Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 

DENTIST - Night Swimming (Cleopatra Records www.cleorecs.com)

When a band begins with a sterling debut in the manner of Dentist back in 2014, one has to be wary of the dreaded sophomore slump; however, Dentist passed that test with remarkable ease and is now perfecting their sound on the band’s third record, Night Swimming. The centerpiece of Dentist is the majestic vocal ability of Emily Bornemann, who can sound innocent and optimistic or angry and frustrated with similar effortlessness, producing a broad scope of emotional force. The jangly surf-pop sheen influencing many of the songs are merely a façade covering a simmering punk angst, as one hears quite powerfully on “Figure-Four” and “Alone in the Garden”. Guitarist Justin Bornemann and drummer Matt Hockenjos work in perfect tandem with Emily’s soaring voice and story-telling skills. The bounce of “Oh” is juxtaposed with the coarse, rollicking “Remind Me” and the aggressive “Tight Spot”, which is my favorite of the bunch here. “Tight Spot”, with its refrain of “tell me no/tell me no again” simmers with frustration while good-natured surf riffs are drowned out by thunderous bass and furious energy. The first single, “Corked” (with the infectious line, “Something’s wrong again, cuz we’re still friends”) takes the beach atmosphere of the band’s home of Asbury Park, NJ and injects an atmospheric quality into a traditional pop arrangement to create a wistful beauty also heard on the luxuriant “Owl Doom Pt. 2”. There is absolutely nothing one can do with Dentist but to love them, and this one should be the soundtrack of your summer.

TWIN GABLE - Gritty Gold (twingable.bandcamp.com)

This very DIY duo from New York have been harnessing and refining a distinct pop sound for a few years now, and Gritty Gold is the result of musical maturity from both Lider Calle and Ken Rose. “Can I” opens with haunting noise and includes lyrics that encourage and challenge individuals to think more creatively. This theme of unique imagination is heard throughout Gritty Gold, whether in the form of the subtle dance grove of “These Times” or the harder edged “Deeper”, with the latter also including minimalist segments before concluding with a massive din of guitar and dance energy. What makes Gritty Gold so intriguing is how Twin Gable produces pop that is both conventional and yet still atypical due to the intricacy of the song structures, such as the numerous shifts in tempo on “The Beautiful.”“Fainting Char” is a perfect single, with its highly rhythmic and free-flowing nature, while “Money Song” returns to the use of ghostly vocals accenting a streamlined pop gem. Ironically, “ATM” follows “Money Song” and the latter is a heavily distorted spoken word piece that's both unnerving and somehow still comforting through the use of a lush and spacious soundscape. This dreamy dance-pop is truly the band’s strength, but “You Don’t Have Any idea” reveals a multi-faceted aspect of the duo’s abilities, as the song shifts seamlessly from a sullen, quiet intro to a rousing, punk-infused explosion of force before returning once again to its original gentle nature. The music of Twin gable is simultaneously recognizable and challenging, revealing a pair of musical wizards with expansive imaginations the talent to bring life to their concepts.

WELLER - s/t (Tiny Engines Records www.tinyengine.net)

I am instantly taken in by the words of Harrison Nantz on the opening “Answer Anything” when he wonders, “I wanna know how we think to avoid the escape from reality, and the nerves that make me tired as soon as I’m awake”. This burst of anxiety-riddled honesty is delivered above a poppy, fuzzy, guitar riff and sets the stage for a nervous batch of jangly guitar nuggets that reflect how worrisome it is to be young in America right now. Maturing and trying the navigate the pitfalls associated with it act as the central theme of Weller’s self-titled release, as Nantz exposes about past relationships and an uncertain future through ten blasts of brief anthems. Only two of the songs here creep past three minutes, and one of them, “Standard”, is a raw piece of self-examination on which Nantz admits that “it feels sincere, how quickly I can disappear?” while a sullen riff churns beneath his vocals supported by bassist Evan Clark Moorehead and drummer Jeremy Berkin. Weller’s brand of melancholy pop, occasionally structured around acoustic riffs (“Buck” and the fleeting “Think Tank”), maintains a freshness by boldly exploring personal feelings of insecurity and misguided memories of the past, revealing a lyrical deftness that will undoubtedly resonate with a vast array of listeners. On “Every Other Day”, the story is one of reassessment of one’s life and fighting off the sense of impending doom with Nantz stating, “my Ivy League education replaced with hate” as the song increases in intensity without ever losing its fundamental pop orientation. The closing “Point of Personal Privilege” fluctuates in tempo and passion, as Nantz continues to ruminate as to what will be and how he can reconcile what once was. The songs on Weller read like a diary brought to life through the daring honesty found within. Poignant, impactful, and musically shrewd, Weller is not just a bunch of lost twenty-sometimes lamenting their impression of fading youth (wait until you’re in your forties, boys!), but rather, the trio articulates fears and remorse that transcends age. Plus, the record is also a staring collection of smartly crafted pop songs, and that will never become antiquated.


 

ROCK N’ ROLL HI-FIVES - Re-Introducing the Rock N Roll Hi-Fives (Little Dickman Records www.littledickman.com)

Perhaps America’s coolest family, the Rock N Roll Hi-Fives are Joe Centeno on guitar, his wife Gloree on bass, and two children Eilee and Evran on vocals and drums, respectively. Now before anyone jumps to a cheap Partridge Family reference, there is nothing cliché or fabricated about his band; the Rock N Roll Hi-Fives are a fully formed and functioning band that play gritty rock kissed by just enough pop sweetness. On the opening “Same Mistakes,” Eilee sounds wiser than her years when she says “Honey, you make the same mistakes I do,” while her vocals on “Battles” take on the classic tone of Cherry Curie and Brett Anderson to capture rough 'n’ tumble rock. The snarky “Hold On” has Dad Joe doing a wicked Rick Neilson impression to craft a rollicking, slightly blues-tinged gem of a song that includes a propulsive bass line and Evren’s steady drumming. The band has the ability to strip their sound down to a more raw and straightforward approach, best heard on “Glass Towns” (complete with richly harmonic backing vocals) and “Livin’ the Lost Boy Life”, but the closing “Running Nowhere” has a chunky riff ala' Johnny Thunders, accented by Eilee’s most aggressive vocal performance of the record. Fun and incredibly infectious, the Rock N Roll Hi-Fives inject a sense of purity into their playing that is desperately missed by most bands today. There is no pretense or tricks; this is rock 'n’ roll for people who love rock n’ roll, and I love it!

LA FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE - Killing the Host (Wicked Wonderland Empire https://wickedwonderlandempire. wordpress.com)

This one is difficult to write, for La Fin Absolute Du Monde is one of the most unique acts I have encountered, and sadly, Killing the Host marks the end of the line for the duo of Jason Myles and Cyndy Melanio. The couple, once married, has now split and with the demise of their marriage comes the end of the band as well. If there is any positive to be found here, it is that Killing the Host concludes the musical career of these two in staggering style. At times noisy and dissident, other moments chilling and stark, and still other tracks are groove-oriented and robust, LFADM is a stark contrast to the vast majority of music being created today, which is why their loss stings so significantly. Myles and Melanio lived their lives together in the pursuit of crafting challenging music and Killing the Host is a brash, daring record of undeniable brilliant ideas engulfed by a swirling din. The gentle keys that poke their heads out during “Shame on You” are a subtle indication of this band’s distinctive musical approach, as these delicate keys offset a menacing sense of suffocating ambient force. Killing the Host opens with the title track, a searing blast of furious noise replete with Melanio beautiful vocals, while the moody “Sunday Mourning” embodies the band’s adherence to the darker elements of song crafting. “When You Look in the Abyss” is punishing, as a devastating bassline and chilling vocals coordinate to produce a masterwork of modern black metal, a style heard in a similar form on the Myles-led “They Divide”, yet that is only one side of the multifaceted duo. “Pig Puker” is a relentless assault upon the listener, as the song is a thick, churning mass of blunt force awash in a murky sea of distortion. The closing “Dark Days” moves with the pace of a funeral dirge and really does encapsulate perfectly the end of a band that seems to have a series of unfinished promises. I do not know how many individuals were able to appreciate LFADM while they were a functioning band, but whether one is lamenting their break-up or hearing them for the first time, it is impossible to not be deeply moved by what these two music outliers created.

MAD CADDIES - Punk Rocksteady (Fat Wreck Chords www.fatwreck.com)

This is a cute idea: Take a handful of (mostly) punk gems and ska them up a bit. Punk Rocksteady is a record one can throw on and just let it go, as the songs are recognizable and the ska versions stay true to the originals while certainly adding some spice. The gentle piano opening to Bad Religion’s “Sorrow” gives way to a mid-tempo slide, while the cover of Green Day’s “She” offers a level of depth to the song that the original did not quite capture. The songs swing and sway with dazzling playing, particularly the deeply relaxing, tropical vibe of “Sink Florida Sink." My favorite of the bunch is the Descendents classic “Jean is Dead;” kicking off with a soaring guitar riff, the song instantly shifts gears into a subtle reggae groove and soaring vocals. It is quite an achievement to turn “Some Kind of Hate” from the Misfits into a lounge worthy treasure, but Fat Mike and the Mad Caddies do so with deft skill. This one does not require much thinking or heavy lifting; it is simply a collection of fans playing their favorite songs in an inventive and distinctive manner, proving that inter-genre crossover records can be highly well done.

VON HAYES - You Vape? (vonhayes.bandcamp.com)

Playing lo-fi rock n’ roll is trickier than it may appear, for it can either be instantly appealing or a complete mess. Von Hayes falls somewhere in the middle between utter disaster and inexplicably intriguing on You Vape?, the duo’s first record in a decade. Recorded whenever and wherever they could, the fourteen songs are rollicking, noisy, fuzzy nuggets of angst and self-deprecation. The refrain of “I used to be cool a long time ago” (“Exclusive Monk”) is delivered with a perfect blend of sarcasm and self-awareness, while “Evident Eyelid” hearkens back to the early 90s indie explosion and would have undoubtedly been the song from this record that I played into the ground on college radio. While the opening “Museum” is a bit of a muddy, scramble mass of jumbled lines, the record does include wonderfully insightful anthems such as ”No Title” with the observation, “Oh you think I’m happy now?/Is that what this is?” and “Hey Gary (Let Me Ride)”. The concluding “Crushed” is an acapella song that puts a fittingly odd bow on a collection of songs that is difficult to comprehend at first, but makes far more sense if one simply reclines and allows the material to wash over them.


ABOLITIONIST - The Instant (1859 Records 1859records.bandcamp.com)

This is exactly what I love and exactly what the nation needs; raw, aggressive, and intelligently politically charged punk fury from Oregon. The opener is a blazing two-minute assault about how quickly all that we know can collapse, and this sense of impending devastation is heard throughout The Instant. With the longest track clocking in at only two and a half minutes, Abolitionist does not stay for long, but they make quite the impression. Dustin Herron may sound (rightfully) enraged, but his vocal delivery is always quite clear, particularly on the socially conscious “A Little Animal Liberation Never Hurt Anybody” and the scathing “The Movement” (“we’ve got a brave new world to mend”). Fellow guitarist Jeremy Dunlap works with Herron to build a wall of fuzzed-out guitar force that protects the virulent, low-end bombast of Joseph Moher and Sean Rule on bass and drums, respectively. Some of the work takes a more personal turn on “Never Wanted This” and “Failed Projects”, a track on which Herron declares that “we won’t be your newfound animals” while a power drill riff screams around him. With moments of expertly placed gang vocals and a bold sense of melody within the din, Abolitionist harkens back to a classic hardcore delivery. When one thinks of the political instability and fear that accompanied the birth of hardcore, the world today is once again in need of bands that speak boldly and through aggressive, articulate musical power. As the band asserts on “What If…?”, “history repeats itself, no matter how many people die”. A tragic thought for a tragic age.

