves and I Become Heavy Again (cylsrecords.com)

Mt. Oriander is none other than Count Your Lucky Stars label boss Keith Latinen, who sings and plays guitar, bass, drums, and trumpet on this mostly solo effort. Formerly of Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), Latinen quit playing music in 2016, though the urge to write and record slowly returned over time. Latinen recruited a host of friends to assist with this album, and the result is a dozen delicate tracks of emotionally charged indie music. The instrumentals have plenty of room to breathe, and the vocals have that nerdy yet earnest indie quality. The album is introduced by the short instrumental, “The Dark Parts of the Map Are Places You Have Not Yet Visited,” starting very tentatively, punctuated by percussion and trumpet. It’s a beautiful way to begin, and it leads into “What We Have is You,” a song with the sort of angular melody that was common in certain circles of 90s indie music, but just isn’t done much anymore. The world is the poorer for it, and it’s wonderful to hear Mt. Oriander bring this sound back. Guitars and trumpet play intertwining melodic lines, while somber thoughtful vocals sing out, telling us stories. We get some upbeat songs, too, with a lively rhythm and richer instrumentals, but still with the somber vocals. Such is the case with “If This is Sadness, I Don't Like It One Bit.” Songs with a shiny bounce and a melancholy message are always a joy. We also get very tentative instrumentals on some songs, where it feels like Latinen is heightening the sense of uncertainty. A good example of this is “A Drawing of a Bird that You Have Never Seen Before,” in which he admonishes someone, calling them out for not pulling their punches like they think they do, for “throwing stones from your house up on the hill you were looking to die on,” and “I don’t need you to fix me.” The sadness of the lyrics this time is matched by the gorgeous restraint of the instrumentals. I adore the choices made in some of the arrangements, including violin in the very pretty instrumental, “If Only Something Would Go Right for a Change.” Lovely, lovely stuff.

NEW JUNK CITY – Beg A Promise (A-F Records, www.a-frecords.com)

This Atlanta punk outfit’s latest LP is big and broad, with a huge open and emotional sound. The songs are catchy and poppy, yet crunchy and heartfelt. Every hook is bigger than the last one, the power level remaining cranked all the way up throughout almost the entire album. I even hear synths in the mix, something that’s slowly becoming more common in some punk circles, but it doesn’t feel out of place at all. “High Contrast” opens the record, with guitars jangling and screaming like mad, passionate vocals belted out, and bass and drums propelling the song. We get a series of huge powerful tracks, relentlessly pulling at your heart with fiery and forceful music and zealous vocals. “Rosey” eases things up, but just a bit. The instrumentals and vocals are dialed back to a smoother feel with a power pop jangle in the melody. The use of harmonized and contrasting backing vocals against the lead vocals is effective and very pretty. The bands that are brought to mind are RVIVR and Iron Chic, but mixed with a West Coast pop punk sensibility from bands like Nothington, Western Settings, or Caskitt. Things do calm down briefly, as the band do an acoustic reprise of the fourth song, “Old Maid,” a melancholy tune with an up-tempo beat. While the first version is brisk and broad, the reprise is solemn and serene, with just acoustic guitar, subdued synth, and vocals. The finale, “Sold In Bunches,” is glorious and epic, a fitting finish for a dazzling LP.

THE STOOLS / TOEHEADS – Watch It Die (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Two Detroit bands and ten songs; it’s a split LP! Both bands play deep, gritty garage punk, but there are punk and rockabilly undertones to many of the songs, and even a bit of surf. The Stools get the A-side, and open with “Dead Man’s Ford,” a track loaded with distortion and power, a rockabilly rhythm and surf guitar in the chorus. “Fascist Cupid,” too, blends garage rock with sparkly twangy guitar that gives the song a unique and compelling sound. Then we get “Strong Street Stranglehold,” which just a deep heavy garage punk tune in the vein of The MC5 or The Stooges, except even heavier and grittier. “Evil” has a great blend of early punk and garage, speedy and insistent, reminding me of Mexico’s DFMK. But The Stools save the best for last, with “Harsh Green River,” a manic tune mixing all the aforementioned genres into something that’s simple, yet effective. Just this one song is enough to make ne want to see them live. Toeheads side features songs that are no less noisy and chaotic, no less filled with powerful garage rock, but maybe deeper in on the rockabilly sensibilities, at least on the first track, “Wanna Be Alone.” “Haista Vittu!” is pretty straightforward garage rock and roll, but “Painkiller” is my favorite of their side; it feels more insistent, more urgent, and more melodic than the rest. I can hear some rockabilly influence buried in there and some power pop too, but it’s all deeply entombed in some of the loudest most raucous rock and roll you’ll ever hear. “Water War” mixes a mod feel into the raw punk rock, and the closer, “I Want To Be In Your Life (So I'll Die),” is a major departure, with a slower, calmer power pop ballad. Split LPs aren’t that common, and this is a good one.

BANDA DESTRUIDA (Beer City Records & Skateboards, beercity.com)

Banda Destruida, which translates into “Destroyed Band,” is a group out of Chile formed in 2013. Initially a duo that formed when Losmodestos broke up, the pair added a bassist as they worked over the years to write and record songs that mutated over time. The recent political upheaval and change in Chile also prompted the group to add some inspiration from Chilean folk music, emblematic of the left and a movement that went into exile after the military coup of 1973. The band’s songs are an interesting mix of early punk, garage, indie, math, free jazz, and Chilean folk. The addition of Mauricio Tapia on bass injects a NOMEANSNO sort of punk-funk to some of the songs, too. And I don’t mean some of the songs are in one style and others in a different one. They mix things up within songs, too. The opening track, “Infulas” (Intruders), starts out as a caustic early punk tune, then, with distortion turned up and the bass getting more prominent, takes on a hard rock feel. The meter changes to 3/4 waltz time and we’re treated to a pretty folk melody. The song returns to straight time for a bit, getting manic, and then the rhythms shift and chaos reigns. Songs have fascinating arrangements, with some including instruments such as accordion, trumpet, flute and more, injecting a ton of Latin and folk into the garage punk proceedings. The frequent shifts between melodic singing and speaking of lyrics, the rapid tempo and meter changes, and the huge dynamic range make these songs engaging and fascinating. Such is the case with “Prepotencia” (Arrogance), which goes through a number of mood shifts, but is mainly very much in-your-face early punk mixed with frantic indie. I adore “Pepikan,” a mostly instrumental folk dance tune that shifts between dark and bright, twisted and joyful. And there’s an updated noise-rock version of “Lonquén,” the iconic song from early ‘70s Chilean folk band Sol y Lluvia. It has a more insistent rhythm and urgent feel than the original, using electric instruments in place of acoustic. “Radicalito” is an instrumental that shifts between rough punked music and breezy speedy jazz-funk, with Tapia’s amazing bass lines flying all over the place. I could go on an on, but I’ll just end by saying this is one of the most creative and interesting records I’ve listened to this year. It doesn’t even matter that all the lyrics are in Spanish and I don’t know what they’re saying.

GIFT – Momentary Presence (Dedstrange, dedstrange.bandcamp.com)

Imagine taking 80s new wave and melding it with the dreamiest dream pop you can imagine, then throw in healthy doses of psych and Krautrock. The sound you now have in your mind is a good approximation of what you’ll experience as you listen to “Momentary Presence,” GIFT’S debut full-length LP (yes, they spell their name in all caps). The songs have a strong dance-like beat, and ambient synths swirl all around while guitars and synth play 80s melodies. I hear strong influence from Bill Nelson, as well as Neu and Stereolab here, with celestial sounds fusing with dance club and new wave tones. Minimalist repeating melodic lines abound, albeit in a very hazy dreamy way. In the song, “Share the Present,” I even hear echoes of Vangelis, from his “Heaven and Hell” album. Each of the ten songs is performed on a grand scale, as if it’s the finale of some epic science fiction film from 1980. “Dune” has a distinct Krautrock throb to it, along with a twee pop melody played on bright buzzy synths, making it one of the more unique tracks of the album. Pity it’s such a short instrumental interlude. I like the mix of spaced-out bliss and mechanical beats, and how expansive the music is. The one thing, though, is a lot of the songs tend to blend into one another.

GIVE YOU NOTHING – Songs for the Broken (People of Punk Rock Records, peopleofpunkrockrecords.com)

Formed by veterans of the Bay Area punk and hardcore scene, Give You Nothing specialize in crunchy metallic skate punk and post hardcore. Some of the songs on this, their third album, lean heavily into that 2000s melodic hardcore sound. This is especially true in the front half of the record, with lots of metallic and melodic punk. It’s fine for what it is, but the sound is somewhat generic, given the large number of bands that have played this genre for the last couple of decades. Where things get more interesting, though, is when the band mixes things up, injecting bright pop melodies and old school hardcore sensibilities. This starts with “The Hardest Part,” which is poppier and lighter than the preceding tracks, though still with a lot of crunch in the guitars. The band’s transformation continues in fits and starts through the remainder of the album. “Price of Words” is more of a pop punk tune than anything else on the LP, with a pep and liveliness to it, a sense of fun that’s missing from the heavier metallic skate punk sounds of other songs. “Astray” takes old school hardcore and gives it the 90s skate punk treatment, making it a standout of the LP. It’s like if Minor Threat was playing metallic hardcore with a dose of pop melody in the 1990s. “Elemental,” too, has that mix of old and new, speedy pace, and big gang vocals. To sum up: The band executes their songs well, most of them are somewhat generic, and there are a few songs that stand out from the rest.

KID YOU NOT – Here’s to Feelin’ Good All the Time (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Bypolar Records, bypolarrecords.com)

Florida’s Kid You Not returns with their fourth full-length LP full of emotionally charged pop-filled punk rock. The songs are big and anthemic, filled with tons of gang vocals, some even with hints of harmonizing. These are songs to play in a small club, with everyone crowded to the front, beers in hand, shouting along with every song. Some bands that play this style of music have gritty vocals and an abrasive sound, but Kid You Not are smoother, while still retaining a large dose of angst and passion and a proper raw DIY drive. I hear shades of Caskitt and Western Settings, two former San Diego bands that often played songs in this vein. Maybe some Neckscars, and maybe some Menzingers, but with less polish and more oomph. Song titles reveal the darkness of the songs, like “I Am Who I Am, and I Wish I Weren’t” and “Doomscrolling.” As gloomy as the titles may be, the songs feel more uplifting, defiant in the face of despair. One of the biggest songs of the LP is “Last of a Lost Generation,” with a slower pace and a gradual build up. It starts with quietly jangling guitars and big vocals and grows from there, with an ending that dissolves into eerie, ghostly voices. Another huge one is “Fire Sale! (Everything Must Go),” which has the feeling of a set-ender. I was surprised to find it wasn’t the last song of the LP. A favorite is “The Longer It Isn’t Us, The More It Will Happen.” It’s more upbeat sounding than other songs on the LP, and has a real sense of forward momentum and optimism. There’s even a humorous studio moment left in, at the start of “I'm Not Superstitious, But I Am A Little Stitious,” when we hear one band member say to another, “Alright, I got an idea, why don’t you try playing it right?” followed by a lot of laughs. The closing track, “Here's To Feelin' Good All The Time,” opens with the sound of a religious hymn, then turns into another big sing-along punk song. I really need Kid You Not to get a west coast tour planned.

LIBRARIANS WITH HICKEYS – Handclaps & Tambourines (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

To follow-up their 2020 debut LP, “Long Overdue,” Librarians with Hickeys return with their sophomore effort, “Handclaps & Tambourines,” a dozen songs of light, jangly power pop tunes. But it’s not just plain ordinary power pop; rather Librarians with Hickeys inject hints of psych and hints of dream pop, creating something that rocks, bit is also just a little spaced out. The resulting songs have a warmth about them, and an easy feel. One highlight is the lovely “Ghost Singer,” a song with a retro feel and loads of jangly guitar. Where vocals sometimes feel breathless, in this case it’s the instrumentals. The song is about crossed communications and missed opportunities, with lyrics that speak to an inability to hear and understand someone, and that “time will always be between us.” I really like “Can’t Wait Till Summer,” a song that’s less about a season than it is about the cold winter of loneliness and the longing for the warmth of companionship. The bridge has a rich modern dream-pop sound, thick and lush, more so than the other songs. It’s a really pretty song. As is the simple, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” a charming song of longing. As with the other songs, the guitars twinkle brightly. The blend of acoustic and electric guitars on the lithe “Last Days of Summer” makes me think of the folk rock movement of the 60s and 70s, in which elements of ancient pagan folk music were fused with modern psych and pop. Librarians with Hickeys aren’t breaking new ground, nor are they going to open up the pit. Nevertheless, this is a really nice record, the kind I will listen to again, particularly playing softly while curled up with a good book or with a companion.

SWEET TEETH – High Anxiety (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)

Swedish band Sweet Teeth present their debut full-length LP, coming just over a year past their “Acid Rain” mini-LP. The band take the late 80s/early 90s alternative rock sound that came out of the mix of post punk and pop, and give it a modern spin. Think bands like Hüsker Dü, which was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind listening to this. The thick, raucous, noisy wall of guitar sound, blended with a jangle pop sensibility and gruff yet melodious vocals, is a great sound. Mix in a dose of the angst-filled tunes of Beach Slang and the picture is complete. The opening track, “High Anxiety,” begins with the sort of explosive sound and repetitive melodic lines that we got from Beach Slang, but the thick jangle is pure Hüsker Dü. On songs like “Love Panic,” and “Soul Sunday,” there’s even the sort of melodic pop sound of Dinosaur Jr., though with a grittier tone. Some songs lean heavily toward the Beach Slang sounds, with a broad guitar jangle and heart-on-your sleeve vocals. Songs like “October,” “Too Good, and “No Me” fall into this category. Sweet Teeth’s sound may be somewhat derivative of those who have gone before them, but it’s a great sound, and this is an enjoyable album.

DAN VAPID AND THE CHEATS – Welcome to Dystopia (Eccentric Pop Records, eccentricpop.bigcartel.com)

Chicago’s Dan Vapid has been around the punk rock block. He’s played in Screeching Weasel, The Riverdales, The Methodones, The Mopes, and more. He started Dan Vapid and the Cheats in 2011, and now comes their fifth full-length LP, “Welcome to Dystopia.” The record reflects the surrealism that has overtaken the world in the past few years of pandemics, MAGA insurrections, and mass protests. 

Musically, the songs range from hard rock to garage rock (some reminiscent of early Angry Samoans) to pop punk (some of which sounds similar to earlier Green Day). Several of the songs deal with the state of social media, our cultural garbage dump. “Fact and Fiction” has an early punk sound and speaks to how, online, “you can’t separate fact from fiction,” where algorithms turn your experience into an echo chamber. 

“Anti-Science” is a very Green Day-like song, about the dumbing down of America and the spread of online misinformation. “Who needs evidence? Who needs common sense?” is the refrain here, demonstrating that people will believe what they want to believe, what makes them happier, rather than what’s real – especially if what they want to believe is posted to the Internet. “Boiling Over,” too, is about interacting with ignorant people on social media and getting irate, wasting one’s time arguing with these phantoms of the Internet. Musically this one is hard rock in the vein of early metal. Sour Pauline” and “Bad Blood” are down and dirty rock and roll, the kind your grandmother warned your mom about. A favorite is “Mr. Belittle,” which crosses the rocking power pop of The Romantics with the pop punk of Green Day. A couple of others are the back to back pair of retro garage punk tracks, including “Let Me Out” and “Strapped,” with a grittier feel than most of the other tracks. The album features a diversity of musical styles, tight performances, and strong social messages. Recommended.

THE ERADICATOR – Forever the Eradicator (Stonewalled, stonewalled.bandcamp.com)

Alas, the mighty Eradicator has announced his retirement from both squash and music, hanging up his black mask and his racquet, but not before giving us one last explosive album full of post-hardcore musical mayhem. The mysterious sportsman has pulled out all the stops on this, his final outing, and the anarchy is stronger than ever. Loud distorted guitars, pounding drums, buzzing synth, and throbbing bass meld into a mass of metallic cacophony, but a sense of melody is never neglected. And, of course, the songs are universally about the sport of champions, squash (and other racquet sports). The album intro, “Squash Stomp, is pure crunchy metal, with no punk pretensions, while “You Can’t Play Me” introduces the key sound for the rest of the album: pop punk melody masked in post-hardcore fury, similar to how The Eradicator masks himself. It’s a favorite of the album, the peppiness and the power vying for dominance, just as the Eradicator battles others on the court. I enjoy, too, the confessional track, “Can’t Play Well With Others.” The poppy sing-along song with its huge chorus is buried under mounds of distortion, like trying to watch a distant TV station through the snowy picture, your TV antenna adjusting to try to make order from the chaos. “Figures” has a bit of start-stop punk rock like Big Black, but it’s sped up and even more uncontrolled, a jumble of art-core. “John the Squash Man” is a fun one, with a big pub-like sing-along melody barely buried by the distortion and screaming vocals. “Tennis World” has a fantastic 80s alternative pop melody, with huge glorious guitars, but again, as is the case with the Eradicator, chaos reigns supreme, and the song is blanketed in thrash. The penultimate song is the title track, and is the farewell message from our hero, starting as a spacey synth ambience, recounting his past successes and assuring us that, though we might not see him, he will always be with us, as the song then explodes into a furious raging departure. We’re then left with a Clash cover, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” as if the Eradicator is having second thoughts about leaving. Is this really the end of The Eradicator? Start searching for him anywhere you can play a squash match. He might be lurking there, waiting for his next challenger.

THE SLACKERS – "New York Berlin" / "Tell Them No" (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

Two new songs from the modern masters of rock steady, and with typically gorgeous Pirates Press packaging, this is a 12” single on UV printed vinyl. The A-side is a cool one, mixing in some honky-tonk feel, and the lyrics are about traveling and living all over the world, always thinking that somewhere else and other times were better, and always missing the people and places. This one’s a real head-bobber. The B-side leans a bit toward a reggae beat, adds in a dose of R&B, and paints over it with a power pop/punk gloss. It’s a song of empowerment, about standing up for one’s self in the face of bullies and nay-sayers. This single is a worthy addition to the Slackers’ extensive catalog.

VARIOUS – This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio Volume 5 (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Thirty years ago, Dana and Carl began hosting the radio program ”We’re Your Friends Now,” and to celebrate (and raise money for Spark Radio, which hosts the program), Kool Kat Musik presents Volume 5 of the compilation series the pair have curated from their collection. Ranging from girl groups to classic rock to power pop and bubble gum, and everything in between, the 23 songs here represent the sort of music you can hear on their program. It’s an eclectic mix, some tracks better than others, but none are outright stinkers. That’s a testament to Dana and Carl’s tastes and hosting abilities. Interspersed, too, are recorded greetings from various musicians, just like you might hear on the radio. There are some highlights of note. The opening song, Laurie Biagini’s “Hey, Mr. DJ,” blends 60s girl group sounds with AM pop and 90s indie pop, and its loping beat it sure to get your toes tapping. Pop Co-Op’s “ Americana-laced pop tune, “Extra Beat In My Heart” feels more like real country than anything coming out of the Nashville music machine, with power-pop sensibility, plenty of twang, and gorgeous harmonized vocals. I like Hoover and Martinez’s “What the Heart Wants,” a lovely pop tune made even better with a lush arrangement that features glockenspiel, piano, harmonized vocals, and periodic key changes. In addition to the retro sounds, there are some modern indie tracks included too, such as “Pretend to Pretend" by Deadlights. Arielle Eden’s voice is gorgeous in the indie meets Americana track “Sagittarius.” The song has a very delicate touch, with loads of jangly acoustic guitar. I really like “Forget About Him,” a lilting tune that mixes jangly indie and power pop. Ballzy Tomorrow is a ballsy name for a band, but their track “Out There” is a favorite, blending in riffs that sound influenced by classical music, particularly Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” You’re not going to find anything heavy or grinding here, but if you like light power pop, Americana, and the like, you’re going to really enjoy this collection. I know I did.

2ND GRADE – Easy Listening (dbldblwhmmy.com)

Take a base that’s equal parts power pop and AM bubblegum, add a dash of classic rock and a sprinkling of modern indie rock, and you’ve got the recipe for 2nd Grade’s sophomore full-length LP. The music is generally exuberant, bright, and bubbly. “Hung Up” is a favorite song, with sparkling pop content and a lovely bounce. A couple of the songs almost lean into pop punk territory, with a more aggressive sound. “Beat of the Drum,” with its prominent harmonics over the beachy surf-punk power pop number is one of these, and another favorite, the harmonics creating incredible tension. “Teenage Overpopulation” is another, with a nice raucous pop sound. And the way too short “Which Itch Are You Scratching Today” has fuzzed out guitars and a cynical sneer. There are some songs with weird humor, such as “Kramer in LA,” a letter from the “Seinfeld” character to his friend Jerry, back in New York. It’s a melancholy yet jazzy song, with just vocals and electric guitar, and the end includes the sound of a phonograph needle in the run out groove of a record. This effect is used on a few other songs, too, including the title track, which closes the album. I also like “Hand of the Brand;” it’s lovely jangly pop music, with the intentional sound of an intimate bedroom recording. While 2nd Grade aren’t creating anything new and original here, they do a solid job creating an enjoyable album.

THE AIRPORT 77'S – We Realize You Have A Choice (Jem Records)

Named for the third film in the successful film franchise, The Airport 77s are a power pop band that takes the late 70s guitar-fueled genre and blends in 80s new wave synths. The result is something that has the power and appeal of power pop with a rocking dance beat and an ethereal atmosphere. In the case of “Birthday Girl,” they also include a disco sensibility, making this a very danceable track, even as it’s got more guttural rock and roll content (including an arena rock guitar solo). I like the mix of power pop and new wave angularity in “Bad Together,” and the retro pop sounds of “All Torn Up Over Tina,” a track that bridges the gap between 60s pop and 70s power pop. Sometimes the music veers pretty strongly toward 70s AM pop rock territory. Such is the case with “Somebody,” a track that blends a mild Latino pop sound with a strong commercial pop rock sensibility. Latin pop sounds also show up in “Honey Don’t” and “Since The Circus Left Town,” and they’re my least favorite tracks of the album. They try to sound romantic and steamy, but I don’t think they do. It’s a mixed bag for me.