THE PLURALS - Swish (GTG Records www.gtgrecords.com)

This trio from Michigan plays dense, surprisingly harmonious punk rock, with an emphasis on the “rock”. The opening “Overthinking” is a rough and tumble celebration of classic guitar-driven force, while “Coke Daddy” blends the best aspects of Nirvana and The Replacements at both of their most melodic. The band has over a decade of recording and touring together, and the benefits of experience are obvious on the groove-oriented “I Have Your Life” with Hattie’s vocals carrying the song, along with the thunderous “Honey Water” which hears the band hit a crescendo in terms of aggression. The fuzzy-pop of “Colorado Sun” is matched by the sugar rush energy of “Be Flat”, whose rich backing vocals offset the raw angst one hears throughout the song. There is so much to like on Swish, one can become swept up in falling in love with each successive song; just as I relish the rousing kick to the stomach that is “Hammer to the Head”, I equally adore the Brit-pop style goodness of “Ghoulie”, and after that along comes “Thermal Nuclear” which is a highly charged slab of indie rock that completes itself with a volcanic eruption of a conclusion. This is a band of great skill and the ability to craft songs for nearly all tastes-go out and find this immediately


KARMIC JUGGERNAUT -
The Dreams That Stuff Are Made Of (http://karmicjuggernaut.com)

Wow…this one is a trip, perhaps quite literally, from start to finish. If Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin label was still active, Karmic Juggernaut might be the first band he would sign. Sprawling, fearless psychedelic rock, the songs can be playful or rocking, and often a swirling combination of both. “Psycho Billy’s Downtown Adventure” is the darkest piece with the heaviest guitar riff, but even as the distortion drips through one’s speakers, the horn section of Ian Gray, Joonas Lemetyinen and Joe Gulluce inject a level of reckless fun into the sterling jam. The band’s core includes Randy Preston and James McCaffrey on guitar with new singer Daimon Santa Maria out in front of a rhythm section of drummer Kevin Grossman and Cody McCorry, accompanied by keyboardist Jake Hughes. Together, this band of virtuosos creates dazzling, wildly creative and free-flowing masterpieces that are both somehow painfully intricate and wildly improvisational in nature. The massive “Moving” is a sprawling nine minutes, while “Be Careful Moving Camel” is another lengthy piece that would become redundant in the hands of less talented players. Interspersing everything from hilarious end of the world radio broadcasts to brief flashes of experimental noise, Karmic Juggernaut are indeed a tank of innovative ideas performed by a collection of immensely skilled, like-minded geniuses who relish the idea of being musical outliers. This is not easy, but absolutely worth your time commitment.

PALE BLUE DOT - Anatomy (www.palebluedotband.com)

I have been waiting for Pale Blue Dot’s next musical act since their 2016 "Telescope" EP, and Anatomy is another collection of richly melodic tracks that are replete with tight grooves and the soaring vocals of Tony LaRocco. LaRocco truly shines on “Stained Glass Window,” a mesmerizing shot of rollicking playing over the top of poignant, emotive lyrics. If real radio still existed, Pale Blue Dot would be massive, for these are radio-friendly songs that are anything but pre-fabricated drivel. Instead, the seven efforts here bubble over with an enthusiasm and energy, while still being truly beautiful in their delivery. It is difficult to listen to Anatomy without being overwhelmed by the sheer loveliness of the collective work, but these are not feckless, weepy tracks; the lush musical complexity one hears on the majestic “Dust and Light” confirms that. “Only Love”, a song inspired as a reaction to the invasion of the band’s home base of Charlottesville, Virginia by tiki-torch waving white nationalists, bounces with the enthusiasm of an 80s pop song accented by the stirring vocals of Yolanda Jones. The opening “I Know” wraps itself around genteel but highly powerful guitar work and La Rocco’s lyrics of loss and regret. It is a significant, passionate introduction to the band’s newest material that sets a clear tone for the remaining six pieces. “Yesterday’s News” craws along with La Rocco significantly flexing his mighty vocal muscles while Peter Balough’s haunting guitar playing floats behind him until the band shifts gears and launches into a brief flurry of aggression to close out the work. I would enjoy a bit more of that energy from Pale Blue Dot, but their sound is wholly unique as the sensual “Canyons” proves. A meandering six-minute jewel of a song, the band never elevates their heart rates, but the track still conveys a robust message.


HIS NAME IS ALIVE - Black Wings (HHBTM Records www.hhbtm.com)

His Name is Alive is the long-running spawn of Warren Defever, and Black Wings is a celebration of everything the band has always done extraordinarily well; namely creating penetrating musicianship through lush arrangements and bucolic, ethereal soundscapes. Vocalist Andrea Morici possesses a starkly beautiful tone, and she is the star on the majority of the work on the expansive, thirty-six song release. The opening trio of “Patterns of Light”, “Energy Acceleration”, and “You Best Pray” feature Morici’s breathy, haunting vocals as she is accompanied by only the sparsest amount of musicianship. The work on Black Wings includes expansive works of wildly passionate emotion, (“How Ghosts Affect Relationships”, “Get Air-La”), but the four piece, rounded out by fellow guitarist Dusty Jones and drummer J. Rowe, also explore a more thunderous side of their collective personalities on the guitar-heavy “Rush”, the rugged “The Examination”, and the furious din of “Demonfuzz”. Even “You Best Pray” is treated to a “fuzz” version, and the song that is heard earlier as genteel and stirring, becomes equally engaging as a far more menacing slab of brief, noisy, fits. The band has an uncanny knack for moving effortlessly between styles and formats, including elements of progressive synth on the “Dragonmix I” and “Patterns of Lights (Moog mix)”. Even brief snippets of songs, such as “Italia”, “Memory” and “Les Zeppelina” are beautifully arranged, and there is purposefulness to their presence in the midst of longer, more fleshed-out tracks. The cacophony of restraint of “After Greensleeves” is seated comfortably close to “White Loops”, a buried gem that sounds like a lost effort from the Stranger Things soundtrack. There’s even a cover of America’s “Sister Golden Hair” thrown in for purposes known only to the band. Bands like His Name is Alive demonstrate how much creativity there is still in the world; one may have to look deeply to find it, but the search is worth the effort when one encounters works of genius such as this.

SHARP VIOLET - “These are the Rules, Boys” EP (https://sharpviolet.bandcamp.com)

On a quiet Thursday night in Amityville, NY, I was fortunate enough to catch a set from Sharp Violet, Long Island’s contribution to a resurgent riot grrrl movement. A quick scan of their Bandcamp page gives an introduction to a band that is biting, musically skilled, and very intelligent. The sardonic “These are the Rules, Boys” attacks the phenomenon of “mansplaining”, but does so without blanket accusations or sweeping condemnation; instead, vocalist Liz Meehan, who looks and sounds like what could have happened to Taylor Swift is she grew up listening to the Kill Rock Stars roster, says, “It can be so easy/ If we got along/But you always have to be right/Even when you're wrong”. Accompanied by a riff straight from Bratmobile’s finest moments compliments of Jessica Benenati, along with a throbbing low end rumble from bassist Jasmine Fuentes and drummer Tala diBenedetto, the track glides along with a controlled sense of simmering frustration that ultimately explodes in the final moments with Meehan roaring “always talking, never listening”. Sharp Violet’s latest effort is “Domino Effect”, taking full aim at Harvey Weinstein and his nauseating ilk; Sharp Violet are the right band at the right time, for sadly there are all too many stories of abuse and misogamy for them to explore. However, while the behaviors the band chooses to excoriate are repugnant, Sharp Violet’s music is just the opposite. As someone old enough to remember Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy and others when still in their infancies as bands, it is inspiring to hear riot grrrl punk still being played with such precision and rage. Go check out Sharp Violet immediately.

GRIM DEEDS - Seasons in the Amiss (https://grimdeeds.bandcamp.com)

Regardless of what one may say about the music of Grim Deeds, the man is limitlessly prolific, and Seasons in the Amiss (just brilliant, by the way) is another collection of brutally honest songs about just how disappointing adulthood truly is. “Sucks to be an Adult” is the opener and it sets the tone for the release, but as great as that song is, “Act Not Stoned” may be my new favorite Grim Deeds effort, as he makes it clear that getting high used to anger his parents, and now it angers his wife. (“I have to act not stoned/ so I don’t get in trouble at home”) “Happy” is an ode to being miserable in every aspect of one’s life, be it marriage, job, being alone, or even spending time with friends. The dynamic “Give Up Your Dreams” (“the life you live is meaningless”) smacks of the Dead Milkmen’s best moments with its jangly punk rock riff and tongue in cheek delivery. “Time Has Come” wraps a huge, metallic groove around lyrics of frustration and despondency about the current state of man’s existence (“living in a modern hell”), and this same theme is explored on the fiercely agitated “Leave the World Behind”. The closing “Waste of Time” is a fitting conclusion to a collection of furiously desperate tales of woe. Only the opening track hits the three-minute mark, and while there is certainly an Adult ADHD sensibility to Grim Deeds’ material, none of the songs feel incomplete. The work is here is quite relatable, maybe hitting too close to home for many of us, and Grim Deeds uses biting humor to capture the ennui of modern life.

LORDS OF ACID - Pretty in Kink (https://lordsofacidofficial. bandcamp. com)

Not to be relegated to some form of 90s dance-club relic, Lords of Acid mastermind Praga Khan returns with a dazzling collection of quasi metal grooves awash in sexually charged beats. Everythig throughout Pretty in Kink oozes the carnal lust associated with the band going back to their legendary 1991 debut, but the star here is Marieke Bresseleers. With a voice that is as soaring as it is erotic, she turns “Sex Cam Girl” into a majestic celebration of sexual expression of power and control, while her presence on “Ma Fille De Joie” adds a level of subtle sensuality to the song’s infectious hook. “Flow Juice” is riddled with innuendo, and once again Bresseleers’ talent elevates the lyrics above sounding corny (“move your ass around/let’s screw”) to celebratory. Not everything on Pretty in Kink slams listeners against the wall and grabs them by the hair, as “Androgyny” is a slow-boil of a song that climbs methodically over the course of four teasing minutes with subtle surf-tinged guitar floating across a steamy rhythm, and “Goldfinger” is an electro-funk banger that includes a lush solo from Bresseleer before the track grinds slowly until reaching a richly satisfying conclusion. Pretty in Kink throws a more straightforward hip-hop grooves at the audience on “What the Fuck!” and “God Damn Good”, with the latter embracing eroticism over pure visceral sexual fury. The record demonstrates how the band has continued to evolve and dare I say even mature over the past decades, as “My Demons Are Inside” is a gorgeous, multi-layered track that will rattle walls inside of clubs and assist in breaking box springs as well. The closing “We Are the Freaks” is a declaration of individuality and strength, and although it lacks some of the aggression of earlier tracks, it acts a perfect conclusion to a brilliant return from the Lords. The world is not a fun place to be right now, and so if people can climb all over each other while listing to Pretty in Kink, it may help to escape, if even for a few moments, all the chaos that dominates daily life, and that alone is reason to pick this up.


DEAD GIRLS ACADEMY - Alchemy (Victory Records www.victoryrecords.com)

Sleazy hard rock has become a lost art sadly, but Michael Orlando and Dead Girls Academy are here to revive the form with all the necessary swagger and excess. However, DGA are not mullet-sporting retreads trying to capitalize upon a sense of nostalgia; this is an old-fashioned rock n’ roll band employing lyrics about life’s underbelly (“Right now I wanna feel this pain forever”) and scorching solos. While “I Can’t Feel a Thing” has a slower, more controlled tempo, “Everything” could have lit up the Sunset Strip in ’87, and I love every second of this. Edgy and overflowing with nervous energy, Alchemy is a stirring collection of impactful three minutes blasts of rage and frustration that may be snubbed by elitists, but that is not going to be DGA’s audience; instead, this band will appeal to purists who remember when rock had an element of danger and inspired panic. I love what Orlando is doing here, and this is a man who confronted death and rebounded with an even stronger sense of purpose. Alchemy represents his remarkable attempt to craft a niche for himself, and DGA will be a brilliant second act.

HUMAN ADULT BAND - Sonic Enlightenment (Third Uncle Records www.thirduncle.com)

Human Adult Band is the type of outfit that still gets me excited about delightfully odd music as if I was still doing college radio for ten listeners. From the green, swirly vinyl to the whimsical noise found within, Sonic Enlightenment is a cacophony of perfectly executed chaos. “This Will Happen Again in a Year and a Half” and “Tampa” are two schizophrenic blats of noisy, disorganized precision. As a huge fan of metallic din, I adore everything about Human Adult Band-this is anti-music to confound and annoy those who simply do not recognize the genius at play here, but for those in the know, Sonic Enlightenment is a gem. The brief, surf-tinged “Monopus” comes closest to a more traditional song structure, but its droning riff still sets it aside from one’s typical act. This could be punk, but in essence, Sonic Enlightenment is defiance set to a polyrhythmic structure. Only the massive “Easton Ave. Laundromat” and the feedback drenched “Old Timey Teratological” include vocals, and while the presence of lyrics adds something unique to these efforts, the majority of the work eschews any vocal presence and allows the listener to be overwhelmed by the musical directions taken by the band. “Cosmic Snake Bite Kit” begins with a rather benign intro before erupting into a screeching, agitated mass of force. Closing with “Departed Earthen Angel”, a song appropriate for a low-budget slasher film, Human Adult Band concludes distinct blend of no wave, experimental noise, and fearless originality.

MOJAVE NOMADS - Phases (Standby Records www.standbyrecords.com)

Roaring out of Ogden, Utah of all places comes this six song EP of danceable guitar pop with sultry undertones. Mojave Nomads blend lush synth from Mason Hill with the highly emotive vocals of Tyler Harris to generate the dreamy sensibility of the opening “GIRL” and the particularly beautiful “Talk of the Town.” While “Morning Glory” has a swirling rock vibe, led by guitarist Colter Hill and supported by the rhythm section of bassist Bryton Bell and drummer Cole Eisenhower, the guys return to more somnambulistic tones on the genteel “Strange Love”. The closing “Heavy” truly demonstrates the warmth and breadth of Harris’ vocal abilities. I had no idea what to expect entering this release, and I finished Phases immensely impressed with what Mojave Nomads are doing.

CHANDLER TRAVIS THREE - O Backward Crooked From the Sunset (www.chandlertravis.com)

Quirky, irreverent and highly skilled, Cape Cod’s Chandler Travis and his Three O’s play downhome, folk-inspired tracks that boast of unbridled irreverence. “Disappointment” is a meandering effort that is accented by a blast of guitar force before settling back down into Travis’ earnest vocals. “All the Little Things” has a Buddy Holly meets Johnny Cash vibe and the song bounces with a sublime level of kinetic energy, while “Settling for Less” has Travis’ traditional story-telling skills kissed by his subtle humor (“Number one is nice I know/But there are so many other nice numbers”). The lush piano one hears on “Salad Days” augments a heartfelt love song that still includes a dark sense of humor as the female love interest confesses about all of her past loves (and yes, there were many…) while the poor guy involved attempts to remain above the pain that comes from hearing about the vast number of conquests. The subtlety of the humor matches the playing on Backward Crooked From the Sunset, for the songs resonate with a natural warmth like the sun beating down on a crowded Cape Cod beach on the Fourth of July, as even the brief instrumental “Queen Rachel” has a stirring beauty to its arrangement. The high water mark is “The Mayor of Drunktown”, a rollicking, honky-tonk of a song that is both very funny and too realistic for many of us. At its core, the song is about someone having a good time, but woven within to this is the realization of what this behavior can do to the people around him. The closing “Not in Service” has a rich guitar tone and Travis sounds particularly inspired. For people who appreciate the art of a gifted raconteur and a highly proficient crafter of intelligence, personalized songs, Backward Crooked From the Sunset is a perfect soundtrack for the summer.


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

These Seattle pop-punk lovers wanted to make “a big, dumb, rock record” according to vocalist and guitarist Dan Gardner, and the result is a grand, often-hilarious, highly satisfying listen. Kobayashi Maru (named for a test of one’s character from Star Trek so says the internet) opens with “Bent”, a song that rattles out of the box with a great hook. However, once the second track, “ComRAD” hits, it is clear one is in for a treat. With lyrics about falling love with a Communist at a coffee shop (“She asked me what I thought of Lenin/I told her that I really loved ‘Imagine’”), the song is blisteringly funny and played with effusive energy. “Jimmy’s Song (Part 2)” slows the tempo down a bit with a chunkier guitar riff, while “Run” and the highly self-effacing “Let’s Burn Burn Burn” are ideally crafted punk-pop gems. A picture on an ex’s Facebook page is the crisis explored on “He’s Got Good Teeth”, and the sad yet speedy track is paired perfectly with “No Return”. It can be potentially redundant to listen to twelve consecutive light-hearted punk tracks, but Kobayashi Maru is expertly structured so the songs vary in tempo and approach just enough to consistently hold one’s attention. I found myself sad when this ended-both for the heartbreaking stories so boldly shared on each song, and also because this is a sterling example of a band who knows what they do well and does so with ease.

HIGH PRIESTESS s/t (Ripple Music www.ripple-music.com)

Three metal goddesses (Katie Gilchrest on vocals and guitar, bassist Mariana Fiel, and drummer Megan Mullins) simply crush the listener through six pummeling, overwhelming efforts on their debut release. The band became the toast of LA’s metal scene through one demo released less than a year ago, and everything about their self-titled release illustrates why. Gilchrist’s vocals can be both ethereal and lush or terrifyingly guttural, and her two band-mates support her with thunderous low-end force, with Fiel’s bass lines offering consistently memorable waves of devastation. Yes, the mandatory Sabbath-inspired stomp is present, most noticeably on “Banshee” and “Take the Blame”, but it is not so prevalent as to become predictable. The opening ten-minute opus “Firefly” is an atmospheric triumph, majestic and intriguing. Mullins is a star behind her kit, contributing brain-rattling force to the otherwise airy “Despise”, as Gilchrest’s guitar force ebbs and flows with the same ease with which she controls her voice. The band is not traditional doom in terms of sounding as if they are collectively trapped in a musical tar pit, as both “Mother Forgive Me” and “Earth Divide” have stirring moments of quiet that accentuate the bombast with shattering intensity. Certainly fans of Sleep’s legendary work will find mush to appreciate here, for High Priestess emphasize musicianship that is sometime lost in the dirge that is doom metal. Artistic and visionary, High Priestess create truly engaging, and even energizing, doom masterpieces.


ANIMAL FLAG - Void Ripper (Flower Girl Records www.flowergirlrecords.com

Singer/guitarist Matthew Politoski is the leader of Boston’s Animal Flag and he rightfully describes the band’s records as each a separate “universe”. Within that single word lies an ideal summation of his band’s latest effort, Void Ripper. Animal Flag has witnessed numerous shifts in sounds and members, but Void Ripper is a scintillating nine-song experience that is occasionally challenging but consistently engaging. The opening quiet hush of “Morningstar” gives way to “Candace” with a sinewy aloofness, and “Candace” assaults the listener with a massive bass line from Zach Weeks and a groove that swings and smashes with wild aplomb. The rumbling loud/soft dynamic of “Stray” is simultaneously infectious and intimidating. Imbued with a powerful hook, the song’s darkness shrouds a band that knows how to craft sublime harmonies. Surrounding Politoski and Weeks are guitarist Sai Boddupalli and drummer Alex Pickert, and the four allow Animal Flag to integrate familiarity into a sound that is slightly impossible to firmly place. “Fair” has a panoramic sensibility; the track is expansive, but also includes a warm, nearly shoegaze pop aesthetic. The band takes the listener on oscillating emotional journeys on “I Can Hear You Laugh” and “Lord of Pain”. The latter begins with a seemingly innocuous acoustic riff before morphing into a more complex and multi-layered effort. The austere beauty of “Why” makes it my favorite of Void Ripper; however, this is not an easy choice and my feelings may change with subsequent listens, but for this moment, the expert power heard on the track makes it a perfect embodiment of this band’s prowess. Closing with a fury on “Five”, Animal Ripper has a gem of modern experimental rock with intellect, force, and precision.

THE BUNNY GANG - “Problem What problem” b/w “Protecting” (Zojak World Wide www.zojakworldwide.com)

The Bunny Gang plays lighthearted, instantly infectious ska that would act as a primer for those unfamiliar with the genre. The A-side is a cover of “Problem What Problem”, originally done by DoNots, a German outfit that took a little time to research, and The Bunny Gang inject a little life into the original. The B-side “Protection” is a smooth flowing track about looking out for those who matter most. The single overflows with positive vibes, and is a celebration of kindness and affirmative messages. This is not a reinvention of ska, but the band does not pretend to do so; instead, they proudly display their fun-loving nature across two songs that are equally easy in which to lose one’s self.

PUNKEMON – “Gotta Rock ‘Em All” EP (Sounds Rad Records https://www.soundsradical.com)

While obvious a niche piece, Punkémon is also a celebration of delicious punk-pop tomfoolery from some of the best in the business. Originally recorded in 1999, the two songs on the single sound as if they were cranked out last week. Dr. Frank from the Mr. T Experience is joined by Chris Imlay from the Hi-Fives, Mel Bergman from Phantom Surfers, and Lookout’s Chris Appelgren for a wonderfully adorable time capsule project. “Lickitung” celebrates an actual Pokémon character, who according to his bio, has the special talent of “licking”. It makes sense, but it almost makes too much sense, so I though the character was a creation of these twisted geniuses, but incredibly, Lickitung is an actual creation generated to be sold to children. At any rate, the brief B-side “Pocket Monsters” flies by far too quickly, as did the window of potential success for this band. However, it is a wonderful throwback to a simpler time in America.

SHARKFIST VS. BROWN PLAID – Split 7-inch (Splits McGee https://sharkfist.bandcamp.com)

Brown Plaid has me hooked with “A Perfectly Cromulent Song”; the track has both a title with a fantastic Simpsons reference and lyrics about Metallica’s mid-90s make-over (“I’m pissed off like a metal head when Metallica cut their hair”). The guys from Long Island play traditional punk-pop fare, but do so with a sharper than average sense of humor. Placing the inconsistencies and general stupidity of modern society through a sarcastic lens is nothing new in the world of punk-pop, but with references to Doug from “The State” (“We’re Outta Here”), and a keen eye for pointless nostalgia (“Practice”), the four songs are both aggressive and hilarious. Their Screeching Weasel acumen is obvious, and there is nothing wrong with that. Meanwhile, Sharkfist has a moniker that refers to partying “beyond comprehension” according to their Bandcamp page, and who can doubt their sincerity on “There’s No ‘I’ in Party”? This loud, snarky, outfit deliver their punk with a slightly less obvious pop affect than their split mates and they allow “.666 (The Batting Average of the Beast)” to breathe a little bit rather than rushing through the effort. I suggest picking this up digitally to gain access to the bonus tracks “Beer Pong Champions of Long Island” and “Drink ‘Em if You Got ‘Em”.