DRAKULAS – Drunk Dial #10 (drunkdialrecords.com)

If you’re unfamiliar with Drunk Dial Records and how they operate, well, I’ll tell you. They invite their favorite bands into the studio to record, asking them to write one original song and to play one cover, one song for each side of the 7” single. But wait, there’s more! They have to write and record these songs while drunk! The results are often…interesting. In the case of Texas garage proto-punks Drakulas, the original is a song called “Shame.” Booming bass, pounding drums, and wall of distorted guitar accompany front man Mike Wiebe’s rocking vocals. It’s a worthy addition to the Drakulas’ song catalog, fitting right in with the rest of their output. The cover on the B-side is “Three Sisters,” the Jim Carroll Band number. Wiebe’s vocals capture Carroll’s poetic aesthetic, with a sing-song-like spoken delivery. You can feel the degeneracy through the speakers. The instrumentals are darker and grittier than the original, an appropriate update for modern audiences, but the ‘80s blend of power pop and new wave is still very present. This is a cool idea and a cool record. Grab it while you can!

NE’ER-DO-WELL – "Fun Days" (neerdowell.bandcamp.com)

Ne’er-Do-Well is the vision of a single man, Bryan Rolli. But Rolli must have a split personality, because I hear different genres here. The opening track, “Compromise,” is a solid pop punk anthem about the struggle with trying to live to ideals versus making compromises. It’s the best track of the five on offer, because from there we delve into the world of arena rock. “Feel No Pain” and “Wasteland” are the sort of wanky commercial rock that turned me off back in the 70s and 80s, and the antithesis of the punk movement that grew to counter it. “The Truth” brings us back to something more a kin to alternative rock, with a great pop melody. The closing track, “I’m Not Getting Any Younger,” is the obligatory ballad, and it’s an attempt to bridge the arena rock and pop punk sounds into one. I was never a fan of arena rock, and this EP has not changed my mind.

PUSH PUPPETS – Allegory Grey (laurelcanyonrecords.com)

Start with a power pop base, then blend it with soft pop rock, and you’ve got the recipe Push Puppets use to create music. The suburban Chicago band appear to be strong proponents of what used to be called the “adult contemporary” genre, rock and roll based music, but with softened edges; music that appeals to people as they grow older. The music is all very smooth and even-tempered, perhaps too much so. Injecting a little more passion and a larger dynamic range would go a long way to improve things. Not to say this is a bad record. These songs have potential. The melodic sensibility is really good, injecting a good dose of indie rock into the proceedings. But it’s all just a little…too easy and relaxed sounding. “Sometimes The Buds Never Flower” has a nice melody, a 60s pop rhythm, and an emotional story-telling style in the vocals, though those vocals are very even keeled I’m not sure what advice I could give other than to add a little more passion to the song. The song writing and arrangements, on the other hand, are really nice; the melodies are pretty and the arrangements have just the right mix of simplicity and complexity. I adore “Perfect Picture,” a song that perfectly matches the band’s style. It’s a gorgeous acoustic guitar driven song, with soft string synth ambience. But the band could use with a little more… oomph.

(bypolarrecords.com/ hiddenhomerecords.bandcamp.com)

In the Spring of 2021, Shrug Dealer re-released a remastered version of their debut EP, which I raved about over its mix of melodic pop punk and speedy metallic skate punk, and its sarcastic and politically conscious lyrics. They band are continuing in 2022 with all new music: an eight song EP that clocks in at 15 minutes. It takes the formula of that debut and amps it up even more. If you’re a fan of bands like Pears or Lagwagon, this is something that needs to be on your radar. The songs are speedy, hard-edged, yet bouncy and poppy. The musicianship is outstanding and the band is tight. Songs range from the serious “Summer Camp,” which speaks to the government’s treatment of refugees at our border, putting them into cages that are more like animal kennels, to the ridiculous “Get To The Point,” which consists of 8 seconds of music and a shout of the song title. It’s a bit reminiscent of Descendent’s “ALL” in that respect. “The Call of Epigon” is a hoot, starting out as a heavy metallic track, and then morphing into a disco-funk-rock track at the bridge. The opener, “Participation Trophy,” is a great rager that decries the sense of entitlement that our society has baked into itself, and may be my favorite track of the bunch. It’s hard-hitting, musically and lyrically, yet incredibly poppy, too. The EP has a feeling of controlled chaos and intense fun and energy. Recommended.

A VULTURE WAKE – Animal (thousandislandsrecords.com)

A Vulture Wake has been quite prolific lately. It wasn’t that long ago that I reviewed their EP, “Kingdom,” and now they’ve released another new EP. And, in fact, “Kingdom” and “Animal” are being released together as an LP, “One.Kingdom.Animal,” in the coming weeks. Since I’ve already reviewed the A-side of the LP, this review will focus on the B-side, the “Animal” EP that came out mere weeks ago. As I noted in the earlier review, A Vulture Wake can best be described as a “progressive punk” band, blending 90s melodic punk with the intricacies of earlier progressive rock. Plenty of metallic flourishes and guitar solos make their way into the songs, as well, and some of them even veer into angular math-pop realm. It makes for an interesting listen, though when the band gets to be too metallic, like on “Life Is Snakes,Mice are Men,” it doesn’t do a lot for me. That song takes metal and grunge rock sounds of bands like Peal Jam and mix then together. On the other hand, songs like “The Fool Must Be Killed,” with a very ALL-like opening and bits of that angularity, and a big open melodic punk sound on the chorus, is pretty tasty. “Lost Cause of the Year” is smoother and leans more toward alternative rock than punk, with very passionate vocals from front man Chad Price. And Price’s commitment to the songs, the ardor that comes through in his vocals, may be one of the most compelling things about A Vulture Wake that keeps me listening.

PILOT TO GUNNER / HER HEAD’S ON FIRE – Split EP (mindovermatterrecords.com)

Each band contributes one song for this new split single. Pilot to Gunner’s is “Gone For Real,” a leftover track from their “Hail Hallucinator” LP recording sessions. And, while unused songs from the studio are usually throw-aways, this song has a great 90s post-punk meets post-hardcore sound, as if Jawbox, Tar, and Quicksand were mixed together. Her Head’s On Fire gives us a cover, the early Goo Goo Dolls track, “Just the Way You Are.” It’s a bright, spirited rendition that stays very true to the original. Both songs are very enjoyable, and as far as splits go, this is a good one.

CELEBRATION SUMMER – Patience in Presence (A-F Records, a-frecords.com)

I’m not sure if this band took their name as an homage to one of the greatest songs of all time, “Celebrated Summer,” the Hüsker Dü classic. Regardless, they don’t sound like the Minneapolis legends. Instead the sound like a mash-up of DC post punk and Fest-like pop punk, more so the latter. I can tell they’re David Lynch fans, too, because the LP opens and closes with Twin Peaks sound clips. At the start, the giant tells us, “The owls are not what they seem,” one of the more mysterious quotes from the series. They then launch into the title track, a very DC-like post punk rager, with emotive vocals and guitars shouting minimalist melodic phrases. It’s a strong way to start the LP, as the song’s chorus is more melodic and the verses and bridge are less so. Other tracks are less post punk and more pop punk, with the sort of sound associated with bands that play The Fest. Gruff vocals are accompanied by up-tempo guitar, bass, and drums, with an appropriate amount of distortion. It’s almost as if they’ve modeled themselves after Tiltwheel, which is high praise, because they’re another favorite band. “Disconnected” is a great song about living for the moment, and was written during the COVID lockdown. “Let’s go wild / Let’s run through the streets,” the song exhorts. “Let’s act like the world’s not sick and set ourselves free / Fuck tomorrow because there’s only tonight.” The song is huge and grand, as it should be, because we should burn brightly always, like there’s no tomorrow. This song sets the template for the rest of the album, and reveals the real character of Celebration Summer. The one exception (other than the opening track) is “Take My Love,” a darker track that I suppose doesn’t work as well for me as the rest of the album. These are all big anthemic songs that encourage the crowd to press to the front of the room and sing along, fist pumping high and beer getting spilled all over each other. The capper is that Celebration Summer ends the album with a fantastic Tiltwheel cover, “Hold My Hand To Make Them Go Away,” off the 2002 split EP with Watch It Burn. They start out with a yell, “We love this shit!” and off they go into their version of the song, staying true to the original greatness. And then comes the other Twin Peaks clip, in which Agent Cooper gushes over the great cup of coffee he got at the Double R Diner. Yeah, I love this shit, too.

CRISIS PARTY – Welcome to the Party (Dirt Cult Records, dirtcultrecords.com)

Musically, this Canadian band blends garage punk and post punk, painting the whole thing with a dark brush. The resulting sound has echoes of bands such as The Wipers. Sometimes the music brightens just a bit and goes from dark drone to a hint of poppy melody, sort of like when the sun peaks out from behind a thick layer of clouds. Sometimes, with the rhythmic strumming of the guitars, I get hints of the Denton, Texas garage punk sound of Marked Men, only darker. The instrumentals on this five-song EP are great, loaded with distortion and stabs of guitar harmonics. The opener, “Warble,” has a great feeling of forward motion, and builds through the song. And the dark lope of “Exist” brings to mind the early days of New England’s The Proletariat. “Numbers” has a quicker pace and is the track that brought up the Denton reference, with the guitars almost used as a percussion instrument. Musically, I really enjoy this EP. But the thing I don’t enjoy is the vocal quality. The singing is halfway between singing and shouting, which normally isn’t a problem, but the vocals seem to be in a different key than the instrumentals, so they come off as grating. They mar an otherwise good EP.

EXPERT TIMING – Stargazing (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, cylsrecords.com)

Expert Timing are two bands in one, playing pretty indie pop melodies with gritty grunge instrumentals. But rather than switching between the two styles, as they did on their “Whichever, Whatever” EP I reviewed a couple years ago, the two disparate styles are fully integrated with each other in the eleven songs here. Even when Katrina is singing, the instrumentals, though slightly brighter than when Jeff sings, are still sufficiently gritty to qualify as “grunge-like.” People who like indie-pop but never liked grunge and vice versa will unite and celebrate because the combination of these two genres works quite well. Check out “New Queen,” with instrumentals that will remind you of 1990s Seattle, but vocals and melody that come from more of an east coast indie scene. It’s a genius combination. I really like “The Bigger Picture,” particularly for its massive math-like instrumental toward the end, and its meandering guitar line. The back half of the album gets grungier with a deeper bass and dirtier guitar tone, and even in the vocals, but the melodic sensibility never leaves, and the songs still bounce and jangle. The penultimate track, “I Can See You Dancing,” flips the whole concept on its head, with a grunge melody played with quiet clean guitar and sung with sweet, clear vocals. That is, until the end, when the grunge tone returns at the end of the song. Expert, indeed.

STRAIGHTLINE – Keep Your Cool (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com / Lockjaw Records, www.lockjawrecords.co.uk)

Munich’s Straightline returns with their first LP in more than five years. It’s the band’s sixth LP, and it features primarily speedy crunchy metallic skate punk. It’s so metallic that taking this album with you to an airport is liable to set off the metal detector. It’s pounding and relentless, the punk aspects coming primarily from the gang vocals, speed, and melodic lines. The arrangements are pure metal, though, for the most part. A perfect example of this is “Shame On You,” with its hair metal guitar solos and guitar tone. Even the gang vocals can’t punk this one up – it’s more mid-tempo, pure metal, and not my thing. “Stood For Something Else” is an interesting mash-up of metal, thrash, 90s post hardcore, and…rap? Songs like “Dead Certain” and the opening track, “Global Frustration,” are more palatable and more familiar sounding modern skate punk. To my ear, “Undone” is the best song of the LP, with more of a bouncy pop punk feel, rather than the skate punk or metals sounds. “Dead Certain,” in particular, is speedy, but with more pop and less metal, so is more enjoyable. “Earth Defenders,” too, focuses more on a pop melody than the guitar flourishes or speed. If you’re a fan of metal and skate punk, you’ll probably dig this. The few poppier songs weren’t enough for me to want to listen more.

SUZI MOON – Dumb & In Love (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

You can take the person out of Southern California, but you can’t take Southern California out of person, to paraphrase a famous adage. Suzi Moon may have relocated from sunny Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., but her music still has a west coast sparkle. And it’s even more so on this, her debut full-length LP. While her two previous EPs focused on a grittier rock and roll sound, the new LP is downright bright and poppy. It still is gritty rock and roll, but there’s a lot of SoCal pop punk in the ten songs here. When I looked at the credits and noted that the LP was produced by Davey Warsop, it all made sense. Warsop is the noted producer of Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s records, and this LP, though grittier than BC/BC, has a similar feel of both defiance and optimism. And it makes even more sense when you find out these songs were recorded before the two EPs, and before relocating to DC. I love “Family,” the second track of the album, a brilliant song full of looking to past memories of family, both good and bad, to chart a bold and hopeful future. “I Go Blind” is a song of longing, and you can feel the aching heart in the mid-tempo song, the pounding drums, and the passionate vocals. “Honey” is a great power pop track, too, with a bold melody and big dynamic range. Speaking of Bad Cop/Bad Cop. “Any Other Way” could have easily come from that band, with Moon’s vocals sounding so much like Stacey Dee and big pop punk melody and arrangement. The sweet instrumentals and sassy vocals are a great combination. While there’s plenty of pop goodness in the songs here, there’s still gritty rock and roll, such as on the title track and on the fun bouncy garage-pop “99 Miles to Pasadena.” And the closing track, “Freedom,” uses acoustic guitars to inject a dose of Americana, Moon’s vocals smoother here. But overall this album is brighter and more joyful sounding than the (excellent) EPs, and I find it to be even better than those earlier releases. Recommended.

TITE NAUTS – Denim & Smoke (Dirt Cult Records, dirtcultrecords.com)

The quip on Tite Nauts’ bandcamp page says, “What if Black Fork and Black Sabbath had a baby? And the baby was sucking on Agent Orange tits?” That’s a reasonably apt description for this debut LP from the Chico, California band. The songs have elements of early metal a la Sabbath, a Northern California punk aesthetic, and maybe just a hint of surf punk guitar sounds. The sparseness of the arrangements and guitar sounds reminds me, too, of The Proletariat, the second band I’ve said this about this week. And they’re both Dirt Cult releases! It’s interesting how label boss Chris Mason goes through musical phases, putting out multiple records of a particular sub-genre that’s grabbed his fancy. It’s something that usually doesn’t steer him wrong. The album opens with “Calling In Dead,” a song about our broken American healthcare system, how our nation does not protect its citizens who get sick. A for-profit health system and lack of laws allowing employers to dock pay for sick time or even fire employees who have serious illnesses such as cancer. It’s possibly my favorite song of the album, with a strong 80s post-punk sound. “Internalized Lies” is another one leaning more toward the post-punk flavor, and its rapid-fire line, with the bass and guitars follow in unison, is pretty cool. And “Gender Reveal Party” is a punky tune about the obsession with genders and gender stereotypes, the titular events used as a signal to friends and family about what “appropriate” gifts would be for the baby to come. The most hardcore song of the album has to be “Antifas On Your Lawn,” a song that ridicules the paranoia of the right wing about the Antifa movement. The Sabbath-like songs, the ones that are slower and grungier, are less successful to me, but that’s just my taste. The band executes them well, so if you’re into mildly proto-grunge type music, you’re likely to enjoy them. Songs like “Sheep Drench,” about people who fall down the Internet conspiracy theory rabbit hole and sometimes engage in self-harming activities because of something they saw online, have that sound, and they’re fine, they just aren’t my thing. Likewise, “Unobtanium” is about how money drives everything in society, and things like housing, food, paying student loans, and healthcare are expensive and out of reach for a growing number of people in our country. Though the music isn’t my thing, the sentiments in the lyrics of the songs are spot on. A third category is that of good old indie rock. “Living Without You” is a fantastic song of this ilk, with a pop melody and pretty guitar intertwining guitar lines. This record is a mixed bag for me.

DAMFINO – Skywriting By Word Of Mouth (damfino.bandcamp.com)

Damfino presents their latest LP, an eclectic mix of music that ranges from singer-songwriter style to folksy, to Americana, and indie. There are lovely light jangly tunes like “Streetscenes,” which opens the LP. It’s a pretty number about the simple joys of going out and enjoying the city at night. Guitar, bass, and drums are supplemented by piano, accordion, and mellotron, creating a pleasant easy sound. Some songs are a bit of adult contemporary pop, such as the lilting “Chew a Little Ice.” It’s got a casual lounge-jazz-folk quality about it. The use of South Asian instruments, such as the shahi baaja and tanpura, brings a sense of the exotic to the otherwise Americana tune, “Any Road.” And there are darker songs, like the dusty “Purple Dot,” which also uses interestingly freaky production and electric sitar. I really enjoy “The Art Closet,” which reminds me of the post-punk of the 80s. The rolling melody and bass line propel the fun song about using and abusing art supplies, such as Elmer’s glue and magic markers, after your parents have gone out. One thing that Damfino front-man Joe Merklee does that gives a lot of these songs their strong jangly feel is that he uses a 12-string guitar. The thickness of that sound really contributes to the arrangements. The overall effect of this album is one that’s light and uplifting.

HEAVEN FOR REAL – Energy Bar (Mint Records, mintrecs.com)

Heaven For Real sure like to take their time crafting new albums. The band formed in 2012 and released some singles and EPs, plus an extended length self-titled cassette (not quite a full-length album) in short order, but it wasn’t until 2016 that they released their first full-length LP, “Kill Your Memory.” And here it is, six years to bring us their sophomore album. The music is light and lively, with a bit of dreaminess about its edges. Guitar, bass, and drums are augmented by keyboards, and various production techniques are used to give the band a sense of adventurous experimentation without veering too far from pop music structures. The opening track, “Slow Clap,” is anything but slow. It’s got a rolling guitar line, and a chugging rhythm with smooth vocals that give it a Stereolab-like feel. The winding rotating sense in the melodies continues on “Do Your Worst,” a song that sometimes feels like the band is playing underwater. (There’s also a song on the album called “Underwater Song” that sounds less like it’s played underwater, with the exception of some synth effects). Rhythms shift around, guitars get noisy and chaotic, the reverb gets deep, but the vocals remain calm and placid. I love “Wait in the Doorway,” as it transforms itself multiple times, going from another rolling pop tune to a dreamy ballad to an almost gritty song, guitars grinding away, and then back again. Minimalist repeating lines are used throughout the album, like the bass line in “Energy Bar,” which also uses percussion interjections with heavy reverb to create a starkness to the musical landscape. Through all the instrumental changes and effects, the vocals remain supremely serene, a guiding light through what sometimes can be the chaos of life. The more times I listen to this LP, the more interesting touches I find in the arrangements and the more it grows on me.

MORE KICKS – Punch Drunk (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com / Stardumb Records, www.stardumbrecords.com)

More Kicks’ debut full length came to us back in November 2019. Now, nearly three years and a lifetime of global events later, they return with their sophomore LP. And like most of us, the upheaval we’ve been through have wrought changes to the band. Where the debut LP was light mod-tinged power pop, “Punch Drunk” is heavier and grittier. Sure, it still is mainly power pop, but replacing the mod tendencies are 70s garage and early acid rock in some songs. Check out “Hurts Like Hell,” the opening track. It has a bouncy pop melody and rhythm, but the guitars are fuzzed out and smoky sounding and the bass is emphatic. Even the vocals seem to be sung with more power. Listen to “In Love,” and its opening bass and guitar; it doesn’t even sound like the same band from the last album; it’s deeper and grungier, more rock and roll. But then the vocals and melody come in, and it’s pure power pop. The combination is pretty intoxicating for fans of rock and roll. I’m reminded of one of the first bands of the genre I saw live, The Vertebrats from Champaign, Illinois. The combination of power pop melody and garage rock and roll intensity is compelling, and is one of the things that sent me along in my journey into underground and indie music. “Terminal Love” is bouncy and poppy as all hell, melody-wise, but the guitar and bass tone tell a different story. I like the ballad “Got Lucky;” it’s almost a spiritual, and played with jazzy keyboards and lyrics about aging and fighting the tendency to fade into irrelevancy (but often losing). But it’s “Come Home” that has to take honors as best track of the album. It’s the simplest, rawest, and purest rock and roll track here. A close runner up is “Colour Me,” which follows, and is the jangliest and poppiest song of the album, the guitar fuzz taking a back seat to the sweet melody. Far from a sophomore slump, “Punch Drunk” shows growth and maturity from the debut LP. Recommended.

BUMSY AND THE MOOCHERS – Diet Violence (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com / Ska Punk International, www.skapunkinternational.com)

Ska punk can be hit or miss. Some of it is brilliant, while some of it falls flat. But never before have I encountered a ska punk band that’s sort of in between. Enter Bumsy and the Moochers, a band from Chicago. The instrumentals here are quite good, both in the punk portion (guitar, bass, and drum) and the ska part (sax, trombone, and trumpet). The punk parks are crunchy with just the right amount of pop goodness, and the horns are gorgeous, particularly when they harmonize, like on “The Rat.” But the vocals, in my opinion, feel uninspired and don’t match the enthusiasm shown in the instrumentals. A good example of this is the track “AKT,” which stands for “Ass Kicked Tonight.” The thick instrumentals are speedy and fun, but the vocals should be stronger, tougher, grittier, and angrier sounding. Instead they sound too sweet and uninvolved. Compare the vocals to the enthusiastic trombone solo, which sounds like getting your ass kicked tonight is a real possibility. The vocals feel like they would be more at home in an indie pop band, something smoother and more relaxed. The high-energy genre of ska punk demands something more engaging. “Cathy Ann” is another perfect example. The instrumentals rage, horns blaring like mad, guitars, bass, and drums providing a suitable cacophony. The vocals, though, are too twee. “Cathy Ann,” too, is one of the best tracks of the album, with a blazing guitar solo and explosive melody. The power of the instrumentals more than makes up for the weak vocals. But in other tracks the vocals pull down the instrumentals. “Hey Margarita” feels too smooth through most of the song because of that. Perhaps the melody and arrangement are to blame, too. Now, don’t get me wrong – the singing is strong and in tune, which normally results in great vocals. It’s just that the singing just doesn’t feel appropriate for this genre. As a result, I had a hard time getting into this album.

DIVER THROUGH – All Nighter (Subluna Records, www.diverthrough.com)

Upon listening to the opening track of this new LP from Brooklyn’s Diver Through, I heard influences from REM and from Pearl Jam. It’s sort of a mash up of alternative rock and grunge-lite. What follows is eight more tracks of alt-rock that sound nothing like REM or Pearl Jam. The music feels somber, with a distant sound coming from production choices. There are hints of Americana in the love song, “To Death,” with plenty of jangle and bits of twang, while “All Nighter” channels 80s pop rock through the lens of modern emotional alt-rock. Other songs blend acoustic and electric guitars to create soft relaxed songs with an easy feel. It’s fairly non-descript and inoffensive. But neither does it stir the soul.

JEREMY PORTER AND THE TUCOS – "Tonight Is Not The Night" EP (GTG Records, gtgrecords.net)

This two-song 7” single was recorded just before the pandemic changed the world, as they recorded their “Candy Coated Cannonball” album. But these weren’t leftovers from the album, but were rather intended to be released separately on a single. The title track is the A-side, featuring a blend of power-pop, working class rock and roll, and a little bit of Americana. The B-side, “DTW,” is more intentionally twangy country rock instrumental. Apparently it was intended to be the theme song for an animated series that was never picked up, so they use it here. It does kind of feel like throwaway filler, particularly compared to the A-side, which is a pretty solid pub-rock sort of song.

JESUS AND THE GROUPIES – Insomnia (Mandinga Records, mandingarecords.bandcamp.com)

What would Tom Waits sound like if he had been in a punk band before going solo? Brazilian band Jesus and the Groupies aim to answer that question. With gritty spoken-word lyrics, brusque, boisterous, experimental instrumentals, and an adventurous attitude, Jesus and the Groupies present a dozen new songs. The band takes garage rock roots, but mixes in a variety of influences from jazz, hip-hop, funk, and experimental industrial music. It’s a strange and unnerving mix that keeps you off balance as you listen. Take the opening track, “Hot Grill.” It combines funk, delta blues, and industrial music to create something that grinds its way into your nightmares. “Hell” is cool jazz mixed with garage rock, but twisted, warped, and distorted into a corrupt mass of debauchery. Other tracks skewer other combinations of these genres, like something that skulked out of a dark alley and wants to slit your throat. I particularly like “Henry Dirty Hands,” a dark, avant-garde jazz spoken word poetry sort of piece, and the one that brought the Tom Waits comparison to mind. The strong mechanical rhythm and distorted minimalist instrumentals channel the experimental band Silver Apples. This is challenging music if you’re a casual listener. But if you’re into the offbeat and enjoy music that’s not heard in normal rotation, this is worth checking out.

LIGHTWEIGHT – You Have To Promise (lightweightpunk.bandcamp.com)

Following up their spring EP release, “This One’s On Me,” Lightweight return with three new songs of glorious punk rock music. They combine huge group vocals, crunchy guitars, soaring melodies, and heartfelt lyrics. “Purple Balloon” is so big and inspiring that it reminds me of the late, great RVIVR, with an enormous sound that has, as has been described of the Olympia band, room to breathe. The melody reminds me, too, of Canadian band PUP. It’s a solid song. The other two songs, “SMF” and “The Shore,” follow in a similar vein, with “SMF” reminding me a bit of Caskitt’s earlier period. Their previous EP is a candidate for my “Best of 2022” list, and so is this one. Highly recommended.

BOON – Bad Machine (Window Sill Records, windowsillrecords.bandcamp.com)

After an uneven beginning, Boon’s fourth LP really gets started. That first track, “Pictures of Mom,” is kind of an odd one, with ambience and free-style shoe-gaze jamming before settling in on a smooth and non-descript pop tune. But it’s “Talking To” that will really catch your ear. It has a clean clear sound that seems to glide over a cool mathish rhythm. The melodic line, while using unorthodox intervals, feels seamless. There are notable moments of controlled chaos on this album, too, particularly at the start and end of some songs, bits of the experimental. I’m still trying to figure out “Figure It Out,” a song that eschews most indie pop traditions and instead is a melancholy dirge that morphs and changes multiple times throughout its five minutes. Acoustic and electric guitar, synths, and piano all contribute in various ways at various times. And “The Light” is more of a tone poem with lyrics than a song; it’s a dreamy amorphous arrangement with meandering vocals, something unexpected and out of the ordinary. “Candle” is a hopping pop number, with bright bouncy beat and vocals and a guitar line that’s in constant motion, plucked out and reminding me of a wind-up music box. “A Shape A Shell” has an innovative pop melody that reminds me of something The Happy Fits might have done, but smoother and breezier (and without cello). It’s definitely a fun one. Best songs: the aforementioned “Talking To” and “Barky,” the closing track, with a very retro pop sound from the 60s mod era. Overall, an interesting, if uneven, album with some really catchy songs, some good listens, and a few somewhat confusing tracks.

CF98 – This Is Fine (SBAM Records, sbam-rocks.us)

CF98 is a band from Poland, but they sound like they grew up in California, listening to the Fat Wreck Chords catalog. The songs here are melodic pop punk, with glorious harmonized vocals (I think done via multi-track recording?). The music is tight and expertly played, and clearly sounds very influenced by 90s pop punk. I think the band must be fans, too, of The Bombpops, a Southern California band on Fat Wreck that have been playing this sort of music for several years. The meaning behind the album title is explained in the opening track, “Intro,” in which we hear a raging fire and a smoke alarm beeping, with an ignorant voice saying, “This is fine.” It’s the audio version of the infamous Internet meme. The ensuing 35 minutes of music is expertly played and will sound very familiar to American fans of this style of pop punk. Some of the songs have a speedy skate punk feel, like “Plot Twist,” “Better Than Cocaine,” and others. My favorite song is probably “Fuck You.” It’s not significantly different from the rest, but it has a catchy melody. It’s hard to pick out other highlights – the band is very good and the album is enjoyable, but there isn’t a lot to distinguish them from other bands playing this sort of music.

DEMONS – Swallow (Knife Hits Records, knifehitsrecords.com)

You want a dose of rage with your music? Here you go. This Virginia band present four songs of grinding powerful hardcore, full of confrontational fury. I particularly love “Art,” the second track, which is played in 3/4 time, with dissonant angular guitars and chaotic drums. It reminds me of the old question asked by SSD, “How much art can you take?” Not that it sounds like that song, but the sentiment is the same. The wide intervals in “Nothing at the Bottom,” too, are nothing if non-traditional for punk and hardcore, and they force you to fucking pay attention! This is heavy hard-hitting music that’s played with a take no prisoners attitude. I’m not a big heavy music fan, but this stuff rules.

THE SCHIZOPHONICS – Hoof It (Pig Baby Records, pigbabyrecords.com)

San Diego’s finest garage rockers, The Schizophonics, present their fourth full-length LP. If you’ve ever had a chance to listen to this band, or if you’ve been lucky enough to see them perform live, you know they are the musical embodiment of the word “excitement.” Pat and Lety Beers exude pure joy through their music, and Pat’s manic performances are legendary. The band has seen a revolving door of bass players, and on this recording, Pat does double duty, playing both guitar and bass. Not only do they play with explosive energy, they’re downright soulful, and channel 70s music like that of The MC5, but crossed with James Brown. Yeah I sorta stole that from the press release, but it’s spot on. Though there are plenty of bands playing garage music and plenty playing soul, there are precious few playing music quite like this, and that makes them a San Diego treasure. Right from the get go the band crank things up to eleven and don’t let up for a single second of the thirty-eight minutes that it takes for the eleven songs to play; there isn’t a single throwaway track. And as good as their last LP was (2019’s “People in the Sky”), this one is several steps up from that. There are some really nice touches in these songs, too, besides the high-octane energy. “Desert Girl,” which opens the album, features the periodic interjection of zills (those small finger cymbals that belly dancers use). Many of the songs, too, make use of minimalist repeating guitar lines, which heighten the tension. Though every track rages, there are a few standouts. The title track is one. The intensity, the passionate soulfulness, the attitude, and the stirring backing vocals add up to more than the sum of the parts. “Won Your Love” cranks things up even more, so much that if you aren’t jumping around wherever you are when you’re listening to this, it’s because you’re dead. And “Rain Down” is a great classic garage tune, with less of the James Brown soul and more pure raw rock and roll. Give this record a spin, and you too will be mesmerized and amazed and will fall in love with our San Diego greats. This gets my highest recommendation.

THE SENSATIONAL COUNTRY BLUES WONDERS! – The Adventures of a Psychedelic Cowboy (garyvanmiert.com)

The Sensational Country Blues Wonders is the project of Gary Van Miert, a fixture in the Jersey City arts community. Equally inspired by the country music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the psychedelic sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and classic gospel, spirituals, and blues from the middle of America, Van Miert has pioneered a genre that could be called psychedelic Americana. Some of the songs on this LP do blend the best aspects of the various genres to create something unique and beautiful. Some songs also have a bit of power pop vibe to them. Others hew closer to country or gospel, with less of the psychedelic and power pop. It should be no surprise that the ones that are more pop and psych oriented are my favorites, while the ones that are more basic country or gospel don’t do it for me as much. Songs like “There’s a Hole in the Fabric of My Reality,” with sitar, synths, and flutes, along with a power pop melody and Americana acoustic guitars and twangy vocals, just hit all the right marks. Even the topic of the song is spacey, like a cowboy on an acid trip. “The Psychedelic Cowboy Song,” about “riding on the astral plane,” is a trippy slow burner of song that sounds like something right out of the late 60s. “Airwaves” is another cool one, with jangly poppy guitars, a loping rhythm, and spacey synths. Flutes, strings, and synths on “Life Is So Freaking Beautiful” remind me of a Paul Mauriat arrangement (Mauriat took popular songs of the day and arranged them for orchestra, with “My Love Is Blue” being a breakout hit in 1968). “Music of the Spheres” may be my favorite of the bunch. It’s a lovely psych-folk-rock sort of tune, the sitar returning, along with flutes, providing an ethereal arrangement, very appropriate for a song about heavenly music. There are some cool honkytonk tracks here. “Breathe” is a fun one, with an old-timey feel, piano, tuba, and accordion included in the arrangement to give it an almost fun cartoonish feel, along with the twangy guitar and vocals. The topic of the song is something we all do – breathing! “It’s important to breathe / If you don’t breathe you’ll die / But the beauty of breathing is / You don’t have to try,” says the chorus. There’s even a short Dixieland jazz jam with trumpet and trombone near the end. But songs like “I’m Beginning to Live in the Light,” “I’m a Caterpillar,” and “I’ve Got Memphis on My Mind” are just sanitized country, blues, and gospel music of the ilk you might have heard on the NPR radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” When they’re good, The Sensational Country Blues Wonders! are very good. When they stick to the psych-power-pop-Americana, it’s unique and beautiful. When they go for the white bread country gospel, it falls flat.

STATE DRUGS / ZEPHR – Split (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Snappy Little Numbers brings together two Denver bands for this split single, each band contributing one song. State Drugs’ “Mr. Untitled” is a solemn chugging tune, with subdued jangle and a tinge of Americana. Zephr, with their song, “Landline,” have a bit more of an edge and power pop feel, but also very much a heart-on-your-sleeve emotional vibe. The things both bands share in common are great instrumentals, solid songwriting, and vocals that could use a little bit of work. I do like the songs, and can tell that both bands would be enjoyable in live performances.

TODD FARRELL JR / THE 1984 DRAFT – Split (Poptek Records, www.poptek.com)

A split single here, one song from each. The 1984 Draft contributes a raucous alternate version of a song that will appear on a forthcoming LP from the Ohio band. Raucous, of course, is a relative term, as the band isn’t a raging punk outfit, rather they’re a mature indie rock band that hasn’t forgotten its punk rock roots. The song is an ode to Two Cow Garage, in honor of their split-mate and in honor of a band that’s been important to them. After a reasonably raging intro, it settles down into a Pegboy-like sound in the instrumentals and with a smoother sounding vocal. Farrell’s contribution is a new song, “Can’t Sit Still.” It’s a song Farrell says has been kicking around in his head for some time, yet he was never quite happy with it – until asked if the song could be the B-side of this split and he finally finished and recorded it. Rather than it being a full band effort, he recorded and played it all himself. It’s a nice loping track with both indie and Americana sounds. I know The 1984 Draft and Farrell’s band Benchmarks have played shows together, and I can see that given most of The 1984 Draft’s output, but the two songs here don’t really seem to “go together,” if you will. They’re both great, though, and both leave me wanting more from each band.

BANDAID BRIGADE – Sex Is Terrifying (Xtra Mile Recordings, www.xtramilerecordings.com)

Eighties cheese-pop nerds Bandaid Brigade return with their sophomore full-length LP. Featuring Zach Quinn (Pears), Brian Wahlstrom (Scorpios, Gods of Mount Olympus), the band was formed on a whim during one of Joey Capes many “One Week Records” tours, featuring solo performers from various bands. I was at one of the shows that included these two, and the chemistry when they performed a few songs together was remarkable. What was most interesting was that the songs they played, both individually and together, were starkly divergent from the music they’re most noted for. The pair decided to continue collaborating and writing, filling out the band with Paul Rucker (drums) and Brendan Miller (bass). The release of their debut LP, “I’m Separate,” was an unlikely underground hit in the pop punk scene, despite being released just before the pandemic precluded any touring in support of the album. Continuing to work together through the lockdowns, writing on the next LP continued, and now it’s here. And, despite the so-called sophomore slump curse, it’s even more glorious than the debut, with lusher arrangements and production. Not only does it channel the classic sounds of Steely Dan, Billy Joel and Elton John, it actually blends in hints of big pop punk choruses, too. You want to hear huge epic music? Listen to the opening track, “Loveless Love.” Not only does the song give the album its title in its very first line (“Hello, I am terrified of sex / Even more than what comes next”), it starts the LP running at a ‘10’ and things just don’t let up. Themes of broken love and ending relationships run through the album, written at a time when both Wahlstrom and Quinn were dealing with breakups in their own lives.

Besides the opening track, there’s “Broken Toy.” “I was your golden boy / Now I’m a broken toy / With an expired warranty,” the song opens. The song is deeply soulful, aided by the gorgeous jazz saxophone playing of Joe Cardillo. But the song seems to be about more than just a relationship not working out, as revealed in the lyrics, “I’m twiddling my thumbs / ‘Til your procedure’s done / Expecting bad results / I feel like it’s my fault.” When one partner is going through some tough times, they sometimes push the other away, and it can be quite painful. The isolation of the pandemic was fertile ground for writing, as well. “Did You Dream” speaks of being “stuck indoors almost every night” in a song that alternately glides smoothly and rollicks boisterously. Likewise, “Kitchen Tile” speaks of being locked inside, “In a broken home / In the unknown / Where the doors are always locked / I have walked for miles / On the kitchen tile / Pacing around, watching the clock.” The feelings of isolation and boredom are palpable, and the affect that can have on the mind are related in the ending verse, “I am as dead as my city / And you can never bring me back / I derail my train of thought / You can’t put me back on track.” There’s a song here titled “Bandaid Brigade,” which appears to be a thank-you between Quinn and Wahlstrom for the friendship and partnership they found in each other. Played almost like a love song, with subdued vocals and calmly rolling instrumentals, the lyrics speak to believing in each another, despite how crazy you may sometimes seem. “I owe it all to you / In times when I felt trite you still believed in what I do / In my ditch you were the rope / You cannot put a price on somehow finding hope.” Indeed, finding someone who understands and believes in you is just that, a rope out of that ditch of despair. Thankfully Wahlstrom and Quinn have found that in each other.

DENDRONS – 5-3-8 (Innovative Leisure Records, innovativeleisure.net)

Dendrons is a Chicago band that’s been around since 2018 and named with the Greek word for “tree,” taken at random from flipping through books in the library. The band says they’ve been trying to find their identity by playing in front of crowds, and sure enough, this, their sophomore LP, features an eclectic mix of post-punk, indie rock, and dream pop styles. The arrangements are alternately lush and sparse, with wide dynamic range, pretty poppy melodies, and more than a touch of an adventurous sense. The title is taken from a lyric in the song “High in the Circle K,” that goes “Fifths, thirds, octaves only.” There’s also a song called “Octaves Only” that adds to the theme. I guess they’re music theory nerds! The album opener, “Wait In Line,” is a gorgeous 90s era track that features Jawbox inspired a melody, angular tensions, an arrangement that bounces the spotlight from instrument to instrument, and an avant-garde noisy ending. Then there are strong post-punk songs like “Double Ending,” with a very 80s sound, particularly in the guitar tone. The partly sung, partly spoken lyrics and the bass line add to the retro feel. And I particularly love “Vain Repeating,” another very post-punk track. It has that blend of the experimental and pop sensibility that bands like The Pop Group were doing back in the day. A strong rhythmic sense, an exciting performance, and wide dynamic range come together to make a powerful song. The pair of songs, “New Outlook” and “New Outlook II,” are favorites in this vein, as well, with noisy experimental backdrops, spinning rhythms, and those spoken-sung lyrics. And if you’re after more of the adventurous side of things, check out “Interlude (Adjusting to the Light),” a mix of ambience and beats, random guitar strums, dreamy understated singing and other elements swirling around each other. This is a very enjoyable release that made me start looking to see if the band is touring out to the west coast any time soon.

VAL EMMICH – Starburst (valemmich.com)

If I had to sum up Val Emmich’s twelfth full-length LP in a single word, it would be “intimate.” To expand on that, the album presents eleven tracks of gorgeously understated songs. That opening track, “Open Heart Keep Me Safe,” is devastatingly beautiful, with quiet piano and shimmering ambience. Beyond the intro lies ten pretty pop tunes with impeccable arrangements, and an especially luscious sound for a DIY effort. And while the instrumentals shine, the songs are often darker, lyrically. “Bad Vibrations” has a lovely bright beat and sparkling guitar, but Emmich’s quietly crooning vocals tell a different story, one that speaks of heartbreak. “Never No” blends an acoustic performance (guitar and piano) with a Springsteen-esque working class rock and roll melody and aesthetic. Power pop abounds, raucously restrained, in songs like “It Only Hurts If You Let It Hurt,” a song about trying to stay positive when confronting problems. “What the Hell,” too, is quietly stoic; though the music and vocals are understated, you can feel the simmering anxiety in the lyrics. This is one of my favorites of the LP. I like “Shine,” too. It starts with a funky beat, but is piano and vocal driven, and haw breathless vocals about the anxiety that comes with self-doubt. And despite the dark topics touched on in many of these songs, the intimacy ends up feeling, well, romantic. Just lovely.

THE HAPPY FITS – Under the Shade of Green (www.thehappyfits.com)

The Happy Fits were poised for an incredible breakthrough back in 2020. Their second album, What Could Be Better, was poised to skyrocket them to indie stardom. It appeared in many year-end “Best of 2020” lists, including mine. And then the pandemic hit, putting tours on hold and dashing hopes of getting their message out to audiences. But the New Jersey trio had other ideas, instead launching a series of livestreams, generally on Friday nights, and always free to their fans via their YouTube channel. It worked. The band not only made their fans happy, they gained many new ones, and the live chats became more and more “crowded” and lively. When COVID restrictions began to lift and it was possible to have live shows again, the band began touring, finding themselves playing to sold out crowds in city after city. The Happy Fits may be one of the biggest acts still unsigned, something I fully expect to change after A&R reps get a listen to this, their third full-length LP. Now, comparisons with What Could Be Better are inescapable, especially given how great that record was. Honestly, I find their sophomore release to be much more exuberant and fresher sounding. Though the album was well produced, the trio stuck to their basic instrumentation of guitar, drums, and cello. It gave the album a bright optimistic sound. By contrast, Under the Shade of Green has a more somber feeling. Part of that may be the addition of prominent synths and deep reverb. Part of it may just be the songwriting. A lot of these songs have a bright dancey beat, but when you peel back the surface the sentiments are anything but happy.

“Dance Alone” is one of those very somber songs that doesn’t seem to be synth-driven, but the heavy use of reverb and the sad lyrics mixing the yearning of wanting to be with someone with a sense of loss (“I don’t wanna say goodbye. / I just wanna spend my night with you. / How’my gonna catch your eye? I don’t know if I can do this. / I will never understand / How no one was there to hold your hand.”) make for an intensely morose song that tries to put a happy face on with its rhythm. Even darker is “Changes,” a song that speaks to the difficulties in simply living life in our current society, with trying to be who others expect you to be, trying to change yourself for different situations, and dealing with the pitfalls of failure that lurk around every corner, just waiting for us. Through most of the song, Calvin Langman’s cello is relegated to a rhythm instrument, marking off the time in almost robotic fashion, joining with the disco beat. Near the end of the song, though, the cello sings a beautifully melancholy line. Even songs that, on the surface, seem to be about love and living in the moment reveal darker themes when you look deeper. “Sweet Things” could be a sugary top 40 AM radio song about a fling that could turn into something more. But listen more intently, and it’s a cynical examination of relationships that never develop into something deeply intense. “Well you say that nothing’s perfect / Well you said that nothing’s perfect except when I’m here with you / Does it feel right? / So tell me three things, three that you know about me / I’ll say, I’ll say won’t you come with me / Baby, nothing lasts forever, it’s only now or never.” It seems to be a capitulation to never connecting with others and always feeling isolated.

“Cold Turkey” has a very Beatles-esque feel, the production, use of strings and group vocals all creating a sound very reminiscent of a particular era of the Fab Four. The negative lyrics in the song, too (“It’s gonna take some time and space, honey / So when you gonna leave me alone? / It’s gonna get ya high and low from me / So when you gonna leave me alone?), show that, while we all try and put on a happy face in public, inside were a roiling mess of conflicting emotions.

“Long Way Down” has a huge 80s new wave sound, something straight out of a John Hughes teen romance film. It could be the least Happy Fits sounding song of the album, when measured against past releases (and even the other songs of this LP). And the closing track, “Do Your Worst,” is sneering and contemptuous. “Hope you like the bottom where you’ll / Do your worst.” The song scoffs. “Well-rehearsed, repeat the verse of hate again / Right beneath the bottom where you / Wound up on the floor / Like you wanted to. / Now, I thought you wanted more. / Is this all you could be?” The scorn is palpable, the synths singing out in a minor key, a song about compromising one’s principles to get ahead, but questioning whether that’s really where you wanted to be. Where What Could Be Better was fresh, bright, and optimistic, Under the Shade of Green seems like the depressing part of life before going into therapy, when everything is falling down inside of and around us, but we try to maintain a façade that everything is OK. It’s the maturing past youthful exuberance and into middle age in which we begin ask the question, “is this all there is?” and get depressed at what we think may be the answer.