RADIATION RISKS - “Headless Horse-man” b/w “Nancy” (Feral Kid Records ttps://feral-kid-records.bandcamp.com)

This Buffalo outfit makes it clear that all that snow and ice can lead to cabin fever which leads to temporary insanity which leads to this. Radiation Risks play quasi-psychedelic punk that is somehow lo-fi, speedy, groovy, and majestically bizarre. With lyrics referencing The Godfather, “Mr. Ed”, and sexual fantasies involving Nancy Reagan, be sure to share this only with people who have been acquaintances for a long time. “Headless Horse-man” is almost atonal at times with the vocals buried deeply into the mix, while “Nancy” is much more clear so one can appreciate lines such as “Hinckley is free again, Jodie…she needs you John, to hunt again”). Throughout multiple listens, I truly have no idea what I am hearing, and I love it more each time.

DIGITAL CRIMINALS - Hell Yeah (www.digitalcriminals.com.uk)

This four-song EP from the only band from Wales that I know of is a surprisingly danceable blend of aggressive guitar rock and pop aesthetics. Emily Bates has a powerful voice, and when declares that everyone should declare, “hell fuckin’ yeah” on the title track, the line is delivered with and infectious and undeniable authenticity. The band has too many massive riffs, compliments of Dan Fry, to labeled as a pop-rock act, but they are certainly not afraid to craft easily digestible and incredibly infectious hooks. “Just Jump” is rife with a massive chorus and the closing “Sleep When You’re Dead” shimmies along with a bouncing groove from bassist James Hardwick. Playing what used to be labeled “hard rock” is a lost art, and Digital Criminals are unapologetic in their affinity for arena rock elements, but the foursome has an energy that elevates them above merely posing. With many bands of this ilk, the songs can sound a bit too overproduced or mechanized; while there are traces of that on the four tracks on this EP, the raw strength of Bates helps to preserve a level of fun-loving, too-drunk-at-the-party type of vibe. Digital Criminals are not trying to invent something new or rewrite the way rock n’ roll is played; instead, the focus their collective energy on crafting huge guitar-driven anthems that do not require any analysis-the band just wants to have fun. It’s a refreshing idea.

PARLOR WALLS - EXO (Northern Spy Records https://northernspyrecs.com)

Parlor Walls throws a little bit of everything at the listener in a celebratory mass of noise, jazz, rock, and dissonant fury. “Necromancer” is a hypnotic, dysfunctional combination of swirling force with a subtle hint of sexuality that makes the song a delectable slice of inspirational chaos. EXO is a highly robust EP, giving listeners much more than just four songs-the experimentalism and creativity of Alyse Lamb and Chris Mulligan is reflected through a powerful musical relationship. The songs rise and fall with both abrasive force and supple dexterity. “Love Complex” has a chorus that erupts with devastating volatility before regressing back into a more genteel approach. “Isolator” is a controlled ball of simmering force that toes the edge of exploding, but holds itself together for a scintillating, jazz-tinged ride. The closing “Low Vulture” has Lamb demanding to “get out in front of it”, with her voice slicing through the atmospheric din constructed around her. This is a flawless effort.


 

GREAT LAKES - Dreaming Too Close to the Edge (Loose Trucks Records https://greatlakesbencrum. bandcamp.com)

Ben Crum is a bit of a personal inspiration to me; we are the same age and both teachers. However, the similarities end there, as Crum is an immensely gifted singer/songwriter, whose heartfelt, earthy songs are pristine gems of smart, gritty rock n’ roll. Everything on Dreaming Too Close to the Edge rambles with a fluidity and confidence, from the opening barrage of “End of an Error” through the understated psychedelia of the closing “You Could Have Had Me for a Song”. The work of Great Lakes has the honesty of Tom Waits and the pop sensibility of The Byrds, best heard on the serene “Awaking Up Together”, a lush, rollicking piece that sounds effortless in its delivery. Crum’s bluesy, weathered vocals are ideal for the songs of Great Lakes-the stories he tells are those of maturity, self-discovery and recognition, and it requires a certain amount of miles to deliver such tales with the eloquence and passion they deserve. The record is highlighted by the sing along components of “Bury the Hatchet” and the earnest nature of “To Live is to Lose”. While not truly country-flavored, “Kingdom Came” contains a slight twang that provides a level of distinction from the other surrounding anthems. Suzanne Nienaber and guitarist Kenny Wachtel are two of the all-star caliber talent on display here, but the entire band, rounded out by drummer Kevin Shea, keyboardist Joe McGinty, pedal steel wizard Phil Sterk, and multi-everything player David Gould, support Crum through a collection of heartfelt anthems. The songs have both a battle-tested intimacy as well as a distinct nature that makes Great Lakes a captivating listen.

MIEN s/t (Rocket recordings www.rocketrecordings.bandcamp.com)

This wildly talented four-piece (whose other outfits include Black Angels and The Horrors) offers atmospheric electronica tempered with a classical Kraftwerk style component. The opening “Earth Moon” has a densely hypnotic tempo structure that dances on the edge of pop, but still retains a complexity that elevates the song well above standard fare. “Bleak Habit” wraps itself around a haunting groove that suddenly drops out mid-song before reemerging with even darker and fiercer energy. While Mien generates a specific sound, no two songs are repetitive, or for that matter, even remotely similar in nature. The forlorn emotion of “(I’m Tired of) Western Shouting” steps aside for the ethereal complexity of ‘You Dreamt”, as dance rhythms permeates the mind of the listener, making the song an uneasy but fascinating experience. The gentle ambiance of “Other” has a gentle quality that offers the initial impression of a warm embrace, but there is also a menacing component to the song, and this speaks to what Mien does so well. As one gets lost in the swirling masses of sound heard through the sprawling release, the experience is both uncomfortable and somehow serenely enveloping. Alex Maas, Tom Furze, Rishi Dhar, and John-Mark Lapham are all limitlessly skilled, as “Ropes” and “Echolalia” both demonstrate. The songs continue the theme of distemper and familiarity, for both songs entice with their beauty but one can never fully feel at ease. Each song on this self-title release is a vast soundscape kissed by pop hooks that allow the band to be both accessible and confrontational. The buoyancy of “Odyssey” is woven within a sedentary dance beat and haunting keys. Perpetually and majestically bi-polar, Mien is a challenging listen that is well worth the effort.

THE CARVELS NYC - Everything With You is a Travesty (www.thecarvelsnyc. bandcamp.com/releases)

The Carvels NYC play five blasts of flawlessly executed garage punk with a healthy injection of pop fun. Lynne Von Pang is the inarguable star here, singing with a snarl dipped in delicious sarcasm. Her assault upon a vapid partner through the lyrics of the title track is a conversation everyone would love to have, but simply lack the courage to do so. (“No matter what I say, you just don’t pay attention/Then I have to answer all of your stupid questions”) The bluesy, controlled “Questioningly” (“I don’t love you anymore/What do you want to talk to me for?”) is led by the sax playing of Dave Spinley, but the band then instantly shifts into surf-punk overdrive on “You make Me Want to be Alone”, which is another scathing break-up anthem. “It Wasn’t My Idea to Break Your Heart” and “I Don’t Know What to do With You” are rare pearls that sound like the Runaways and the Shangri-Las sharing the same rehearsal space, with the latter highlighted by Brian Morgan’s guitar work. Complete with beautiful gatefold artwork and awesome stickers, The Carvels NYC do everything right!

NIHILIST CHEERLEADER - Riot, Right? (Perfect Attendance Records http://perfectattendancerecords.com)

Reminiscent of, but not simply imitating, the Riot Grrl movement that I fell in love with during the early 1990s, Nihilist Cheerleader is a band with limitless energy and an equally developed political acumen. This band would have been sharing a stage with Bikini Kill and been the darlings of Kill Rock Stars twenty-five years ago, but the world is lucky to have them now. Akin to the calls to action commanded by Downtown Boys, Nihilist Cheerleader attacks difficult topics with fearless intensity. Flynne Collins has a broad vocal range, but she is at her best when she unfurls her rage on “And She Takes It”. Guitarist Dylan Loftin and drummer Charley Barley run wild on the combustible “Shark Fin Soup” and “Three Drug Cocktail”, while bassist Leona Hinkle does a superior job of holding the songs together. Boldly embracing garage aesthetics, Nihilist Cheerleader play the purest form of punk-the noise and the aggression are there to make people put their phones down and listen. The swirling, dance groove of “Your Ur Uniform”, majestically controlled by Hinkle’s bass work, is a soaring example of a band that is firmly in control of their sound and are only getting better. The opening, menacing riff of “Bleach Boy” gives way to an explosion of disgusted fury that references several politicians who may or may not be in office by the time one reads this. With ten songs delivered in less than thirty minutes, this band does not waste a note. Athens, Georgia has quite a robust military history, but Nihilist Cheerleader may be the future of that great city.

BABY BONES - The Curse of the Crystal Teeth (Gubbey Records www.gubbeyrecords.com)

Baby Bones utilize dark tones with a surf rock vibe to create an incredibly unnerving and thrilling listen on Curse of the Crystal Teeth. Borrowing Ace Frehley from Music From the Elder-era KISS and forcing him to sit in with Night Birds begins to explain a bit of what it is like to be bombarded by “Pay Us in Dimes”, the thunderous second track of the boisterous six found here. “Slick Shoes” is a rattling wall of force that is shockingly crafted by only three players as Dave Rucinski, Thomas Burgos, and drummer Badnewz Brandum simply decimate the track. This song stands in direct contrast with the sinewy, slithering “Bottom Breather” that also infuses a healthy blues hook into the dazzling conclusion. The psyche-noise clamor of “We’re Done Talking” is a triumph of a merger between punk and groove-oriented rock into one boiling mass of force, while the opening “Bought he Farm” is a hard-driving, pulsating rock gem. These guys have kicked around the Louisville area for years, but Baby Bones should make them national names.

EDITORS - Violence (Play It Again Sam Records)

While much of what Editors does swirls with extraordinary energy, their brand of soaring, dark wave is best embodied by “No Sound but the Wind”. Led only by Tony Smith’s vocals and sparse piano, the song resonates with profound impact through its lyrical power and stunning beauty. Blending elements of the old and the new, Editors sounds like Echo and the Bunnymen sitting in with Interpol, and the result is a collection of mesmerizing songs. With a stripped down delivery, “Darkness at the Door” and “Counting Spooks” are deceptive; a cursory listen may infer simplicity, but repeated plays allows one to hear the complex subtleties that make the songs so memorable. “Cold” can be both the soundtrack to a very adult night out or the coolest song ever played at a middle school dance, and therein lies the brilliance of Editors. Their songs are powerful and transcend genres and ages. When Smith says, “Baby, we’re nothing but violence”, (“Violence”) it is a soulful admission uttered with remarkable honesty and sensuality as a haunting beat cascades around him. The rich harmony and groove that drives “Nothingness” is matched by the ethereal expanse of “Magazine”, whose dance floor hook is addictive and anchored by Smith’s Bowie-like crooning. I had no idea that I would love this as much as I do.