Read Editor Jim Testa's interview with The Happy Fits here...

NO TRIGGER – Dr. Album (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Mere months after releasing their first recorded music in five years (the “Acid Lord” EP), No Trigger returns with a full-length LP, their first in a decade. If you liked the EP (and I know I did), you’re going to love the LP. One reason is the LP includes three of the five EP tracks. No Trigger play music that ranges from metallic hardcore to tongue-in-cheek pop punk with sardonic lyrics. Songs like “Antifantasy” (which was on the EP) drip with sarcasm, this one about the rise of fascism in the country and the virtue signaling of liberals without actually doing anything to stop it. Funny-punk styles do dominate the album, with many of the songs featuring one-liners and satirical lyrics. We also get loping songs like “Coffee From the Microwave,” and the band’s take on “emo” synth pop on “Too High to Die.” I love the hilarious, “No Tattoos,” a speedy poppy song with which I can relate (no tattoos is the new black!). The arrangement, with insertions of various sound effects, is pretty brilliant. Then there’s the acoustic Americana song, “Water By The Beer Can,” with twangy steel guitar and lyrics loaded with tales of self-doubt and self-medication. Another acoustic track is the folksy “Euro Coke,” and when you listen to the inane lyrics you’re going to laugh at every song of this genre you’ve ever heard before despite how serious the artists were about them. I’m not sure why “Foggy Mountain Bus Stop” is here, but I’m glad it is. It’s recorded to sound like some ancient Appalachian folk tune (complete with scratchy recording), super short, but super funny. If you miss the soft disco beats of synth-laden 80s new wave, “Best Friend Stuff” is the song for you, with spacey music and spacey lyrics about the death of a close friend. I guess one way to sum up No Trigger is to say that nothing is sacred to them. They use their songs to skewer anyone and anything deserving of ridicule. In a world where everything is so serious and desperate, having someone take the zealots down a couple of notches is a good thing. Thanks, No Trigger.

ODD MEN OUT (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Shortly prior to major changes to the world brought about the pandemic, an international collection of musicians from Italy, Spain, and (of course) the UK came together in London and recorded their take on 60s garage-psych. Now finally seeing the light of day (and perhaps dingy clubs at night?) their debut self-titled LP is here, with eight tracks that want to worm their way into your ears. For the most part, being that they’re a trio, the arrangements are a bit thin. Garage and psych need to have both a thick and a raucous sound, and while these tracks fulfill the latter requirement, the former falls short – for the most part, but not entirely. If you’re a fan of what was known as “acid rock” of the 70s, you’re going to love the deep proto-grunge of “Mary B.” This is the sort of music that inspired Seattle in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s got a full sound, metallically tinged with psychedelics. And while most of the tracks could use some filling out to amp things up, “Can’t Get Over,” which ends side A, is a huge slow burner that just past the halfway mark gets epic. “Look At Her” is the most different from the rest of the tracks; it’s a very British Invasion style garage with a psych bass and swirling organ. It’s a time machine in musical form. The whole album is, really. I do wish they had another guitar to fill out the sound, though.

STRATEGIES (bandstrategies.bandcamp.com)

This has to be one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Strategies is a new group made up of Brian Moss (Great Apes, Hanalei), Neil Hennessy (The Lawrence Arms, Joyce Manor, The Smoking Popes), and Paul Lask (The Ghost). The band began when Hennessey and Last began sending demos back and forth during the pandemic lock downs. Moss was recruited to handle vocals, and the band was born. It’s been no secret that I’m a Brian Moss fan, particularly of his work with the late lamented Great Apes. I also enjoy The Lawrence Arms and, though he wasn’t part of the classic lineup, Hennessy’s time drumming for the Smoking Popes is memorable. The four songs on this debut EP are subdued and serene, Moss’ smooth calm vocals mating well with the hazy, dreamy feel of the instrumentals. Even when the band gets a bit more aggressive, such as on “Silent Count,” the song still has a gauzy feel that’s just lovely. Of the four tracks, though, the back pair, consisting of “Fire Drill” and “Camp Elsewhere” are my favorites. Arpeggiated guitar riffs abound, giving the songs a swirling sensation, and though the arrangements are fairly spare (it’s a trio, after all), the production provides a voluptuous texture. Just gorgeous.

VARIOUS – We All Shine On: Celebrating The Music Of 1970 (SpyderPop Records, bigstirrecords.com/spyderpop-records)

SpyderPop Records has released a collection of covers of songs released in 1970. Why that year? Who knows? But these are new, sometimes unique versions of many songs that were radio hits back when there were still radio hits (and some that weren’t). The songs run the gamut of pop and rock from 52 years (!) ago. A highlight for me is Bill Lloyd’s version of “Mama Told Me not to Come,” the Randy Newman penned tune made into a hit by Three Dog Night. Their version is less psychedelic, janglier, and more like a Bob Dylan cover with its stoic spoken verses. English band Christie’s song “Yellow River” is covered by The Armoires, the Big Stir “house band,” with a version that’s fairly faithful to the original soft rock end of the British Invasion spectrum. Another highlight is the new version of “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” originally a soulful ballad from The Delfonics. The cover is contributed by none other than jangle pop legend Mitch Easter (Let’s Active front man and REM producer), and it’s soft and, well, jangly, giving the old song new life. Irene Peña provides a grunge-pop version of Badfinger’s “Come and Get It,” but that’s kind of cheating, since that song was released at the tail end of 1969, not in 1970. But the gritty instrumentals contrast nicely with the bright bouncy vocals on this cover. The Guess Who’s song “Share the Land” is just as much a “peace and love” song in the Popdudes’ cover, but it’s even bigger and grander than the original. Jonathan Pushkar’s version of “I Think I Love You,” a hit for the fictional Partridge Family, is brilliant, taking bubblegum and turning it into twisted kitsch. And Diamond Hands take The Kinks’ favorite “Lola” and make it completely their own, with more of a spacey drugged out feel that rocks harder than the original. Some may feel the song has no place in the modern world, because the lyrics could be interpreted as transphobic. Sir Ray Davies disagrees, saying the song was written to celebrate the freedom to be whoever you want to be. Some songs are just too on the nose, like Darian’s cover of Mark Lindsay’s “Arizona,” The Legal Matters’ cover of George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” or Bobby Sutliff’s version of the one-hit wonder R Dean Taylor and the song “Indiana Wants Me.” They’re OK, if you’re looking for a cover band. But more than half the fun of covering comes from reinterpreting the songs and making them your own. Some of the tracks here fall flat when compared with the original. “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” as sung by Melanie, is a huge and glorious, but the cover from Marc Johnson is tepid in comparison. As is always the case with comps (and this one is massive, with 22 songs and an hour and eighteen minutes of music), there are highlights and lowlights. But if you’re a fan of the music of 1970 (or thereabouts), it’s worth checking out.

CINEMA HEARTS – Your Ideal (www.cinemahearts.com)

When one thinks of indie pop performers, one does not usually think of beauty pageant contestants. Yet former Miss Virginia contender, Caroline Weinroth is here to shake your world. She even played electric guitar as her talent, and this new five-song EP explores the pain, loneliness, and cutthroat drive of competing in the Miss America circuit. The opening track, “Mirror,” is about the conformance to expectations required of pageant contestants. “When you look in the mirror what do you see? / The question the judges love to ask me / I see a woman who wants to be free / But I’ll be what you want me to be,” the song opens. It’s a lovely, dreamy indie pop song in waltz time, with guitar, bass, and drums, and synth creating a sense of epic scale. “Your Ideal” opens with a 60s pop bounce, but turns into a grunge-lite pop tune about living up to others’ expectations, regardless of what you want for your own life. Retro themes continue with the 50s “girl group” pop in the love song, “Everyday is a Day Without You.” It’s smooth and lovely, with a twangy country guitar solo and easy listening style strings, courtesy of the synth. Another love song follows, the very Roy Orbison-like “Can I Tell You I Love You.” The EP closes with “Sister,” a dreamy pop ballad about the bonds that form between pageant contestants. Weinroth entered her first pageant to have a place to play her music, because she was only 18 years old, and the only other outlets were bars. I think she’ll find success beyond beauty contests and bars, though. Cinema Hearts isn’t breaking new musical ground, but it’s very nice.

THE CHATS – Get Fucked (Bargain Bin Records, www.bargainbinrecords.com.au)

Two years on from their debut LP, Aussie band The Chats are back with another LP chock full of furious garage-like punk rock tunes. Fast, powerful, and raging are apt description of the majority of the thirteen tracks on the album. These short bursts of energy are all the more amazing in that they’re emanated by a mere three-piece band. Listen to the opening track, “6L GTR,” and decide for yourself: is this old school punk rock or is it retro garage? I mean, the topic of the song is a muscle car, like a lot of 60s garage was. Same thing with “Struck By Lightning,” which follows. It strengthens the argument that punk rock’s real origins lie not with The Ramones, but with countless forgotten 60s bands. “Southport Superman” is a favorite track that captures the strength of first wave hardcore of the early 80s: It consists of a minimum number of distinct chords, it’s a short blast of fury, clocking in at only 35 seconds, and it’s fast and loud. This reminds me of why I was attracted to hardcore punk way back when, so thank-you to The Chats for that. Current inflation woes come through in the relatively subdued “Price of Smokes,” and I emphasize “relatively” because it’s still a raucous song, decrying the cost of cigarettes when one can barely afford the rent. Actually, the back half of the album does feel more relaxed, in a way, than the front half. It’s still loud snotty punk music; it’s just not as fast and furious. Even still, this is a great “blast from the past” sounding album, and a solid listen.

THE LINGS (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Thanks to labels like Kool Kat Musik and others that have been keeping garage, power pop, psych, and mod music alive, I’ve been getting into these genres like never before. And thankfully there are bands making this sort of music today – originals, not just covers or rehashing of the past. The Lings are one such band, hailing from the Mantova/Verona area of Italy, and the dozen songs here are their debut full-length LP. The songs aren’t high energy, and are pretty universally played at a mid-tempo lope. But they’ve got a lovely breezy quality to them. The guitars softly jangle and the vocals have a lilting quality injected with a bit of an edge. It’s almost like power-pop/garage music for the island crowd. Good examples of this include “The Worst Of You,” which opens the album with a strong backbeat and a delicate touch (though you can hear the garage, power pop, and mod roots clearly). Listen to the pretty, cozy sounds of “ Blue.” “Dried Up Love” has that easy clean jangle and lope, with an almost Beatles-esque quality. And I adore “Daisy,” a song with a relaxed lounge-like sound, sort of like the cool jazz of rock and roll music. It even has an improvisational jam. “Neverending Lonely Rush M.A.” is the most straight-ahead power pop song of the LP, with just a hint of glam, and it makes it one of the most fun, too. “Freaky Cheesy” is the most up-tempo song of the album, though it’s still just a bit north of mid-tempo. It may be one of the less successful songs of the album, the “cheesy” in its title being a self-identifier. This song does come across as too derivative, sounding too much like a cover band or something. “Grace” is another song that’s a bit different than the rest. Adding harmonica and acoustic guitar and darkening the power pop, it’s got more of a melancholy storytelling sound. The Lings aren’t going to set the world on fire, but this debut is really nice.

ASTRONAUT PUSHERS – EP (Lost in Ohio, lostinohio.com)

Originally released in 2005 as a very limited 4-song CD, this super group’s sole release is being reissued, this time with a fifth previously unreleased song. The Nashville outfit is comprised of Grammy and Academy Award nominee Sam Ashworth, Superdrag’s John Davis, Lindsay Jamieson of Ben Folds and Departure Lounge, and Sixpence None the Wiser’s Matt Slocum. Though the songs are nearly two decades old, they still sound fresh and timeless. Not only that, the five songs are incredible varied and wide ranging in their sounds. The EP opens strongly with alt-rocker “Cut Me Off.” It has a subdued intensity, with minimalist guitars providing an understated shriek and a strong jazzy backbeat rhythm from the drums. It comes across as both fierce and relaxed at the same time. “Come On Make It Harder” is gorgeous, and big, with both dreamy and eerie sounds. “Bacharaquattack” is appropriately titled, with a lighter, lither feel of the 70s pop hits of Burt Bacharach, but with a twangy injection of Americana steel guitar. I like “Nobody Knows,” which has a Beatles-esque feel, a song that sounds like something the Fab Four might have written had they been a more contemporary band working in more modern genres. The unreleased track “Monday Morning,” has a loping tempo and a somewhat melancholy mood. Despite the different characters of these tracks, the EP does feel cohesive. A worthy listen.

FAYE – You’re Better (Self Aware Records, selfawarerecords.com)

It’s been a long six years since Faye’s self-titled debut EP was released, forcing us to wait for more. More is finally here, in the form of the band’s debut full-length LP. Some, if not all, of this album was recorded in pre-pandemic days, and the notorious vinyl delays are infamous, so the wait is excusable. And it was worth it. Faye play music that sounds like indie-pop meets grunge. The songs have wonderfully light melodies, a poppy bounce, and clear ringing vocals, yet the arrangements have a grittier heavier sound. The opening track, “No Vibes,” is a perfect introduction to this sound, with growling grumbling bass, emphatically bright poppy vocals, and guitars that alternately soar with clarity and snarl with abandon. “Dream Punches” is full-on grunge, packing a wallop, and “Swing State” combines grungy instrumentals with pop punk attitude and melody. I’m not usually a big ballad fan, but the slow burner, “Confetti,” is gorgeous. The 6/8 time tune has a martial rhythm and alternates between simmering verses and churning choruses. “Wise Words” reminds me of a rougher gruffer Tsunami, the great indie pop band from the DC area. It’s another slower track, and has gorgeously bright vocals, moody guitars, and a loping rhythm. I really like the feel of this LP. It’s breezy and poppy enough, with just the right amount of edginess to balance it out and prevent it from sounding cloying.

KAL MARKS – My Name Is Hell (Exploding In Sound Records, www.explodinginsoundrecords.com)

This fifth LP released under the Kal Marks moniker represents a complete refresh for the band. In early 2020, the band had dissolved, leaving only Carl Shane remaining. The guitarist/vocalist, however, did not give up, and soon a new band was formed to play new songs Shane had already been writing. The resulting album features eleven tracks filled with big dreamy, dramatic, melodic, noisy rock. One of the amazing things is how the band create a delicate balance between melodic riffs and chaotic noise. Typically, noise rock is short on melody or head-bobbing beats, but “My Name Is Hell” has both in spades. Take the opening track, “My Life is a Freak Show.” It has a glorious melody, dreamy ambience, and nightmarish noise repetition that rises and falls. “We’re all animals,” Shane sings; “We all feed from the trough.” The song seems to be telling us that we all have more in common than we don’t. Our lives are freak shows, we’re all fucked, and we have no place to go. That which may separate us is insignificant. As the track evolves, it gets noisier, Shane’s vocals turning into pleading shouts. One of the things that makes this band work so well and drives the songs hard is John Russell’s prominent growling bass. Rather than being subdued and providing the standard foundation to the songs, the bass takes center stage much of the time, as an indispensible contributor to the overall mix. Listen to it on “Shit Town,” a track in which Kal Marks comes to closest to standard indie rock, though the chaos is never too far away. “Everybody Hertz” is a track that has a bright melody and bright guitars, yet the blasts of the bass and the explosive percussion keep the proceedings from being anything but a melodic cacophony. And if you want even more cacophony, listen to “Debt,” the most discordant track of the album; noise swirls all around, as Shane’s vocals are angrily and painfully shouted. But even here, there’s an underlying sense of melody that keeps things from moving too far into the realm of the avant-garde. The bass line on “Mr. Dictionary (A Satire),” along with the spoken/shouted vocals make the song almost reminiscent of the band Shellac – except this song has lush synths, too, giving it a very different feel. The two styles vie for dominance, and both win. “My Name Is Hell” is melodic enough to feel familiar to indie aficionados, yet challenging and adventurous enough to please the most jaded of listeners. A+

TRASHED AMBULANCE – Future Considerations (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

Halfway between the metropolises of Calgary and Edmonton (up in the Frozen North, eh?) lies the hamlet of Red Deer, birthing place of Trashed Ambulance. The band has undergone some lineup changes and have returned with their third full-length LP. The lineup changes have brought them a tighter sound that’s not as raw, but they’ve lost none of the snot and enthusiasm that endeared me to the band when I reviewed their debut LP, “Blurry Thoughts,” a number of years ago. The dozen songs on this album are universally bright, speedy, poppy punk rock, influenced (but not overwhelmed by) skate punk sounds. It’s speedy and crunchy, making it a ton of fun, but thankfully it lacks the metallic technical flourishes that, frankly, turn me off of some bands. Gang vocals are still effectively used, too, adding to the sense of, well, fun. “56” opens the album with a song of introspection and self-examination about what’s really to blame for one’s problems. Trashed Ambulance likes to toss in sound clips – at least they did on the debut LP, and this one has them, too, though fewer) and the track opens with a line from “Futurama,” “Now stand back, I gotta practice my stabbing.” It’s a reference in the lyrics, “As my headspace decays / I’ll ignore all rapport / And keep stabbing in the dark,” speaking to the lack of ability to take cues from our interactions with others and know when to dial things back. Most of the songs are somewhat like this – fast’n’loud, plenty of attitude, plenty of crunchy guitars and plenty of guff. Favorites include “Ecnalumbma” (“Ambulance” spelled backward), a song about the glories of playing shows with and to one’s friends, “Bottleneck,” and “Melting Pot,” a track about getting out of the sticks where there’s forced conformity and moving to a more cosmopolitan melting pot of a city, where you can be yourself. Robbie Morön and Émilie Plamondon make a guest appearance on “Stalk in the Park,” a song that has a relaxed lope in its pace, but doesn’t come down even one notch in intensity. The song is a warning about the dangers of drunken creepers who sexually harass women in the scene, and could be my favorite of the album. An outlier of a track is “Menace,” a song that injects ska punk into the mix, and oddly enough is the song with the darkest edge. Trashed Ambulance have another winner of an album here.

BEACH RATS – Rat Beat (Epitaph Records, www.epitaph.com)

The term “super group” gets tossed around a lot, but in this case, it really has meaning. Beach Rats has an impressive lineup of punk rock luminaries, including Ari Katz of Lifetime on vocals, Bouncing Souls’ Pete Steinkopf and Bryan Keinlen on guitar and bass, respectively, guitarist Brian Baker (of Minor Threat, Bad Religion, Dag Nasty, and too many other bands to name), plus drummer Danny Windas. They released their debut EP way back in 2018 and played a bunch of shows, but everything stopped due to the pandemic. Well, not everything. The band found a way to practice and write within CDC guidelines of masking, social distancing, and getting good outdoor airflow through open basement windows. The result is this debut full-length LP chock full of solid 80s style hardcore punk rock, with some songs being pure ragers, others with Descendents-style melody, and some with a more unique modern punk style. I was a “hardcore kid,” back in the early 80's, so I really enjoy the tracks that are fast’n’loud. “Bikes Out!” opens the album with some speedy crunchy hardcore, then tempers itself into a loping melodic punk tune. And “Dress for Sick Sesh” alternates between slower dirge-like punk and supersonic classic hardcore. “Heavy Conversation” and “Rat Beat” take very late era Minor Threat and mix it with early Descendents, hardcore and pop punk. “Saturday” is one of those more modern sounding tracks, with a darker, more metallic sound. And then there are tracks like “Clorox Boys,” softer and smoother, with a post-punk/post-emo melodic style, the instrumentals and passionate vocals reminding me of San Diego’s Pitchfork. Every track on this album is solid, but it’s not often you can hear genuine early 80's hardcore played like it was meant to be. Those tracks are my favorites. But it’s the variety and quality songwriting that make this a recommended LP.

LOS PEYOTES – Virgenes (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

The formerly prolific band, Los Peyotes, released a slew of records in the first decade or so of this century, and then fell silent. Their last LP was way back in 2010, and their last single in 2013. And now, the Argentinian garage-psych band are back, as strong as ever. The vast bulk of this thirteen-track LP is magnificent retro music, dirty, sinful, and gritty as befitting the band, the genre, and the label. Sex and drugs and rock and roll are the key themes, with all lyrics sung in Spanish. Guitar, bass, drums, and electric organ provide a super-‘60’s musical vibe, and the lyrics are growled out with filthy menacing glee. Song titles include, “La Gente Es Una Mierda” (People Are Shit), “Soy La Droga” (I’m the Drug), “El Hombre De Dos Cabezas” (The Man with Two Heads), and more. That moral depravity can be fun is on full display. The tracks are nearly universally joyful. And while most of these songs contain varying levels of psych and garage, “No Quiero Crecer” (I Don’t Wanna Grow Up) is less garage and more pop, with a much smoother sound, but still full of a 60s mod feel. “Cumbia Del Dolor” is the only track I couldn’t get into. It’s psych melded with Latino folk, and just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the tracks. Excluding that one, if you’re a fan of 60s garage and psych, you’re going to be ecstatic at the return of Los Peyotes.

PHONY – At Some Point You Stop (Phony Industries, www.phonyindustries.com)

Neil Berthier, late of Donovan Wolfington and current live touring member of Joyce Manor, fronts Phony, a band that focuses on the dreamier and poppier side of music. The dozen tracks are smooth and lush, with melodies that range between indie and pop music, sometimes mixing the genres, sometimes moving into experimental territory. “The Middle” has a melody that could have come from a commercial pop song, but the arrangement is richer and played at a slower tempo, so it has a lovely somber sound. “Summer’s Cold” has the sound of crossing 90’s post-emo music with 2000s pop punk, then smoothing it over to make it dreamier, and it’s a favorite. “Great White” is very different from most of the tracks, with a brighter synth pop sound, though it’s given a great indie rock melody and a dreamy reverb-laden sound. It’s got an incredibly huge breakdown in the middle of the song that changes the character, slowing things down, thickening the arrangement, and adding some shouted vocals. It’s an abrupt, yet very effective transition. There are some cool experimental bits on this album. “Matter of Taste” is a nice short little track, with “illbient” rhythms and samples. Illbient, for those who’ve forgotten, is “ill” music with an ambient vibe – that is, ambient music with a chill hip-hop rhythm. “LA’s Music” is another short track with a sinister rhythm and samples from voice mails urgently telling someone to “wake the fuck up” and “get your ass” to the club. I really like these explorations in sound. “Kaleidoscope” mixes processed piano and deep growling synths, ambient background, and a solemn melody to create quite a lovely song. From what I hear, Phony will be opening for Joyce Manor on their summer tour. I can understand it logistically, but the bands couldn’t be more different. Nevertheless, I enjoy listening to these songs. If you like dreamy post-emo pop, give this a listen.