MARC RIBOT’S CERAMIC DOG YRU - Still Here? (Northern Spy Records www.northernspyrecs.com)

Marc Ribot is a genius. There is no way to deny this fact after one hears the delightful lounge sounds of “Pennsylvania 6 6666” (“Pennsylvania, want to live there/Place where everyone is white”). The song meanders along, somewhat innocuously so, for four minutes before erupting into a rousing conclusion that includes stirring horns and cries of “don’t go back”, “white pollution”, and “never go back”. This comes on the heels of “Personal Nancy” in which Ribot, accompanied by two equally brilliant players in bassist Sahzad Ismally and drummer Ches Smith, alerts all within ear shot that he “has the right to scream like an idiot” and to “say fuck you!”. The entirety of YRU Still Here is just stunningly bizarre and it is unfeasible to not find one’s self swept away in the grunge meets surf vibe of “Agnes” or the hard-hitting swing of “Muslim Jewish Resistance”. The song is bellicose in nature, with John Zorn-style horn chaos and references to Steve Bannon and fighting against fascism. Politics are woven throughout the record with less than subtle allusions to our current leader, “I say the president’s dumber than an artichoke” may be my personal favorite line, but even when the band says nothing, they speak voluminously. “Shut That Kid Up” and “Oral Sidney With a U” are both thought-provoking instrumentals, with the latter borrowing heavily from 70s Blaxploitation funk and the former strutting down the street with too much confidence to be held by only a mid-tempo swagger. As angelic sitar opens “Orthodoxy”, I know that I have found my new obsession. Go tell your friends what they are missing and get ready for the stares of wonder and amazement once they have their lives transformed by this.

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THE LAST GANG - Keep Them Counting (Fat Wreck Chords www.fatwreck.com)

The Last Gang’s Brenna Red screams, “Through music we will never die” on “Turn the Record Over”, the hidden bonus track on the digital copy of Keep Them Counting, and her intensity is palpable. While this release is the band’s first for Fat Wreck, the trio has been kicking around in one form or another since 2007. Keep Them Counting is ten (plus the bonus) tracks of blistering, hyper-aggressive punk with heart and harmony. The Last Gang places an emphasis on the “rock” in punk rock as the opening “Sing for Your Supper” demonstrates. With a massive riff and an infectious melody, fans of Anti-Flag, Rancid, the Distillers, or Damn Mondays will rightfully adore The Last Gang. Sleekly produced by Cameron Webb, the songs are crisp without minimizing the punch. The raw angst of “Nobody’s Prostitute” (I ain’t for sale now/I am forever/Don’t ever you say you don’t love me”) and the slashing riff of “Strange Fruit” are but two of the instantly memorable moments one finds on Keep Them Counting. Bassist Sean Viele and drummer Robby Wantland are a thunderous combination throughout the record, but truly excellent on the raucous “Believe in the Poet” and the driving “Karla”, acting as a perfect anchor to Red’s scorching vocals and thick riffs. Red is the star here, and she proves she has a multi-faceted arsenal on the acoustic “Secret Sounds”, a pop-infused anthem of darkness and lonesome travels with a damaged cast of characters. The Last gang has all the traits necessary to become a band with broad appeal without having to sell their souls to do so.

LONG NECK - Will This Do? (Tiny Engines Records www.tinyengines.net)

Lily Mastrodimos, formerly of Jawbreaker Reunion, surrounds herself with three highly skilled players (drummer John Ambrosio, bassist June Rose, and guitarist Kevin Kim), but truthfully, she is Long Neck. It is impossible to avoid being swept away by her dynamic voice throughout Will This Do? To answer that question posed by the title, all of this does quite nicely. On the swirling pop of “Elizabeth” Mastrodimos channels Natalie Merchant at her most affective, and “Love Letters” bobs with effusive buoyancy in a dazzling two minutes, contrasting with the darker, methodical “Ashes” that crawls along a dirty street with rugged guitar. The indie rock goodness of “Milky Way” is a clinic in how to produce smart, savvy, guitar pop that will impress even the most jaded of listeners. “Lichen” is a perfect example of how the presence of a fleshed out band changes the dynamics of Mastrodimos’ music-the track could work as a solo piece, as would the delicate beauty of “Rosy”, but the additional girth of a full band makes the loud/soft shifts more engaging. The concluding “10,000 Year Old Woman” is a return to Mastrodimos’ roots through a stirring acoustic work. Will This Do? is a lush, charismatic record celebrating both combined talents and the unique gifts of Lily Mastrodimos.

AWAKEBUTSTILLINBED - What People Call Low Self-Esteem is Really Just Seeing Yourself the Way That other People See You (Tiny Engines Records www.tinyengines.net)

Shannon Taylor may have just become my favorite singer. Similar to Marissa Paternoster or Victoria Ruiz, Taylor tosses all regard for her vocal chords to the curb and makes listeners feel each syllable throughout What People Call Low Self-Esteem. Surrounded by Borin Bou on guitar and Elijah Stoll on drums, Awakebutstillinbed create songs that rage and recede around Taylor’s unrelenting effort, particularly on the rattling “Safe”, a shape-shifting anthem that alters tempo with staggering ease. While the abrasive nature of Taylor’s angst is instantly intriguing, the band is more than just articulate screaming, as beautiful melodies carry “Saved” with a greater emphasis on a hook rather than searing vocal force, but the closing lines of “Why can’t we fix ourselves? Is there any way out? Why is there so much wrong with us?” is both chilling and brazenly honest. “Interlude” is a lush instrumental that does allow the listener to take a quick breath before being assailed again. The band’s strength is not only how they deliver their messages, but also what is being said. When Taylor states, “I know I’ll stop breathing one day, and I’ll never be able to justify the ways that I’ve lived my life. I just want something to feel all right, something to show for all this time”, she taps into a universal sense of worry. Beginning slowly, with a nearly menacing sensibility, “Floor“ eventually unleashes a cacophony of angular, biting guitar that smashes head-on with punishing drumming. Within a few seconds, the din subsides and Taylor’s honest tale of betrayal shines with intrepid honesty (“You were my best friend, but you fucked up my life”). “Closer” gives an initial impression of a jangly, nearly pop-inspired anthem before Taylor takes control. As the final seconds fade harmlessly into the air, one can finally stop, exhale, and appreciate what is an astounding experience.

RUNAWAY BROTHER - New Pocket (Tiny Engines Records www.tinyengines.net)

Representing Cleveland, Ohio, Runaway Brother has an emo component to their dreamy pop. The quiet moments on New Pocket are occasionally virulently shredded by blasts of guitar, but largely the band plays with maturity and control. The cleverly monikered “Conscience in Tumult” ebbs and lows with a hypnotic bounce and 90s indie rock guitar tones. Vocalist Jacob Lee has a voice that exudes passion, but often does so through a genteel, heartfelt delivery rather than looking to scream each syllable. “Canopy Eyes” includes sharp tempo shifts and Lee’s soaring harmonics that lead perfectly into the spacious “Bully”, a song highlighted by a dynamic performance from drummer Ian Phillips. The pristine nature of “Cats in the Sun” makes it a one of the true highlights of the record, as shimmering guitar and an intricate time scheme imbues the song with a level of sophisticated complexity. Woven into the lush sheen of “Kissing” are lyrics that capture a fleeting moment and expound upon it with an honesty that never seems contrived: “Revealing peel the innermost skill/all my feelings completely naked now”. There is a comforting familiarity to what Runaway Brother does, from the experimental aspects of “Paws” to the sprawling nature of “All Saints Day”, but yet this also sounds distinctive. New Pocket is a gorgeous demonstration of shrewd musicianship.


ELK CITY - Everyone’s Insecure (Bar/None Records www.bar-none.com)

Majestic, spacious, and graceful, Elk City plays pop for people who look for depth within their musical voyages. The instant hook of the band is the stirring vocals of Renée LoBue, whose voice soars through a series of evocative and emotionally charged songs. The opening “Sparrow” begins with a low rumble of Martin Olsen’s bass before giving way to a sinewy groove revolving around LoBue’s partially hopeful, somewhat despondent realization that she will never “be as free as the sparrow”, while “He’s Having a Baby” (“He’s having a baby/ he says he’s not ready”) is mischievous take on falling in love with the right guy at the wrong time. Sean Eden of the newly resurrected Luna offers lush guitar work throughout the ten songs, most pronounced on the gripping “25 Lines”, but also a centerpiece on the fragile, shoegazing title track and the more rollicking “No Depth”. “Root Beer Shoes” seems to hover innocently in the air, guided with delicate care by drummer Ray Ketchum, who also produced this beautiful gem of a record, and pianist Carl Baggeley. LoBue begins the song by asking, “Whatever happened to Cupcakes O’Brian/she dated Bukowski for one day”, then references Hemmingway and the simple joy of having a person’s shoe brush against yours. These simple moments are captured with extraordinary care and what others may see as simply a passing event void of meaning, LoBue uses to construct mesmerizing stories. With a combination of chilling prowess and supreme musical command, Elk City’s brand of ethereal pop will enthrall.

ERIK CORE - No War, No Where, No Peace (Abouticore Music www.erikcore.com)

Furious and hard-driving are not often terms associated with acoustic outfits, but Erik Core is anything but a typical act, and No War, No Where, No Peace is a series of constant surprises. I am stunned to hear acoustic music played with such devastating intensity, but this is a raging collection of politically shrewd anthems, leading off with “Smart Bombs” which acts as a blind-sided punch to the gut, and is an ideal table-setter for a collectively brilliant release. With only four of the ten tracks clocking in at over three minutes, Erik Core makes his points quickly and firmly. Even more impressive here is the fact that this is only a trio-Core leads the din on “Devil’s Workshop” and “Coming Loose”, but it is impossible to ignore the machine gun timing of drummer Josh “Bulldoza” Mendoza or the rattling low-end force of Al Stingle’s bass. Combined, these three take punk’s primal energy and folk’s social commentary and channel it into an articulate amalgamation of both forms. “Peace for Pawns” embodies this style perfectly, offering a glimpse into how an unplugged Dead Kennedys would sound. At times borrowing from 1960s protest songs (“Tears Running Red” and “No War”) and often rumbling with relentless energy (“Smoking Gun”), Erik Core exudes passion along with sophisticated songwriting.

DINOLA - Up High (Saustex Records www.saustex.com

The New Orleans outfit plays think, intoxicating, blues-soaked rock n’ roll, led by the enthralling voice of Sue Ford to drive each track. The thunderous bass intro of “Apocalipstick” is only one of numerous highlights from Up High, a celebratory record of blunt force and subtle dexterity. The band’s backstory is a fascinating, as each member (drummer and Sue’s husband Jimmy, bassist Eddie Payne, and guitarist Eric Laws) survived the life-altering disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. Rather than be subjugated by the destruction, the catastrophe became a rallying call and inspiration to celebrate the legendary city, hence the band’s moniker. The sludgy “Shut Up” is a teeth-rattling show of force with Ford bitterly spitting out the chorus with a tangible disgust as Laws’ guitar work rises and falls behind her. It takes remarkable courage to tackle Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ legendary “I Put a Spell on You”, but DiNola’s interpretation is a majestic slab of sexual energy and erotic bombast. The title track includes a gritty, Southern-boogie riff and Ford’s most sensual performance of the six songs here. Replete with wah-wah pedal and a rebellious spirit, the song is an ideal example of rugged, groove-oriented rock. I loved this from start to finish.

SPIDER ROCKETS - Along Came a Spider (P-Dog Records www.spiderrockets.com)

I do not envy those performing in a hard rock band in 2018; with the genres and sub-genres within sub-genres, the music business has become a confusing labyrinth. However, a band like Spider Rockets cuts through the labels and plays old-fashioned, blaring guitar rock overflowing with harmonies and all the hooks one could hope for in eleven tracks. The old time, meat and potatoes groove of “Love Gore” and “Adore” is matched by snarky, self-affirming lyrics on “Love it When You’re Wrong”. Helena Cos has a voice that can channel the best moments of Donita Sparks or Pat Benatar, the latter lovingly honored with a cover of “Heartbreaker”. It is the mold of that 80s hit maker upon which Spider Rockets model themselves, and do so unashamedly. The thunderous “Sick” is counterbalanced by the slow grind of “Burn”, and the pop-rock glam of “Come to Me”, all the while the production of Dan Malsch keeps each song slick but never with too much sheen. The most obvious constant throughout the record is guitarist Johnny Nap who is the fuel powering the band, revealing the ability to balance technical prowess and catchy riffs to create songs that actually stay with the listener instead of simply fading into oblivion before the track emerges. The band’s strongest point may also be their biggest challenge-they can paly a with a legion of acts, and while much of what Spider Rockets does sounds comfortable and familiar, there is not much out there right now that sounds like Along Came a Spider. This is a band for people who still like bands and not “artists” and complete records rather than singles. I count myself among this rapidly diminishing group, so Spider Rockets has a devoted fan in me.

GOVERNESS (Radical Empathy Records http://onepercentpress.bigcartel.com /category/radical-empathy-records)

Washington DC’s Governess has one of the coolest backstories I have ever encountered-Kim Weeks, Kieca Mahoney, and Erin McCarly met each other while constructing a local cooperative-style preschool for their kids and formed an angular, snarling punk band. The three rip through eight raw, garage-tinged flare-ups with biting lyrics and cutting observations. Opening with “Broken Glass”, Weeks announces, “science was my savior until I was nine/I thought I wanted a test tube baby” over the top of a scathing yet still jangly riff. This ability to balance emotionally charged fury while still retaining a sense of melody is also true on the rollicking “Zipless”. Introducing a subtle surf vibe on “Elegy”, the band displays a deft command of tempo as haunting lyrics about the sudden arrival of an untimely death is extraordinarily hard-hitting, while the serpentine “Control Top” glides along methodically with minimal musicianship, asking “how can a full home feel so empty?”. The moody, spatial “Patterns” closes this remarkable record, with subtle guitar bursts and sixties girl-group harmonies coexisting in flawless symmetry. Blending the finest elements of Slater-Kinney with the raw energy of a band like Faunas or Coathangers, Governess is an essential re-release by Radical Empathy.

THE DEAN WEEN GROUP - Rock 2 (Schnitzel Records http://schnitzel.co.uk/)

Dean Ween has spent over three decades continuously reinventing himself, and Rock 2 continues the astounding musical journey that is his life. Rock 2 begins with the heartfelt “Don’t Let the Moon Catch You Crying” then shifts all too effortlessly to the grungy, smarmy “Fingerbanging”, oozing with sexuality, sax, and a soaring guitar solo. After opening with distinct styles of songs, only Dean Ween can offer “Theme From ‘Skinhead Kicking Your Ass”, a Zappa-esque burst of guitar wizardry dripping with sarcastic brilliance without saying a word, while “Pussy on my Pillow” includes references to a dog who “loved her daddy”. “Waste Station 9” is yet another effort that would fit perfectly alongside Weasels Ripped my Flesh from the Mothers with its supernatural guitar word and airtight rhythms. Manically twisted, the entire record is a throwback to a different age; a time when experimentation was celebrated and genius was not measured in numbers of views on YouTube. The seventies rock vibe of “Showstopper” and “Someone Greased the Fatman” is matched by the laser-light show ready guitar work of “The Ritz Carlton”., and the low-end thump of “Yellow Pontiac”. For anyone who doubted the talent of Dean Ween, Rock 2 illustrates for anyone with functioning ears that this man is boundless in his talents, swaying and frolicking at times, delivering thunderous monstrosities of force at other moments, and doing all with equal aplomb.

SPIT TAKE - Frog Rock (Ice Age Records https://iceagerecords.bandcamp.com/)

This highly DIY outfit from New Haven, Connecticut blasts through eleven noisy, punk-pop anthems replete with raw emotion and limitless energy. Frog Rock is actually a compilation of two cassette only releases recorded in 2016, now on one release for mass convenience, but there are marginal differences between the songs and that is a compliment. While the opening “Turn the Car Around” blazes past in a scant fifty-eight seconds, “Something Sometimes” and “Sideways” rattle with warmth reminiscent of Archers of Loaf and other early to mid-90s masters of controlled raucous. Vocalist and guitarist Joe bares his soul throughout the record, admitting “everything’s lovely ‘cuz last night you loved me” (the aforementioned “Sideways”) and “Behind this boy’s mask, I am an alien on a planet alone”. (“Long For Home”) Supported by bassist Maggie and drummer Dan, the band competently shifts tempos enough to provide each song with a level of distinction, which is critical on tracks like “How ‘Bout You?” and the hyperactive “Awful Long” in which lyrics are at a premium, and the songs are largely instrumentals carried by vigorous riffs and a clattering low end. Abrasive but never without heart or a penchant for a hook, Frog Rock is an impressive introduction to an intriguing band. “A Candle” (I'll always think about how badly/things ended up between you and me/I'll always keep a little candle burning) and “Rain-Soaked New York” are poignant, controlled anthems of raw pain, while the autobiographic “The Natural Facts” illustrate that even when one moves forward, there is a feeling that nothing has changed (I stayed on top of the laundry/ cleaned my clothes/ smelled a little better…but last year was a long year/like this year is a long year”). There is much to enjoy here and this is a record demanding repeated listens because there is something new to discover each time. This is not unhinged garage punk with a few pop accents-Spit Take blend fuzzy, dreamy pop elements and aggression into a well-balanced delivery. I absolutely want more of this band, and I hope college kids around the country are playing this one into the ground.

STEVE BARTON - Tall Tales and Alibis (Sleepless Records www.sleepless-records.com)

Musicians are always looking to challenge themselves in an effort to expand upon their past achievements and progress. In the case of Steve Barton, he undertakes an nearly Olympian task with Tall Tales and Alibis; rather than release a string of records, Barton, he of the long-time and deservedly adored Translator, has unleashed three albums simultaneously, each distinct in tone, sound, and approach. Collectively, one is provided with a spotlight into the vast reaches of a truly brilliant mind, while Barton espouses, laments, celebrates, and mourns all of life’s events across a sprawling set of songs that are perpetually engaging.

The first release is Star Tonight, a dazzling compilation of buoyant pop songs that will instantly remind people of Translator’s finest Beatles-inspired moments. Poetic and beautiful, every effort on Star Tonight tells a stirring story, including the Mersey Beat tempo of “I Only Want to be Your Clown”, the seductive “Little Rule Breaker”, and the rollicking “Levitate the Pentagon”. Sounding like a singer/songwriter from a different era, Barton effortlessly alternates between fun-loving optimism and spatial, ethereal tracks. Referring to the legendary comedian, Barton admits on “Hey, Buster Keaton”, that he and the silent-film star could have been friends in 1922. Meanwhile, the majestic “When She’s Lost Your Mind” is more than just a great play on words, but also has a haunting streak that is matched by the more somber “Vacantville”. However, the subdued, introspective nature of this effort is heard throughout all of album number two, Shattered Light.

For those who are fans of bluesy, somber, acoustic playing from a man baring his soul for the benefit of an audience, than, like me, Shattered Light will be the favorite of the triumvirate of releases by Steve Barton. Every song is a genteel, airy track in which each syllable can be heard, analyzed, and digested properly before the next line is uttered, revealing a deeply spiritual poet and raconteur throughout. The closing “Stare at the Sun Tonight” (featuring the line, “Is the world the way we make it or does it make you and me?”) is driven by bare bones instrumentalism, accented by Springsteen-style harmonica and gutsy, gravelly vocals. Perhaps Barton’s recent move to Portland, Oregon inspired “Northwestern Girl”, easily the most energized of the anthems on Shattered Light, while “Breath” and the penetrating “I’ll be Loving You” are methodical anthems of quiet passion, with the latter enhanced by fuzzy guitar riffs that briefly cut through the quiet in a manner both jarring and engaging. The gut-wrenching “Tearing Out the Roses” is gorgeous in its ability to expose the most profound of emotional pain as Barton’s tale of suffering is carried by lush piano work. Also including a version of Sinatra’s 1955 hit “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and a deliberate reimagining of Translator’s “Unalone”, Shattered Light is a work of near perfection that, if released on its own, would be more than most others could hope to achieve in an entire career. However, Barton was still not done!

Before I Get Too Young is a more traditional rock album on which Barton is backed by a sterling group of friends including Translator buddy Dave Scheff (and for three songs, Attraction Pete Thomas) on drums, Derrick Anderson of Bangles on bass, and Marvin Etzioni and Willie Aron on guitar and keyboards in addition to their producing responsibilities. If Star Tonight dwelled in the land of the Fab Four, Before I Get Too Young certainly pays an ode or two to the Glimmer Twins. This occurs quite literally with a version of the Stones’ “Dandelion”, but “My Little Strange One” shimmies and sways with a sexual angst comparable to anything on Sticky Fingers, and the dirty guitar riffs that abound on the title track capture the early energy heard in the Jones-Richards line-up. Playing live in the studio, the songs flow effortlessly, from the sinewy sexuality of “She Is the Girl” to the bubbly energy of “Gimme Your Hand” and “Now That We Have Tomorrow”. Tackling each of these three pieces may seem overwhelming in theory until one undertakes the task and suddenly, one record’s conclusion simply demands that another one must begin. Steve Barton has been a revered player for decades, and while I suggest checking out all three of these releases, any of the components of Tall Tales and Alibis is enough to solidify Barton’s legacy.

BLIND IDIOT GOD - Undertow (Indivisible Music http://www.indivisiblemusic.com)

Originally released in 1989, Undertow from Blind Idiot God sounds as fresh and important as ever. Blasting through thirteen songs, three of which are exclusive to the re-release, the record is an assault upon all musical senses. The opening “Sawtooth” is a brute of an introduction-a pummeling mass of guitar force that sets the table for a fascinating ride through rock’s darkest corners of noisy power. What makes BIG so compelling is that, while they have the ability to simply musically dismantle the listener on each track, they often select to reduce the tempo and volume and create anthems that embrace delicate beauty and near mysticism. This trait is heard on the richly textured “Clockwork”, but the song deftly gives way to the driving intensity of “Atomic Whip”. The pounding track establishes a template that remains true throughout much of Undertow, namely slashing, vicious guitar playing from Andy Hawkins that is often accented by blast beat style percussion from drummer Ted Epstein. “Drowning” concludes with a wall of screaming guitar rage, while bassist Gabe Katz shines on the darkly sensual “Alice in My Fantasies”. Most listening to this will be rightfully intrigued by the appearance of Henry Rollins on “Freaked”, a song that was used as the title theme for a cult classic film by Alex Winter (“Bill” from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), in which Randy Quaid played a mad scientist-in a case of perfect casting-who created a collection of freaks for the public to exploit. Rollins is the only vocalist on a Blind Idiot God track, and his voice and fury was at its peak during this recording, eliciting images of Black Flag’s most visceral moments. Undertow also includes a dazzling collaboration with master of chaos John Zorn in another ideal musical marriage on the schizophrenic “Purged Specimen”, a two-minute cacophony of blissful anarchy. The work of Blind Idiot God are showcases for three supreme musicians who relish musical destruction, such as the crushing “Waling Wall”, but also have the ability to contain their outbursts on the lush “Dubbing in the Sinai”. I do not remember how many people embraced this back when the Berlin Wall was crumbling and George H.W. Bush was reversing his course about “no new taxes”, but Undertow, with all of its bluster, vehemence, and musical vitriol, could certainly act as a metaphor for the world of 2018.