VARIOUS – Never Erased (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

“Never Erased” is the first in a new series of compilations from Say-10, featuring LGBTQIA artists, with 50% of the profit being donated to the National Center for Transgender Equality. And this sixteen-track comp is going to bust stereotypes when it comes to the sort of music people associate with the LGBTQIA community. It’s an incredibly diverse community, and the music they listen to and play is just as diverse. You won’t hear any thumpa-thumpa EDM on this comp, but you will hear pop punk, hardcore, power pop, indie pop, and more. I’m not going to provide a full track-by-track rundown, even though every track is worthy of mention (and listening!). But here are some notable tracks, both for their quality, and for the surprising variety on display. Dog Park Dissidents’ song, “S*xual,” is outstanding loping pop punk with fantastic lead and gang vocals. I enjoy the melodic hardcore mixed with pop punk from Dead Format and their song “Soho Nights.” Mixtape Saints have a great melodic tune in “Cheap Thrills,” with lead vocals that remind me of Jack Dalrymple, and reverb laden guitars giving the song a sad lonely sound, even as it has a happy bouncy beat. “Mexican Wine,” from Sarah and the Safe Word, is a lovely unexpected indie pop tune, not the usual fare from Say-10. The chamber orchestra arrangement is gorgeous, as are the intertwining melodic lines. Cheerbleederz is another band that would normally not be on a Say-10 release, but the stripped back indie pop on their song, “Dead Oaks,” is heavenly. Ozello’s contribution, “Boy???,” begins as an ethereal song, with plucked guitar, piano, synth, and vocals. Later, the full band comes in and the song transforms into a pretty great pop punk tune. This is only a fraction of the great music contained on this record. It’s a great compilation for a worthy cause, and is highly recommended, for both reasons.

ADULT SCHOOL – No Party (Lavasocks Records, lavasocksrecords.bigcartel.com)

NorCal quartet Adult School’s latest LP is a varied adventure in indie music, ranging from moody to bright, from pop punk to indie pop to post punk. The band is tight but nonchalant, making the songs sound substantial, yet light and effortless. The combination of dark, heavy bass, lighter guitars, and deep gliding vocals on “Lighthead” is slightly reminiscent of Joy Division or early New Order, while the next track, “St. Sebastian,” is very pop punk meets indie rock, with a song about the complex relationship we have with our fathers. It’s the most raucous of the tracks. “Might As Well,” too, has a boisterous sound, with bright chord progressions. There are quiet, introspective songs on this album, too. “Other Smash Hits” is one, going from spare to lush instrumentation, and vocals that blend Michael Stipe with jazz and indie pop styles. And “Celebrity” is a lovely ballad that has the feeling of a modern day “standard,” the sort of song that’s destined to become a classic covered by others. Halfway between the lively and solemn songs are songs such as “Off Day,” a jangly loping track about the ennui of sitting at home doing nothing. And I enjoy the album closer, “Love Loss,” which runs the gamut from subdued indie jangle to full-throated pop punk. The album has some great songs, is varied enough to hold my interest for the full half hour, and comes off as uncomplicated and easy.

EMBLEMS – Everything Is Strange (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

Chicago’s Emblems present an 8-song LP of moody and brooding music. Somber sounding vocals smoothly and softly lie atop reverb-laden guitars. It’s, in a way, Goth-pop. It has the melancholy of Goth, but with somewhat brighter poppier melodies and tempos. It’s like The Smiths meets DC band Strange Boutique, one of the progenitors of the Goth-pop genre back in the late 80s. Guitars flutter and swirl, while synths provide an ambient backdrop. I really like the opening intro track, “LO\/M,” with its ethereal atmospherics, no percussion, just sort of floating out there. It’s, sadly, just a short intro under a minute. But then the album begins in earnest, with the more emphatic “Somewhere Safe.” It’s an alt-rock pounding track that’s been Goth’ed up, creating a unique new sound. Some tracks are lovely lilting indie pop, put through the same treatment to give it a somewhat morose sound. “Virgo” is one such track, with a bright melody and tempo, but even as it tries to put on a lively bouncy face, the reverb and subdued vocals cast a pall over the proceedings. It’s a fascinating effect. “Out to Sea” is an alternative rock track with a 2000s sound, except it, too, has been fed through the same Goth-pop filters, and it’s filled with ghostly synths and reverb effects. There aren’t a lot of bands playing music like this. It’s uniqueness makes for a compelling change of pace.

GENTLEMEN ROGUES – A History of Fatalism (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com / Rocket Heart Records, www.rocketheartrecords.com)

Austin, Texas based Gentlemen Rogues have been making music for over a decade, releasing a number of singles and EPs, but a number of them have never seen vinyl release. Snappy Little Numbers and Rocket Heart Records have teamed up to correct that situation, and “A History of Fatalism” represents the “A History So Repeating” and “Fatal Music” EPs. The band took the opportunity, too, to remix the thirteen songs. Gentlemen Rogues, as I noted in my recent review of their “Fancy” 7” EP, provide a solid mix of power pop and indie rock, but this collection of songs gives us even more variety, ranging from epic emotion-filled songs to harder rocking tunes, along with the power pop and indie rock. There’s a punk ethos overlaying all of it, and the resulting sound is very appealing. Some of the songs are big and broad, with a post-emo sound. The opening track, “Your Armageddon,” fits this category, as does “Pact and Ready to Go.” “Your Armageddon” injects a little bit of pop melody into it, too. “Mocking Love Out of Nothing at All” is a favorite track, loaded with jangling guitars, power pop melody, and charged with emotion. Another favorite is “A Little Respect.” It has both a retro rock and roll feel and a pop punk feel, and the spare arrangement, with powerful vocals and soaring melody makes it a real winner. I really like “Last of the Famous International Playboys,” too, with a mix of Lookout Records era Bay area pop punk and 90s indie pop. “Thin as Thieves” blends power pop with hard rock and indie jangle, creating a powerful mix. And I think that’s a good summary for this record – a powerful mix. Recommended.

TWENTY2 – Dismissed (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

Canadian kings of speedy melodic punk, Twenty2, are back with their third full-length LP, this time out featuring Luke Pabich and Sean Sellers of Good Riddance. While in COVID isolation last year, Twenty2 front man John Génier felt a need to write some songs, and as was the new method, the songs were shared back and forth, parts recorded separately. Génier reached out to his melodic hardcore heroes, who were more than happy to collaborate on the LP. The resulting record sounds like it could have fallen straight through a time warp from the 90s or 2000s, yet it still feels current, too. It’s speedy and melodic, sure, like a lot of skate punk, but some of the songs are even more on the hardcore end of the spectrum, focusing more on the intensity and anger than the melody, and those are my favorites. “Fuck Your Rules” and “Before You Saved Us” remind me of the straight-edge hardcore of the 90s, fast, loud, and full of ire, massive gang vocals, and crunchy metallic guitars. “Adulteen” is a favorite, sounding like they took a Rocket From the Crypt song, sped it up, and turned it hardcore. The lyrics refer to us “lifers” in the scene, getting older, getting snide remarks from others who think we should “act our age” and wear more appropriate clothing. It’s something a lot of us can relate to, and it’s probably my favorite track of the album. “I Know It’s You” alternates between hard raging verses and melodic pop-metallic chorus, and it starts with a fun movie quote from Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko in the film, “Wall Street:” Tell you what, I’ll make you a deal. You stop telling lies about me, and I'll stop telling the truth about you.” One great thing to note, besides how good the songs are, is how tight they are, despite the various parts being recorded separately miles apart. If you’re a fan of melodic hardcore, get on this.

SCREECHING WEASEL – The Awful Disclosures of Screeching Weasel (screechingweasel.bandcamp.com/ Striped Records /Rum Bar Records)

I will preface this with a disclosure: I was a huge Screeching Weasel fan back in the day. From the late ‘80s through the mid ‘90s I went to see them perform live often, sometimes in clubs in Chicago, but mostly in suburban locations such as the famous McGregor’s in Elmhurst and Durty Nellie’s in Palatine. I loved how the band bridged the hardcore of the early 80s and the burgeoning pop punk scene, making the music feel both immediate and accessible. Through controversies and lineup changes, front man Ben Weasel continued to pump out great songs through the early part of the last decade. In 2015, though, Ben and the band seemed to go off the rails a bit with their attempt at a punk rock opera, “Baby Fat Vol. 1,” an album with which I was underwhelmed. That was seven years ago. Two years ago they released “Some Freaks of Atavism,” which was a decent return to form (our fearless editor even put it on his Best of 2020 list). Now comes SW’s fourteenth studio album; did they backslide or have they solidified their return to form? Well, a bit of both, I think. Some of the songs are pretty great pop-filled punk rock music, some even harkening back to their early days with some hardcore in the sound. “Six Ways to Sunday,” the track that opens the album, is a reminder of what made Screeching Weasel the powerhouse of a band they were back in the day. It’s fast and loud, snotty melodic poppy hardcore. And it’s the best track of this new LP. Songs like “Any Minute Now,” "My Favorite Nightmare,” “All Stitched Up,” and “Dead or Alive” are more representative of much of the band’s later output. They’re not quite so edgy or snotty, but they’re still solid pop punk and enjoyable songs in their own right. “My Favorite Nightmare,” for example, feels very smooth and poppy compared to classic Weasel tracks. Sure, it’s formulaic, but it still has a great bounce. But then there are songs that try to be too… arty? Like the songs from “Baby Fat Vol. 1,” they try to be overly cinematic and just don’t sound like Screeching Weasel. They come across as being indulgent and overblown. “In La Quinta del Sordo” is one such song, trying to be a Latinesque punk theme or something. “Gates Lift High Your Heads,” too, tries to sound theatrical and falls flat. Some tracks add keyboards, reportedly performed by Ben’s ten-year-old son. And, while the kid acquits himself quite well, synths do seem out of place in Screeching Weasel songs. Nowhere is this more apparent than “In The Castle,” a dark punk track that’s already out of character for SW’s normally bright sound. The keyboards, while played surprisingly well for a pre-teen, are, nevertheless, ill-suited for SW, and even for a song of this genre. On the other hand, “Hey Diana” has electric organ that feels right at home in the bright and poppy song that feels more like Squirtgun than something from Screeching Weasel. It’s downright happy sounding and it’s a love song! So, as I noted at the start of this review, this album has a couple of great songs, a bunch of good songs, and a handful of songs that we could have done without. It’s a mixed bag for me.

BROKE ROYALS – Local Support (Byrdland Records, shop.byrdlandrecords.com)

Broke Royals hail from Washington, D.C., and “Local Support” is the band’s third full-length LP. There’s a wide variety of songs here, ranging from indie rock to classic rock to AM power pop. Some of it hits the sweet spot, some of it misses the mark. The press materials mention influences ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty, and that’s evident in the songs. Much of the first half of the album has a distinct rock and roll sound, albeit tempered with pop tendencies. The latter half is more influenced by country and folk traditions. The album opens strongly with “Postcard,” a huge epic of a track, the keyboards providing a fanfare-like sound. It’s a glorious and uplifting sound, almost like going to the rock and roll church. The ensuing few tracks sound like songs that could have been lifted from FM radio of the 1980s. On the back half of the LP, “Hardly” is a lovely, quiet ballad that has the feel of singer-songwriter fare, somewhat like a James Taylor tune. And I love the acoustic “Can’t Speak to That,” with a delicate touch and steel pedal guitar providing an ambient backdrop. “Jesus Jane,” too, mixes acoustic singer-songwriter material with a country twang, and the gentle song is packed with passion. “White Flag” and “Go Easy On Me” are two of the big misses, to me. The vocals are heavily processed using effects common in mass-market pop music. The latter, too, has the feel of a country gospel tune, but with pop production qualities. And the title track, which closes the album, uses a vocoder on the lead vocals to give that commercial pop sound, though the melody and use of piano suggest a gospel influence to the tune. Hit or miss here.

THE MORÖNS – The Book of Morön (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords. bandcamp.com)

For some, going to punk shows is their form of spirituality. The Moröns take this a step further with their latest LP, The Book of Morön. Just listen to that sermon on the opening track, “Congregation!” All kidding aside, these whacky Canadian punks are back with a new full-length LP full of variety. Their songs range from speedy skate punk to bubbly pop punk and everything in between. And check out the brilliant parody cover art! I like how a lot of the songs blend speed with late 80s and early 90s pop punk style, and the lyrics are loaded with sarcasm. I’m not a huge fan of modern skate punk, but even when The Moröns do it, they temper it with a lot more pop and a huge dose of their unique humor. Examples of this include “I Wanna Be a Hesher” and “Upgrade to Premium.” “Open Bar” is halfway between skate punk and more “traditional” pop punk, but getting “liquored up for nothing” can be a religious experience for many, and the fun song sings the praises of the titular service at some parties. And “Cable” is a dark jangly song about a troublesome relationship with a woman that doesn’t treat our protagonist very well – but she has cable with HBO! I really like “Southwood,” which reminds me of Youth Brigade’s era of less punk more guitar-pop but mixed with Lookout! Era East Bay pop punk. Vocalist Robbie Morön’s singing is smooth and tuneful, and the bouncy melody has just a hint of epicness. “On the Pil” is a favorite track, speedy as skate punk, but loaded with great 90s pop punk sound rather than metallic flourishes. The band includes an unlikely punk rock cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” the 1980s synth-pop disco hit. Of course, The Moröns’ version is grittier and more raucous, and it turns pap into fun music. This is a solid record.


Spring Summer is the solo project of California performer Jennifer Furches. Under the Spring Summer moniker, Furches plays lovely breezy indie pop, with wistful vocals and lush, yet delicate instrumentals. Those instrumentals are stripped back to just guitar, bass, and drums, with heavy reverb providing the atmosphere. There’s some light use of keyboards too, such as on “QMII,” in the form of electric organ that gives the song an ecclesiastical feeling before resolving into a warm, soulful sound, courtesy of some vibrato. The result is a light, airy album full of celestial songs. That’s a plus and a drawback. On a positive note, the songs are lovely, pretty things. But the drawback is there could be more variety. Many of the songs tend to sound similar to one another. I hear themes of loss and ending relationships through the album. The opening track is an ode to perseverance in the face of loss, with a chorus that includes the lines “I am tough as nails / I am a mountaineer.” You can hear the hurt when Furches sings, “You never knew me with my heart opened wide.” Many people shut down after a painful loss, as evidenced in these lyrics. And there’s “I Told You It’s Over,” a song for taking the initiative in ending a relationship. And “Show Yourself Out,” too, is about the strength to kick someone to the curb. These too songs are the few exceptions to the overall sound, though they don’t deviate too far. “Show Yourself Out” has an earthy dance beat, but the keyboards have a more ethereal quality. And “I Told You It’s Over” is a bit different, too, with a deep, dark sound, the keyboards used primarily for bass ambience. “Bitter Cold” is the other one with a little bit of variation; its keyboards have a high pitched strumming effect that gives it the sound of an ethnic folk tune mixed with pop. I like this record; it’s very pretty, but it’s not going to set the world on fire or anything.

AMONG LEGENDS – Take Good Care (radgirlfriendrecords.com/

Canadian pop punks Among Legends live in that space between melodic hardcore, skate rock, and pop punk, blending sounds of bands like Bad Religion and Face to Face. After a series of EPs, “Take Good Care” is the band’s debut full-length LP. There’s a strong sense of “posi” punk in the songs, with a broad emotional feel. The songs have the melodic hardcore content of Bad Religion, but smoothed and tempered by the pop punk of Face to Face. That’s both the band’s strength and it’s downfall, I think. In some ways, the songs seem to play it too safe, too middle of the road. In other ways, some of the songs are catchy enough. “Come Up Swinging” is one such track, with a harder punch and poppier, bouncier melodic line than others. “Baywatch” is a fiery rager of a sing-along that’s sure to open up the pit at live shows. And “Manifesto” lives up to its name, with a big pub-rock sound and charged up lyrics. The rest of the tracks are fine enough, and the band are more than proficient. But even in punk rock, middle of the road doesn’t generate the level of excitement one would want.

THE SLOW DEATH – Casual Majesty (radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Jesse Swan Thorson and his rotating cast of band members return with their first full-length album in five years, their fourth overall. While the lineup keeps changing, one thing remains consistent, and that’s the Midwest emotional pop punk sound that Thorson has honed and perfected over the last several years. Joining Thorson on this outing are Paddy Costello (Dillinger Four), Mikey Erg (The Ergs! and too many other bands to mention), Dan Johnson, Dave Strait, and Josh Goldman (The Raging Nathans, The Dopamines, and Rad Girlfriend boss). The songs have a big sound and heart-on-your sleeve lyrics that provide a winning combination. And the band provides diversity, too, with songs both restrained and rambunctious. The album opens with “Is There Anything Left,” a somber song that asks, “Is there anything left that will make me feel like I felt yesterday?” You can hear the loss, the desire to numb the pain. Right after that, “Now I’m Into Nothing” is 180 degrees, a fast paced track with a gloriously raucous sound, guitars jamming in the background and electric organ providing the warm soulfulness to the song. One thing of note throughout many of the songs is the surf guitar tone. These aren’t surf punk tunes, but the guitar tone makes a strong contribution to the thick sound The Slow Death have. “Imaginary Problems” is one of my favorite songs of the album. It has the classic Slow Death big epic sound with a hint of Hüsker Dü influence. Guest vocals from Lydia Loveless really add to the song. “Young Trees” is another favorite that the band has been playing for a while, and previously was released on the “Nice One” four-way split EP that Rad Girlfriend released last year. The epic song relays the fatalist sentiment of doom the current generation, with Thorson’s gritty vocals singing, “We are the young trees waiting for the axe to fall.” The melody is pretty minimalist, with a few licks that repeat, but it’s effective at conveying the feeling that, while everything going to shit is inevitable, we might as well, make the best of it. I enjoy the punked doo-wop vibe of “I’m Not Letting It Go,” and the Americana-punk of “Not Much for Waiting.” Hell, I like all the tracks, and you will, too. The Slow Death have been at it for over a decade, and thankfully show no signs of dying quite yet.

VISTA BLUE – Stay Gold (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)

Vista Blue is one of the most prolific pop punk bands today, cranking out multiple releases per year. They’re also one of the most creative pop punk bands today, with releases all centering on a common theme, whether it be a holiday, a season, or movie genres. This latest full-length LP may be their most ambitious yet, delving into a popular film by Francis Ford Coppola. There’s a scene in which two characters are on the run from the law and one reads a Robert Frost poem to the other, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Yep, all of the songs on this album are inspired by “The Outsiders.” Each song centers on a quote from the novel. For example, “Paul Newman and a Ride Home” comes from a scene at the movie house, and the quote, “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” “She’s a Soc” refers to the class distinctions highlighted in the novel, and the quote, “We’re poorer than the Socs and the middle class. I reckon we’re wilder, too… I’m not saying either Socs or greasers are better; that’s just the way things are.” The song “Cherry” is about the character, Cherry Valance.” There’s a song about the rumble and another about being out in the country. Of course, Vista Blue has one of the most recognizable sounds in pop punk, with their distinctive deep buzzy guitar tone and harmonized vocals. That’s on display here, in spades. A couple songs stand out, though as a little different for Vista Blue. “We Turn It Up” is harder and edgier, reminding more of a cross between 80s hardcore-metal crossover music and 80s Chicago punk. It has a big, tough sound. “Marcia” is less buzzy and janglier, more of an indie pop tune than pop punk, with a cleaner sound. Vista Blue are always a good listen, and they’re probably one of the cleverest bands around. It can’t be easy writing all these themed songs and records.

CAMP TRASH – The Long Way, The Slow Way (Count Your Lucky Stars, cylsrecords.com)

Following up last year’s debut EP, Florida’s Camp Trash return with their debut full-length. The band start with 90s indie-rock and take it to the next level, with plenty of pop punk goodness blended in. Listening to the opening track, “Mind Yr Own,” I hear the indie influence of bands like Superchunk, but also the brilliant pop punk of PUP, though very much toned down from the manic sounds of that band. It’s especially evident in the big unison gang vocals and the lead vocal quality. Songs like “Pursuit” have thick, lush guitars and pleading lead vocals. There’s jangle in the guitars, but also a mixing of dreaminess and big wall of sound. “Weird Florida” brings the 90s jangle in spades and lots of poppy bounciness blended with broad smooth arrangements. The keyboards inject a sense of lightness, even as the big chorus lends a sense of gravity. “Lake Erie Boys” adds a thick electric organ to the arrangement, giving it a warm sense of nostalgia. Favorite song: “Church Bells,” a gorgeous song about aging, drifting away from friends, not going out, and self-isolating. The huge guitars ring out like, well, bells, and there’s a sorrowful feeling of introspection. While the debut EP was good, this LP is outstanding.