CRAIG WEDREN - Adult Desire (Tough Lover Records, available through Dischord Direct https://www.dischord.com/ release/TL01/adult-desire)

Getting older is an odd experience-some adopt a “Peter Pan syndrome” and fight the process as fiercely as possible, occasionally clutching on to a youth that is long past, while others, such as Craig Wedren adopt the changes life brings and channel this new reality into a collection of majestic, mature songs. Much of Adult Desire is acoustically dominated, articulate stories addressing the grown up topics of love, family, marriage, and responsibilities. Rather than lamenting about the inevitable, Wedren embraces them, occasionally through very direct language, such as on the title track, but usually through clever metaphors and genteel vocal deliveries. Aside from one explosion of guitar force on “Join the Zoo/Live Again”, the songs are subdued, introspective gems, accented by subtle piano and minimal instrumentation. “Be a Man” has a thin layer of psychedelia behind its message, while the instrumental “Amnesia Wedding March” is a crisp piece of tender playing, sounding like a lullaby. There are refined studio tricks on “I am a Wolf, You Are the Moon”, and “2pristes (The Heat is On)”, but never enough to detract from the central purpose of the song. “Safe Home/Fadeland” and the concluding “Face the Pillows” are superbly crafted songs with hushed, whispered vocals that are smoothly and deeply reassuring, like coming in from the bitter cold into a warm house with loved ones happy to see your return. Richly poetic, adroitly performed, and beautifully constructed, Adult Desire is the soundtrack for a quiet, reflective evening.

THE HANNAS - Cut Loose (https://thehannas.bandcamp.com /album/cut-loose)

This Montclair, New Jersey band incorporates several forms of pop-favored punk into an easily digestible aural stew on Cut Loose. Vocalist Joey J. has a sweeping voice, one that can easily shift from angst-fueled barks to falsetto “woah-ohs” that dominate the opening “Porcelain Hugs” and “Pyro”. The title track has a fittingly relaxed sensibility, with a subtle ska quality heard much more definitively on “Agree/Disagree”. The six songs on Cut Loose are a wonderful primer of the band, as The Hannas are not looking to reinvent good-natured pop, but instead, they find a pleasant balance of bored, suburban punk frustration and dance energy. The guys even channel goofy dalliances on the country-fried “Goin’ Out Tonight”, a song that may become a fun live staple, but seems to stop the momentum built by the previous two efforts. Closing with “Bad Juju”, the band again infuses comedy into their story-telling (“this room’s got bad juju”), while soft-hearted ska skips along at a mid-tempo pace before a furious sixty seconds of thicker guitar and speed brings the song a level of energy too often missing on the EP. As the final thirty seconds tick away, Joey J speaks directly to the listener, invoking a reference from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off- a great allusion, but I wonder how many of The Hannas fans will get it. Ultimately, Cut Loose is wholesome fun, but not destined to alter anyone’s life.

JOCEPHUS and the GEORGE JONESTOWN MASSACRE - 5 Minutes to Live-A Tribute to Johnny Cash (Saustex Records; www.saustex.com)

Before one hears even a single note on this record, it is impossible to not be impressed with the selections of covers. A typical Johnny Cash tribute may include “Walk the Line” or “Man in Black”, but instead, four more obscure anthems are treated to celebratory recreations led by Joey Killingsworth, Brian Costner, and Dik Leddux, but guests abound throughout this fleeting musical gem. Significant contributions come from former Jonny Cash and Carl Perkins drummer WS Holland, Mick Harvey and Warren Ellis, two supremely gifted musicians who are also two of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, J.D. Pinkus of the Butthole Surfers, and the indomitable Buzz Osborne of The Melvins. The collection opens with Pinkus’ wickedly self-actualized delivery of “The Losing Kind”, featuring the classic Cash lament of “Too proud to crawl, too weak to run, I’d shoot myself, but I lost my gun”, as the song is a darkly comical homage to all those who struggle. Killingsworth takes the vocal helm on “The Sound of Laughter”, a tragic story of how one woman’s derision and ridicule can drive a man to murder, while “Long Black Veil” features Osbourne’s forlorn crooning as another misguided victim meets an untimely demise. The title track’s vocal responsibilities fall to Harvey, and he provides a sterling performance for a song that was the theme song for a 1961 film featuring Cash starring alongside an up and coming child star named Ronnie Howard. The four tracks may fly by too quickly, but each second is worth savoring.

SPOOK SCHOOL - Could It be Different? (Slumberland Records http://www.slumberlandrecords.com/

Glasgow’s Spook School makes quite the impression on “Still Alive”, the opening track of Could it be Different? as the refrain of “fuck you, I’m still alive” buries itself in my brain. A bold display of courage and defiance, the song is the ideal declaration of the band’s emerging confidence and an announcement to the world that Spook School is primed to become a band that will be help to define 2018. This socially progressive and politically cognizant act laments how “it’s been a bad year” on “Bad Year”, and while that is undeniably true for most, their brand of infectious, guitar rich indie pop may be enough to help get through whatever happens over the course of the next twelve months. The jangly, bouncy groove of “Alright Sometimes” begrudgingly surrenders to aspects of optimism, while the bass-heavy “I Only Dance When I Want To” is the finest New Wave-flavored song in a decade, and showcases the dazzling talent of Anna Cory and drummer Niall McCamley. “I Hope She Loves You” is a new take on the traditional break-up song, as Nye Todd acknowledges that he threw away a wonderful relationship, and offers a sentiment of regret (“I hope she loves you like I didn’t do”) while a furious barrage akin to Mission of Burma jamming with Husker Du roars beneath him. Nye and Adam Todd share vocal and guitar responsibilities throughout the record and soar most triumphantly on the endearing “Best Intentions” and the pop-coated “Body”, with lyrics of positive self-reflection (“Some people look so confident/I don’t know how they do it/You have a lot to be proud of/I have a lot to be proud of”) juxtaposed with reassurance given to a friend who entertained suicidal thoughts (“Are you ok now, do you feel alright? Why did you say that you want to die?”) The self-analysis of “High School” is both powerfully daring in its naked honesty, as well as preserving a poignant respect for nostalgia and wonder about how changes to the past would reshape the present. Leaving the failings of 2017 in the past is healthy, and Spook School provides something to eagerly enjoy in the new year.

THE WEDDING PRESENT - George Best 30 (HHBTM Records www.hhbtm.com)

Three decades after the release of their debut album, David Gedge and The Wedding Present take Steve Albini’s producing acumen and re-record George Best, expanding the scope and impact of these legendary songs. “Everyone Thinks he Looks Daft” and “What Did Your Last Servant Die of” retain their punk-influenced manic energy, but with Graeme Ramsay’s drumming far exceeding the original density, the songs have a sprawling quality missing back in 1987. “My Favorite Dress” and “Anyone Can Make a Mistake” are pristine examples of how the songs differ from the original studio versions-noticeable shifts in speed and energy levels allow listeners to envision themselves in the midst of a cramped recording studio, with The Wedding Present tracking song after song in one take with the fury and enthusiasm of a live show. Truly, that is what George Best 30 captures-the loose, free-flowing nature of a live performance without the hassle of other people. Christopher McConville’s guitar slashes across “A Million Miles” and shines on the sleek and soaring “Give My Love to Kevin”, while “Shatner” becomes an even nimbler three minutes of controlled chaos. Thirty years ago, I was not in a position to catch on to The Wedding Present, as Motley Crue, Ratt, and the other bastions of the fading Sunset Strip were lighting up my Walkman. However, between then and now, I am fortunate to say I have come to admire The Wedding Present, and while some may question the need for the re-recording of old classics, the combined talents of the older, wizened Wedding Present and Steve Albini illustrate how sometimes, occasionally, magic can be recreated and even improved.

BLACK WAIL - Chromium Homes (Rhyme & Reason records www.rhyme-reason.com)

This Jersey City outfit seems defiantly out of touch, and that is exactly the point. Forgoing any concerns with contemporary fads, Black Wail is a trip back to the most sludgy, psychedelic, and heavy aspects of the 1970s. Opening with the Sabbath-friendly bombast and stoner-rock riff of “They”, Black Wail unleashes a wall of pummeling low-end force. Anchored by the bass playing of Susan Lutin, the track is a hazy six and half minutes of tales about kings in ancient times, courtesy of guitarist/vocalist leader Michael Tarlazzi. Replete with dazzling guitar work and perfectly appropriate keys, I am instantly hooked. “Thee Ghost” includes atmospheric keyboard accompaniment from Bram Teitalman and another massive hook; the calling card of the band. All of Chromium Homes includes a classic metal vibe accented by 70s experimentation, as the band is prone to simply stop a track halfway through, take a breath, and then unveil a thrilling barrage of force. In the case of “Radioactive Mutation”, the song swings with an effortless freedom, and is a swirling breadth of musical range The title track has a more refined nature, taking cues from Badfinger or even Thin Lizzy, contrasting the menacing vocals one hears on “The Dead Man’s Hand”; juxtaposing the serene and the terrifying, Black Wail produces their most intimidating song with this sludgy gem. The EP includes a stirring version of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”, and while covering he Fab Four can be a risky, and often fruitless, venture, Black Wail make the song their own and it fits beautifully within the construct of Chromium Homes. This is an injection of rock’s best qualities into an age when it is desperately needed.

COUNT VASELINE - Tales From the Megaplex (Saustex Records www.saustex.com)

Stefan Murphy is the mastermind behind Count Vaseline, a singer/songwriter with a tremendous amount of courage and a penchant for lo-fi punk fury. On “Hail Hail John Cale”, Murphy sardonically spits out the line “Lou Reed died wishing he could be John Cale”, while a controlled din simmers beneath him. The impassive nature of his delivery does not deter from very clever wordplay throughout the record, as there are delightful references on “What’s Your Name, Where Are You From, What are You On?” (“I am Lawrence, I’m from Arabia, I’m on acid now”) With only one song reaching two minutes the length, the ideas are fleeting but all highly worthwhile. The country-punched “Texas Band” has references to “holding Charlie Sexton’s hand” and ultimately buried within “Texas land”, while “I’ll be Your Johnny on the Spot” is a loving ode to Ween. The darker “Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown” glides effortlessly, guided by a thick serpentine guitar riff. The bass-heavy “Song for Tom” tells a tragic tale of “a very good man” who “spoke six different languages”, who ultimately “died alone” as a mesmerizing dance beat radiates alongside Murphy’s richly expressive vocals. The closing “Town of Horseheads” is a dystopian anthem about the struggle of being “too old for revolution, too young to lie down and die” as a subdued synth-pop bubbles throughout the effort. I am continuously impressed and intrigued by Murphy’s work, and Tales from the Megaplex only increases my admiration for this truly distinctive talent.