THE DREADNOUGHTS – Roll and Go (Stomp Records, stomprecords.com)

The PR materials called Vancouver’s The Dreadnoughts “polka punks.” But they’re so much more than that. I like their Facebook page description much better: “World-core Clusterfolk.” The band uses all sorts of ethnic music traditions and folk idioms and punks them up, creating something varied and fun as hell. Fiddle, mandolin, accordion, and other traditional instruments mix with electric guitar, bass, and drums in an Old World meets New World mélange. After an introduction singing the praises of the cider jar to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is “Cider Holiday,” a raucous Celtic punk tune in the tradition of The Pogues or Flogging Molly. Cider seems to be a particularly favorite topic for the band, as they also have another song, “Scrumpy-O,” a song that mixes Celtic and punk, but leans much more heavily on the punk side of things. Scrumpy, for those who don’t know, is a type of rough cider that’s particularly popular in the West Country in England. “Dusty Ground” is another big Celtic Punk tune, a dark sounding jig with enormous presence. Several of the songs have a strong Eastern European folk base, including “Problem,” which mixes in a dose of ska punk to create a boisterous monstrosity of enjoyment. “Tuika,” too, is unmistakably Eastern European/Russian, with violins taking the melody of this instrumental, along with shouts of “Hoi! Hoi!” from men who would presumably be dancing one of those flashy Russian dances. Maritime shanty songs offer fertile ground for The Dreadnoughts, too. “Brisbane Harbour” is the sort of shanty you might have heard aboard a working ship as the hands work the ship’s sails and prepare to push out to sea. “Bold Reilly,” on the other hand, is a gorgeous traditional a cappella song with multi-part harmony and a melancholy feel. It’s a song of farewell, as Bold Reilly prepares to set sail and leave his love. “The Storm” is a fascinating track that seems to mix everything together into a musical melting pot. I hear Eastern European, Celtic, and shanty themes in this epic track. The title track that ends the LP, too, mixes traditional folk with some Eastern European touches and metallic punk, and is a phrase used in shanties to refer to trimming the sails to get some serious speed in the open sea. It’s a song of brotherhood, too, as it sings “I’ve never known a better bunch of bully-lads than you.” The only real polka punk track, as far as I can tell, is “Vicki’s Polka.” It’s a lively one, though it begs comparison to Polkacide, the best polka punk band ever. The Dreadnoughts seem to play it more on the polka side and less on the punk than Polkacide. Nevertheless, this is a rambunctious album that’s a hell of a lot of fun.

GHOST WOMAN (Full Time Hobby Records, fulltimehobby.co.uk)

For the most part, Ghost Woman’s self-titled LP is what I would term “neo-psychedelic” music. It has a super-chill vibe that would feel right at home in the psych scene of the 60s and 70s. The songs are understated and hazy, with guitar, bass, and drums, the latter played with a light tough. Heavy reverb and a slower tempo add to the hypnotic feel. Vocals are extra relaxed, singing to the groove through the album. This theme reaches its height with “Jreaming,” a song that’s so laid-back as to seem to come from that place where you’re half asleep and half awake. The vocals feel almost like sleep talking, and the instrumentals are at their cloudiest. “Dead and Gone,” though still exhibiting all the aforementioned characteristics, is, nonetheless, a little bit edgier than most of the tracks, the guitars getting a bit aggressive between verses, making it a standout. The last two tracks are way different from the rest, and are the best of the album. “Good,” the penultimate song, is a gorgeous song with a lovely lounge feel, while “Comes On” ends the album on an acoustic note with a dusty western folk flair. This is a pretty unique record, as there aren’t a lot of bands playing this sort of music these days. At least not quite like this. Very relaxing.

TOWNIES – Meet the Townies! (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

A long time ago there were punk bands before they were trying to be “punk.” Bands that took the rock and roll aesthetic and turned it on its head. Townies, a band from the south of Colorado, are a modern version of such a band, caring little about what genre lanes bands are supposed to stay in. Their music isn’t the fast’n’loud raucous stuff that punk became; it’s more influenced by power pop, surf, and garage, in the same way as early bands such as The Dead Kennedys were. The songs are edgy while remaining melodic, raw while still retaining a sense of cohesiveness and immediacy. Between the two instrumental bookends of “Western Intro” and “Western Intro (Outro Version),” we get songs that cover topics both political and social, injecting a wry sense of humor in the lyrics. The very first song after the intro, “Hooray,” is a declaration of crimes of America, from slavery to using atomic weapons, from white supremacy to wars of convenience, and to the encouragement of debt and endless work to pay it off. As I mentioned, Townies give a bit middle finger to the genre police with their country-folk number, “TX Weeds,” a song about conservatives from Texas who cross the border into Colorado to buy legal weed. A highlight comes in the middle of the song, “Do Something,” an anthem about the wide political divide, armchair activists, and hypocrisy. Vocalist Suzanne Magnuson, launches into an admonishment aimed at those who claim to care about life, yet don’t care about the environment (the life of the planet), don’t care about the lives of immigrants, or the lives of school children who get shot on a regular basis in this country. I disagree with the premise of “Jazz is for Assholes,” a tirade against various musicians of the genre, but it’s still a raw fist puncher of a tune that praises the glories of rock and roll. I enjoy, too, the song “COP!” that tells the tale of the high school kid who failed his math tests, worshipped cops, and never had a girl friend yet was always bragging about “pussy.” The kid tried to join the military but failed the piss test, then became a cop as soon as he graduated, and spends his time cleaning graffiti and “looking for signs of trouble.” In an ironic twist, despite including a song titled “I Don’t Like the Beatles,” in which they describe how much they despise the popular UK pop group, they have a cover on the album: George Harrison’s “I Got My Mind Set On You.” It’s a reasonably faithful rendition, though, of course, with a raw garage rock sound. Townies’ debut LP is destined to become a classic.

ART D’ECCO – After the Head Rush (Paper Bag Records, paperbagrecords.com)

Glam rock performer Art D’Ecco’s follow-up to last year’s “In Standard Definition” is here, and that makes for happy listening. The music has a glorious mix of 80s new wave, power pop, and 70s glam with bits of funk in some tracks. As I mentioned in my review of the previous LP, I’m reminded of a mix of David Bowie and Bill Nelson, two excellent artists. Keyboards, synths, and sax mix with guitar, bass, and drums, and D’Ecco’s sensuous vocals ooze with mysterious romanticism. All the tracks are fun for fans of these genres, but I’ll mention of few of my highlights. The mix of smooth new wave and a super-funky bass and drumbeat on “I Was A Teenager” makes it a standout. The vocals get pretty freaky on the bridge, too. I love the loping feel and gliding and glittering synths on “Get Loose,” with its striding bass. The vibe on “Run Away” is a bit reminiscent of “A Swingin’ Safari,” the 60s tune that was used as the theme song for the original “Match Game” TV show, particularly because of the use of a flute to play the opening lines. The interviewing synths on “SAD Light Disco” are strongly reminiscent of Bill Nelson’s solo material (and I’m a long-time Nelson fan). And the closing track, which is also the title track, uses a lovely circle of fifths chord change pattern in the jangly guitars that makes it an instant favorite. The chords are played back by synths tuned to sound like a horn section, giving the song an appropriately anthemic quality. Enjoyable!

HAUNTED SUMMER – Whole (LaunchLeft, www.launchleft.com/label)

Haunted Summer is the Los Angeles husband and wife team of Bridgette Eliza Moody and John Seasons, and the name is appropriate. The music is light like a summer’s day, with haunting dreamy qualities. The songs tend to feel like a melding of easy listening music, 70s psych, and dream pop, with a hazy, relaxed feel. There’s a filmy smokiness enveloping the vocals, as synths create a sense of mystery and an almost orchestral feel. It’s all a little too…Burt Bacharach AM radio meets elevator music for me. There’s even a hint of Brazilian soft samba, as if Jobim began writing what used to be called “adult contemporary” music – easy pop songs. “You Put My Love Out the Door” is a perfect example of that. But there are a couple tracks I enjoy. The title track seems to be influenced, at least in part, by “Dark Side of the Moon” era Pink Floyd. It’s definitely got that spacey acid rock feel. Toward the end of the track, multi-tracking creates an enormous spine-tingling choir. And “Big Knife” is pretty indie-pop, but dreamier, played at a more leisurely of a pace. The song definitely has a bounce to it, and I can hear this song being part of the repertoire of classic indie pop bands of the 90s, like Tsunami, but without the reverb. The guitars actually jangle, and the melody is bright. Other than these two songs, the album really doesn’t do much for me.

KRIS N. – Tilted Summer (Poptek Records, www.poptek.com)

The ultimate in DIY bedroom recordings, Kris N. returns with a new EP of stripped back pop punk songs. The recordings are not quite as lo-fi as earlier efforts, but not as clean as 2013’s “The Thankful Parade” LP. This new five-song EP is halfway between his solo material and the filled out band of the “The Thankful Parade.” It’s punkier and grungier than previous releases, the opening track (“Pop Music Is Hard”) sounding like a demo for a 90s Seattle band. I like the march-like quality of “This Land Is My Land” (no relation to the Woody Guthrie anthem), with a drum (or is it a drum machine?) and the guitar creating the sound of a chugging train. “Leo the Lion” is the fullest sounding song of the EP, and is a true pop punk song. It should have been the closer for the EP, because it’s got the biggest sound. The actual ending track, the title track, is a return to solo acoustic and, though the song is pretty, with just acoustic guitar and vocals (both multi-tracked), it doesn’t have the oomph of the previous track. I can tell Kris N. is doing this for the love of the music. The EP sounds very personal and intimate, even with a thicker sound than most of his work (not counting the title track).

THE LAST ARIZONA – Forever and Always (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)

The Last Arizona is the solo project of Emma Hartman, and has been ongoing since 2016. After a series of EPs and singles, Hartman released her debut full-length LP last fall, and has followed that up with a pair of EPs, this being the second. “Forever and Always” has a quiet, intimate, and ultimately sad sound. The electric guitar, bass, drums, and synths are mostly subdued, and Hartman’s vocals are angst-filled. I love the opening track, “S15E7,” which starts off very restrained and understated, but halfway through the track the instrumentals begin to swell, and the song gets huge. The sadness is palpable, even as Hartman’s vocals explode with passion. “August” has more than a touch of Americana, with bluesy guitar twang and lyrics of self-doubt and hurt. The title track is the shortest, but is, perhaps, the most painful, with menacing guitars playing lines that get more and more chaotic, while Hartman speaks to bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts over the hatred she faces on a daily basis just for being who she is as a trans woman, but ultimately she says she “will still stand sure and unafraid, forever and always, love Emma.” This is a powerful understated EP.

SPYGENIUS – Jobbernowl (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Canterbury band Spygenius return with another LP chock full of retro mod-psych-pop sounds. From the get-go, Spygenius turns up full-blast with the punny track, “I Dig Your New Robes, Pierre,” a reference to the French revolutionary. The music is bright, with a strong 60s mod/psych sound, and the lyrics are brilliantly written, with labyrinthine rhymes. Many of the songs inject a dose of Motown soulfulness, such as “Sky-Pie, Century 21” and especially “Screwy.” “Screwy” is a fun track that melds R&B with 60s Brit-pop and mod sounds, is a song that looks back at the start of love and the looking forward of where time might take the relationship. It’s a reminder to not take love for granted, but also that “life’s more fun with a few explosives.” “2020 Revision” has a lighter musical touch, but a heavier lyrical burden. It references the difficulties we’ve all faced since 2020 and the loss of friends to a virus. Chief lyricist Peter Watts says the song is an ode to grief and loss. “Once upon a time I had a lovely friend who had this extraordinary positivity about him that was quite unlike anything I’d known… it was a delight and it was really infectious… and then he was gone, in an instant. There was a virus going round, as the saying goes… so…,” he writes, as a reminder to “keep alive the spirit of that all too brief, precious friendship.” “So of the Morning, Go Man Go!” is another song of loss and grief, but this time of a pet. The song, though, rather than being morose and weepy, is a bright celebration of the bond we have with pets, and the way they make all the troubles of the world melt away and seem insignificant in the wordless bond we have. I love the bright “The Marvelous, Mendacious Time Machine,” a bouncy song with a lovely light touch that speaks to the dark side of nostalgia. Those who wish for a time machine to revisit simpler times often forget the grisly nature of those past eras. The song has a humorous dig, too, at Rupert Murdock’s right-wing empire, as it references HG Wells’ book, “The Time Machine,” when it says, “We’ll be Eloi to the Murdocks while they sneer and jeer,” replacing the evil Morlocks with the evil Murdocks. The song ends with synthesized sound effects that bring Doctor Who to mind, another time travel allusion. Spygenius provide yet another varied and beautiful record.

CAMICHES (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

Camiches, hailing from Mexico City, is Wiretap’s first non-English signing, as the band sing all of their songs in Spanish. They have been around the better part of a decade, and this self-titled record is their Wiretap debut. They play big broad emotional music, inspired by the melodic punk of the 2000s, but you can hear touches of post-hardcore and even Mexican folk music in the songs, creating a unique style they call “feeling core.” You can hear this on the poignant, “Durmiendo En El Camino” (Sleeping in the Street). Camiches’ Sinuhé López says of the song that it’s about “adolescence from the perspective of a middle-aged adult.” It’s about not just the freedom and joy of youth, but also the struggle and search for meaning and direction. The song has an easy loping tempo, a big broad melody, and impassioned vocals. The opening track, “Al Ocaso” (At Sunset) probably has the highest “punk” content, with the most raucous guitars, and “El Jardin Oculto” (The Hidden Garden) is the poppiest though it includes a tough metallic breakdown about halfway through, then gets smooth and epic. If you’re a fan of 2000s emo with a twist, check this out. The genre isn’t one of my favorites, but Camiches do a good job here at keeping things varied.

COLLEEN DOW – Inside Voices (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)

Solo indie-pop, featuring Colleen Dow, the front-person for Thank You I’m Sorry. The music is laden with keyboards, along with drums (or drum machine in some cases) and guitars. After releasing several singles, “Inside Voices” is Dow’s first proper EP. The songs are fairly stripped back indie-pop, with Dow’s deadpan vocals. Some have a bit of bounce, such as “Bummer Summer,” a song about being in and bored on a Friday night when you should be out having a good time. “Childhood Home” has a hypnotic quality, droning synths providing a base, and other synths swirling between chords. It’s somewhat different from the rest of the tracks and from other indie pop for that matter, with a unique texture. And “Redline” is the liveliest of the tracks, with jangly guitars and bright percussion effects. This is a pleasant, understated EP.

FAILING UP – Stories of a Disturbed Mind (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com

) It would be easy to label Failing Up as just another melodic punk band, but that would be selling them short. Sure, they play punk rock loaded with melodic content and metallic tinges, like so many other bands, but they mix in a dose of post hardcore, too, making the songs particularly aggressive. The opening track, “Fry My Mind,” is a perfect example of this, with a tough and energetic sound, only slightly tempered with melodic content. “Parasite,” too, has a great mix of tunefulness and grit. Additionally, some of the songs have more than their share of bright poppiness, giving them a bit of a Descendents sound. “Not Today” is a great example of this; it’s a crackling punk tune with enough pop content to bring out a joyful sound. Then there are songs like “Bully,” which has a more standard dark melodic punk sound, complete with flashy guitar licks and all. Vocalist Tanya Delgado shows great versatility, equally at home with melodic singing and hardcore shouts. The rest of the band are tight and show their flexibility, too, easily moving between subgenres. If you like the melodic punk sound, check this out, because it’s less generic and more fun than most.

HANDHELD – A Canadian Tragedy (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

Let’s face it, skate punk can be pretty generic. When I see a band described as being “skate punk,” I gird myself for some stale stuff that sounds just like a million other bands. That’s not the case with Handheld, an Ontario band that was primarily active from 1998 to 2008. After a ten-year hiatus, the band reunited to play some shows, and then the pandemic hit. So what did they do? They decided to record a new LP. They’re back with their sixth full-length LP, and their first since reuniting. Skate punk is typically identified by its fast tempo, close vocal harmonies, metallic licks, and double-time rhythm section with regular time guitars and vocals. Do Handheld play this style of music? Yes. But rather than stay strictly to formula, like so many bands, Handheld dispense with the metal and add in a heavy dose of pop melody. It makes the songs feel brighter and, well, more fun than typical skate punk. There is an irreverence to Handheld, too. The band have a tribute to Canadian legend John Candy on the album, too, called “Leaving Candyland.” And they have songs with titles such as “The Log Driver’s Waltz” and “Life of a Hitman.” The joy comes through in the playing, too, with snotty vocals and the feeling that you’re in on the gag. If you’re a fan of the genre, check this out, because it’ll open your ears to how good it can be and how boring the much of the music you’ve been listening to is.

THE INFLORESCENCE – Remember What I Look Like (Kill Rock Stars, killrockstars.com)

I get annoyed when I get great new albums from bands and then find out they’re from my adopted home town and I’ve never heard of them. The Inflorescence is from San Diego, and yup, I was completely unfamiliar with them prior to receiving this. I guess I have an excuse: the band is still very new, having only been around for the past couple of years, and they changed their name from The Florescents to The Inflorescence. Add to this the fact that they’re just teenagers, with ages ranging from 15 to 18 years old, and that this is the bands debut full-length LP, it’s all the more remarkable. The nine songs presented show a strong maturity, blending lovely indie pop with raucous pop punk to create compelling music. The songs are exuberant, with passionate and harmonized vocals. The band members are masters of dynamic control, too. You’ve read my complaints about some bands that can’t seem to play anything but one volume level or tempo, but The Inflorescence certainly don’t have any issues there. While most songs are mid tempo or up tempo, “So Much of Nothing” has a slower pace, but a huge dynamic range, going from a quiet tune to huge, thick, and lush. “Last Week” is a sure favorite, beginning with delicate gorgeous vocals over gently raucous guitars. The high-pitched rapid strumming in places reminds me of mandolin. As the song evolves, it gets bigger, turning into a big sing-along, pop punk style, the kind of song where you and all your friends crowd to the front of the stage, arms around each other and fists in the air. From what I can make out of the lyrics, it seems to be a song about breaking up and learning to live independently. “You’re not the same person I hurt last week,” the song declares. “Is your heart still beating the way I thought it did?” it asks. And it declares that I’m “finding my way without you.” Usually these sorts of songs are written from the perspective of the person being dumped, but the turnabout here is interesting, and it’s both touching and inspirational. The closing track, “Board Game,” bares painful emotions about navigating a relationship. As the song opens, we hear the sounds of texting back and forth, and the vocals come in, “I can’t keep trying / To figure out how I won’t get hurt / You seem not to care / So why should I care about you?” The song has a desperate pleading quality to it, and you can feel the hurt and confusion in it. This is an outstanding debut LP.

A VULTURE WAKE – Kingdom (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

A Vulture Wake, if you’ve been living under a rock, was founded as a supergroup made up of Chad Price (ALL, Drag the River), Joe Raposo (RKL), Sean Sellers (Good Riddance, Downcast), and Brandon Landelius (Authority Zero). The band went through some lineup changes over its short life, interrupted by the pandemic, and now includes John Hernandez and Dave Klein. But their sound is as big and tight as ever. The best way to describe A Vulture Wake is “progressive punk.” You can hear the punk rock roots, especially 1990s melodic punk, but the arrangements are intricate and complex, like progressive rock of the 70s. The blend of melodic punk and progressive rock creates something unique, interesting, and exciting. The guitar lines and solos on the opening track, “Virus,” rival those of any of the big mega-popular bands of 40 years ago, but Price’s passionate vocals and the lyrical content keep it feeling present and intimate. The EP includes some metallic flashes, too, but nothing off-putting (I’m not a metal fan, particularly). And there are some bouts of ALL-like angularity. “Moths” is the track that really grabs my attention the most, and is my favorite of the EP. I love the shifting rhythms, the edgy post-hardcore and mathish feel, and the use of guitar harmonics and the angularity of the intervals in the guitar lines are amazing. Six songs, sixteen minutes, infinite enjoyment.

EXTRA ARMS – What Is Even Happening Right Now? (Forge Again Records, www.forgeagainrecords.com)

If you read my reviews regularly, you know I love power pop and pop punk, and Detroit’s Extra Arms are experts at blending the two genres, and sprinkling in a bit of glam for good measure. The band’s latest LP is their best yet, with ten strong tracks, a thick rich sound, and a glorious upbeat feeling. The title is a question a lot of us have been repeatedly asking each other for the past several years, as life seems to spin out of control. Front man Ryan Allen belts out the vocals like his life depended on it, with passion and fury. The album starts out strongly, with “Fun Guy,” a poppy song about working on self-improvement, mental health, and not giving up. After a few bleeps from the synths, the song explodes with epic guitars and Allen’s impassioned declarations, as if he’s trying to convince himself, rather than anyone listening. The retro glam sounds are particularly strong on of “Feeling Alright,” a song that lopes at a slower tempo, and “Click Wars,” a quicker paced bouncy tune. “Vulnerabilities” is a favorite, with more of a 90s indie rock sound. The rolling guitar lines and driving rhythm give it the feel of a train powering down the tracks, and like other tracks the lyrics speak to working on one’s mental health, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. “Life in a Cube” has a great bounce and dark indie rock sound, and there’s even a bit of ALL-like poppy angularity tossed in. “Denial” is a powerful driving track with a cinematic flavor, like it could be used in a movie soundtrack for some sort of edgy thriller. Every single track on this album is a good one, making this a candidate for my best of 2022 list.

GONE STEREO – Don’t Think I Forgot About You (Negative Progression, negativeprogressionrecords. bandcamp.com)

New Long Island melodic punk band Gone Stereo have joined up with a relaunched Negative Progression Records for their debut single. The band plays 2000s style melodic pop punk, loaded with hooks and harmonies. The A-side is the title track, and it’s sort of a middle finger to an ex. It’s up-tempo and bright sounding, with lyrics that assures said ex “That I no longer feel lost without you” and “I’m better off without you.” On the bridge, the huge vocal harmonies soar, giving a sense of freedom and exhilaration. The B-side is “Taste of This,” and it’s more of a mid-tempo track, telling a different story, one that seems to be closer in time to the break-up. After relating memories of “Driving down the 495 and I’ve got the radio blasting with all our favorite songs / With no place in mind, right by my side,” the plea in the chorus comes: “Could you please just, could you please just change your mind? / Cause I don’t think I’m making it out of this time.” The breakup seems fresh and raw. Fans of MxPx, The Ataris, and similar bands will dig this well-played material.

THE INTERESTS – "Feel The Disparity" 7 inch  (theinterests.co.uk)

The young indie band from London return with their third single, and it’s their lightest and poppiest yet. Their debut, “Attention,” was dark and solemn, with buzzing distorted guitars. The follow-up, “Capitulation,” had a cleaner sound, and while the instrumentals felt brighter, the vocals still cast a melancholy shadow. This latest song, though, is lighter and brighter. Even the deep vocals have more of a sense of joy in them. It’s a good song for indie fans, but I think I like the darker songs better.