POCKET FISHRMEN - The Greatest Story Ever Told (Saustex Records www.saustex.com)

I do not know how I have missed them until this point, but the Pocket Fishrmen are apparently Austin’s “greatest sci-fi punk metal band”, and The Greatest Story Ever Told is a massive thirty song collection that spans the entire “career” of this act. Every single song here is destined to offend someone, and in the midst of the current political climate, maybe the Pocket Fishrmen is exactly what this country needs-three chord blasts of dirty jokes, odd references, and old-fashioned fun! Listening to “Go Go Saddam Hussein” actually takes me back to a simpler time, while “Amy Carter” is a sarcastic gem. Sex puns are everywhere here, and I defy anyone to not incur a serious injury laughing at “Sex Billy”, “Flaccid is the Night”, and the priceless “Half Mast”. The Fishrmen are not afraid to borrow and even mock previous hit songs, turning “Angel of the Morning” into “David of the Merkin” and even “Pot Mountain” follows a very similar lyrical structure to AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”. With lyrics devoted to unfinished Ed Wood films (“Queen of the Chimps”), delightful diseases (“Flesh Eating Virus”) and rough sex with a single mom (“Mommanatrix”), The Pocket Fishrmen make the kind of punk that will earn the ire of the straight-edge kids, but will have all the drunks at the bar dancing and singing with alcohol-fueled confidence. Rather than attempting to build complex, multi-layered songs, the majority of the work is richly melodic punk-pop singed by dark wit. Clearly, Brant Bingamon, Chris Burns, Jason Craig, and Lance Farley are not without day jobs, but these guys actually remember when having a slightly perverted sense of humor did not get you fired.

HELEN KELTER SKELTER - Melter (Shaking Shanghai Records www.shakingshanghai.com)

Living in New York, I admit that I sometimes forget that there is more to America than just the East Coast or what latest trend is sweeping California. The rest of this glorious nation is more than just cornfields and billboards about Jesus dotting endless stretches of highway. To prove this, I offer Helen Kelter Skelter, an Oklahoma based outfit that is truly unlike anything people are listening to as we speak. Melter is a swirling, sinewy mass of class rock vibes set to maximum swagger with soaring organ play, throbbing bass lines and danceable hooks. The slithering “Inside Out” is the best primer for the band, as the track glides with ease from night club dance floor to rock club to a long pause mid-way through the effort, as if the band stops to figure out where to go next. The song returns with an even larger beat and finishes the next three minutes rattling one’s head and shaking one’s memory for anything quite like this. HKS bring all the bluster of rock n’ roll without all the angst, preferring instead for steady doses of fun, wall-shaking groves. From the opening “21st Century” that announces the band’s presence with a sonic thrust of force to the dreamy, ambling closer “Wunschkonzert”, Melter is a dazzling record of spatial and ethereal rock that may befuddle the masses, but I am not sure this band will have a problem with that. Cody Clifton is the “bass thumper”, and while he shines on nearly every song, he truly carries “Tracers”, one of the collection’s finest moments. “Palamino” and “Time Bomb” inject modern psychedelia into bombastic anthems, while “Mysterio Prevails” takes a dreamier, more deliberate approach. Regardless of how the band constructs a song, everything works on Melter. The name drew me in to this band, but I definitely stayed for the music.

PROMISE OF REDEMPTION - Before and After (Know Hope Records http://www.knowhoperecords.com)

Shane Henderson of Valencia displays the emotional breadth of his writing and singing on Before and After, a collection of heart-wrenching acoustic pieces. These demos and B-sides are able to express an intensity that may otherwise be lost in a wave of guitar force. The delicate heartache and honesty of “Let the Waves Crash Down” is stark and majestic, and while Henderson ahs always had a penchant for passionate song writing, his talents are inarguably impressive here. Fragile piano opens “Hard Times” and when Henderson pleads, “You gotta say that you’ll be alright/You’re gonna make it out alive”, the song bleeds empathy. “On and On” aches with sentimentality, while “The Light” is a song of grand beauty. Gripping and raw, the song speaks of holding on to love while delicate strings play and Henderson reveals that “California is whispering”. Before and After says a great deal in only six songs and whether one has followed Henderson over the course of his career or just stumbled upon this, it is impossible to not be swept away by the sheer conviction of the playing.

DINOSAUR EYELIDS - Turn Left on Red (https://dinosaureyelids.bandcamp.com)

This majestically DIY outfit from New Brunswick brings back a brash style to rock that is glaringly omitted by most bands today. Left Turn on Red opens with “Day Zero”, a thunderous eruption of guitar power that blends Dinosaur Jr-style fuzz with a slight Southern boogie into a teeth-rattling four minutes. The song embodies the band’s motto of “we may never be rich but we will always be loud”, a slogan later hard on the rumbling “Land and Sky”. “Into the Woods” readily embraces the more primal elements of grunge, most notably distortion drenched guitar and a low-end roar. “Basilone Bridge” is yet another aggressive track, but the band also plays with tempo shifts a bit throughout the song, but never deviates too far from their original purpose to be a massive sounding rock force. With guitar solos that are fleeting at best, Dinosaur Eyelids are not interested in technical wizardry, but are committed to making soulful, honest music that takes cues from classic rock as readily as contemporary acts to generate something that is both refreshingly new and instantly comfortable. The atmospheric aspects of “Neshanic” truly allow Evan Staats’ vocals range to shine, and when he laments, “If nothing is real, does anybody care?”, he could be speaking to today’s political environment as well as the state of music. Integrating slide guitar and a slower tempo, “L.A. Lady” oozes regret and passion, while the acoustic “Whiskey” is a tragic harmonica-driven anthem dedicated to the alcohol that can destroy: “When you’re empty, I’m empty, too”, Staats moans while Patrick McKnight provides the sorrowful musical accompaniment. “No Money Blues” allows the band to demonstrate a penchant for writing genre-spanning songs before returning to the hearty riff of “More Than Nothing”. There is much to enjoy here, and Turn Left on Red is a welcomed homage to true rock n’ roll.

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

Thor Harris and his “friends” Peggy Ghorbani and Sarah “Goat” Gautier return for a second record, with the brilliant moniker The Subversive Nature of Kindness, a work created to, according to the band, “ease some of the terror” of the world in which we all dwell. Considering the tone and tenor of this world, that may be a lofty ambition, but the nine songs heard here are multi-instrumental pieces that say much even sans vocals. One cannot help but to be swept away by the craftsmanship, often connoting images of woodlands and deeply cloistered scenes. Harris, who spent years touring with the Swans, is a brilliantly gifted player of instruments few have heard of, much less actually heard, because in some cases, he has invented the item himself. The opening “90 Meters” features majestically delivered light percussion in which the beauty of the song cascades over the listener and sweeps one away into a serenity that is sporadically interrupted by squalls that fade quickly. The harrowing, melancholy “Carpet Creeps” is a song of reclusiveness; haunting and poignant. “Dead Man’s Hand” clocks in at over five minutes and is more playful in nature, similar at times to “Mouse Mouse”, another gentle, almost childlike effort. Sparse at some moments, melodically dense in others, “Dead Man’s Hand” sounds like something heard in an aboriginal rainforest. It would be a careless gesture and potentially an affront to select one or two songs as particular favorites, but “An Escapist’s Theme” is a soaring triumph. Genteel, but yet a touch speedier than its predecessors, the song propels itself into soaring beauty, sounding like a movie score for a masterpiece not yet made. What makes The Subversive Nature of Kindness so appealing is the multitude of talent who contribute to its collective brilliance-Michael Gira from the Swans contributes, as does Enrique Soriah, a throat singer from Oregon, and Aisha Burn a violin improvisationist and virtuoso. The darker, more ambient nature of “Standing Rock” is paired exquisitely with “Grassfire!” The most expansive song of the lot, “Grassfire!” is airy, yet replete with sound, including fascinating vocal contributions that slash across the landscape with penetrating impact. These constant paradoxes make the record a masterstroke of brilliance. The closing “Resist” continues this theme by building a series of complex ideas on top of each other into a stirring mass of delicate power. The finesse, originality, and radiance of this record cannot be overstated. I do not know if Thor and Friends will be able to quell some of the ugliness that currently abounds, but this record will be the perfect panacea to one’s daily stress.

JEREMY PORTER AND THE TUCOS - Don’t Worry, It’s Not Contagious (GTG Records www.gtgrecords.com)

Jeremy Porter and his mates Gabriel Doman (drums) and bassist Patrick O'Harris do not waste time with gimmicks or studio tricks, opting for the path of traditional, greasy rock n’ roll. The third album from this Detroit act jangles and shakes with tales of broken hearts, failed relationships, and not giving up even after all the pain. The bluesy, whiskey-soaked “Walk of Shame” is a straight shooting, country-punched anthem that sets the tone for the rest of the record. Doman’s hard-hitting nature carries the downhome “Huckleberry”, while Porter tries diligently to impress yet another woman who is hard to please. While the majority of the tracks here deal with love gone wrong, it stays in the world of adult heartache and never stumbles into any form of teenage melodrama. Like the music they play, Porter and his Tucos have seen some sights and are fighting off cynicism and sorrow on the reflective “Avenues are for Heroes” and the biting title track. The slower “Consolation Prize” is made deeply compelling by the soaring beauty of Jennifer Westwood’s stunning vocals, while the heart-wrenching “Torn” invokes the best moments of Paul Westerberg’s skills as a raconteur. “You Don’t Have to Ask Twice” and “Worth the Wait” both have a Tom Petty vibe made all the more poignant by that legend’s tragic passing, while “Patty’s Not Impressed” proves that Porter and the Tucos have a sense of humor. Accented once again by Westwood, the song details a tough critic who “did not like the opening band/even though they did their best” and cannot understand why Porter’s band always plays last. Jeremy Porter may hail from Detroit, but he has certainly traveled south down Route 66 for inspiration on “Urge to Cry”, an emotionally gripping anthem that is one of the finest moments here. For those who still appreciate honest rock, this is one of America’s best examples of pure talent and hard work.

AMINAL - In With the Gnu (https://www.facebook. com/AminalMusic)

First off, it is indeed Aminal, and while the name may be slightly challenging, one is only getting started with the oft-putting nature of this incredibly unique band. (Although, remarkably, a quick search will find several bands with this moniker) Perhaps we are living through times of unparalleled blandness, but regardless of decade, this is scintillating in terms of its originality. “The Kid is Still There” bounces and shakes with the energy of Zappa at his most charged. Searing, fuzzy guitar slash through the heart of the song, while bass lines that are equal parts jazz-fusion and thick funk drive the track forward. This wildly brazen and invigorating disregard for pretention or genre boundaries continues on “Underwater Catastrophe”, which again borrows from a Mothers of Invention style playbook, blending complex song structures and fluid time changes to produce a anthem that requires the listener to work. Aminal label themselves “molten rock”, which is fitting, for there is no label one can accurately apply to this band. Perhaps their finest moment is “It’s No Picnic with Snazzlepants, Baby”. With an infectious bassline, vocal tricks, and deceptively obtuse lyrics, this invokes the finest experimentalism that used to be far more ubiquitous in rock n’ roll. One can clearly hear the influence “Dynamo Hum” or “Peaches En Regalia” throughout the six songs, and I am particularly intrigued by the rambunctious nature of “Insex”, as the band effortlessly moves between rock, pop, jazz, and blues with lyrically puns abounding. The funk-fueled bass that commands center stage on “No Way, Know How” seems to have climbed off a 70s detective show, but when blended with equally groovy, wah-wah-kissed guitar, the marriage is one of perfection. Those with limited miles on them will likely shake their heads in amazement and confusion when introduced to Aminal, but others, whether more experienced or more adventurous, will embrace this and rightfully honor it for the bold tableau of ideas it is.


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