LIVING ROOM – New Years (Fear Icon Records, feariconrecords.bandcamp.com)

This latest LP from long-time Brooklyn quartet Living Room is a bit uneven to my ears. The band attempt to blend emo, shoegaze, a bit of grunge, and a bit of pop punk, with some degree of success, though some of the songs fail to generate the excitement and strong emotion I would expect from such a combination. The music is mostly broad, with some grunge-like melodic lines and gritty guitars, but also with loads of hazy reverb and smoothed vocals. The tempos, more often than not, tend to drag, and some of the arrangements are overly grandiose – too epic of a sound. Many of the songs remind me of 2000s emo-pop, but with a gauziness laid on top of it. One exception stands out somewhat. “Mauve Frame” is more raucous than many of the tracks, with a bit quicker pace to the tempo. Even then, though, the smooth unemotional vocals feel out of place among the bristling guitars, particularly on the chorus. I do like the melody of “Flood,” a dreamier track that follows “Mauve Frame” and contrasts starkly with it. It’s got a calmer feel, like floating down a big wide river. There are moments where the grunge tries to break through, but overall this is a very pretty song – though the vocals still don’t do the song justice. Much of the time the intros show more promise than the songs deliver. “Oh Boy” starts with drums and a jangly guitar, then lead guitar comes in with a staccato line, and I think we’re in for something different, more restrained and poppy – but instead we get another overblown emo-pop song. The album includes the obligatory acoustic ballad, in this case “Moon Room.” But what should be a wistful introspective song falls flat, the vocals feeling uncommitted. Probably the best, most cohesive song of the album is “Muss,” a song with gorgeous dreamy electric guitars and no percussion. The vocals seem right at home on this one, as it seems to waft and drift. I think this one has to be my favorite song of the album. The idea of mixing dreaminess with grunge, pop, and emo is a good one, and I think having a bit more commitment in the vocals would go a long way to improving these songs.

PANDA RIOT – Extra Cosmic (pandariot.bandcamp.com)

A lot of music categorized as “shoegaze” tends to be morose in nature, but Panda Riot sounds downright joyful. It combines pretty indie pop melodies with sparkly synths and angelic vocals. “E.S.P.” is a particular fun one, with a bouncy indie pop melody, Stereolab-like minimalist synths, and a strong driving feel. It’s got the same sort of deep fuzz bass line as Stereolab, and the same sort of Krautrock minimalism in the rhythm section, but the melody is pure pop goodness. It’s a combination that works surprisingly well. “Ultramarine” is the closest the band gets to a more wistful dreamy sound, but even then, the poppiness comes through in the heavenly radiant vocals. The synths and fuzzed guitars blend together to create a gorgeous haze that engulfs the song and listener alike. I really like “Remote Viewing,” which injects an EDM sort of dance beat, adding another layer to the already multifaceted music. “Telepathic Landscapes” is an instrumental right out of a dream, and a glorious one, at that. It shimmers, waxes, and wanes, with a beautiful glow. “Glitterati” is appropriately titled, with its glittery synths, but it also includes grungy guitars to provide an interesting contrast, and an enveloping ambience of synths. And one of my favorites has to be “Future Shock.” It’s got an incredible radiance in the synths and the most buoyant of melodies, and is one of the most cheery pieces of music you’re likely to hear all month. This is dazzling stuff.

SACK – Ripper! (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Sack, Kody Templeman’s side project that he formed after The Lillington’s went on hiatus twenty or so years ago, is back. Everyone thought it was a “one off,” with a single LP released in 2005 (“Get Wrecked”). But they reunited during the pandemic and released an EP called “Live in Quarantine.” Now they’ve got another proper album, twelve songs of no bullshit punk rock. Well, maybe some bullshit is involved, because, although the music is pounding and relentless in a Motorhead sort of way, the lyrics are, shall we say, less intense and serious. So we get songs like the pummeling metallic track, “I Hate the Beach Boys.” We get a crunchy dirge called “The Return of Mr. Bong.” “I Tried Suicide” has an appropriately dark sound, dueling guitars playing mysterious sounding lines over a tribal drumbeat, and lyrics about the different ways of attempting to off one’s self (don’t try that at home, kids!). “Live, Laugh, LARP” is a crackling punk rock ode to nerding out to role-playing games on a Saturday night. And the album closes with an epic metal track called “Staple of the Stoner House.” There’s nothing ground breaking here, and it’s not the sort of record I would seek out for myself, but if you’re looking for a hard rocking party punk album, this one will work better than most.

SETH TIMBS – Easy Answers (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

If you’re a fan of piano-based power pop with a Joe Jackson sort of vibe, this is a record for you. Seth Timbs, the Nashville singer-songwriter who has played with Fluid Ounces and Hot New Singles has been doing some solo work the last few years, playing songs that have a sense of the theatrical in them, and even a bit of jazz and funk, kind of like 70s and 80s TV show music. He has a wry sense of humor, too, commenting on our political divide with the opening track, “Easy Answers.” “The world is full of easy answers / Just pick the ones that you like best / And all the other easy answers / Are wrong, wrong, they got it all wrong, despite what the experts say,” the song opens, commenting on the confirmation bias that plagues society. There are references to “brainless sheep,” an accusation made by the most ardent followers of baseless conspiracy theories against more rational thinking people. The music is simple, with piano, bass, and drums, but it hops and skips brightly. There’s even a sad ballad in the form of “What’s Wrong with You?” With impassioned vocals, lounge piano, and even a small string section, the song is absolutely lovely. I adore the retro “Young Lovers,” which sounds like a cross between 70s power pop and modern Americana, and I think the bright piano, acoustic guitar, and darker vocals (including chilling backing vocals) contribute to that sound. At a mere seven songs, though, Timbs leaves me wanting more.

VENOMOUS PINKS - Vita Mors (SBÄM Records, sbam-rocks.us)

A year on from their fantastic EP, “Based on a True Story,” Mesa, Arizona’s Venomous Pinks return with their debut full-length LP (which includes fresh recordings of three of the four songs from the EP). The production quality on this LP is vastly higher than the raw recordings of the EP, giving the band more of a Bad Cop/Bad Cop sound. This is easily explained because BC/BC bassist Linh Le has co-producer credits here. The songs are raucous punk with a big sound, plenty of melody, and just the right amount of snotty attitude in the vocals. The album starts strong and goes at full speed for the entire ten tracks, without letting up. It’s hard to pick “best” tracks, because every single one is strong, but there are a few that are top of mind. “We Do It Better” is a highlight, a bright upbeat song that celebrates the abilities of women to do more than suffer in “traditional” roles. It begins with a vocal quote from “Annie Get Your Gun” - “Anything you can do, I can do better!” - and the song launches into a speedy poppy punk tune. I love one of the opening lyrics, “You gotta be a housewife,” with a gang vocal response of, “Fuck that!” It even has a short ska punk break toward the end. Another highlight is “I Really Don’t Care,” probably the most BC/BC-like song of the album. Its irreverent attitude, call and response vocals, and huge multi-voice harmonies make the song a real standout of the LP. “Hold On” is a bouncy poppy track that I really like. It’s incredibly inspirational, exhorting us to “work hard, play harder every day,” and declaring that “you’ll never have to walk alone.” The Venomous Pinks philosophy, in a nutshell, is contained in this song, when the band tells us, “Alright. You’ve got one life. One chance. Always do your best. Stand for what you believe in. You’re much stronger than you think. When you really want it, you are unstoppable. Hold on to what your heart speaks.” It’s also encapsulated in “Todos Unidos,” one of the songs that appeared on the EP. It’s a powerful, raging hardcore track of unity. Way to ace the debut LP!

BREAKLIGHTS – Wind Down (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

After releasing a handful of singles and EPs, Austin, Texas pop punk band Breaklights is finally releasing their debut full-length LP. Like on their EP I previously reviewed, the songs on the LP blend poppy punk melodies, smooth tuneful vocals, and raucous edgy guitars. Breaklights are definitely influenced by the pop punk bands of the 90s, but they make it their own with some modern touches. I enjoy the striding feel of “When You Talk,” a song that, though it’s mid-tempo, feels like it’s swiftly moving along, like a maglev train gliding above the track. “Aging Well” is a standout, not just for sounding different from the rest of the songs – it’s acoustic – but also for its emotional content. For us “older” folks, it’s something we can relate to, looking back and reflecting on a life poorly spent: “with dreams forgotten we’ve all gone rotten,” as the song says at its conclusion. “Sixty Five” is another favorite, with its big chords and a grand feel; I particularly love the chord progression in the intro. “Fairview 1991,” though, might be my favorite of the LP. It’s slower and more introspective than the rest, a song that seems to touch on childhood issues of dealing with a broken family, disappointment, and feelings of abandonment. This LP has not changed my mind about Breaklights – they’re a band you should listen to.

THE ROUTES – Twang Machine (Topsy Turvy Records, soundflatrecords.de/topsy-turvy-records-releases)

What would have happened had Kraftwerk picked up guitars instead of synthesizers? What if they had been into surf and garage rock and roll instead of angular, electronic, and mechanical sounds? This is the fascinating question The Routes attempt to answer, in this unique tribute to the German pioneers of Krautrock and electronic music. The songs are often barely recognizable, because the sound of twangy guitars is so different than that of synthesizers. Often tempos are adjusted, too, to make the song work in the new arrangement. For example, “Computer Love,” which opens the LP, is sped up considerably and has a more raucous sound than the soft smooth original. “The Model” is more recognizable, but sounds like something out of an old western flick, rather than a European art house. The transformation of these songs is nothing short of amazing. “Tour De France” changes from a track that’s part stark, part dreamy into one that feels like a lovely sunny day at the beach. Of course, the Kraftwerk hits are here. They have to be. “The Robots” is transformed from a stoic piece into a gloriously lively, dare I say, human one, while “Autobahn” changes the idea of driving from utilitarian to one of fun and freedom. The Routes may be from Japan, but the feeling of driving a big old American convertible down the Coast Highway in California is unmistakable in this version of the song. “Radioactivity” and “Trans Europe Express” are here, as well, sounding as far from the originals as you can imagine. What a fun idea for a record!

SUPERCRUSH – Melody Maker EP (KR Records, krrecords.bigcartel.com)

Seattle indie rockers Supercrush return with their latest EP on their own KR Records label. They offer up five tracks of alternative rock with poppy melodies and breathy vocals. “Perfect Smile,” which opens the EP is a pretty typical alt-rock tune, until the bridge, which features piano and close harmonies, with a distinctly power pop flare. Other songs, like “Hey Christine,” blend the power pop sensibility through the entirety of the track, but the vocals retain the huskiness through the whole EP. The title track even melds some retro R&B into the melody. Topics are predictable: love and desire, the difficult life of an artist, and the like. These songs aren’t going to set the world on fire, but if you’re a fan of the 90s and 2000s “alternative rock” scene, you’ll enjoy this EP.

WITH THE PUNCHES – Discontent (mutantleaguerecords.com)

Long-standing NY band With The Punches is back with their first recorded music in nine years. The band that formed in 2008 play the sort of music that was interchangeably called “emo” or “pop punk” back in the 2000s, but to my ears it’s neither. Sure, it’s melodic, and even poppy. It doesn’t approach what I consider emo, which began in the mid 80s in DC, and evolved over the ensuing decade into screamo and other variants. To my ears, the sort of music With The Punches make is more accurately called alternative rock. The opening track is probably the standout here. “Stoneham Blues” starts out speedily with the guitars playing a fanfare-like melodic line. The vocals are belted out, including the harmonized backing vocals. The arrangement is thick and the guitars are flamboyant. I like the title track even a bit more, with its head-bobbing rhythm and poppy melody. The guitar lines bounce and crunch nicely. The balance of the five tracks on this EP are pretty much what you might expect from the genre: melodic punk, with a pop flair and broadly impassioned vocals. It’s generally not my cup of tea, but the band do a solid job of it, so if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll enjoy this.

COMPANION – Second Day of Spring (companionband.bandcamp.com)

Oh, my. After listening to all the raucous punk and indie rock records, Companion’s debut LP is like a breath of fresh air on the titular day. This is pretty folk music, acoustic guitar and closely harmonized vocals from identical twin sisters Sophia and Jo Babb. The songs are delicate, and their vocals are ethereal, like angels from heaven. I adore “If I Were a Ghost,” a waltz time song that has the hazy feel of a dream, with tentative strings and woodwinds creating a gossamer backdrop to the hushed vocals. Even dreamier is “Snowbank,” especially at the end of the song, when the strings swell and it becomes…magical. And songs like “How Could I Have Known” even have a bit of spring in them, pun intended, with a head bobbing and toe tapping rhythm. The instrumentation must include subtle synths, because there’s a shimmer that ebbs and flows in the background, and it’s so gorgeous. This whole album is.

DOUBLE CHEESE – The Black Album (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Dirty Water Records has long been one of the strongest proponents of the garage rock and roll genre, and this latest LP certainly fits in with their core mission. Double Cheese play some pretty strong garage rock, with a great retro feel. But one of the things about Double Cheese is that they aren’t even stuck in one corner of the garage world. Garage, by its nature, has a retro edge to it, but since there have been garage bands from different eras, the music has different sounds, and Double Cheese like to play around in all eras of the subgenre. For example, the opening track “Mean As F*ck,” has an 80s post-punk vibe going on for the first part of the song, but it ends with a full-on early 70s jam. The band also like to crank up the reverb and distortion, creating a tumultuous anarchic sound. I really enjoy “Sound of the Underground,” a song with bright poppy guitars, almost like modern pop punk. It’s still noisy and chaotic, of course, filled with distortion, but it has an immense sense of joy to it, as does “Pills and Wine,” which follows. I think these two are my favorite songs of the LP. Though I’m not a fan of guitar solos, the simple solo on “Pills and Wine” fits in perfectly and doesn’t come off as wanky. “Mash Potatoes” has a 70s acid rock feel, with wah-wah’ed guitars, swirly psychedelic feel, and deep fuzzed bass. “Lightnin’ Never Strikes Twice,” too, has a 70s rock feel mixed with a bit of funk and psychedelia. “HIYW” closes the LP with the noisiest, most chaotic track of the LP, having an experimental pre-industrial feel. Only one track bothers me a little bit. The chord progression on “Jail Time” seems to me to be too close to “Stepping Stone,” a classic 60s garage tune that everyone knows. Maybe it’s homage. But other than that, this is a cool take on the garage sound.

STEVE & GINIE JACKSON – Colder Than the Sea (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)

Thousand Islands Records, the label known for crunchy speedy skate punk and melodic hardcore, proudly presents… folk music? Well, Steve & Ginie Jackson call themselves a folk duo, and they do play acoustic music. But the songs certainly have a pop punk attitude and drive. Yes, you can hear Irish, Acadian, and bluegrass influences in the songs, but you can also hear folk punk influences, as well. “Into the Wild” opens the album, and the accordion’s big bold chords play off the insistent strumming of the acoustic guitar. The emphatic phrasing in the vocals has a very punk attitude to it. The muted guitar opening on many of the tracks reminds me of pretty much all the folk-punk songs I’ve ever heard, and even though “7 Billion People” includes acoustic guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, You can hear the song being done by a pop punk band. “There might be 7 billion people but all I see is you, and I don’t care for the money, I don’t care for the booze. I wanna be the lucky one you choose,” sings the chorus. Reflecting a standard topic in pop punk songs, love is the theme here. Listen to “Time to Dine,” especially the “gang” vocals that are sprinkled through the song. The melody is certainly quite poppy, and it’s easy to hear an electric band playing this. “Everybody’s Calling” is a favorite, a darker cast to the melody and huge gang whoa-oh vocals on the chorus. I also really like the lilting introduction to “Take Me to the Bottle,” which turns into a raucous folk punk tune about drinking and having a good time, forgetting about all the worries of the world and living for the moment. I also enjoy the introspective song, “The Hook.” It’s more subdued and solemn, the accordion providing a backing drone to the song, the chorus reminding me of Mission of Burma songs of yore, particularly in how the bass and accordion blend and in the vocal harmonies. It’s gorgeous. Right after this is the raucous “The Fire Is Out,” with a subtle power and melodic line reminding me of garage pop songs of the 60s. If you’re a fan of acoustic punk, give this a spin. Even though the band don’t classify themselves that way, you’re going to love this. I do.

ONE ARMED JOEY – Happiness, To Me (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

One Armed Joey have been around for some eight years, and have released some EPs to critical acclaim (they’ve won four Bohemian NorBay Music Awards for Best Punk Band), but they’re just now getting around to releasing their debut full-length LP. Hailing from an area more well known for its wine than its punk rock (Sonoma County, California, north of the San Francisco Bay area), One Armed Joey play strong melodic poppy punk, music that was pouring forth from Northern California in the 90s. Though One Armed Joey are late to the game, they’re some of the foremost ambassadors for the sound, playing full tight up-tempo songs that belie the fact that they’re merely a trio. Rather than coming across like a bombastic “bro” band, a trap that is too easy to fall into for bands trying to play melodic pop punk like this, One Armed Joey come across as honest and ardent. The music has a wistful quality to it, even wit the upbeat tempos and rich arrangements, Listen to the lush guitar lines on “Home Sick.” Rather than beat you over the head with their music, they envelop you with their earnest harmonized vocals, their undulating guitars, and their creative arrangements. I love the delicate nature of the lead guitar on “Mirrors,” as it contrasts with the raucous rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, the melody in the vocals equally as delicate, giving the song a sense of floating. The surprise of the song is the rock steady bridge in the middle. I like “Lost Dog,” a song in two parts. “Lost Dog Pt. 1” is a fun loping song with layering in the instrumentals and vocals, while “Lost Dog Pt. 2” is a little more quicker-paced, and extremely well arranged. The pair of songs deals with stress, anxiety, shitty jobs that we want to quit, self-isolation, and immobilizing fear. Part 2’s lead guitars are gorgeous. “Peace In Yesterday” may be my favorite track of the album; the dynamic range is enormous, there’s some fun shifting time signatures, swirling guitars, pretty harmonics, passionate harmonized vocals, delicate quiet sections, epic raucous sections…it has it all. Solid solid debut, and highly recommended.

RIP ROOM – Alight and Resound (Spartan Records, www.spartanrecords.com)

The press materials say this is for fans of Devo and Fugazi. My first reaction was, “WTF?!” Because there aren’t two more different sounding bands and different fan bases, right? But, holy shit, it’s pretty accurate! When I first listened to the first track, “Complication,” I could hear the new wave inspired start-stop and repetitious melodic lines, but the vocals, arrangement, and attitude are pure late 80s Dischord. These songs have that partially sung, partially spoken quality that Dischord bands were doing in that era, and some of the chord progressions and staccato drum licks are very much of that style. But there’s a funky undercurrent that recalls not only Devo, but also NOMEANSNO. “Worth Repeating” is a favorite, not only for the aforementioned qualities, but also for its bridge, with descending guitar lines and a spacey synthesizer that makes an appearance. “The Timing’s Never Right” has a strong post-punk vibe going on in the mix, while “Second to None” is what it would be like if Fugazi recorded the theme song to a 60s secret agent TV show. As the album evolves, there’s less Devo and more post-punk, but the DC sound remains throughout. There’s even an instrumental track, “Discover What Your Monsters Are.” It marries a funky bass line with a cool guitar sound that’s hard to describe: it’s sort of surf-ish, but not surf, loaded with vibrato. The melodic line has lots of stops and starts and shifts. Recommended.

SLANG – Cockroach in a Ghost Town (Kill Rock Stars, killrockstars.com)

If music was on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, Slang would definitely be an extrovert. This debut LP is bold and outgoing, loud and proud. So it should be, because Slang is a “super group” of sorts, made up of Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Wild Flag), Drew Grow (And the Pastors Wives, Careen), Kathy Foster (The Thermals), and Anita Lee Elliot (Viva Voce). Also appearing as guests on this LP are luminaries such as Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Mary Timony (Helium). The nine songs here have a glam feel, but in an indie rock mode. The opening track, “Wilder,” even has industrial underpinnings, with big buzzy guitars and huge backing vocals on the verses, while the chorus drips with dreamy sensuality. I really like the bouncy “King Gunn,” a song that has a pop sensibility, even as it still has a tough exterior from crunchy guitars. Some of the songs have an epic cinematic quality, like “In Hot Water,” a song that feels like it could be the theme to some movie, probably one about the difficulties of relationships. “Wrong Wrong Wrong” is a fun one, with loads of modern glam and more than a nod to Iggy Pop style garage rock. The title track is a little experimental, a little Tom Waits, and a little Bowie, making for a song that’s eerie and soars at the same time, with vocals somewhat gritty and very emotional. This is a lesson in how to do a debut LP.

WALKER BRIGADE – If Only (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

This is the debut full-length LP from LA’s Walker Brigade, and full-length is an understatement! The CD release contains not just 13 tracks, but also has seven bonus cuts, for a total of 20! It’s nearly an hour of punk and grunge inspired power pop with a heavy dose of glam pop. The music is loud and brash, and the pop filled melodies and brightly harmonized vocals remind me of The New Pornographers. There’s a lot of retro inspiration on this album, too, with sounds from the 60s through the 90s. “Tower” is an amazing song that alternately feels like 60s pop music and 90s grunge, while “No,” which immediately follows, has a blend of 70s acid rock and 90s grunge. “Fancy Boots” is a favorite track, with a strong 70s mix of proto punk and garage rock, with a dose of R&B. I love its urgent feel, as if the Stooges and Rolling Stones met in a dark alley. One thing about Walker Brigade is that some of the songs sound like they might be even better live, where there’s more of a raw performance. Some of these studio recordings feel a little smoothed over, and I think adding some rough edges would increase the excitement and intensity level even over what it has now. The main LP itself has a couple of covers, and there are a few covers amongst the bonus tracks, as well. The band do a great cover of Wire’s “Sand In My Joints.” It’s even more manic and jangly than the original, and another favorite of the album. “I’m Tired” is a song written by great Mel Brooks for the film, “Blazing Saddles,” where it’s performed hilariously by the late Madeline Kahn. The Walker Brigade’s version is louder and brasher (and more in tune!). There’s an Only Ones cover, of “Lovers of Today,” which is fairly faithful to the original, but maybe with a more wistful feel in the vocals. There are a couple of Soft Boys covers, as well. The classic “I Wanna Destroy You” is here, but somewhat subdued in comparison to the gloriously huge original. And the album closes with a live recording of the inane jam, “Rock’n’roll Toilet.” Though it’s a bit long, Walker Brigade acquit themselves well on this first outing.

BISHOPS GREEN – Black Skies (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

Street punk? Pub rock? Canadian Oi? All terms that could be used for Bishops Green, the quartet from Vancouver, BC. There’s lots of rock and roll with a punk edge. There are gritty guitars and gravely vocals. There are a lot of fist pump inspiring gang vocals. And a lot of darkness in the sound. If you’re a fan of the genre, by all means, give this a spin. To me, though, the seven songs all sound too much alike, all the same tempo, all the same volume level, all with the exact same tone and feel. Unlike most bands that play this style of music, the songs are not short and biting – they’re long; not a single one is under four minutes, and a couple are longer than five minutes. It’s all a bit too much of sameness for me. The musicians are obviously talented, but I just wish they had more variety in these songs.

BOOZE & GLORY – Raising the Roof (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

More street punk from Pirates Press Records, the main proponent of the genre these days. Booze & Glory is a long-time Oi band from London with international connections in Poland and Sweden. They play modern English Oi, replete with huge sing-along vocals and punk-influenced arrangements. These are raging party songs, with the title track being an ideal closing track to a live set. It’s big and glorious, and sure to get the whole crowd singing and fist pumping. All four of these songs, really, have a big sound, with lots of encouraging lyrics and punked up rock and roll guitars. The songs do have some variety in sound, though, with “C’est Le Vie” featuring darker verses and big bright choruses, and even a hint of ska-punk rhythm. This is how modern Oi should be done.

BOX ELDER – Minimums (linktr.ee/Boxelder)

Wyoming’s Box Elder’s sophomore release is a six-song EP full of pop hooks and dripping with emotion. The music is expansive, taking in elements of dream pop, yet also informed by emotional pop punk of bands like Spanish Love Songs and Western Settings. The arrangements are thick, vocals soar, and guitars jangle. The title track that opens the EP has a bounce to it, yet has an immense sound. “Bug” has a lovely pop lilt set against gritty guitars, while the humorously titled “Chucklefuck” is a striding insistent track. “Keeper” is the obligatory ballad, but it never feels bogged down; rather it soars. It’s the kind of song that will make you want to pull a lighter out of your pocket and wave it in the air. I like the mix of indie pop and shoegazy wall of guitars on “Gothling,” and “Salt” closes the EP with dreaminess and a dash of 80s new wave pop. This is good stuff.

FORMER LIVES – Ceremony of Leaving (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Shimmering guitars, glistening synths, and melancholy vocals make up the components of the five songs on this EP. The sad melodies contrast with the bright instrumentals, and the warm analog synths produce sounds that you just don’t hear that often anymore in this digital age. ‘80s new wave is echoed in the instrumentation in songs like “Cordon Sanitaire,” though the melody feels more like modern indie, with an almost Stereolab-like ethereal feel in the vocals. The closing minute of this track will surely make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, sounding like it comes from some misty dream or a past life. This leads into “Opportunity Dead On Mars,” a short interlude that sounds very otherworldly. An out of tune piano is a bold choice to introduce the cleverly titled closing track, “Dear In Headlights,” the grittiest track of the EP, with dissonant guitars and spacey synth sound effects. What a different and unique record! This is going to stay in rotation for a while.

NO TRIGGER – Acid Lord (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

New England punk band No Trigger had most of their activity two decades ago, but they’re still around and stirring again, after five years of recorded silence. This new EP for Red Scare features five songs that range from hardcore to pop punk, some of it tongue in cheek funny punk, like the opening title track. It’s a raging metallic hardcore track complete with amazing sound effects and production. “Ah, hey, Bones! How big of a middle finger can I create with words?” is the question at the start of the track, and the answer comes back in the form of the song. It’s speedy and pounding, and obviously the band are having a great time playing it. “Antifantasy” is an excellently executed song about the decline of the nation, the rise of neo-Nazi fascism, and the political correctness and virtue signaling of the rest of masses. “Brainwashed” is a fun ska pop-punk song about the right wing’s active implementation of indoctrination in our schools. Anti-drug education and pushing Christianity while ignoring core education are features of their agenda that many of us had shoved down our throats. Red Scare’s been on a roll lately, and this EP continues the streak.

OMNI OF HALOS – Care Free (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)

Take one part heavy rock, one party dreamy alternative, toss in a large spoonful of pop sensibilities and a pinch of country twang, and that’s Omni of Halos, the alternative rock band from Gothenburg, Sweden. This four-song EP represents the band’s recorded debut, and it’s a sign of great things to come. Growling fuzzed bass and guitars combine with pop-filled melodies, recorded with the quiet musings of a steel pedal guitar, and painted over with a lo-fi brush, adding a haziness to the proceedings. The title track is a favorite, with a stronger rhythm and melodic sense. But I also like “Out of Control,” with its epic nature, rising notes singing out from the steel pedal guitar and an old school 90s emo sensibility in the bass and vocals. The overall effect is very unique, like being in the middle of a swirling storm, but there’s a strange sense of order to the chaos. I really like this.

SEMANTICS – Paint Me Blue (SideOneDummy Records, sideonedummy.com)

This is a very promising debut LP from Australian indie-pop-punks Semantics. For the most part the music is bouncy and fun, like the opener, “Carousel.” After an angular dissonant start, the song instantly turns into a fantastic pop punk tune, up-tempo, with a great melody, some crooning in the vocals, and an insistent rhythm. “Didn’t Wanna Hurt You,” too, is a driving song, with broader vocals and pounding rhythm. The gang vocals and poppier melody on the chorus is a nice contrast to the darker sound of the verses. But Semantics can get wistful, sometimes, too. “This Love Could Kill You” goes for a grungier sound, with heavier guitars alternating with a lighter sad sounding song, and an alt-rock melody. “Lighter Grow” goes deeper into dreamy ballad territory. And the appropriately titled “Sad Songs” is a quiet acoustic track, with passionate vocals. The album seems to be reasonably split between pop punk and introspective indie, and keeping things varied is always a key to success. Like I said, this is a very promising debut. Keep an eye out for this band.

STATE DRUGS – Explosions on the Radio (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

State Drugs follow up their 2021 LP, “Live, Laugh, Love,” with a new five-song EP. The band is the project of former hardcore musician Chris Kuhn, who records and plays under the State Drugs moniker with a rotating cast of friends. The resulting music is deeply rooted in 90s alternative rock and indie music, with a bit of punk sensibility. The five songs are buzzy and breezy, with a wistful emotional sensibility. I love the opening track, “Don’t Be Afraid,” which has a warm feeling courtesy of the subdued electric organ, a driving rhythm, and tense, passionate vocals. “On the Radio” is another buoyant song, relaxed and easy. I like the tension in the lead guitar toward the end of the song, when it sounds like a train blowing its whistle is driving right through the tune, though the brief guitar solos feel a bit thin. Though “The Twelve” is a lonesome sounding ballad, most of the tracks have a more upbeat hopeful feel. Overall, I like the mix of light pop, buzzy guitars, expressive vocals, and a pop punk heart.

GRADUATION SPEECH – Controlled Burn (jetsam-flotsam.com)

Kevin Day, front man for New Jersey’s Aspiga, also records solo material under the Graduation Speech moniker. “Controlled Burn” is Day’s latest release since last year’s “Private Anxieties” EP. This outing sees Day stripping things back, playing songs that feel more somber and introspective. Where the previous EP featured a full band and upbeat songs, “Controlled Burn” is more acoustic, more melancholy, and more reflective. Acoustic guitar and piano are the primary instruments, with occasional electric guitar. Even with the minimal instrumentation, the songs pack an emotional punch. And as much as I enjoyed the full-band version of Graduation Speech, I think I like this simpler version better. The piano, particularly, gives the songs a pensive feel. My favorite song of the EP has to be “Climb,” which opens the EP. The tentative nature of the melody at the opening is stunning. Even as the song speaks of failure, if offers encouragement: “You can climb your way out of this / I believe in you, I believe in me.” We all could use this sort of encouragement from time to time.

MOONRAKER – The Forest (tinydragonmusic.bandcamp.com/bypolarrecords.com)

Hailing from Santa Clarita, California, just north of LA, Moonraker play huge epic pop punk, with driving rhythms and thick arrangements. Massive backing vocals add to the density, and dueling lead vocals often create variety in the textures. There are creative touches, too, in intros and outros of some of the songs, such as the orchestra tuning up at the start of “Incendium,” the opening track, along with an audio clip about the lies exclusionary people tell us. I love the intro and outro on “Fogdancing.” The track starts with a music box playing a lovely little ditty, and it’s a lost opportunity that the band didn’t incorporate it into the song. The ending, as the punk rock fades, is the sound of a jazz quartet in a hazy nightclub – and this time they do it right, recapitulating the song’s melody. Trumpet, piano, upright bass and drums play it as a lazy ballad, while club patrons have conversations in the background. It’s interrupted by the sound of smashing glass and a car starting – a theft? In between these bookends is a hard driving dark punk song with just enough pop melody and lyrics about living a life of uncertainty. “Autumn,” too, starts out quietly, with pretty violins and subtle vocals, before the full band explodes into a speedy skate punk frenzy. “Vanishing Act” is notable as a great crunchy song, faster and louder, with gritty hardcore influence, but still grounded in a melodic sensibility. And I really enjoy the more relaxed lope of “Soot,” which closes the LP. The tempo may be at less of a breakneck pace, but the song is every bit as crackling as the rest of the album. Solid effort here.

PULLEY – The Golden Life (SBAM Records, sbam-rocks.us)

Everyone who listened to punk rock in the 90s knows Pulley. The band is the epitome of the melodic punk rock of the era, and unlike so many contemporaries, they never got overly bombastic. They were also notable for the day job of lead vocalist Scott Radinsky, who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. While active all along, the band had a large gap in studio recordings, between 2008 and 2016. They’re now signed to SBAM, and put out an EP last year, and are back with their first full-length of new music since their 2016 release. One of the great things about Pulley is their focus on melody and arrangements. Not satisfied with sounding like so many other bands, they have some really creative sounds, with unique arrangements and melodies. Right from the start, “Repeat Offender” gives us soaring backing vocals that act as a clarion call and play against the jangly pop of the verses. Listen to the complexity in the arrangement of “You’ll Be Lonely Someday,” and you’ll hear chord progressions that are more interesting than typical melodic hardcore and punk. These touches make Pulley really stand out from the crowd. “Align the Planets” is a favorite song, starting out as a quiet acoustic song, just guitar and vocals. When the full band comes in it’s with a blend of Latin, surf, and 90s punk, a pretty killer sound. The chorus gets big and wistful, too. On their darker songs they reflect the 90s Epitaph sound – they were on that storied label, after all. But even then, melody and arrangement are all-important. A good example of this is “The Golden Life,” which has a strong 90s/Bad Religion vibe, but even then Pulley do things with the song that make it different enough that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of so many bands trying to get that sound. Pulley does it again!

SAY SUE ME – The Last Thing Left (Damnably Records, linktr.ee/damnably)

One doesn’t expect catchy indie bands to be coming from Asia, but here we are. Say Sue Me hail from Busan, South Korea, and apparently they’ve been around for quite awhile, having released two previous LPs and a plethora of singles and EPs. Most of their releases have been with Damnably, a small London based indie label, but a couple of early releases came out on major label Warner Music. After a subdued instrumental opening, the album features lovely and catchy indie pop music. “Around You,” which was a lead single from the album, is bouncy, breezy, and fun. It’s got a skip in its step, with an infectious feeling of elation, like walking on air. Easy pop tunes abound on the album, like “Still Here,” “We Look Alike,” and the ethereal “To Dream.” They’re exquisite and delightful, especially “To Dream.” It’s lush and gorgeous, combining a delicate touch in the vocals and guitars and a thick full sound. “Photo of You” is a ballad with a retro 60s girl group feel, while the other ballad, “Now I Say,” is acoustic, quiet, and introspective sounding. “No Real Place” takes the best aspects of both types of songs and mixes them to create something that’s lush and dreamy, but bouncy and poppy at the same time. It’s a favorite of the LP. If you’re a fan of indie pop, I strongly recommend this.

JOEL TYLER WALL – F.I.T.H. (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

This is a little off the beaten path for Kool Kat Musik, a label that focuses on pop and power pop records. Joel Tyler Wall plays music that, I suppose, falls into that camp, melodically, but the arrangements are thick and heavy, gritty and distortion-filled. It’s like if pop songs were played by grunge bands on acid. It’s a pretty unique sound, and I have to say, it’s really effective. Wall plays all the instruments and handled all the production himself, quite a difficult time consuming set of tasks. But I think it was worth the effort, because this is a great sounding record. “No Job Nose Bleed” is the opening track, and I can hear what would normally be a sparkly pop tune, but it’s been deconstructed by rough and raspy distortion. Some songs have a cool bass drone that reminds me a bit of Silver Apples, the 60s experimental electronic rock band that was way ahead of its time. “Stranger” is one of these, yet the melody is more akin to 60s pop. “Rescue” is another, and though it’s got a lighter pop melody over the bass, it’s got a trippy retro psychedelic sound. “My Dream” is aptly titled, as behind the noisy distortion and overdriven guitars and bass is a dreamy psychedelic melody. “Problems” is darker garage surf-punk, with 80s no wave vocals, a cool mix. Several of the tracks have a psych bent, but none more than the closing track, which is also the title track. Standing for “Fucked in the Head,” and named for a middle school punk band from Wall’s youth, this song is noisier, punker, and more psychedelic than all the others put together. Vocals are multi-tracked, eerie, and buried in the mix, giving the song the sound of an acid trip. This is one of the more unique records I’ve come across in awhile, and it’s recommended.

THE RUMJACKS / FLATFOOT 56 – Split EP (therumjacks.com/the-rumjacks-flatfoot-56)

Hot on the heels of their recent EP, “Brass for Gold,” Celtic punks The Rumjacks are back, this time sharing the stage (literally – the two bands are touring together) with Chicago’s Celtic punks, Flatfoot 56. Each band contributes three tracks, and though they both play in the same general genre, they have very different sounds. The Rumjacks have more traditional sounds of Irish melodies mixed with raucous pub-punk. The opening track, “Whitecaps,” is a dark song that’s heavy on traditional sounding folk melody but a little lighter on the traditional instrument. They make up for it on “Fifth Ward Firestorm,” a very Irish sounding song, complete with penny whistle on the chorus. Their third song is a loping tune, “What Was Your Name in the States,” a song with a party atmosphere, lyrics referring to people changing their names to hide past transgressions. As enjoyable as The Rumjacks songs are, the real revelation here is Flatfoot 56. Coming from Chicago, they have a pretty solid Chicago pop punk sound, with a big wall of gritty guitars, augmented with Celtic instruments. I love “Mud,” with its striding epic feel; it’s my favorite song of the EP. While “Mud” uses banjo,” “Sorry” has the sound of an Arrivals song played with bagpipes in the arrangement. Did I say “Mud” was my favorite? Sorry, it has to be “Sorry.” “Trouble” closes the EP, and it’s a more loping track, still solid pop punk, but the Irish instruments add a cool effect. I hear bagpipes and I think mandolin on this one. Really makes me wish this tour was coming to the west coast, because I’d love to see these bands live. Recommended.

THE DROWNS – Lunatics (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)

The Drowns have been having a good time with genre bending records lately. The band that made their bones with a couple of solid street punk albums have been rocking out on recent singles and EPs, and this newest EP shows they’re still having a blast. The six songs on “Lunatics” are joyful and moving, literally and figuratively. “Live Like Yer Dyin” opens the EP with a 50s rock’n’roll jam, raucous guitars, keys, drums, bass, and vocals over a blues chord progression played like a speedy punk rock tune. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and the sentiment in the lyrics is something we should all heed: live life to its fullest every day. Another rocker is “She’s The Knife,” continuing the band’s exploration of the world of classic rock. I like the moving “Look What We’ve Become,” a song that starts out with acoustic guitar and Rev’s gritty vocals. As the song evolves, more and more of the band joins in, as Rev sings about the strife and division that have torn our country apart. Two of the tracks, “Lunatics” and “Tokyo Red Alert,” are poppier, yet still have a street punk quality to them, like some of the great pub punk of the 80s out of the UK. But I think it’s “The Working Dead” that I love the most on this EP. This is an Andy Wylie jam, and it mixes power pop and pop punk in perfect proportions, topping it with clean clear vocals about the daily grind of thankless work. This one reminds me of bands like Odd Robot and even The Smoking Popes, a bit. If you think music should be fun, you should be listening to The Drowns and pick up this EP.

NIGHT COURT – Nervous Birds Too (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Hot on the heels of “Nervous Birds One” which came out a mere few months ago (check further down this column for my review), this newish band is back with the second installment from their recording session. Apparently, after recording too many songs that were all keepers, they made the decision to split them between two LPs. Canadians Night Court play music that blends power pop, garage, indie, and just a dash of punk to create music that’s very listenable and enjoyable. But listen carefully, because the thirteen tracks blow by in a mere twenty minutes, each song flying by in an average of a minute and a half. These songs are certainly gems deserving of your attention. There isn’t a bad track here, but a few are notable standouts. “Shitty Confidential” is heavier on the garage side, but has a great pop melody. I love the swirly sounds of “Titanic,” and “Brighten the Corner” is a slower, less raucous track, but is an absolute favorite. It’s the longest track, too, at two and three quarter minutes, but the melancholy loping feel and epic shining guitars are irresistible. “Surfin Iona” has a B-52s vibe, in the melody and rhythm, and especially the vocals, though it’s not a new wave track. The shortest track, clocking in at a mere 49 seconds, “sticksrtrees,” is outsized bouncy indie pop fun. This album is an unexpected surprise of the best kind.

PARADE OF HORRIBLES – Listen In (paradeofhorribles.bandcamp.com)

Parade of Horribles is a two piece, featuring Jason York on bass and vocals and Chris Mazzola on drums. Their music is rooted in skatepunk and hardcore, but they inject a dose of funk to create a hardcore-punk-funk sort of hybrid. The music is manic and intense, and the growling bass has a full enough sound and gives the proceedings an almost industrial air. There’s even a strong beat, good enough to dance to, if that’s your thing. The genre-spanning music keeps things lively and interesting for those who listen to music with their heads, while the intensity will keep the adrenaline flowing for you pit junkies. “Keep It Going” is a track that goes through multiple changes over its two and a quarter minutes. Starting with a jazzy swirling bass, it soon turns into raging hardcore alternating with a spoken word art-punk thing, vocals switching between talking and shouting intensely. There’s a smooth jazz break, too, which threw me for a loop. The lyrics seem to reference friends working together toward a goal, but there’s a falling out. The others “keep it going,” though, and remain hopeful of the return of missing comrades. This may be a reference to the Punk Rock Food Drive, an annual fundraising program that Parade of Horribles runs each year. It’s not just a fundraiser show – they work with local restaurants to donate a portion of their proceed on certain days, and recruit a plethora of local vendors to sell merch in a fair-like atmosphere that the actual show is. It all raises money to help those in the community who need a hand acquiring food for their families. I love the funky bass lines in “Doing the Work,” an otherwise gritty song about life in the corporate grind. “I got spreadsheets to track my spreadsheets / A thousand things left to do / I’m gonna craft the most beautiful email / To craftily be ignored by you,” the song declares. The title track is an intense hardcore rager about the isolating influence of social media addiction. “Holding Pattern” mixes grinding growling bass with jazzed up funk via syncopated phrasing. But this one is likely the heaviest and hardest hitting track of the EP. The lyrics appear to speak to being paralyzed, waiting for the “perfect moment” for something, yet ending up going nowhere. The EP ends with “Better Without You,” a song with mathish rhythm changes, power-laden verses, and a poppy chorus. Parade of Horribles call themselves “experimental, and I can see why they might say that. They do defy genre categorization, so let’s just agree to call it good music.

TONY JAY – Hey There Flower (Mt.St.Mtn., www.mtstmtn.com)

Upon listening to the first track, “The Rain Drops,” I was certain I was in for a strange experimental sonic journey. The track is eerie and mysterious, loaded with trepidation and uncertainty. And, in some ways, this is such an exploration, but the remainder of the album is less eerie, but more melancholy. This is lo-fi pop, and it has an air of hazy dreaminess about it. Breathy vocals add to the feeling of unreality, that you’re visiting someone’s dreams. The persistent hiss in the recordings adds, rather than detracts, from the songs, especially on the gorgeous “September Skies.” A simple guitar and female vocals provide the feel of girl group songs of the 60s, but slowed down and stripped back. The dark emotions of those sorts of pop tunes are brought into clear focus through the haze of time. That’s a common theme through these songs; it’s like listening to someone’s misty thoughts, at twilight, with the fog rolling in. These songs would be right at home in a David Lynch/Twin Peaks world. The title track is the most upbeat, but even that track, loaded with reverb, has an otherworldly feel. Listening to this may warp your sense of reality. I highly recommend it.

THE WILFUL BOYS – World Ward Word Sword (Big Neck Records, bigneckrecords.com)

When I began listening to the first track of this third LP from The Wilful Boys, I though I was in for some noisy metallic grinding shit. Thankfully, I was wrong. Though The Wilful Boys do focus on noise, this is the noise rock of the 90s. Through the chaos and insanity, there’s melody and order, too (once you get past the opening track). The lead single, “A Watched Pot,” mixes 90s noise and 70s hard rock. It’s got the blood and guts of hard rock and the distortion, angularity, and vocals of the 90s. This track immediately got my attention, no longer dismissing this record. “Classic Action” rages with NOMEANSNO funk-bass intensity, but has more of a hardcore intent, even as the guitars ring out. Even more hardcore is “Silly Season,” with raging guitars and shouted vocals, but it still has a melodic sense. “Heaven” is darker than one might expect from a song with that title; feedback and dissonance clash with the melodic intent, and vocals teeter between blasé and ireful. Guitars scream and jab intently.” Horrible Way” is not horrible at all. It uses repetitive lines effectively and regularly injects massive angularity played heavily. Imagine early Black Sabbath as a math-noise band (!). The bridge gets chaotic, and the outro speeds up like an out of control locomotive about to run off the rails. If you’re a fan of hard driving rock and 90s noise, get on this. It’s one of the tastier releases I’ve heard lately.

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

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